after spending several days on the train we arrived in Ulan-Ude, a small town in siberia. we had gone there in search of the ellusive asian russian. ok, let me explain that. a few years back, when i had gone to russia before and spent 10 days there w/ my brother and father, my brother had been totally shocked to see asian people speaking russian. yeah, when you think about it, just as there are asian americans, there of course should be asian russians as well. especially given the fact that most of russia is actually *in* asia. but still, i guess it’s just that i’ve seen so few russian speaking people in my lifetime, that it’s a shock to be seeing anyone speak russian that doesnt look like the average russian. so anyways, everytime my brother and i would see an asian looking person speak russian, we’d get all excited.

the town of ulan-ude is located in the buryatia district of russia, which is the portion of siberia closest to the mongolian border. buddhism is one of the predominant religions here. the population here is about half people native to buryatia and half ethnic russians. and the town is a really nice and mellow place to explore in siberia. we had only one full day to spend there, but that short time there was really enjoyable. we didnt really do much. mostly just strolled about the town and checked it out. lots of the buildings in town were the really old quaint wooden log-cabin type buildings that caryn calls “gingerbread houses”. some of these were in poor condition, but others were really well kept up and had freshly painted shutters in all sorts of various gleaming colors that made a great contrast w/ the dark brown wood of the rest of the building. there were random stands set up around town selling siberian berries (similar to blue berries but oval in shape) and other stuff for sale. basically, the town was a great place to just take in the atmosphere and we really enjoyed it.

other than just strolling, we went to go check out the history museum which had an incredible display of traditional buddhist artwork etc from the region. we saw several cool onion-domed russian churches. we checked out the main square that has the biggest statue of a Lenin head that i had ever seen in my life! also, by some random freak chance, we happened to arrive in town on a holiday! it was the anniversary of the town being founded, as we found out from a very drunk but very friendly man who started talking to us. he was the first person so far who seemed genuinely excited that we were here and was eager for us to have a good time in his country. sure it may have been the alcohol talking, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt!

so, we had been searching for the elusive asian russians, and in ulan-ude, we definitely found them. as promised, about half of the town’s poulation was asian. and what i thought was super cool was that it seemed like the towns population was totally integrated. back home, in the “melting pot” of the bayarea, although we have tons of different people of different ethnicities, usually most groups you see will all be predominantly of one ethnicity. not the case here. it looked like almost half the couples i saw in town had one asian and one russian, and pretty much every group of people wandering around town was mixed.

after the all to brief day in ulan-ude, we got back on the train and continued on westward to the town of irkutsk. irkutsk is a town near Lake baikal, the deepest lake in the world. this lake is so huge that it actually contains one fifth of all the world’s fresh water! low on time, we didnt have tons of time to explore irkutsk. it’s known as the “paris of siberia” and is a pretty large town. once again, we saw lots of onion-domed churches, and a bunch of the gingerbread houses. it was so hot while we were there! at one point we were walking near this small pond andthere were all these people hanging out, eating icecream, renting paddleboats, and in general doing fun summertime activities, and i just thought to myself.. how weird!! who would expect this from *siberia*??!!

one of the days there, we took the hydrofoil out to listvyanka, a tiny village right on the lakeside. at the dock, there were a bunch of people smoking Omul, a type of fish from the lake. umm.. well, by “smoking” i dont mean they were using them as cigarettes, i mean they were making smoked fish. this is one of the things this region is famous for, se we bought some smoked Omul, bread, and beer and had a picninc by the lake. the smoked fish was great!! after the picninc, we wandered about by the lake and checked out the quaint houses in town. after walking for two hours though, it got too hot, so we decided to head back to irkustsk.

in town we had ended up sharing a room with two dutch people and so we went out to dinner w/ them. after spending a while not really talking to anyone, it was fun to just hang out w/ some people. we spent a bunch of time sharing our experiences i russia. they too had experienced a lot of difficulties interacting w/ people here. but, i think that after leaving vladivostok, we have had a much easier time of it. part of me thinks it’s because maybe i’ve just gotten used to the way russians interact. or maybe we have just been runing into friendlier russians. sure, people still havent been smiling or anyting, but at least no one has been super rude to us. heh, customer service still hasnt been any good though!! it’s funny though, because of all this, the few times when we actually do have an interaction where a russian smiles, or acts even the tiniest bit friendly, we get all excited about it!

