Wednesday, June 5, 2013

June 5 2013: Ufa Russia straight from the horses mouth

This morning, Olga's parents' friend Leonid took for a tour of his architecture studio. He is similar to Olga's dad Leonid in so many ways: other than the obvious, they have a similar passion for and unending support of the arts, surround themselves with artist friends, love travel to interesting places (and discovery of art/music/culture during the travels), and of course a passion for food. The two Leonids are like twins separated at birth.

Botantical garden and smokestack
cohabitating peacefully

The view from Leonid's office: river, woods, city,
abandoned Metro underground construction site
He says you can see the curvature of the Earth from here
Leonid has architected many structures around Ufa, including a synagogue, churches, car dealerships, apartment complexes, and even the Russian Table Tennis Center in Orenburg. His loft studio has a scenic view of the city and surroundings, including the construction/ventilation tunnel for the ill-fated metro subway project.

Botanical gardens are fun!

Quray, the symbol of Bashkiria
We took a nice walk through Ufa's botanical garden, where Kostya and Dania enjoyed getting ideas for their urban garden in Moscow. My favorite part was the juxtaposition of greenery and heavy industry, cohabitating, making the best of the situation. The garden houses an interesting assortment of plants including Wisemen's banana tree, Arabica coffee bean plant, Poppy, Honeysuckle, Grape vines, and Quray, which is on the Bashkiri regional flag and we have seen its symbol in Samara and Ufa on buildings, signs, and art. The region's connection to the Quray flower traces back over a thousand years. Among other things, locals have used it for feed for livestock (horses??) and to make the Quray flute that is specific to this region.

Who Wants To Live Forever....

Our host Leonid told a funny story about one summer he was entertaining some folks from out of town and, after pleading and negotiating with the security staff at a VIP hotel (where dignitaries stay when they visit Ufa), they decided to let his group through the gates to park at the hotel and go inside. Moments later, there was a huge explosion in Leonid's car. Security forces ran over to see what the hell was going on. Apparently a case of kumis had been left in the trunk of the hot car all day, which did not agree with the fermented beverage, causing a chain reaction plastering glass and spoiled alcoholic horse milk all over the insides of the trunk, simultaneously causing he security team to crack up in laughter.

Shopping for famous Bashkirian honeys

Leonid and Olga walking by McHighlander
and other buildings saved by Leonid,
his new construction in the background
I requested that our ongoing tour of Ufa include a stop at McHighlander, an 11-year-old Scottish-themed brewpub, not knowing that Leonid had a hand in saving this pub from demolition many years ago. He designed an apartment building on the same block and everyone from the city to the owners of the property pleaded with him to tear down the old buildings on that space, but he refused to work on the project unless he could retain and work around them. I couldn't be happier as the pub is a really neat old space complete with hand-carved Scottish wood details, Highlander sword, and kilted staff. McHighlander proudly uses exclusively Czech equipment and ingredients. We tried their Temnoe (dark) and, upon special request, Christmas (9% ABV) beers. They were of the absolute highest quality. The Christmas beer stands out as a very special, Belgian-style craft beer, sweetly delicious with a beautiful full head - the best beer we have tried in Russia.

Tanya, Leonid, and their daughter Sasha at пицца (pizza)

World's smallest postcard handwriting
Leonid says local custom is for women to drink dark beer (because it's sweeter and smells like burnt sugar), men like lighter bitter beers. I think it's the opposite in the US: many women say Guinness is "too filling" and stick to lighter amber beers. Leonid likes beer, but cut back and partakes only during annual trips to Germany and Czech Republic, when Tanya drinks too (she loves Czech beer and refuses all others). They have a license to Prost!

