Archive for April, 2013
Last week I was in Portugal on vacation, and this will probably explain the inspiration behind the subsequent few posts. The vacation was fantastic, full of sun and expected and unexpected adventures, but this post is not about that.
My last stop was a resort town in the south called Lagos, a place bustling in the summer and dead for the rest of the year (tourist life was starting to appear during my stay).
When I checked into the very underutilized hostel, the first guy I met, a German, had been there for close to a month learning how to play a guitar that he just picked up. Then I met a Korean girl who checked in three weeks ago and had no plans on leaving. She was very friendly with another guy who I didn’t really get to know but seemed like a staple at the hostel. Then there was another German guy who had been staying there for few weeks learning how to juggle.
Now there were “normal” travelers as well who came for few days and moved onto the next city. However, these seemingly aimless backpackers left an impression on me. Portugal is a cheap country, and the cheapest beds in the hostel were 11 EUR/night with breakfast making it incredibly easy to stay.
How does it feel to be standing still for so long? Do these people have something to return to, or are they procrastinating starting their real lives? Have they figured out something that I’m too busy to even notice? What will become of these modern day nomads?
I only have questions, no answers.
Sometimes I dream about the slow life, when all the worries are about the day and nothing beyond, but I sense that if I ever do something like this, I would be bored and feeling guilty for not doing more. Maybe I have nostalgia for a time I didn’t live in, when today is and will always be the most important day of life, and little beyond or behind matters.
Here finally is the post on my adventure breaking into a Russian military installation, as promised in the Moscow post.
On my last full day in Moscow, I met with a friend of a friend, whom I am going to call X to protect his identity. X had graciously offered his time to show me around the city for the day, and prior to the meeting he asked me what kinds of things I would want to see. My response was “something very different.” The place he took me was beyond my wildest imagination.
Khodynka Aerodrome was an airport inside Moscow that ceased commercial operations after World War II when flights over Moscow were no longer allowed for security reasons. It remained open for military use until 2003 when it was abandoned, along with the aircrafts that were stationed there. Nine years later, the planes and helicopters are kept in an small area enclosed by shoddy barbed wire fences while the surrounding areas are slowly being redeveloped. A small hut was placed at the corner of the area where I presume the guards spend all day watching TV run by a noisy generator.
X had found out about this place through some Russian internet forums, and despite the presence of the guards, he invited me to crawl under the fence and inspect the derelict combat aircrafts up close.
The area we broke into was about half the width of and slightly shorter than a football field, packed with few dozen Soviet-era jet fighters, helicopters, and few miscellaneous aircrafts that I couldn’t categorize, lined up fairly neatly on one side. They resembled little of their glory days, now disabled, deteriorated, and vandalized beyond any imaginable operational use. What once was a result of billions of dollars worth of research, development, engineering, and manufacturing lay there as hunks of metal serving as nothing more than a reminder of the golden age of Communism.
We wandered around the graveyard peaking into cockpits, inspecting the fine details, and taking a lot of pictures. Halfway through the visit, a Russian guard walked up to us, clearly irritated with a mean demeanor. X confronted him before he could talk to me and started discussing in Russian. The tone of the conversation seemed amicable, and after few minutes, X walked up to me to ask if I had 100 rubles. I gave him a 100 ruble bill which X combined with his 100 ruble bill and handed to the guard. The guard pocketed the money and walked away back into his hut.
200 rubles. Roughly six dollars or five euros was all it took to bribe the guard into letting us stay. It was cheaper than all of the museums and sites I visited during my trip in Russia. I asked X how he knew that the guard could be bribed. Apparently the guard didn’t instruct us to leave but asked us what we were doing along with few other questions as if to feel us out. X responded by making vague suggestions about helping him and eventually a price came up. So this is how my first experience bribing a foreign official played out, not in a dark alleyway with a brief case or a money-packed handshake, but a tepid conversation under the bright sunny Russian day in a language I couldn’t even understand.
We slowly made ourself across the graveyard taking as many pictures as we could and discussing the different models of the jet fighters (it was a rather one sided discussion since I know very little about Soviet aircrafts). When we got to the other end of the graveyard, the guard came out again and informed us that we had to leave and even opened the gate to let us out.
Most tourist sites are surprisingly unmemorable, often ending up as places “I think I’ve been to.” However, this place, I will never forget. In a way it was a small window into the past that I was not a part of, a world divided in two in constant tension where these jet fighters would take off with well trained pilots willing to die for their ideologies.
X told me that they are planning to move the aircrafts soon to a museum somewhere. In a museum these planes will live another life after their death, but the experience will not be the same. The sense of abandonment will no longer exist, something that inevitably pervaded a society like Russia that went through an incredibly rapid change in the last twenty years.
I for one am glad to have seen this place before it disappeared.
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