oh, one thing that i completely forgot to mention about irkutsk, was this crazy weird fluffy stuff that was everywhere. i’m not sure what it was. probably some kind of parasite. but, you would see it all over covering different trees and bushes. there was so much of it, that it would blow off the trees and then fly around and it would almost look like it was snowing at times! there was fluff all over the streets, the gutter, everywhere. so weird!

after just a few days in irkutsk, we flew out of there. next stop… st petersburg!!


longest train ride ever!

over the last 9 months, i’ve had my fair share of train travel. i’ve traveled on everything ranging from ultramodern japanese bullet trains, to rickety dirty trains in india. well, the other day, i took the longest train ride ever. i had been really eager to take the train on the trans-siberian route from one end of russia to the other. this is the longest continuous train track in the world and it takes about a week to get all the way across. unfortunately, i dont have that much time to go the full length. it would have been awesome, but instead i decided to juist do the beginning portion from vladivostok on russia’s east coast, to ulan-ude, deep in siberia. the journey would be 2,190 miles by train and would last 66 hours. yes, thats almost 3 straight days on a train.

so, before we set out, i was a bit worried. how fun would this be? on one hand, taking the trans-siberian across russia seemed like such a crazy and exciting adventure. siberia just sounds like such a remote and forbidden place. but, on the other hand, i did worry that we might get bored. a few years back, jamie and i took a 2 day boat ride down the mekong in laos. seemed like an awesome idea before we did it… but in reality, you sit there in a boat full of other passengers, with hardly any room to move and nothing to do. after half a day, it was already boring, and just got more so as time went on. so, would this train ride be like that?

well, it totally wasnt. i had a really really good time. first off, it was really relaxing. caryn and i had a compartment all to ourselves. it was a really roomy compartment, big enough for 4, so there was tons of room to spread out. the train we were on was also really comfortable. i actually got the best night of sleep on a train that i’ve ever had. and also, for some reason, i was never bored. i got to do some reading (read a book start to finish). i spent a bunch of time listening to music on my mp3 player. and then, the scenery outside was just really awesome. lots of really cool forest with tons of tall white birch trees. cool wooden houses everywhere painted in a wide assortment of colors. sometimes there would be these huge stretches of grasslands that were interrupted with sinkholes filled with water. basically, i never tired of just starting at the window and watching russia whirl by. it really is quite a beatiful coumntry. there was definitely a part of me though that regretted that i did this during the summer. cruisng along and seeing everything covered in snow would have been really cool.

one interesting question that we were constantly trying to solve is what to eat. the train had a dining car so we had kind of assumed that we would eat there for most of the trip. unfortunately, on the first day, the restuarant ripped us off big time. we got our food, ate half of it and then looked at the bill. hrm, there were all sorts of things on the bill that we werent given. oddly enough, itemized on the bill (actually on both of our bills) was: corn, green peas, olives, and mushrooms. none of those things were on our plate. what to do? we couldnt just sit there and wait till the service lady came back and have our food be cold. so we ate. when she came around, we asked her about the items and she said we had receieved them. ummm. well, i dont know how dumb i might look, but i think i would have noticed all that random crap on my plate. but she insisted. so basically we paid for a bunch of crap that we didnt get, and after that refused to order anything from the restaurant again.

luckily for us, we could hop out during stops and go run and grab food from small booths at the train stations. or, even better, at some stations, there would be a bunch of babushkas out there selling food. we would buy various baked goods, pelmeni (dumplings), tomatoes, and other things. everything they sold was really cheap and good. it was a lot of fun hanging out on the trans-siberian and chowing down on russian foods. we also bought some sprats (these little salted fishes) and borsht (russian beet soup) too.

the only unfortunate thing about the experience was that we didnt really get to interact w/ anyone. the quintessential trans-siberain experience is to hang out on the train and drink vodka etc w/ newfound russian friends. well, our compartment never got any extra people. of course, after one night on the train, i started suffering from some really crazy allergies. honestly, i’ve never had allergies this bad. so in some ways, maybe it was better not to have to interact w/ anyone. heh, although, the little girl from the neighboring compartment did come over and yell at us from time to time and then tried to tackle us and grab our hair. she was a bit of a manic little kid!!

one thing that was pretty crazy was how difficult it was to ever tell what time it was. we’re pretty far north so the days are really long here. the sun starts setting around 10 or 10:30 and it’s still partially light out even after 11pm. and then, in the mornings, the sun is already up by 4am. so its pretty much daylight all the time. it’s really disorienting!


