Was it the shaman in the silver-embossed black robe and black fur cap who came out on the outdoor platform holding a large silver chalice from which heavy white smoke arose, or was it bathing while sitting in the shower stall in my hotel, or was it the seventh reception of the day?
Perhaps it was the moment when the Buriyat woman tied the scarf around my shoulders to signify we are now sisters. Of course, the pork chop with the small bowl of cream sitting beside it made for a different lunch. But there was the berry beer I poured for the women sitting across from me during the train ride along Lake Baikal, not to mention the whortleberries. There are so many vivid impressions from my recent visit to Siberia it's hard to know where to begin.
I went to the third international conference on Russian America, which is what Alaska is known as prior to 1867 when it was sold to the United States. The first and second had been held in Sitka, Alaska; the latter in 1987, so 2007 was a nice tie-in for the first one in Russia; Irkutsk, Siberia, to be precise. Irkutsk was the field office for the RAC, ( Russian American Company), the Russian equivalent in Alaska of the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. While the main office was in St. Petersburg, that lay several thousand miles further inland; even today there is a five-hour time difference between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk (it's another three-hour difference in Vladivostok).
I had been to St. Petersburg before, briefly, last October and November, so happy to settle back in the charming small hotel with the wonderful location; five minutes walk to the Hermitage. Prices had gone up considerably for the summer, but I didn't begrudge them. A 35-room hotel is hard to keep going.
Made the obligatory Hermitage visit, which gives the feeling of futility; no matter how often you go, you are seeing a tiny fraction of its treasures. Last year an English-language brochure stated that if you spent one minute on each object you would finish in five years; it's most likely true. This time I added the naval museum and an abortive trip to the Arctic Museum (closed for remodeling) that cost 650 rubles as I was told the only way to ensure a ride back was to have your taxi wait.
I was glad I could walk to the Hermitage and naval museums. One treat; at noon one day I happened to be along the Neva River when the satisfyingly heavy boom of a cannon was heard and immediately fountains arose in the river while music played. Very nice. Nice weather, so crowds were everywhere.
Another late afternoon I was returning to the hotel so started across enormous Palace Square in front of the Hermitage. I had noticed that morning that a temporary stage was taking place in front of the gate by the winter palace across from the museum.
Now the square was a busy place. There were chairs for several hundred people, all occupied. But the interesting part was the metal barriers being erected around the square by the army; soldiers everywhere. Were they anticipating a riot? Apprehensive, I walked up to a gap in the barriers guarded by a cluster of soldiers. They ignored me as I walked through.
Alexander's Column is in the center of the square, directly in line with the stage. I stood there, along with three soldiers at the base of the column, and waited for the action to begin.
Very shortly it did. Huge televised color images of a singer filled the two wings at the sides of the stage, then we saw the singer herself. She was dressed in flowing robes, the sure sign of an aging singer. I could sympathize. However, she was a pro with the microphone and sang sentimental Russian music of the 50s, or so it seemed. I was puzzled by the soldiers' presence.
The crowd was middle-aged or elderly and very happy to see Yerka perform. A few teen-agers drifted away and a little boy ran off, hands over his ears. That seemed a bit uncalled-for.
Yerka left to tumultuous applause and was followed by an elderly man whose tenure on stage was set off by film clips, again seemingly of the 1950s, while he sang more sentimental songs. The crowd loved it.
I was tired of standing and getting hungry, so wandered on across the square and was let out on the other side by some bored soldiers.
As with so many things in Russia, this was puzzling. Certainly this was not a crowd bent on revolution. It was Golden Oldy night on Palace Square. Was this just the norm; if a crowd is gathering for whatever reason, the army must be called out and barricades erected?
Again I was sorry I don't speak Russian; no one to ask.
I had originally planned to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk, but there were no seats left when my travel agent inquired, so I wound up flying. The agent had cleverly booked me to leave St. Petersburg at midnight, fly 40 minutes to Moscow, then leave there at 8:35 a.m.
The Moscow domestic airline terminal made me feel right at home. It had an Alaska middle-of-the-night feel to it; slightly shabby, inhabited by tired people trying to stretch out on the floor and sleep, some cheerful people laughing and annoying those trying to sleep; I felt right at home. Various young sorts kept trying to give me a seat, but I didn't mind standing. A bit later I struck up a conversation with one of the young men. He wanted to practice his English as he had picked up a British partner in his small television film business. He was a Muscovite and suddenly invited me to ride into the city with him. He had taken the train to St. Petersburg that morning so left his car at home. If I wanted to share his cab, he would then show me Red Square.
That certainly beat hanging around the airport as I had no sleeping bag; I had checked my luggage through to Irkutsk. So we shared a cab into town and he told me about the quarrel between Moscow and Novgorod to be the capital.
Near his apartment the taxi lights picked up several men going through a dumpster. The driver slowed abruptly and questioned Mikhail in a low, serious tone, who brushed him aside. We got out, then into Mikhail's car, after I tried to pay my share for the taxi. Mikhail insisted it was unnecessary.
By now it was 2:00 a.m. As we parked and walked into Red Square, the city lights were illuminating the Kremlin, which looked rather jaunty with cheerful paint on its turrets. Lenin's tomb was bordered by a row of trees along the wall. Later I was told there are trendy, expensive boutiques just beyond the tomb.
We walked around a bit, then back to Mikhail's neighborhood to a small restaurant for tea. I wasn't hungry, but he had a pastry. By now it was 4:00 a.m., so I left in the cab that had been summoned. Just before I left, Mikhail told me quite seriously I should be careful about going off with strangers. He was quite right, although since he had been chatting about his parents, had given me his business card, and seemed more like a cocker spaniel than a con artist, I hadn't been uncomfortable.
There was a certain surreal quality to this outing.
Irkutsk airport also had that slightly rundown Alaska quality to it; the people carrying cardboard boxes, beat-up suitcases, and dressed in jeans and tee-shirts could have been from or going to anywhere in Alaska. Homey.
Asked two different cabbies about the cost of going to my hotel. One, a middle-aged man with a worried face, quoted R500 (about $20.00) so I picked him. On the way to town he asked me several times about my destination. I patiently repeated "Best Eastern Hotel Baikal".
We pulled into the driveway of a very modern hotel. In large letters it proclaimed "Hotel Irkutsk". The driver said I should go in and ask. He had never heard of the Best Eastern Hotel Baikal. I told him I had reservations. He shrugged.
The desk clerk spoke rather good English. She had never heard of that hotel; I was at Irkutsk Hotel Baikal. She'd never heard of me either. I rather snappishly asked her to look it up in the phone book; didn't she have one? She said "No." Presently the cabbie came in and we had a three-way conversation; they spoke Russian, I spoke English, and the clerk answered and translated. There was no Best Eastern Hotel Baikal; the phone number I found was not working.
