Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Don Diego de San Diego

Diego was a brave, loyal and loving kittie.
His gentle spirit is free to travel the world.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Jonesing for Nick Cave

A week or so ago, Joan posted a YouTube of Nick Cave...she's apparently into deep-voiced men. Her post reminded me of probably the first YouTube I ever saw, which was on the blog of my first blogging buddy, Martin (aka Augustus). Alas, I think Martin is no longer blogging, but I still love the YouTube he posted. Here it is...

These Boots Were Made for Walking

I started to write my mountain stories several months back and got as far as Whitney and Shasta. The next chapter on Mt. Rainier was partly completed when interrupted by our trip to Russia. Patty picked up on the Russia chapter of our life, and I left the writing to her. To date she has us only out of Moscow sailing up the Moscow Canal... who knows when that story will get finished! I thought I would get my mountain stories finished, interspersed with the Russia stories, but it didn't happen. I thought I could add this current story on as a final surprise. Time is running out so this story is written out of order. The intervening stories will get written, I promise.

Darjeeling, India, 1998. I was a late comer to mountaineering, beginning as a complete novice on Mt. Whitney when I was turning 50 and now - six years later, six years older, and many mountains in between - I was sitting with world renowned climber Nawang Gombu, seven years older than I and still climbing and guiding. Gombu, nephew of Tenzing Norgay and national hero in India, was the first man to climb Mt. Everest twice (with an American expedition in 1963 and an Indian expedition in 1965. He was a young sherpa with Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's first summit of Everest in 1953. Our small climbing group had just finished a foray into the Indian Himalayas, guided by Gombu's brother-in-law, Phursumba, and we had come to Gombu's house in Darjeeling for a celebratory dinner.

Gombu is a gracious and gentle man, not more than five feet tall.

The rest of the group had dispersed around the house, and I was alone with Gombu in a room filled with pictures of Gombu with President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, and other heads of state.

The following year Phursumba was leading an all woman expedition to Imje Tse ("Island Peak"), a 20,000' summit in the Everest Region. I wanted to go. I would be 57 years old. Underline OLD. Young elderly, as Kelly would say. But Gombu was even older and still climbing.

The question was burning to be asked. He listened to my quandary about whether to try for Imje Tse. What did Gombu think?

Quietly and simply, in his Tibetan Buddhist way he said, "Another year doesn't make a difference."

That was all the license I needed, and I kept going... Imje Tse, Kalapathar, Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Machu Picchu, Salkantay ... if it went uphill I was ready to go. I was inspired by the story of the man from Perry's Expedition who, at age 89, returned to the Antarctic to climb a mountain named after him. I dragged along my girl friends, and even Patty. We went places no one sees except on foot, or maybe yak or llama or water buffalo. Some are still climbing - Ellen is off to Kilimanjaro this weekend, Hisako is off to New Zealand in February.

San Diego, September 2007. Very soon I will be leaving for a Bhutan expedition - 150 Himalayan miles on foot in 14 days including two rest days, elevations 8,000 to 16,000 - led by Phil Ershler from International Mountain Guides. Phil was guiding in my group when I climbed Rainier some years ago. He has climbed the Seven Summits twice, once as a bachelor and once with his wife. His first American summit of the north face of Everest is legendary. He is on my hero list.

Almost as soon as I made the commitment by paying my money I began to have doubts. I woke up at night doing the math. 150 miles divided by 12 days ... hm-m-m that's like six consecutive Whitney's, twelve half marathons. I was plagued in training by the muscles in my left leg that had fused together from years of being on foot.

My left leg fixed by Keith Alban's neuromuscular therapy, my muscles and ego beefed up by Deon Lourens, my cardio pumped up by Cowles and Iron Mountains, I am ready to go... again.

I'm still following that philosophy - another year doesn't make a difference, and Phursumba's mantra - you don't conquer the mountain, you only conquer yourself.

Patty's note: If you can't make the link for Deon Lourens work, don't feel pregnant - we can't either. Just type "deonsworld.com" in your browser's address bar and you'll get to his site. The boy is a hoot.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Last day in Moscow. Wah.

Sunday face update – the skin on either side of my jaw felt crinkly. That couldn’t be good.

Kathie and I had a free day, meaning that we hadn’t signed up for any tours. So we set off for the Pushkin Museum to see the Trojan stuff stolen from the Nazis at the end of World War II. Kathie likes antiquities. Me, I figure the Russians should have taken a whole lot more stuff to make up for the 20 million people they lost.

First, we stopped back by the Christ our Savior Cathedral and got this shot of the front.

When we finally found the Pushkin and walked in, it took us a bit to find the exhibit we were looking for. The docents either didn’t speak English or they didn’t understand why we would be looking for the Trojan exhibit. We finally found it and it was pretty nice. Just about everything was gold and intricate. I think Kathie was satisfied; she’d gotten her antiquities fix for the day.

