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 "" 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.