Kostya playing Ivan's (left) Didgeridoo while
Dania tries the floating rocking chair swing

Lala explaining how the tea
is made from local grasses
Leonid and Tanya took us to visit their artist friends Lala and Ivan. She makes sculptures of Himalayan/Buddhist inspiration - and he makes musical instruments out of anything. Ivan gave us lessons on playing various Didgeridoo he had carved (including one in the shape of a crocodile) - and demonstrated a series of mouth harps he had made out of screwdrivers and wrenches. They served us delicious vegan tarts they made for us and a Ivan chi (Kapor tea) they just started fermenting. They pick and ferment grass for tea, it's pretty good on day 1, but they promise it'll be incredible in a month!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

June 4 2013: Horsing around Ufa

Olga’s and Kostya's parents, who have never been to Ufa, have friends here. They met through mutual friends on a trip through South America, quickly discovering they have very similar interests and travel styles. Leonid and Tanya, excited to share Ufa with us, offered to host us in their flat and show us everything in the town - and that they did!

The bike lanes end rather abruptly!

Olga, Leonid, and an old plane at the mall near his house
Rental car companies in this region of Russia seem to operate as shadow companies. You have to make an appointment of a time and place to meet - they don't seem to have a permanent office anywhere in Samara or Ufa. The Hertz rental agent in Ufa gave us directions to meet at a gas station, and when we got there, guided us to an unpaved parking lot. It took 4 people to return the rental car: me to drive it to the airport, Tanya to drive the getaway car back to the city, Olga to translate, plus the representative from Hertz (and a fifth person if he wanted to park anywhere).

Interesting reaction to Kumis

Dania and Kostya ALWAYS stop to smell the flowers
The population of Ufa has risen dramatically in the past 50 years, starting with the discovery of oil/gas in this region in the 1930s. The population grew from 100k in 1913 to 500k in the 1950s to 1mm in the 1980s. The Soviet Union had a policy of building an underground Metro system for any city whose population reached 1 million. The tragic thing about the timing of Ufa's growth is that it reached 1mm at the same time that the Soviet Union dissolved. Several attempts were made, some tunnels were dug (they have since crumbled), and congratulatory ceremonies were held, alas Ufa never got its Metro. The population topped out at 1.06 million for the past 30 years as control of all of Russia's oil/gas companies (Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil, etc) has been centralized in Moscow. The story seems very similar to that of Krasnoyarsk (interesting photos at this link).

Dania would rather YOU drink the Kumis

Tanya, Olga, and me at Belaya river
Historically, the horse we know today was domesticated in this region 6000 years ago. This was in the back of my mind as we visited 3 art galleries, one with an exhibition of paintings of horses trying to gain freedom, and two each with a couple of pieces with horses making an appearance in dreams and spirits. Leonid proudly brought us to try the local specialty Kumis, fermented horse (mare) milk. It's effervescent and toothpastey, perhaps like denture cleaner. My exact response was "Not as bad as I expected." At the nearby scenic overlook, there's a monument with a soldier on a horse. Many locals can't remember what it is a monument to, so let's say it is a horse monument to horse monuments. They say it is the highest horse monument in all of Europe. Clearly the horse is very important to the history of this region, and vice-versa.

Visiting our second mosque so far (on this trip - and ever)

After a tour of Aksakov (Russian author from Ufa) house museum, and a visit to our second-ever mosque (both the local Tatar and Bashkiri people are Muslim, together totaling 45% of the city population), we headed to the flat of their artist friend, Rais Gaitov. Back in the Soviet days, artists were assigned the top and bottom floors of residential buildings because they were not ideally shaped for living. A bad apartment maybe, but Rais' loft in this circular building makes a spacious studio for living, painting, displaying. Rais made us a delicious dinner of greek salad, scallion pancakes, and banana cottage cheese. He is a character with off-color jokes and frequent retorts like "you can't put spasibo in your pocket." He is famous for making toasts, the first being amazing, the second even more amazing, then after that they go so off the rails that nobody can follow the references to arcane poetry.

Jazz club with great ice cream :)

Rais' studio flat (photo taken from loft)

Tanya and Rais both made us really complex teas, mixtures of black tea, currant leaves, thyme, and mint. The Bashkiri region of Russia is inspired by Turkish culture in many ways, not just by religion, but also Halal cuisine, skullcaps, and tasty interesting teas. It’s going to be fun trying different teas while we’re here. We closed off a very full day at a Jazz club, where we had exceptional vanilla ice cream, which seemed to be made from fresh cream just moments before coming out. Feast for the ears and the palette!

