Moscow, Russia. 22:00 19 July, 2006 thru 7:03pm 20 July.
I met Albina in Japan. We worked together at NOVA for several months, but we hung out in different circles. She lived the opposite direction on the train line from where I worked. So while I spent town with the Kyoto folks, she spent her time in... what was the name? Omi Hachiman? Anyway, they were like two different cliques in Shiga. Those who lived in Kyoto and those living further out on the Lake Biwa line. A few people crossed over, but there were many who rarely came into the city, and the city folk rarely visited their country cousins. This has been true throughout the history of Japan, and its no surprise that even foreigners repeated the same cliche.
So Albina and I moved in different circles, (and to be perfectly honest, I didn`t move that much within mine) but as I was leaving, I came to realize that she was a totally strange and unusual individual, which is to say I had severely underestimated her. I hoped to reconsile this on this trip, by paying her a visit in Lithuania. Sadly, her work and mother`s visit interfered, and I could only see her for two evenings between excursions with the travel company for which she worked. However, gracious host that she was, she had arranged a flat in part for my visit, and in part to get off the sofa she`d been crashing on for a few weeks while in Vilnius. She`d previously lived in a resort town in the country, and country life in Lithuania is the same as it is worldwide. Everybody knows everybody`s business, which, if you`re a private person as she is, proves tedious and invasive. Still, she hadn`t had time to even move into her apartment, and our first tour together was to her apartment where she first picked up her key from the landlord, and promptly handed it over to me.
Suddenly, I found myself in the possession of a flat. An empty apartment in need of toilet paper and dish soap. I found myself going to the supermarket and buying groceries. I found myself riding the bus into town, and following a routine. In short, it felt as if I had accidentally moved to Lithuania. I woke up one morning to find myself living in a Communist block apartment, in the ex-soviet union, and that I had been renamed Hadsonus.
Seriously though, it was a much needed break from the road. After a month on the road, every night a battle against the elements, both physical and political, every morning a struggle for my morning coffee and overcoming the mystery of breakfast, being able to provide for myself was a welcome change. Having a prosaic routine of breakfast, shopping, internet, bar, then bed was a delight. All I was lacking was a job, and normalcy would have been reached. But I didn`t go that far; instead I was just playing house. I was able to edit and back up my photos, to begin writing this travelogue, and to concentrate on my reading of Heidegger. I`ve been reading the Introduction to Metaphysics, a delightfully arcane and meaty text where he reinterprets the writing of Heraclitus and Parmenides, moving away from a very fixed and concrete interpretation and into a much more complex and flexible interpretation. The book reads like the lectures in which it originally was delivered, and I could/can imagine myself back in school, grappling with the essence of the discipline I so deeply love. I had not only moved to Lithuania, but I was back in school.
On the bus to Vilnius, I met a guy name Andrius. (All male names in Lithuania end in -us... and incidentally, a woman`s surname changes form when she is married from when she is single... I can`t recall the details off-hand). But I got in touch with Andrius once Albina left, and thereafter, several times just walking through town, or sitting in a bar, I`d run into him. That`s all you need to know about Vilnius. If you know one person in town, you`ll see him everywhere.
Andrius had recently returned from working in London, so he had a fairly cosmopolitan outlook and very good English. Unfortunately, another cultural aspect of Vilnius is that since it was summer, everyone had gone home to their grandparents` houses in the country, or were otherwise away on vacation. The town was then a little depopulated, and most of his friends were gone. However, he still had quite a few in town, and it was a pleasure to meet them, to hang out and get drunk together. Another interesting factor of the northern latitudes is that the sun doesn`t ever really set. So twilight lasts until midnight, thus drinking does tend to go on all night and easily into dawn, which comes equally early. This led to quite a few late nights, and lots of waking up at noon.
There isn`t too much to see in Vilnius, nevertheless, the tourism is increasing. Mostly they`re confined to package tours, and so most places I`d be the only tourist. Especially out on Minties street where I was staying. I was easily the only foriegner there. A side note. The door on my apartment was like nothing I`ve ever seen before. The first significant factor one notices is that it opens outward. It also has a lip all the way around, in short, so the door absolutely cannot be kicked in. It was a steel door, and had quadruple bars which required four turns of the key to ratchet into place. On the inside of the door hinges were metal spikes, so even if the hinges were compromised, the door would not budge. In other words, prisons should have doors this secure. Once locked, the only way to get this door open was to physically destroy the door with torches or a serious ramrod. One must wonder why a door would need to be this secure. I wasn`t sure if it was the KGB or thugs that were being repelled. But if I were baracaded IN, there was nothing in the Apartment that would open it. And the balcony was five stories up. Anyway, I think about these things. Am I paranoid? Anyway, I had absolutely no fear of anyone breaking into the apartment, so it was nice to have that level of security for my belongings for once.
