Backpacking Russia and the Soviet Bloc in 2006
Visited between Apr 7, 2006 till May 15, 2006
April 7, 2006 Los Angeles to New York (Pretrip Mission) Steve and I flew to NY’s JFK to fulfill our intended mission to place some of Dad’s ashes at Jimmy Buff’s hot dog stand. This was one of the few places he had fond childhood memories. We had set aside three hours prior to the scheduled departure going to JFK International Airport in New York. We arrived at LAX, as planned, in the early evening. Because of poorly trained and, seemingly unqualified “security” personnel, the process to board the plane was excruciatingly slow.
Security detail around Los Angeles International Airport was being run by a slovenly, uniformed crew hired to meet some sort of minority hiring code. It was obvious that these bodies were put on the payroll without meeting any testing standards of intelligence, which might be used to evaluate them as prospective employees. Sadly, this condition exists at many metropolitan airports throughout America. This may have sad consequences during a period of time (like now) that America expects new al Queda attacks that will exceed the damage done at the World Trade Center in 2001.
Two impatient hours were wasted, standing outside, in a cold, thick, twisted rope of travelers like us, standing impatiently in line, waiting to be funneled into the building through one narrow, constantly buzzing metal-detecting frame. Nervously I explained to the guard that we had waited two hours and now, our flight leaves in thirty minutes. The stocky black female guard listened sympathetically, offering a brief apology about how only one of the three metal detectors was currently working and she’d allow Steve and me to jump to the front of the slow-moving line. Fortunately for us that kind gesture was just enough time to make the flight without another spare moment.
Steve got the last available “Economy Class” ticket, so to handle my reservation I was bumped up to Business Class, but there was little apparent difference aboard the fully loaded plane.
The chaos of LAX and lackadaisical indifference of the personnel made me wonder about getting to JFK with seven hours in New Jersey would allow enough time to scatter Dad’s ashes at one of the few places he had said he really enjoyed. My flight would depart for Sofia, Bulgaria in a few short hours.
April 8 2006 New Jersey A safe landing at dusk on the runway of JFK International Airport was even too early for breakfast. Steve knew where we would find the rental car lot. He had rented a car with a global positioning device that would guide us, in this electronic age, to quickly find the chosen resting spot for some of our father’s ashes.
Steve retrieved his bags, but I checked mine in for the onward flight to Bulgaria rather than lugging my backpack out to the car and back again. Since there were very few people at the airport finding our luggage on the carousel, and moving on to get the car was a quick process.
We drove to Jimmy Buff’s Original Sausage Sandwich in West Orange. Like watching television, the neighborhood rolled by through the windows on both sides of the car and the big-screen glass up front. We might have been a bit intimidated to be in this environment except that it all was so surreal. It revealed run-down, hoodlum-laced dilapidation that has dogged the reputation of Newark in New Jersey for many years. Pimps, prostitutes, and young black wanna-be, or possibly real gangsters, were present in every direction.
Sadly, I was responsible for the poor job of navigation, even though we didn’t know the exact address. Neither the first restaurant we found, nor the neighborhood seemed familiar, but it was still early in the day so I walked in to chat with whoever was behind the counter. I wanted to discover whether this was the first, or rather the right, Jimmy Buff’s. The Puerto Rican couple who said they were the restaurant owners described this one as the real “Original” now, because the first “Original”, which used to be four miles away from here, was torn down eight years ago. (This would normally mean that there is NO “Original” to find.) Sympathetically, I accepted their emphatically proclaimed story as absolute truth, at least for that very moment. Our quest was to find the right one, and our search had to continue, until we found the one that Dad had enjoyed. After three false starts we found the right place In Irvington on Elmwood Street (or Avenue). We knew right away that this was the one. It fit the picture in our minds.
A very heavy mist, not really rain, crept over everything. We parked behind the little restaurant and turned off the engine. We sat quietly in the car for a moment contemplating our next move while the dew became large tears before rolling down to the bottom edge of the window and splashed off the car in puddles. Low bushes marked the edges of this property. We exited the car and without speaking a word, I opened the bag smelling the gritty contents one last time. Even now, I’m not certain whether I could smell my Dad or not. Quietly, his gray ashes slipped out of the small, brown paper bag and clung to the wet green shrubbery that encircled the tiny restaurant. I never asked permission from the restaurant owner …how could I ask someone to allow me to pour my Dad’s ashes on his restaurant? (That’s not a thing someone would normally say, “Okay, go ahead!” And that would not be great history to have people eat somewhere.) Since we suspected they wouldn’t approve, Steve and I decided to act preeminently. After the act we said a few words of kind remembrance as we discarded the plastic urn which had carried our father’s remains.
We looked at each other and, silently, tried to guess what Dad would have wanted us to do. So we went in and ordered a sausage sandwich. Our memory of the unique, artery-clogging delicacy was clear what it should be: Starting with a big Italian spicy sausage that was boiled to a crisp brownness of the casing in a bubbling vat of oil. Slices of potato, a fistful of onion wedges, mixed with wedges of green peppers in a separate vat of oil until every morsel is limp and gathered with tongs, tossed briefly on a towel that seems to never require replacement, just turning the towel occasionally. The fresh bread adds a true taste of its own, something that is totally lacking with all but the rarest of breads on the West coast. Assembly of these key ingredients takes only a moment, one blink and you’ll miss the construction of a culinary semi-work of art.
Steve had already finished a third of the sandwich when I spit out the first bite I had taken. Instead of sausage we were served poorly aged hot dogs. We demanded sausage replacements which came after our appetites had been demolished. The cook apologized and complied immediately. Steve was blinded by the emotionality of this moment. There was way too much oil saturation in the bread to make this a pleasant experience. I have no aversion to some well-needed oils or fats but they needed several more hours for the oil to heat to a high temperature if you intend to properly fry and serve the onions and potatoes that are cooked in it.
Our calculations of time we’d need to complete our mission successfully were inaccurate. Three hours was not enough time to have set aside for our errand and pre-boarding activities in the post 9/11 security levels of the airport. By 1pm we were headed back to the airport. The Global Positioning Device had worked and guided us (partially) to Jimmy Buff’s then back to the airport. Steve and I departed company while on the tram that circles JFK airport. I headed for the International and he headed back to the national gates for his flight back to LAX. It was a short Saturday. (We lost three hours because of the time change, flying easterly.)
Planes usually travel a little above 500 miles per hour
My Mission Concludes Here
My Travels Begin Here
April 9, 2006 Thursday Sofia, Bulgara From JFK airport I had one stop-over in Frankfurt, Germany before my first jumping-off point in Sofia. The third and final leg will terminate in Sofia, Bulgaria. Departure from JFK was delayed for two hours before taking off; I’d hoped that it is not a mechanical problem, but such things are never shared with the passengers. The plane got stuck in a holding pattern for fifteen extra minutes over Germany because of heavy air traffic and low cloud cover. The long flight touched down on the tarmac and passengers and crew disembarked quickly. After a couple hours being stuck inside the airport we returned to the air for a short trip into Sofia.
Bulgaria uses the Leu for its monetary unit but the countrymen hope it will be replaced by the Euro once the country is granted absorption and acceptance into European Economic Community. Euros are accepted everywhere, but not as widely as dollars. One Leu is worth about forty cents U.S. Prices seem in line with any metropolitan city of Europe except for the taxis, which were very cheap. Salaries are more than thirty per cent lower than most of Western Europe.
First, I went to a hostel called “ART Hostel” suggested in my Lonely Planet Guide. A taxi driver drove me from the airport to outside their front door, but they were full and turned me away. The manager said that they are expecting a large group of high school students from Denmark and there was no room for any others. My second choice, Hostel Sofia, less than a mile away, was also well-rated, cheap, and centrally located. Almost all of the important Sophia sights were within walking distance (Three miles end-to-end.)
I was assigned a communal dormitory-style bed. The price of ten leu was dirt-cheap, and the ambience was very pleasant. I had open access to an internet-connected computer The couple that ran the place were very nice, especially Chris, who was from Virginia, an ex-Peace Corps guy, and his wife, a pretty Bulgarian. She actually owned this building jointly with her mother, who also lived there, but Chris really was the host and ran it. The mother and daughter were seldom seen.
Although newspaper predictions were otherwise, I had good weather, with cool nights and temperate days. The fashionable main street was one short block from the hostel. Most all signage was in Cyrillic so I had no clue how to read and interpret that. From what I was told, the Latin alphabet is making inroads here, gaining acceptance even more broadly as they are about to be granted membership into the European Economic Community (ECC).
During my walk through the local neighborhood of central Sofia I wandered through a bazaar of antiques including Nazi and Russian items from the communist-era. Some things would be contraband in the US, including a Los Angeles Policeman’s official badge and identification selling for 200 Euros. Across the street was the first capitalist hotel allowed to operate behind the “Iron Curtain” by the Hilton chain with permission from Ceasescu, a wastrel who was deposed and publicly executed monarch during the sixties.
I visited the Rila Monastery by a private car shared with two others from the hostel. It was situated near a river up a steep hill. We went back to the hostel at noon since one of the travel partners was leaving for Spain that day. At the hostel I arranged with a friend of Chris who owns a car, to go to Plovdiv, a very pleasant Bulgarian town whose most significant feature are well preserved Roman ruins. The most spectacular was a large amphitheatre, which was in such good state that I was told it is still used in the present day for local events. The young man took my money for the drive then took off to go back. I hired an English-speaking taxi driver for twenty Euros for three hours, that was enough time to see this town. The new outdoor shopping center in this town of 600,000 was very impressive, especially the wide pedestrian walkway that was a half-mile long. It was populated with enough well-known fashion names to satisfy the interests of most women. I know Marcy would have enjoyed it. I miss her a lot so I call her often on my cell phone.
I expect to pay about three dollars per minute of phone usage to call home, but being ‘available’ is an immeasurable benefit of wider use of cellular phones. Having my number operate worldwide required that I obtain a special arrangement with T-Mobile, the only phone company that currently provides this service.
The local bus travels the sixty miles to Sofia, the hub city for travel, with every hour departures by air, train, or if I’ll navigate from Plovdiv. I had my backpack and all gear with me since I was unsure whether I’d go on, or back to Sofia. Back in Sofia around 4pm I hired a taxi to take me around which later stopped at a cafeteria open-air style, but we got some food inside. Two men were starting to fight just as we were walking past them by the entrance to a gasthaus. My guide/driver pushed them away but not before I was scraped a bit. The changing of the guards at the palace was not particularly interesting. The guard outfit has a feather in the cap and they slap the leather of their boots in a style I found humorous.
I left the hostel at 7pm, just as the Sun was setting; I wanted to explore the town’s nightlife. The complexion of most urban areas transforms into a different beast in the mysterious darkness. This was a pleasant summer day with long daylight hours and a short night.
I paid a ½ Leu to take the crowded, but clean streetcar to the main train station. I stood in a long line in the cavernous pre-WWII building. I bought my ticket to Bucharest, Romania with the helpful aid of a tourist-policeman, and went to the assigned track to wait for my train. The policeman left, and only after a similarly uniformed man offered to guide me onto the train and actually asked for a tip, did I realize that the first guy was expecting one too. The second fellow was offended that I only gave him two US dollars, insisting that his fifteen minutes was worth, at least, ten dollars. I reached into my pocket and felt a large metal coin. I gave him the euro and sent him off, despite his facial expression of disappointment. The first fellow deserved something, even if it was a minor con and I felt just a bit bad about giving him nothing. These “police” were little more than guys who bought an official-looking uniform and went into business for themselves as guides for foreigners, taking full advantage of the absence of real police and the confusion strangers in a strange land.
The train is a jittery, less than a smooth ride. The thirteen hour journey would be quicker this way rather than a bus, safer certainly, and the train will let me see more than just roadside landscaping.
I have paid for first-class passage, and the car is identified as being first-class, but this isn’t first-class quality; stained seats, worn and ripped cushions, marred walls with aged messages scrawled on them. Each compartment has a sign that says the room holds up to eight people but only four could fit in here comfortably.
I tried to talk to people at St. Sofia Church but no one spoke English except a clerk who said they have had others and they took my card. I was able to say little about my program.
My future activities in Romania were studied while on the train for thirteen hours. Outside I can see the countryside is littered with junked cars and trucks. Buildings were shattered. Broken houses with roofs caved in, many windows damaged with shards of glass glittering on the ground like piles of diamonds in the afternoon sun. Destruction, en masse, seemingly, the result of war, filled the views that rolled by. Everywhere in Bulgaria, plaster has chipped off of buildings, often in large sheets, usually starting at an edge or a corner. The rural communities I saw were populated with many horse-pulled carts, but they are most often junk dealers or hay merchants.