I finally decided to spend the night there as it was now around 10:00 p.m. and I was tired. Looking at Red Square at 2:00 a.m. will do that.
The room was not a great success. It was hot, in the front of the hotel, the traffic was heavy, and the mosquitos not plentiful but determined.
I asked the desk clerk to phone the one contact I had in Irkutsk; Dave the American archaeologist and one of the organizers of the conference. Bless him, he answered and said he'd be over soon.
I walked around outside the hotel a bit. Nothing of interest. Brought my suitcase down and waited outside. After half an hour Dave, Ty, his fellow archaeologist and organizer, arrived with Vlad in Vlad's elderly car. Dave and Ty are tall, lean Americans who have spent the past three summers working on a dig near Irkutsk. They were a very cheerful trio, especially Vlad, a small man with blue eyes, blond curls and a perpetual smile of good will.
They assured me we would find a hotel. "No problem," Vlad said several times as he drove at great speed along the streets. Two full hotels later, Dave and Ty, who were staying with Vlad, said there was the Trades Union place where they had stayed when they first came three years ago.
Ty was enthusiastic but Dave said there was no shower curtain and the rooms were spartan. However, it was only a block from the conference center, so we gave it a try. I checked out the room, which reminded me of the theological institute room I had in Prague in 2005, although there was no kitchen. But the two bunks with 1" thick mattresses were familiar as were the clean but worn sheets and towels lying on top of the bedspreads. There was a small television set on a stand, a card-table size table with a hard chair and that finished the furnishings. The balcony was pleasant with a good view of the courtyard below, a paved area with parked cars.
I had asked for an ashtray and was told I had to smoke on the balcony. So I used a glass during my stay. The shower was still curtainless.
But the price was cheap, about $40.00 per night although the full stay had to be paid for in cash, in advance.
Dave and Ty explained the hotel was for trades union people coming in from the hinterlands. It was assumed they liked spartan. It was fine.
No elevator; the guys brought up my suitcase and I settled in. The St. Petersburg hotel had, in addition to Russian channels, CNN and a pleasantly propagandist Russia Today channel in English. It showed lots of happy documentaries and was possessed during my visit with the brave Russian submariners planting the flag on the bottom at the North Pole. Several drawings of the Lomonosov Ridge which, if it continued, would show a land connection to Russia. Even Russia Today seemed a bit dubious if the claim would be recognized, but in the meantime the drama of the mini-subs, the interviews with the captain and crew members, the drama of the fear the sub would come up under the ice instead of the hole made for it, kept us all interested if not enraptured. (Not until I got home did I read in "The Economist" that part of the film was lifted from "Titanic" and a Swede and an Australian had paid big bucks to come along).
Here the five channels were only in Russian. Trades Union people don't speak English.
Downstairs I asked the surly desk clerk about breakfast. None, she said with satisfaction. I went in search of lunch, which I never did find.
That evening I watched an old black-and-white movie. It was interesting to see if I could understand the plot. First, there was a sullen young man surrounded by stern adult males. Then a cut to a prison cell with a cot covered by the twin of my bedspread. Back to the males for a bit, then the young man singing, not especially well, into a microphone and watched by other young men. Okay, that was clear. Young lout is caught, lectured, shown what prison life would be like, so he changes. Sets a good example to other teen-agers by going into show business.
Suddenly the scene is a hospital. Oh, dear, our hero is hurt. There is a gurney being pushed at speed down a corridor. Next, a doctor is showing a new-born baby.
As there had been no females at all, something was wrong, but that was the end of the film. Maybe you had to have been there.
Tried watching an old "Star Trek" in Russian, but as I hadn't seen the original, was lost from the beginning. Watched an old military documentary. The Russians won.
The shower in the hotel was the usual telephone kind; a shower head attached to a flexible hose. When I got a good mix going, absent a shower curtain, the water was going all over the floor. I didn't fancy mopping or thinking of the water dripping through the ceiling below, so had a sudden thought. If you think of the three-inch high shower stall as a tiny little tub, it could work. So I sat down, thought of it as a baby tub, and washed the soap off. (Good thing I'd brought my own soap; trade union guys bring their own.) Rinsed my hair in the tiny little sink and was all set.
The toilet paper was located exactly behind the toilet and bore a similarity to a recycled old yellow canvas pack . Trade union guys are tough.
I went to bed. Around 1:30 a.m. the sing-along began next door. The balcony door and windows were open as the weather was warm, so all the laughter, chatting, tuning of the guitar and the playing of the guitar were clearly audible. After a few minutes I got up, went on the balcony and shouted through the balcony next door "Be quiet!" Silence for about a minute, then back to the music. I tried twice after that, but they weren't discouraged for long.
Neither were the mosquitos.
The next morning the conference convened in the very modern Baikal Business Center.
It was a jolly affair; met several others from Alaska, including two Tlingit Indian friends I didn't know were coming. My friend Jo from Anchorage showed up. She had planned to stay in the Best Eastern Hotel Baikal as well but made the sad discovery. However, she was fortunate to find nice Hotel Europe where she could stay for three nights. After that all was unknown. We agreed that it was a first for both of us to have reservations in a hotel that didn't exist.
I told her she could move over to the Trades Union place, but she didn't seem enthusiastic.
The sessions got off to an excellent start. Papers had been limited to 20 minutes, but now we were told, due to the number to be presented, 10 minutes was allowed. We were all given hand-held gadgets that presented a simultaneous translation when listened to. Learned some interesting information about Tot'ma. It was the home of various participants in the exploration of Alaska; its flag shows an Alaskan fox, symbol of the fur trade. Ivan Kuskov, the great manager Alexandr's Baranov's best friend, was a native of Tot'ma and today, so its Web site states, his home is remembered as the "Kuskov Memorial Flat."
My presentation was the next day. I comforted myself that the full paper was given to the organizers, so when the papers were published the little 10-minute butchered version would not be printed.
There is a local television company, "East" that covered the meeting. Am not sure they were thrilled by the opening remarks, but when Ray, one of my Tlingit friends, spoke, cameras were trained. Ray is an older man, tall, handsome, and dignified with a deep voice and was wearing a beaded vest and a headband.
He thanked the Buriat people for allowing him to trespass on their Teritory and promised that he came in peace. His presentation was on "A'toow" or being Tlingit and was a masterpiece of diplomacy. The Tlingits, original inhabitants of Southeast Alaska, did not like the Russians bringing in their Aleut hunters and taking the valuable sea otter skins which the Tlingits could have sold to the American and English fur traders. It was rather like a neighbor who moved in and not only picked apples from your orchard, but then set up a roadside stand to sell them.