The main reason I needed to stay for a while in Vilnius, however, was to arrange my Russian visa. I decided to put it off, because one still requires an "Invitation" from a hotel in Russia to apply for a visa. And as an American, they give us the same paperwork we give them... which is to say a full resume, and an absurd questionaire asking things like, "do you have any special training in the use of chemical weapons, firearms, or explosives?" I didn`t mention Boy Scouts, and this wasn`t the only prevarication on the form. I also couldn`t even possibly begin to answer the question "Please list every country you have visited in the last ten years, including cities, with dates?" So I picked, like four and hoped they wouldn`t look too closely at my passport. In the end, I doubt they even read most of the questions, they were just being bastards, just like our embassy is to people applying to come to visit the U.S. of A. The American visa process is by far the most complex and onerous of any country in the world. Third world denizens, for example, have to prove thousands of dollars worth of savings deposited in a bank of their own country. Russians have to pay a hundred dollars simply to apply for a visa, with little guarentee they will actually get one. And of course, no refund. In a country where the median income is the equivalent of $500 a month in the Capital, which is also currently rated the most expensive in the world, this doesn`t go over too well. Yet another thing that turns world opinion against us.
I went to the Embassy, and the information desk worker stared at my English blankly. He refused to communicate with me in English. Even to try. Someone standing in queue is nice enough to translate, but the gist of what he was saying came down to "go to a travel agency." The alternative was to have a letter of invitaion from a hotel in Moscow (and consequent secured reservation, at 50-100 dollars a night), a firm itenerary and a ton of patience. None of which looked promising for me. So it boiled down to him telling me to go through a travel agent, which I did. The first agent, seemed sleazy to me, charging an extortionary rate, and trying to force travel insurance upon me. So I found another, managed to find a lower rate for a longer wait, but since the next four days were a national holiday, they would be closed and I couldn`t apply till the following monday... but they didn`t mention the travel insurance up front. It wasn`t till I went back, and did the math, and realized I`d need to get it quicker than the longer wait, and had filled out all the paperwork, that they sprung the health insurance on me, and... well, long story short, in the end I found myself paying more and waiting longer for the same thing. Anyway, the health insurance isn`t much, but its the principle of the thing. At final count, my Russian visa cost my about two hundred bucks. I`ll just go ahead and finish the story while I`m at it. Upon arrival in Russia, you have two options. You can register with each hotel you stay at for your entire stay, getting a stamp on your exit card, or you can register for the duration of your stay for 600 to a 1000 rubles, like 20-40 dollars. This means, your paperwork, which you MUST carry on your person at all times (because the police DO REALLY stop you on the street and say, "where are your papers" like in a bad movie), includes your passport, your letter of invitation, your proof of insurance, and your registration/disembarkation card. In all my travels, I`ve never seen anything like it. Pretty impressive.
So, I spent my time in Vilnius basically hibernating, catching up on my homework and getting my (mental) strength back for travel. It was a great time. Vilnius is not overrun by tourism (yet... getting there), its another of the historic capital cities, and it has a ton of Romanesque architecture, mostly in the process of being restored. Go there. You`ll like it. The people are friendly, apart from the odd skinhead, and they do love to drink. The language sounds a bit like latin, even though its closer linguistically to Sanscrit.
Finally, Albina was returning and would need her flat back, and on the same day her mother was flying in from Australia. She left Lithuania many years ago, long before the "Singing Revolution" and the fall of the Soviet Union. She`s coming back for three months, and I doubt she`ll recognize the place. In any case, Albina hinted as much that she`d not have any free time between mom and work, so I took my cue and, exit stage left.
I decided to break up the 24 hour journey to Moscow in Riga. When I arrived, I felt a definite step forward in socioeconomic status. Latvia, for some reason fancies itself the Switzerland of the Baltics. Basically, like everywhere else, the Baltic states see their corner of the world through a magnifying glass, and share a strong regional identity. Vilnius is considered "not really Lithuania" because for much of its history was part of Poland, and Estonia is considered a bit different because linguistically and culturally they have more in common with Finland than Latvia or Lithuania. Yet despite these fractious views, the Baltic states toe the line of a common cause in their... err... Balticness. Discovering that to be the case, I thought it a shame to spend so much time and yet pass through Riga, its sister city without even blowing her a kiss.