I noticed that the appearance of people changed as we progressed further into the countryside of Romania with the most dramatic change of costume. Urban buildings are so much more derelict, even more than Bulgaria. Towns have fewer cars, and more horse drawn carts.
It was inevitable on such a long train journey that I must use the toilet. It exceeded my expected horror. The floor was mottled tan and brown, fluid-covered, sludge-smeared linoleum with a wide plastic tube that opened onto the tracks below served as a urinal. And a crapper that opened directly onto the track when one was finished. This would conserve water but it should not be used at a station or while the train is stopped in an unhabited area. Further, one lock for the door had been hammered into uselessness, instead it hung on the jamb like abstract art. The metal sliding bolt would barely grab the door jamb, and even in place, wouldn’t prevent a good push to release its grasp. The toilet was an uncomfortably far distance from the door so peeing while using a foot to block entrance by my other foot could only be imagined but not done. The unisex toilet required you to have a friend to assist if you opted for any measure of modesty.
Things I didn’t need so far
Yak-Trax For working in snow/ice
Too many flashlights
I called Marcy at 5pm Bulgarian Time. It was 7am PDT.
Difference: Bulgaria/Romania are ten hours earlier than California.
Things that proved very useful
Handheld GPS – it would guide me back to where I started by creating a tracking log.
My choice of clothing seems good. Shoes that just slip off are useful.
Labeling places in the travel guides with tabs saves time.
An accurate map.
Beef Jerky, hard candy, or dry snacks.
On the journey border officials collected all passports. This feeds a fear I have that I will one day surrender my passport to a fraud, or somehow not get the passport back which would curtail my travels immediately. Or at least until I could get the passport replaced and that would take several days. While in the train, while at the station in the town of Ruse, just inside the border a young Gypsy called to me from the station platform. He asked if I’d like to buy something to eat. I hoped to get some wonderful rye bread like I had purchased from the train in Russia years back but the language barrier was too big of an obstacle. I ended up buying coffee and a bottle of water, for bread he brought a sandwich of pita bread, cucumbers and tomato for one Leu.
Because the dollar is rarely accepted here the fellow claimed he could only get one Leu for one dollar.
For a long time I sat without my passport. The train passed over the border’s natural line, a rain swollen river, the Donitz (also called the Danube elsewhere) A woman asked me to complete a form inquiring about my health with special focus on whether I have had contact with farm animals dead or alive.
Trade offs & choices
The weather has not been too unpleasant but maybe, in hindsight, I should have waited a month. On the plus side is I have experienced few problems getting tickets or rooms at the last minute, even if it has been colder and wetter than I prefer.
For a 13hr trip I would have elected to take the plane which is much quicker or an overnight train (There was one that left Sofia around 7pm) Out of this train ride of13hrs I saw about 2 hours of interesting scenery – I did snooze intermittently.
Going to Bucharest, Romania
The weather is getting colder and wetter as we approach Budapest. The car anticipated a 10pm arrival, which might make it difficult to get a room or even a taxi. Banks on Eastern Europe hint at a looming problem of gypsies en masse at the train station.
As Marcy pointed out years ago, I am a “bum magnet”. For some unknown reason such people enjoy congregating around me. I assume I must look vulnerable, although I am not. Without a partner I fear the use of razors to open my packs.
I observed the countryside as we pass. I’ve noticed few hills in Romania although I know they are here. Romania has great skiing in the north. Mostly flooded lowlands extend from both sides of the tracks. Proliferation of damaged buildings makes me wonder if this was the result of poor construction or wars. I’m inclined to suspect the former because I have not seen the pocketing of buildings from rifle or machine gun fire.
In Romania they are converting their Lui into new Leu. It seemed like shoddy tactic until I was able to confirm its validity. But this was difficult to deal with. One new Leu = .55 Euros or .65 $1
The train rides ends about 6pm not 10pm as I expected. It is still light out and I exchange some dollars for Lei ($100). The taxi stand had a couple of taxis waiting in a very light rain. It was quit confusing, due to the large number of zeros on the bills. They refused to exchange Bulgarian currency, although many other currencies were easily acceptable and convertible, especially the Euro which was the currency of choice, often over the local national Leu.
The streets of Budapest are beautiful and wide. Their former egomaniac dictator Ceauceau had spent eighty percent of the national GNP to build his “House of the People,” and the gigantic structure is massive; second only to the pentagon. It has moved or destroyed a large number of very impressive homes. Some people I spoke with complain bitterly about the memory of it’s construction, some in very chilling terms, - especially one particular architect I spoke with.
If I brought Marcy we’d stay at the Hotel Inter-Continental.
2nd choice would be the Grand Hotel.
Reflection of Romania
With the notable exception being Bucharest, the only large city I was in, the people were friendly and hospitable, often giving gifts with social custom equivalent of a warm handshake. In other words gift-giving is a much more socially expected custom.
Bucharest was cold and aloof. Although some of the best architecture was found here, especially since 1850, the people often try to have a façade of helpfulness, but more often are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of for the moment. Romanian history is rich and complex but to many, Vlad the Impaler was one of their favorites, and has become popular as Dracula.
The fancy shopping area is about one kilometer away from this grand structure now used to house offices of politicians, lawyers and other wealthy denizens. Certain names are in all of the high fashion districts throughout the world – the same fashionable names. I walked a large part of this with all my pack loaded on me. I am certain everyone knew I was not from around here. There was a collection of gypsy sellers just beyond the periphery of this fashion district. They had set up boxes or flimsy tables on which they displayed their wares, from brassieres and other undergarments to wrapped candy and shoes. Absolutely not one item of quality in the entire street of vendors nor did any of them sell handcrafted items – just junk (to me)
I took the train to Brasov, which leaves frequently from Budapest. Train cost of 83 new Leu, or about $18. The ride lasted about two scenic hours passing homes and huts that seemed to fit well with my perception of Transylvania: spired roofs, and dilapidated homes that seemed like they’d fall if someone pissed on them.
Going to Brasov
Anyone would immediately notice the signs of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Transylvania. It is incredibly romantic, and mysteriously exotic. The farmland outside Brasou is touched with snow and I saw no crops growing at this time.
Radu (That’s Mr. Radu to you), He goes by his last name, which is written and spoken first, and then followed by his chosen name. He was at the train station hoping to collect some customers. I was willing since he spoke English (His ex-wife and daughter live in Southern California). He chatted with me to make me comfortable and was almost immediately successful. I felt I’d find a stay with him to be good. I paid 17 Leu to use a large closet made to resemble a bedroom. It was all I needed. Privacy issues were sometime not what I would prefer, due to the young Spanish couple that occupied the outer room since I needed to exit periodically as nature may dictate. Such are conditions in communal living.
Thurs Apr 13 Arrive in Brasov, Romania
Fri Apr 14 Visit Bran Castle & Charles Palace
Sat Apr 15 Visit Sighsoara & Sibu
(Hilltop citadel) (Open plaza)
Apr 21-22 Minsk, Belarus
April 13, 2006 Thursday Brasov, Romania I tried at a local bank to change Bulgarian money into Romanian currency but the answer continued to be a firm ‘No,’ yet nobody was able to explain why they were unable to exchange the currency. It seems all too common for bordering neighbors to feud. Not exchanging the money is an easy way to express this disdain. Or it could be that since several Eastern European countries are about to gain admission to the EEU, they are trying to control soon to be replaced currencies by suppression of exchange.
After parking my gear, Radu brought me into the adjacent (to his house and the train station) ‘old town’. Old homes from the 1500s still stood and there was considerable reconstruction occurring, evidenced by large specialized tractors and cranes. The town square was a short distance inside what once was the city wall that extended around this historic district only in part now. The Jewish Quarter (No longer called a ‘ghetto’) was within the wall, and a beautiful synagogue, stood however it appeared to be reconstructed but it had a plate indicating it has stood here since 1901, which is fairly recent.
The town square was a large open area that was attractively paved around the so-called ‘Black Church’. The reason the exterior was black was because, like many churches in territory conquered by the Ottomans (Turkey), they tried to assimilate the people by having them adopt Muslim religion and ways, starting with burning down the church in the center of town. They want about $4 to look inside the church. Radu says this is worth it.
The city of Brasou has grown up. There are several very large department stores and stark apartment buildings rising fifteen or twenty stories high but devoid of any design, more with a Russian flair for plainness.
There was a light rain but not bad enough to drive us away. The entire plaza was alive with construction workers and shoppers. Easter will happen in a few days in this very heavy Catholic country. I asked Radu to bring both of us to a good Romanian restaurant. He knew instantly where we should dine.
The name was “Hunter’s Head” in Romanian. It was just outside Brasou. I ate meat rolled in cabbage with a dollop of polenta that glistened pale yellow, almost looking like a chunky applesauce. We discussed wine. I asked for a typical but he suggested I choose white or red since all Romanian wine is good. A white sweet wine was served, a bit too sweet but pleasant. 55,000 Lei = about $18 total while we ate I told him of the places I had hoped to visit. He suggested that for $100 US he’d drive me to Bran Castle the “home” of Dracula. I agreed when he said we could also include a visit to Charles Palace in the mountains.
Never carry more than you can run with.
A smile and a handshake will get you through most of the world.
Travel is an investment in yourself.
No two countries, no two cities can be compared fairly. Like brothers and sisters, each is beautiful in their own way.
Travel makes you realize how similar everybody is. The only strange countries are always the ones you have not visited yet.
Those small differences between people from different cities are the reason of why I travel. Customs, history, and food.
April 14, 2006 Brasov, Romania
About fifty kilometers outside of Brasov was Bran Castle. This landmark is a great tourist attraction for Romania. It is the castle immortalized in Dracula fame. Dracula was really Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler. As we drove in a light rain we saw many gypsies hauling logs or junk metal. There were signs to recognize them, especially the clothing that generally were colorful, and men who could afford the luxury of a fine hat wore something very similar to a felt cowboy hat. They generally chose to live isolated in their own village which was often twenty buildings of brick or, less frequently, wood. Businesses that they engaged in were junk dealing, novelty selling and woodcutting for fireplaces.
At Bran Castle the exterior regions were slathered with tee shirt and trinket vendors. The prices seemed in line with what I could expect. Tee-shirts cost about six dollars. Entrance to Bran castle was five dollars and not worth two. The castle does look impressive from the exterior and the stories of Vlad The Impaler are colorful and plentiful. Items on display within two small rooms (That were the extent of the visitable rooms) contained related and non-related “artifacts”. The display held some Roman items found nearby and a cute display of their international claim to fame, a Romanian, so it is said in these parts, was the real father of space exploration. Since 95% was in Romanian I couldn’t learn more about how the space programs of all the countries are indebted to him, whoever that was.
I looked around the vendors to see what was available. Nothing to show real craftsmanship but plenty of the exact same items sold at each vendor. I never could understand how they can do that and expect to make money. A light rain continued in the brisk afternoon. I met Radu again and he drove to Charles Palace.
The mountain town of the palace was splendid, but before I continue it should be said that everything has “admission prices” and a requirement that no photos be taken so they can sell their postcards. At this palace it is noteworthy to mention that all visitors must wear slippers over their shoes (which are available for use) and that every original painting has been removed and replaced by a copy.
Nonetheless the incredible woods used and the stonework that went into building tall palace was visible at every turn. This was a palace worth seeing. His collection of armament was extensive, and included an executioners sword which was sharply bladed on both edges, but was flat and without a point. This sword was blessed and its use was reserved for royalty given a promise that immediately after being dispatched they would arrive in heaven.
The current president resides in an adjacent, but much less, grandiose palace. The guards were present and armed. The two guards I tried to engage refused to allow photos of me standing with them.
The long drive home from here let my mind wander to how much I miss Marcy. She refused to take more time off but she wouldn’t enjoy this style of travel. Still, I guess this long without her may be difficult for me even more than for her. I love her deeply and I’m anxious to see her in St. Petersburg in a week or so.
Apr 15 Sighsora & Sibu Sat
Our arrangement for this day was $100 US for all day. We started at 8am and drove through a light rain about two hours to Sibu.
