Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for September, 2012


My first impression of central Moscow

Take Paris,

  • multiply everything by 1.5 (buildings, streets, metro stations, etc.)
  • shrink humans and human objects back to human scale (vehicles, metro wagons, rooms, food, etc.)
  • add some dilapidation
  • subtract the litter and cigarette butts
  • add some glitz to both the historical and modern architecture
  • subtract some uniformity in the city scape
  • add some horrible looking Soviet style architecture here and there (i.e. rectangular concrete blocks)
  • subtract smiles from pretty much everyone on the street (especially anyone in the service industry)
  • keep the prices about the same
  • divide the quality of service by three (if you can imagine Parisian services being that much worse)
  • multiply traffic jams by three
  • replace all drivers with Moroccans or Egyptians (they aren’t, but they drive like them)
  • and increase epicness by 50%.

Paris / London / New York City behind the Iron Curtain

Moscow is epic.

(For American readers) If Vladivostok is Detroit, Irkutsk is Chicago, then Moscow is New York City.
(For European readers) If Vladivostok is Warsaw, Irkutsk is Prague, then Moscow is Paris.

This is the cultural, economic, and political capital of Russia and previously of the Eastern bloc. A city like that doesn’t just wither because the political and economic system changed.

I was half heatedly expecting a city full of geometrically laid out grey concrete building-sized blocks that I was accustomed to seeing in other East European cities. Was I wrong. While the glimpse I caught of suburban Moscow was not pretty, central Moscow is more European than anything else. However, unlike other European cities I’ve been to, the scale of everything from buildings to streets are much larger, raising the level of grandeur of the city. Add to that few monumental Stalin towers, the imposing Kremlin, the grandiose Red Square, quirky Russian Orthodox churches, and you have a city that can only be described as epic.

St. Basil’s Cathedral right inside the Red Square (bad crop because of trying to avoid the swarms of tourists surrounding it)

Moscow as a tourist destination can match Paris, London, and New York City. If judged purely from the strength of its sights, one could argue that Moscow is superior. Unfortunately what it lacks results from the reminiscence of its Communist days. Tourism was non-existent in the days of the USSR and as a result, the culture of tourism is lacking. Services like in other parts of Russia were terrible, navigating the city is difficult to non-Cyrillic readers, and the culinary offerings, catering to the local nouveau riche, are a mishmash of foreign cuisines, which are delicious, but aren’t very Russian (i.e. what tourists look for).

This doesn’t mean that things aren’t changing. Moscow is a city very much in transition between the old Soviet days and the “West” that represents the future to them, and the tourism industry I’m sure will improve. There were few places in my visit where the service was surprisingly good and people actually looked like they enjoyed their jobs. English was much more prevalent than in other parts of Russia. If Russia can rid its dangerous and despotic image as well as loosen (or drop) its visa restrictions, I can imagine a future where flocks full of tour-bus tourists and backpackers come through the city like Paris, London, or New York City, although I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

One thing I can say for sure though: Moscow makes Prague, Budapest, and Krakow look like provincial towns. If you are thinking of taking a trip to those cities to see “what was behind the Iron Curtain,” take the extra mile and go to Moscow.

Life in Moscow

If Moscow can match the major Western cities as a tourist destination, I’m not sure about the quality of life. A local described Moscow as a city of castes with the guest workers at the bottom, sweeping the streets and cleaning the windows. Walking around the city you can sense the disparity in income amongst its citizens, and wonder how much of the population can enjoy the glitz that is being offered at prices comparable to, if not more than Paris, London, or New York City.

However, if anything is most indicative, it’s probably the lack of smiles. I understand that smiling is not inherently cultural in Russia, but I like to believe that there is something innately human about expressing joy, and you just don’t see it in Moscow. Maybe as a traveller, I don’t see the places where Russians have fun, but wandering around Moscow can be a rather somber experience, and interacting with anyone from the service industry does not make it better.

While the millionaires and the billionaires are transforming and defining the city, I get the sense that the majority of the population, the working class, are still trying to figure out where and how they fit into a new capitalist society.

Everything Grandeur

The extravagance of the Moscow Metro is well known and well regarded to the point where it’s the 6th ranked “attraction” on Tripadvisor. It didn’t dissapoint. Looking through a capitalistic lens, it’s probably a grand waste of money, but the communists left an amazing relic for generations to come.

Mayakovskaya Station

Since I didn’t have my tripod, good pictures were hard to capture, so the above image is from BusinessInsider. A simple Google Image search brings up fantastic pictures as well.