So the Tlingits took action in 1802 and wiped out the small Russian settlement in Sitka. They lost the subsequent battle in 1804 because they ran out of gunpowder, but returned a few years later and still live on the area they occupied when the Russians first came.
Therefore you can see why diplomacy was required when speaking to a crowd who supported Russian policies in the nineteenth century.
Teri, my other Tlingit friend and a famous weaver, spoke briefly in support of Ray, as did Sue, who works with him and was adopted into the clans some years ago. The "East" people were delighted. The next few days Ray and Teri were frequently late to conference doings. The East crews were interviewing them once again.
The day prior to the official opening was a visit to the History Museum and a photographic exhibition of the curator's trip the previous summer to Fort Ross, California. There was the first embarrassment of many I was to suffer. The curator came to me, apologized for its paucity, and presented me with a charming little organizer. Another woman came over and gave me a sweet postcard. Did I have anything at all to give in return? No. American gifts were in high demand and I had nothing. The other Alaskans were representing organizations so came armed with pins, stickers, and posters, making it even worse.
One thing I did really, really want in the mornings was tea. I had brought tea bags and purchased cream (sliviki), a word I had learned last time after I bought sour cream, so was all set. In St. Petersburg there was a very large dispenser of bottled water on a stand at the end of the corridor. One side was cold, the other very hot indeed. I never did understand how it worked but became quite good at gliding down the hall, tea bag in glass in hand as there were no cups, at 6:00 a.m. to get my morning fix. No carafe here and tap water was not very hot. Since our programs informed us that breakfast every day was "self-dependent" I just had to wait. The first morning I went to the business center early as I recalled a lunch going on there the day before. No, it was now dark and gloomy, so I went on to the meeting. Fortunately there was another bottled water dispenser down the hall from the conference area which showed up at the coffee break.
The papers today were in the "Metallurgist House of Culture" in Shelekov, a suburb. Quite fine, except no bottled water dispenser. We then visited museums, churches, had a nice dinner and wound up at the river bank at 20:00 for the promised "stroll in evening Irkutsk". It was still quite light, of course, and half the populace was out, children racing around, people strolling along the banks, vendors busy selling ice cream cones, soft drinks and other summer street vendorish items. I would imagine the other half was visiting second homes or kayaking or camping elsewhere. We Northerners know how to appreciate summer.
The next morning I slept until 9:00 and found the young minders quite anxious in the hotel lobby. These were a young couple aided by a young man. The first morning they had come up to me and indicated they were there to help, although they didn't speak much English and I speak no Russian. I wasn't sure exactly what I needed, but the young man, who appeared to be Siberian Native, solicitously took my arm and guided me down the block to the Baikal Center. Since it was clearly visible anyway, this seemed a bit superfluous, but he was very sweet. If only I had known how to ask where to get tea.
Other visiting Alaskans were not as impressed; one said if he didn't leave her along she'd deck him.
At any rate, I was guided to the bus waiting down the block and he made sure I climbed aboard. As there were at least 30 people waiting, there was little danger I'd miss it.
Today we drove to the "Talci Architectural and Ethnographic Museum" in the birch forest about 30 miles from town. This is Vlad's project; an on-going, newish effort to bring Siberian Native dwellings and cultural items such as traps and reindeer pens to an 8 hectare site. It also contains an 1884 schoolhouse and a chapel from the 17th Century; in all 36 buildings. The idea is to celebrate the old wooden buildings. A central site contained a gift shop with charming handmade birchbark baskets, etc.,the house of a Decembrist, one of the political exiles from that sad movement. (The Decembrists were veterans of the wars with Napoleon who returned from foreign parts fired with enthusiasm for the Enlightenment. They made their appeal to the Tsar from the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg, now known as Decembrist Square, oddly enough, without any cannons or guns to back up their demands, so were promptly arrested and executed or sent to Siberia. Russians are quite idealistic at times.)
The whole exile system of the Tsars is baffling to outsiders, at least from the two houses we visited that had belonged to Decembrists. While not mansions, they are certainly nice old houses with multiple rooms. Family photos on the walls and mementoes in glass cabinets give a nice atmosphere of visiting grandfather's house.
In one of the houses we were greeted at the door by young people in old-fashioned retainer costumes. Our host, an athletic-appearing, dark-haired handsome man with a heart-shaped, clever face, in his early 50s, showed us through the rooms, winding up downstairs where chairs were set in front of a piano. In one of the earlier rooms a pretty young blond woman sang a charming aria, but this time we had a pianist, the young singer again, and a young man who joined in a duet. After we applauded, the host made the announcement that food awaited. As it was now around 10:00 p.m., that was a very welcome notice. The usual excellent food and drink, and back to the hotel around midnight.
There are accounts from early 18th Century travelers in Siberia of meeting the occasional exile. One reported having dinner with an old nobleman who is pleasantly situated and devoted to improving the school in his village. Then was Fyodor Ivanovich Soimonov, Governor of Siberia in the mid-18th Century. He was famous for helping exiles as much as possible; it seems he had been an exile himself so knew the problems.
But back to Talsi. Along with the central shopping plaza, if that's the word for some people selling odds and ends from open stalls, there were outdoor toilets stashed away in the woods. The symbols indicated male or female, but the contents apparently were the same. In the semi-darkness a hole, flush with the ground, appeared. On each side were white markers for your shoes. Very difficult for a Westerner to use, but these squat toilets are widespread in Asia I was later told. It did explain the symbol I had noted in the Moscow domestic air terminal; a circle with a stick man standing on a toilet and a slash drawn across the circle. Apparently country guys have trouble with flush toilets.
The next day was the Trans-Siberian Railroad trip to and along Lake Baikal. When I was trying to book the train from Moscow to Irkutsk and then to Vladivostok I was told there were vendors at train station platforms. There certainly were at the first station. They sold thin plastic cups of fresh red berries; whortleberries I believe, and 11"-long yellow fish, complete with eyes, fins, and scales. They were cooked, but that had been some time ago and the smell was overwhelming. One colleague bought one, but fellow passengers begged him not to bring it on board. Somehow the thought of berries and long-dead fish was not appealing.
Again the embarrassment of a small gift I could not repay. Just before the train left, a man gave me a huge cup of berries and a giant bottle of something called "Berry Beer". It had a label showing red berries; the taste was odd but not disagreeable. It reminded me of a night in Lithuania some years ago when waiters kept bringing pitchers of pallid beer. Two glasses and I was full, but the water I longed for did not materialize. It was a long evening, made no better by supposed-folk dancers who didn't know their material.