This is a town expecting a large number of visitor soon. Their plaza is almost as large as a football field. Cobbled romantically, the old town was surrounded by the new town, which easily swallows it up. Radu needed to get help from a policeman once we were in Sibu. I immediately loved this place. It reminded me of Rothenburg in Germany. Care was taken to restore each structure. The cobblestone street was opened to add new underground utilities and it cost about $2.50 for a Dinner kebab with chicken cabbage, sauce, and French fries all stuffed into a big white roll. Ketchup and mayonnaise are important condiments and easier to find than pepper. The rain had stopped momentarily. There were many shoppers since this was Saturday.
I went into an old German Lutheran Church. This town was heavily German influenced and had a large German community. The vicinity had Hungarian and Roma settlements too. The church was the first antiquity that didn’t require payment to see the worn floor and the beautiful wood work and paintings. Radu is very religious without really understanding others especially Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus still he had opinions on them all. Although he knew I was Jewish (which surprised him when it was revealed) he argued that I was mispronouncing “Shalom”.
A small scratch I got a few days ago is almost healed, I must mention that when I told Marcy she told everybody and it scared me because I hadn’t given a thought to the potential consequences. We got back to the car to Sighosoara. This well-preserved hilltop city had the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Walk through any door and the occupants are prepared to take your Lei and hand you a receipt. The birth home of Vlad is now a restaurant.
Certainly most of the original charm of this burg is still around, however a glossy film has been thrown over it all. There were many Japanese tourists here and, as Radu pointed out, there are many Israelis because Romania is cheap now. I looked for them but didn’t see one.
The 160km back to Brasou was marked by at least five gypsy villages. I was surprised to see that the villages were often substantially constructed, and not just flimsily assembled and held together by carefully placed rocks. Goats and sheep were herded throughout this gently sloping countryside.
Back in Brasou I had access to the Internet for a few minutes and helped Radu get an email address. He was very happy about that, and plans were made for tomorrow.
I won’t be going to Moldova or Odessa because they are many miles out of my otherwise northerly path. And Moldova has been described as less than ideal tourist destination; actually the word ‘inhospitable’ was used.
Instead I am heading to Kieu, which seems to be a great destination, the problem is that only one train per day leaves, at 6:38 am. Radu offered to take me to the station which means he must get up very early. He had offered to drive me to Budapest but they said train is only twenty dollar and he’d drive for $100. I chose the train but, as I’d discover later, this was a costly mistake.
Since I thought my tickets were paid (except for sleeping car surcharge) of about $30 I just needed to find which train makes the trip.
[Bad choice: they refused to let me on the train I paid $150 to have a taxi take me to Buzoc or Bucoz, about 60 miles outside to catch a train again.]
None were listed but one without track or time info was posted. I tried to get accurate info by going to “International” window where I was told to pay when I am on the train for a sleeping car.
A train terminal tout spoke English and said he would help. He introduced himself as “Marietto”. On the train the woman said I must get off. I refused Marietto argued with her. She literally threw my bags off the train. It was never clear to me why I wasn’t okay to board because everything spoken was in loud Romanian tones. It may have been an exit tax, but I don’t know. Marietto called his friend who owns a taxi. We struck a deal. They get me to the next train station and accepted on the train and I’ll give $100 to share at first they said “yes” and I was suspecting I was in the midst of a scam of sorts when we had left Budapest behind after fifty miles.
There they stopped out in the middle of a vast empty area that may have been farmland but I saw no crops. I did see plowed fields, only small patches had been turned up. The dialog began with a demand that I pay now. I refused. It was suggested I get out right here. I said “No”, mainly because they could drive off with my luggage in the trunk. I reached into one of my many pockets to confirm the location of my sturdy pocketknife. I had it in my right hand ready to pull it out. Avoidance of problems is always best so I conceded to pay thirty dollars more since it is so far away. We resumed the travel rapidly because, for them I would pay the higher amount if we were successful.
The train left Budapest at 6:28am and we beat it by ten minutes at Bucoz. The story was the same “pay on board”. They stood with me waiting tense minutes for the train to arrive. When it did both of them, Marietto and the driver entered stiff negations with the very same woman who threw me off in Budapest.
[(9am tomorrow is scheduled arrival time. Today is Easter Sunday; I’m on the train all day.) I should mention that the train does not take a direct route to Kieu for that would send them through Mordova which demands transit visas from everyone. I am told that costs about $100 US. And later I was told it would cost E70, still too much and the time spent at this point often might exceed two hours. At the exit of Mordova fewer problems exist, however then the Ukraine Customs/Immigration officials board to evacuate]
To Ukraine Kieu
So a large number of new $1 bills enticed her to reconsider and accept me. For some bizarre reason I felt honored although I had paid considerably more than necessary. I could have gotten the 2nd class sleeper reservation while in Budapest but I wanted 1st class. Or if I would have let Radu do it then it would have worked too. I chose the worst ways, okay well maybe just one of the worst ways.
Rather than 1st class I was put in 2nd class with an older brother and sister. She just had a surprise birthday seeing her brother for the first time in ten years. She lived with one daughter in Atlanta, GA about ten years ago and worked in a food processing plant.
Fortunately (for me) she learned English before returning to Romania and ultimately the Ukraine. She was my interpreter while I was confined to this tiny room on the train. It was without air conditioning, and the air was sharpened with the delirious fumes of recently shellacked window frames.
Processing is slow and patience is required of all travelers. Crossing the border of Ukraine Romania was more difficult than going into Romania from Bulgaria although, as I write this, the process is not completed yet. They collected passports and customs control forms. The form asks if I’m bringing any printed material and how much cash money I have. The control officer asked to see exactly how much I have; apparently they need to see it.
Time went by fast once the train was moving. I carried on the conversation with the brother and sister in my compartment about how they felt about living (conditions) here. She thinks she has had a beautiful life pocketed with hardship. He sees political forces at work shaping his life as though he is flotsam in the waves. Both born after WWII each sees life differently yet they were shaped by many of the same conditions they’d experience as siblings other than social (mis)treatment of girls or boys and opportunities they are presented with.
[More & more I realize that the best new device I brought was the GPS but I found little use for the computer. 1st set of batteries lasted 10 days of intermittent use. (Cost: $100 at Fry’s Electronics) Miniature locks with “X” & “O” purchased from 99c store.]
Kieu Monday Apr 17 2006
The train was a fairly comfortable one. There was some track shaking to be sure, but not unpleasant. I slept from 9pm to 6am local time.
I woke, worried about a theft during my sleep but all was well, and I had slept well too. The morning light reveals unending hamlets and towns outside my train window. All the trees look naked and dead. That may be because winter has only recently concluded and they will revive shortly. Kieu is very close to the site of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 Pripyat, the nearest town to Chernobyl, is about 150 miles North of Kieu away. Not far enough away: either in geographical distance or time distance. There have been concerns for the effects of radiation today and they have been measured as “safe” for “short periods”. Stark is the word that measures my first perceptions of the Ukraine and environs of Kieu as we approach.
The sky is mottled with thick gray clouds. Rare bird sightings are, most often, pigeons. Miles and miles of trees on both sides of the tracks must have been planted to diffuse to railroad generated noises or obscure vision from the train or absorb some train pollutants.
[Observations: Somehow, even though it was contrary to everything in both books Let’s Go Eastern Europe (2006 ED) and Lonely Planet Eastern Europe (2006 ED) I thought it would be very easy to live cheaply here. The current weakness of the dollar may have contributed but it has been expensive to travel here. At least so far and I have yet to exit the train and touch my foot in Kieu. Living fairly cheaply I would say $150 is my average daily cost, so far.]
Arriving in Kieu 10am Monday
About 10am the train pulled into the Kieu station. I found a place to cash 3 $100 American Express checks cost $6.00. I got the money in Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH). About 5 equals $1USD. Bargaining for a taxi was demanded by one of my guide books. First guy to take me the ten or fifteen minutes to Hotel St. Petersburg cost 50 U. I declined and accepted the second offer of 30. Just before arriving the cabbie turned to me and said he wanted 50 - He got 30. The façade of the hotel is Baroque. Although $80 (US) per night got me a small room with bath… I could have gotten a cheaper room WITHOUT a bath. I used my Global Positioning Device GPS to make my route and help me return to my starting point. I chose this hotel because it seemed to be in a great location near many of the places in Kieu I’d like to see. I hired a guide for tomorrow but for today I walked the main boulevard.
Miscellaneous information you may or may not want to type yourself]
It is an amazing street, grandiose to be sure, but an interesting mix of Prague and Beverly Hills. This city was most recently destroyed by Nazis but almost entirely rebuilt as a showcase city by Soviet Russia. Spectacular! Beautifully designed buildings housed many of the most fashionable names. The wide street was busy with pedestrians and vehicles; few bicycles which would race through crowds of pedestrians on the wide sidewalks. Vehicles make their own rules and discover new ways to park but everyone has a healthy fear of the police. Wherever there was a congregation of walkers you’d see photographers, people holding falcon’s owls or other exotic birds, clothed monkeys, and miniature Mongolian ponies, all to serve as entertaining props along with the stunning architecture background.
English is the most commonly spoken second language, just ahead of German and Russian (which are closely related, like Spanish is to Italian)
As evening temperatures fell into the 40s there was no decline in the consumption of beer or ice cream. I thought that was a bit strange.
The young girls were dressed in western fashion, very hip. Regardless of the temperature it was more important to make a fashion statement.
I wrote three emails to Marcy trying to let her know what I’m doing. I told her that next trip I will make shorter and she can extend the time she can go. I miss her very much in many ways. I know I quite often have seen something that she would enjoy. There were many shoe stores, but my guide book says Kieu is NOT at any fashion-cutting edge.
Because the water is infected with Guardia, a diarrhea cause, I must purchase bottled water. The Internet is not everywhere, but I did find one place and that’s enough. Maybe outside this fashion district I might see more.
I had put my gear together to make the move to another hotel. Instead I elected to stay here because I may leave after a thorough visit. I hired Eleani of the youth hostel, she’ll met me at the Newday Hotel lobby at 8am tomorrow.
At 8am I find Eliene at the lobby, she’s 19 years old, chubby, and Jody Foster – like. She is a student and traveled outside the Ukraine once as a child, with her father who is an engineer. Kieu is only 150 miles from Pripyat/Chernobyl so after the accident happened, many engineers and other were called to help. Julia doesn’t see any clear sign that her father was physically affected by Chernobyl, but she has seen the aftereffects on many people. She has studied this in school.
I wanted to visit Chernobyl but it requires advanced permission, which usually takes five days. At The Chernobyl Museum I saw the “protective” clothing issued to the soldiers sent in, it was just regular clothes with a light respirator mask made of plastic and cloth.
Julia took me on the subway, which has a (seemingly) clear layout. We went to a cafeteria that Julia says is one of the busiest in the city. I ate Varnishkes, which are dumplings resembling raviolis in size and color. Filled with meat, ricottah-like cheese, or apple, these flavorful, but only bite sized bits, were doused with sour cream, as is almost every dish. I had, as part of this morning meal, Chicken Kieu, which was a flank steak of chicken (so probably the breast) flattened and rolled around a huge dollop of butter then deep fried with a crusty exterior. After I bit into it I poured the butter out before finishing this fist-sized snack. The cakes are usually made with a butter cream, not whipped cream, the coffee is thick, black, and comes in small cups like Turkish coffee. All of this, for both of us cost less than 20. Exchange rate varies but it is close to 5 Ukrainian to a dollar (US).
She brought me to the monastery of the caves in which there were several museums, but the most fascinating part was the mummified remains of many of monks that had resided here. The cold damp air would allow the body to remain for a very lengthy time. Art, “Lavlero” style of painting was taught to the monks. There are several churches of importance throughout Kieu, and the churches are fantastic works of beauty and art. I was not allowed to photograph the interior of any church but I was encouraged to buy the postcard sets. The most important church, St. Sophia, was spectacularly beautiful. I was confounded by the floor, which was made of iron platter about 1 Meter Square, and black. The perplexing issue was that they were all made of two different designs, however the Star of David dominated the pattern of both. Julia didn’t know why this is so.
I bought a ticket to Ternopic because nothing else was available heading west. The weather has changed and there is enough rain to slow me down a bit. Rather than suffer the long lines of the train station Julia brought me to a travel agency to buy the ticket since the weather report says rain I want to get out, and then stay out, of cold wet weather if possible.