I think this is the museum that we’d heard housed a lot of reproductions created by university students, so we blew briefly through the sculpture room on our way out. Looking through Kathie’s guidebook now, however, I see that this museum has a pretty impressive collection of fine art, including pieces by Monet, Degas, Kandinsky, and Chagall. Who knew? I’m glad we didn’t stay though; I like art as well as the next guy but after a room or two full of it, I start getting glassy-eyed.

Outside, we had a little trouble orienting ourselves and even more trouble finding a way to cross Manezhnaya Ulitsa (ulitsa = street) to get over to Red Square. Finally, we jaywalked across a not so busy street to a tunnel that crossed under the very busy Manezh Street, and we came out in Alexander Garden. Here we got this shot of what looks like an excavation of the Kremlin wall foundation.

Walking through the crowd at the north end of Red Square, we passed several street vendors. One guy had a monkey and a falcon chained to a wooden crate. Very sad and truly weird. Can’t imagine seeing something like that in NYC. Now, a naked cowboy playing a guitar maybe…

Here's a shot of Kazan Cathedral on the northeastern corner of Red Square. It's a reconstruction of the original that was demolished in 1936. That devil Stalin.

The square itself was barricaded off and deserted - except for a pathetic little parade of six or eight peeps waving Communist Party placards. When they passed, the uniformed guys removed the barricades and the square filled with people again, but not before Kathie could snap this shot.

We returned to the blini place in GUM where we saw a couple of our fellow cruisers, Diane and Ruth, who asked us for directions back to the ship. We told them we’d take them back by way of the Metro, if they liked, right after we visited Varvarka Street. They were game, so after we finished our lunches, we set out for Varvarka.

I just love that name. It just sounds so Russian to me. You’d never know that it was named after a St. Barbara, would you?

We strolled along and stopped here and there to get some photos. As usual, Kathie went to extremes to get good shots.

At one point, a man who looked to be in his forties and wearing worn fatigues approached us with an offer to sell us some Moscow postcards. We smiled and said, “Nyet, spacibo,” to him and turned back to our discussion regarding how to get to the Church of the Trinity in Nikitniki (I think that’s what we were looking for - wasn’t it, Kath?) He proceeded to give us directions in unaccented American English, shocking us all. I don’t remember his story now, why he had spent time in the U.S., but he was a nice guy and we thanked him for his directions and crossed the street in our quest.

The ship left for St. Petersburg at 5:30. Kathie and I were sad to leave Moscow. Inga had told us that we would like St. Petersburg better, but we doubted that would be possible.

After dinner, all of us went out on deck to watch as we went through our first set of locks. I hadn’t even seen a lock before, so this was a huge thrill for me. The engineering behind raising or lowering the water in a canal by thirty six feet is just way beyond my comprehension.

Oh, and here's a photo of the ship's kitten. See his little perch? He seemed to know he wasn't supposed to get down. Maybe he just didn't want to leave his birdie pal, whose cage Kathie could see just behind the curtain.

Tomorrow, Uglich.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Diamonds, Brides, and GUM

I’m back. It took me longer than just lunch, but who’s counting?

At 2:00 on the dot, Kathie and I ambled over to the Diamond Fund entrance. The tall young man in uniform was stern looking and didn’t speak a whole lot of English, so we stood in the unmoving line trying to figure out how to get in. We noticed he let some young ladies in and wondered if they were buds of his. Finally, we plucked up the courage to ask him if we could enter. He motioned us in, leaving us to speculate about what those other folks outside were waiting for. We still don’t know.

Inside, we bought our tickets and went through the security station before going downstairs to the Almaznii Fond (that’s Diamond Fund for you non-Russki speakers). The two rooms were dark and smaller than I expected. The walls of the first one were lined with glassed-in exhibits of just about every kind of precious and semi-precious gem you can imagine – some mounted in crowns and pieces of jewelry. This was a very cool room, but just an appetizer compared to the room that lay beyond.

Now the Diamond District on New York’s 42nd Avenue is pretty awesome, and the Hope Diamond in the Smithsonian is more than lovely, but the last time I saw such a display of opulence as the stuff in this room was thirty seven years ago at the Tower of London. This was a much smaller and more intimate setting, but quite impressive nonetheless. I had to wonder how Catherine could hold her head up when she was wearing her imperial crown – it was encrusted with 5000 gems, mostly diamonds. For that coordinated look, she’d had the palm-sized diamond given to her by her lover, Count Orlov, mounted in the top of her scepter. Dude.

I was busy oohing and ahing, trying to see the gems from every possible angle when Kathie said, “No wonder they started a revolution.” The thirty-something behind us responded in perfect English that his great-grandfather had been one of the tsar’s guys. Kathie recovered well and we chatted with the man (who I thought looked a little Trotsky-ish himself) and his companions for a few minutes before the guard told us to move along.

Back outside, Kathie and I decided to go over to GUM to see if there was a food court where we could get lunch. (All malls have food courts, right?) On the way, we passed a bride and groom walking along in the crowd, seemingly unnoticed by the other passersby.