My suspicion was that in both cases we were drinking the medieval low-alcohol drink of Europe. They didn't know about germs, but since sewage and all went into rivers, they did know not to drink water. In Russia today it's called "kvass". Two paper cups of Berry Beer were really all I wanted, but the four women sitting across the aisle seemed to enjoy it, so I made regular trips over.
There was a problem with the woman guide. Like the woman on Kronstadt, once she started speaking she barely paused for breath the entire trip. We could only decide the Russians want their money's worth, but hours and hours of speaking surely exhausted her and definitely exhausted us. Fortunately, she did move from car to car, but always returned, portable enhanced microphone in hand.
The train, which was very new and quite comfortable; my personal favorite, four seats with a table between them in the cars, stopped from time to time as we had been told. It supposedly waited 15-30 minutes for passengers to walk the short distance down to the lake, but in practice much longer. So we passengers learned to quit huddling by the engine and walked around, usually down to the beach, but in one case down to the only village we saw that day. It was a small place of very old unpainted wood houses. Subtract the tin roofs and find yourself in the seventeenth century. The setting was lovely - it was on the edge of a low valley beyond which steep green wooded hills rose with grassy outcroppings. A creek ran along the bottom. An old man was sitting on a bench, dressed in his old army uniform. Small dogs of no breed, numerous cows, and some small children wandered the streets. There appeared to be no roads in sight; the trains must supply all goods and travel.
We passed through various tunnels, one of them very lengthy. I wondered how many men died while blasting them, as the whole country had the look of at least a century ago. Lake Baikal was ever in view; a large gray expanse with islands in the distance. It is the deepest freshwater lake in the world and said to have a mystical significance to the people.
I recalled reading some years ago that when the government proposed building a chemical plant on the lake the people rose up in anger and it was cancelled. That was in USSR days and I was amazed the people would dare defy the government. However, there is definitely something very wrong with the lake today. Very few boats were seen, none of them fishing boats, and certainly the handful of gulls that flew around were not finding any fish jumping. Our Alaska waters are teeming with fish, seals, sea lions, orcas, and the occasional whale in August; the gulls, ravens, and eagles are feasting and the whole ocean seems alive. Here there was nothing but the placid gray surface.
When I arrived home I told my son the fisheries biologist about this; he promptly sent articles on the paper and pulp mills that are strong polluters of Lake Baikal, along with other contaminants. Efforts have been made to curb this, but it would seem not enough.
At the end of the day we boarded a small ferry and twenty-minutes later were at a waiting bus which delivered us shortly thereafter to the Baikal Museum. I would have called it an aquarium as it consisted of fish, aquatic flora, and two of the charming little "Nerpa" or Baikal seals, which are small and very round. One was said to be four years old, the other four months, and they spent their time popping through a hole in a partition of their quarters. I wondered if those are the only two left.
At any rate, though smallish and in need of freshening up, it was well worth a visit. A small boy was making the rounds with us, occasionally stopping to put his hand on the glass or to peer down at an exotic clam. I felt better when I realized he was the son of our guide, a fine young woman who certainly seemed to know her subject. After a delightful simulated dive to the bottom of the lake, we reboarded the bus and headed home. Breakfast and lunch had been served on the train and dinner on the bus, both meals in compartmented plastic containers. Breakfast was all right if a bit tasteless; the other two meals better. Fresh salad, sauerkraut, pork or chicken with rice. A bit of soy sauce or other sauce would have been nice, but the oddest were the serving times. Lunch at 4:00 p.m. and dinner at 6:00.
The next day was very long. The strong sun was well up when the bus, like the train, new and comfortable, with homey curtains along the tops of the windows, departed at 8:00 a.m. for the 131 kilometer ride to St. Innocent's village, Anga. St. Innocent began as Ivan Veniaminov, a priest in the Russian Orthodox church who came to Alaska in 1823 and was sent to the Aleutian Islands the following year. He learned Aleut in order to communicate fully with the people, then put it in written form. Certainly until at least 1912 Aleuts were writing letters and keeping diaries in their own language.
When Veniaminov was posted to Sitka in 1834 he attempted the same with the Tlingits, but they were no fans of the Russians. He made progress with them after the smallpox epidemics of 1836 and 1837. A scholar as well as a fine priest, in his free time he also liked to make furniture, including a barrel organ and a barometer as well as chairs. At a time when the English navy captains felt themselves superior to the captains of all other countries, not to mention foreigners in general, it is noteworthy that Captain Edward Belcher, R.N., called the six-foot three-inch priest "...quite Herculean, and very clever." (He repaired Belcher's barometers.) In spite of the language barrier, Belcher reported "...we managed to become great allies."
Veniaminov's abilities were recognized by the Church; he rose to become Metropolitan, the highest post, and was beatified later as Saint Innocent. More about him later, when we visited his home village.
The countryside became quite attractive as the bus rolled along. Signs of some agriculture appeared and there were some cattle in the distance, feeding along the lush pastures by the greenish gray Lena River in the distance. Hills appeared with fields plowed to the tops where trees as windbreaks silhouetted against the sky. I was reminded of the northwest of France. The cattle first seemed to be Herefords, but when they were closer, although spotted brown-and-white, they were smaller and more delicate-boned. Someone said they were Simmental. At any rate, they, along with the small dogs of no special breed, freely roamed the streets of the villages along the way.
The overall feel of the country was of sparse settlement. Yes, it was a Sunday, but still there were almost no cars on the road, which was a well paved two-lane affair.
Suddenly we came to a pull-out where a group of people were standing. We were told this was a reception in our honor. Surprised, we piled out and found about six young women in filmy white dresses standing beside the dignitaries who welcomed us. Speeches were made and the organizers of our conference responded in kind, and the young women sang sweetly. At the same time another young woman, wearing a beaded green satin cap that matched her dress appeared holding a large round silver platter upon which was revealed a very large loaf of bread after the embroidered cloth was removed. A small bowl of salt sat in a hole in the bread. This is the traditional Western Russian welcome, and I was thrilled, even if I did get too much salt on my piece of bread and hastily sought water.
Then we were told to seat ourselves at the long picnic tables and eat. The centerpieces were drinks; huge bottles of Coca-Cola, bottled water, and vodka. The food was hors d'oeuvres interspersed with fresh fruit; grapes, plums, black cherries and whortleberries. There were sliced fresh tomatoes and cucumbers as well. Northerners all, accustomed to dreary winter fruits and vegetables raised for color, texture, and durability during shipping, but totally lacking in flavor, we fell upon them. Sitting at the long tables, the green valley around us and the river below under the hot sun; life was good.
About half-an-hour later we left, waving good-bye to our new friends. Continuing on, we stopped at a Russian truck stop for fuel for bus and passengers. The gas pumps; the small store-cum-cafe; all could have been anywhere in the U.S. Southwest. Some ate breakfast, but I and my friend Jo loaded up on ice cream bars and bottled water.
