In my last newsletter I spoke of how I had a plastic bit replaced on my glasses at no charge in Germany, a thing that had not happened in NZ. Well before I flew to Russia I had a larger test another bit fell off my glasses, yes I know, well I thought a large airport, shops with high overheads, this will be different, no it was fixed at no charge, I will always remember these two occasions, it is a pity it did nit happen in my town, they would have had a good strong customer.
Well if you are used to Business class when you fly you are used to plush seats, plenty of leg room, good staff, good food and so if you are flying with Lufthansa even if it is to Russia nothing should be different, right…… wrong!
First it was manned by Russians, second, well the seats were Leather but not plush and leg room equal to economy on other airlines, service, Yes Russian style, we are all used to the request to put the seat backs up for landing and then they go around to check that that has happened, well they request it and if you don't that is your problem!
As there was bad weather in Ekaterinburg we had to land and take on more fuel at Warsaw so now I can say I have been to Poland, BUT they would not let me get off the plane…. So I cannot cross Poland off my list! However this made us late for our arrival by about one hour.
Sitting beside me was a American working on a project funded by America to house the Plutonium left after the cold war, the bunker I understand is as large as a football field and will withstand a assault by any conventional weapon or explosive. So he was well used to the Russian way of doing things and gave me quite a few tips.
So we landed, and I said we were on the edge of Siberia, didn't I, well in actual fact Ekaterinburg is 300 Kms from the edge of Siberia, but in a country of this size what is 300 Kms? Not much because on my arrival it was snowing, there was no skyway, so it was off the plane into the snow, onto the snow covered stairs from the plane across the 150mm of snow & slush to the bus and then across the slush again to the terminal.
Now you would think as the plane was late, Immigration etc would be open and waiting on us so they could get home, no the doors to Immigration was locked closed so eventually all of the passengers from the plane were all lined up like Serge's cows. 20 minutes later one door opened and one Immigration official was ready to work, so she pushed a button and a green light flashed, the gate was able to be opened and one person could move thro. Now I was fortunate that I was at the head of the line along with ten others edging towards being the next thro, however I did have a slight edge over the others as I was second behind a Englishman standing in front of the other door that was closed.
Well even for Russia sense must have come to pass as the other door opened with the second Immigration person, and I was second in line! I realized it did not take much to make me happy in this land of "Ivan's"!
At the conveyer belt my bags were waiting which was no big deal considering the time that had elapsed next hurdle was Customs, all of the carry on luggage was x-rayed and unlike Cuba they looked at the screen. First thing that caught their attention was my special lead lined box that most X-rays can not see thro so what was that? All that film, not possible, I am away for a year I said, so with the comment "you will probably have a problem taking these out" he let me go, after of course correcting my declaration form in several places and putting a official stamp over every place he made me sign.
Of course you had to declare ALL of the money you bring in with you and you better have less when you leave, I was told by the American on the plane.
So it was out to freedom and my waiting guide, now wait a second, my Russian contact I was counting on could speak no English, but he brought along the mother of the girls apartment I was to occupy for my stay and it was, with phase books, conveyed that she would be happy to act as my translator and guide, well beggars can not be fussy, she was I was to learn of Tartar decent which was to be useful later. Her knowledge of English turned out to be better than my knowledge of Russian by about 100 fold, but considering my knowledge was the word "Njet" or NO I could see making myself understood was not going to be easy. I was very thankful for the two translators that I bought in the States.
Out to the waiting car with the two others who had come along for the ride and after all the snow had been cleaned off the car I was out onto the snowy roads. I thought I was at that stage glad it was Russia with the snow rather that Texas, at least in Russia they were used of the snow, so I settled back and looked at the city I was to spend the next month in, thro the snow and at about 1am in the morning.
Yes it was bloody cold, I thought I left winter in NZ for this? But at least in the morning there was a delightful white covering of white of the whole city, but with a little bit of rain that soon disappeared, very cold out walking on the Monday and more snow in the afternoon, I thought again this is great! Fortunately Tuesday turned out to have blue skys, but there was still that cold wind, from where it did not matter it was still cold. Everything of course was very slushy underfoot partially with winter just finished, in theory, three months ago.