They had been here to leave her flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which lies alongside the brick wall of the Kremlin. The eternal flame burns for the twenty million Russians who perished in World War II.

Crossing Red Square to enter GUM, Kathie snapped this shot of Savior Tower, once the Kremlin’s main entrance but now closed to the public. The clock chimes supposedly play the Russian national anthem. We never heard it. We were too busy looking for the entrance to GUM.

Now some people think that GUM is a department store. It’s actually a three-story mall, built in the late 19th century, that originally housed a thousand shops. Count 'em - 1,000. The name GUM is an acronym for Government Universal Store (or “Magazin”, if you must know). The shops these days include Benetton, Gap, Christian Dior, and Estee Lauder – just to name a few, and it looks like this.

Kathie and I found a little blini/sandwich place where we had lunch and did some more peoplewatching. The young waitress was slow and unfriendly, but the food was pretty good.

We exited GUM, found the Metro station, and rode home. Walking through the park to the pier, we got lost again. In Moscow, did we ever find our way back to the ship that we didn’t get lost, Kath?

Next time – the Pushkin and Varvarka Street.

Cool place, the Kremlin.

Saturday morning, Kathie was already showered and getting dressed when I woke up. Rising, I noticed that my face felt puffier than usual. A look in the mirror confirmed what I suspected – I was a little pink from a mild sunburn. But who cared? This was Kremlin day! The forecast called for light rain (same as any other day), so we packed umbrellas and headed out for the buses.

We filed off our bus and queued up on the sidewalk in Alexander Gardens, just outside the Armory Tower Gate. Once inside the Armory, we checked our jackets and umbrellas and followed our guide from exhibit to exhibit, ogling thrones, gowns, carriages, FabergĂ© eggs, crowns, and weapons. It was hard to keep our lower jaws from coming unhinged. Each item was more fabulous than the next. Just walking in the room, we couldn’t miss Catherine the Great’s coronation dress – the skirt alone had to be five feet wide.

“How could she walk through a door?” I wondered. Our guide told us the dress had a little mechanism Catherine could use to “deflate” the skirt. Pretty smart.

And did you know that Peter the Great made his own boots? Between traveling to Europe to learn how to design and build his own navy and design and build St. Petersburg, squelching rebellions, and making his own boots, when did that man find time to rule? Then our guide told us a story about Peter (I think it was Peter) having his second wife’s lover’s head cut off and left in a box in her bedroom. Now that’s just gross.

At the end of the Armory tour, we used the ladies’ room (it looked nice and clean but the sign on the stall wall said to put your used TP in the trash can instead of the toilet– ick!) before we picked up our stuff and exited the building. We walked past the impressive Great Kremlin Palace (where foreign dignitaries such as George Bush are received), all the while imagining lines of Soviet soldiers and tanks queuing up on the broad roadway running along beside us for parades in Red Square. Of course, it’s quite possible that soldiers and tanks never queued up here, but my mental image was pretty intimidating.

We entered Cathedral Square, flanked by the Cathedral of the Archangel on the right and the Cathedral of the Annunciation on the left. A misty rain fell as we joined other onlookers to watch a small parade of young soldiers on their steeds. Kinda reminded me of the Citadel parades on Friday afternoons.

After we all crowded our drizzled-on selves into the Cathedral of the Archangel, our guide explained to us that this was the cathedral where the pre-Peter the Great tsars and their families regularly attended mass. (It’s also where the 11-year old Tsarevich Dmitry is entombed. More on him when we reach Uglich.) The walls, as in all of the other cathedrals and churches we visited, were covered in icons – four tiers of them, to be exact. When faced with such an overwhelming volume of images, it’s hard for me to focus on just one. So I simply walked around and enjoyed the overall effect, imagining that the warm, rich colors of the seventeenth century-style frescoes must have been quite comforting to the churchgoers.

Back outside, our guide told us that the smaller Cathedral of the Annunciation across the way there was used for weddings and coronations. We didn’t go in but later we got lots of pics of the onion domes.

Leaving Cathedral Square, we passed the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, built in 1505, and stopped beside the Tsar Bell. This sucker is the largest bell in the world and weighs – by some accounts – 200 tons. I figured it was on the ground because someone had obviously overestimated their ability to get a 400,000 pound bell up to the fifth floor of the tower…let alone mounted. But no, this was not the original bell. The original fell from the bell tower during a fire in 1701 and shattered. (Imagine the din that must have created. I bet dogs in Mongolia howled for days afterward.) The pieces were melted down and recast into the bell standing before us, but it was damaged before it could even be hung when some idiot poured cold water on it during yet another Kremlin fire.

You’d think someone would have developed a fire safety program after that first fire. Maybe they did but they were all deaf from the clanging of the falling bell – and the howling dogs - and couldn’t hear the smoke alarms screaming all over the place. I keep telling my kids to not listen to loud music…

On we walked and stopped by the Tsar Cannon. It weighs 40 tons and looks too pretty to use for killing people. Oh well.