Julia and I sat in a coffee shop to have a piece of cake and coffee. I paid her about $9.00 per hour. Julia said that our travels through Kieu covered all of the major sites and could only add a more in depth look at the monastery caves and museums. The military monuments that studded the city had been great in size. I was most affected by Babiyar, the WWII site of a Nazi killing of 200,000 people – Jews. This atrocity’s magnitude was concealed, maybe that’s the wrong work because there was a large monument to Kieu’s victims. But short of this monument and another plaque elsewhere they were the only things that existed in this ravine where so many victims perished. Children laughed and played; adolescents, in pairs hugged and kissed in adoration of the other. The somber air I’d expect to be here was absent. It was a bizarre feeling I felt, a new kind of sadness I had never felt before. I could feel my throat tighten and I wanted to smash the next Ukrainian who walked by me. I felt choked but I was the only witness to this bewildering moment. Julia did not quite understand why I was so overwhelmed by this moment because, she said, there are many monuments to the dead of WWII and against Russian occupation.
While she knew that I am Jewish this park above others stood as a confusing moment for her to comprehend the fact that these people were massacred because of their religious beliefs and no other reason. They weren’t even combatants.
After paying Julia we parted company. I’ve just looked at the largely restored Golden Gate, an original wall that was used to enter the fortified city. I revisited the train station. Since I had time and the train was so cheap I decided to have a backup plan. I had a ticket to Ternopic, but I’d buy one to Luiu if weather reports and advice about wet weather are accurate. It was baffling to try to buy the tickets. Cyrillic writing made sign reading impossible I could see from one electronic board when a train was scheduled to leave and exactly how many seats in each class were available. I saw the clerk just shut her window with a long line waiting because she was going ‘on break’. It must be very nerve-racking for the Kieuians to experience this often. After an hour I was told to go to another window fortunately a young woman, Irena, heard my problem and was willing to help. She is an English teacher. She was very kind, and she refused to let me buy her some water or soda or juice while she stood with me in a very long line. Without her help I wouldn’t have had success. The ticket was bought. I wanted 1st class but 2nd class is what they had. That means 4 in a compartment. I hired a taxi for ($18) to take me from the station to the hotel and back. I loaded everything up and headed back to the station the train to Luiu stops in Ternopic three hours later so I can decide what the situation is for me.
The train route to Kieu
To get there the train must take a complicated and less direct way because of problems with Moldova. They demand transit visas from those on the train just passing through for $100 or E100 (I’ve heard different answers) Now that’s not to stay or visit – Just to pass through on the train it cost more time and money than the indirect route that was taken.
Golden Rose synagogue Kieu
Breakfast – potato rings, sour cream, cheese, ham, yellow caviar (not salty) fruit juice (sweet but I couldn’t tell if it was pear or apple), coffee all quite good – especially the caviar.
I got loaded with my backpack and then found the car and seat surprisingly quickly. My bunkmates only talked among themselves.
A young woman introduced herself to me. She seemed pretty, and she spoke some English. She said she is in the Miss Ukraine contest, and she gave me a cd of her songs and a newspaper clipping of her. She says she won several local contests and is a finalist for Miss Ukraine. Her boyfriend (fiancé) was friendly too. We said good-bye when I got off at Teropic, around 4am. Rain was coming down hard and I tried to re-board the train, but my seat had been taken. I would wait for the next train, which should be in a short while, and then I’m on to Luiu.
I had wanted to get to my destination, but it would be take a while. I wrote for a time, then the train pulled in on schedule. I boarded and got off in Luiu. The first thing I did was I arranged my ticket onward to Minsk, which was easy. I hired a taxi driver to bring me to Hotel George in the center of town.
[$441 Ukraine _____ for hotel room 5 “= $1 USD
General eating on the street
At this point, and I surmise that for the remainder of the journey, I will be watching the amount of oil and fat that goes into certain dishes. Street food is usually some variation of the hotdog. In the Ukraine it is popular to add so many spices and condiments you’ll have difficulty finding the hotdog flavor. Mayonnaise and ketchup are doused heavily on top. I tried, and liked, a hot dog that was wrapped in dough then steamed in a metal case. It was popular in several countries but its popularity has waned somewhat. Pizza places were common all over.]
It was still morning so I hired a guide, Igor who claims professorship. I called several and each guide wanted 12$ per hour, that’s the going rate in Luiu. When we first met in person he seemed nervous and apprehensive about something that had not made it visible to me. Maybe, I thought, it was me? Anyway other than being a little slow he knew much of the local history and enjoyed churches for the religious purpose they were designed not their intrinsic architecture design expressed in the highest artistic form known to them. Besides artisans drawn from the local people they brought in Jewish and Armenian craftsmen and engineers. The styles of creation varied from one church to the next. Some large homes constructed within the city walls had carried the iconographic ARTS from the churches to their homes. The cobblestone streets covered a large area with massive rebuilding efforts being employed now as if a huge wave of tourists and the money they bring is the tempting anticipatory event on the minds of officials.
The interior of the churches were stunningly beautiful with baroque, classical, and Romanesque flourishes seen, often mixed with one part of a church was built at a different time. The ubiquitous McDonalds made its presence here just as it has in every town or village of substance. And, here too, the young adolescents were drawn here, each of them trying, sometimes skillfully, to replicate American and British styles. In the early part of the day people sell whatever produce they can. Flowers are very popular. Old Ladies will ladle out dollops of shelled peanuts or black sunflower seeds. The burlap bag holding these contents seem too heavy for a few of them to lift, yet they get it here somehow. Eastern Europe is really a continent to itself, separate and apart from the western countries. Argue what you will about its historic kinship to the west, it has been reformed and is more touched by its recent Soviet Russia history than it cares to acknowledge. The actual reasons for this are not clear beyond an understanding even as far back as the early and mid 1800’s when Catherine the Great banned Jews from the Russian regions to the outer areas. I imagine that even then these people were willing to live with less were willing to believe that freedom meant paying taxes to a local government not a foreign one – almost like it might mean any difference at all. So called “foreign oppression” is so rarely that.
[Water quality in Ukraine
That was it, one small mistake, letting a few drops of water in my mouth while showering and shaving. I must have swallowed a Guardia. The amoeba found in Ukraine water. I was monetarily speaking, blocked up but that little germ cleared the path. It struck at an opportune time, I was in for the night anyway and I had a private bath. After the momentary upset stomach passed I was feeling much better – one problem fixed another. Good one for me!]
Igor brought me to the former site of Luiu’s Golden Rose Synagogue. Seeing this wretched sight hit me hard. Trash littered the site. Structural signs of its former use were evident. Now in total disuse except for one obscure gray metal plaque, it would be missed. Razed in 1942 by the Nazis and complicit Ukrainians, only the foundation and two walls stand. I keep getting reminded of how easily most Jews were led off to their demise. Up to the end they were people who were ‘rule followers’. It is a history of which I share. And this is why I will support tiny Israel in its desire to be its own country. Sorry about this digression but it is impossible not to be reminded of these things.
[93 griunay for train to Minsk
20 griun for pastry & coffee
25 graunay = $5US Taxi ride to train from hotel
30 griunya for two pair of knit woolen socks]
The cemetery on the outskirts of Luiu is for great Catholics and great Soviets. Only they are buried here, in a huge pantheon of stone stakes capped with photos or etchings of those before us. The earliest graves were dated from the early 1800’s. The graveyard would be terrifying at night. I saw that there were several groups of school children marching through mentioning the “glorious” history of the Ukraine, Luiu and certain heroes. I suspect nothing is said of the citizen’s complicity with the Nazi’s efforts at exterminating innocent people. Everybody wants to rewrite history. Who is there to say that what I believe is any more correct than any other? A fair guess might be that neither is right on, after all, we both have our biases.
[Reflection of Luiu
A city with a beautiful “old town” feel that is being restored right now, it escaped the extensive damage that many other Ukraine cities bore. The people, Jews, and synagogue were obliterated with an alarming degree of willingness, almost with glee. No remorse, care or thought of previous misdeeds. Many religious icons and churches. People consider themselves good Catholics as they always have since the 10th century. I saw them as a nation willing to believe whatever they are told. The food here is good but better choices in Kieu and there are few restaurants with an English menu (like Kieu). Few Ukrainian speak English or even German (which I can get by with), so it was all hand signals and smiles, thankfully I could usually get the message across. After all, I was holding the money! Those that didn’t speak English often would often ignore me and they’d look through me to the next person. They had little time for dalliances. Everything seemed relatively cheap – About half the price I’d pay for things in L.A., except for fashion goods or things imported from elsewhere especially the US; that stuff was very expensive.]
I was fortunate to use the Internet today, and I answered most of my mail and checked the stock market, which is doing very well at the moment, and I’m riding a cloud with the LETRX Russia A that has paid for everything. Sadly, any calamity or political upset enriches oil stocks and thus, me. So all bad news leaves me perplexed as to what I should feel. Sadder but richer? What a paradox!
I walked around town. My GPS device served me well. I just meandered around town, watching young lovers in the park, thinking how much better this would be with my lovely wife’s company. It will only be a few days before I see her again. I phone her often, pestering her I. I’m certain to face a two hundred dollar phone bill at home.
I visited three museums in the ‘old’ district. The Ukrainian museum of armory is right around the corner from the Golden Rose Synagogue. My train ticket for the 13½ hour ride to Minsk begins at 7pm tonight. Getting to the right train on the right track, the right compartment and the right seat are the only problems I consistently have. I always gauge the time properly. I usually wander around the station for a while and look at the electronic posting of trains, but since it is all in Cyrillic I can only guess. I bought a stale roll and a bad cup of coffee for a dollar so I could use a table while waiting for the train. There was only one train leaving at 7pm and when comparing the Cyrillic writing to the Cyrillic notes on my map it was clear that I was at the right place and with an hour to spare. The train was there but nobody was boarding and the doors were locked. I walked toward the rear of the train where three younger men in their thirties or forties were trying to help an inebriated friend onto the train. His rubbery legs and red flushed face said he wasn’t getting on. It was quite a spectacle and, as you might imagine, drew the attention of all but the very young.
[Speaking a foreign language
Sometimes the LACK of understanding what is being said or demanded of me plays to my advantage, several times during this adventure I was sent away or said to not take a photo but had I not understood the language or had a guide who insisted on getting involved I would have otherwise been successful (I think)
A smile goes a long way.]
New Day / Going to Minsk
With some assistance I found the compartment and seat stowing my gear below the seat. I paid an additional six “griunya” (about $1.20) for bedding of clean pressed white linens. Since there was only one other tenant, a young man, who spoke no English, it was a quiet night until we approached the border. About 3am a flurry of uniformed men boarded the train. Each costume represented a different country or branch of government service. I showed all of my papers and passport and visa to everyone. Nobody spoke any English and I didn’t speak any Russian/Ukrainian/Slavic languages at all. Sign language had to suffice.
I woke around 7am and the sun was up and shinning, it looked to be another day of good weather. The train halted for an hour in Baranovici. I knew it was this city because my map has English and Cyrillic.
New Day / 10hrs on train from Luiu to Minsk (includes 2hrs waiting)
I arrived in Minsk after a night of no sleep, although I was comfortable despite the early am awakening by customs/military. The Minsk train station was the newest I’ve seen. Getting a taxi was a small problem. I followed the flow of traffic from the train till I found myself at street level (3 levels in the station not including subway or bus which were outside the building.) From the station I couldn’t see whether the heart of the city was close or far – or in which direction. That wouldn’t be unusual except they said that the trains stop at the edge of the town.
English is spoken here as often as you’ll hear Russian spoken at home. Spanish and German were tried but they were an absolute ‘failure’. Because of WWII Minsk still harbors ill feelings about Germans and Germany, although they’ve had trade agreements with them for over twenty years (even while under the dominion of Russia). The trade was bolstered by the apology by a delegation of German soldiers over ten years ago. According to a few people, they don’t have problems with any country at the moment but they believe a threat exists from the European Union or the US. Some people reported that civil commotion as stated in the US papers was a fabrication. Minsk is not as modern as, say Berlin, but it is not a throwback to the 70’s. Modern department stores like GUM are an aggregation of a myriad of small retailers each with their own separate operation and activities. As I will relate later I was not up for any nightlife so there is nothing to say about that except that most ‘fancy commerce’ happens along Prospeckt Francyka.
Night life happens off the boulevard. My Minsk Guide says her favorite are three separate nightclubs housed in one building adjacent to the WWII museum. I felt reasonable comforted in that museum’s display of Nazi brutality to the Jews and the Belorussians while hanging Nazi’s and Nazi sympathizers along the city’s main streets.
