Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

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Nepal.

16 days ago my feet were on the ground in Kathmandu, Nepal. My little family and our close friends were on vacation there. We found it wonderful in its difference from home. Thamel, the neighborhood where we were staying, is one of the central tourist districts. Buildings of all shapes and sizes crowded the narrow streets. The streets themselves were crammed full of people, rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, people, dogs. Small temples were scattered everywhere, and big ones arched upward here and there. The roads, although paved, were covered in heavy gray dust and many locals wore masks to filter the air they breathed. Shopkeepers stood in the open doorways of their stores, occasionally scattering water to help keep the dust down.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

Jenia and Turtle heading back to Thamel from Durbar Square.

In all, Kathmandu was a bustling, vivacious, surprisingly vibrant place. There’s a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture and the mashup is fascinating.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, on a hill in the middle of Kathmandu.

We mostly hung around the city, but did take a daytrip that included the 1,500 year old city of Bhaktapur, past its many brickyards and kilns with towering chimneys stretching up from the fields, and into the nearby hills to Nagarkot.

What a drive, what a place. The hillsides were terraced so that they could be farmed. We saw many crops being grown: grains, vegetables, etc. Houses were half built, people living in one level while building another.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The view from the observation tower atop Nagarkot.

The poverty of the place would have been surprising if we hadn’t expected it, and if we hadn’t been to places like Sri Lanka before.

But poverty doesn’t necessarily equate with unhappiness. The people we met were generally friendly, happy to see us, and even eager to pose for pictures with the fair-skinned strangers in their land. I chatted with a couple of traveling salesmen who were visiting the same temple as we were, and they educated me a bit on their religious traditions. We took pictures together, they snapping on their smart phones, and me with mine.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings near Durbar Square.

Women clean a railing of wax drippings at a temple near Durbar Square.

There were a few unpleasantries–the threat of food poisoning was always very real, for example. Monkeys are a mixed blessing, for they’re great fun to see, but not usually so great to interact with. Beggars were also often present at touristy areas–and why wouldn’t they be, considering that most Westerners are downright rich by comparison to the avearge Nepali? It was also necessary to be mindful of your surroundings, especially in Thamel, lest you get nudged by an automobile (this happened) or trip and fall on the treacherous shoulder. But we didn’t mind those things.

When we flew out of the airport, a place that seems to be stuck in the 1960s, mostly red brick and filthier than I care to remember, we had views of the Himalayas that left us marveling. Imagine cruising at 33,000 feet and the snow-capped peaks of the mountain range protruding from the clouds almost at the same level as the plane.

And yesterday, I came across a story on the New York Times website–an earthquake struck Nepal! The magnitude was 7.5-7.8, it said. So far at least 100 dead.

Now the story is running first and foremost on CNN.com and on the front page on most other news sites I’ve opened this morning. The death toll has crossed 1,900 as of this writing. The pictures that are now starting to flood into the news outlets are eerily familiar. Some of them are the very places we visited, albeit nearly unrecognizable. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has crumbled temples where the glorious ones we climbed and gazed from two weeks ago stood. There’s a heart-rending video of a collapse in Bhaktapur.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25.

A temple on Hanumandhoka Durbar Square lies in ruins after an earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 25 in this photo from http://www.cnn.com

That the temblor caused such destruction is no surprise. The place is shoddily built, to be sure. Many of the structures we saw under construction were being assembled in a way which made me wonder if the builders were aware of squares and levels. Nonetheless, the news reports say that most newer buildings survived–the concrete construction is stronger than the old brick. It is the brick structures that suffered the most, and that amounts to some of the most historic ones.

It’s sad that such a beautiful place was struck so hard. All I can do at this point is offer prayers and consider contributing to the aid efforts that are already taking shape to help the beautiful people of Nepal to recover from this tragedy.

Should you want to donate, the Red Cross and Oxfam, as well as Unicef, are good places to begin.

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.