In front of the State Kremlin Palace, which was built by Krushchev for Communist Party congresses and looks totally out of place amidst the older, more elegant buildings, our guide told us a little of the Kremlin’s history. Prince Dolgoruki chose this spot on the Moskva River back in 1156 for his wooden fortress (kreml means “fortress”). Italian architects were brought in during the 1400s to do a little redecorating, much of which Stalin destroyed. The guide pointed out Trinity Tower, through which Napoleon marched victoriously back in 1812. He marched his short little self right back out not long after, because his captives refused to surrender as long as his troops were inside the Kremlin. And then the townspeople set Moscow on fire. What is it with these people and their fires?

Our guide explained to us that President Putin (for whom Kappa No He has the hots) resides somewhere here now, so a large portion of the Kremlin is closed to the public. Sorry Kappa – no Putin photos to post.

Then we were cut loose. Kathie and I debated our next step. We had left our lunches on the bus and supposedly couldn’t go back out and get them, so we milled around for a while and took some more photos.

Then we walked back over to the Armory to enter the Diamond Fund, which was closed until 2 p.m. Hummph. We were not going to miss that Diamond Fund. Sitting on a rail next to the wall, we amused ourselves until 2:00 by peoplewatching. I especially liked the officious looking young man wearing all black and shoes with long, curled-up pointy toes. If those shoes hadn’t been black, I would have bet my paycheck that he rolled an elf or maybe even Rumpelstiltskin for them. I made a mental note to see if GUM carried them when we visited there later.

This is all making me hungry. Think I’ll go get some lunch and come back to write about the Diamond Fund. Later.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Trains, Wedding Cakes, and Balalaikas

After lunch, the bus dropped us off at a Metro station (truthfully, I don’t remember which one now). Our guide had explained to us on the way the number one rule for the afternoon: Push and shove your way onto the train once it stops so you don't get left behind. So for the next hour or so, the thirty of us hopped on and off trains at five or so Metro stations, and believe me – it’s a miracle that none of us ducklings got lost. It was like being in Istanbul again. At each station, perfectly nice and decent people appeared to lose their minds when those doors opened.

Beyond this, our mission was two-fold – first, to become acquainted with the Metro system so we would feel comfortable going out on our own to explore Moscow, and secondly, to observe the “beauty” of the Metro stations. On the first count, I would recommend to anyone wanting to ride the Metro in Moscow that they learn Cyrillic first. There is no way a non-Cyrillic reader could find his or her way around on that system; the trains and their riders just move too fast. On the second, while the Moscow Metro stations are unlike any others in the world – clean, graffiti-free, and filled with cool art, they’re still kinda dark and musty – well - subway stations. Here are some pics:

The whole system is old but efficient. First opened in 1935, there are eleven lines and 170 or so stations. Trains arrive every two minutes. Everyone rides the Metro in Moscow.

When our guide had had enough, we re-emerged into the afternoon sunlight to find our bus waiting to take us to Arbat Street. No cars are allowed on Arbat, so we strolled along and looked in windows and listened to street musicians. I swear – from what we saw, every Russian plays an instrument or sings. Well.

We returned to our meeting place and sat down on a windowsill to chat with our co-cruisers and look at the souvenirs they had bought. It was a little on the warm side, so I tried to squeeze myself into a little sliver of shade cast by the window frame, but couldn’t keep the sun off the left side of my face. Across the street was a McDonald’s.

Waiting for the bus, we snapped these shots of the Ministry of Defense building. Yup, it’s another of Stalin’s skyscrapers. Cool, huh? I guess no one wanted to climb up there and blast off that hammer and sickle...

Back on board the Litvinov that evening, we attended a concert in the Rakhmaninov Theater on the fifth deck. The “world famous orchestra of folk instruments” consisted of about twenty people dressed in traditional Russian costumes - young and old, males and females. Some played little hand-made pipes, while others played balalaikas and other stringed instruments (that most Westerners wouldn’t recognize). To our surprise, we really enjoyed the music, especially when a former soloist from the Soviet Army Chorus sang with the little orchestra. Wow, his voice filled that room to overflowing. Beautiful.

Can’t wait for tomorrow – we're going into the Kremlin!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Friday Morning Turistikas

Kathie’s going to disown me if I don’t get this saga moving again. Sorry it’s taken so long, Kath. This ungodly heat has sucked all motivation right out of me.

OK, so where were we? Oh yeah, aboard the Maxim Litvinov on the Moskva River, recuperating from the Russian version of “The Out of Towners” the night before.

So here are Kathie and I, in cabin 341, trying to open our eyes and get our butts out of bed and moving. We’re pretty experienced at coordinating our morning shower and dressing routine in a closet-sized cabin with two beds, our luggage, our clothes, and Kathie’s books. (This year, we also had Kathie’s iPod and hoard of dark chocolate.) So maybe it was jetlag that caused me to sunscreen only my nose.