Inside the Moscow GUM

The GUM department store, once the pinnacle of Soviet shopping, is equally amazing and well regarded by travellers (27th on Tripadvisor). A local described how his mother used to travel from a provincial town overnight to go shopping at the Moscow GUM.

A Moscow Supermarket

Above is a supermarket I found on Tverskaya street, one of the main shopping streets of Moscow. I don’t know if it has any historical importance, but I can safely say it is the most amazing supermarket I’ve entered. The Apple store in Paris Opera pales in comparison. What if Steve Jobs was born in the Soviet Union…

WiFi everywhere

To the delight of digital natives everywhere, and bane of EMF paranoids, WiFi is available everywhere in Moscow. Most cafes offer it for free, the streets are blanketed with pay WiFi with free trials, you simply can’t run away from the internet in Moscow (quite a stark comparison from Siberia). Riding on a taxi on the first day and being stuck in the atrocious Moscow traffic, I was able to check my e-mails on stray WiFi access points.

Sushi everywhere

Sushi Bar in Cyrillic (the right half)

Sushi is almost ubiquitous in Moscow too, being offered not only in Japanese restaurants but also in any restaurant that attempts to be modern and cool. I have more to write on this, but I’m saving it for a separate post, stay tuned.

The most variety of cars in the world

I don’t know if this is true, but it sure feels like it. With the big income disparity in Moscow, you can easily find six digit cars (Ferrari, Bugatti, Lamborghini) driving along side twenty year old cars that look like they will stop running any time. In addition, you find not only your usual European (French, German, Italian), American, and Japanese cars but also Korean (including the rare Daewoo), Chinese, Russian, and Soviet (still running) automobiles. Right-wheeled used Japanese cars were rarer than in the east but still existent. Probably the only cars I didn’t see were Tatas and Fiskers.

Everyone is in a relationship

Flower shops are incredibly popular in Moscow with people gifting them not only for dates but also for home visits. In addition, going through the city, it seems like most people whom I came across are in a relationship and are making no effort to hide it whatsoever.

Bunker 42

Bunker 42 Corridor

One of the more eclectic sights (or sites?) I visited was a Cold War era nuclear bunker and communications center that was auctioned off to a private party after the fall of the Soviet Union and turned partly into a museum. The “excursion” came complete with a simulated missile launch into the heart of the United States which ironically an American Foreign Service Officer volunteered for.

Section of the bunker being converted into a club

The other parts of the bunker are being converted into a nightclub and event space, making it possibly the most sound proof club in the world.

Section of the hallway leading to the club

A highly recommended visit for anyone who gets tired of the “usual” tourist sites.

Under a fence into a Russian military installation

This was a fascinating adventure that resulted in many fantastic photographs, but I still need to edit before posting them. Sorry for doing this again, but stay tuned.

The West is slowly creeping across The East

Going across the vast land that is Russia, I sensed a gradient of Westernization sweeping across the country from the west. Moscow is rapidly transitioning and even currently, it’s more European than anything else. Irkutsk showed signs of rejuvenation and change from the old Soviet days. Vladivostok was by far the most “Soviet” city that I’ve visited, but I’m sure in twenty years, this place will be reinvented, renovated, and redone in a way that resembles cities in most other developed countries. USSR and its Communist ideologies are gone, and as the ideals and cultures of the victors slowly spread, the relics are being put into museums and disappearing along with the people. For the future of Russia, this is probably a good thing, but for the generation that straddled the two forms of ideology and government, only a handful seemed to have come out better.


Now that I’ve been, I look forward to coming back to this country in a few decades when Putin is buried in the history books and barely anyone remembers the Communist days. For those who haven’t, I suggest going catch the last glimpses of the biggest failed social experiment in the history of mankind.


It’s a big and small world after all

Traveling in Russia where the culture is distinctly different from all the places I’ve lived and travelled to, and going across thousands of kilometers of land on a single train seeing the landscape change very gradually, I’m reminded that the world is big.

Then I remind myself that I came to Russia without a single ruble yet I was able to get money at the airport from an ATM. These days with a bank card, one can withdraw money from pretty much any ATM in the world.

In the middle of Siberia, my boss SMSed me to check on some travel dates. With a mobile phone, you can pretty much talk to anyone in the world wherever you are (it’s not cheap).

Anywhere in the world, I can update my blog and put up new posts.

It’s a big world out there, but we’ve made it much smaller, and we’re making it much smaller.


The Trans-Siberian part 2

This post is being written during my second stint on a train for 70+ hours, going from Irkutsk to Moscow which completes the 9289 km Trans-Siberian journey from Vladivostok to Moscow.

