Thursday, May 19, 2016

Khabarovsk and the Stinkfoot Witchhunt

I got to Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian after traveling from Birobidzhan. The train that I took was the first platskarny  (third-class) train I had taken, and my car was packed to the brim with Russian soldiers. It was not bad at all. They were very courteous and treated me well, even though a few of them whispered, "Amerikansky," and burst out laughing, when I first got on the train. But one guy even helped me with my bags on the train; I tried to beg off, but he was insistent. Third-class differs from second-class in that the compartments have no doors and there are more seats on the other side of the aisle, so they can pack more people into the compartment. It was a pleasant ride and many of the soldiers bided their time by playing cards.

Once the train crossed the Amur River, we were out of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and into Khabarovsk Krai. Khabarovsk Krai is one of the last remaining habitats for the Siberian Tiger, which makes its home near the Amur River.

When I arrived in Khabarovsk, as soon as I got off the train, it started pouring rain big time. I had looked at the weather before I left Birobidzhan, and it looked like the rain that had been there for the last two days was clearing, and the forecast said no rain. But now the forecast had changed in the meantime. Since I saw that there was apparently going to be no rain, I had packed my umbrella and the rain flap for my backpack away deep in my pack. Big mistake.

I had planned to walk to the hostel.  It was almost 3 kilometers away, which would have been a manageable walk in full gear. But now that it was raining, there was no way; all my stuff would have gotten soaked. So I hailed a cab and scurried to get my stuff in it quickly in the pouring rain. I had the address, and it was easy to find where the hostel was; the only thing was neither the cab driver nor I could find a hostel there. I had to look up the hostel's phone number from the confirmatory email, and then let the cab driver talk to them. Soon a woman peeped her head out of an unmarked door, and I followed her up the steps to the hostel, which was on the second floor.

I was there in the hostel, sitting in the common room, when about a half hour later, another guy checked in. At the front of the hostel, there is a place to leave your shoes. Once the guy checked in and took off his shoes, there was an ungodly stench that permeated the entire common room. I mean, this was some of the worst stinkfoot that I had ever smelled in my life. I was on the verge of retching, and could not even stay in the room any more; I had to go back to my bedroom. After a while, I just went out to explore the city; it had stopped raining and the weather was nice. This made me realize that there are things you can do about sights and sounds you want to block out (earplugs and eye masks have worked pretty well for me), but not much you can do about a putrid smell, except to maybe open the windows or spray some air freshener.

After going around the city for a while, I came back into the hostel, and some guy looked at me accusingly, and said in broken English, "Do you smell something?" in a rehearsed fashion. Oh, shit, I thought.  They think it is me. Probably because I am the most unruly-looking guy there. I couldn't speak well enough  Russian to explain that it was another guy. I just murmured, "Not me," and went straight into my room.

But then I got paranoid and thought that maybe it could be me. I took off my socks and stuffed them in my face and inhaled deeply. Nothing. I couldn't smell any scent, bad or otherwise, at all. And with the putrid smell I had smelled before being so unmistakable, I'm sure I would have smelled something. I smelled my armpits.  OK, a little odor, but not overwhelming, and not any more than you'd expect from your average traveler. Next I had to smell my shoes, but I didn't want to do it in front of everyone. So I went out again, took off my shoes outside, and smelled them....once again, no bad smell.

Anyway, I got back again later, and nobody was saying anything about it to me. Whew. It was just a stinkfoot witchhunt, and I was pretty sure I was now in the clear.

Khabarovsk is definitely the coolest place I have been in Russia. It's a vibrant, big city, and there is lots of open space and a multitude of walking paths. It feels like it wouldn't be out of place in Oregon or Washington. I asked the woman working at the hostel what rents are like here, and it looks like they are in the $250-$350 a month range for the most part.

After walking around for a couple of days, I looked in the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian guidebook on my Kindle to see if there was anything they could recommend in the city. It turned out that I had already found the main three things they mentioned that I would be interested in; the main boulevard, the walk through the long greenspace park, and the walk along the Amur River. I guess I'm just a magnet for the good shit.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Birobidzhan and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast

I almost feel like I'm getting ready to tell you about "James and the Giant Peach," or "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters" here. But, no, this is about Birobidzhan and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. Whether or not you can pronounce it. Try it now: Биробиджан, Еврейская автономная област. See, wasn't that easy?

Once upon a time, there were a shitload of Zionists (there still are, but this is relating to their initial quest). This shitload of Zionists wanted to establish a homeland in Palestine in the 20s and 30s, because their whole deal said they were originally there many, many moons ago, and because the shit was really getting ready to hit the fan where a grand bulk of the shitload of Zionists lived. And besides, God.

One day the Mighty Emperor Stalin decided that maybe he could somehow corral the shitload of Zionists. So he offered them, before they even started taking over a chunk of Palestine, a righteous slice of virgin land in the Glorious Kingdom of the Soviet Union, which he was the boss of. He told them they didn't have to take nothin' over; they could just move there and live long and prosper. And he told them that they could speak Yiddish, not Hebrew, which many of them spoke already. And he told them that they didn't even need to be from his Glorious Kingdom that he was the boss of. They could be from anywhere. And they could even be from under the sea if they wanted (OK, he never really said that, but it probably would have been cool).

"Hmmmm", said the shitload of Zionists, in seven-part harmony with phasal diatonics, all stopping on cue (no, not really...there were no harmonies, they didn't all stop to ponder at the same time, and there is no such damned thing as phasal diatonics. Now, PHRASAL diatonics, that's a different story). "Sounds interesting...but can ya sweeten the deal?"

"Sure," said Emperor Stalin of the Glorious Kingdom (even though he would be pissed as shit at referring to the Proletarian Workers' Paradise of the Soviet Union as a fucking 'kingdom'.) I'll throw in private land ownership, and a free pony (no, there was no free pony. People had to wait for Emperor Vermin Supreme to come along for that to happen. But the private land ownership thing was for real).

"Hmmmm," said the shitload of Zionists again, this time in thirteen-part harmony with modified tonal structures relating to ambiguous polyphonous metafiltered structures of fractally limited submetabolic fields of perception (No, not in the least, but whatever). "Tell ya what, Mighty Emperor dude. What if some of us give it a shot and see how it goes?"

"Ok, here is my final offer. I'll throw in no anti-Semitism. There, at least. And, to sweeten the deal, I'll make it an AUTONOMOUS oblast, which doesn't even exist up to this point."