After a lovely little buffet breakfast in the Volga Restaurant at the back of the ship on our deck, we met up with our fellow cruisers on the pier for a morning tour of Moscow city. Two hundred Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, English, and Irish folk split up onto six tour buses and set out along Leningradski Prospekt to see the main tourist attractions. As we drove along, I nearly gave myself whiplash trying to read every sign on every building on both sides of the street. One thing in particular I noticed was the presence of so many flower kiosks (flowers are “tsveti” – from the Russian word for color), and all the people carrying flowers. Nice.

Here’s Novodevichy (New Maiden) Convent. Most of the compound was built in the late 1600s by Peter the Great’s half-sister, Regent Sophia. Well, actually, she didn’t build it herself. She had it built because Peter confined her to the convent for the rest of her life, even after she had spent seven years of her life acting as the stand-in for him until he got old enough to rule. Now that’s gratitude for you. She should have squashed the guy like a palmetto bug, except that he was seventeen years old and seven feet tall. Yikes.

We milled around in the park across the lake for a few minutes, snapping shots, then hopped back on the bus and drove off, passing the Novodevichy Cemetery along the way. Famous residents (ahem) include Checkhov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Raisa Gorbachev, and Nikita Krushchev. Now, Kathie and I remember Krushchev pounding on his podium and roaring, “We will bury you!” Wonder if that’s what got him buried in the New Maiden Cemetery with the artsy guys, while other famous Communists, such as Stalin and Brezhnev - even John Reed, an American - were all buried in Red Square behind Lenin’s mausoleum. Tsk tsk.

Here’s Moscow University. Located in Sparrow Hills, it’s one of eight (or seven, depending on whom you ask) of Stalin’s Skyscrapers (or wedding cakes, also depending on whom you ask). Tuition is free. Woof. Kathie got this great shot by crossing the street so that the overhead lines running above the sidewalk wouldn’t show up in the final product. (I’m lazy – almost all of my building photos have overhead wires.)

While Kathie risked her life to get a quality shot, I chatted some with Inga (our savior from the evening before). Turns out she’s not as young as she looks! She has a son who was a civil defense (is that like our National Guard?) lieutenant in the Urals and is now into computer design, and a daughter who’s in high school studying English. During Perestroika, Inga’s husband lost his job in the printing industry and took a construction job. Now that the economy is stronger, he’s back operating a printing press. We found out toward the end of the cruise that she herself teaches Russian literature at the high school level (she just came along on this cruise with her friend, one of the cruise staff members, on a lark). In the next year or two, Inga and family plan to move to Toronto, Canada. Wow – such ambition!

Our tour guide pointed out lots of other landmarks as we drove along through Moscow, such as 19th century nobles’ houses and the state library – in front of which is a cool statue of Dostoyevsky. We stopped along the bank of the Moskva River and climbed down from our bus onto a broad sidewalk across the street from Christ the Redeemer (or Savior, depending on whom you ask) Cathedral.

Kathie's photo.

My photo. See the difference?

Interesting history. The cathedral was built between 1839 and 1883 to celebrate Moscow’s victory over Napoleon. In 1931, however, Stalin decided the site would be perfect for his Palace of Soviets, the ninth (or eighth, depending on – well, you know) of his gothic skyscrapers, so he had the cathedral blown up. For whatever reason – lack of funds, the intervening war, and/or too many other projects going on - the palace didn’t happen; the remaining foundation was therefore turned into an outdoor pool instead. In the 1990s the pool was filled in and the original structure was reproduced at a cost of $200 million, most of which came from the government. How’s that for irony?

Across the river are the Red October chocolate factory and this crazy tall Peter the Great monument. Good chocolate. (We picked up a bar of 80% dark chocolate at the corner produkti that evening, and it was purty yummy.) On the other side of the chocolate factory is a large apartment building where Stalin’s cronies lived. All the amenities were included – theater, shops, kindergarten, etc. Such a life. It must have been scary as hell.

Back on the bus and crawling along in Moscow traffic, we passed the Duma (parliament) on the way to Red Square. We next debussed (you know, like “deplaned”) onto the narrow sidewalk that forms the perimeter of the relatively small parking area behind St. Basil’s Cathedral, and I noticed a white limo crammed into what little space was left along the curb in front of our bus. A wedding party was milling around it, chatting and having a photo or two taken. How odd, I thought, and yet this was just the first of many wedding parties we would see in Red Square. It wasn’t until Saturday that we found out what they were up to. (Photos of brides and Red Square will be included in the next post or two, Kath. I promise.)

OK, so I couldn't...

resist just a couple of shots...

We spent a while milling with the crowds in Red Square, snapping shots of the Kremlin’s walls and towers, Lenin’s tomb (alas – we had no time to stand in the queue to go in and say “Hey” to old Vlady), St. Basil’s Cathedral, GUM (pronounced “goom”), etc. It was hard to believe we were actually here. It’s much, much better to see in person, trust me. It would be cool to see in the winter, I bet (no pun intended).

