Wednesday, April 26, 2006

But Can You Get a Good Bagel?

Today I made one of the last arrangements I needed to make for my trip: I reserved a tour of Shanghai’s former Jewish ghetto.

This may sound like a joke, but it isn’t. Before and during WWII, Shanghai, which had been known as The Paris of the East, temporarily became The Casablanca of the East. It was easy to get into without documentation, and so became haven for refugees from all over. A lot of Eastern European Jews ended up there in the late 1930s because it was much easier to gain residency there than it was in Western countries. Virtually all Westerners abandoned Shanghai before the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, but apparently there still are traces of Jewish history to be found there. I confess, I spent several days in Shanghai in 1992 and didn’t notice a kosher thing, but I hadn’t known to look. This time, I’m taking a guided half-day tour, and hoping for better luck.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wait, What Was She Doing at the Consulate?

The world is divided into those who think this trip is crazy, and those who immediately ask if they can come along. A few of those actually mean it, but until recently, only two have volunteered: P---, and my photographer friend John. Recently added to this list: My mom. I was hoping she’d want to come along, since she speaks some Russian. Also, she’s been this way before, when it was the Soviet Union. I can’t wait to hear her impressions of how it has changed in the last 30 years. I imagine it will put my culture shock over China’s 15-year growth spurt to shame.

Monday, April 24, 2006

That Explains it—Sort Of

My mother just got back from a trip of her own to the Russian consulate in San Francisco, and tells me that that guy who wrote a check for me is indeed on the up and up. Like me, she noticed several people sitting around carrying stacks of other peoples’ passports. I had assumed that these people were tour guides getting visas for clients, but my mom asked a few questions and discovered that most of them are actually professional visa expediters. They don’t make it happen any faster, but they will get the money order for you and stand in line for you if you’ve got a real job that prevents you from spending the morning at the consulate.

The free market may be slow to catch on in Russia itself, but it’s alive and well at the consulate.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Baikal, Sacred Sea of Siberia

The previous tidbits come from a book I found at the library while searching for The Big Red Train Ride. It’s called Baikal, Sacred Sea of Siberia, by Peter Matthiessen. It’s no Snow Leopard, but it is an interesting, quick read about a trip Matthiessen took in 1990.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Boggling Baikal

Lake Baikal isn’t just the deepest lake in the world; it’s also the oldest. Most lakes clog up with sediment and disappear after about 50,000 years or so, but at over 2 million years of age, with over four miles of sediment accumulated at the bottom of the lake, Baikal is still going strong. And still more than a mile deep.

The lake holds about one fifth of the world’s fresh water. If you were to drain it, it would take all the world’s rivers (assuming you could re-route them to pour into the Baikal basin) one year to fill it back up.

Or, you could take the water out of the five North American Great Lakes and use them to refill the lake—that would just about do it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More Fun Facts

The name Siberia comes from the words “Sib Ir,” which mean “Sleeping Land” in the language of the indigenous Buryat people.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Fun Fact

The name Ulan Baatar means “Red Hero” in Mongolian.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Gentleman From Finland

Part of my pre-trip preparation involves reading all the books I can about trans-Siberian train travel. I just finished one, called The Gentleman from Finland, by Robert M. Goldstein. It’s not one of the better known trans-Siberian books, but it’s very good. It chronicles a trip the author took on the line in 1987, when things were still very bleak and Soviet. It’s one of those train stories that starts out seeming like a collection of slapstick anecdotes about drunken Russians and stolen shoes, but turns substantial when the author starts to understand the forces driving him to travel across Siberia in November.

Next up: Eric Newby’s The Big Red Train Ride.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More Devilish Details

I made an important purchase today: a Molskine notebook. I hope to bring a laptop along on my trip, but even if I do get it together to buy one before I leave, I still want a notebook for jotting things down old-school style. And for scribbling on trains and on hostel bunks, I just love these pretentious little things beyond all reason. They have a secret pocket inside that’s perfect for business cards, ticket stubs, and other little souvenirs. They come with a bungee cord that holds them shut. (So they don’t accidentally deploy at high velocity? I’m not sure. But it’s great.) I love that they’re ruled. I love that they fit in a pocket. They come with packaging that calls them the “notebook of Hemingway, Picasso, and Chatwin,” and I love that, too. Even though I’m not positive I know which Chatwin they’re talking about, and I never knew Picasso wrote at all.

