Sunday, July 31, 2011

Travel Travails

On Friday, July 22 I was travelling from Tampa, Florida to Montreal on Continental Airlines ( with a connection in Cleveland, Ohio. Generally I have been fortunate with connecting flights--I can't remember the last time I didn't make a connection, but I guess trouble has to catch up with us all sometime.
On arrival in Cleveland I learned the connecting flight had been cancelled for mechanical reasons. As cancellations go, that is about as good as it gets since that means the airline is responsible for re-routing you or, if that is difficult, putting you up until the next day. (If you get stranded because of weather you may be on your own.) The Continental rep offered some re-routing options, and said the hotels the airline uses for stranded passengers were full. The re-routing option I chose was through Toronto, but before that flight could take off Cleveland was hit with an enormous electrical storm and a ground stop. The flight that was supposed to go to Toronto was diverted to Erie, Pa., and it was unsure when it would depart.
The agent had said the airline would pay if I found my own hotel, which I managed to do, at a downtown Holiday Inn Express. There was a big convention in town and most hotels were full. The hotel proved to be very nice, but not cheap, $176 including tax, plus another $75 in taxi fares to and from the airport. All the Continental reps I spoke with were very nice, so I assume the airline will pick up the costs once I manage to file the paperwork.
Keep reading for more on the outcome, and on the hotel, which is a former bank building with very large rooms and a generous breakfast buffet.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Siberian Dawn

I've just discovered still another winning entry in the competition among English-speaking writers on Siberia. It's titled "Siberian Dawn: A Journey across the New Russia" by Jeffrey Tayler, published in 1999. It is based on an overland trip he took from Magadan in extreme northeastern Russia to Poland in 1993, when the shackles of Communism were just beginning to fall off Russia's extremities.

It is an excellent book, but very different from Ian Frazier's more recent book on travelling in Siberia. Like Frazier, Tayler is an American, but considerably younger and with far better command of the Russian language. In fact, he can pass for a native and on checking up on him, I discovered that he still lives in Russia although his most recent book is about the Congo.

His book is quite personal, detailing how he undertook this journey out of a need to live in the present as much as possible, and to penetrate beneath the surface of Russian life in a way that you cannot do when you stay in expensive hotels.

Along his very arduous route Tayler encountered many interesting characters, mainly working men and women living in remote areas. He travelled both by road and by train, and stayed in many dodgy places. Much of his journey took place in winter, the quintessential Siberian season.

Unlike Frazier, Tayler does not allude to earlier Americans who travelled in the region and wrote about it. But he does write well, and obviously has the knack of getting perfect strangers to open up about their lives.

His book is a worthy addition to Western writing about Russia, and an easy read. The edifice below  is a typical Siberian wooden church at an open air museum near Lake Baikal on the road from Irkutsk to Litvianka.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Buryats and Baikal

To the Buryats, an Asiatic ethnic group who live in the region of Lake Baikal, the lake is sacred. The Buryats have their own autonomous region, with its capital at Ulan Ude on the eastern side of the lake. According to Ian Frazier's "Travels in Siberia," a train runs along the southern shore of the lake and connects Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, a trip that takes about 24 hours and sounds fas-cinating. Ulan Ude is also easy to reach by plane from Moscow or other Siberian cities.
But even without visiting Ulan Ude, you will see evidence of the Buryats in and near Irkutsk. They are a shamanistic people, and there are many spots where particular trees and bushes are decked with colourful ribbons that pay tribute to nature spirits. It is a local custom when passing such places to stop and tie a ribbon. I also observed people throwing small coins toward the trees.
The Buryats are believed to have originated in Mongolia and to have travelled north to escape persecution by the Buddhists many centuries ago. Who knew Buddhists persecuted people? Today about a quarter million Buryats live in the Baikal region, and some of their cuisine is popular with locals and visitors alike. A particularly delicious treat is a meat-filled pastry called a pozhe, brimming with hot gravy. Keep reading for information on where to get good pozhes near Irkutsk.

The picture below
is of the writer at a Buryat shrine on the road from Irkutsk to the Small Sea of Lake Baikal.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Impressions of Irkutsk

Irkutsk, which lies six hours by plane or three days by rail east of Moscow, is the capital of Eastern Siberia. A city of some 600,000, it seemed bustling with new wealth and new development, in addition to significant pockets of poverty. In my first three days in Irkutsk I saw three traffic accidents, compared with none on the rest of a three week trip. Irkutsk drivers may be reckless, but most of the cars I saw were shiny and new.
Once known as the Paris of Siberia, it was the place of exile for most of the noble revolutionaries known as the Dekabrists, who were sent here following their failed revolt in December of 1825. I stayed in a large comfortable house in a suburb of the city(gated, naturally) that is named for the Dekabrists. It was strange but pleasant after an uneventful flight that landed at about 5:30 a.m. Irkutsk time to be greeted by a smiling, fashionably attired host who led us to her sparkling clean European SUV. then took us to her home not far from the airport, fed us breakfast and let us rest for a few hours to beat the effects of jet lag.
She later drove us downtown and showed us the sights, including a large park overlooking the wide Angara River. It was the last day of school for Irkutsk students, and the park was full of soon -to- be high school graduates celebrating what they call Last Bell. The girls were dressed in black with lacy white aprons and small headdresses, which reminded me of native Breton costume. They had small silver bells pinned to their dresses, and everyone was in a cheerful mood.
On a later sightseeing tour we visited the square of three churches, two Russian orthodox dating from the early 18th century and a Roman Catholic cathedral built by Polish exiles in the late 19th century. It is the largest Roman Catholic church I have seen in Russia, and still holds services.
The main streets of Irkutsk are still named after Communist heroes, Karl Marx and Lenin, and it is really possible to say, "Meet you at the corner of Marx and Lenin." Some of my Marxist professors would be delighted.