Well, this sounded like a pretty good deal to many of the shitload of Zionists. But not to most of them. A lot thought that this Mighty Emperor dude had a pretty, pretty, pretty spotty record on being cool throughout his Glorious Kingdom. And, God. He wasn't even diddly-squat on God. So most of them went with Plan A, which was the Palestine thing. We all know how that turned out.

But a significant number of people decided to spark up the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. So, in the 1930s, many started moving there. And some Swiss architect dude created The Matrix that they all lived in. But, the deal was, this was a mosquito-infested swamp with bitterly cold winters, even if The Matrix looked super-bitchin'.

So, word got back that this was one harshy buzz. But not until 1948, when tons of people had moved there, which was the height of the Jewish settlement into this God-forsaken frozen hell-swamp (OK, it's not really that bad. Really. I'm there now.). And, coincidentally, that was the same year that most of the shitload of Zionists made an Israel thing out of Palestine. And it was, like, warm there.

So most of the shitload of Zionists slowed down on moving to Биробиджан, and decided to move to the new Israel thing instead. And Биробиджан never again reached what it had been at its peak of Jewish population. But, true to his word, the Mighty Emperor Stalin didn't fuck with them at all there, though he fucked with them just about everywhere else that he could.

Like all Mighty Emperors do, one day the Mighty Emperor Stalin took a shit and died. His deal with Биробиджан, Еврейская автономная област, lived on, but in the 1950s, people pretty much stopped settling there. It picked up a little for a while, but it's been hemorrhaging people, and now only five percent of the people living in Биробиджан are Jewish, though the culture is protected and encouraged. 

So everybody living there is living happily ever after (whatever the fuck that means), though one day they will all take a shit and die. Probably not at the same time. The end.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Two Days On The Train

This is the longest leg of the Trans-Siberian train that I have taken yet.  It is the section from Chita to Birobidzhan, and I am spending two nights on the train. Siberia is big, and this is just a wee slice of it.

This is also the first time I have reserved an upper berth. It is really not too bad. There is a ladder that folds out of the wall to get up there, though originally I wasn't aware of that. There are also all kinds of amazing little secret nooks and crannies to keep your stuff in the upper berth, I guess to make up for the lack of space that you have otherwise. But after taking the Trans-Mongolian train and several legs of the Trans-Siberian, now I'm a train veteran. I know where the outlets are, so I can charge my device. There are only two in the car, in the hallway, and they are in high demand. Or, that is, until I discovered the secret third one by the bathroom that nobody had been competing for.  But now that everybody knows about that one from seeing me there, I bet it will be hard to use that one, too. Quite a contrast from the Trans-Mongolian, which had outlets in every compartment in the car. The provodnitsas and provodnitsas have extra outlets in their compartments, and I hear if you ask them nicely, they will let you charge your device.

I shared a compartment with Tatiana and Ariana, two lawyers from Ulan-Ude with Buryat features, and a Russian guy who wasn't very talkative, but was helpful when he could be. He got off fairly early from the train, so for the rest of the journey, there were only the the of us in the compartment. At least I didn't get put into a compartment with a bunch of vodka-crazed soccer hooligans or nationalists. Tatiana spoke a little bit of English, but her English was heavily broken (but still much better than my Russian). Between her English, my terrible Russian, a little pantomime, and Google Translate getting whipped out occasionally, we managed to communicate pretty well. Both of the lawyers were on the way to Khabarovsk to undertake some further lethal training. Unlike in the US, where lawyers have to take continuing legal education every year, they told me Russian lawyers have to undertake further study every five years. So they were on their way to do that. Tatiana told me her mother was a judge, and was retired, but there was no way she had the resources to travel around the world on the pension she had.

Tatiana asked me if I had been to any of the Buddhist temples in Ulan-Ude. I told her I hadn't.  She said I should go, because it would change my life. She said there were monks there who were herbal healers, and they were better than doctors. She told me about one monk who preserved his body so well that they say he is not dead, but in a state of perpetual meditation. She asked me if people did herbal medicine in the US, I told her that people sometimes did, but mostly on their own. She said she thought that was dangerous. I told her people sometimes consulted herbalists, but didn't often go to folk healers, but some Native Americans did.

The upper berth was really not bad at all. I would definitely prefer the lower berth, but now that I had an upper, it was OK. The only thing was that it got really hot up there. Russian trains are kept furiously hot anyway, and with heat rising to the top, it got insanely toasty up there. Luckily the window in our compartment had not been locked by the provodnik, so I was able to open the window at the top to let the gathered heat out when I needed to.

The train ride was really mesmerizing, even though it was two days long. The scenery was gorgeous, filled with Siberian taiga and steppe, with the occasional horse-riding shepherd or picturesque village filed with log houses and corrals. The restaurant car was a cool place to hang out for a change every once in a while. They didn't seem to mind if people bought anything, but it wasn't the gathering place that it had been previously when I had taken international trains. The domestic trains in Russia are mostly filled with Russians, unlike the trains that cross borders.

The train stopped often for little towns, and they would only let people off the train if they stopped for fifteen minutes or more. Some of the tiny towns only had stops of a minute to five minutes, just long enough for people to get on or off who were scheduled to do so, but there were a good amount of long stops where I was able to get off the train and run around (usually literally) the towns taking pictures, paying careful attention to the time, because the train will definitely take off without you if you aren't back by the time it is scheduled to leave. There was one time I had a little bit of a scare, because I got off the train in one town, crossed several tracks to get to the station, ran around snapping luxuries, but on my way back, another train (a freight train) arrived on one of the tracks between me and the train I needed to board. It was a REALLY long train, too. I saw Tatiana run across the tracks and beat it back to the train, but I was too far away to even consider that.  So I had to wait a long time for it to pass, and I barely hauled ass back to the train before they closed the doors. Whew.

About two hours before I was supposed to get off the train, I had gone to the space at the end of the compartment, because there are windows on both sides and it is a good place to take pics. There were two guys sitting there smoking. They started taking to me in rapid-fire Russian, and all I could do was shake my head, and say, "Ni ponimayu," which means, "I don't understand." Suddenly they realized that I was a rare foreigner on the train, and they asked to take their picture with me (that happens a LOT). I complied, and let them take a bunch of selfies with me. They introduced themselves to me as Sergei and Andrei, and insisted that I accompany them to their compartment for some vodka. My spidey-sense was tingling a little, but what the hell, sure.