I will try to save the notebook until my departure, but I may not be able to resist going to a café, ordering a fussy drink (perhaps in French), and scrawling intensely until someone mistakes me for a mysterious woman.

(And if you should accidentally walk into the same café while I’m doing this, it’s okay; you can pretend you don’t know me.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fun Fact

Las Vegas means “the Fertile Valleys” in Spanish.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Plus, it’s a Dry Heat

I just got back from a trip to Las Vegas. P. and I made a surgical strike, spending barely 24 hours in the city. The plan was to see a show (Avenue Q) and meet up with some L.A. cousins for a short, sweet trip. And that turned out to be just about right.

I may be the one person in history who found Las Vegas to be less tacky than imagined. I really expected wall-to-wall Liberace-style excess, but it just wasn’t as bad as I expected. We did a smart thing by staying at the Las Vegas Hilton, which is about as low-key as Vegas gets. The swanky properties have Wal-Mart -size casinos and shows by over-the-top personalities like Elton John and Celine Dion. The Hilton, on the other hand, has Barry Manilow as its artist in residence, and a Star Trek-themed casino.

Really my biggest disappointment was discovering that the casinos are all moving towards computerized slot machines. Very few take coins anymore, and there isn’t always a lever to pull. Somehow feeding your credit card into the slot and hitting the spin button just doesn’t have the same tactile reward. And I actually miss handling the filthy coins, but that’s just me.

One good thing about Las Vegas: If I wear my regular clothes in New York City, I feel like a hayseed. But if I wear that same outfit at, say, the New York, New York casino, sure I look like a tourist, but everyone’s a tourist, so I fit right in. I’ve never felt so free to gawk or keep my camera handy at a tourist attraction in my life.

The other good thing about Vegas? Dozens of flights home daily.

Monday, April 10, 2006

No, They’re Just Really Close Friends

The cats? Their names are Tommy (short hair) and Teacake (fluffy guy). Thanks for asking! (What, you'd like to see more photos? Sure, just click here.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Devil’s in the Details

With airfare, visas, train tickets and hotels taken care of, it’s getting down to the small but crucial details. For example, today was all about lining up the all-important cat sitter. Did Marco Polo have to get someone to clean the litter box before he set out for China? Did Lewis and Clark remember to stop the newspaper while they were away? Did Neil Armstrong have to make sure someone came to water his plants before his trip to the moon? These details have not made it into the annals of recorded history.

But you know there would have been a journal entry if any of them had come home to a cat that hadn’t been fed in a week.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Streak Ends

I got good news from the other side of the world today (even better than being rejected). Malaysian Airlines wants an article about the Mission District that my photographer friend John and I put together. My first magazine article. They want to use it in their in-flight magazine. A captive audience is better than no audience, so this makes me very happy. It bodes well for us as a creative team, too. Good thing, since we’re about to spend six weeks together researching travel articles!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

How Much Would it Have Cost Without the Mirror Writing?

I take back everything I said about the Russian consulate. $100 is a lot of money, but the Russian visa is worth every kopek. It’s a two-page thing of beauty. The main visa is a full-page sticker, with a hologram, multi-colored stamps, and lots of writing I can’t read. What lifts it into the realm of bureaucratic art (and nearly justifies the two-week wait) is the paper stapled onto the next page. It’s so large it had to be folded and still sticks out a little. It’s got two parts, an arrival card and a departure card. Both halves are bi-lingual. The English is a little shaky, but I think it might actually give me license to kill. I’ll have to double-check with someone who reads Cyrillic, but even if I’m wrong on that, my passport is still 10 times cooler than it was when I last saw it.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Visa—for Everywhere You Want to Be

I got P.’s Chinese visa from the consulate. That means I’ve now successfully applied for and received two Chinese visas in the time it takes to get one Russian visa. Stay tuned: Later today I make my first attempt to retrieve my passport at the Russian consulate’s visa office.