Posts Tagged ‘skiing’

I just got back from a “spring” break trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Last Tuesday morning I woke up early to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo to fly to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty, formerly known at Alma-Ata, was the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan. In the late 1990s, the capital of Kazakhstan moved to Astana, which means “capital” in Kazakh. My trip to Kazakhstan was possible due to the hospitality of my friend Jonathon, who is there for dissertation research. I invited myself to crash on his couch, and he was thankfully not opposed to the idea.

The flight to Almaty was trouble free. I once again flew on Aeroflot. I’ve earned enough miles that my flight to Kazakhstan was essentially free. I only paid $15 for the roundtrip tickets, $5 of which was mandatory insurance. Flying to Kazakhstan was cool, because I got to depart from a different terminal of Sheremetyevo than usual. The flights to New York, both on Aeroflot and Delta, operate out of Terminal D, which is also the main Aeroflot terminal. I’ve only been there. My flights to Tbilisi, Georgia and Murmansk also departed from Terminal D, which I think is the newest of the terminals. The flight to Kazakhstan left form Terminal F, which was built for the 1980 Olympics. It’s been renovated since then, but it does show its age such as with the old style board that announces all of the flights. The terminal is also a little more confusing to navigate. For example, the check-in counters are technically behind a customs declaration zone, which is different than in Terminal D. I went and found the correct area to check-in and drop off my bag. When the woman affixed the baggage tag to my bag, I was pretty sure my bag would not arrive. Instead of putting it around the handle, she just aggressively slapped it across my entire bag.

After grabbing a snack, an announcement was made that my flight had been switched from Terminal F to Terminal E, which wasn’t a huge issue. Both are connected, the only indication of them being different terminals is that the gates for Terminal E are a level above those in Terminal F. Terminal F has a few small places to get food, but the terminal is really just one long string of duty free shops. Terminal E, which is also crammed with duty free, has a few more places to find different levels of food ranging from fancier sit-down stuff to Burger King.

The flight began to boarding on time. While waiting in line to get on the plane, the man behind me saw that I had an American passport and started to speak with me in English. He was originally Ukrainian, but has been living in Canada for about a decade and has Canadian citizenship as well. Like me, he was headed to Kazakhstan to see friends. Boarding was relatively calm, and we pushed back from the gate 3 minutes ahead of schedule. As it was a longer flight of just about four hours, we got a better meal choice. There were three options for breakfast: rice porridge, blini, or an omelet. I went with the rice porridge, or risovaya kasha, which is my favorite of the Russian breakfast porridges.

Aeroflot breakfast.

Looking out of the window was pretty interesting during the flight. Kazakhstan has a lot of steppe and desert land. It was surreal to see snow fields just transition into desert. And there’s also a lot of emptiness, which I noticed even more on my return flight, because unlike the way over, I didn’t spend the majority of the flight asleep. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world by land mass, but it only has about 18 million people in it, which is the population of Moscow. Seeing it from the air, it was quiet evident that made sense that the largest Gulag complex was in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. The harshness of the Gulag environment was also evident from the flights. It’s been steadily in the low to mid 40s Fahrenheit in Moscow for a few weeks now, but it was around freezing and snowing on and off in my time in Almaty, which is much more temperate than Astana.

Snow to desert.

In Almaty, we landed smoothly. Annoying, Aeroflot did not hand out the migration cards on the plane. I had to find a table for them just before passport control. I stood in line for what seemed like an eternity without the line moving, so I moved over to the other line, which was constantly moving. As I neared the front of that line, we ran into a snag because one of the two windows that our line went towards was occupied with a Hungarian woman. I don’t know what was wrong with her passport, but multiple guards came over and questioned her and I heard her saying something like “no, I don’t have any sisters, I only have a brother” and “why does it matter that I’m wearing earrings now but not in the passport photo?” When I finally got to the window, my border crossing officer was incredibly friendly. I came up to the window and said “hello” in both English and Russian. The woman immediately began to speak to me in perfect English, asking if it was my first time in Kazakhstan, and telling me to enjoy my stay. I then grabbed my bag and got into a taxi to my friend’s apartment.

From the airport I took a taxi to Jonathon’s apartment, which is a fifth-floor walk-up. He lives about 15 minutes from a metro stop that’s two stops away from the center of the city. The Almaty Metro is pretty interesting. In planning construction since the 1980s, it was finally opened in 2011. It only has one line and a handful of stations, but it’s fairly convenient for getting to a few of the places around the center. The metro is sparkling and the halls and train cars have TVs in them, which seemingly only show a series of commercials. The trains and cars themselves are made by Hyundai of Korea. They have a completely open interior design, where you can walk between all of the cars. Unlike the Moscow Metro, it’s relatively un-crowded. Perhaps this might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t go very far, or perhaps it’s because you have to wait 10 minute between trains. While inside the trains, all of the announcements are made in Kazakh, Russian, and English. Kazakhstan is officially a bi-lingual nation of Kazakh and Russian, and there is a generational divide between who knows which languages. Younger Kazakhs are now more likely to speak Kazakh amongst themselves, whereas those who are older still predominantly speak Russian. However, Kazakhstan is now attempting to move into being a tri-lingual country; thus, the metro announcements and signage in major places are in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

The Almaty Metro is clean, bright, and new.

On Tuesday night, Jonathan and I wandered around some of the main sights of the downtown before and after grabbing some dinner. One of the places where we killed some time was at Panfilov Park. The park was built to commemorate the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, who legendarily all died while attempting to halt a Nazi tank advance on Moscow. I saw a new Russian war movie about them in December, which was a stereotypical war film. A post-war investigation found out that not all of the men had died, but this information was suppressed in the Soviet Union and was only recently declassified. Nonetheless, the myth of the Panfilovities is still popular and widespread in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the origin locations of the men who made up the unit. In addition to a major sculpture to the men, there are also monuments to those who died in the Russian Civil War, WWII in general, and boxes with dirt from the Hero Cities of the Second World War. Nearby there is also a monument to Soviet soldiers who perished in Afghanistan, a war that is not as frequently commemorated or talked about in Russia.

The monument to Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen by day.

On Wednesday morning, I got up and headed to Shymbulak, a ski mountain just on the outskirts of Almaty, while Jonathon was a good student and headed off to the archives. He dropped me off at the bus stop and told me roughly where to get off, “at the gondola.” I figured it was the correct bus as I saw a bunch of people getting on with ski equipment, and I just followed them when it was time to get off.

Yup, on the right bus for sure.

The bus ride from the center of Almaty to the mountains takes about 30 minutes. Almaty itself is built at the base of the mountains. The bus stops at a major recreational park called Medeu, which is a massive skating rink. Around the same complex it a gondola, where you buy tickets to ride to the ski mountain base area as well as the lift passes for the mountain. The ride from the Medeu station to the base of Shymbulak takes about 15 minutes. I paid 7,000 tenge, or about $21.00 for a four hour lift pass. The four hour pass itself costs 5,500 tenge, or $16.00, for a weekday. I had to also pay about $4.00 and change for the electronic card for the ski passes. This isn’t uncommon, even in the states. For example, we go skiing as a family at Stowe, Vermont every December before Christmas. Stowe has a plastic card that we had to buy once about five or six years ago by now. We just go online to buy our tickets through our accounts, and the cards work at the mountain. Shymbulak doesn’t seem to have the online payment option yet, though, as everyone was waiting in line to reload their cards.

Shymbulak base after the gondola from Medeu.

Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak in Russian (there are lots of names that are slightly different in Kazakh and Russian, partially due to Russian spelling rules) is a resort that lies along the Talgar Pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. I spent a lot of time in my youth watching the Warren Miller ski videos, and still do to a certain point. The movies from the late 1980s were probably his best, but I had seen a cool clip from one of his movies from the early/mid-1990s in which his crew went to Chimbulak. The clip is fascinating to watch in terms of seeing how much Almaty and Chimbulak/Shymbulak have developed.

Unlike Gudauri in Georgia, Shymbulak has a true base area that includes a lodge with the ski rental in it. The rental was quick and easy, and they also had lockers to stow gear, which were missing at Gudauri. The locker itself was 1,000 tenge, or about $3.00 for the day, and to rent a board, boots, and helmet for the day cost me about $20.00. In total, I spent less for a good four hours of skiing (I didn’t have more time, but a full day pass would only have cost $3.00 more) and equipment than it would have cost for the lift ticket alone at most other local American ski areas, and half the price at least of major ski areas like Stowe or Killington.

The mountain is serviced by two major lifts as well as two smaller lifts. The major lifts are a strange combination lift that I’ve never seen before. The lift operates both detachable gondolas and quads on the same loading and unloading areas.

Design that I haven’t seen before.

The snow itself was neither hard nor soft the day I went. The trails were very clearly marked, unlike at Gudauri, and showed evidence of being groomed. The run lengths were about the same as at Gudauri, though Shymbulak is technically a few hundred meters higher. Also like at Gudauri, there were also some more difficult “trails” that were basically large swathes of off piste areas. I ventured briefly into some of these areas to test the snow, which was a little more powdery. Skiing without a partner, I didn’t really want to venture off much into the better snow or steeper stuff for a few reasons. In addition to being alone, the medical facilities in Kazakhstan aren’t exactly up to Western standards, and I didn’t want to chance any injuries. There were also a few signs with avalanche warnings, which I was a little afraid of. My good Marker ski jacket at home as a Recco avalanche reflector beacon in it, but for space reasons I have traveled to Russia without it. I would never venture much into avalanche zones in general, but I’m certainly not going to do it without avalanche recovery gear.

The views were pretty unreal.

Skiing mid-week was great. The trails were pretty empty. The people were all super friendly at Shymbulak. At one point, I was in the gondola to the top of the Talgar Pass with three Kazakh girls about my age, who were speaking Russian amongst themselves. As we were getting to the top, one asked me in Russian if I ski frequently, and I said that it was my first trip to Kazakhstan and Shymbulak, but that I ski every now and then in America, which I true. Christmas and Spring breaks in our household usually entailed going skiing in Vermont. Skiing in Kazakhstan felt like a real spring break for me in that sense. The girls were happy I was there, and one started to talk to me in perfect English. I got them to take my photo at the top, and wished them a good day of skiing.

Proof that I was indeed at Shymbulak. Also, ski in Asia: check. This winter season I’ve skied in three continents.

I took a number of good runs around the top half of the mountain and took a quick break for a lunch of a hotdog and tea at an outdoor snack area near the mid-station where I could eat and have my rental gear with me. During my lunch break, I noticed an interesting local wearing camo pants and smoking. He had modern ski boots, but he had late 1970s/early 1980s Fisher skis and a set of the same vintage Marker ski bindings. Having sold a lot of retro ski bindings on ebay, especially Markers, I know he has a set of $60 antique bindings. I sold just the toe pieces of similar bindings to someone in Japan for about $20.00 a few years ago, and have made good money off of some earlier Marker safety release bindings.

I don’t understand why people still use this retro gear, but it’s cool to see.

At one point, I noticed that the ski patrol had a St. Bernard dog, which was hanging around a snowmobile.

Ski patrol to the rescue.

The dog was super friendly, and I went up and gave it a good pet for a while, which was nice.

Making friends.

Shymbulak is clearly partially sponsored by the Head ski equipment company. All of my rental gear was made by Head, and I’m assuming the same would be the same for the ski equipment. At the bottom, I noticed that they had made a ski chair of sorts.

 

Thankfully, the ski chair I made myself is a better design, and truly made out of the skis, unlike taking the lazy route of just arranging some skis behind a regular chair.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. I had to return my things and head back to the Medeu base to take the bus back to the center, where I had agreed to meet Jonathon after he finished up at the archives. We were both about right on time at the meeting point, and we headed off to see the Zelyoni Bazaar, or the Green Bazaar, which was quite a sight. The main attraction of the Bazaar is the food market. There were a range of meats, but the exotic one for me was seeing horse meat. In Kazakhstan, horse meat is neither a standard meat nor a delicacy. It is not omnipresent nor is it as cheap as beef, but the price is only a little more and it’s not uncommon to find dishes with horsemeat at restaurants around the city.

The bazaar in all its glory with the horsemeat closest to the camera.

From the bazaar, we got dinner at a Kazakh stolovaya (cafeteria) chain called Kaganat. The food was delicious, filling, and extremely cheap. After dinner we walked around a bit more before heading home via the grocery store. I decided to get two products that are reasonably common in Kazakhstan, camel milk and a somewhat fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. The camel milk was basically just a bitter, almost plain yogurt flavored milk, which tasted pretty good in a cup of coffee. Kumis, however, was not my thing. It was extremely bitter, harsh, and tough to palate, but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

Camel milk on left, kumis on right.

On Thursday morning, we got up at went to the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, a museum about the local culture and history. Sadly, most of the best exhibits from the museum were moved to a newer museum in the modern capital of Astana. After the museum, we headed to a beer hall style café that had horse meat on the menu. I got a horse steak so that I could try the meat. It was incredibly tender, and had a slightly different and vaguely gamey taste from that of beef. I regret nothing; sorry to you horse lovers out there. I enjoy trying new, exotic animals. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh that carries exotic meats, and my goal is to eat through their entire list of offerings before graduation.

Horse steak.

On Thursday evening, Jonathon and I flew to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We decided to fly despite the fact that there are relatively easy to find buses and taxis to go across the border. We wanted to skip them because we didn’t know what conditions the roads would be in with the potential for winter weather. We also avoided them because at times you can pay your driver to take you all the way, but he can leave you at the border. This is such a prevalent practice that there are plenty of taxis and buses station at the border to carry on stranded passengers. Passport control at the border can also be problematic.

Going to Bishkek was my fifth ex-Soviet republic, which means that I’m one third of the way through my goal of visiting all fifteen of them. Bishkek is a 30 minute flight from Almaty. We flew on Air Astana, basically the equivalent of Air Kazakhstan. Surprisingly, the airline was pretty nice. You could check a bag for free even on this short flight, and they offered two rounds of drinks as well as some candies before take-off. We were even lucky and got the exit row for the flight. Getting onto the plane was a little nerve-wracking for me though, as the passport control guard very closely inspected every single page of my passport. He then asked if I had a visa for Kyrgyzstan, which I said I was pretty sure that I didn’t need. He double checked with his superior before sending me on my way.

Air Astana.

The plane was a pretty new Embraer 190 jet. The Russian man next to me was named Vyacheslav, and was very friendly. We chatted for the entire flight. He was from St. Petersburg and frequently travels to Bishkek for business. He was just very confused as to why a Russian speaking American was flying from Almaty to Bishkek, and what we were going to see there. I explained my desire to see as much of the ex-USSR as possible. He then at times insisted on taking photos and videos for me through the window, and told me not to pay more than 500 som for the taxi. He insisted on taking a photo of the takeoff for me, despite me not asking for it. Annoyingly, he filmed in portrait and not landscape, but the view of the sunset takeoff was pretty cool.