The road was now unpaved, although in excellent condition and we rolled along through the pretty countryside until we came to a Buriat village. The long picnic tables, the drinks-as-centerpieces, and the food were beginning to look familiar. Again we were greeted by short speeches. During those I noticed a pole standing by the small river. It was a peeled log about seven feet high with orange and green ribbons tied around the top. While I looked at it respectfully, a Buriat woman came up and handed me a pink-and-blue piece of flannel and indicated I was to tie it to the pole. I did and uttered a little prayer for my family, friends, and self. She stood quietly, then smiled and I followed her back to the picnic area.
An outdoor wooden platform about 35-40' square a few inches high with a tall backdrop was the stage. I noticed short peeled poles with ties stood at each corner of the stage.
The dances were great. First eight men dressed as cossacks danced a very athletic dance, as one would expect, followed by women in slow traditional dances; very flirty. Their costumes were satin in orange, green, silver, and dark, and each dancer had an elaborate individual headdress. My feeling was the men were dancing as tourists expected; the women were doing the real Buriat dances.
The next stop was an 1884 school moved into the area as a museum. It was a low log building with desks intact in the classroom off the entryway, where I assume coats were hung during classes. Several of our group had fun playing teacher and students. The history and curriculum was printed on a label outside the door. Oddly, it was in English. We were told this was a rural school run by the Orthodox Church, although it was open to all children. The only sign of religion was the "Law of God"; the rest was an impressive list of history, geography native people, geology, botany, Russian, arithmetic, spelling, composition, etc.
The teacher's living quarters were at the back, reached by a door off the entryway. The young woman who lived there had a sitting room, a bedroom with a rod for her clothes, and a kitchen with a washbasin and pans pots, and samovar. The rooms were small, the windows likewise, but we were told her salary was 350 silver rubles per annum, an amount so large for the day that she could purchase a home when she left.
I recalled the schools of Russian Alaska, which were excellent. There was a girls' school in Sitka, the capital, as well as boys', by 1840. Lieutenant Lavrentii Zagoskin, who explored the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in 1842 to 1844, encountered some young graduates. They were not good housekeepers, but he noted "could all waltz skillfully, dance the French quadrille gracefully, all could knit scarves very well, and little neckerchiefs and caps; all had read Gogol's Dead Souls."
Return to the bus and the pleasant views of the hills and river. We noticed in the few small villages we passed, people stared at the vehicle. There were more cattle, but no large herds in the fields behind the fences of the rail-and-rider style I saw in Kentucky many years ago. The well-maintained dirt road continued for a very long way before we saw the village of Anga; Saint Innnocent's hometown. Log and plank houses, dark from the weather; cows, dogs, and children roaming the streets; I felt sure Veniaminov not only would have recognized it, but so would his grandfather. Electricity seemed the only addition since the late 1600s. The old school was now the Innokenty Museum; upstairs another feast was laid out; cucumber-wrapped beef bits, caviar on bread; the usual drinks as centerpieces, and nice speeches made yet again.
I recalled I had intended to give Vlad the folder I had saved from the last International Conference, complete with list of attendees and the program, but had left it on the bus. Excusing myself, I ran downstairs and outside. The bus was nowhere to be seen. The dirt street was empty. I turned back and walked in the other direction. Some choristers were rehearsing and several people were taking turns washing and drinking from a pipe ending in an outside faucet. Nothing resembling a bus. I started back to the museum. Suddenly my minder appeared. What did I want? The bus. It's this way. No, it isn't. I have looked. He took my arm and walked down the small hill, past the choristers and the hose. There was the bus at the bottom of the hill. I retrieved the folder and we walked back to the museum. I had planned to eat, but the group was leaving just as we gained the front door.
We were on our way to Innokenty's log house, very near the museum. It was rather dark inside as I would imagine glass for windows was very expensive. There was a fair-size living area, another room with a small loft, likely for beds and general eating as off it was the kitchen,which was fitted with large basins and the inevitable samovar.
It is very pleasant to have a good person recognized during their lifetime. Ivan Veniaminov, born in Anga as Ivan Popov, who became St. Innocent, is one of my favorite people from the Russian time in Alaska.
He was praised by all who met him as a truly good man. He never demanded the native people give up their old religions and culture, but made it clear that while they were coming to God, the church could show them short-cuts. Even today most Alaska natives whose families were touched by the Orthodox Church remain very loyal.
Over the years he rose to be a bishop, an archbishop, then finally the Metropolitan, or head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson Bay Company and certainly did not wish prosperity to the Russian American Company, met him in Sitka in 1842, wrote "His appearance ...impresses a stranger with awe, while on further intercourse, the gentleness which characterizes his eery word and deed, insensibly moulds reverence into love; and at the same time, his talents and attainments are such as to be worthy of his exalted station. With all this the Bishop is sufficiently a man of the world to disdain anything like cant. His conversation, on the contrary, teems with amusement and instruction."
As Simpson was the arrogant elitist Englishman typical of that period, that was indeed high praise.
Back to Anga and today. It was very hot. As we started down the little hill leading to the benches and dance platform, we passed the priest, a sturdy young man in vestments, standing in the shade of the building, praying for all those who died in Russian America. We outsiders paused respectfully on the outskirts while the priest finished his prayers and began sprinkling Holy water. In a few moments he began to laugh and and sprinkle as far as us. It felt marvelous as we made our way to the benches.
The usual short speeches by important people, gifts exchanged, then the dances. A little girl, about four-years-old, stood by the platform, keeping time and swaying to the music. The sound system was very good, but very loud. The dancers were excellent and there was no Cossack-kicking from the men. Towards the end of the women's dances the little girl had joined her mother, dancing as well.
In fact, although I have read that Russia's birth rate is now below replacement, all the towns I visited had about the same number of children in museums, on the streets, or playing outside, as one would find in the U. S. But there was much of Russia I did not visit.
On the road again. Presently we stopped and went in a building, they said for lunch. I thought surely they were joking, but there were tables set with great ors d'oeuvres; smoked salmon, wild strawberries with cream, cucumber-wrapped beef, caviar on bread, plus wine, beer, or bottled water, not to mention vodka. I did quite well, especially when it came to the strawberries, and was rather proud of myself. Then the main course was served and I gave up and retreated outside for a smoke.
This time we were going to the Shishkin Petroglyphs, elk and other animals carved into red sandstone bluffs above the Lena River around 6,000 years ago. From the road below it was impossible to see much of anything white boats and graffiti, but those with binoculars had a lovely time and the book they later gave us showed wonderful sights.