If you are used to footpaths you can walk in the dark without falling over anything and if you do fall over something you have a good court case don't come to Russia. There are odd bits of steel & pipe etc sticking out of the walking areas everywhere, so you of course watch where you are walking and if you injure your self it is your own stupid fault as it was everywhere 50 to 100 years ago, which to my way of thinking should still be.
In fact all of Ekaterinburg looks like a construction site of something that has never been quite completed. Of course any area that get a hard winter like they do have always looks like a bit of a disaster area after the snow has melted but that does not explain the large holes in the ground, or the pieces of steel poking out at all angles. It was very wet underfoot everywhere but the cold wind must have had a drying factor because after about two days it was quite dry.
There are a tremendous lot of apartments, about 30 or more years ago it looks like the came up with a interesting method of construction using pre-cast concrete slabs, about three different designs on the outside covered the outside will but of course gave them the famous look of "Russian Apartments we have seen for years in all sorts of publications.
It is interesting that while in England this type of high density housing became famous for all sorts of crime and several police TV dramas here it does not seemed to have the same effect, perhaps the strong police state had something to prevent this happening or perhaps there is enough green belts about to give relief !
However walking thro theses massive developments can be pretty depressing practically when you see the condition of some of the older apartments.
Crime must be somewhat of a problem to get into the apartment I am renting there are three doors to unlock and relock, that is after you get thro the steel door at the entrance and past the dragon in the guard room at the entrance. The first door is quire a pretty one, glass panels with a double dead lock to undo, the second door is a massive steel door with a massive deadlock that gets you into a foyer for two apartments, then there is my apartment, you unlock the steel door and are presented with another steel door with several deadlocks available to be used, then you are inside, Fort Knox eat you heart out, the Ruskies have got you licked!
There was another fall of snow on the second day I was here, but I had to get my visa registered, Oh I forgot to mention, there was no hot water for three days, that finds out what sort of stuff you are made of! And of course it was very cold outside and was completely miserable walking around.
Still had to get the visa stamped so my guide & I set off to choice location one, no they have shifted, so off to location Two, no they do not do that sort of visa stamp here, but of course you have to stand in line while they do visas for other people, locals, in longhand, recording everything on the file they have on the person, then making out a form probably in multi copies, all this takes at least 15 minutes for a simple application, and some were not simple.
Finally at the front of the line we were told the office we need was on the other side of town, so off we go to location three in a taxi, a unofficial one you just stand out on the street, put one finger out and soon a battered Lada will pull up and the two Russians will gabble to each other and then signal me to get in and off we go for about 1/3 of a taxi fare. It appears the driver decides a few extra Rubles would be handy in his pocket so does a short side trip!
OK finally we have hit pay dirt, we are at location Three, they can not sends us anywhere else can they, no but the can be closed today! At this point I remembered the words from the good old lonely planet guidebook that you can check into a hotel and they get your visa stamped fast!
Well off it was to the hotel $60 no hot water… O well!
So I stayed at Tsentralny hotel for a couple of nights to make it easier to get my visa registered and while I was here decided to see what the Casino was like. They had about three guards at the door and before they let you in they scanned you with a metal detector around the waist up where you normally carry a gun.
After that they let you in, they knew I was a foreigner and they were almost apologetic about doing it but that was their orders.
Inside there were about eight tables playing roulette and poker. They had quite a staff and paid over twice the average wage. The pit boss came over and chatted to me, he was from London and had been to many countries in his job. I had been pointed out to him as speaking English. He went on to say they ran schools on learning how to deal cards etc and how to be polite to customers, made the comment that they did not have to worry about the way the applicants dressed as it seemed to be a national thing on the girls being dressed well.
The casino had German & Russian owners and was the better one in town, yes they had some of the Russian Mafia in the room but they create no problems because they treat this casino as a kind of club. The Mafia have moved away from crime and are now almost respectable having found that there is more money to be made from building and owning apartments than crime. This is the pattern of course eventually in most situations like that because once they have their money they want law and order so no one else can take the money off them.
