31 August 2010

In The Caucasus, Part 2

A short clip from our second backpacking trip in the Caucasus Mountains, Russia.

26 August 2010

Hiking in the Caucasus Mountains

Our first backpacking trip in the mountains here. We spent a leisurely three days hiking from Teberda over Ebchick Pass.

22 August 2010

North to South - Russia Update

I cannot say that we are moving at our fastest pace, yet I somehow can't find time to blog and upload photos. I apologize. In the last two weeks we:

-Took a sweltering 17-hour train ride from St. Petersburg north to Kem. The town has nothing to offer except being close to the White Sea, where we took a 3.5 hour boat to Solovki Islands. There are half a dozen islands, just below the Arctic Circle, where a monastery has existed for several centuries. During soviet times, the monastery was turned in the infamous prison camp of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. We stealth camped in the woods, and we paid the Russian far for the boat ride instead of the foreigner fare. Read the full blog post

-Spent another night on a train, heading further north into Arctic. We found two awesome towns, Kirovsk and Apatity, where the people were just super friendly and helpful, beyond anything I had experienced elsewhere in Russia. We camped a few days in the Khibini Mountains, which rise just above 1000 meters but have some pretty gnarly weather that nearly took down our tent. It was also light enough outside that I could read until midnight. I loved the long days here! Read the full blog post

-Celebrated our one-year anniversary in Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic. We ate a lot of cake, got a tour of a nuclear icebreaker (one of only six in the world), and had a great time hanging out with our couchsurfing host. That was, by far, the most north we had ever been. Read the full blog post

-Flew from the very northern tip of Russia to the southern. The people in the north told us not to come down here, to the Caususas Mountains, as the people weren't as nice. However, we are finding generosity even beyond what we experienced up north. Everybody is interested to meet us. Like in the north, there are very few travelers here and we are kind of like celebrities.

We are now heading into the mountains for a three-day backpacking trip. Nothing too extreme, that's for sure. But we'll be topping out at over 3000 meters and will have a grand view of Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe.

18 August 2010

Eat Play Love

One Year Ago: Kristin and I surprised a few of our family members with a picnic wedding at Crissy Fields. With the Golden Gate bridge as our background, and typical summer fog keeping things cold, our ceremony lasted all of 45 seconds. We wrote it while covertly driving my old Geo from City Hall to the park.

Six Months Ago: Kristin and I were in the dead-of-summer heat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We were staying with a friend, taking part in Carnival, and surviving the heat by running early and cooling off with a frequent acai drink.

Today: Kristin and I celebrate our one year anniversary in Murmansk - the largest Arctic city in the world. We are staying with a new friend from couchsurfing. We have not only escaped the heat of central Russian summer, but we have found near freezing temperatures. This morning we left the flat wearing wool baselayers, our favorite puffy blue Montbell jackets, our down parkas, gloves, and fleece caps. We are prepared for the cold.

Our schedule for the day? A healthy start of millet/oatmeal with fruits and yogurt, free internet at the library, fruit/veggie/cake shopping, and a ride on a nuclear-powered ice breaker!

When we started our journey in Guatemala last year, Kristin brought Eat Pray Love for me to read, and for her to reread. We both love the book and can relate to it in some ways. However, instead of divorcing and then following our dreams, we got married first and making our dreams into goals that we are achieving. Why wait any longer?

As much as I have learned from travelling, I have still learned more from being with Kristin. She constantly pushes and challenges and inspires me.I wish I could say I do the same for her, but I think there are many personal things that I can work on to improve our relationship. So after one year, I can definitively say that, even though there is a giant world out there to see, my energy is best spent exploring and illuminating the depths within me.

16 August 2010

An Ode to War and Peace

Kristin's sister, Alisa, met up with us in Argentina last Christmas. She was reading Tolstoy's War and Peace and was kind enough to leave it with us. We joined Alisa and her friends around the world to create an online book club. The club lasted only as long as the book, but lessons we learned remain with us.