cold, cold russia


whenever i tell people i’m from russia, i always get the typical response of “wow, russia? must be really cold over there!”. no matter how many people i talk to, everyone envisions russia as a land of permanent snow, icicles, and blizzards. it’s hard to convince people otherwise. russia is not always cold. it’s a huge country. sure, the most nortrhern parts in the arctic circle are probably damn cold, but most of the rest of the country has seasons just like the rest of the world, and snowy winters give way to warm springtimes and then to hot summers. so, when we got off the plane in vladivostok, it was actually really really warm. there was no sign of anything being cold… well, that is except for the people.

actually, this all started even before i set foot off the plane. the airplane we flew on from japan to russia was hella junky: looked like it was falling apart, no safety demonstration, no clear signs as to seat numbers, and instead of things being written in russian, they were just pasted on using stickers over whatever language was there before. but the thing that struck me most during the flight was how cold and unfriendly the flight attendants were. i mean, hell, these are flight attendants! most flight attendants you see just smile nonstop and are constantly asking you how you are and if you need anything. not theses ones. smiles were apparently not allowed at all. they responded to any enquiries in a terse and unfriendly manner. this was only a sign of what was to come.

so, my first couple of days in russia, spent in vladivostok, were spent in constant fear of interacting with any russians. why? i mean, i know the language! what a great bonus! this is something i had been looking forward to for ages… to finally be in a country where i understood what was being spoken and could talk back! the way i imagined it was that i would be having all sorts of pleasant conversations w/ waiters, store clerks, random strangers… basically w/ any people i could interact with. well, that wasnt the case. apparently, everyone here has had some kind of training in a partcular kind of icey death stare. whenever i would ask anyone a question, try to buy something from a store, basically communicate with anyone, they would usually give me this look that basically said “listen, honestly i really wish that you could just go ahead and fucking die. i’d kill you myself, but you’re such an insignificant piece of scum that i cant be bothered, so maybe you can just get the hell out of my face.” you might think that i’m exaggerating, but really i’m not. after dealing w/ this kind of attitude for a while, it pretty much got to the point where i was afraid of walking into any restaurants or asking anyone anything. i’d rather do anything than have to face another russian. we had been hoping to get a visa extension to stay in the country longer, but in the end were unable to get one. funnily though, instead of being dissapointed, i was actually kind of glad that we wouldnt be able to stay longer. i fact, there were times that i would honestly contemplate just taking the next train out of here.

*some examples of interactions i had*

(note, often it’s not as much what was said, but the utter look of disgust and sound of contempt in their voice)

calling the Visa Issue Registration office:
(me) is it possible to get a visa extension?
(them) for that you need pogranichnoye six.
(me) pogronichnoye six? whats that?
(them) porgronichnoye six. IT’S A PLACE!!
(me) a place? oh! thats the address! thanks. what do i need to bring to get an extension?
(them)how should i know? go down there and find out yourself.

confused on the procedures for the train station, i ask a guy who looks like he’s waiting in line:
(me) um, do you know the difference between all these lines.
(him) i dont know.
a few minutes go by. the line moves, but he doesnt budge.
(me) um, so… are you waiting in this line?
(him) i told you!!! *I* *DONT* *KNOW*. i’m NOT taking the train!!!
and he storms off.

long line of people waiting in line at a train station. one customer finishes, and then the attendant behind the window starts counting some slips of paper without saying a word to those in line. this goes on for 10 minutes straight! finally someone asks “um, so it this going to be much longer?” the response is “yes. about one hour”. one hour!! they were going to not help customers for a whole hour with this long ass line waiting and werent even going to bother saying anything!!

we’re standing on the sidewalk confused as to where to find a certain address. in most other countries that we have been, this would be the cue for an unknown stranger to walk up to us, ask us if we are lost, and then either point us in the right direction or sometimes even walk with us halfway across town to get us to where we want to go. russian woman walks by and loudly mutters “yeah, is it really necesarry to just stand there in the middle of the sidewalk like that?”. um, thanks.

at the russian embassy, caryn asks the guy what to do about a certain line on the application not being long enough. he looks at her and says “what? is such a puzzle? just write it down”. when he finally realizes that he was the one that was confused, he, instead of appologizing, proceeds to blame the form on the american government and goes on to bad mouth america for a while.