Jonathon, however, was not as lucky with his seat partner. The guy next to him spent the majority of the flight with his head buried in his hands. Either he really hated flying, or he was going through some major personal crisis.

The guy was like this the whole flight.

In Bishkek, we easily passed through passport control. We were then swarmed with taxi drivers after passing through the door to the arrivals hall. We got one guy to agree to 500 som, and we followed him off. He had us follow him a little ways off because he explained that you had to pay to park in the main parking area, so he parks off to the side somewhere. He also went proudly on and on about his diesel Ford car, which got great fuel economy, unlike the gas cars that most drivers use. His selection of 1980s pop music was also a delight.

In about 30 or so minutes, we made the ride to the center of Bishkek, where we were crashing in the apartment of another Fulbrighter, Dave. Dave teaches American history and culture at a university in Bishkek in English. He has a great two bedroom apartment, which also had a nice living room. I snagged the couch in the living room, which I quickly discovered was a sleeper sofa. Apparently, another Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in a small city about 90 minutes away frequently stays with Dave, but never bothered to check if the couch turns into a bed. Dave was pleasantly surprised that I checked and made the discovery, and Will was shocked when I told him at dinner the next night.

We dropped our stuff off with Dave before heading to a restaurant that was open a little later. It had a fusion of offerings ranging from Kyrgyz, which is really just a spin on common Uzbek dishes such as lagman (noodles and meat) and plov (rice pilaf with meat) and Georgian khachipuri as well as shashlyk, grilled meat. Entertainment at the restaurant was a man who was singing karaoke and playing the drums. Eventually, he turned into a DJ and the children dancing on the dance floor were replaced with a number of Kyrgyz couples, who danced for quite a while.

A true statement. I really liked Bishkek.

In the morning, Jonathon and I got up and had breakfast at the ex-pat coffee shop, which had a fully western menu. I was able to get a breakfast burrito, and it was delightful. We then slowly meandered around the main roads via a bookstore to the TsUM, Central Universal Store, which is basically a Soviet shopping mall. The TsUM had both a Nathan’s Famous in it (there was another one a few blocks away) as well as a store that specialized in Soviet antiques. Jonathon got some stuff for himself, and we headed off to see the Frunze Museum. We had to walk a little out of our way in the morning, because the Kyrgyz equivalent of the White House was along the way. Someone important must have been coming or going, because the roads immediately along it were closed to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic and there were police officers ever few feet.

The Frunze museum was a standard Soviet leader birth house museum. Like those for Stalin or Lenin, the house is there, but unlike those others, you can enter Frunze’s house. There are also exhibits about his early life, education, and revolutionary activities. We had a fun moment early on in the museum when we noticed that there was a group of Kyrgyz third graders on a tour. We thought we had managed to get a free tour, but unfortunately for us, the tour was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand.

School kids on the museum tour.

The museum has clearly seen better days. Some exhibits were falling apart. At one end of the museum, there was a rope cordoning off some of Frunze’s office effects and his couch. I asked the woman working there if it was possible to go past the rope and to look at the item descriptions, and she allowed us to do so. Then, on the bottom floor, outside of Frunze’s house was a small exhibit on Kyrgyz men who had served in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jonathon and I were very curious about it, and we very slowly walked around this area and carefully read everything there. This caught the attention of someone working there, who came up and asked if we had any questions. We explained that we were Soviet historians, and then had a lengthy conversation with her before entering Frunze’s house. She also engaged with us again after I bought some postcards and Jonathon bought some books at the museum entrance/gift shop.

Frunze’s dining room.

From the Frunze museum, we backtracked a few blocks to find the major WWII museum in Bishkek, which was opened in 1985. The main part of the memorial is in the shape of a yurt, which was pretty cool. Unfortunately, it was hazy both days that we were in Bishkek, and we couldn’t see the mountains in the backdrop of the city, which you normally can.

Bishkek’s main WWII monument.

From the WWII museum, we headed to the Bishkek Panfilov Park, which is more of an amusement park that has one statue to Ivan Panfilov, who eventually became the military commander of Kyrgyzstan, and was the commander of the 28 guardsmen who heroically died defending Moscow. Panfilov himself died shortly after their stand from a splinter from a German mortar attack. At Panfilov Park, we got a late lunch/snack at a café. What we got was some sort of “burger” which was really shaved shawarma meat on a bun with cheese, “ketchup,” mayo, coleslaw, and French fries. Basically, I got a Primanti Bros. sandwich in Bishkek. Primanti needs to protect their sandwich copyright.

Kyrgyz Primanti Bros.

After our meal, we went back to Dave’s apartment for a quick break before joining Dave at the American Center of Bishkek for the English conversation group he leads with Amanda, the Fulbright ETA. Jonathon and I joined in on their discussion for the day, which was about fashion. There was one older man of about 50 or 60 who kept saying funny things. He complimented my jeans and later said that he likes women who wear miniskirts, because he likes to look at their hips. The first table I spoke with was mostly dominated by a strange and highly opinionated guy of Slavic decent with a mullet. He basically shooed me away from the table. “You can rotate you know, so you should rotate. That table doesn’t have anyone, go there.” I figured it was easier to leave than deal with him being hostile, so I did. The other table was much more excited to have a new American to interrogate. The wanted me to introduce myself and asked me questions about myself and why I was in Bishkek, etc. One guy asked how old I was, and asked if I was married when I said I was 27. He then started to ask questions like why wasn’t I married, did I want to be married, and what kind of guy do I like? I asked if he was making some sort of proposal.

Sometimes I miss working as an English teacher in the former Soviet Union.

From the American Corner, we went to a local Korean style chicken restaurant called Chicken Star where a group of 15 or so of us who had connections to the Fulbright program in Kyrgyzstan gathered. Some were Kyrgyz people who had done Fulbrights in the USA or worked for Fulbright in Bishkek. There were some Fulbright researchers, ETAs, and State Department English Language Fellows around as well as one Boren Scholar. I had a good time talking with the people there, and had a great chat with one Kyrgyz guy especially. He was about 50. I’m not quite sure what his connection to Fulbright was, but we were chatting and he asked me if I was German. Apparently my heritage is also noticeable in other ex-Soviet Republics beyond Russia. I told him that I used to live in Ulyanovsk, and he got excited because his father lived and worked there at one point. We discussed the virtues of the UAZ 469 jeep, which he claimed was pure Russian engineering, and he claimed that the Mercedes Geländewagen is a derivative of the 469, which I don’t quite agree with. We also talked about the Mercedes in Bishkek. Many of them are W124s (1986-1995). Although most of them are post-1990 face-lifted W124s, there are still plenty of 1986-1989 ones running around the city. The W124s are also quite popular in Almaty, where they are quite prevalent; however, the ones in Almaty are mostly 1990-1995 models.

A snow covered W124 in Almaty.

In Bishkek, most of the minibuses, or marshrutki, are also Mercedes. There is a good mix of Sprinter vans and older Mercedes vans from the 1970s and 1980s, which I was happy to see.

Old Mercedes van marshrutka.

I also learned that the W123 has a special name in Kyrgyzstan, where it is called the Krokodil, or “crocodile.” Jonathon got a little frustrated with me taking photos of all of the Mercedes in Almaty and Bishkek, but he was overall a really good sport about my obsession.

A W124 taxi in Bishkek.

The next morning, Jonathon and I woke up to walk with Dave to the Osh Bazaar, the main Bazaar in Bishkek. It was a lot rougher looking than the bazaar in Almaty, and wasn’t a place that was good to take photos for a variety of reasons.

