Saturday, February 21, 2009


Every time I come through Chita (this is at least my fourth time) I try to give it another chance. I hoped that this time would be different, that the wealth from the last six years would result in changes to the city and to people’s attitudes. Unfortunately, the city has remained locked in time. I still don’t like it.

A nice American acquaintance (who has lived here an unbelievable 13 years) met me at the airport and after getting me settled at a nice and reasonably priced hotel, dropped me off at the central market. This used to be my favorite place, where Central Asian traders smiled over stacks of bright fruit and vegetables. The market had changed, with booths for clothing and goods replacing much of the vast open market space. The Central Asians were still there, although in smaller numbers, and they were still the most friendly.

Only at the central market in Chita can someone ask me, “Are you from the Ukraine? Mongolia?” and expect an affirmative reply.

I hoped to walk through town, back towards my hotel, while picking up some groceries, getting something to eat, and seeing how the city has changed.

Instead, what I found is that, with the exception of a few new buildings – a hotel, a couple of apartment blocks, a couple of shopping centers - the city has remained frozen in time. The exact same restaurants and shops stood in the exact same places and in the exact same condition, plus six years of wear. There was very little in the way of renovation, improvement, the flourishing of new businesses. The highlight of the town is the ice palace and slide, located in front of the giant Lenin statue (still standing) and built annually by the Chinese.

Shortly after leaving the market, I realized I’d forgotten my mittens. I wrapped my hands in my scarf and continued on. I was quickly reminded of the power of the Siberian cold. First, the nose hairs stand to attention as they begin to freeze. The hands become uncomfortable cold, and with time, become stiff and lose dexterity. The nose begins to drip and that, plus the frozen nose hairs makes for a cold mess. Then the face begins to stiffen from the cold, making it difficult to speak. The cold seems in through the jeans into the legs and through the collar into the upper chest. The cold air enters the esophagus and the lungs like a thick, chilled drink. I looked for the buses I was told go to the hotel, but couldn’t find nay of them. Nor did I find an easy taxi. So I kept walking.

I moved from the main street, Babushkina, down Chkalova, through the center of town, and up Lenin Street, the main throughway. I hoped that I’d find the buses there, and if nothing else, I could find a café where I could stop to warm up and have something warm to eat. No luck on any counts. I saw one café, Vesta, that I recognized from before. When I went in, I found the tables in disarray, soggy pirozhki in the front case, and no service staff. A few blocks later, I passed Tsyplata Tabaka, a café I remembered that serves nothing but chicken, but the chicken is really good. With some excitement, I approached the front door. But it was locked and there were no hours posted.

I was so cold at this point I could barely move. I went into a shop to warm up and asked the saleswomen where I could find something to eat. This was the main street in the center of town. They named the two places I’d just tried and couldn’t come up with any others.

Finally, near my hotel, I found a little stand selling grilled chicken and shaurma (made with tiny chunks of chicken and lots of mayonnaise and cabbage in a flour wrap). That was enough exploring for the day. I happily entered my warm hotel, made two cups of hot tea and luxuriated in a steaming shower.

In the evening, I visited Lukas and his family. When I told him and his wife Natalia about my difficulties finding anything to eat and my surprise at the lack of cafes or restaurants, Natalia, a Chitan said, “We have a Subway. And a Baskin Robbins!” They mentioned two other cafes, but they are hidden away. Lukas said that one positive change has been that many of the roads have been repaved, saving drivers the cost of replacing their shock absorbers each year. However, even he is considering sending his son to study overseas in order to expose him to a greater variety of people and professions. He said here, the youth want only to study business and law. They don’t see a way to make a living in any other profession.

I’m enjoying the hot water, since I don’t know whether or not I’ll have any in Aginsk. But I’m not at all disappointed to be leaving Chita tomorrow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

getting from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo airport

If you are flying into Moscow and want to avoid spending time in the capitol city, you may be able to transfer to Domodedovo and catch a flight to your destination the same day. You have three ways of doing this.

1. Take a taxi from one airport to the other. This is likely to cost you several hundred dollars and the traffic can be brutal.

2. Travel by train, which requires three connections – first to Rechnoi Vokzal metro, then Rechnoi Vokzal to Paveletsky, and Paveletsky to Domodedovo. This is the cheapest option, but you’ll need to lug your bags around (and probably can’t avoid stairs entirely). It also takes several hours.

3. Take a taxi to Paveletsky, then take the train to Domodedovo. The taxi to Paveletsky costs 1600 rubles now if you call a taxi to meet you at the airport. This is a good option if you’d have to wait a while at Sheremetyevo for the first train.

At Paveletsky station, for about 300 rubles you can check in for your flight and check in your luggage, allowing you to travel baggage-free to the airport or to spend some time around town.

A few tips to make the transfer easier are:

  • Choose a flight that arrives in Moscow in the morning to maximize your time.
  • The taxis at the airport are great extortionists. To receive a normal price, call a taxi (232 company (telephone 7 495 232 1111 is reputable) and have it meet you outside customs.
  • Pack in a way that allows you to carry your luggage easily.

Arrival at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport

Upon arrival at Sheremetyevo, you’ll go through immigration, pick up your baggage, then pass through customs. There is an area for people to meet you upon exiting customs. If you order a taxi in advance, this is where you will find the driver.