Knowing we would be back the following day, we reluctantly left and headed for lunch at the Durov Restaurant, passing Theater Square along the way (Kathie and I were well acquainted with this area already). The Durov is actually a dark little theater that belongs to a famous clown (Durov?), and during the day hosts lunches for tour groups. Many, many tour groups. It was hot and close, and the food was mediocre (what was that cheese sauce covered meatball thingy, anyway?), but we had our first borscht and it wasn’t too bad. I had expected it to be a cream soup, though, and have no meat in it. Maybe this was Durov’s personal recipe.

Well, this post is already getting to be overly long, so I’m going to save the afternoon’s adventure for tomorrow. Next up – Metro orientation and the Arbat.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The saga begins.

This is our hundredth post. How appropriate.

I think it was back in February that Kathie came up with the idea to go to Russia. Would I like to go? Are you kidding me? Are the Weasley kids all red haired?

Having grown up during the Cold War, it had never occurred to me that I might some day have an opportunity to visit the Kremlin, or check out Peter the Great’s log cabin, or cruise in a riverboat on the mighty Volga River. So setting off for Moscow with Kathie on the 4th of July felt like a dream. I still can’t believe I’ve actually stood in Red Square. Someone pinch me.

Here’s the story…the beginning of it, that is.

Kathie’s flight here was delayed due to bad weather in Houston. Amazingly, her luggage was already waiting for her when she landed in Charleston nine hours late. We hoped her struggle to get to the East Coast wasn’t a bad omen for the whole trip.

When our Lufthansa flight out of DC didn’t take off on time, I hoped we might still make our connection in Frankfurt ok, but alas! – the agent had booked our flights just a tad too close together. We didn’t make it out of Frankfurt until about the time we were supposed to land in Moscow, and when we did arrive in Moscow, we had to wait for other flights to come in so our shuttle to the ship would be full.

Sheremetevo Airport, Moscow

This would have all been just ducky except that Kathie had bought us tickets for Swan Lake at the Bolshoi that evening. We finally arrived at the ship at 7 pm (the show was supposed to start at 7) and changed clothes at the speed of light (yuck – no time for a shower after twenty and a half hours of traveling). We planned to take a cab over to the theater, but then someone knocked on our cabin door as we started to leave, and I opened it to find Inga Zakharova, a pretty red-haired Russian woman who had been trying to give us directions at the desk. She obviously knew we were in too much of a dither to know what we were doing at that point.

“Are you ready? Let’s go. I’m going to walk you over to the Metro station.”

Kathie and I were shocked by such a kind offer. We flew out the door behind her and took off at a trot (in our Chico’s outfits, mind you) trying to keep up with her. As usual, I lagged a few steps behind, trying to memorize the route so I could get us back to the ship after the ballet.

When we arrived at the Metro station, Inga helped us buy round-trip train tickets and pointed out on the Metro map our current location and our destination. Thanking Inga profusely, Kathie and I waved goodbye and descended into the bowels of the Metro to board our train.

To say we were conspicuous would be an understatement. Here we were, sweating from our hike in our going-to-the-ballet clothes, riding Moscow’s subway with Russian kids listening to their iPods, workers making their end of the day commute, and little old babushkas toting their day’s groceries in Estee Lauder shopping bags (I kid you not!). I’m reading every sign and advertisement on the train wall because I’m as fascinated as I can be by everything around me and cannot control my curiosity, and I’m just thrilled to find that I can still read Cyrillic. (Long story – don’t ask.) So yeah, little kids were staring at us.

When we arrived at our station and resurfaced – I gotta tell you, the Metro escalators are about a quarter of a mile long and that is no joke - we were more than a little intimidated by what we saw. The square before us was surrounded by a bunch of buildings, any of which could be the Bolshoi. We stopped a couple of nicely dressed Russian ladies for directions.

“Izvenitye, gde Bolshoi?” I asked haltingly in my telltale American accent.

“(Something, something, something in Russian) perekhod (then something else in Russian) vnizh (and something else in Russian)”, I understood the lady on the left to say, as she gestured with her hand. I vaguely remembered the words “perekhod” and “vnizh” from thirty years ago, and figured she meant for us to walk around the square in front of us and down under the street to get to the other side.

Approaching the huge building that we figured must be the Bolshoi, we suddenly realized that we should have asked the lady for directions to the New Bolshoi. (Shortly before the trip, I had discovered online that the original Bolshoi closed in 2005 for a three year renovation, but supposedly the New Bolshoi was right next door to the old one. Likely story. There are only about a gazillion buildings next door to the old Bolshoi, and not a one of them has any kind of name or sign on the front.)

So we approached another nicely dressed lady for directions. “Izve…”, I started to say.

She walked on by, not slowing or even looking at us. I think Kathie would have taken her out if we hadn’t been in a bit of a hurry.

We walked further and asked some kids in their late teens, maybe early twenties, who appeared to be friendly. I think they were intrigued by us. A couple of them could speak a little English, but none had ever heard of the New Bolshoi. We showed them our tickets, on which was stamped the name of the theater in Cyrillic. One of the guys went over to a street kiosk and asked for directions, then came back and with gestures, some English, and some Russian, got us headed in the right direction.