We went to the front of the car, and they led me into a compartment that I didn't even know was there before. It was between the provodnik's sleeping compartment and his working compartment. It only had one upper and lower bunk, rather than two of each. Sergei and Andrei were very insistent about the vodka thing. They mixed two bottles of liquid together, one clear, and one tannish, and started pouring drinks. I only drank a couple and then begged off.  But then they wanted to talk about political stuff. They asked me what American people thought about Russian people.  Honestly, I didn't know how to answer that, because I have no idea what most people think, so I told them I didn't really know. They started asking me questions about Barack Obama, to which I just answered vaguely and in a non-committal fashion. Then Sergei and Andrei told me they were both police officers.  I tried to just keep the same expression on my face that I had had before,  and started thinking, "OK, time to start figuring out the exit strategy. "

Then Sergei asked me to trade phone numbers. I was a little hesitant to do that, but did anyway. I gave him my number, one/then the area code/then the number, and he put it into his phone and tried to call me.  It didn't work. I said I really didn't know how international codes worked, and what one needed to dial to get through. He insisted that I enter his number into my phone, and then try to call HIM. So I did. This time it worked. So now he had my number.  He kept saying, "Telefon?" I said, "Da." He asked when, I said,  "Cztery dnia (four days)." Andrei told me he was a boxer, and showed me a bunch of pictures of him in martial arts uniforms and in the ring.  Then he jokingly asked me if I wanted to box and started making sparring gestures.  I smiled and said no, but he kept asking and punching the air. I tried to beg off and leave at this point, because I needed to pack my stuff to get off the train in about a half an hour, but they were very insistent I stick around a little longer. So I did, and they played me a bunch of Russian pop music, asking for my opinion. I made thumbs-up gestures. But now I had to get my stuff together to get off the train....they were getting off a few hours later, as were most on the train. I finally managed to escape back to my compartment, and furiously got my stuff ready to debark. Tatiana told me I must be very careful, because I could be arrested, and I told her, "I know." I got my stuff together, went to the front of the train to get ready to debark, and Sergei and Andrei showed up there again to chat. The provodnik didn't seem to want to have anything to do with them.  I just answered their questions politely, and then when the train stopped, I bid them, "Da Svedaniya" (goodbye), and took off into town of Birobidzhan.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sexist Fucking Anti-Disneyland in the Train Restaurant Car?

Hopefully, this post will completely horrify you. If so, then I've done my job. Not that I get, like, paid to toss out any of the malarkey I spew, but it's my job anyway, and I try to do it faithfully.

I wander back to the restaurant car on the train. I have enough food to eat, but what the hell, it's the experience that counts. I order some potatoes mixed with onions and mushrooms and other stuff. They are delicious.

There is this older, gray-haired, businessy-looking guy sitting across from me at a booth who is really creeping me out. He is one of these hyper-aggressive Russians, very demonstrative in his gestures, and extremely  loud. He keeps calling the waitress over and getting really physical with her. First he is rubbing on her arm while she is talking to him. Then he is stroking her butt next time she comes over. Then he calls her over again, and he is stroking his hands up the back of her leg and reaching up her dress to touch her butt.  I am doing a double-take, and thinking, what the flying fuck, do I step in and say anything. She is acting stoic about it. She's not, like, smacking him for getting out of line, or trying to move out of the way, or seeming to talk to her colleagues about what an asshole he is. Just acting professional, and trying to take his order. Every time she walks by, he gets all touchy, and she seems to be taking it in stride. None of my business, I tell myself. I don't know anything about the cultural cues here. I mean, I don't know if we have some kind of sixties "Mad Men" situation here where men are just condescendingly treating the women around them as their playthings, and that is embedded in the culture (to the detriment of those negatively affected by it), or if she has some kind of rapport with this guy.  None of my fucking business. None of my fucking business. Stay the fuck out of this interaction in Russia. But I am seriously ready to push his nose up into his brain with the heel of my hand if necessary. And I am really tempted to type a message into Google Translate for her to see if there is a hostage-y deal, and if intervention is warranted. But I don't.

She comes back and sits across from him at the booth. They seem to have some conversation that gets slightly agitated after a while. Both of them seem to be scolding each other. Then it calms down, and he shows her something on his phone. She watches for a while, and then shows him something on her phone.  They finish their conversation, he pays and leaves. I am just sitting there thinking, "what the fuck just happened here?" But, it's none of my fucking business.  And, jeebus, I didn't even want to look behind me to see how any of the other guys in the restaurant car were interacting with the waitress.

Somehow, it makes me flash back to the hostel I stayed at in Melbourne, Australia, in the St. Kilda district. I think I talked a little bit about this in a prevous blog post, but here is more about it, now that I have had some processing time. There were two English guys there that I nicknamed "Predator" and "Sidekick." Predator was the lead asshole, and Sidekick was his Boy Wonder figure. Predator was just treating all the women in the hostel like he owned them. His thing was doing handstand push-ups up against the wall while he grunt-counted loudly. Sidekick boasted how he hadn't eaten a vegetable in ten years (kudos, dude, on your unhealthy lifestyle...your arterial hardening will be a capstone of your misplaced attempts at masculinity). Their latent homosexual bonding consisted of saying the most insulting things about women that they could muster, and expecting the other guys in the room to nod/leer in bro-hood. I mostly tried not to interact with them at all.

Well, of course, this dynamic duo of cringeworthy behavior got predictably sauced later that night.  They stormed back into the room, and spent the night smacking the women awake in the wee hours, climbing into their beds and trying to make out with them, (mostly Predator while Sidekick cheered him on), and pissing them off vigorously, though one woman seemed to be accepting of this behavior, giggling and giving make-out-y cues. I was barely awake as this was going on, or I would have definitely said something about the women who were complaining. One woman recounted the tale to me the next morning about how she told them to back off, and both of them laughed it off and called her a cunt, whereupon she sang it to them with some severe vitriol. I was drifting in and out of sleep while this whole disaster happened. Mostly I remembered this whole night of carnage through the recounting of it to me the next morning by Taylor, the Canadian woman who called them out, as I was not really in a state of full consciousness. And she was really pissed because she had been especially helpful to them in giving them some job leads for their working holiday in Australia, and they repaid her with this reprehensible bullshit.  I think that even if anyone in the room was digging what was going on, it affected others seriously negatively.  To his credit, Sidekick did apologize to Taylor the next day.

Anyway, my whole point on this is I often have no clue as to whether to step in and say that seemingly rapey stuff is not fucking OK, or whether I would be interfering with somebody's consensual kinda dommy-subby thing. Sometimes it's damn clear, and sometimes it's not. And, hey, I am interested in exploring the possibility of having a rubby-nubby thing with someone who wants to touch me in secret places just as much as the next hominid. But I am totally not into doing things to other people that they don't want done to them, or giving my approval to anyone else doing that. 