[Best place to stay in Minsk is Hotel Minsk]
From the train station it was about ten miles to Hotel Sputnik.
The rooms are spacious (my bed sat at one side of the room) and while lying on the bed my feet could touch the other wall. Check in time was noon. Room price was $28-40 US I paid $38. I was outside town by about six miles but still in a busy suburb. Because check-in time was 12 noon and I had arrived (after a $5 USD taxi ride) at the hotel at 10 AM, I had to choose from a two hour wait or check in and pay for an extra day. By the time this was explained to me “Olya” (full first name: Olga) appeared at ten minutes after 11am, I had arranged to pay her $5 an hour. I left luggage at the hotel then we began to walk and talk. I first explained that I want to use local transportation where possible. I wanted to eat Belorussian food at a Belorussian restaurant, and I had a list of the most important tourist sights to see here. I wanted to see as much as possible in two days. We walked for fifteen miles, from 11am to 6pm. She showed me the sights, included the KGB headquarters, and where Lee Harvey Oswald lived before returning to the U.S. I saw the Island of Tears stands monument to the lost soldiers in the Afghani War. I was shown GUM, a department store like the one in Moscow, only much smaller, and the Presidential Palace, where Lashenko lives.
Prospeckt Francyka is a very wide and modern street with very few buildings predating WWII and almost all after 1970 when Stalin finished up the city.
That night I fell into bed and slept soundly. I was exhausted after squeezing onto the train, and then the subway to get to Sputnik.
Men and women alike take special care of their shoes, often stopping to give a quick polish to them. Pointed and long toes are the fashion for both sexes. It’s rare to see another leather shoe other than black. No garbage cans in buildings, burning cigarettes are thrown in the same trash as cups, wrappers or other minor paper refuse on the street.
Women wear high heels with very long pointy toes or tennis shoes. The height of the high heels and the narrowness of the heel are made even more astounding when you see women running with these shoes!]
Minsk to Villnus
New day I woke early and shaved / showered, packed, checked out, and caught a taxi to the train station.
I struggled to find the right window, which I was finally directed to. I bought a 1st class ticket to Villnus only to discover that the next train leaves at 6pm. That was an opportunity to revisit the city.
Last night I did sleep well because I had walked many kilometers but as always thoughts of Marcy are foremost on my mind I’ve called her often, not wanting to appear needy but often enough to hear her voice. That is almost enough to comfort me. The first thing that happened this morning is that she called at 6 am my time. I was up and preparing to shower in a bathroom that was put together in a very strange way. While walking I met an artist: a wood carver. This was probably just a typical tourist thing but I followed him to where he and his brother make birch root bowls. He said they come into Minsk weekly with whatever they have made and usually sell them all to stores. Well, as luck would have it, there were several not sold because one store was closed and they just needed money to get home. I suspected ‘gas money’ but the English he possessed couldn’t help him with the explanation of the rest of the story. I bought two carved birch for ten dollars. He preferred (but didn’t demand) dollars. I decided it was time to get back to the train station since it was 3pm. I have to get my luggage out of storage find track and train. With the help of a train station policeman I found the right track and the train pulled into the track slot 22. Only five cars made this a very short train. The ride would last from 6:15pm to 10pm, so as a short ride, all seats were ‘sitting’. The train was almost half full at its start but it made several stops just outside of Minsk to let off those who were going home for the balance of the Greek Orthodox Easter weekend.
The trip was uneventful other than I had a relaxed moment where I could call Marcy and listen to her sweet voice. I called Joel Fox, a long time friend, to see how he was doing. He is taking Marcy out to dinner tonight. I left a message for Steve on his cell phone. Bryan, another buddy, was having an operation completed, plastic surgery to look younger. I spoke with Sarah briefly.
Midway between Minsk and Vilnius the border guards from each side checked to see that everyone had the proper documentation, as there was no special records/visas necessary for a US citizen to enter Lithuania.
I had the cell phone so I called around in Vilnius (+ all East Europe 5 city code) then the local number. I made arrangements to have a taxi pick me up because it was late and might be difficult to get one. I didn’t want to be stuck in the Vilnius train station all night.
The hotel looked nice even in the dark, they offered free Internet, and I took advantage of that.
[E 11 Lunch
$25 bowls (carved birch)
$18 US train to Villnus
$12 US taxi to/around Minsk
E 8 for taxi
E 70 per night
New day May 14, 2006
Our flight back to Moscow was one that George did not want to take. He was just getting comfortable in Georgia.]
New Day, Sunday, Vilnius
I woke around 9am, a bit late but yesterday was very long. I changed rooms, the cost of the new room is $43 US, compared to twice that for a much bigger room with a lot of unused space.
This was a Sunday so almost all businesses were closed, just a smattering of small kiosks and tourist – oriented businesses. I could tell I was now in old town, there was quite a bit of new construction going on but rules to build are enforced to say you can gut an old building, but you must keep the old four walls intact. There are scores of nice hotels right in the heart of old town that escaped this rule. Several tourist offices were open and offered an array of maps.
I walked through a couple of churches and looked at the Jewish ghetto area, which is still in disrepair. I had planned tomorrow to go to the Jewish museum. The former Jewish area was largely un-renovated, but it will not be long before it is. The complicity of the Lithuanians in the murder of its Jewish citizens touched me.
I walked through another area of the old city and saw an old woman begging. I was struck by my own cold-heartedness as I passed her. I felt as if I could see on her face that she supported the Nazi action when she may have been young and beautiful. Now old and withered she hopes for the mercy she didn’t offer when it was her turn to stand up. I am ashamed to feel such a surge of anger and such an unwillingness to offer any measures of alms to a former oppressor.
I saw a couple of young men offering a tour of the city by Segway. It cost me about seventy dollars to rent a Segway and a personal guide for a full three hours. After the three-hour tour of old town I took a taxi back. Watching the route I could see it was about three miles.
The experience of seeing Old town by Segway was very enjoyable, and of course everybody watched me and my guide, Arturas. We drove these simple devices up hills, over cobbled streets, and across bridges. The sights of the main street were something that Marcy would enjoy.
[Best situated fancy hotel: Radisson in the middle of old town.
My point over here was (above) that my own cold-heartedness was the result of my assumptions about her cold-heartedness of a former time. This is not the way I see myself.
Lithuania liter 2.75 LT = $1 US
Electrical so far all East Europe countries visited use the two round plugs that fit into outlets that look like this: 220 volts (picture)
Ten hour diff means East Eur, Mon, 9am=LA, Sun, 11pm
The room cost $43 dollars (or Euros) NO TRAIN TO BUS at 16.30 = 4:30 to 5pm
45 LT = $18.50 US Reservation 980768.]
Back at the hotel I watched CNN (World News Reports), then went out for a Lithuanian dinner at a nearby restaurant. During the day I saw a Jewish deli (kosher only), Indian, Chinese, Italian, ‘American-Style Italian Pizza,’ and of course McDonalds, which was the most popular of all.
Today I shall take a four-hour bus ride to Riga. The train only goes every other day and I want to see the Jewish museums and other museums listed in my book. On the Segway I could only see the exteriors, and many were closed because it was Sunday. Lithuanians don’t really find any kinship with Russians who still reside here. The Russians, according to what I was told, choose, often, to continue speaking Russian, never to learn Lithuanian. Naturally that is an irritant to the locals. I arranged an itinerary of Jewish sites. Frankly, I don’t know why each Jewish event has been a traumatic and tearful visit. I’ve come here to enjoy the cities, not get absorbed by past tragedies. I could not escape the need to witness the tattered remnants of centuries of Jewish life. Nefarious and horrific events during WWII, and then again on a smaller scale a few Lithuanians died resisting the Russians. It takes little imagination to guess which plays the larger role in Lithuanian recounting of their history. The stories of the Jews stand with the stories that are in history books but their meaning and the feelings they should evoke have faded away. There were two Jewish ghettos in Vilnius or as the Jews called it “Vilna”.
A deserted crumbling cathedral struck my eye. Amazed to see one cathedral not restored or at least in the process of. Soon I understood that (even though there was a cross on top of the yellow building) this was a former synagogue. Another still stands elsewhere in Vilnius, and is used actively.
[Lithuanians don’t want a close partnership with Russians; there was an armed resistance in this city in 1991.
Never used the water slippers yet should have brought more socks and underclothes. Never used the cramp-on yak-traks for ice or snow trekking.
Taxi to the Jewish sites the Bus station 83 Litas=$30 US for 3hrs taxi use.]
May 13, 2006 Tbilisi
I would toast to something but I drank to every toast whether English spoken or Georgian. We left before most of the guests did but we went to Goga’s summer dalliance. He was married but enjoyed the single life anyway. At his home he brought us into have some more wine we drank several glasses, which he claimed was the best in Georgia. I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them something to the contrary. I drank to every toast. Now I was toasted. We went out in the back to look at Goga’s swimming pool that had no water. In a corner of the yard he had a tartar hat and coat of a Georgian warrior. We played around for a while in silliness before Goga drove us to the hotel.
My vacation of tears:
Everywhere Jewish history is hidden, non-existent, or obliterated. People don’t know if they’ve ever met a Jew. Surprised that I am. Response: “No! No?”]
A genocide museum still kept the torture chamber in the basement with their “tools” lying just where they were left. A “temporary” Jewish museum brought me to the edge of tears. To think that so many would go without a fight, yes, some fought, but would I have a different mindset if I were there? What would I have done? Chilling thoughts to imagine how few years, how short a distance, how fortunate I am that my predecessors left such oppression. I shudder as I walked through the tiny green wooden house that holds these artifacts. The taxi driver was waiting for me and there was nobody but me in the building. I put $100 Lats (about $30 in a donation box) and solemnly walked out into the sunny day, a day that none of those people will see nor will any of their children.
My next stop was about ten miles away where thousands were murdered. It was a former Russian oil pit but the Nazis saw this as a good place to hide their killing. Nobody else was around. My driver waited in the parking lot and I walked solitarily along the path. Dogs barked and birds sang cheerily, all in the distance, far behind the thin birch trees that fill the surrounding forest. Looking into these pits I could no longer hold back my tears. My face felt flushed and I could feel the wetness of my tears. Even as I am now writing this, my throat tightens and my nose runs. It was such a sad helpless feeling I felt, not able to help those who for whatever reason, could not help themselves. It was one of those experiences that has to be felt, not described I am certain I will never forget.
The driver brought me back to the edge of the Old town Vilnius where I could change money and buy a bus ticket to Riga. It will be a five-hour ride and cost $45 LITARS, which is about $13. Pretty good price, I changed an American express check for $100 split between LITARS in Lithuanian currency at $1=2.7 LITAS and Latvian currency $1US=.6 Lats, so I have some local currency when I get there. (A sign the bus just passed said 149kms to Riga) I walked a bit, not far, just watching where the buses are coming from – much like I would for ants.
[Observation on the difference between guidebook Lets Go! 2006 East Europe and Lonely Planet 2006 East Europe.
Lets Go has better advice for walking around town and restaurants. Also more real budget places, very good for students.
Lonely Planet has a better selection of hotels and more periphery history.]
At the busy bus station a bum glommed on me. Just like Marcy said! I AM a bum magnet! Okay so he spoke a smattering of English and carried my heaviest bag. He helped me find the right ticket office (because there are several).
If it were not for Marcy – especially Marcy getting me to Dr. Liebross or someone like him I would never have been healthy enough to do a trip like this. This is no insignificant side note, regardless of how it appears. It is truly my very good fortune that Marcy had the desire to see that her man is well taken care o,f and everyday I remind myself of this because of my love for her and my respect of Dr. Liebross that I am without pain or seeming disability.
“Bacon” is always served uncooked or warm but not crispy as it is in the US.]
Apr 2006 Vilnius to Riga
24th Mon Lithuania to Latvia
I was able to arrange for an earlier bus and would soon leave. I bought a couple of bottles of water. Without time for using the toilet, I boarded the bus.
Today is a warm day without any clouds in the sky. The landscape is flat – only the roads have rugged contours from poorly patched road or head sized potholes. The vast fields that are on both sides of the road are sallow. Other than grass greened by recent rain there are no crops in that area that are visible. I do see numerous farmers at work preparing the fields. I called Marcy late last night her time, it was breakfast for me. I need to touch her anyway I can. The bus started from Vilnius at 1:30 and arrived in Riga at 6pm. While on the bus I made telephone reservations at what seemed to be a reasonable price for Riga old town at 55LTS at Vecriga Hotel in the Vecriga district. Once I arrived at the bus station I was able to get myself properly oriented because a river runs alongside the station. and the sun was setting to the West. I began to walk carrying all my gear when I realized these streets were further apart than I originally thought so I hired a taxi that brought me nearby. Since this district is cut off to vehicular traffic I still had to carry my load a few yards. The street names look unfamiliar compared to what I saw on my map. Some directions taken from a policeman who didn’t speak English, but spoke enough German got me going in the right direction.