Entrance to the Osh Bazaar.

Kyrgyzstan on the whole is a lot less well off than Kazakhstan, which has a lot of oil and gas money. The city of Bishkek clearly received attention in the Soviet era. Walking around the city was actually like walking around a Soviet time capsule. There were a ton of Soviet buildings, which have not been changed, unlike in Almaty or Tbilisi, Georgia. However, in the post-Soviet collapse, not much has been improved or well maintained.

Soviet Bishkek.

Despite this, though, there were a good number of western stores and chains in Bishkek, as well as some delightfully funny local knockoffs, such as BFC, which seemed to be a Bishkek Fried Chicken.

Bishkek Fried Chicken?

From the Bazaar, we went back to TsUM to get a few more things at the souvenir stand. After that, we grabbed some lunch at a local stolovaya cafeteria before walking back to the apartment to pack and get a cab to the airport. Our cab driver to the airport was fairly chatty, and he made sure to point out the village next to the airport where a cargo 747 from Uzbekistan had crashed in the fall. That was just what I wanted to hear about before flying away from Bishkek.

Things got momentarily worse when we were in the airport. We checked in without problems, but ran into a snag at passport control, or at least Jonathon did. He was questioned for an extra long time about his past travels. Thankfully, he was eventually let through and we waited around for our flight. The plane from Almaty was late. Then, there was no announcement made, but our plane was beginning boarding at a completely different gate than posted on the sign. We only discovered this through an Australian couple who were traveling with their three young children on a visa run from Almaty. The mother was walking around with one of the kids to get him to calm down, and then came and told her husband that the gate had been switched and that the plane was going to board soon.

The flight back was fine and without issues. We got a taxi back to Jonathon’s and basically passed out. In the morning, we got up and lazed around before meeting another grad student, Sean, and his wife and daughter at a café in the center for a late lunch. From there, Jonathon and I rode the gondola at Kok Tobe, to the observation point above Almaty. Unfortunately, it was a snowy day, and the view was obscured by the clouds. The area at the top was interesting, though, because they had a zoo with some strange animals ranging from goats, rabbit, and deer to ostriches and emus. There was also a monument to the Beatles at the top for confusing reasons.

The bottom of the gondola from my first night in Almaty.

After Kok Tobe, we grabbed tea in a café before wandering around a bit and getting dinner at Kagant again. The snow picked up a bit, and we headed back to veg out for the night with Russia related youtube videos. In the morning, we got up and explored a local park before getting lunch. I used YandexTaxi to get a ride to the airport. The price was an unbelievable 1,500 tenge, when the good normal price is 3,000 tenge. My driver was a nice 4th year university student. He was excited to have an American in his car. He was telling me how had spent two years in the Kazakh military and earned the rank of Lieutenant. Military service is not required in Kazakhstan, but it’s fashionable and can help get a variety of other jobs related to the government such as working for the police. He multiple times asked if I was married or planning to marry. At one point, he asked if I would ever consider marrying someone who was Kazakh. I’m not sure if he was implying something or not as he also kept talking about how much he wants to travel to America. He also had never been to the airport before, I was his first drive there.

Checking in for my flight back was smooth, as was passport control. We had a very rough takeoff that was caused by the old runway itself. The runway was clearly worn and in bad shape. I didn’t notice the same amount of bumps in the smaller Embraer, but in the larger Aeroflot Boeing 737, the disrepair of the runway was a little more evident. Still, it’s a long way from the Soviet Union where a number of distant airports didn’t even have paved runways. Soviet jets were designed to takeoff on packed snow or gravel runways.

I flew back without any problems with passport control. The landing was smooth for the rain that we landed in, and it was a perfectly Russian experience of having everyone clap loudly because the pilot didn’t crash. Everyone also got up while we were still taxiing to remove their items from the bins.

Now I’m back in Moscow and itching for my next adventure.

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Yesterday evening I arrived back in Moscow after a short trip to the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Republic that is located in the Caucasus. I left Friday morning to go there with a friend of mine who studies Soviet history at Ohio State. He is currently doing research in Kazakhstan, and his visa requires him to leave there every 90 days. He was going to go to Georgia for his visa compliance trip, and I invited myself along, which he thankfully didn’t reject.

We met at the gate in the airport in Moscow before flying to Tbilisi, the capita of Georgia, together. We flew on Aeroflot. There were no problems boarding the plane, and the trick of getting seats in the back of the plane worked to our advantage. I got the window and he got the aisle. As it wasn’t a full flight, we had the middle seat open. The flight was pleasant enough, left roughly on time, and was mostly smooth. We were fed a snack, which was a, um, thing? It was a sandwich of smoked salmon, pickles, and mayo? Mustard? Mustard-mayo? I made it through about two bites before quitting. I like Russian cuisine, but this was far too Russian for my liking.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I've been offered to eat on a plane.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I’ve been offered to eat on a plane.

Migration at Tbilisi was quick and easy. We then easily grabbed a taxi to our AirBnB. The trip was off to an auspicious start, as our taxi was a late 1990s Mercedes C-Class wagon. The driver was very friendly, and conversed with us in Russian. He took us to our apartment and gave us a mini tour of sorts along the way. He showed off the newer glass police headquarters, a physical attempt at transparency with the police, and an American chemical company. The American chemical company was our first taste of the current Russian-Georgian relations. The driver said that it’s just a normal chemical company, but when it was being built, the Russians tried to convince the Georgians not to allow it, that it would be making chemicals and dangerous substances. Georgia is caught at a cross-roads between Russia and the United States. Russia clearly still has a lot of influence there, but the Georgians aren’t very pro-Russian, and often look to the US. This also led to a few tense moments at times when I didn’t know which language to speak, Russian or English. I didn’t want to be insulting and assume that everyone knows or would like to speak Russian, but I also didn’t want to come across at the rude American who goes abroad and assumes that everyone speaks English. It was uncomfortable at times.

Riding in comfort and style.

Riding in comfort and style.

After riding around a series of ridiculously narrow back roads, we were dropped off at our apartment, which was right behind the old Parliament building.  It was a pre-revolutionary former noble residence. After the revolution, it was turned into collective apartments, which were eventually privatized. Despite being privatized, we got a small taste of the collective apartment experience. There was a door off of the stairwell that went into an entryway with three doors. The door on the left went to our kitchen and bathroom. The door to the right went to the bedroom/living room/dining room. The center door was to another private apartment. “Don’t worry, they have their own entrance and rarely use this door,” said Eka. We have different versions of the word rarely, because they kept coming and going through the door all hours of the day and night. They also had their TV on all the time. And smoked. Best neighbors ever!

The doors off of the entry hall.

The doors off of the entry hall.

We put our stuff down and then headed to the basement of the building, which was accessed from the street. In one basement area there was a small shop where we bought milk, juice, bread, and eggs. In another basement area was a café that cooked up home style food that could be eaten there or taken out. For about $6.00 we got two huge portions of food with potoates and a tasty sauce, which the woman called “Georgian Ketchup.” The wine was home made and complimentary from the AirBnB host.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

After food and a nap, we set out to explore our neighborhood of Tbilisi. We were essentially in a government center. We walked down and back the main road of our district, Rustaveli Avenue. There were a few examples of anti-Soviet sentiment there. The first was a plaque on the Parliament building, which talked about free elections and independence in 1918 until the annexation by Soviet Russia in 1921. Another plaque down the road mentioned a peaceful demonstration that was “gunned down by the Soviet Regime” in March 1956. The national museum even has a permanent exhibit called the “Museum of Soviet Occupation.”