Monday, June 3, 2013

June 3 2013: Planes, Trains, Boats, and now Automobiles

Hotel, rail, and cruise ship staff on this trip all assume that Kostya and I are brothers because we look so alike. Because he and Olga have the same last name, they have repeatedly been assigned to a room together, presumptively as husband and wife, and Dania and I together as 'the foreigners', not noticing that Dania speaks perfect native Russian. No amount of explaining in advance will stop this oversight until the staff visually sees us going into each other's rooms, then they suddenly realize their mistake and have to contact the Kremlin in Moscow to adjust the recorded room inhabitants (I'm not kidding!)

Getting some farm fresh "live" milk on our way out of Samara

The only thing I knew about Samara going into this trip, other than that it is the name of a tank-like Soviet car, is that it has been plagued the past few years by massive sinkholes. The London Daily Mail astutely states that Samara is being eaten alive (click here for amazing photos)!

Roadside picnic: Samara bread, avocado,
strawberries, instant coffee, fresh local milk

Photo mashup: sinkhole last week, patched up today.

We scoured recent news and blogosphere to find the site of the most recent sinkhole, and off we went! What we found was that, sometime between May 27 and June 3, the city patched up the awesome hole. What is causing Samara to crumble into the core of the Earth? There is no shortage of theories: The region is known for natural resource extraction which causes underground caverns; Leaky hot water pipes - in Soviet days, most cities centrally heated their water centrally in each neighborhood and dispersed hot water from there to ugly Stalin-style apartment buildings - hot water pipes corrode much quicker than cold water pipes - and they are all reaching the perfect age for leakage; One person even suggested that Swiss "Scientists sent rockets into the core of the earth to see if they could re-create the big bang" and this is the side-effect (I believe she was referring to CERN). Whatever is causing this, it is fascinating to watch. I hope the city starts taking some proactive measures before the entire town is gobbled up!

Dania pulling us into a parking spot

After picking up a rental car, documenting the sinkhole, and even driving back over the repaved section (it's probably the safest section of street in Samara), we started our 460 Km (285 mile) roadtrip from Samara to Ufa. In the US, this would take, what, about 5-6 hours? We were on the road at noon and arrived in Ufa at midnight, with minimal stops. The entire trip was along the M5 highway. So what look so long?

Vendors selling local honey on the roadside
We must be in the Bashkiria region!

Endless roadwork for 460 Km

The Russian Steppe is beautiful with its majestic green rolling hills and blue violet skies. We did see one horse and buggy as we approached the Bashkiria region, famous for its history intertwined with that of horses (more on that tomorrow). The entire stretch of highway had three conditions - and I am not exaggerating - construction, rain, and ditches. Either you were driving through a ditch, stuck in bumper-to-bumper stopped traffic while a construction crew was repaving the section of road, or one of those two conditions with the added amusement of rain. The road trip was fun though, with us all taking turns driving, playing music, reading, enjoying the view of the Steppe, pontificating how a road trip across Russia is even possible (it is!), stopping 3 times to switch drivers and for coffee (all we could find was instant - and local custom is to serve it with sugar - so you have to request 'kofe bez sahar').

Olga trying to find anything open in Oktyabrsky
Completely light out at 9:45pm!

With about an hour left on our journey, we stopped in the town of Oktyabrsky looking for a real cup of coffee. Every single cafe in town was closed, seemingly at 7:45pm. It took us a couple beats to realize that we had jumped two time zones. Somewhere between Samara and Ufa, there's a bit of a wormhole that causes electronic clocks to jump two hours forward. Or perhaps we spontaneously simultaneously passed out for two hours - because we can't account for the time!