It was interesting as to the sort of money there must be about for several casino's to be in this city and for them to be so small, employ so many staff yet make money for the owners. This is in a country where that average wage is between $50 & $100 a month. Obviously there are not many of the average wage earners there, no there were no Pokies as the Aussies call them.
The apartments being built & sold now are selling for about $100,000, nice on the inside, not much on the outside he said, however some I saw today were very presentable.
There are plenty of shops everywhere, with so many apartment blocks there are plenty of shoppers, some are like little Kiosks with a hole about 30cm square that you lean down to talk thro and the goods get passed thro the hole. Plenty of grog shops in this type of shop format with a massive selection of beer and spirits, it is very common to see men and women walking down the street with a bottle or can in their hand taking a swig!
Then there is the grocery shop with everything behind the counter. So it the good old fashion family store where they served you and looked after you like we had in the 50's good old fashioned service with a smile.
Sorry this is Russia we must not smile, you might come back, and we thrust the things you want at you, grab you money off you, let you supply your own bags and let you bag them your self and the moment have taken your money, we throw the change at you and then we are snapping at the next person in line.
Now you would not get that sort of service from a supermarket? Well they try, you have to check in all of you bags at a special counter, take a basket that is thrust at you, get watched by the trainee KGB agents that are working for the store (that is what they look like), you get watched while you are in the checkout line, I could not see who was watching the watchers but I am sure there was someone.
There are a large number of American brands being advertised on advertising sidings everywhere, I would assume they are all looking for brand recognition there seems to be a good contest happening between Pepsi & Coke.
All the big name are here in all main products from every country, even NZ butter is available sometimes.
This country I think is almost impossible without a guide or unless you have a gift for languages and can master the Russian Alphabet and speak it!
There is a very good bus service almost everywhere we went and it costs 5 rubles for the bus fare, go as far as you like, change buses another 5 rubles thanks. There are getting more cars it seems almost the signs of traffic jams, saw one the other day, some very expensive cars on the road so there is a bit of money about, and the western type shops with western prices there must be lots with money to spend!
On Sunday everyone dresses up and you see very attractive girls dressed better than in the west often with better figures, what my son would call "drop dead gorgeous" the men however are not as well dressed!
Visited the Ekaterinburg apartment of a large business manager, his main large apartment is now in Moscow it had appliances I personally would question on cost, but the apartment was beautiful furnished, but on the outside when you looked at the apartment block…. yuck
Many people it appears have only a one bedroom apartment and they are very small, some have several children I am told & a dog or dogs, there are very little playgrounds for apartments although there are many parks.
I saw many very old people begging, and many oldies trying to sell produce they have grown themselves.
The shops keep most things away from being touched, almost everything in shops unless it is as large as a stove is behind glass, this means if you want to see something you ask a assistant and he will show you, a little bit like shops in NZ '50 except modern goods.
Makeup which is on display for all to touch in the west is often behind glass, all seem to be American brands & American ladies in the posters advertising their use. Supermarkets do have a more open display but to get there you have to go into a separate section, thro an anti theft devise we are familiar with in clothing shops.
All of this, the handing in of the handbags, tight security, anti theft devises, miles of staff makes me feel there is a major problem with theft in the shops, I can not think of another reason for all of this security, add to that the Fort Knox like steel doors on the apartment! Well!
There is one thing good it is when it is fine it is hot, that has been about two days so far I should have remembered what Rose & I use to do.... go to the south of Europe till mid summer then travel north, but the type of rental car hire would not work with that, so while I can cross Russia off my list for a while I will have to put it back to visit other spots along with all of the other tourists in the fine weather.
Then we had a violent thunderstorm with lots of thunder and of course lighting, and from the eighth floor you could see every strike, thro the heavy rain.
There is very basic plumbing, a bath with a sink type mixer over it with a shower hose attached that you can switch over with a place to clip the hose to have a shower, effective, when there is hot water, thankfully every day since the time it came back on!