Riga has done something right, which Vilnius has missed. The old town is already mostly restored and has been handed in whole over to tourism (that`s not the "right" part, though). The newer city is a grid and separated from the older previously walled city by a well landscaped (if a tad overdone, what with the canal with boatrides, hills, cafes, and monuments) semicircular park. The park replacing the old city walls is a common theme in Europe, and does produce some interesting open space. And most importantly, the Train station has been remodeled recently and integrated into a shopping mall, or was the mall integrated into the train station? Either way they interpenetrate to an extent I`ve never seen outside Japan. This is not just "some shopping" at the station, this is a full-on shopping complex and ticket windows for the train and halls leadign to the platforms all mixed. The bus station is just next door as well, but I didn`t bother when I found that the overnight train to Moscow was a mere 15 lats (like, 30 bucks). This is fourth class. Second was twice as much, and then they give you blankets and pillows. Bah, we don`t need no stinking pillows!
The most surprising thing about Riga was just how expensive everything was. Hostel beds were 15-25 dollars, And Food was as expensive as anywhere else in Europe. So much for bargain travel in Eastern Europe. Perhaps we still have Bulgaria or Romania. But the Baltics have basically reached parity with Western Europe. Sigh. But good for them.
After almost exactly 24 hours in Riga, I`d pretty much seen everything, their two or three historic buildings, I`d canvassed the old city, and gotten a feel for the local neighborhoods out from the center. So in the evening I boarded the train to Moscow. More paperwork at the border, a departure slip for Lithuania, and a Embarkation/Disembarkation card for Russia. With nothing in English. But by cross-referencing the bilingual info on my visa, I was able to get most of it filled out. The fifteen year old girl in the seat beside me helped with the rest. She was recruited by the Latvian babushka who was on her way to Moscow... who was also really cute. She was quite old, very very fat, with a ponderous bosum atop a chest belonging to the swarthiest sailor. She was built like a chubby brick. Once everyone else in the car had left the train, I was then next on the list to take care of her, to fetch her tea, to lift her bags off the train, and bind them to her folding bagage cart, etc. But the fluidity with which everyone on the train jumped at the oportunity to help grandmother was pretty interesting. And it was fun for me, her asking me questions in Latvian, and me correctly answering. Language is much more complicated than even the philosophers think, and seemingly has little to do with words.
One final note on the train ride. They still have samovars on each car dispensing free hot water... so... well, you know how I feel about hot water at this point...
Arriving in Moscow
Arriving in Moscow was reasonably smooth. Despite all the hype, Moscow is after all, just another city. I`ve long since abandoned prior research in favor of the confusion of getting off the train and stumbling around for the first thirty minutes sorting everything out. Step one was to find a map, and for the first time there was no "Tourist Information" desk at the station ( that I could find). There was a worrying poster in the doorway showing swat teams, bombs, children, car bombs, etc. I couldn`t tell if we were supposed to be worried about the bombs or the swat teams... It could`ve gone either way. But at that stage, I wasn`t quite comfortable enough about snapping photos in the train station, especially considering the nature of the poster...
Outside the station I saw a Holiday Inn. A good standby source of tourist information. 4 and 5 star hotel staff are usually very amicable to backpackers, friendly ones at least, cause as you`d imagine, they are closer to our socioeconomic braket themselves, yet must deal with rich and/or incompetant tourists every day. So, I got the exchange rate, my location in the city and a tourist map, sorted out. I forgot to ask about registration, but I got that worked out, too. I had tracked down a hostel in Moscow on the internet, and this turned out to be a very very good idea. (hint: failing this, find a bookstore carrying the Lonely Planet). So I made for the Hostel, and... well the rest is history. Here I am now, crashing in the T.V. lounge in this overfilled hostel. Every bed is taken every night, and since its so expensive to go out in Moscow, most people stay in and drink, making it almost identical to a party. Two kitchens with two groups, the foyer/internet area with a third, and the T.V. lounge for the quieter hangout (given that its actually the overflow bedroom) I`ve got the strategy of waiting until everyone`s gone to sleep, then finding the last available floorspace. Meanwhile, eavesdropping on other conversations, trying to listen for things to be wary of. I`m still a bit antisocial in the hostel scene, since it involves the same set of questions ad infinitum, followed by the same social commentary on the difference between different countries, the truths and falsities of cultural stereotypes, etc. The difficutly of the language barrier, and so on. Its only when I find others who are on the road for a year or so that I really start to open up. But still, I am sociable enough to meet groups of tourists and feel them out, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I like this hostel though. Its funny and absurd. It feels like a crashpad apartment or a squat more than a hostel (since I save five bucks a night by not having a bed) and this suites me fine.
whew. Its nice to be finally caught up to the present. But then, I have to keep writing, or it suddenly slips into the past...