The weather was very hot, the river was right there, and a number of us went wading. The green Lena was warm and tempting. There was a splash, and several of the men had stripped down to swim trunks and gone swimming. Our host from the Decembrist house was among the swimmers and a memory I shall always cherish was of him standing knee-deep in the river, arms outstretched, singing an aria a la Pavarotti.
It was now late afternoon and as the bus rolled along the dirt road, I looked down towards the river and saw a group setting up a marquee. I jokingly remarked there was another reception for us just as the bus turned towards the group, who proved to be Yakuts welcoming us. I had asked a Buriat woman if there had been bad blood between them and the Yakuts at one time. She looked horrified and said no. They had "one mother". This time I asked a Yakut and received roughly the same answer. Checking with an archaeologist friend later, he said most of the native people in the area were left over from the invasion of Ghengis Khan, so would be on good terms. I told him of the men in the Moscow air terminal, six young sorts, chatting among themselves. They looked so Yu'pik I couldn't resist asking one. He replied no, they were from the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.
The archaeologist said Mongols do resemble Yu'pik Eskimos.
The customary tables with food and drink were set out, the usual platform set up on the grass under the blue sky and the green Lena flowed past. A smudge fire burned in front of the platform. Suddenly a Yakut shaman appeared on the platform, his long black robe embossed with silver. He was wearing a black fur hat and holding a large silver chalice from which white smoke emerged. We were all silent as he stood there. Then he walked back behind the backdrop and the music, very jolly stuff with a hint of folk music to a rock beat, began playing from the sound system, two large boxes on either side of the platform.
As I had had all the food I could possibly eat in one day, I wandered around the tables, enjoying the warm afternoon and the feasting crowd. I looked over in a bit and saw the shaman pouring a large bottle of vodka into a copper vessel which was passed around. The toasts began; lots of them. I was standing on the grass admiring the nearby two young men and a woman who were dancing to the music when someone made a noise and the people sitting towards the end of the table next to me were smiling. Someone handed me a small tumbler of vodka. I raised it to my lips for a sip. No, no, I was admonished; I must empty it for how many years to live.
Suddenly the shaman and a few others appeared in front and around me, vodka tumblers in hand. The young shaman was smiling, his face sweaty, his robe open at the top exposing a white tee-shirt. My minder was there, shepherding a small, plump native woman wearing a print dress of Buriat style, both smiling. Someone presented me with a silver platter containing a large gray lump and a carving knife. He motioned me to cut it, so I did. The platter went away. (I was later told by Teri, also adopted that evening, that the lump was a goat's stomach, stuffed.) The minder told me she was a neighbor of his parents in Magadan and a very nice woman. He said she was 65; how old was I? I lied and said 70. Then we had to count the number of children we had by making a fist and going down our chest. She had three; I counted my four. Next we had to kiss and drain the vodka to seal that we were sisters. She tied a patterned scarf around my neck, and there was more kissing. She seemed a very kind woman; I wish I knew her name. I was vaguely aware there were cameras everywhere. The bugs, no-seeums, I imagine, were everywhere under the tables.
The next I knew, Ray was up on the platform doing a short Raven dance. He was very graceful, then went into a war dance excerpt, looking for the enemy with a fierce glare. The crowd applauded very loudly, me included.
Finally, we were on the bus heading back to Irkutsk. When we stopped for a "smoking break" the young man the minder had identified as my Innokenty's great-grandson fell at the door of the bus. The driver was promptly out with a first aid kit as others lifted him up. He was bleeding, but didn't appear badly hurt. I was quite taken with the kindness shown.
We were back at the hotel at 2:12 a.m. instead of the scheduled 11:23 p.m. It had been quite a day.
After the excitement of visiting St. Innocent's home, being adopted into the Buriat people, and watching our Decembrist home host singing an aria in the Lena River, the next morning had to be an anti-climax.
And so it was. I waited to hear, but no one called. Around 10:30 went down to the lobby and found even the minders were not around. A few minutes later a conference attendee came down the stairs with the careful unseeing stare of someone who doesn't want to be noticed in his rumpled shirt and pants, bearing a teapot. He opened a door to the desk clerks' domain (this was set off from the lobby as a separate room with a glass window for the clerk to interact with the guests; I had assumed the door was only for management). He came out and went back up the stairs. I opened the door; yes, there was a bottled water dispenser with the familiar two taps.
About this time another attendee and his friend came by. He said they were going downtown; would I like to ride along? So we walked along the side of the Trades Union Hotel, past some square apartment buildings, and then we were out in a small commercial neighborhood. There was a small supermarket and a large florist shop on a fairly busy street. He was from the Czech Republic, spoke excellent English, and had made at least 50 trips to Russia on his business, clean water. His friend spoke no English but had a nice shy smile.
They introduced me to the #16 maztushky, a van with as many seats in it as possible and a sign in the window with the number on it. He explained they stop in various places and you pay the driver 10 rubles (about 25 cents) when you leave. I had thought to take a piece of paper with the name and address of the hotel so I could return.
We had a pleasant trip downtown, watching mothers and small children, students, women shopping; the ordinary citizens of Irkutsk going about their business, getting off or on along the way. The Czech told me some drivers posted little jokes above the door; this one said "If you don't take care, you will leave your head behind." Not sure about the humor, but I obediently laughed.
The weather was cloudy and chilly when the maztushky reached the area just above the river. My two friends and I got off. They waved good-bye and walked up the street and I went down to the river. Along the way I looked for a teashop, but nothing was to be seen.
Down at the river I wandered two hours. The biggest excitement was down at the Angara River where a mega-heavy equipment was being set up. Otherwise there was nothing. Strolled back into the heart of the city and saw two malls, side-by-side. One sold nothing but shoes in all its small shops. The other also had shoes, but upstairs there was a tiny cafe where I had tea and a cream-puff. Wasn't quite sure how to pay, but the woman who dispensed the tea picked out the money from my palm. Various people were in and out; most stared at me. How they could tell I was a foreigner I don't know. It wasn't like the time on the subway in Budapest where I sat looking at the people on the other side of the car, thinking to myself how I blended in, until a nice woman leaned towards me and gestured at my purse. I looked down; not only was my purse open but I was still wearing the name badge from the conference.
Since I didn't need shoes and there seemed little else of interest in that part of the city, I wandered over until I found another maztushky #16 and returned to the hotel. One of my daughters and her daughters claim I have three guardian angels; all chain-smokers, but I think it was the slip of paper that led the driver to drop me off by the supermarket. However, it is true I do depend on the kindness of strangers when I travel. That horrifies a friend who travels far more than I, but after some thought, I have decided that since I do my best to be kind to strangers when they come in my shop, it's only fair.