sign in front of restaurant reads “8am to midnight”. it’s about 9pm. we walk in. looks empty. we kind of peer around, and then someone from across the room yells “WE’RE CLOSED!!!!” no explanation of why or any appology. as we walk out, i hear them talking amongst themselves saying “sheeez”. as if it was our fault for intruding.

sitting at a restaurant. we order. the waitress starts bringing our order to the wrong table accidentally. i *think* it was my order but am not sure, so i say nothing. the guy says its not his, and she then brings it to me while saying “oh, this is yours. why the hell are you sitting there silent?” like it’s my fault?!

walking into an empty restaurant. only two tables have people at them. we ask if we can be seated. “the restuarant is full”. nice.

at a fast food place. we walk up to the counter and start looking at the menu.
(her, after 2 seconds)what can i get you
(me)oh, i’m still looking at the menu
(her) well what do you want. we have this stuff. (points to display)
(me) um, still looking.
(her) well, whats the problem! this is what we have!

so basically, time and time and time again crap keeps on happening to us. it’s soooooo difficult to keep upbeat. especially casue we just got back from japan. in japan , everyone is so nice. people are especially frienly, and *everyone* in the customer service industry is ridiculously helpful and smiley.

i guess its just a cultural difference. i’ve always known about this difference. russians tend to be much more reserved w/ their feelings. and apparntly more honest. people dont act fake and nice to strangers who they dont really give a crap about. in russia, i guess, if someone smiles at you, it’s gonna be a real genuine smile. it’s not that they’re cold and unfriendly, they just dont put forth any effort towards people they dont know and frankly dont care about. i’ve heard these things about russians a thousand times. and…. i dunno, in some weird way, i kind of understood it.

i do think that in america, people often tend to overdo it. people at the supermarket who are required to call you by your name and then grin and ask you about your day when honestly they couldnt give a crap about how your day went. in some ways, thats kind of annoying, and i do wish people were a bit more real. i’m not really down w/ the fake song and dance that so many people do. and sometimes, in japan, i did think that people might need to tone down a notch and not kiss your ass so much.

also, part of it, i think, is that this is what is expected from them. if you work somewhere in america, you get commission on how much sales you do. or if youre not super friendly to customers, you could probably get fired. here, your boss doesnt care as much if you suck up to customers, so why bother right?

so, coming to russia, i was expecting a semi-cold and distant attitude. but still, i think i really wasnt prepared for what i encountered at all! i expected cold.. not downright rude. i didnt expect these looks of contempt. i didnt expect to have peope be unhelpful to the point of actually hindering anyting you want to do. i’ve traveled to over 20 countries now. *nowhere* have i experienced this kind of attitude. constantly, country after country i keep marveling about how crazy nice people are and how i am time and time again surprised by their kindness. this is the first time i’ve not felt that way.

but this is my country. the country where i was born. the country my family grew up in. the coutnry who’s culture, no matter how lightly, still grips me and everything i do. it seems so backwards and ridiculous that i could have such a terrible time in the place i was born and feel such anger towards the peope who very easily could have been my countrymen. i try to make excuses for them. i try to think its just cultural and that they dont mean anything by it. i try to say that maybe it is a good thing not to go through “fake” emotions just to please a customer… but the thing is… i dont think it has to be fake. if i work somewhere and i interact w/ people, sure, i might not totally suck up to them, but in general, i do smile.. and its not fake. i want my customers, or hell, ahyone i talk to, i want them to have a good day. i want to interact w/ them and help them. i like people. i want to open up to them and have them open up to me.

i dunno. maybe living in america for 25 years has made me unable to understand the russian mentality or to be able to deal w/ it. i dont know what it is… but whatever it is, i spent my first two days here competely on edge. comepletely terrified of talking to *anyone*. my eagerness to practice russian has disaspeared instantly. i’d rather not eat at the restaurants than have to ask waiters questions. i just want to AVOID. everyone.

so, i dont know. it’ll be interesting to see how things go. mabe it’s just this city. maybe people in other cities will be nicer. i sure hope so. i’ve traveled w/ other people who told me that they have gone across russia and pretty much didnt see a single person smile ever. i asked them what they thought of russia and they said that it was “ok, i guess”. and thats what i’ve heard from others who have been here too. *sigh* so.. we’ll see..