There's a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

There’s a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

We ended up walking up the hill in our neighborhood up to the Funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain that is behind Tbilisi. The view was nice at night, but it was a very cloudy night, which spoiled things a little. We wandered around the park at the top of the hill and took in the fake dinosaur park and the behemoth Soviet television tower, which was quite imposing while emerging from the clouds. We also grabbed a good dinner at a restaurant at the top before heading back to the apartment to go to bed.

The mighty TV tower.

The mighty TV tower.

On Saturday morning, we were met at 8:00AM by a driver, Gaga. Some of my Italian neighbors had gone to Tbilisi last semester, and I got his number from them. Gaga is Georgian and also speaks Russian, but no English, so all of our communication was in Russia. We got into the car and he drove us north to Gudauri, a ski area up in the Caucasus Mountains. On the way, we took a quick stop at a McDonalds drive through so that he could get a cup of coffee. The particular McDonalds was across from the American Embassy. I joked that it was a convergence of two American embassies. We also stopped briefly after switching to the Georgian Military Road so he could get more gas. While waiting in the gas station, I saw a W202 C-Class towing another W202 C-Class. At least half of the cars on the road in Georgia are used German sedans and wagons that range from 10-30 years old, though the average is about 15 years old. I saw quite a few W202s and W210s, arguably two of the worst Mercedes made. There were also a good number of BMWs and a smattering of Opels and VWs. There is clearly some sort of business that buys up used cars in Germany and ships them to Georgia.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

The road to the Gudauri was harrowing. It was snowing, and we were generally on a two-land “highway” the whole way. Sanding operations on the road were also crazy. There were men riding in the backs of trucks and shoveling sand and gravel onto the roads.

Advanced sanding operation.

Advanced sanding operation.

The roads were poorly plowed and our driver was speeding like a madman. He was also aggressively passing other cars and trucks around blind curves. At times, the car would skid a little or I would feel the ABS going off as he did some rather questionable maneuvers. To make matters worse, he was driving a Toyota that had been imported from Japan. The steering wheel was on the wrong side, so it was harder for him to see around vehicles to pass. At one point, we were essentially driving down the left lane of the road for a few miles as we passed dozens if not hundreds of stopped trucks. They were forbidden from going up the steep mountain pass in the snow, so they were parked along the side of the road.

The stopped convoy.

The stopped convoy.

As we heading into the mountain switch backs, I really started to panic. I had a white knuckle grip on the seat as we weaved around corners and skidded in the snow with sheer cliff faces and not much of a guard rail. I made it through quite a few decades of the Rosary along the way, and was slightly hyperventilating as we got towards the top of the switchback.

This was literally the most scared I have ever been in a car, including that time that I was at a Mercedes driving event and went around the track with my instructor in his car. A trip that ended with him crashing his car after we had brake fade coming out of the straight. If you’re going to crash, crash in style in a limited edition Mercedes SL500. Thankfully we slowed enough through him pulling the emergency brake that when we hit the gravel pit and the deformable barriers, the airbags didn’t go off (thought they might, which is why I put my arm with the camera down in the video). It was just cosmetic damage to his car, but I didn’t think this Georgian driver would have the same skills as my instructor, plus we were on a track with safety equipment for to minimize damage and injury, including wearing racing helmets. Going off the side of a cliff or smacking into another car would have been a different story.

We finally reached Gudauri after two or two and a half hours of driving. Gaga left us to go to the ski rental, where I rented a board, boots, and helmet for about $11.50 for the whole day.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

The lift ticket was about $15.00 for the whole day. My friend was a good sport and wandered around the base area for a few hours while I went up and snowboarded. The first lift was a slow-speed quad, which led to a different base area with a higher speed, detachable quad. Both were made by Doppelmayr, an Austrian lift company.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base areas for both quads featured a variety of food and souvenir stands and restaurants. From the second quad, I asked some Russians how to get down to the Gondola, which was a little unclear. They just told me to head left, which I did and basically found the Gondola no thanks to the lack of trail markings.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The mountain itself was fabulous, the crowds weren’t bad, and the skiers were generally in control and weren’t crazy. However, the mountain isn’t quite up to American or European standards when it comes to trail markings.

Most American and European ski areas don't have stray dogs all over them either.

Most American and European ski areas don’t have stray dogs all over them either.

American mountains, at least in the North East, basically only have well marked trails. American resorts in the West tend to have more free skiing options, as do the European Alps, but the boundaries are fairly well marked. This was certainly the case in Jackson, Wyoming or Garmisch, Germany. The same does not hold true for Gudauri. Sign posts were very rare, and the limit of the trails was always unclear. I headed left from the middle quad to what looked like a trail that ran under the lift and doubled back to the side. At least in America and Germany, the small trail would have double backed into a main trail. Instead, I found myself in open free skiing. The snow itself was fabulous powder, and the area where I was happened to be rock and crevasse free, thankfully. I then went down that for a while before rejoining the actual trail.

Sun and perfect snow.

Sun and perfect snow.

The way down from the Gondola was easier to decipher. I wish I had had more time to ski the mountain all day. The runs were pure joy, some of the best skiing I’ve experienced in my whole life. I stuck basically to blues to the whole way, though, as I was skiing alone. The blues were super easy, more like an American green. They were all wide trails with good snow. There weren’t any icy patches at all, and they weren’t that steep. Had I been with a partner, I would have ventured off into the more difficult stuff, but I wasn’t going to push anything while alone on a mountain in a country with questionable medical facilities. The mountain was also interesting in that it has allegedly affordable heliskiing. The heliskiing tracks were super visible off on the mountains to the side. My favorite ski conditions are heavy powder, so I was sad to not get to track the fluffly stuff on this trip. But if I get the opportunity, I would definitely come back here and would totally recommend the place to others.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

After skiing for a few hours, I met my friend at the base. He had gotten an order of food for himself earlier for about $8.00, which was a giant portion of khachipuri and potatoes. He couldn’t eat it at all, and got the rest to go. When I joined him again, he gave me some of the food.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

After the harrowing drive up, we asked the driver to take us back to Tbilisi, and at a slower speed. He had wanted to take us up farther into the mountains, but we were too afraid of the roads and didn’t want to be riding on them at night. Visibility during the day was bad enough, and there were hazards like cows, dogs, or people riding horses that we had to avoid on the way to and from the mountain. The driver relented, and took us back to Tbilisi. Along the way, we stopped at Ananuri castle complex, to see a 13th century castle and church.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

In Tbilisi, the driver took us around the city for a while and showed us stuff from the car before taking us to the Memorail to Georgian History at the top of a hill. We climbed up and explored it for a while.

An imposing monument.

An imposing monument.

There was a great view of Soviet Tbilisi from this hill.Tbilisi itself is an interesting mix of national, pre-revolutionary architecture and Brezhnev blocks. After the memorial, he dropped us off in the center so that we could see the Museum of Soviet Occupation.

Soviet Tbilisi.

Soviet Tbilisi.

The Museum of Soviet Occupation was a permanent exhibit in the National Museum. It consisted of two rooms that portrayed a very bleak picture of Russian-Georgian relations. On one side of the first room was an old train car with bullet holes in it, in which hundreds were allegedly shot. Our AirBnB host later told us that this was a fabrication, it was a mock train car and had holes drilled in it. There was also a video showing the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and Russian bombings in South Ossetia. The next room was mostly just copies of archival documents that were execution orders for Georgian citizens, nobility, and clergy. Essentially, the Bolsheviks shot the majority of the Georgian nobility. It listed thousands of people who were shot during the Soviet era, as well as the 400,000 Georgians who died during WWII as victims of Soviet occupation. The final part of the exhibit was about continued Russian occupation with the contested territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are under Russian military control. Oddly enough, the museum didn’t mention anything about Stalin or Beria, two Georgians who initiated many of the killings that took place in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Gaga had let us borrow a metro card for the night, which was topped off, so we took a ride on the Tbilisi metro to see what it was like. It’s fairly small, and was initially built in the 1960s. It runs the same cars as the 1970s style ones of Soviet design, though they’ve been renovated with newer interiors and exteriors that feature Georgian pride.