Found a neat farmers' and small trade market near the supermarket and bought some plums, but couldn't find butter. I did want butter and thought a short word would surely be it. Slir was not the name. Oh well, went into the store and picked up a shopping basket. Bought cheese, crackers, a loaf of bread (Russian bread is wonderful), sliviki for my tea in the morning, and a few other items. Saw some bananas in the produce department and picked one up for my basket. Instantly a young employee appeared, scolding me. I told him I didn't speak Russian. He sighed, rolled his eyes, and took the banana from my basket as evidence. I followed him the short distance to a young woman sitting in front of a scale. He put the banana on the scale while they both stared at the criminal. She sighed, looked at the scale, then put a label on it. I tried to control my giggles.
"We will not charge you this time, but should you repeat the offense, the full weight of the law will apply."
"I am sorry. It will not happen again. I have now learned my lesson; bananas must be taken to the scale."
Back to the hotel and an early evening eating in the room and watching black-and-white documentaries on television. Most seemed to be old military films; I can report the Russians did very well. There was one very puzzling film. The year 1969 was prominently displayed (thank goodness Russia uses arabic numerals), then pictures were shown of Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev, and various other stern looking Cold War authorities. I couldn't remember any particular problems in 1969, but research later showed China and the USSR were scrapping that year.
The next morning I awoke at 9:00 and went in search of tea. The hotel water dispenser was just being filled, but a nice young man departed with my glass and returned with hot water.
The other thing I needed to do was find an apteka, or pharmacy for my swollen, itchy legs. Either the thrill of being made a Buriat sister or the vodka or both had led to the no-see-ums having a marvelous feast. I saw a sign across the street, found a pleasant pharmacist who took one look at my legs and returned with a tube of ointment.
I still needed the word for butter, especially now I could have tea. Back at the hotel I had a thought. The Baikal Business Center just down the street surely had someone around who could speak a bit of English. So I went down. Sure enough, my guardian angels were on duty. Tatiana, the nice young translator, was standing in front of the center smoking a cigarette. Maslo is the word for butter. I thanked her and told her we had wondered what happened to her after the first day.
Tatiana, very young, blond, and slightly plump, looked completely miserable. They had told her she wasn't a good translator and fired her for bad work. I said, quite truthfully, she was just as good as our later translators. I didn't tell her, but we had been making jokes about having to translate the translations.
I asked her how to find the Native museum I had heard of. She drew me a map and while she was marking streets I had an inspiration. I was very, very tired of having no one to ask questions of or simply doing a bit of chatting.
"Will you be my interpreter for the rest of today?"
She was startled and said she'd have to ask her superior. It was now 11:00 a.m.; she soon returned to say I'd have to pay R1,500 and she must return by 3:00 p.m. Seldom have I been happier over paying $64.00. We took the masztushky to the center of the city. There was a large square and the usual blocky Russian buildings around it.
The museum was terrific. Unlike the other buildings around, it had an imposing facade and lots of marble in the interior. Our entrance fees were waived; Tatiana said her mother, who died last year, used to work for a department there. The actual name was the Regional Museum, and it had all sorts of Buriat, Yakut, and various other people's clothing, carts, and various displays. I had been surprised and disappointed that the USSR made a real effort to destroy the Native cultures; I suppose in the name of communism so we're all equal.
We wandered the floors until we came to Tatiana's favorite. It showed the brave army during World War II; uniforms, photographs of famous victories and happy liberated people. She confided that when she was a little girl she used to spend a lot of time here.
The afternoon was proving so profitable I next suggested lunch. Tatiana took me to a very pleasant restaurant with a garden portion. Arbors are very popular in Irkutsk; a roof supported by posts housing tables and benches. Vines are trained around the supports and it's all quite charming. It was late for Russian lunch, so we had the place to ourselves.
The waiter brought the menu and I asked my guide for suggestions. She said they had excellent pork steak, beef steak, or chicken steak. I had found the beef of Irkutsk to be tough, but the pork and chicken very good. I ordered a pork steak in cream sauce with a salad on the side. The bread was automatically part of the lunch.
We chatted while waiting. Poor Tatiana; she had just been told by her grandmother that her father was going to marry a friend of her mother's. I said that could be a tribute to her mother; perhaps her father was so very lonely. She asked me about her boyfriend. He was nice, but she didn't want to marry right now. I felt very wise and gave her the trite advice about not marrying until she was ready.
She would love to go to New York, but on her $300 per month salary teaching English, she could not afford to go anywhere. This raised the question of why today's Russia seems to pay such pitiful wages to its teachers and professors. I recalled the 350 silver rubles the teacher made in 1884 and the very good schools provided in Sitka during the Russian period and wondered why matters have deteriorated so. I didn't bring this up, as I wasn't sure Tatiana's English was up to a long discussion.
I did tell her not to be discouraged in her translation work. She was already okay and would only get better with more practice.
Lunch arrived. The waiter put down my plate with the pork, then added a small bowl of cream to the side. I have a feeling Americans are going to have a strange reputation at that restaurant.
After lunch we took a taxi (I'm spending lavishly and why not? The taxi cost R100 ($4.00) to the business center. Tatiana went inside and I crossed the street to a plant and garden sale that was going on outside a mysterious building that appeared dedicated to business demonstrations. I bought a bouquet for the hotel staff, although I could tell no difference in their sullenness afterwards; I felt better; nobler somehow.
The chambermaids spent a good bit of time mopping the red tile floor of the lobby. There was a muddy shoe mark on the stair landing that was still there when I left. We greeted each other nicely when I walked into the lobby, but they really came alive in the room at the head of the stairs on the second floor. Apparently no one was renting it as they gathered there to smoke, drink tea, and gossip. They left the door open so it was nice to see a bit of life in the old hotel.
As to cleaning my room, I was on my own. Trades union guys are self-sufficient. I was glad I had two bunks; after the first six days I changed the sheets and towels from my old store. The floor got a bit grotty from the crumbs of my meals, but I wasn't sure they'd loan me a dust-mop.
Today, after I'd delivered the flowers, I headed back to the small market. I wanted to buy some T-shirts, but the only ones had English sayings and quotations on them. That did seem odd since the wearers spoke no English. I mentioned this to Tatiana who said merely that American things are very popular. I went in and out of the few buildings and checked at the street stalls, but found nothing except three pens, incredibly cheap. Fresh fruit seemed to be the usual sale item.
Back by 6:30 p.m. and began to pack. Lots of tiny little birchbark baskets from Talici, the wonderful birchbark basket containing a quart of honey from Anga (Siberian honey was famous by the ninth century, along with wax). I put the latter in a nylon shoe bag, thinking that might soak up some if necessary, and zipped it up. Was delighted to find everything did fit in.