Last week I thought of the book again as we learned (after much taste testing) that our favorite black bread here is from Borodino, site of the famous 1812 battle. Borodinski bread is the darkest bread we can find, made from rye, and topped with dried black pepper kernels. My favorite cake is Napoleon, which is basically a slight bit of flour that supports the massive amounts of cream. It lacks chocolate, but that's ok.

The bread costs less than a dollar for a half kilo loaf. The cake is four dollars for a half kilo. I love Russia.

(Sorry, no pictures. I eat the cake too fast to take a picture. And the bread is so dark that it sucks in light and makes photographing it impossible. I think this is a trick leftover from the Soviet days.)

A Long History

As I wrote about in my last blog, I traveled to Finland twelve years ago. Thirteen years ago, however, I went to St. Petersburg. I was a sophomore in high school and I was part of a 15-person two-week student exchange. I had been studying Russian in high school for a year and a half. In Virginia, only two high schools taught Russian and luckily, mine was one of the them. I went to Langley High School, which is down the road from Langley CIA Headquarters, though I don't think that this had any bearing on what languages were offered.

My history with Russia is long and winding. After high school, I majored in Russian Studies (and Business) at UC Davis. I never used Russian in my jobs, but I kept going back to the country that I loved, even if I didn't know why I loved it. 

I returned to St. Petersburg three more times and always stayed with my original host family. That is always the most personal time of my Russian visits. They welcome me back like family, but in leaving we don't know when, or even if, we'll see each other again. 

I also explored the great lakes of the north (Lagoda and Onega), the giant machine called Moscow, the shores of Lake Baikal, and the volcanoes, bears and salmon of Kamchatka. The latter of these attracted me because of it's truly wild wilderness, but my interest was first piqued when listening to the Kino song "Kamchatka," where Viktor Tsoi sings about the strange, magic of that place.

Clearly, I am still at home in Russia. Especially with Olga's family at their dacha.

It has now been six years since my last trip to Russia. I feared that I had forgotten the language. I thought maybe I wouldn't like the country as much, as I have changed so much and it has too. I was anxious that Kristin would be depending on me for all communication. She would be more isolated here than when we were in Latin America, where she knew some Spanish and there were a lot more backpackers.

As I am typing this on a train, I look up and see her lying on the bunk bed. She is peering down at me and I know that all my worries were for naught. Together we can get through this wild idea of mine to see the world on a nonexistent budget. I don't have a plan, just a dream. I don't have the money, but I know how to be frugal with what little we do have. I don't know how we'll get jobs when we return, but Kristin keeps us on task of working on side projects that could help us when we actually need a job. And through this, we are working on our relationship. This is the most difficult thing I have ever done. 

But we are doing it.
Waiting outside in the 90 degree "cool" air during a 10-minute train stop. 

Our plan for Russia is three weeks in St. Petersburg and up north into the Arctic Circle. Then we fly south to hike in the Caucasus Mountains near Georgia. We will take the train through the Ural Mountains that divide Europe and Asia. Then we will trek through Altai, the giant mountains that connect Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia and is one of the least inhabited ranges in the world. Then on to Lake Baikal, the second largest lake in the world, the deepest in the world, and soon (ok, maybe in millions of years) to be the next ocean. We exit via Mongolia October 10. We do not know where we are going in between Mongolia in October and Italy in February 2011.

[note: this blog post was written last week]

12 August 2010

Finland - Twelve Years Later

In high school I went to Finland for two weeks. I took great pride in having gone there, because really, who goes to Finland? 

To be honest, before going, I knew very little about the country or it's culture. I gleamed bits from my Finnish girlfriend and her family. That includes learning a few helpful Swedish Finnish words like "eye-brow" and "go out to pee" (for the family dog, not me).

My girlfriend asked me go with her to Finland for our spring break.  I was surprised when my mom actually said yes. The plan was to spend time with her family in Helsinki, as well as go skiing and snowboarding in Lapland. 