I get the feeling that even talking about it opens me up to a rash of shit from hell from all sides in a rage-filled, badly askew world, but here it is anyway; let your neurons be rubbed raw with whatever. Cheers.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Chita in the Rear View Mirror

I just used up the last of some peanuts I had bought in China in a stir-fry I just made. The brand name of the peanuts, printed in English on the package among all the Chinese writing, was "Special Legal Product." I bought was I thought was brown rice here at a grocery store in Chita, but it turned out to be buckwheat groats. No big deal, still made for a great stir-fry. All the produce here in Russia that I have found in the grocery stores (and in China and Mongolia as well) is shrink-wrapped in plastic. Even some ginger root I bought was wrapped.  But in the open markets that is often not the case. The open markets also usually have better variety in produce. Most of the grocery stores don't seem to have many fresh vegetables. I managed to round up some fresh slightly hot peppers, carrots, and celery, mix it all with a bunch of finely diced ginger, some frozen broccoli, a bit of salt and a pinch of sugar, all served over the buckwheat groats. Not as well-spiced as I would prefer, but it did the trick.

That was the first time that I had cooked a meal in Russia. I've been mostly going out for food, or just eating raw fruits and snacks.  Now I am going to have to stock up on train food, as I'm leaving Chita, and getting back on the train for my longest leg of the Trans-Siberian so far. I'll be on the train for a couple of days. And this time, I will be in kupé, or second-class, but, unlike my other train trips, I have an upper berth for the first time. Oh well, shouldn't be too bad.

Train food consists, first of all, of anything I can make with the boiling water from the samovars on the train. A lot of people bring ramen noodles, I've done that too. Also I like to bring dried fruit and nuts, maybe some cookies or biscuits. Also I need to make sure that I have plenty of water, though if I run out, I can at least cool down some of the boiling water from the train. Most of the tap water is not safe to drink, but the good news is that it is mostly organisms in the water, rather than heavy metals or other contaminants (at least not in huge amounts, those things are probably everywhere to some degree), so boiling the water for a bit will sterilize it. I also have some water purification tabs that I have occasionally used. I'll also bring the leftovers of today's stir-fry; I've probably still got a couple meals left of that. And I have some instant coffee and some liquid stevia that I brought from Austin (of course, there is always the "Breaking Bad stevia scenario", but at least it is my private stash). Maybe I'll have enough food so I don't have to go to the restaurant car, or buy anything from the vendors at the stops.  But I probably will hit the restaurant car anyway, just for the experience.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cheap Living, Austin Karma, and a Russian Bear Hugger from Hell in Chita

I've planted myself in Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia, for a few days. It's not a huge tourist destination (at least not for foreigners, though some traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad do stay here), but I'm enjoying my stay in this exotic Northern outpost. Chita is pretty big; it has over 300,000 people. There is plenty to see wandering around the city and I've been doing my best to see as much of it as I can. I had never even heard of this place a few months ago, and now, here I am.

There are a lot of really cheap hostels in Chita.  Many of them are half the price, or less, of the place I am staying. But none of them advertise on any of the big hostel booking sites. I suspect that this is because they can't afford the commissions that these Internet sites charge for advertisement and booking. So if you have the stones to just show up in some Russian town without a place booked at all, despite the language barrier, you could probably get a super-cheap deal. If I hadn't already booked my trains, I would definitely extend my stay and move to one of the cheaper places for a while. They all look OK, at least from the outside...they look clean and hospitable.  You would probably have to choose a city that is relatively large, rather than a one-horse town. And it would be a gamble. But I can tell you for certain, that if you come to Chita, the places are there. I can't tell you whether they would all be booked during high tourist season, which starts around late June, and runs through August.

The first night I was in the hostel, I had the whole room to myself. The room is pretty nice; there are only three beds in the room and they are not bunk beds. It looks a lot like a hotel room rather than a hostel suite, though it is a bit small, and there are no windows, which is a little bit weird, because there are no clues as to what time it is.

The next morning, there was a knock on the door, and the desk clerk was there with a guy named Jesse who would be my suitemate for a couple of nights. I think up to this point, I had been the only foreigner in the hostel. But it was a really strange coincidence that Jesse had been living in Austin for the last three years, not far from where I lived in East Austin! He was originally from Pennsylvania, and was traveling for a while before he planned to teach English in Moscow. Not only that, he was another long-haired guy. How strange to travel so far around the world, and find a suitemate from my same city here in the middle of Siberia!

There was this big, gregarious, Russian guy who befriended me in the lobby. He smelled strongly of vodka, and kept giving me bear hugs and firm, clasping handshakes after everything he said, with a deep, booming laugh and constant thumbs-up gestures.  We had difficulty communicating, but finally I got out my phone and just let him talk into Google Translate, which worked most of the time, but he kept using these idiomatic phrases that Google just translated literally, and came out as nonsense. It was mostly him talking and me reacting. He kept hugging and jostling me, was a very physical guy. He said he had been in Special Forces in Bosnia in the 1990s, and wanted to talk about war stuff a lot. He wanted to know about the military service of most of my male ancestors, and regaled me with his family military history. He insisted on giving me an orange, which I accepted. He said it was a tradition to give something sour on Founders Day (which was a big holiday the day before), even though oranges aren't really sour. Somehow the conversation began turning dark. He started asking me why I was weak, why Americans were not strong; at this point I started looking for an exit strategy.  Then he scolded me about the 27 million Russians who died in World War II, including his grandfather, and asked why I didn't help. Well, I wasn't born yet, so there wasn't much I could do, but I didn't say that; I was mostly trying to keep him from getting more agitated. Why didn't the Americans do anything, he persisted. Why was I of no use in the war in which so many were killed, even though he had given me an orange, he insistently wanted to know. This was really starting to get out there. Luckily at this point, one of his friends showed up, whereupon they bearhugged each other and gave each other copious salutations, and I was able to slink away.