This hotel is quaint. The rooms would be satisfactory to Marcy-that is my gauge of quality since I would be okay in a barn.
After unpacking everything I still had hours of daylight left so I walked around a little. Not too much because I was very tired. There was no internet café to find so I came back to relax in the room watching a news program, CNN, with information about Chernobyl and its affects on its 20 year anniversary today.
How do people dress around here in the Baltic States?
Women wear the latest fashions, including high heeled shoes. Men wear dress slacks and long sleeve shirts, only rarely with a tie. Black shoes are worn by all.
Young people wear jeans and a variety of shoes; tennis, loafer, and boots. Everybody is fashion conscious, except for the tourists who wear relaxed clothing designed for travel. The women wear tennis shoes.
Lovers note: Inscribed locks and keys are tossed into the water from the bridge so the lock will never to be undone.
New Day in Riga
I woke early as has become my custom. Almost every night I wake thinking about Marcy .I yearn for her, my children, (Carol, Mark, and Sarah) and my grandchildren, who are dear to my heart. I miss Maestro and my car. I imagine this is what “home sick” is. I do the morning preparation (organizing my stuff, locking bags, showering, dressing), then go to meet a guide who I’ve hired for a few hours. Old Riga is very compact, beyond Old Riga the only area of interest is the adjacent art nouveau area of homes and offices. Michael Eisenberg, a railroad engineer and a Jew, created art nouveau style early in the 20th century. It covers about eight blocks and it a compact area too.
Old Riga is experiencing revitalization and is seeing a huge influx of foreign investing. The Jewish synagogue within this area has no signs pointing to it, and it was down a quiet side street. Without knowing specifically how to get there no one would find it. The only visible sign from outside was a trailer labeled “polije” police entering. It was a quiet lonely affair, other than the sounds of the wooden floor creek underfoot, unlike the churches; there were no sounds from children or babies, no incoherent Latvian chatter, just nothing. A walk around old town was surreal, not because of the preserved old buildings of which only three original stone houses stood (called the three brothers) but because, like other “reborn” Eastern European cities, they had removed the guts of many homes, leaving a dead hollow shell to be injected with a new modern (foreign) life. The old façade was just like makeup on a woman with little though as to how it now presents itself- as old? As new? I don’t know. The withered exteriors are re-strengthened but you could hardly tell. Across from old city was the bus station. Trains are seldom going north or at all. They feel that they don’t belong as part of CIS (Russina dominates countries and part of the former Soviet bloc of nations).
People bought plastic bags that had been used but were bearing interesting marks like from certain fancy shops. About 80 cents US was the price for most bags.
They had had very troubled times prior to WWII, and they do not deny that they aligned themselves with Nazi Germany, although by the time they did most of the territorial gains had reached close to their peak. This created a “look alike SS Waffen” and storm troopers. Trying to impress the Germans, they were goaded easily into robbing and murdering Jews, after all this would only relieve some financial pressures and there would be spoils to eagerly divide among the thieves. From exhibition in the museums they don’t deny their cruelty but seek to absolve themselves by reminding the world of their predicament too. Officially, the government of Latvia has apologized for this, but there were signs that it wouldn’t take much to be reborn in a quick flash. The citizens of the city believe they belong in Europe not with Russia. Russia claims that the government of Latvia signed an agreement in 1945 and 1946. Latvians say that they were very weak and would have signed any agreement it if would provide some aid to the country. Now they want to cancel that agreement, and generally do like the Russians. Too late again! So each time Latvia has screwed up….
Bought a bus ticket for tomorrow morning at 10:50a.m. to Tallinn, Estonia
*Civilization is built in thin layers. Scratch each thin layer and you’ll see a different people. The veneer of civility would be better enjoyed had I not dared to scratch the polished surfaces of Eastern Europe
April 25 2006 – Riga
The city changed in the dimming hours of early evening. Street vendors closed up at 6pm. Most of these countries go by a 24-hour clock time, not using am or pm as we do.
Bakeries sell pastries and coffee till 8 or 10 pm. The coffee is thicker than one might find in America but fresh and very pleasant to drink. A cup of coffee costs $1.10, not cheap in a place where the average monthly wage doesn’t exceed $500 US/month.
Things I’d carry with me again:
The green campmor jacket
The blue shirt
Backpack (this one’s shot)
Army duffel (multipurpose)
More socks and shoes
Mp3 player but with much larger capacity
Water slippers (even though I’ve never needed them)
Instant dry towel
The people are generally pleasant, however if you ask if they speak English (and they don’t), they will ignore you like in other Eastern European countries. They can pretend like you are not even there. This is with exceptions however, because most of the teenagers and young people speak some English, at least more than German, which was more popular with those over sixty years old.
Things I wouldn’t bring:
A Set of foreign electrical plugs (because the European two-prong plug worked everywhere and it was all I needed)
April 26, 2006 Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia
The morning light came early. I had a new adventure ahead of me in Tallinn, Estonia today. The food in Riga was very good. The blintzes called Sarniskies were especially tasty. Bacon here is really ham.
After a boring bus ride we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia. Because we are approaching summer solstice the hours of daylight are extended. I am writing this at 7pm and I am outside with enough sun to see, just like it was 3pm at home. The bus was boring because the terrain is very flat. Only birch for miles, then shortly after passing the Estonian border the trees were all some sort of deciduous tree. Getting into the city was easy with well-organized traffic even at an early hour during the week. I can feel the difference from Estonia and the lower Baltic states. I was surprised at the modern progressive appearance of this Oceanside city. I expected a bit of Soviet gloom but some of that showed it.
Once I retrieved my bags from the bus I found a taxi because these streets were so contorted I’d never find my way. About a mile and a half for about three bucks was fair but the driver said that we were not at the address I requested. That, in fact, I’d have to walk up the street to find it myself. I didn’t respond well. I called the hotel from the sidewalk as the driver removed y gear from the trunk and printed out a receipt for me. He didn’t speak English or anything other than Estonian so there was a major difference between what he said he could do (I think) and what I wanted done. I stood on the sidewalk while he is trying to explain what I should pay him already because “time is money” he gesticulated. I called the hotel again this time the call goes through and “yon” the manager or owner says he would come out on the street and wait for me. Still in dispute with the driver who was yet unpaid I asked him to carry the heaviest bag which he refused to do. Yon spotted me. I paid the red-faced driver who instantly drove off. I was surprised he didn’t try to run over my bags.
6 hour bus ride
10:30 AM left promptly
4:30 PM arrive in Tallinn (expected)
310 km along roads in repair and disrepair
Gas costs per liter= .63 lats
So 55 lats = $100 US
Liters= 1 US gallon
Yon grabbed a bag and led me into a crumbling courtyard in the midst of remodeling and re-strengthening of the exterior. There would have been no way for me to find this place any other way than the way I did. Yon brought me to the rear of the courtyard, past a chocolate store and a small tourist boutique beyond a little café with outdoor tables and rattan chairs. I followed him up a flight of stairs and down a wood floored hallway that looked new but creaked under our weight, exacerbated by the added pounds of luggage.
At the end of the hall Yon unlocked the door and revealed a three-story one bedroom room. If I stepped down a bit there was the bathroom area at the entrance of the room where I stood. There was a small desk but little else. Then up a flight of stairs was a small bed. Sunlight came in through a small window that looked over the rooftops of three adjacent structures.
I put my stuff away, then walked around the area. The prime reason I chose this spot was because it was in the midst of old town. This area, while protected as a world heritage spot by CINESCO, is so heavily visited by tourists that it reminds me of Solvang; it has been modified to accommodate the maximum number of tourists, nonetheless the charm and melodic ambiance of the assemblage of old houses and buildings exude this in abundance. Fairy-tale like is a good way to describe it.
Like so many other such towns an influx of European money is flowing in to build and reconstruct everything. I didn’t stay up late, instead I was asleep by nine.
April 27, 2006 Tallinn
Following a locally provided tourist map printed in English and German, I laid a walking path to maximize the sites I’d see through the old town.
The positive side of going to sleep early was that I woke early too. Surprisingly at 7:30AM, when I first walked out on the street, I was alone in this area that was densely populated last night. I saw only five people during the next fifteen minutes until I was out of old town. There were no other hotels that I saw within old town, so this was an ideal location within old town. The only drawback was that after 9AM until 7PM no vehicles are allowed in old town so I had to carry my luggage in and out.
I walked out of old town toward the boats. There were plenty of new hotels built of steel and glass. Construction was heavily in progress.
Another thorough walk around town and I was filled with beautiful pictures in my mind. Interestingly two guides I read made certain I saw the tallest toilet in the world, operated to allow guards to stay at their post in the higher levels of the fortress walls.
Buses left every three hours during daytime to St. Petersburg. My wait was not long, but sadly my bus was full. I could block the seat next to mine since seat numbers were assigned; I had just enough luck to support my claim to the extra inches an empty seat would provide. It was in the middle of the 400-mile trip that the adjacent seat was taken by a young woman with a man’s haircut (I don’t want to presume and sexual preference here although in different circumstances I might have done so). At the very least, during the ten hour drive, there was not a word or idea exchanged between us. The bus was fitted with bad shock absorbers causing jiggling with every bump or hole in the road and there were many. These seats were excruciatingly cramped and designed for people who didn’t exceed four feet in height.
Thankfully she got off the bus at the first of three stops the driver made once we arrived in St. Petersburg.
It was 11pm, unless I lost an hour moving eastward, then it would be midnight.
At the last stop at the St. Petersburg station everyone was off the bus and scrambling as I did to retrieve luggage. There was a furry of activity outside the station, which allowed boarding onto the subway. This is a subway that is a work of art only exceeded in beauty by the one in Moscow.
I debated with myself how to find a place, how to get a taxi, and what I can do because I have no rubles, only dollars, which is not the way the locals want to be paid now that the ruble is more stable.
I contacted “The Guesthouse” as recommended in lonely planet and they were open, plus they would pay the taxi in rubles.
The taxis cued up would rip-off anyone who takes them. A naval officer (Russian) called on his cell phone to get an “honest” taxi over for us.
The taxi arrived and I didn’t know whether to tip the man which might insult him or not .I handed him three US dollars and he took it but looked at me strangely. I sat quietly in the cab after showing the driver the address.
Quietly I pondered (I haven’t used that word in a while) the sights I saw on the jittery bus ride to St. Pete. Most striking was the many war monuments about the Nazi push into Russia. They were everywhere. Beautiful churches, even in the most humble group of homes; many stone or brick homes appeared destroyed and unoccupied. Wooden homes everywhere dilapidated. From nowhere there would appear a huge monolithic apartment in stark soviet architectural style. I would guess that the un-reinforced stone or brick structures fell victim to an earthquake that would have been survived by an adequately engineered building, or even by one or two story wooden homes that could withstand some sway.
The hotel I spent the night at was called “guesthouse” with one small English sign on the exterior. While I wasn’t impressed with the Spartan accommodations, the willingness of the host to assist me more than made up for any negative feeling I might have had otherwise felt. Several opportunities arose that I needed extra help or guidance. Unfalteringly, whoever sat at the front desk went out of his way to provide it.
April 28, 2006- St. Petersburg
I woke early and hit the bricks on Nevsky Prospeckt. I wanted to really get the lay of the land as it were. I confirm that St. Pete is an hour earlier than Tallinn. Now it is an 11-hour difference. The region where it is 12 hours is the opposite side of this planet so I’m just a short distance away from that place.
Nevsky Prospeckt is the fanciest street in St. Petersburg. Its unique appeal will strike Marcy in a shorter time than it took me to discover its allure. Like a Russian Beverly Hills every fashionable name is present here with astronomical prices to match. There were a few limos and some very expensive cars but overall the money is spent on fashion wear more than vehicles. Public transportation seems to work for most people. The subway is one of the most efficient in the world. The surface public transportation is a light rail system that seems to always be packed full. The light rail system operates frequent cars so few people would have a problem catching one. They stop running around 11pm, even though there still are huge crowds on the street. The masses are walking till after midnight. I only stayed up till then and I was surprised that the only difference was that the crowd got younger, like into their 20’s.