June 2 2013: Samara antiquity

The boat was surprisingly accommodating of our strange dietary restrictions, especially considering (1) it seems they never or rarely ever encountered this before and (2) we told them after the boat had already launched. For the pescetarian, every dish of every meal was based on fish: fish soup, fish salad, fish pirozhki, fish sticks, fried fish fillet, fish fish. There was so much fish, I was longing for just a plain salad. You would say I was up to my gills in fish! For the vegans, they provided a plate of fried vegetables (raw would have been preferred), bread, and a pear. They tried - but failed - to understand that salad can't have mayo dressing, porridge can't have milk - but at least they tried. Olga had the best options as they didn't know what to do with her and brought her food every time they brought one of our alternative dishes.

Transportation hub: On a boat in a lock on the Volga
River with a cargo train and highway overhead

King and Queen of the world!

Kostya discovered that the boat was built in East Germany in 1957, so my estimate of 50+ years was right on. It seems to still have all of the original furnishings, making it retro and quaint. There was a constant narration (in Russian) with sights to see on and along the river. Anybody who has visited Russia and rode in a Soviet-produced car (Lada, Volga, Zhiguli) already knows the names of several Volga towns, named after the locations of the automobile factories.

Little Volga River towns!!

Boyan entertainment
provided on the cruise ship :)

Volga is the longest river in Europe, so it's not surprising that our boat passed through a series of locks and dams to adjust for elevation and to create hydroelectric power. Passing through a lock is a neat experience, watching the water subside as you feel yourself sinking. They ship crew made many announcements in no uncertain terms that taking photographs of the locks is a prelude to terrorism. Blurg.

Soyuz rocket on display in Samara
(the capsules are made by hand here)

Four generations of architecture / construction

The Volga boat companies don't offer one-way trips, so unless we want to spend valuable days returning by boat and train to St Petersburg, we had to purchase a round-trip ticket and "decide to not return" to the boat after a few hours of Samara sightseeing. Once we got off the boat, rode the bus towards our hotel, we encountered a super friendly college freshman who was very curious who we are and what we're doing. It seems there are not many tourists of any kind who pass through town - especially so far from the ship port - and he wanted to see why we had come, were we in fact tourists, and what he could do to help. He didn't ask for anything in return, and seemed to have no agenda or ulterior motive. He was not the first and not the last person we encountered on this Volga trip to ask if we were indeed tourists. It seemed they may have never seen one before - and wanted to know if everything they had heard about tourists is true. We've been learning as much about them as they are of us.

Inside the active synagogue

The Old Synagogue under major repair

The architecture of Samara unique with its wooden second floor houses built on top of brick ground floors. Decrepit 150-year-old wooden shacks are literally sandwiched between super-new glass/steel office towers and Soviet Stalin-era cubic apartment buildings. Olga and Kostya's grandfather was born in Samara before moving to St Petersburg for university. We went looking for the house he grew up in, based on a vague and somewhat conflicting description from Olga's father. We may have found it, or at least several houses that might be it. We're returning back to St Petersburg with photos for her dad to look at and try to recognize.

Beautiful old building seems to have become an urban garden

Russkaya Okhota is... inoffensive

What we did find was the synagogues: the grand old one currently under major renovation, and the smaller one were we tried to meet the Rabbi (he was busy with Sunday School students). We were entertained (distracted, actually) with stories about the Rabbi's 11 children - the Bar Mitzvah of an older one, the hair cutting ceremony of a younger one - while he slipped out (not realizing we were there?) Knowing how Samarans are fascinated by tourists, I'm sure he would've loved to have met us!

Beautiful 10pm sunset along the Volga

New drinking buddy!

There wasn't enough time to make it to a brewpub, but We did get a chance to try a Samaran beer: Russkaya Okhota at Beerloga (Bear's Den). Russians associate bears with beer - not because the English spelling is so similar - but maybe because the word for bear (medved) and the word for honeybeer (med) are so similar. Bears, Honey, and Beer share a common history in etymology. The beer was light, not much flavor, easily drinkable and inoffensive. It could pair well with lemon or banana, or maybe banana bread pudding.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June 1 2013: Kazan to the Volga River

We awoke refreshed for our second day in Kazan, the best night of sleep so far this trip. We quickly hit a few sights: Bauman pedestrian Street - good for cafes and local Chak-Chak (sort of fried dough) - Olga's parents' architecture software was used to design the street. We took a bus to Gorky Park and accidentally got off at the wrong Gorky-related stop - walked to the beginning of the park but quickly became bored and went looking for a ride. Russia has an eternal storage of taxicabs, so there's an understood system that is somewhere between gypsy cab and hitchhiking - stick out your arm and try to negotiate a fee with whomever stops.