We also popped into a wine store to get some wine. We wanted to get some red Georgian wine of the Kindzmarauli semi-sweet kind. The store had nice Kindzmarauli on tap, so we got two plastic 1 liter bottles for about $7.50, which provided us with drinks for the two remaining nights in Tbilisi.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

The next morning, Gaga met us at 9:30 to take us to Gori, Stalin’s home town so that we could go to the Stalin Museum. The museum was oddly built in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and during Khrushchev’s campaign of de-Stalinization. The museum has a major building of exhibition halls chronicling his whole life and death. It starts with his birth, features and exhibit with the 6th of the 9 official death masks, and a giant hall of gifts from his 70th birthday.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

One of the funny pieces was a model of his secret, underground printing press.There is another copy of this exact model in the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk. I’m not sure whether or not to be impressed or distressed with myself for recognizing the model, though I’ve been to the Lenin Memorial three times.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin's train.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin’s train.

Also at the museum are Stalin’s birth house and a train carriage. The house sits in its original location, and there is a giant stone structure built over it to protect it. The train carriage is an armored one that initially belonged to Nicholas II. Stalin left it basically unchanged with the exception of the addition of an air-conditioner. The train was given to the museum by Gorbachev sometime in the 1980s. Stalin travelled pretty much everywhere in the train car, especially as he had a fear of flying. He only flew twice in his life, from Baku to Tehran and back for the 1943 Tehran Conference with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. As our guide Georgi said, “Stalin didn’t want to be too close to God.”

The tour with our guide was great. He made plenty of sassy comments towards Stalin and the Soviet regime. We were also joined over time by a motley crew of American and Indian tourists, who I really wanted to ask what they were doing in Georgia. During the tour, our guide mentioned that the museum has its own archives, including Stalin’s original death mask. We said we were historians of the period and asked if we could somehow get permission to enter the archives. He said that they are private, but that there was a public archive that we could see. The public archive is actually just an exhibit on the crimes of Stalin, mostly the shootings of the purges in the 1930s. The guide told us that the museum was a standard Soviet one that glorified the leader and the regime without mentioning any of its bad times, so he got the permission to create this additional exhibit with archival research that he has done. The only downside to the museum was that it really wasn’t heated. There were some space heaters, but it was absolutely freezing inside. There were, however, very nice and clean bathrooms in the museum. We later rated all future bathrooms on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a dirty Turkish toilet and 10 being the Stalin museum bathrooms.

After the museum, we got in the car and rode off through the countryside to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. As we rode through the countryside, I was struck by how poor Georgia really is. I knew that the Caucasian Republics generally were poorer and were hit hard by the Soviet collapse. I had assumed, wrongly, that they had gotten a little better. Many of the villages were run down and looked almost like they had been bombed. People and animals were milling through the streets. Many of the houses did not have indoor plumbing, as outhouses were visible all over.

Uplistsikhe was fascinating. It was a city hewn into the sandstone of some cliffs. It was probably founded in the Iron Age, and featured a series of living quarters, wine presses, bakeries, jails, and theatres. There were even spaces for pagan ritual animal sacrifices and star worship. Our guide told us that there were some Soviet additions to the cave city, such as cement support pillars, which prevent it from being classified as a UNESCO heritage site.

The cave city.

The cave city.

I mumbled under my breath that it might have had something to do with the place being a giant death trap. We were climbing up worn down sandstone cliff faces that were covered in snow. There were no hand holds and very few places had level paths of any kind. I was worried about breaking an ankle in some places, and falling off the exposed side of a mountain at another. I’m not really a fan of heights and panicked a little at the completely open cliff face at one end of the complex. I would have lost my lunch had we been able to stop for lunch before seeing the place.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

After Uplistsikhe, we rode from about an hour through the countryside. At one point, Gaga started taking photos of the view while driving. At others, he was texting. Sometimes, he would have phone conversations without bothering to turn down the blaring radio. Eventually, he took us to a roadside café complex just outside of Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia. It was clearly where all of the locals ate, and we again dined on khachipuri and khinkali. After lunch, we went to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th Century.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

Gaga came inside with us and explained different parts of the history of it, such as the lore of it being built above the grave of someone who died and was buried while holding the robe of Christ from Golgotha. While inside the church, we witnessed a traditional Georgian Orthodox wedding, which was pretty cool.

Well this is awkward, I didn't bring a wedding gift.

Well this is awkward, I didn’t bring a wedding gift. The groom was clearly calling me out for it with his stare. Also, lots of other random people were taking photos, so I figured it was OK to do so.

From Mtskheta, Gaga drove us back to Tbilisi and left us off at the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. We went inside it and enjoyed the view. We also went into a smaller church built on the complex before grabbing a cab that would take us to the gondola that runs over the city. To my happiness, we got into another Mercedes C-Class taxi. This one was a sporty W202 C180 with a manual transmission. To my regret, my seat was missing its seatbelt, which was extra unpleasant when we went down the super steep cobblestone road in a car in which the brake wear indicator light was flashing. The roads and drivers in general in Georgia are frightening. They make Moscow drivers look calm and people in the Bronx like grandmothers out on Sunday drives.

The gondola ride to the top was cool. It was just before dark, so the view was still great. Jonathon put some coins into the binocular machine and enjoyed the view from it. We wandered around the top for a while and got up close to the Monument to the Mother of Georgia. When we rode down, it was dark, so we got a different view. We then walked across the river on a pedestrian bridge. We resisted the urge to invest and double our grant money at the local casino. We walked back to our neighborhood and grabbed dinner before heading back to the apartment to drink wine.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

In the morning, we had until 12:00 to leave the AirBnB. We got up and had breakfast before walking down the main road a last time. We popped into a local bookstore where we each bought a Georgian-English book to teach the Georgian language for about $10. We also walked along the street trying to buy stamps for some of the postcards that I had gotten. None of the souvenir shops had them, despite someone in Uplistsikhe telling me that those stores sell them. I asked if there was a post office, and one set of babushki told me that there aren’t any in the neighborhood at all, that I would have to walk a few blocks and then take a bus a few stops to get them. I gave up on the notion of sending some postcards actually from Georgia at that point.

After the failed stamp quest, we headed back to the restaurant below the apartment to get a last meal before going to the airport. Just after cleaning up after eating, our AirBnB host was there to collect the keys and call us a taxi to the airport. For future reference for anyone going to Tbilisi, Yandex taxi works there, and they have the cheapest rates to and from the airport.

Our driver was a nice older man who wanted to know where we were from and what two Russian speaking Americans were doing there. He complimented me on my Russian and asked Jonathon a series of questions about life in Kazakhstan. Along the way, he told us that there is more gender equality in Georgia, and that Georgian women truly have a say in their households. He then made comments about the Central Asian republics being dominated by elder males, and derogatory comments about Muslim families in general, such as Azeri women only voting for whomever their husbands tell them to. There is evidently a lot of rivalry between the ex-Soviet republics.