To this day I still have a soft spot in my heart for the little country that could. With only five million people, Finland had managed to support some big companies, like Nokia and Fiskar.  It seemed to me that everybody was healthy and happy and that there were trees and lakes everywhere. 

Here I am, twelve years later, exploring Helsinki with the same eyes, but different perspective, and seeing the same things: a well-educated, environmentally-conscious, happy people in a productive country. It's a gem of a country sandwiched between Russia and Sweden, having been conquered by both of them, but now deciding it's own fate.

I cannot stop raving about Finland. The architecture is my absolute favorite - simple, efficient, beautiful to look at while obviously being well-made. It's as if Apple started designing homes and buildings. 

Mass transportation is excellent and cheap. Roads are clean and always accompanied by well-designed bike lanes/roads. There are many parks and recreational opportunities nearby. It seems that most people live in a small apartment or townhouse in the city, and that each family has a country house on the lake where they spend their summers gardening and swimming, and their winters cross-country skiing. 

Finland is also the first country where we officially couchsurfed. While we have stayed on many a couch, floor, and spare bedroom in our last year of travels, it has always been with a friend or friend-of-a-friend. Now we are traveling to places where I haven't built up a network of friends and so we are using couchsurfing.com

This website was started in San Francisco many years ago, with the sole aim of connecting like-minded travelers. One can host travelers, find a couch/floor/bed to sleep on, or just meet up to chat. While it is used by budget travelers the world over, the idea is to make new friends and further cultural understandings, not just save a few bucks by skipping the hostels. 

While in Helsinki we stayed with two different people. The first was Tanja, who lived in a twenty square meter apartment (yes, there was room on the floor for us to sleep). She was fluent in at least five languages and has traveled quite extensively. Her apartment backed up against a giant birch forest where Kristin and I went running. Our second host was Hido, who was born in Korea but moved to  Finland to get his undergraduate degree (in English, for free). He is now working towards a graduate degree in soil science. He lives on campus in a college town outside of Helsinki - it very much reminded us of Davis. 

Both experiences were absolutely wonderful. We entertained our hosts with tales from Latin America and comparisons of Finland and American culture. We cooked for them, which gave us the opportunity to stick to our normal ultra-healthy diet. Our hosts, meanwhile, got to relax, sample our food, and abstain from cleaning the dishes. Win. Win. Win. 

Overall, Kristin and I absolutely love Helsinki. We would really like to come back and explore more of the country, especially on a bike. Interactions with our hosts took time away from touristy stuff, which was obviously a trade-off we didn't mind! 

Oh, and how did we end up in Finland of all places? We wanted to go to Russia but tickets to Helsinki were hundreds of dollars cheaper. So, we got to see Finland and then hop a $25 bus to St. Petersburg. 

[ed note: this was written a week ago but not published until now. I am trying to catch up]

Helsinki - Where the buses couldn't get any cleaner or greener

During the summer, everybody and their mom commutes by bike. Their bikes are practical: built-in racks, fenders, basket, kickstand, and lights, with a comfortable upright position and easy step-over frame. 

Twenty minutes outside of Helsinki and we were hiking through lush fields and rich forests. The building in the background is Helsinki University's green house and botanical garden. Dare I say even better than Davis? 

09 August 2010

(Back) On Track

We are on 17-hour train ride to Kem, from where we will take a 3.5 hour boat ride to Sotovitsky Islands in the White Sea. We will attempt to camp on that island, which was made famous as the location for the monestary-turned-prison camp in Solzhenitzen's Gulag Archipalego.

We also bought a universal computer modem and a mobile phone SIM card, with which we hope to have universal (if slow) internet connection. So I will keep this short and sweet. We are alive, doing well, having an excellent time, and loving Russia. We will take the next 10 days to explore the Arctic circle, before flying down to the Caucaus Mountains. The rest of our time will be split between treks there, in the Altai Mountain Range, and around Lake Baikal before we exit the country in Mongolia in October. 

I will try to catch up with blogging, uploading photos, and emails when I get a chance.