Ferris Wheel we almost rode!

Trying to get a ride (it worked!)
Kostya promised to get us to "the Attractions", which I was nominally enthused about, until I found out that translates to Amusement park - then my level of excitement went way up! It being a Saturday in June, there were hundreds (thousands?) of sweating kids with facepaint, crying exhausted girls, tired boys on little go-karts. We waited in line for the ferris wheel, taking turns to get ice cream or go to the bathroom, eventually losing all interest before we got to the front of the line. It was still a fun experience though, seeing how the locals of Kazan spend their downtime - and sampling their ice cream :)

Before Coffee -- After Coffee. Notice the difference?

Spice market
After picking up our bags at the hotel, we walked through the city. Kazan is in good shape - and getting better. In addition to rolling hills, blue skies, and the Eastern flare of its mosques, the city seems to be amidst a big of a reconstruction boom to fix streets, remodel very old buildings, and repurpose space for people's use. A lot of this may be due to the upcoming Universiade (student olympics) next month.

Our cabin on the Volga River cruise

Stocking up on dried fruit for the boat trip

Eventually we made it to the Central Market, a Middle Eastern type bazaar where we picked up a great selection of spices for home - and veggies, dried fruits, nuts, smoked cheese for the boat trip. The salesmen hadn't seen an American in a very long time, and they enjoyed quizzing and teasing us. They seemed pretty sure Kostya was foreign too, and Dania was not only foreign but possibly a boy (she is neither). The guys seemed playful, although a bit confused about the ways of the world.

View from the lobby of our boat.
To/From Shore on Right. To/From next boat on left.

A short bus ride later and we were at the dock, ready to board the ship for a 20-hour overnight journey along the Volga River to Samara. There are more ships than they have dock space, so several boats line up in a way that you board one, disembark into the next one, and so on. Once everybody was loaded into their cabins, we were off! The boat is charming in its way. It must be 50 years old, at least that's the last time they refreshed the furnishings. Meals are provided, but we threw them for a loop with our last-minute dinnertime declaration of our various dietary restrictions. I'm not generalizing here - I'm repeating somebody else's generalization - but it seems that Russians will eat anything placed in front of them. Kostya and Dania are two of the few picky Russian eaters with their close-to-vegan diet. The things assembled for Kostya and Dania looked good to me to, as opposed to all of the fish courses they quickly assembled for me, so maybe next time I'll say I'm vegetarian or vegan too.

She's hugging. He's checking email :)

Since leaving Moscow, we have not seen a single foreign-speaking tourist. All of the tourists we have met have been local Russian/Tatar tourists. Western (or Eastern) tourists don't seem to make it out here, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. The prices are super affordable, the experiences more authentic, the people super excited to see meet foreigners and try out their rusty English!

May 31 2013: Kazan from Platzkart to Ploschad

Saying poka to Moskva
Thursday night we said "poka" to Moscow and hopped on a platzkart traincar to Kazan. The platzkart is a staple in Soviet-era rail travel, configured with bunkbeds, one on top of each other, that become benches for seating by day. If you're travelling alone, that means negotiating with your bottom neighbor to be allowed to sit, access the hidden storage, etc. I found the shared sleeping car charming with our small group!

The 12 hour journey seemed like just the right amount of time: get settled in, have a snack, do some reading, sleep, blog, another snack, and we'd be there. All went perfectly except the sleep. My bed must've been about 5'2" (1.5 meters) so I had to sleep curled up in a ball or with my feet in the air - otherwise my feet would hang over the edge and get hit by people walking to the bathroom. Somehow others seemed to get a good night's sleep, I was very jealous as I watched them snooze.