Jesse, my suitemate from Austin, and I met up at a bar around the corner called Plan B after I had done my daily wanderings. I was pretty tired, so I didn't stay long, but he stuck around there until the wee hours of the night and ended up going to the top of a mountain on the outskirts of town with some Russian friends he met there. He told me that some of the Russians in the bar were curious about me, and were asking him some questions. He said the bar owner, who was familiar with American culture (the bar is American-themed and serves a lot of American food) tried to explain to some of the locals the concept of "hippie", but they were all puzzled. Finally one of them said, "You mean he is happy?" whereupon he gave up. The next night Jesse and I wandered down to Plan B again, and there was a really rambunctious atmosphere. I met the head bartender, Victor, a friendly guy with a real steam punk look, who had a few facial piercings and some tats, a bowler hat, and long, braided hair. He kept serving up vodka shots, and some of the locals kept buying vodka and whiskey, and Victor and the other bartenders were all doing shots with us, making toasts, and slamming the glasses down. Me being the lightweight drinker I am, I had to stagger the hell out of there around one or two in the morning and make my way back to the hostel. But Jesse stayed out until nine in the morning, and got back to the hostel just in time to get booted out because it was checkout time. They told him he could stay, but it would be 100 rubles an hour, and his train out wasn't until 7 at night. So he chose to split rather than pay the 100 rubles an hour to stick around. But we were supposed to meet up with Victor the bartender at 2 in the afternoon outside the hostel, as Victor was going to do our hair in dreadlock-slash-braids.

Jesse rolled back to the hostel at 2, and I met him outside. The poor guy looked ragged after not having slept all night and having carried his full pack around town. I actually booked another day at the hostel and paid for it, even though I won't spend the night tomorrow, because I am potentially going to be in the same boat the next day, getting booted in the morning, but having to take the same train in the evening. If the hostel knew I was leaving that day, they would only offer me the 100 rubles an hour to hold over, rather than an extra day, which is tons cheaper. Anyway, Victor never showed up to braid our hair (probably was dead crashed after partying into the wee hours of the morning), so Jesse and I went to a Mongolian-themed restaurant and tea house to get some tea and grub. I left a couple hours before Jesse had to catch his train, and bade him farewell and safe travels.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Taking the Trans-Siberian from Ulan-Ude

I had spent a week in Ulan-Ude. Two of those days, I was stuck mostly in bed with some intestinal bug from hell. Luckily, it didn't last long. I extended my stay because of the time I spent in bed, and I planned out the rest of my stay in least the rest of my stay in Russia THIS time. I hope to return in a month or two. I made all the rest of my hostel and train reservations.

But now it was time to move on.  In planning the next phase of my trip, the first train out was going to be at around 6:30 in the morning. The weird thing is that all the Russian trains are on Moscow time, no matter where you are in Russia. And Ulan-Ude is five hours later than Moscow time, so I had to account for that when booking my train reservations. The next bookings I made on the Trans-Siberian were the first bookings I had made myself. This whole trip, I had had an agency book my trains on the Trans-Mongolian, because it was a necessary component of my Chinese visa that I have an itinerary and that I leave the country (before I even got there), and it was a necessary part of my Russian visa that I at least arrange the first stop. So I had planned that far ahead. But now I was on my own.

So I got up at 4:30 in the morning, to give myself a couple of hours to walk to the train station and be there at least an hour early, in case there were any glitches. I had already gone to the train station and printed out my boarding pass a couple of days before. Strangely enough, a boarding pass was necessary for this first leg, but none are required for the rest of the journey; the e-tickets are enough (even though the next leg is on the same train at a later time).

Russian trains have four classes. There is spalny wagon, which is first class, and the most expensive. Then there is kupé, which is second class, and what I booked most of the next legs on. This is the equivalent of what I traveled on the Trans-Mongolian, though it wasn't called that. It has two lower and two upper berths that can be used for sleeping, and a compartment that closes. Also the lower seats lift up, and underneath there is a compartment for storing luggage.  If you have an upper berth, there is an open space next to the need to store luggage. I was issued sheets even though it is a day trip; that worked out because I did nap some. It is really quite comfortable; I can't see the need to pay nearly twice as much for first class.  Then there is third class, or platskarny. I booked a later leg or two on this. It differs in that it has open compartments, and six berths rather than four. There are four on one side of the train that are like kupé, but without doors, and then two on the other side of the aisle. There is a fourth class; I can't remember what it is called  (it starts with an "o"), and it only has seats rather than sleeper berths. The seats are much like the berths but they pack three people into each one.  I think they are phasing out this class, and I didn't see any fourth-class seats for sale on any of the trains I booked.

I got to the station early after walking through just-above-freezing temperatures right before dawn. I had to walk across a huge, crumbling pedestrian bridge over the street to get to the train station, and there were gaping holes in the concrete where I could see below (sort of like on the Tappan Zee or George Washington bridges).

There was a railroad worker at the station waiting to start up his shift, and we struck up a conversation in halting English and Russian. His name was Sergei, and he was talkative and friendly, even given the linguistic difficulties we had. He asked me if I had any American coins to give his daughter; I did, but they were packed away somewhere deep in my backpack.  But I had a few dollar bills in a decoy wallet I had in my pocket, so I gave him one. He was really, really impressed with it, and inspected it for quite a while in wonder. Note to self: next time I travel, I want to bring about twenty dollars in ones just to hand out as souvenirs to people I meet along the way. He told me I was on the wrong platform, but rather than walk up to the pedestrian bridge again and take the right set of stairs down, I could just walk across some tracks to get there. He told me it would be the second train to arrive, so once it arrived, I just puttered across the tracks to get there.

I came up to the train as it was boarding, and there was a young provodnitsa (car attendant) taking boarding passes. She took my boarding pass and passport, and made a mock shocked face when she saw my passport pic with short hair and no beard. She was really warm and friendly to me throughout the journey, unlike the dour provodnitsa on the last leg of the Trans-Mongolian. She was even maybe a little flirtatious. She got replaced in the middle of the trip by the other provodnitsa on a shift change, who was also nice and friendly, though I didn't have as much of a rapport with her.

I shared my compartment with an elderly Russian woman, who was very chatty only in Russian even though it was apparent much of what she was saying to me was not getting through. She was highly insistent that I make my bed and set up the sleeping pad on the seat, though I would have been perfectly content to just sit and lay on the plain seat. She kept chatting on and on about stuff, and I probably only caught less than a tenth of what she said;  I would either just smile and nod, or say, "I don't understand," if I had no idea what she said and it seemed to require an answer. But that didn't seem to deter her from keeping her stream of conversation going. 

Unlike the Trans-Mongolian, where there were a large number of foreigners and English-speakers, I think I was the only foreigner and English speaker on the train, and the object of much attention from everyone. Every time I told somebody something about myself by communicating in halting Russian, English and pantomime, it got around to EVERYONE on the train through the gossip circuit. I didn't mind; it was interesting to be the center of attention. Now I know how British guys feel when they come to the US...with the exception that they can communicate.