Visited a friend of the guide today, in a house that is almost collapsing, soon it will be knocked over and she will be given a new apartment, no sure how she will adapt to a toilet that flushed instead of a few planks of wood over a hole in the ground with just a hole in the wood to do your doing thro, no good if you have artificial knees you would never make it!
Hugo Boss is one of the brands you see big posters for and they have a shop in the expensive shopping area along with most other major western brands, the prices in these shops equal what is charged in the west except you have at least twice as many staff ready to serve you and TIGHT security, I think I would rather try and steal the crown jewels that try & steal a pair of jockeys from one of these shops, I would have more show!
I have seen a few Photographers all seem to be promoting and doing ID photos the largest photo seems to be a 4x5. all done on digital and I assume printed on a dye sub printer.
The elevators (Lifts) they have here are an interesting experience….
Went off to the large market place to try to get some interesting face photos, shot about a film and a police sergeant or someone who felt important came up and told my guide "No more photos". My guide was all for me to take more as soon as he had turned his back , but as I had left my passport back at the apartment I did not fancy the experience of what ever they may have had in store for me, yes I am a coward when it comes to these situations with a funny (to me) language!
It was interesting to see the police wandering thro the crowd with a AK41 and a pump action shotgun they had quite a swagger with the way they walked, it is amazing what a bit of fire power does, I have a slight feeling my decision to obey the police had something to do with the Clint Eastwood look they had in their eye hoping someone would make their day! Well it weren't going to be me!
We then went on to the site where the house stood, where the Tsar and his family were killed, they had knocked the house over to stop it becoming a shrine, but they failed because a small wooden Church has been built on site, along with several other religious symbols. And if that was not enough the Orthodox Church has made the Tsar a saint and they are building a massive new church beside this plot of land, all with donated funds.
It is quite a deserving factor that the person and system the Bolsheviks set out to rid Russia for good has ended up a saint & that he has become the center point of the new Russia in the field of religion with more and more people of all ages returning to church and the building of new churches.
Monday morning our driver drove us out to the border Europe - Asia, for this trip that took half a day he wanted $7 for the car & his time. It was an interesting drive getting out into the countryside a interesting to place one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, but I would not go as far as the guide wanted me to and have my photo done doing this! Did not seem to understand that by taking a photo of it indicated that I had been there if that is what I wanted to prove!
The road like any in snow country, in need of repair after the winter, the interesting thing was that the driver drove where ever the road was good, no matter what side of the road that was, and o course people passed on the inside if they needed to pass.
We came to a large village with almost all wooden houses, only what they called rich people built in anything else except wood, the normal method of construction in the old houses in the city and the normal method today in the country side is what we call log cabins, built with whole logs that have had the bark removed and often, but not always, a flat area created on the what would become the top and bottom , the ends grooved, and the cabin raises up by one more log.
Some of the older houses were just built on the earth without foundations and with the weight of all of the house have started to lean like that tower in Pisa, makes for a interesting picture, not to sure what it would be like to live in.
I saw quite a lot of swamp, with some minor efforts to drain it, they talk of all the mosquitoes there are in the short summer well with all of these breading grounds it is not surprising.
On the way back from the border of Europe on a back road we passed about 50 Orthodox church people walking 3000k from the house where the Czar was killed to the cathedral bearing the same name of the owner of the house, that to me is a pretty loose connection! They had a police escort which was interesting, I wonder what the hard line commo's think of all this.
Went to a grocery store the shop was about 7msq had a counter on two walls two people serving and16 in line waiting all of the time I was there. You get served from one line then stand in another line for other products. Deep freeze display cabinet is locked, that is why it is call a display cabinet silly you are not meant to help yourself! Asked my guide why shop there instead of supermarket, because she likes the shop, well you can not argue with that sort of feminine logic.
We set off at 7am for a drive on a miserable day and drove 240k to Tartar village called Sihhirki where the guide has relations. Don't look for it on a map unless it is a very detailed map it is so small. It is or was a collective farm, I use those words because I am not sure they know who owns what except what they have in their own yard and the know they own that except the night before we arrived the house we were visiting had a cow stolen, how that happened I do not know as they had a most viscous dog, any one that appeared it tried to get off the chain barking it head off and showing its fangs.