Good morning upper bunk!

Crossing the Volga River, passing a
cargo train headed the other direction

There was a beautiful woman seated near us and I watched in amusement as she got hit on all night by various suiters. Much like in the train to Moscow, her strategy was to just giggle and nod. Throughout the evening, I don't think I heard her say a single word to these guys.

Our very first mosque!!!

The beautiful Qolşärif Mosque inside the Kremlin

One great thing about travelling with Kostya and Dania is that they are vegetarians, which gives me a chance to try really interesting local veggie foods. Olga is embracing the opportunity too, as she pointed out a vegetarian cafeteria while we were trying to find our hotel. Breakfast there came to 50 rubles (less than $2 per person) for a salad, slice of pizza, fried mushrooms, and interesting local Rosehips juice. From the first purchase, Kazan it 1/10 the price of Moscow (or less). Even San Francisco is a lot less expensive than Moscow.

Cup of coffee from a giant cup of coffee!

At this point, we couldn't dawdle anymore and really needed to find our hotel so we could freshen up. The facilities on the train are conducive to making us all a little ripe, and some of us (me) didn't get to use the bathroom, not realizing they are locked about 10 minutes before arrival due to the fact that the toilet is literally a hole in the floor of the train that dumps directly onto the tracks. Apparently they don't like to dump #1 and #2 directly onto the tracks in the most populated of areas.

Dania on the Kazan metro :)

mama monkey and baby monkey!
In the past few days we had discovered there would be a bit of a fiasco with the hotel. A friend of Olga's recommended we try a discount European hotel booking site, and I cancelled my Kazan hotel reservation in order to take a lower-priced one through the Russia-based site. Not completely trusting an unknown site, I emailed the hotel directly to confirm our reservation - they had no record of it. Kostya ended up calling Ozon and working out alternate arrangements - something tells me if I hadn't double checked, we might've slept on the street last night. The whole episode is a bit like the early days of the internet when you never knew what would happen when placing an order/booking. Our remaining reservations are through known sites, hopefully we won't have any nights sleeping on the streets! :)

Feeding Donkey!
The city of Kazan is beautiful with bright blue skies, clean air, drivers who stop when you cross the street, and beautiful mosques and Russian orthodox churches. Kazan has more residents than San Francisco (1.1 million vs 825,000) - yet it has a very small town (Olga calls it provincial) feel. The Muslim Tatars settled Kazan 1005 years ago, before many of them were killed and annexed by Ivan the Terrible in 1552. Still the separation of Russians vs Tatars is evident in the culture, architecture, cuisine, language (locals speak Tatar and Russian), even in the dance clubs - no alcohol may be drank on the dance floor, and some clubs are just-dance-floor with no other place to stand. In those cases, law dictates that you must keep one hand on the bar at all times while you're drinking! The Kremlin is the oldest part of town with the President's palace, numerous museums, and the beautiful Qolşärif Mosque (rebuilt in 1996 for the first time since Ivan the Terrible destroyed it and killed everybody in 1552).

We took the Metro to the Botanical and Zoological Garden. Be careful what you call it - Kostya and Dania get upset if you call it a zoo or Zoological Botanical garden. It's an interesting place with a diverse selection of botanical plants - and animals such as camels, toucans, big red butt Macaca monkeys, wild boars, and a squirrel desperately trying to escape. The most active and interesting animals were the ones with babies: one set of Macaw monkeys and one pair of polar bears had young kids who were active playing, climbing, swimming - just being kids.

Dacha, come back in 5 years to
see a mansion in this spot!

Kostya plotted us a direct route as-the-crow-flies from the garden to the vegetarian restaurant Paramartha, which guided us through unpaved roads, alleys, construction sites, and eventually through a dacha area on the outskirts of the city. There are still many old wooden houses in various states of disrepair (in some cases only the doorframe and door were still standing), with shiny new expensive guarded dachas right next door or across the street. Watching this dacha neighborhoods gentrify is a unique experience! Seconds later, trees cleared and our dirt path had become a bustling road, leading straight to our curry-infused dinner.