There were a number of elementary school-age kids at the other end of the car, and for a while, they were just looking at me in amazement, whispering and giggling. Then they all formally formed a line to come up to me and say, "Hello, my name is ________," in slow English. So I shook each of their hands,  and told them my name too. After this, the boys didn't seem too interested in me any more. But the little girls kept shyly coming up to me in groups of two, after painstakingly rehearsing a sentence or two in English, and presenting their well-practiced few words to me formally, whereupon I would answer, and try to throw in as much Russian as I could. Then they would go back, practice another question to ask me, or a statement to tell me, and I would reply, and they would run off triumphantly. Sometimes the little girls would conspire with the provodnitsa in formulating questions for me. One of the girls asked me if I liked apples, and I said, "Yablki, da." (I just happened to know the word for apples in Russian). And then she shyly brought me an apple and said, "Apple, for you." I said thank you very much in English and Russian as she blushed and left, and I ate the apple.  It was delicious. Then another little girl brought me an apple, and I said,  "No thanks, I just had one." And I immediately felt bad. She seemed embarrassed, and said, "Spasiba" (thank you in Russian) as she backed away.  Aaack, my faux pas.

Everybody on the train was very friendly and curious. Most did not talk to me, but they all seemed to catch the last thing I had said to somebody else on the whisper circuit. This whole experience was not anything I would have necessarily expected on a Russian train.

The train arrived in Chita, which is in Zabaykalsky Krai, Siberia...the next administrative region over from Buryatia. We got in about 6:30 in the evening after traveling for 12 hours from Ulan-Ude. This is probably not a huge tourist destination for Europeans and Americans, and many guidebooks recommend avoiding it. But it seems like a really vibrant city to me, and I'm really glad I stopped here. The hostel was about a kilometer and a half from the bus station, but it was very easy for me to find walking there. I'm looking forward to exploring this place.

The Weird Visa Registration Oxymoron Dance

So, Russia has this requirement that foreigners must register their visas with the authorities within seven days.  That is, only if one is staying in a city for more than seven days. Sounds pretty straightforward. But it is anything but.

I arrived in Ulan-Ude originally only planning to stay for four days. But then I got some abdominal bug that had me wishing I was dead for about forty-eight hours. I was pretty much confined to bed that whole time. Since I didn't get to see as much of the city as I had hoped, and since I hadn't made ANY plans beyond Ulan-Ude, I decided to stay in the city for another three days, and make some plans to see more of Russia. So now I figure I have to register my visa.

But I can't actually register my visa myself. Only the place I am staying can register it. No big deal, I'll just get the hostel to register my visa. As a matter of fact, they have a giant placard on the wall telling people they have to get their visas registered within seven days, that the hostel does it, and if they don't, they as well as you can get in huge trouble. So I figure that they will just register my visa.

But when I ask the folks at the hostel to register my visa, they refuse. They are really polite about it, they are not, like, complete dicks or anything, they just won't. And I can't get a straight answer as to why they won't. They have a sign on the wall (that they themselves put up) saying they have to do it, but, regardless, they just won't register my visa. They tell me, variously, that the person who does it is not there, that they used to do it but don't do it any more, or that they just don't do that because they are "not really a hostel," whatever that means. They sure advertise that they are one.

Now I am staying to freak out. I look online and find info that says that there is a possibility that I can be fined a huge amount of money and banned from Russia for five years if I get caught not doing this. But the chances of getting caught are low. It seems that the right hand of bureaucracy just doesn't know what the left hand is is the case just about everywhere. Also, hostels down the line could also refuse to let me stay there if I don't have a registration.

I try several times to get the hostel to do this and every time reach a dead end. So I figure I have to find another way to do this. I contact the agency that got me my Russian visa, tell them my host will not register my visa, and ask if they know any other way I can get it done.

What I get back is boilerplate that I had already seen online. They just Googled it and gave me what I had already found. They told me to first try the migration office in my town, next the post office, and then try other hotels and hostels, but you might have to pay for a night and some sort of *ahem* fee, well, let's just call it a bribe.

I'm not terribly optimistic at this point, and with good reason. First, I tried the Migration Ofiice. When I looked it up on Google Maps, it gave me two different locations, neither of which was actually there. I ended up running all over town for phantoms. And when I tried to call the number, I got a recording saying the number is no longer in service.

OK, so it doesn't exist. Or, it probably does, but not in any form I can find, not speaking fluent Russian. But as far as I am concerned, it is a dead end at this point.

Next, I try the post office. There is a machine to take a number, but you have to type in which service you want, and I don't know enough Russian to figure it out. So I am meticulously typing each option given to me into Google Translate, to see which one I need, when a guard comes up, and asks me what I need. I say, "Registracja Visa," having no idea whether that is a correct statement of what I need to do. He doesn't seem to care, and just punches the first option, and I get a number to wait in line.

I already know from the get-go that this is probably damn well not going to work. But I wait in line, I type into Google Translate, "I need to register my visa. Please help me."  I scan the clerks in line and try to figure out which of them might have enough compassion to carry out a pain-in-the-ass non-standard task for some foreign person who means nothing to them, and who is basically aphasic and developmentally challenged, as far as they are concerned. And I try to figure out which clerk has the bureaucratic attitude that they don't give a fuck about anything, and just want to get me out of their sight as soon as possible. And if I choose wrong, it won't happen. Not that it matters, because one of them will just call my number anyway.

My number is called, and I go up to the counter crossing my fingers. Please help me. Be a human with compassion. And what I get back is "Nyet!" Well, shit. That didn't work. I ask where I can go.  I get "Nyet!" They don't really care, and just want to finish their shift with a minimum of hassles.

Tears of frustration are welling up in my eyes, but I decide to try random hotels and hostels. The results I get are somewhere between body language that says, "are you fucking kidding!?" and failure to acknowledge that I am standing in front of them asking a question at all.

So this is just not going to happen.  As a last ditch effort, I call the US Embassy in Moscow, and ask them how in blazes I can get this essential task done if nobody will cooperate. They agree to try to help, but what happens is that they call my hostel and put pressure on them like there is now an international incident. Oh, fuck. Now I am not looking forward to walking into that hostel in just a few minutes.