Maybe I spoke too fast 

Irkutsk, known as the Paris of Siberia, lies at the halfway point of the Trans-Siberian railway and is a stark contrast from Vladivostok. (For American readers) If Vladivostok is Detroit, Irkutsk is Chicago. (For European readers) If Vladivostok is Warsaw, Irkutsk is Prague. Vladivostok is home to the Russian Pacific fleet and a military city which was off limits to most travelers including Russians until after the Cold War. Irkutsk is the cultural capital of Siberia and an university and science town. Vladivostok was at the eastern edge of the Iron Curtain, Irkutsk was peacefully in the middle of the USSR.

This doesn’t mean Irkutsk is actually Paris. It has plenty of concrete Stalinist architecture and dark dilapidated streets, but it also has some lively streets and parks with well maintained pre-Soviet architecture. Parts of the riverside pedestrian walkways are even nicer than those by the side of the Seine.

I got the sense that this city is very proud of its history and ambiance and is trying to maintain it. It’s also a tourist destination for both Russians and foreigners with Lake Baikal, the world’s largest body of fresh water an hour away. Few of the points of interest had signs and descriptions in both Russian and English, the first time I’ve come across something like that in Russia (the museum in Vladivostok had no English labels).

I heart Irkutsk


Facade of a building under renovation, a great idea anywhere in the world

While the surliness of the service employees didn’t improve drastically, I met few young people who were very helpful, smiled, and enjoyed their jobs, something that was missing until Irkutsk. On one day, I took a tour to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal, and the tour guide was a talkative mid-twenties girl who spoke good English and was very accommodating. I got to ask all the saved up questions about Russians and more on the trip (like “What goes well with vodka v.s. beer in Russia”).

The tour guide on top of a hill behind Lake Baikal

 If Vladivostok represented the slowly fading old Soviet city, Irkutsk showed signs of rejuvenation on top of a historical city. Being on the train and seeing the cities pass by in the window, I get the sense that this county gets wealthier and more developed as one travels west. Now I’m excited to see what Moscow is going to be like.

Unmaintained but clean

Compared to most North American or West European cities, Latin American cities are often poorly maintained and dirty. Street lights are broken, roads are crumbling, and trash is strewn on the streets. Cities in Russia have the first two issues, but definitely not the third. Walking around in some parts of Vladivostok or Irkutsk could be dangerous not from the crime but the holes and uneven pavement resulting from sheer neglect. Some streets are really poorly lit making one wonder if a vampire is lurking around the corner. However, one problem these cities do not have is trash. Litter is almost impossible to find and municipal trash bins are everywhere, and they’re never overflowing. Even cigarette butts are difficult to find putting German and French cities to shame. Maybe the existing public infrastructure programs have failed, but the diligence of the people definitely have not.

Just another set of fireworks

The first night in Irkutsk, there were few fireworks going up by the river side, ones big enough for July 4th or Bastille Day. The next morning I asked the hotel receptionist if it was for some special occasion. Apparently it was not the city launching the fireworks but most likely private individuals for someone’s birthday or wedding. I guess you don’t need permit for those.

Thank you Eisenhower

The road from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal is one of the nicest I’ve ever ridden on. Apparently it was built in a hurry when America President Eisenhower was scheduled to visit in the 50’s. He never came, but the road stayed.

Statues everywhere

For a society that promoted the accomplishments of the collective and the faceless worker, they sure have a lot of statues in the cities. They even have one for the exhausted backpacker who finally reached his hostel…

Does anyone actually know what this statue in Irkutsk represents?

Anything is a bus

In most cities around the world, you can tell a bus apart from regular traffic because they have a unified style that is different from all other cars on the road. In Russia, anything that can carry more than four people serves as a bus. Minivans, vans, and any used buses from cities around the world act as buses as soon as they are given a big route number. Many of the used buses still carry the insignia from their previous lives in Korea, sometime even displaying their Korean route numbers, which you can imagine is very confusing. While not elegant, it’s actually practical in a very frugal way.

Second time around on the train…

is much better, and we were clearly ripped off the first time around. I am actually on this trip with my mom, so the level of luxury is much higher than what I’m used to. For both train rides, we booked the first class compartment (two beds per cabin) with meals (one per day). On the first train ride from Vladivostok, the cabin attendants threw us our bed sheets and we had to prepare the beds ourselves. In this train, the cabin attendants had already made the beds and even left us tea cups for the ride.