There are two places to change money in the airport, as well as an ATM machine. The first is just to the right of customs, beyond a door that says Crew Check in. The other is all the way down the hall to the right, just past the bright yellow Evrosite telephone kiosk. The exchange rate is reasonable, currently 34 point something to the dollar, compared to 35 point something you’ll get in the city.

You can buy a local SIM card for your cell phone, or purchase a phone at the bright yellow Evrosite booth. The staff will ask where you plan to call and recommend the cheapest option.

There is a café and several newsstands in the airport.

To get to the city, you can:
1. Take the train.
2. If your luggage is light, you can take a marshrutka (mini-van bus) to Planernaya or Rechnoi Vokzal Metro stations. This the cheapest option. Go out to where the taxis are. Just beyond the taxis, in the third lane from the exit door, the marshrutkas wait.
3. Call a taxi ahead of time, or from the airport, to come meet you. It’s significantly cheaper to do this than to use the airport taxis. One reliable company is 232 (Telephone: 7 495 232 1111).
4. Take a licensed airport taxi. Be prepared to pay a lot.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Things I'm Learning About Planning a Trip to Russia

I’m off to Russia next week. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process of planning for my trip.

· It is no easier to get a visa to Russia than it was when I last visited several years ago. If anything, it’s more expensive and complicated. Russia has not yet shown signs of wanting to encourage tourism.

· The cheapest tourist visa for Americans will cost you $181 (for two week processing and an invitation).

· The Way to Russia boards have the most comprehensive and helpful information on visa registration I’ve found. Having been through the process of registration in the Russian hinterlands before, I wonder if they are overly optimistic in their thoughts that local landlords can help register you. My guess is that this would take a substantial amount of time on the part of the landlord and probably some type of bribe. If you are going to ask a landlord to do this, make sure you are paying them enough to compensate them adequately for the hassle.

· For invitation processing, I used a company called Russian American Consulting, which is staffed by former employees of the Russian Foreign Service. What I like about this company is that you send your passport directly to them and they handle all interactions with the embassy. No need for contact with the Russian embassy on your part. They also followed through with what they promised and were professional and courteous. If you will be staying primarily in the Moscow area, they can register the visa for you for 1500 rubles. Otherwise, you have to register with the local authorities, which is a whole adventure in itself. Another, slightly cheaper, option that people recommended to me is Way to Russia.

· The tourist visa application, apparently modeled after the application the U.S. embassy makes Russians fill out, asks questions I’ve never seen on another visa application – such as all the countries you have visited in the last ten years and the dates of visit, full information on your last two places of work, including your supervisor, all educational institutions ever attended after high school, and all professional, civil and charitable organizations you have ever been a member of, contributed to or worked with. I understand they want to make a point that the U.S. visa procedures are cumbersome, expensive and condescending. However, I think they need to keep in mind the numbers of Americans (very few, I imagine) who stay illegally to live and work in Russia. Conversely, the number of Russians who stay in the U.S. illegally is significant and there is a whole network set up to assist them in New York.

· S7 airlines, now the largest domestic airline in Russia, sells tickets online. The customer service is excellent. But watch out for your bank charging you a foreign transaction fee of 2% or more. I was surprised when my debit card, issued by ING Direct (a bank I loved until that moment) added another 2% to my already expensive Moscow to Siberia flight. Capital One credit card doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees. Also, if you purchase your domestic flight separately from your international flight, you’ll be subject to the 20 kilo free luggage limit.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Magic of Mullica Hill

I’ve been exploring tearooms around New Jersey lately. This weekend, I stopped by one in Mullica Hill, Amelia’s Tea and Holly. It was wonderful – Victorian décor, relaxing classical music, friendly service and delicious food, homemade on the premises. It felt like walking into a home, where I could sit for hours (unfortunately, I had only an hour) and take my time, sipping on my oolong and enjoying dainty bites from my three tiers of scone, quiche, sandwiches, fresh fruit and desserts. This is a place I would definitely visit again.

Another highlight in town was the Amish market, where we stocked up cheeses, hormone-free milk, canned peaches and three-bean salad and deli meats. Unlike our usual Amish market, this one had a doughnut counter, where you can see the dough being cut, and a counter selling kettle soups with delicate scents. The prepared food section is excellent, with pretzel dogs, roasted duck, fresh fries, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and many other items glistening in the case.
I came across this helpful blog post, which describes the culinary highlights of Mullica Hill and suggests it as an alternate to food courts when traveling between DC and New York. After visiting the above two places, I’d say that’s a very good idea.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Super Russian film

In preparation for my trip to Russia, just over two weeks from now, I’m burning through all the Russian-language films at my local library, trying to get my mind back into Russian mode. Some have been mediocre, others unimpressive. Today I was lucky enough to find a gem.

Ostrov (The Island) is about a man who commits a terrible sin during the war, then spends the rest of his life in guilt. He lives in a monastic community on a remote island. While I’ve never been to Solovetsky Islands, the movie brought to mind all I’d imagined of this remote northern spiritual community.

The cinematography is stunning, with widescreen panoramas of snow, water and remote isolation captured with a deep sense of beauty. The acting is good, the topic of guilt and repentance thought provoking and the story line unique. An all around excellent film, worth the time spent watching it.