It did get of it chain at one point and it was as friendly as a lap dog so all the barking may only be for show during the day. The old boy & his wife, he was 65 & she 62 had three sons living in the village and almost everybody seemed to be related. It was raining when we arrived and rained all of the time we were there so the mud in the yard where it was not the start of a major lake was not quite ankle deep but they were working on it.
The door way into the house was built for the Tartar's who are of small statue so of course one stage when I was walking back from the one hole toilet, in the anti room where you leave your shoes and it was quite dark I almost knocked my self out going thro the next door. They like country people everywhere were very hospitable and could not do enough for us. So word was sent out for the three sons to make a appearance, in the rain which I am sure they did not notice, and to plough thro the mud, what mud, so soon we had a house full of people looking at this strange creature from another planet, maybe not quite but, I am sure if I had been they could not have been more curious, in a very nice way!
The collective used to have quite a herd of cows but they told me when the country went bankrupt ten years ago they went, I could not establish where. The cow barn is still sitting there slowly decaying, they went to great lengths to tell me that they do not get paid for any work they do on the farm they said that the govt has no money, they told me this several times, I think they were a little confused and thought I was from the world bank here to purchase their collective farm. I was told the Father get pension and they all get by on that along with what they grow.
There were no luxuries at all in the house unless you count the New Russian TV with a towel draped over it a luxury. No running water, power that seemed to want to go off at any moment in fact the TV had either a constant voltage transformer or a computer spike remover with power supply.
The table manners here in Russia that I have observed is strictly working class, from the '50, for example the prettiest of the three brothers wives drank her tea out of the saucer, I have not seen that done for a long time.
Their stove is in the center of the room that served as the lounge and the kitchen and was of course the old coal range with the addition of what I would call a Pizza oven where they bake their own bread. It is encased in what I would think is brick all around and would have been a cube of about 2+ meters.
I decided to do a series of family group candid's, they will not win anything in any print judging, but I guess will be treasured by the family as long as the prints last, to the degree where even when they are faded the vague outline will be pointed out as being so and so. They are the sort of people we need for the Portrait business, but of course with money!
My guide and driver stayed with a cousin in Shadrinsk while I stayed in a hotel called "Ural". It cost 300R, about $10, was rated I am sure minus 3star, it had cold water which was normal for the summer, bathroom smells quite unpleasant and its floor was on angle, the hotels in China which were bad enough were five star quality compared with this OK perhaps I am getting a little carried away but you get the picture. I guess for what I paid I got good value, yes it was the only show in town!
Passing thro the states I purchased a silk bed liner to sleep in between (silk sheets in the form of a envelope) of course I had left it back at the apartment, possibly it will be the only time I will need it! Tom, a friend in the States, made the comment that HE would not be staying at a place where they were needed, welcome to Russia Tom!
I had a meal in the Restaurant, my guide sorted out something I could eat and I asked for some Vodka thinking I would get a single shot, however a small water jug ¼ full arrived, so after that, it made the hotel look a little better. The meal with one bottle of mineral water, the vodka cost the large sum of 89R or about $3
A lot of the Russian towns seem to have large gas pipes right through town and this town was no exception, the only time they go underground seem to be for driveways however often the go up in the air with a max truck height shown on the pipe.
The following day started off with blue skys, moved to overcast & cold, then hail, and onto snow this was the program all day moving from one to the other and not always in any order. We went to visited larger tartar village, called Yuldus during a blue/ overcast sky and shot off a few photos, but with the weather and the cold we were almost the only fools out in the elements.
This morning the city woke to a light fall of Snow on ground and at -1dC no one made many comments of the warmth, me I was wondering why I was here partially when I hears Canterbury had it first fall of snow and the best they could muster was 12dC, almost like summer time!
I have just been told it is the coldest May they have had for 200 years!