We found the building but couldn’t figure out which door to enter. A balding, heavyset wiseguy offered to give us directions for $5. By now, Kathie and I were both about ready to tell the guy to “f--- off” (which would be unusual for Kathie), but we turned instead and walked off. The guy called after us and pointed to the correct door.

“Whew!” we sighed as we entered the building and handed our tickets to the lady at the door. Saying nothing, she pointed ahead and toward the right. We finally got to the right place after asking several people who, of course, didn’t understand us, for more directions. By now, however, it was going on 8:00 and intermission was about to begin, so the usher waved us over to a monitor where we could watch the show while we waited.

And believe me, the theater and ballet were worth the wait and all the struggle to get there. The inside of the theater was stunning. While Kathie took advantage of intermission to snap some shots, I sat in my second row – I repeat, second row – seat and just took in the view. Supposedly, the original Bolshoi is bigger and even more lavish. I gotta see that place.

The ballet itself was awesome. The props and stage were larger than life, the costumes were rich and glittery, and the Prince and Swans were more talented and moving than anything I’ve ever seen. If I could do one of those really loud fingers in the teeth whistles, this show deserved it. Instead, we just clapped and yelled “Bravo” with the rest of the crowd.

White Swan and her Prince

When we exited the theater at about 9:15, the sky was still light so we wandered around a bit before getting back on the Metro. We probably shouldn’t have dallied, though, because by the time we got back to our home station, it was dark and nothing looked the same as when we had followed Inga over. Undaunted, we took off in the direction I thought we should go – right through the park. There were people about but I imagined them to be leering at us, so I put my arm through Kathie’s. We followed this route until we got to what looked like a highway, at which point we turned around and walked back the way we came.

Getting back to the station, Kathie said she thought we had come from the other side of the street. I knew that couldn’t be right because we had walked through a residential section, not a shopping area. So I led us off in another direction, cursing myself for leaving the area map Inga had given us behind in the cabin.

I don’t know how many times we went back and forth, but after I almost got myself picked up by a couple of Johns who pulled up to the curb beside me looking for some fun, we decided it was time to find a cab.

I guess this is as good a place as any to say that I never take the trouble before traveling abroad to learn about the other country’s exchange rate.

We approached a couple of cars that were parked at the taxi stand and asked the guys standing by them how much for a ride to the ship. One of them said a figure in Russian and I looked at him and said, “Huh?”

“Six hundred rubles,” he said, recognizing that I was just another stupid (and lost) American.

“Skol'ka v’Amerikanka dollarov?” I winced, realizing I had just asked him the price in American woman dollars. Or something like that.

“Twenty five dollars,” he replied.

I thought that was a little high given that we were a five minute ride from the ship, but it was late, we were both tired because we’d been on the go for over twenty four hours by now, and there were no other taxis around. I looked at Kathie.

“I won’t pay it,” she said with a Kathie attitude.

I looked back and forth between them, noting that he didn’t look or smell too good. “How much are you willing to pay?” he demanded.

“Desyat dollarov?” I whined, thinking that ten dollars was reasonable.


“Pyatnadzat?” I tried again.

“Twenty,” he said with finality.

Never good at bargaining, I looked pleadingly at Kathie. “OK,” she said, and we piled into his grubby little car with me riding shotgun.

He put the car in gear and we rocketed out into traffic while I groped desperately for my seatbelt. As I continued to grope, I noticed he was driving up and down the same street, over and over. I looked to see if there was a handle on my door.

Kathie piped up, “This doesn’t look right.”

He made a turn onto a dark little dirt road through a park. By now, Kathie and I were both panicking, thinking that the cabbie was taking us to a place where his buddies were waiting to rob us…or worse.

Suddenly, the dirt road opened onto an open area in front of a very official looking, Stalin-era building standing in front of the river. Starting to breathe again, I whimpered to the cabbie, “This isn’t where our ship is.”

He pointed to the building and said firmly, “Porta. Porta.” Kathie handed him a twenty and we skedaddled out of the car and into the building, where a very official looking young guard sat, looking bored.

“Litvinov,” we said to him. When he looked at us, bewildered, we repeated ourselves several times, each time more slowly and clearly than the last. Like that was going to help. Apparently, he figured we weren’t going to leave him alone so he led us through the dimly lit lobby and out the back door, where we saw a long line of riverboats docked.

Dead on our feet by now, we approached each ship and asked of the crewmember on watch, “Litvinov?” Finally, our question was answered with a nod and we hopped on board, happy to be home.

Next, exploring Moscow…

Look out.

So where have I been?

I’ve been around.

And what have I been doing?

I’ve been a slug.

Truly, there are no better answers to these questions. But now that I’ve finished reading the last Harry Potter book and finally sifted through the Russia photos (did you say you had 900, Kath?), I feel some writing coming on.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

We're in Russia!