Inside the first class compartment

 On the first train, from the menu of appetizers and main courses, we could pick one item each (appetizer OR main course) and no drinks were included (even though it was indicated on the menu). I thought this was weird but being day two in Russia, I didn’t bring it up. On this train, the meals are actually full meals (appetizer, main course, and a drink per person). In the previous train, the food wasn’t enough and we had to order more at the restaurant at incredibly inflated prices. The individual dishes were much larger and well prepared on the second train as well. The cabin attendants and the restaurant employees probably kept the excess ingredients and drinks to themselves. Also on this train, they gave us an electronic key to lock the doors, something we didn’t even know existed on the first train.

The attendants on this train speak no English either, but this time around, they seem more patient with my finger pointing at menu items and phrasebooks. They also smile, which is the first time I’ve seen someone smile working for the Russian train company.

Time passes surprisingly fast 

Most of you are probably wondering at this point: “what do you do for 70+ hours on a train?”

Surprisingly, time passes rather quickly. Of course it’s not at the speed of high-paced professional life where weeks can disappear in a blink, but it’s not quite molasses either. In preparing for this journey, I brought several books, but I’ve barely touched them. Instead, I’m spending my time writing blog posts, working on photographs, playing cards, watching movies and TED talks, and harnessing the urge to write fiction which I get every so often. Luckily the train compartments have electricity outlets, something that is fairly recent from what I understand. It’s amazing how much I can keep myself occupied with a laptop.

Sunset from the train window

It’s hammer time

At almost every major stop, the staff from the station brings out a long hammer and starts tapping the wheels, suspensions, and other parts of the train to check something by listening to the sound it makes. I wonder what they are looking for and what happens if the reverberation is not something they are expecting.

The 25, 26 hour days

Every day the train crosses at least one time zone, which means for trains going west, each day is at least 25 hours long. One extra hour everyday can be surprisingly nice. Don’t you always wish you have one more hour to sleep or to get something done? Well, now you have it.

Russians don’t understand why foreigners want to do this

The Trans-Siberian, after all, is just that, a train that takes people across Siberia. My Russian friend commented that she quite doesn’t understand the romance foreigners have with this, and I can see why. In no way is this a cruise on land as some trains have become (e.g. Orient Express, Blue Train), even though the first class compartments are priced like one. The job of the attendants is to make sure that people arrive where they need to safely and that the trains are clean. They are not here to pamper the passengers with luxurious services or be tour guides. I think most Russians, given the choice, would rather fly than take the train, and as flights are cheaper than first class tickets, there are virtually no Russians in the first class wagons (there were few between small cities which are probably ill-served by air).

Like many things in life, the allure of the Trans-Siberian is probably the idea of it, the notion of traveling 9000 km and seven days by rail. It’s an experience that cannot be matched anywhere else in the world, a once in a lifetime adventure. For those coming from outside the ex-USSR, it’s very much an adventure as well where the script, language, and culture is very foreign. For Russians, it’s a fact of life, and it will be so until they become rich enough to no longer need it, and only then will it become a luxury for them.


This post has been uploaded in Moscow where I will be until Sunday when I fly back to Frankfurt. I will post pictures after the end of the trip, and possibly one more post to conclude my Russian adventure.


The autopilot blog

My closest stalkers followers are probably wondering why my blog is updating when I should be in the middle of Siberia on a train for 70+ hours. I actually schedule my posts to go up at certain times when I’m not by the computer (WordPress has the ability to do this).

One reason is so that I don’t put up all my posts at the same time.

Another reason is so that I can update my blog when most of my readers are awake (mostly those in Europe and North America). I see that many people come to my blog through Facebook. If I update during the night, most people may not catch the update on their newsfeed.

Last but not the least, it gives me some time to think if I really want to post that entry.

So when this post went live, I am actually somewhere in the middle of Russia, probably writing, reading, watching a movie, or learning Russian through shots of vodka.


One word culture

In a previous post I described the general feeling of the Russian culture as Apathy. That had me wondering what other words could be used to describe other cultures. I am only going to cover the cultures I know well:

United States: Individuality

Japan: Conformity

France: Pride

Germany: Principled

China: Pragmatism

Finland: Alcohol

The last one is obviously a joke. The Finns do drink a lot, like fishes. Actually, if I had to pick one word for Finland (the only country in the above list that I haven’t lived in but have visited plenty), it’s “Flat.” Unlike Japan, China, or France, the social structure is incredibly flat with no real words to address people above or below oneself.

So, what word would you pick for your own culture or the ones you know well?

P.S. I tried to pick neutral words although you may think that one is more positive/negative than the other (I could have picked “Harmony” for Japan or “Selfish” for the United States).


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