At the airport, boarding the plane was a bit of a free for all. The people working at the gate walked over and people just lined up and started getting onto the plane before boarding was announced at all. There was no regard to class or seat position for boarding. We then got onto the plane and proceeded to sit for a long time. Eventually, the captain said that we were being delayed due to slow boarding and baggage loading. About 90 minutes after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and then de-iced before taking off (dégivrer, my favorite French word). I think what happened was the flight was not full and we waited until every seat on the plane was filled with passengers. Jonathon and I lost the empty free seat that was between us.

Argh, why is the flight delayed?

Argh, why is the flight delayed? Also, proof that we were indeed together in Georgia.

The flight itself was uneventful. It was a smooth ride and the skies were reasonably clear, so I had a great view of the Caucasus Mountains.

The sandwich this time around was better, too. It was ham and cheese with pickles and the strange condiment spread. When we got to Moscow, though, we were again delayed due to the weather. It was snowing, and we had to circle for about 20 minutes before the runways were cleared for us to land. Landing was smooth and fine. I still feel slightly weird when the whole plane erupts into applause upon landing, though. The pilot did his job and didn’t kill us, why are we cheering for fulfilling the minimum criterion for his job?

Due to the delays, I was panicking a little because I was supposed to go to the dorm and do my laundry at 8:00. We only have one working washer for the two dorms at the RGGU main campus, so if you lose your slot you can’t get another one for at least a week. We pushed to get onto the almost full bus that took us to the gate. We said goodbye quickly in the terminal, and then I rushed to immigration. I was worried that I might be given lots of questions for flying in from Tbilisi. I stood anxiously in line while the people spent forever processing some passengers from China. When it was finally my time, I had to wait three or so minutes for the staff at the window to change. I handed the woman my passport and she asked where I had flown in from. I said Tbilisi, she nodded, and then stamped my passport and migration card and sent me on my way. I then essentially ran across the airport to the Aeroexpress terminal and got onto the 7:00 train with five minutes to spare, which meant that I was back in the dorms 10 minutes before I had to start my laundry.

All in all, it was a spectacular trip. I cannot wait to visit Kazakhstan and Armenia later this semester. It’s interesting to see how these countries retain some of their Soviet past, and to what extent they reject it. I’m also fascinated by the changes that have happened in these places in the 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I’ve been back in Moscow for over a week and a half, and things have been fairly busy after the first few days of recovering from jet lag. Before I cover my recent escapades, I have to jump back in time to December. I had an action packed couple of days before leaving and forgot to write about them during the jet lag haze from returning home.

The highlights of those days were the two days before flying out, Saturday and Sunday. I got up early in the morning on the Saturday, so I could ride down to the end of the green line, to Tsaritsino, to watch a local Taekwondo tournament and cheer on my club mates.

Watching Nikita winning his fight.

Watching Nikita winning his fight.

From the meet, I took the metro to Sokolniki Park to meet Tobi and Micah, my dorm neighbors, to go cross country skiing there. We couldn’t have had a better day for it. The weather was sunny and it in the 20s. The ski rental was relatively easy to find from the park map. It cost 150 rubles to rent skis, boots, and poles for two hours. The annoying thing was that it cost 200 rubles to leave my boots in the hut. For $2.50 for two hours, the skis weren’t too bad. They were probably Finnish made and had rat trap style bindings. The boots themselves had a small hole in them, but they were more or less OK.

No extra charge for the hole.

No extra charge for the hole.

The park is itself great. It was the former hunting grounds of Ivan the Terrible, and was the first national park in Russia. Within a few minutes of skiing away from the center of the park, we were essentially in deep woods of birch trees. At one point, off in the depths of the woods, we came across a babushka just out for a walk in her fur coat. One of the nice things about Russia is that the natives don’t let the cold stop them. The park was filled with lots of people just walking through the woods, as well as others skiing or sledding. The center of the park even had a fairly nifty circular ice rink going around a giant New Year’s tree.

Into the woods we go.

Into the woods we go.

The skiing itself was pretty good. Some of the trails had fairly soft snow, and some were groomed with the double track for cross country skiing. There were smaller, wooded trails as well as open trails that were built as race circuits. It was Tobi and Micah’s first time cross country skiing. They picked it up pretty quickly, though Tobi was fairly bold and fell a few times. In the process of falling, he broke one of his skis, which he didn’t notice until just before we went to turn them in. In theory, we should have only paid 75 rubles for the skiing as students, but we didn’t fight for it. We also had to pay a 1,000 ruble deposit to ski, which Tobi didn’t get back for breaking the ski.

Ooops.

Ooops.

After skiing, I headed to Alla’s for pelmeni night. Alla had cooked three kinds of pelmeni: seafood, potato, and meat. Each had its own kind of sauce. The seafood pelmeni were accompanied by red caviar in sour cream, the potato by an almost Caesar dressing, and the meat ones with a garlic sauce. There was also a salad and some mushrooms as sides.

So. Much. Food.

So. Much. Food.

Some of the other highlights included a Christmas/goodbye party with some of the dorm neighbors.

Only two of us are staying this whole year. There are only three of us on the floor at the moment. One goes home in a few days.

Only two of us are staying this whole year. There are only three of us on the floor at the moment. One goes home in a few days.

Jumping back to the more recent past, I’ve been fairly busy with archival work as usual. I had ordered my documents ahead of time at the military archive via the internet, and they were indeed ready as promised. My bribes at the military archive have also paid off. Before leaving for Christmas, I gave the reading room staff some chocolates, which they gladly accepted. Upon returning, I also gave them a small box of chocolates from America. This had paid off. Recently, I ordered a few different documents. I didn’t know, but one was on microfilm while the others were on paper. In some archives, this is a huge no-no. God help you if you want to order different media on one slip of paper. One employee told me she caught it and filled out a different form for me so that I would be sure to get the microfilm one. She claims that there is some sort of indication in the finding aide as to whether or not the files are paper or on microfilm, but I think that’s just a myth.

The military archive was the easy one. I had to re-register at the State Archive (GARF) and the Economic Archive (RGAE). The process was almost like I had never been there before. I had to get a temporary pass by showing a letter of introduction and my passport. Then, upstairs, I had to hand in my letters of introduction, one for each of the archives even though they share a reading room and ID card. At GARF, the archivist vaguely remembered me and told me that I could still log into the system with my ID number in order to fill out the registration form again. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long to re-register and order documents at these archives. The archivist at GARF was even nice when I asked which reading room my documents would be in, which turns out to be both of them. Despite being on the same physical campus, they have different hours of operation. Because why not.

After registering at GARF and RGAE, I hopped back on the metro to go to the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI) to register there for the first time. Getting there wasn’t bad because the Frunzenskaya Metro station, the one by GARF, has re-opened after renovations. Now I don’t have to switch from the metro to an overcrowded bus to get to and from GARF, which is a huge plus. I’ve never worked at RGASPI, but I was slightly afraid because friends told horror stories of Misha, the infamous archivist there. Surprisingly, he was very friendly and helpful, and registration was quick and easy. It felt like a trap.

The outside of the building is great. There are giant reliefs of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the façade.

It's easy to find RGASPI. Just turn left at the trio of Soviet faces.

It’s easy to find RGASPI. Just turn left at the trio of Soviet faces.

The building had a great location to boot. It’s a few blocks from Red Square. The archive is across the street from Louis Vuitton and Nobu. It’s also a few doors down from Krasnodar Bistro, the place that sells the delicious nutria burgers. I might have to escape to there for a lunch break sometime.