Hello from Yaroslavl, Russia! Kathie and I are cruising along the Volga River after spending several days in Moscow. What a fabulous place! I'm trying to keep up on my notes for future blogging - but we run all day, so it's hard to find the time (and energy!).

We're taking lots of photographs - mostly of churches (onion domes, of course). Stay tuned!

Do svidaniya!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mountaineering Story #3 Mt. Shasta , Revisited

"Lonely as God and white as a winter moon"
... Joaquin Miller on Shasta, late 1800's

Even with the failed summit on Mt. Shasta, I was pretty well hooked on snow and ice mountaineering. A few months later I called my son-in-law, Joe, in Montana to talk about climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington, also a 14'er but more difficult. No, he said, first I had to do a successful summit on Shasta. Essentially, you have to pay your dues.

So, back to Shasta the following June. Spring and early summer are the best climbing months, when winter storms have passed but snow still covers the scree (volcanic rock).

Weather and conditions looked good when we arrived in Shasta, the small town at the foot of the mountain, and we made plans to take the Avalanche Gulch route up the mountain. Wouldn't you think it could've been named something else? Like Sublime Climb or Piece of Cake? Where are those ski run namers when you need them? The Avalanche Gulch route is a class 3 on the American rating system, that is, a moderate climb requiring ice axe and crampons, but no ropes.

On the way to the trail head at Bunny Flat, Joe and I calibrated our new altimeter based on a road sign giving the altitude. This would turn out to be a significant issue later in the day. The first few hours on foot up the mountain from Bunny Flat at 7000' to Horse Camp at 7900'-- named so in early days before roads were built, because the the first part of the climb was on horseback up to Horse Camp where the horses were left to graze--were easy through cool forest trails up to tree line. From here the mountain grew steeper and in the sun temperatures grew hotter. Above tree line, walking onto the open snow was like being on a reflecting mirror. More than once I caught up with Joe stripped naked to the waist, cooling off.

The plan was to reach Helen Lake at 10,443' and set up camp, overnight, and head out for the summit early morning. Helen Lake is more like a small pond and not easy to find in the vast snow field of lower Avalanche Gulch. I checked the altimeter regularly for 10,443. No Helen Lake. We kept climbing. No Helen Lake. At about 11,000' we stopped for a rest and to confer. Could we have set the altimeter wrong? Was the thing not working? We scanned the mountain for Helen Lake. There, about 600' below we could see several climbers setting up tents by what must be Helen Lake. I told Joe there was no way I would descend 600' just to camp at Helen Lake. These were a hard-fought-for 600'.

We scraped our tent platform, set up camp and enjoyed a beautiful, private panoramic view. By late afternoon, the headache started, the kind where you just want to clutch your head - a "don't touch me, don't anybody bother me, I'm just going to lie here in my sleeping bag" kind of headache. I was feeling the effects of altitude, full on with the weakness where you can hardly put one foot in front of the other to walk out the tent. Joe set up the stove and started cooking soup because you have to drink, drink, drink. Drink until you pee clear, that's a rule of the mountain. I worried I wouldn't be able to get up and go in the morning. "You'll be fine," Joe said.

We set out at 4:00 AM to take advantage of the crusty snow from low night time temperatures and to have enough time to summit and descend. Joe packed up his skis to ski down from the summit; he is truly a man's man. In these early morning hours we climbed a steep 2000' snowfield that steepened to 35 degrees at the top, heading then to a saddle between two glaciers. We stopped for a snack, sitting with our legs dangling into a crevasse, my first contact with a glacier. From here we had less than a thousand vertical feet to the summit, but ahead was Misery Hill, long, somewhat steep, and from the bottom it would appear the top of Misery Hill is the summit. Unfortunately, it is a false summit and the climber gets to the top of Misery Hill only to find the summit is some distance off.

Top of Misery Hill

Given our 600' mistake, we were ahead of other climbers and the first to summit for the day. The summit is a small snow and rock ridge, and I was perfectly content to say I had summited having reached the top of the ridge. According to Joe, however, the true summit is a crag reached only by a narrow snow and ice ridge, with a steep drop off, several thousand feet on one side and enough on the other it didn't make any difference. An ice axe wouldn't save you if you slipped here in either direction. Joe crossed to the true summit, man's man that he is. I thought, "I really don't need to do this," but after watching Joe I thought, "I CAN do this".

Carefully, telling myself I didn't really have a fear of heights, choosing every step placement, and making sure my crampon had a good grip, I crossed over the the true summit. A panoramic view. Truly the feeling of being on top of the world. All fatigue is forgotten, the worries and fears become distant memories, nature's high.

Coming down we began to meet other ascending climbers, and one offered to take our picture just below the summit.

Joe put on his skis in order to ski the entire descent of Shasta.

The snow had softened too much for smooth skiing and Joe wanted to wait it out at higher altitude for the snow to crisp up, taking a nap in the meantime.

I complained about having to wait, so Joe rigged up a snow "lounge chair" to stop my complaining.

Summit completed! Yeah! Dues are paid! Rainier, here I come!