Miserable day… again so the guide suggested we go to a concert, her neighbor was taking part in. evidentially it is a contest between all of the suburbs of the city and is a yearly event.
The content I will need to keep a secret for the simple reason my Russian is Zilch and the "guide" was not able to tell me much so the fine details will remain a state secret, hope you do not mind!
There was a little 5 year old that stole the show, the sort of daughter we would all like to have, not shy, animated, good vocabulary, sharp and pretty, however as always the reality probably is such that once a day she is probably for sale!
When the first prize was announced the 5 year old (and possibly some of the others) was upset that they did not get it so she sat in behind her parents hiding her face, but she soon got over it!
The prices were interesting as the were all household items, sheets, jugs, Iron, and the big prize was a vacuum cleaner again it takes me back to the '50's
Asked my guide to take me to some large Photo studios, it is a big town about 3 mill she said "earlier we had many photographic studios, the big photographic studios where people went to have many different pictures, but now we have few studios and consequently I can not tell at once where there are these studios. There is one studio where we were going, yes and that had changed to a hair dressing Salon with a small ID photo studio in the corner!
It was a good sunny day today so we did a lot of walking and got a few photos, hard to get good ones as the bloody guide keeps on getting in the way or tries to help me by pointing out what she thinks is a good photo drawing the person who I was about to photograph attention right to me. I have tried talking to her in plain English, polite English, rude English, but none seems to get thro! I guess I am building up a good background to a future visit that hopefully will be more under my control, do not ask me how!
Bought a legitimate, sealed copy of DreamWeaver 4 for 90 Rubles, (30 to the US1 that is US$ 3), of course it is in Russian, but it is almost worth learning the language at that price. At that price it was worth while having in case I ever decide to translate some of my web site into Russian, there is a large audience here!
Well here I am sitting at Ekaterinburg airport, the cold weather had finally got to me so I am flying out early, watch the weather patterns for Urals and see that it from tomorrow will have the hottest temperatures on record.
It was interesting going thro Customs as usual the wanted to inspect my lead lined bag of film. When they clapped their beady eyes on all the film there was a problem.
You are not allowed to take exposed undeveloped film out of Russia, it must be developed first, after a lot of thought the senior customs officer let me go with the warning next time make sure you have the film developed! I thought make sure you leave the tongues out so they cannot tell the difference.
What did I think of Russia, well the little bit that I saw! The people on a whole are very friendly but the language is the biggest problem.
The people of Russia seem to rely on their friends and acquaintances in a way of yesteryear in the west.
For example my guides daughter, living in Australia, sent a present of what appeared to be clothing to her girlfriend in Ekaterinburg. It was sent via a Russian woman visiting family in Australia, now the daughter did not know the woman, the girlfriend did not know the woman, and my guide did not know her, but she carried a substantial parcel back to Ekaterinburg and contacted my guide who did a trip across town to collect the heavy parcel and then proceeded to go across town in the opposite direction to deliver the parcel.
A interesting side event, the person who brought the parcel from Aust., had the parcel in a plastic bag which she put back into her purse, I have said how plastic bags are a valuable commodity! My guide produced HER plastic bag but that was not big enough so both of the women tried to fit the parcel into the smaller plastic bag, then the owner of the larger bag made what I assume was a life shattering decision and PUT THE parcel back into her bag, I am sorry, but after that I lost track of the bag but you ban be sure wherever it is it will be valued. So next time you thro out all of those plastic bags on a daily basis feel a little guilt!
It is also interesting that this method of sending parcels is also used for sending $US from one country to another, sometimes the money goes thro three hands before it get to the destination!
For all the warnings I got about money and goods that I declared as I came in they did not want to see anything, perhaps the film sidetrack them, however I still would expect them to want to see things if they were having a partially bad day!
It was trying to snow as we boarded the plane, yes open steps and you run from the bus, everybody, those at the back got wet & cold. Frankfurt 20dC that is more like it
At one of the "Last Minute Ticket" counters at Frankfurt I asked where can I go for 9 days from tomorrow, I had three choices and choose Malta, Malta here I come