The Cathedral of the Epiphany, built in 1718, is on the square of three churches and is often used as a symbol of the city. It is in a style known today as Siberian baroque, and is pictured below. A nearby church, the Church of the Saviour, is built on the spot where Cossacks founded Irkutsk more than 300 years ago.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Travels in Siberia

That is the title of a wonderful book I'm reading, written by Ian Frazier and published in 2010. Some articles based on the book appeared earlier in the New Yorker. It is a worthy addition to the reams of travel literature that already exist about this fabled, feared part of the world that, as Frazier points out, does not really exist on a map. (However, Eastern and Western Siberia do exist as administrative subdivisions of Russia.)

Frazier is a native of Ohio, like me, and notes that many other Ohioans have been captivated by and written about Siberia. Best known is the great 19th century traveller George Kennan, who is not to be confused with his relative George F. Kennan, diplomat and historian who wrote the article in a 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs that enunciated a containment policy for the Soviet Union that was soon adopted by the U.S. and other Western governments.

Other well-known travel writers about Siberia include Farley Mowat, Paul Theroux, Dervla Murphy and Colin Thubron. I have read books by all of them having to do with Siberia, and enjoyed every one.

Frazier did not become fascinated by Russia until the 1990s, after the Iron Curtain had fallen. He writes of his many visits to the country, his attempts (eventually successful) to learn the language in middle age, an achievement I admire greatly. His trips culminated with a seven week driving trip across country starting in St. Petersburg, and camping out much of the time along with his two Russian guides.

If you hope to visit Siberia some day, or just want to read about what it is like now, this book is an excellent guide.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Circum Baikal Railway

Baikal, the enormous lake in eastern Siberia, is a place of superlatives--deepest lake in the world, oldest lake in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site containing more fresh water than all the Great Lakes combined. It even has a species of seal called the nerpa, a small rotund animal found nowhere else on earth. The rare Barguzin sable, prized by furriers, can be found along its shores.
However, Baikal is not easy to explore. Much of it is inaccessible by road. Hikers roam trails along the lake, but many of them are steep and forbidding. One way to see a lot of the lake on a day trip, and to enjoy some early 20th century railway architecture, is to travel on the Circum Baikal Railway along the shore of the lake from Port Baikal to Kultuk. This involves taking a bus from Irkutsk to the lake, then a short boat ride to Port Baikal where you board the tourist train. The trip can take up to 12 hours and costs about $50. The price does not include meals or drinks, and travellers are advised to bring their own. At some stops there may be people selling drinks and local delicacies such as smoked omul, but you could be very hungry by the time you reach them.
The train makes five stops where passengers can explore the surroundings, marvel at the engineering and architectural achievements of the builders, and even take a dip in the crystal clear but usually frigid water. On the return trip to Irkutsk the Circum Baikal uses the track of the Trans Siberian Railway, so even if you don't have time to take that fabled train you get to ride on some of its track and roadbed.
I'm a train lover and enjoyed this small train very much. But even if you aren't, it offers a good way to see remote stretches of the lake if you don't have your own transportation. You pass by small wooden homes accessible only by water, and catch a glimpse of the real Siberia away from the cities.

Below, some passengers disembarking from the Circum Baikal train.

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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Friendship Force International

I have written before about Friendship Force (,) a cultural exchange organization that offers home stays in various places around the world. However, that was before I had a chance to experience one of their exchanges.
My recent trip to Russia was a Friendship Force exchange organized by the club in Dubuque, Iowa. Most participants were from that club, but there were also two each from Texas and Nevada, and myself from Montreal. We stayed for a week each in St. Petersburg and Irkutsk with hosts, and for another week at hotels in and near Moscow.
It was relatively inexpensive, but it was also an amazing experience. My fellow Ambassadors (as exchange members are called)were uniformly welcoming and helpful, and my hosts in both cities were very kind and generous. Although I knew none of the other Ambassadors when I began the trip, by the time I returned I felt that I had a lot of new friends.
Friendship Force offers more than 250 exchanges a year to destinations around the world, and many are open to non-members. I can recommend the group heartily, and I plan to join one of the clubs either in Montreal or elsewhere. By travelling with a group like this, you have the chance for unique experiences such as visiting an English class at a public school in Vyborg as I did, meeting high level Russians who are eager to meet you, and getting a real glimpse into the lives of Russians who do not work in tourism.
This was my first trip with FFI, but I hope it will not be my last.

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