Up at 5:00 the next morning. It was the day to take my once-monthly bone density pill. No problem there, except you can't lie down or have anything except water to drink for one hour after taking. This was not a great way to begin my trip to Vladivostok.
The young couple greeted me in the lobby, exactly on time During the short drive to the airport I thought of all the food I had left in the room. Cheese, bread, candy; lots of it. Judging from their clothing and car, they would like that. So we returned and I went back to my room. Stripped clean. At that hour it had to be the receptionist. Back to the airport, defeated. Well, perhaps she has big family to feed, although I think she was just greedy.
A long wait at the airport, then off we went in a very old Tupolev with chipped paint and worn seat covers, but it was very comfortable. The flight was only about three hours and all sorts of meals were served. Discovered Vladivostok is three hours later than Irkutsk, so eight hours later than Moscow. Russia is indeed a huge, empty country.
The airport in Vladivostok is an hour's drive from town. The countryside had a disheveled look; occasional small, shabby businesses of the tire repair sort, but mostly just very lush, almost jungle vegetation. The weather was very hot, the sky overcast. From time to time a car would be parked alongside the busy highway, the owners selling cut flowers; gladiolas seemed to be popular. Not sure how cars would stop to buy.
Finally we arrived in the city. It's built on hills; the hotel that had been recommended to me atop one of the highest. From there was a fine view of the very busy cranes and ships of the port. There was no bellhop or doorman, but an extremely nice receptionist who directed me to airline desk where I tried, but failed, to upgrade my ticket for the coming long flight to Seattle.
Had a light meal in the dining-room. A bowl of excellent chicken soup and two glasses of wine came to R1,099. Surely a mistake; will correct tomorrow. Thought of walking around the city but decided to go to bed after a long hot bath in a tub with also sported a shower curtain. The room was spacious and quiet, the bed very comfortable, and best of all, there was air-conditioning so no mosquitos. Slept 12 hours and enjoyed every moment.
In the morning I found the breakfast quite lavish. Fine bacon, adequate eggs, some boring waffle fragments, but lots of great tea were found among the Japanese, Chinese, and Russian cuisine. This is definitely a successful business persons' hotel .
The BBC was the only English-language channel. I was hungry for U.S. news, but international business, six Italian men dead in Duisberg, Germany, to the amazement of the town, an earthquake in Peru and floods in the Phillippines was about it. The channel had a way of disappearing from time to time, so watched a bit of "Star Trek" in Japanese when that happened. Once it returned with a bit of a Yankees-Orioles baseball game.
Time to see about that tee-shirt for Jack. Had noticed a weekend market was being set up down by the port so wandered down to the booths. A bit of irony for a bookstore owner; most of the booths contained new books, several of them textbooks for learning English. However, there were two booths with clothes and I found a nice shirt saying in Russian - Karra among all the English sayings and quotations.
My taxi was to be at the hotel at 1:00 p.m. When I paid my bill, I asked the friendly receptionist about the obvious mistake in my dinner meal. She pointed out the wine was not R150, but 150 ml. and price per glass was R420, and it wasn't even that good. So $44.00 for soup and wine, but now I knew.
The taxi was exactly on time and we started for the airport. The plane left at 4:10 and all was well until I realized I did not have my passport and ticket folder. We returned to the hotel and a bellman and a maid helped me search my room with no success. Panicking now, I returned to the taxi and looked once more through my suitcase. Losing my ticket and passport was a first in all my travels. Once more at least one of my guardian angels was on the job; the folder fell out of my suitcase. The driver was extremely nice when I cursed my stupidity. He had been a merchant seaman and spoke some English. Very nice as he was making soothing noises. He had given up the sea in order to spend more time with his family in Valdivostok.
At the airport he not only carried my suitcase in, but found the proper line for the trip to Seoul, and tried to tell me there was no charge for the trip. The hotel had said the cost would be R1,500 but I gave him R2,000, which he had richly earned.
The airport lounge was very crowded by 3:00 p.m. but there was one area devoted to smoking. As there was no obvious boundary to this, it was a bit confusing, but no one seemed upset. I noticed there were many young people, mostly women and apparently Korean, waiting for the plane. They were dressed much more modestly than the young Russian women I had seen so far. No tight tops with jackets to match, mid-thigh skirts, and stiletto heels, but lots of tee-shirts with English sayings and quotations on them.
My ticket had read Vladivostok Airlines, which was a bit worrisome as I thought it was something called Asiana. However, they let me on the plane so all was well.
In Seoul the time was two hours earlier than Russia; rather confusing. However, the airport was totally amazing. I had been there nine years earlier and remembered it as small and crowded, but chiefly for the many boxes of animal parts the Anchorage airport had warned were illegal; bear gall bladders and paws as well as other cures for Asian ailments.
This time the airport was enormous and not a sign of animal bits anywhere. The walls of the new place are all glass, slightly curving as they climb upwards. This gives wonderful views of the taxi-ways and the hills beyond. The nice woman at check-in said it was built five years ago; certainly it now takes forever to walk between the gates, the distance punctuated with duty-free shops. There are also restrooms and drinking fountains everywhere, with large-screen photographic projections on the walls between them. Even the seats are quite comfortable. Last time I visited, uniformed women kept emptying the ashtrays and placing tiny wet paper towels in them. This time there were handsome smoking stands with wet paper towels in the bottom and no women in evidence.
The plane, now indeed called Asiana Airlines, left promptly at 6:00 p.m. I had not looked forward to the long flight to Seattle in steerage. Narrow seats, little food, (the nadir there was a flight to Seattle from Alaska a few years ago when it was announced brightly that the breakfast pretzel would be served in a while), and a spastic sound system over the earphones. This was a revelation. The seats were narrow, true, but the the legroom was not bad and the back of the seat in front had a screen where a selection of old movies and taped television programs was available. The sound system was excellent with a good selection. Best of all, food, candy, and drinks were served almost constantly from the wide aisles, including some rather nasty wine, but it was free. In all, the best economy ride I have ever had.
One seatmate was a very pretty young woman who looked slightly Asiatic but had lovely blue-gray eyes. She was a model who had spent two months in Korea, but when asked, said she hadn't been lonely at all as there is a models' club that offers dances, swimming, etc.
The other was an equally pleasant male captain of a fishing boat who said he sold Alaska pollack to Russia and rockfish to Japan. He had been to both Dutch and Unalaska harbors in the Aleutians, but now was returning from business in Pusan.
My ticket said I would leave Seattle at 2:00 p.m. on the same day we left Seoul. Was supposed to be in Alaska by 3:30 p.m. Of course that didn't happen, but I did manage to take a plane out the same day, so in spite of the 17-hour time difference, I did make it home that night.
It had been an amazing journey.