When I get to the hostel,  Ivan, the guy sort of in charge, is pissed. He wordlessly buzzes me in, and the first thing he says is, coldly, "We have a problem. Unfortunately we cannot register your visa." No greeting or anything. He had dug in his heels in the face of a potential threat of an international incident, with the United States of America coming down full force, and apparently, he had come out on top. I explain to him that I had called the US Embassy just to find out how I could accomplish this essential task to keep me out of trouble, not to get them to lean on them. I apologize profusely for the inconvenience, and I think the feathers stopped being ruffled after a day or two. And, the thing is, he is the nicest guy, willing to bend over backwards to help with just about anything BUT THIS.

So I'm basically back at square one, where this shit is just not happening. I call the embassy again to see if there is any last-ditch Hail Mary thing going on as a possibility here.

Well, look, they say. You spent seven days there, but the law says seven BUSINESS days. In the meantime, there was a national holiday from the first to the third, an intervening weekend that didn't count, and another national holiday on the ninth. So I haven't reached the seven business days, and I ought to be OK under a strict reading of the law...but who knows if some minor player who wants to shake me down at some point will interpret the law correctly. I figure that is the best I can get, they tell me to save all my receipts that show where I have been and when, and the odds are that it will work out. And there is always a record of this call where I proved my case that I tried my best to meet the legal requirement, but things happened that were beyond my control.

I guess that is all I'm going to get. So I put it into the "out of my control" drawer and wipe it from my psyche as best I can. Then I check into a hostel in Chita, the next town.  They ask me for my passport, my exit migration card (I have both those things), and my visa registration. I don't have that. No problem, the clerk takes it in stride and says nothing. I check in, go around town, and when I come back, they have prepared and have ready my visa registration for me, official stamp and everything. On a national holiday. Without me even asking.  For no additional fee. I could just hug and kiss them. I just can't stop saying, "thank you, thank you," but they are perplexed and mystified at my gratitude, sort of analogous to how Spock would react at a soccer riot. It's like it is no big deal. So now I'm legal, bitches. Fully loaded and ready to Russia. Russia is awesome. I'm planning a month here in Russia in various parts, then if I told you what is next, it would spoil the suspense. A girl's got to have a little mystery.

Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal

I took a taxi from the train station to the hostel, which was not too far away, but since I didn't know where it was, I decided to take a taxi. And it was kind of a convoluted route there since there were not many bridges over the railroad tracks by the station.

But I got to the hostel, and it was a pretty cool atmosphere; very cordial and friendly. The first night I was there, I walked in and everybody was speaking Spanish. So naturally I just joined in. There was Federico from Italy, Anna from Spain, Gabriela from Brazil, and me, all talking in Spanish all night. The other three dissipated and went their separate ways over the next few days, but I stayed on.

Then I got really sick. I don't know if it was food poisoning, or what, but I was miserable and weak for about 48 hours, and mostly in bed. It might have been the water, too. I had asked Ivan, the guy seemingly in charge at the hostel (actually, nobody was really in charge...the owner/manager was off traveling, and had just left his employees there doing their thing), if the tap water was safe, and he said it was, so I drank some. Later he told me they usually boil it. Great. I looked online and found that it wasn't safe because of giardia. Oh, great, again. Then I got the sickness. After that I either boiled water or used water purification tablets that I brought with me.

While I was sick, a couple of women from the US checked into my room,  Gwen and her daughter Anya. They both spoke fluent Russian. They had bought tickets for themselves and a local friend of theirs from the States who lived in Ulan-Ude, Carolyn, to go on a regional bus to a section of Lake Baikal at Goryachinsk on the east side of the lake, which was a lesser-traveled area that mostly locals went to. But then Gwen got the awful stomach funk, and got too sick to go,  so they asked me if I wanted to take her place so their ticket would not go to waste. I was happy for the opportunity but sad that she could not go. It was definitely an experience I would not likely have found by myself at that time. I would have had to chase down a local bus that stopped in an out-of-the-way place, figure out which one was going there with very little information and a language barrier, and then figure out how to get back.  But now I was traveling with Anya and Carolyn, who spoke fluent Russian, and were kind enough to provide me with experiences and foods from the local culture that I would not have experienced.

It was a three-hour bus ride to Goryachinsk, and we stopped at several towns along the way, sometimes detouring down rutty little dirt roads. It was a bus mostly for commuters, and definitely not a tourist staple. Though Goryachinsk had some hot springs, they didn't seem open (the "Gorya" part of the town's name means "hot"), though we did use a bathroom at the springs that was a board on the ground with a hole in it in an outhouse.

We walked on a path around the town to the lake, and weren't sure exactly if we were on the right path, but, sure enough, we got there. The lake was beatific, covered in ice, and surrounded by mountains. Lake Baikal is the biggest freshwater lake in the world, and bigger than all the Great Lakes put together.

We spent most of the day there, and had a picnic by the shore. We also waded in the icy waters there, and I happened to have a Buddhist prayer shawl in my bag that I tied to a tree that already had several prayer shawls attached.

We walked a different way back to Goryachinsk, taking the main road to the town, which was fairly long, but a nice walk. We got back just a little before the bus was due to go back to Ulan-Ude, so we just looked around the main square there while we waited for the bus. Then we took the three-hour ride back to Ulan-Ude. Upon getting back to the hostel, Gwen was feeling a little better, so she accompanied us all to dinner. Strangely enough, all three of the people on the hostel staff knew Carolyn from different connections, so we stored to chat with the members of the staff before taking off for dinner.

The next few days, I just spent looking at the sights of Ulan-Ude. All good things must come to an end at some point, and I prepared to leave the city, making the plans for the rest of this leg of my Russian journey.

The Trans-Mongolian Experience

So I got on the second leg of the Trans-Mongolian train, from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude, and unlike the previous leg, it was completely packed. Every seat was taken. I shared the compartment with two Thai guys and a Dutch guy named CJ, who was kind of a hippie-looking train enthusiast. He had been working in Hong Kong, and had gotten laid off, so he was headed back to Holland. The two Thai fellows were not very talkative, but CJ and I got into some conversation on the train. Since there were four in the compartment, all the berths were taken, both upper and lower. The two on the to say on the lower seat until bedtime, when they clambered up to bed. I had previously thought there was no ladder to the top berths, but it turns out there is one that unfolds from the wall on both sides of the compartment door.

All the tourists on the train were pretty friendly, and there was vodka aplenty generously passed around for anyone who wished to partake.  Some of CJ's former co-workers had given him multiple bottles of vodka for the journey. Most of the tourists were with one tour group led by a Russian guy named Alex. The people on the train were from a mix of countries all over the place. I spoke in Spanish to Isidro from Coahuila, Mexico, and in French to Linda from Quebec. There were a lot of Canadians, some Brits and Australians, and many others.