Probably why the faces of Marx, Engels, and Lenin look so angry. They have to stare at their enemy. I bet no one could have imagined this would be downtown Moscow 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Probably why the faces of Marx, Engels, and Lenin look so angry. They have to stare at their enemy. I bet no one could have imagined this would be downtown Moscow 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Outside of research, I recently went to two cool museums. The first was the Metro Museum, which is free. I met with Anne-Marie to get there. We got off at the stop where it supposedly is, Sportivnaya, on the Red Line. We got out, couldn’t find it at one exit, walked around to the other exit street side to find that it also wasn’t there. We walked back to the first side and asked the woman selling Metro tickets where the museum was. She told us that it had moved to a completely different station on one of the newer lines. In total, about 45 minutes had elapsed since we met up to get to the museum. Anne-Marie mentioned how she is only this patient in Russia, and it’s true. At home, I would probably be very angry that things had changed without much indication on the internet. In Russia, though, this is just par for the course and I go with the flow.

Eventually, we wound up at the correct stop. The museum is built above the Vystavochnaya Metro station. It had some cool documents and maps from the planning of the metro back to tsarist times. Then there were artifacts from all stages of the construction of the metro from the 1930s to present, largely broken into eras that showed the growth of the system and the evolution of its technology.

Older Metro control station.

Older Metro control station. This one is from Park Kultury.

One really cool part of the exhibit was a simulator of the metro engineer. There were a few screens plus a full driver’s console. You had to press the button for the announcement about the doors closing, then close the doors, then accelerate, maintain speed, and then brake for the station. An announcement also had to be made for arriving at the station, and then the doors had to be opened. It was fun, but my years of playing GTA made me want to do everything wrong for fun such as driving above speed with the doors open. I miraculously resisted the urge to be a hooligan, though.

New job?

New job?

The other really cool museum I went to is the Central Armed Forces Museum, formerly the museum of the Soviet Army. I went with Anton, who I met at the Buzzcocks concert in December. He took me with two of his friends. First, we got off at an earlier metro stop to see some houses that had been constructed by German POWs.

Central Armed Forces Museum.

Central Armed Forces Museum.

Then, we wandered around the impressive army museum for hours. Most of the museum is about WWII, but it had some good stuff on WWI and the Russian Civil War. There were some really cool White Army uniforms and artifacts, such as banners and medals that belong to General Kornilov’s group, the Kornilovtsy, as well as a really cool painting that depicted the end of White Russia. The painting was of White Army officers and their family members as well as priests leaving Russia on a boat. Although my family members were peasants, they likely were on a similar boat to the one depicted in the painting.

The end of White Russia.

The end of White Russia.

The best part was walking through the outdoor pavilion filled with tanks, jets, and missile launchers. It felt fantastically Russian to wander around those implements in the falling snow.

Like Victory Day but better because of the snow.

Like Victory Day but better because of the snow.

The final moment of interest from the last few weeks was watching a man watch Trump’s inauguration on his phone while grabbing dinner at a restaurant with some friends. It was being broadcast on Russian media sites and had subtitles.img_3256

On Sunday I crossed another item off of my Russia bucket list, I finally went snowboarding at an indoor ski area on the outskirts of Moscow called Senjkom. Two years ago, I had seen the place from the bus while going to the Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists for research. I was willing to trek out by myself for the experience, but thankfully one of my Austrian neighbors was also interested in experiencing an indoor ski area. So, on Sunday morning, we hopped on the metro to one of the last stops on the purple line in the north-west of the city. From there, we hopped on a minibus and took about a fifteen minute ride to the ski area.

Seeing the area peak out from behind all of the residential buildings.

Seeing the area peak out from behind all of the residential buildings.

At the ski area, we paid for an hour of skiing each. We could have paid for more hours or the whole day, but one hour was more than enough because there is only one, fairly short slope. After buying the list passes, we headed to a different are past a turnstile to rent equipment, also for the hour. I got a fairly decent Burton board, a little shorter than I normally like, but it was fine. The boots were super worn out and terrible, and according to the rental agreement I signed, were worth 0 rubles. I probably should have seen if I could have walked off with them. The equipment rental was also available by the hour or by the day. Thankfully, included in the hour, was an extra thirty minutes to allow for changing into gear and whatnot. After we got our equipment, we went off to the locker rooms to drop off our extra stuff. The locker was pretty cool. My lift ticket was an electronic card. I closed my locker and a central computer bank flashed the number for the locker and then I touched my card to that point and it locked the locker and saved the locker number onto the card. At the end, when I was done, I touched my card up to the point and it opened the locker up again.

The day's ride.

The day’s ride.

The skiing itself started counting down from the first time you touched your card to the turnstile in front of the lift. The area itself included a poma and a quad for getting up. There was one main slope, equivalent to a Green Circle in the American ranking system, as well as a small terrain park with boxes, rails, and a larger jump with an airbag below it for landing. My neighbor and I were a little concerned by the airbag, because in theory landing wrong on an airbag with skis could maybe led to some injuries, but we ignored that and amused ourselves with going down the one trail. We went down probably six or so times. The trip down itself only took about a minute at a reasonable pace, but the ride up and getting on and off of the lift took up the majority of the time.

First ride of the season: check. Snowboard in Russia: check.

First ride of the season: check. Snowboard in Russia: check.

The snow itself was pretty high quality for artificial snow. According to their website, they create the snow by cutting down blocks of ice. The ice shreds are then blown onto the slopes, which are groomed with snowcats, presumably every morning or evening.

Going up.

Going up.

The complex was a little strange in that it was completely filled with advertisements for Austrian ski resorts. All around the “base lodge” there were ads, and then on the wall of the “mountain” itself there were pictures of the Alps to set the mood for skiing.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, but even halfway through the hour, the slope was already getting a little boring. My neighbor amused himself trying to spin around on his skis, while I mostly just went straight down on the board. Because the slope was completely even and fairly well groomed, there weren’t really options to do small jumps or anything like that. And the fairly shallow nature of the slope more or less created a self-imposed top speed. I tried to take a video while going down the slope, but I’m no Brian Sisselman (if you get the reference to 1980s Warren Miller ski videos we should be best friends) so everything was shaky and terrible.

Not terrible for a single slope in a building.

Not terrible for a single slope in a building.

I also had another completely off of the wall adventure today. For lunch, I went to a fairly hipster restaurant that specializes in cooking dishes made from nutria, which is a kind of rodent. Someone had sent me an article in the British press about this place, and someone else had sent the article to Anne-Marie the same day. The two of us decided to go on a culinary excursion for lunch to try the nutria, or “rat” burger from the Bistro Krasnodar. If you know me, you know I love eating different and exotic meats. There is a specialty butcher shop in Pittsburgh and I have a dream of eating my way through the offerings. According to some articles that I read, nutria isn’t really common in Moscow, but the chef who created the restaurant hails from Krasnodar, where nutria can be a fairly common source of food.

The nutria aka rodent burger.

The nutria aka rodent burger.

The burgers came out and we were beyond pleasantly surprised. The meat itself had a very mild, almost bland flavor, with just the tiniest hint of gamey/wild taste to it. The burgers were perfectly cooked and lavishly accompanied by lettuce, tomato, roasted peppers, and some kind of herb mayonnaise/aioli. It was by far one of the best burgers I’ve had in my life, and certainly the best burger that I’ve had in Moscow.

Om nom nom.

Om nom nom.

I paired my burger with a beer from Krasnodar that was on tap, and Anne-Marie got a cider. For about $12, I got a great burger and the beer. This included a small discount for a weekday lunch special. The place also had a great soundtrack of rock hits featuring the Black Keys, the Arctic Monkeys, and Blondie.