Over half of all businesses were still open, especially the eateries. Almost all of them were filled, especially McDonalds and Pizza Hut. I was thankful that the amputee soldiers had retreated from the street but it left me with the feeling that these people were not honored for serving their country and were probably not getting an adequate pension. Marcy arises tomorrow, and I can hardly wait until she gets here. Nothing else I choose to do other than going up and back a two mile stretch of Newsy Prospeckt one more time with Marcy, we will ride the subway. The main Moscow station is right by where the hotel is, as my memory reminds me, and this is the most beautifully made subway station. Our hotel is also close to the Moscow train station. A block away from our hotel on Nevsky Prospect Palace Hotel Marcy made internet reservations at $183 per night, an exceptionally good bargain because this is prime real estate in the midst of the best area to be situated.
New Day- April 29
Marcy arrives today at 6pm locally expressed as 18:00 because they use a 24-hour clock. I’ve packed all my gear to move to the other hotel. The morning and afternoon I spent in the Hermitage. They have a special exhibit of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s sketches.
As it turned out, there were hundreds of these impressive line drawings, mainly bust/facial studies. A huge display of Egyrology and Roman times. The museum requires that everyone pay for a camera of 100 rubles and the price of admission for me is 750 rubles. I didn’t buy the camera ticket.
I had to leave my jacket as did everybody-man, woman, boy and girl. Any camera, without showing a ticket, was refused admission. Any bag, especially woman’s handbags, that exceeded a specific height and width was required to be checked too. I was given a plastic clip with a number showing where my jacket was stored.
The museum only had some exhibits open. They boast that they are 27 miles of halls, and only one-third is accessible at any one time. They required a special ticket if I wanted to see the gold room” so I didn’t pay for that either.
I had spent four hours wandering throughout these halls, now it was time to get started to meet Marcy. I walked back and negotiated with a taxi driver to pick me up and wait at the airport for Marcy. He said 100 rubles and I agreed but while waiting for me to get my bag to drop off at the hotel I discovered he was thinking 1000 rubles, not 100. The last zero was slyly added while I was getting my luggage.
I dismissed him saying this is a gross difference. Naturally he wasn’t happy at being discovered. “Guesthouse” called another taxi service who said not at 4pm, it was “rush hour” and they will drive me out there for 500 rubels. I went with it. The drive was about twenty miles, maybe a bit less.
Marcy’s flight arrived a few minutes early, but I was there to meet her. She was one of the last to get through from that flight. I had to renegotiate a new fare to return because the taxi didn’t wait. So I was now forced to pay 1000 rubels, but we got to the hotel.
Marcy and I walked to the Hermitage along Nevsky Prospekt. We needed to conserve use of her feet even though her main issue was that her knee was recently injured while trying to cross her legs while sitting cross legged at a diner in Woodland Hills.
The uneven sidewalk surface has improved greatly from what I remember of fifteen years ago. Nonetheless, caution was necessary to extend Marcy’s ability to walk in comfort to the maximum.
Once in the Hermitage we focused on the gold room tour because the carriages and ancient artifacts would be there. Mistakenly this tour would not include the spectacular gold carriages that I would later discover were out by puskin palace and we’d miss our opportunity to see them.
The Gold Room included many valuable and priceless articles from history. Lacking the carriages I wondered if it was worth the extra ten dollars for the tour, over the twenty-dollar admission. The museum was twenty-seven miles long if all exhibits were open .Of course that is never the case and after two hours of museum browsing we had enough. Outside we walked by the river and looked out to the fortress of Peter and Paul.
We were fortunate that the weather was pleasant. It was a bit cool, maybe 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was sunny enough to continue melting the Ice in the river, which I was told was frozen solid until last week. Chunks of ice glided slowly along the river heading out to the sea, only two kilometers north of the city center. St. Petersburg, or as it was known until 1991, Leningrad, covers a huge territory, about the same size of Los Angeles County, but almost all neighborhoods were serviced by public transportation. While often very old equipment was used, there was seldom a lengthy wait if you missed one streetcar, electrified bus or subway train. We rode the streetcar back to our hotel, about two miles. We stopped to have some coffee at a small cafe. Russian coffee is usually good, and it is always served hot and dense. The selection of pastries is large, with each item more tempting than the last.
New Day- Monday May 1 (Labor Day)
After a light breakfast we made our plan to take a city tour. About a mile away, the tour buses congregate and several different firms hawked their tours of the city or Puskin Palace. Puskin was 1500 rubles, the city was 570 rubles for two hours. Sadly, the city tour was only in Russian today, tomorrow there will be two in English. This advice was offered to Marcy from a squat fifty-year-old woman, who insisted we buy the English tour ticket now or else risk not being able to get a bus seat tomorrow. When we balked at such a risky enterprise of buying tickets now, she said the tours tomorrow may all be in Russian but we should bring one of the many city guides available at no cost from many places throughout the city. Some of the city guides usually offered female companionship by the day or by the hour. The ads were pretty clear, just the prices were omitted. Although tourists from Germany and Japan were most visible in the city, English was the most frequently spoken second language. Signs were printed in English quite often and we could navigate our way without asking too many questions. Using a hired guide at $20 US per hour was a good investment of time and money. Michail, the driver, spoke enough English to get ideas through to us ad he had lived his entire life here in St. Pete. He brought us to the “Great Synagogue” which implies that there are others in the city and if there were we didn’t see anything written of their existence. We entered the synagogue. A Bar Mitzvah was just concluding. The young man was wearing a white suit made for a taller boy. A blue satin sash over his shoulder would remove any doubt as to who is the star at this event. I made certain to have one photo of me with the proud youth.
We saw St. Isaac’s cathedral, which was famous for having its dome covered with almost 500lbs of gold. And it was infamous for the forty workers who died from inhalation of Mercuriac fumes during the application of the gold. The interior was spectacular too. The church attendees continue to cross themselves many times as they face forward toward the pulpit, but walk dangerously backwards until they are twenty or thirty feet from the church and out on the street giving one last cross to seal their covenant and prove their piousness.
Next, Mikail drove us to the church of the Spilt Blood. Built on the site where Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1908, it rivals St. Basils in Moscow in spectacular and colorful appearance. Tourists flocked to the interior of this church to see the wondrous tile work, but each paid the $12 to see it, including my group. Wherever possible, the Russians would see an opportunity to charge an admission fee and would do so.
We saw enough after fifteen minutes, then left to visit an adjacent restaurant offering a “prix fixe” lunch. This was a highly recommended restaurant but they performed with mediocrity. To the rear of the church was the “so-called” Black Market. Prices here were about what I expected to pay, like a tee shirt for $7 US dollars and a baseball hat for $8 US dollars. We bought a few things. After all we are tourists. We took the subway two stops before returning back at the hotel. We went to sleep early again after a long, quiet, romantic, and expensive dinner on the hotel rooftop.
May 5- St. Petersburg to Moscow
We enjoyed the buffet breakfast before driving to the airport. The flight costs $120 per person for the plane, versus $80 on the fast train. When you calculate the extra cost of a taxi ($40) and subtract the expense of $50 for extra luggage on the flight, we’d been way better off on the train since the station was only a very long block from our hotel, and it would have taken us close to our destination, rather than 20 miles outside through heavy traffic. George was there to meet us. The porter assisted with the bags at 120 rubles each. George’s fancy vehicle, a new BMW 328, was large enough for all the luggage. Our flight went smoothly, except that I had bought a lighter that looked like a small pistol. The guard required me to pull out all the dirty clothing to get down to where the lighter was.
After checking in at the Marriot Moscow Grand Hotel, we went with George to a Lebanese Restaurant that he enjoyed. We shared samples of twenty dishes, nobody left hungry.
At the hotel we took a room on the 7th floor for non-smokers. Many people smoke, and there are no restrictions about smoking at any restaurant even with cigars or pipes.
We met Judy, the wife of a Caterpillar company marketing rep who has a great apartment across the street from Red Square. She said the company pays $10,000 a month for the apartment, plus many other perks. The husband is training a Russian replacement. Through Menett we enjoyed her guidance through the craft market. There were some real crafts to see. We bought little.
This was a five-hour journey, which is best to do on a Saturday. Although it is open several days during the week, Saturday has the best showing. George came by the hotel where we had stopped to refresh ourselves. George took us to Puskin Restaurant. The restaurant is very fancy in décor, trying to replicate a look from the early 1900’s. An electric wrought iron elevator in a Victorian style would have brought Marcy up the three stories, except it wasn’t working properly.
All the weight I had lost in the first half of the trip had been regained again. That night I had lamb chops and Marcy had beef stroganoff. George ordered something else. The meal cost $340 US dollars. It was still early when George brought us back to the hotel. I fell asleep immediately, and Marcy followed shortly.
We met Menett and Annette to take a guided to take a guided tour around the Armory. Judy hired Lydia for us (we just had to pay $20 an hour), and she stuck with Annette and gave little thought to Marcy, Menett or even myself. Since we shared the cost, she should have spent more time to answer our questions too. The armory was the only place open today because this is wto days before May 9th, victory day, the Russian equivalent to July 4th and Memorial Day rolled up in one day.
In the armory we visited the diamond collection, millions of dollars worth of diamonds, small baskets filled with many cut diamonds. We were hard pressed to escape the grasp of Lydia, who continued to earn $20 per hour as long as she could keep us even slightly interested in her mundane and inexact description of history here. Only Annette could continue to feign interest after four hours. The rest of us had escaped and maintained distance, out of earshot, from whatever she was telling Annette about.
The city was preparing for May 9th, Victory Day. Throughout eastern Europe, and especially in Russia, stood many monuments that were built to commemorate the Russian sacrifices made to avoid capture by Nazi Germany, which had moved deep within Russia but never captured Moscow. Victory Day celebrates VE Day for Russia. The Red Square which holds St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin and Lenin’s embalmed body used to have Stalin’s corpse on display until Krushev had it moved to be buried in the grounds of Kremlin. The Duma, their congress or parliament, is right down the street but outside red square. All streets leading to the central Red Square were being blockaded then guarded by soldiers. The main street, Ty, the main boulevard, is the street of high fashion and the most expensive street to own real estate. The Marriot hotel we stayed at was on this street but the closest portion of the street to Red Square had already been closed. The appearance of old soldiers in their decorated uniform was becoming a very common sight. Their medals and awards often covered more than half of the front of their military suit jacket. Some fully covered on both sides. I remember how pleased these veterans were to be handed a rose by young people as if to thank them for defending this country. I expected to see the numerous amputees who begged wearing military garb. Maybe they moved to a special area or maybe there could be other answers as to why they did not appear on the streets as they did all the days prior to today. Could they be veterans of an unpopular war such as action in Afghanistan or Chechnya and this was a day designed only for successful soldiers? Nobody I asked could answer this.
Marcy and I walked with Menett and Annette across the street to the national hotel where we had a drink, and Menett enjoyed a cigar since all tobacco smoking was permitted usually without much restriction. Only certain places, like certain hotel rooms were off limits to non-smokers. All vodka drinks were substantially less expensive than anything else, including water without gas. Water was hard to find and expensive. Most bottled water was carbonated. A half liter of such water (often Evian) costs about $3.00 in a restaurant or hotel. Cigarettes are, as in all of Eastern Europe, incredibly cheap, although they are marketed under an American or Western European brand name. Most cigarettes cost less than fifty cents per pack. Moscovites can tell Marlboro lights (the most popular brand) made in Russia from the original counterpart made in USA. American cigarettes which cost in the US/ California around $40 per carton of ten packs, each holding twenty cigarettes, so a carton costs about $6.
The National Hotel right across the street from Red Square was a 5 star hotel and the little café in its interior was almost empty of any customers. When I looked at the prices in the menu expressed in Euros not Roubles I could see why. While it is illegal to ask for payment in anything other than Roubles in Russia, they escape that lay by saying payment must be in “units” which everyone knows means Euros.
After looking in a tour book, Marcy and Annette chose a restaurant not far away but Marcy’s foot was hurting and we were confused by the addressing system of numbering blocks. All of a sudden we looked for Annette and Menette, and they had discovered where the restaurant was and didn’t tell us. Marcy was more upset over this than me because I wanted to eat alone with Marcy.