We had a pair of female provodnitsas, or car attendants, on our train car. The provodnitsas share a living compartment and work in shifts out of the working compartment. The first provodnitsa was really nice, but the second one was from hell. She kept snapping at people to go back to their compartments when they were taking pictures ("go back to your compartment!" was probably one of the few things she could say in English), or doing just about anything outside their compartments. So I decided to be super-nice to her all the time, even when she was being a complete dick to me. Of course, this pissed her off more, almost to the point of losing control. I just kept engaging her with smiles and hellos, and she would yell at me to return to my compartment, and as soon as she turned the corner, I would be in the exact same place as though nothing had happened with a smile, a hello,  and a thank you.  I was probably lucky I didn't get abandoned in the Gobi Desert somewhere just so she could be rid of me.

This whole series of interactions I had with the provodnitsa was a source of complete amusement to people in the compartment. I was in an unusual travel situation where the average age in the car was about my age, and many people were older. So I felt well accepted and part of the group. Dang, maybe it is ageism when I'm traveling among a bunch of twentysomethings and they blow me off, or don't include me in their group. But the folks on the train would watch my antics with the provodnitsa and laugh, realizing that she didn't like anybody, but she didn't like me especially. CJ started calling her my "girlfriend" and a couple others picked up on that. People were making faces behind her back when she would pass by, and sometimes when she would snap at me, I would make an exaggerated face of mock chagrin.

There was only the one international car, though some domestic cars would get periodically attached and then detached. We got to Sukhbaatar, Mongolia at four in the morning as most were asleep. I woke up around five just in time to see the sunrise. But we were all locked in the train car, and not only that, the bathroom was locked as well.  Guess they don't want it emptying its contents on the tracks at a station. So people were slowly waking up, and howling when they found they couldn't relieve themselves. Then the Mongolian authorities came on board to do their exit check. It wasn't terribly intrusive or anything.  After the Mongolian inspection, around seven-thirty in the morning, they finally unlocked the car so people could use the restroom at the train station. Along with many others, I zoomed over to the train station to use the restroom. But you had to pay an attendant, and I hadn't gotten my money off the train in my haste. I thought I'd have to return to the train to get money, but a kindly gentleman paid my fee. It wasn't much, just 200 tukriks, which is about ten cents when you convert Mongolian money to US.  We were stopped at Sukhbaatar from four to eleven in the morning, but after they unlocked the train car, they gave us two hours to explore the city, so I wandered around and checked it out, taking pictures. In Sukhbaatar, one of the wives of CJ'S former Mongolian co-workers met him at the station with a load of Mongolian food and some beers.

At this point, the train car was just sitting on the tracks by itself. There was no locomotive or caboose, and all the other cars had been detached. But by the time we were ready to leave, they had attached an engine and a few other cars, and we rolled on.

When we passed the Russian-Mongolian border, there was a small marker, a few buildings with some soldiers, and a chain-link fence along the border with razor wire circled on the top. We didn't stop there, but we speed at the next big town, Naushki, for the Russian border inspection. They came aboard with about four groups of officials, some asking redundant questions. The last group came through with dogs. We were stopped in Naushki for four hours, and they have us a couple of hours to wander the town. It was just a tiny Siberian town with hardly any businesses, and the ones that were there were just in houses. I walked all the way across town and found a little out-of-the-way cafe, and ate lunch there. Then about fifteen minutes later, Alex the tour guide led his whole group in there. Hey, I picked the right place...the same place the experienced guide took his people to. And I was glad I got there and got my food before they arrived, because I would have had to wait a long time while the large group of at least twenty or so ordered and got their food.

After returning to the train, we all had a lot of stops. Some were just in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. We spent much more time on this train stopped than moving. I looked on Google Maps and saw that it was only an eight-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude, but the train took about twenty-five hours.

When it was time to get off the train, I was the only one getting off at Ulan-Ude. Everybody else was going to Irkutsk, which was another night's journey. But the train kept stopping as we approached Ulan-Ude. I was pretty sure that the provodnitsa would not tell me when the stop was, so each time it stopped, I would gather my stuff, hobble out to the end of the car, and get snapped at by the provodnitsa to "go back to my compartment, not yet!"  Of course, I would smile at the mean lady and sweetly say thank you in Russian. This repeated overt and over in what seemed like an interminable pattern, until we finally did actually arrive at the Ulan-Ude station. I got off, made a point to say thank you and goodbye to the provodnitsa while she coldly ignored me, and set off to find a taxi to take me to my hostel.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Two Markets

I've been to two markets in Ulaanbaatar, and they couldn't be more different. The first one is the State Department Store. This is like Macy's on steroids, if Macy's were the size of a Wal-Mart. It is seven stories high. The first floor has a grocery store, and all the other floors have all kinds of stuff. Actually, I only went up to the fifth floor, so I don't even know what is on the top two floors. My tolerance for shipping is just not that high.  It's probably pretty overpriced by Mongolian standards, though not too overpriced for Westerners. The grocery store is pretty decent, though; I bought a lot of stuff there since it was close to my hostel.

The second market is the Naran Tuul, and it is the complete opposite. The Naran Tuul, or black market, is an enormous shopping mall-slash-flea market gone rogue. It is one of the most dangerous places in Ulaanbaatar. Supposedly you can get just about anything here, if you know who to ask and where to go. People randomly get charged a cover charge to come in, but I didn't get charged. Guess that must mean that I run with the in crowd. Ha. I didn't get robbed there either, which I took as a good sign. I did take some precautions that made me feel a little safer. There is a covered part with narrow, winding catacombs, and then an uncovered part on the outskirts. There are designer labels on fake goods, and some of them are spelled terribly Abibas, Calvin Klain, and My Little Phony (the last of which is kind of aptly ironic). The whole thing is surrounded with shipping containers containing goods, and there are also shipping containers scattered throughout the interior. I didn't want to leave without buying SOMETHING, even though I really didn't need any consumer goods (well, i needed a scarf and maybe a balaclava for colder climates, but I didn't find anything like that). So I bought a bag of what looked like donut holes from a vendor who was selling bread products from a shopping cart for all of about fifty cents. They turned out to be more like bread balls, but they were tasty, and I spent a couple of days munching on them. There are some real deals; you could probably buy a pair of pants for five to ten bucks, for example. If I lived in Ulaanbaatar, I would probably buy a lot of my day-to-day stuff here.