She felt that we should have been alone to start with, only partly because her bad ankle makes it difficult to keep up with others. We were by a Marriot and asked for a taxi back to our hotel, The Marriott Grand Moscow, about four miles away. They said they have a driver who will take us but wants to charge $42. We found someone else, another driver to do it for $4. The new driver had no knowledge of the streets because he is new to the area and is a new driver for the company.
I called George on my cell phone. He was able to get the driver to comprehend our destination. Once back at the hotel we went downstairs for a light dinner before going to sleep.
New day- May 8, 2006- Moscow
George picked us up at the hotel. We got in George’s late model BMW 525. George drove through a light rain through a forested region outside Moscow. After an hour drive we arrived at a palace owned by a former Duke. Before reaching this park we noticed several black Mercedes speeding one direction or another. Accompanied usually by one or two white and blue police cars with flashing lights. George explained that this is how the new elite live. Having a police escort is the new status symbol of wealth in Russia. Also, they build large homes hidden behind 12’high dreary gates toped with barbed wire. Gated homes and escorted cars were a frequent sight through this area.
At this palace we walked through the grounds now turned into a National Park. Ice cram vendors and small kiosks serving cold sandwiches confirmed that this really is a park for all people to visit.
The palace was very beautiful; similar, but not quite as exquisite as Versailles upon which some architecture and design was based. The light rain continued as we drove into Moscow to Pushkin Café. This is one of the most expensive and authentic Moscow eating experiences to be had. Marcy had to walk up three flights of stairs to reach the top floor where we were seated. The menu looked expensive right away. Marcy ordered beef stroganoff. The portion served to her was quite small just barely covering her plate. George ordered a full meal ad I ordered the lamb ribs which were very delicious, even though it was not much food. This lunch was $230 US. That’s expensive to anyone.
Although weather reports say that it may rain tomorrow, Moscow has used science to prevent rain. They mayor of the city ordered that the clouds be seeded so there will be a clear day tomorrow. Driving through the center of the city we witnessed soldiers securing a wider perimeter around the Kremlin and Victory Park.
May 9th- Victory Day
I was up and out of the hotel early. Marcy and I enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at the hotel. I walked along the main boulevard into Moscow’s heart- well, I got as close as possible without possession of a ticket. I was told that it is necessary to have such a ticket if I wanted to witness the parade and pomp. I didn’t know that a ticket was necessary. Several Moscovites walked in another direction and seemed to know a secret way to get closer to the action that was to begin at 10 AM. So I followed these young men around corners and over gates. Most of the men gave up this frustrating search. I was one of the last. I explained to one of the guards that he should let me through because my hotel was on this street. He allowed me to squeeze past the fortified barricade. I knew I could make a run for it and get in further but the burden of making it more difficult for other Americans or other foreigners here made me change my mind, and I walked up the street, away from the parade grounds.
George got Olga early this morning when she returned from a business trip. They met us at 7pm, then drove us to Uzbek Restaurant. Belly dancing was not one of Marcy’s favorite things to see, but unlike her I did enjoy the dancing. We ordered many dishes. I tasted an eggplant dish that I’d later learn is quite common in Russia. I began to develop taste for the marinated grilled vegetables. Shashlik and rice pilaf were great too. Russian casual cuisine frequently includes bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise. Russian salad basically is chopped vegetables in a mayonnaise base. We sat there for a very long time until it was very late. They brought us back to the hotel. We would have stayed with them if their new apartment had been completed.
New day- May 10th- Moscow to Tbilisi, Georgia
Today we use our ticket bought for $330 per person to go to Tbilisi, Georgia. This is George’s home and he was anxious to show it to us. Right now there are political issues that separate Georgia from CIS. Russia has blocked its importation of Georgian wines and water; this is a main source of income for the Georgians. Georgians are looking to further distance itself from the CIS Russian Federation and the blockade is looked upon as bully tactics. Georgia has high unemployment and a consequential low GNP and an $800 per year capita. So a main source of income was the exportation of Bojomi water. Georgian wines have long been popular throughout Eastern Europe, Russia controls this trade. Further, Russia claims that a region entirely within the country of Georgia wants to retain ties with Russia and it is acting to protect them.
The flight lasted a little longer than two hours. We landed at the Tbilisi International Airport, a tiny airport with two gates both open from a small cement building out to the tarmac. We were driven from the plane into the terminal by bus built in the 60’s and in bad need of repair.
After completion of a customs form by George we were allowed to enter. They charged Olga who is a citizen of Russia $20 but not us as American passport holders. Georgian language is related more to Persian and from the characters it seemed to be a language in the Indus family. Olga didn’t speak this language.
We were met at the airport by a heavy young man who seemed jovial, and with a ready laugh. His nickname, and what we know him as, is Goga. He was ready to help anyway he could and had a large vehicle so he’d be able to handle all the luggage. Goga is a “blood brother” to Mikel who is engaged to Nino Chakali, George’s younger sister now living with Mikel in NYC. Goga has been on the east coast but never out to California. He speaks English well, however I notice that he shapes his mouth differently when he is about to speak in English. He drove us to our hotel and that was the last of Goga for that day. As we were to discover shortly, Goga had helped George arrange many of the details of the trip, including hotel and car rental for tomorrow.
As Goga drives through Tbilisi, I notice strong traffic patterns. There are few traffic lights and no stop signs. Everyone follows a less aggressive method of cutting through traffic or just making your own way. Although there have been many times on our way from the airport where we looked to be in eminent danger, we were neither struck, nor did we strike another ourselves. It seemed a minor miracle that we arrived intact. To complicate driving matters, the roads are packed with crater-sized potholes, most not deeper than eight inches but some do not seem to have a bottom. Usually some courteous driver who had the misfortune of discovering what damage such a hole can reek to the bottom carriage of a car will put some other obstacle like a wire rack or a couple of boards or bricks in front of the hole in the faint hope that others will avoid the same fate. Until someone misses the road hazard sign and does twice as much damage. Once someone sprung a piece of wire from one tree to another to help prevent entry on a road that was simply impassable. The thin wire could have done major damage if it was unseen by a speeding driver (as most are). So drivers must maneuver to avoid holes.
As we drive I can see lots of un-repaired damage, probably from an earthquake, and brick buildings are usually un-reinforced so they tend to get badly damaged in earthquakes. A three-story brick building seems to teeter right next to the hotel. Our hotel, the Primavera, opens to an alley. It is a nice hotel but you must find it in the alley. My impression of the town is a kinship to the towns outside Athens in Greece in appearance. To our surprise Goga picks us up at the hotel. George went to visit his two young children, Alec, about eight and Tamarra, about ten, and his ex wife.
Goga takes us out shopping and while we bought nothing the walk was a pleasure. Monuments and statues proliferate in this city that occupies two sides of a river. Goga took us to a Turkish bathhouse where part is built into a restaurant. Goga orders a number of dishes, including charchipuri, which is Armenian style flat bread baked with cheese inside, Sugona, semi-soft white cheese and Chapuli, a lamb stew. They have two unique sauces that Marcy may be able to duplicate. One is green, the other red. Both are delicious and not a familiar taste to our palate.
Rather than bring salad or soup then all of the other dishes ordered, they just bring a couple at a time. The Shashlik was the last, served after I am incredibly full already, like this is an eating contest! Eggplant or Aubergine is marinated like artichoke and is delicious. I learned a few words in Georgian. “Madloma” means thank you. “Key” means yes and “ara” means no. I began to notice while talking with George, that he is not able to hear anything negative about Georgia or our perception of it so far. He immediately strikes a defensive pose which Marcy saw long before I finally became cognizant of it now. We have dinner with his mother and father who, although divorced, are still friendly. Chow chuli is a long knockwurst- sized snack. Walnut meats are sewn together then dipped in grape juice and flour.
We head out of town in a nice van controlled by a newly hired driver who also happens to be new to the area. First stop is in Gori, where there is a large statue of Stalin. Gori, Georgia was his birthplace, and they are proud of him. According to George’s explanation, they are proud of him not because of the things he did, of which many were evil and caused terrible killings, but because he was the son of a shoemaker who rose to pull all of Russia together.
We continued on, driving through green country all in a beautiful natural state.
George picked a restaurant out of the many we passed, saying that every restaurant in Georgia is great! Could that really be true? Anyway, this one was very good, especially if you wanted plain water I pulled it up myself from a well. It was cold and delicious with a unique taste of freshness. We had trout caught locally, and shashlik with other typical Georgian foods served at earlier meals. The green sauce and red sauce tasted like the restaurant yesterday in downtown Tbilisi.
Our next stop was the Oblisia caves, which are remnants of a town occupied eleven centuries ago. Actually, the town still exists, but a century ago they were moved off the mountain to be by the river. The hills, where ancient homes and churches reside, were carved into the limestone cliffs. Their legend claims that this was in fact the very first all Christian city. Some of the drawings are still in tact, some have been renovated and some are scheduled to be treated. This is, according to our self-appointed guide, a world heritage site.
Marcy was unable to ascend the steep limestone rocks and hewn steps even though our guide said people get up there while on crutches. Once I had reached the high point I could see that it would have been impossible, as it was very difficult for me. From the highest point I could see a wide vista and looked down at Marcy. Marcy was surrounded by at least ten children. I could hardly believe my eyes! So we climbed around through these old limestone churches and places where the grape was first cultivated into wine. Going down the hill was easier of course. Reaching where Marcy stood I saw the children laughing and chatting with Marcy! I could hear her charming the children and everybody laughing, including the bearish father of one of the girls. Marcy introduced me to them, and each seemed like a nice young woman. They were students currently attending college for business or medicine. The father shook my hand and insisted that I share the chapuli, and then he insisted I drink a toast. I drank the entire cup down and then this scene was repeated once again. Georgian hospitality like this seems to be the norm, and an aberration. Everybody was welcoming and generous despite the sluggishness of the economy.
Our driver asked everyone we passed if we are heading in the right direction to a park which was created last year to honor the newly forged friendship between Kasavilli and Lushkenko of Ukraine in 2005.
A few more miles up the road we met some friends of George. They were staying at Bojormi Springs. This is where a natural hot spring bubbles up hot carbonated water tinged with sulfur. I found it distasteful and so did Marcy. George’s friends, a young couple and their daughter, spent a week there just to relax. They said the entire compound was just sold for 6 million US dollars. The water supposedly has curative powers, especially for the digestive tract. We also tried to visit a monastery but it was closed today.
Today we went with our driver, the rented van, George and Olga to visit the craft market. It was filled with painters and artists. Others were selling crafts, but they were the minority. I saw a painting I liked and some other small gifts or trinkets that interested me. I waited to buy the painting until Marcy came by and approved of it. Amazingly, she liked it too. From here we drove out to Antonitelli Monastery built in the tenth century. This was difficult to find so we asked twenty people and each of these people tried to help us.
It was located far back on a dirt road. With rain having started I was concerned that we would get stuck here. My concern deepened when I noticed we were very low on gas too. This was something Marcy couldn’t reach with her bad ankle. We were all getting hungry but George assured us that if we wait till 4pm there will be massive amounts of food waiting for us at the family dinner we’d be attending. There were several family members there when we arrived. George’s father and his father’s brothers were where the mother of George was cooking. So was George’s aunt. Then Goga shows up to cook the Shaslik. I loved the homemade wine, because it is less alcoholic and quite tasty.. George’s father loves Olga but he is a very wise and smart fellow since he is a physicist and an author. His uncle, Alex, looks a bit like Leslie Nielson, but he too is very smart. The women are spending most of the time in the very small kitchen. Those of the family who spoke English made us feel comfortable by speaking English around us so we could participate in conversations.
George said this is what often happens when enough of the family is in Tbilisi. Propane was used to cook in the kitchen and make the special bread by throwing batter on the heated walls of a cast iron pan. The backyard where we ate was warm, although dark clouds approached. The large yard was partially fenced but had many fruit filled trees, and a rectangular pool that held no water until closer to the heat of summer. I would toast to something but I drank to every toast whether English spoken or Georgian. Endless toasts and good company, what more could a man want? We left before most of the guests did and went to Goga’s summer house. He was married but enjoyed the single life anyway.
At his home he brought us in to have some more wine. We drank several glasses of wine, which he claimed was the best in Georgia. I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him otherwise. I drank to every toast. Every now and then I was toasted. We went out into the back to look at Goga’s swimming pool that held no water. In a corner of the yard, he had the tartar hat and coat of a Georgian warrior. We played around for a while in before Goga drove us to the hotel.
May 14, 2006
Our flight back to Moscow was one that George did not want to take. He had just been getting comfortable in Georgia.