29 October 2010

Backpacking in the Arctic

(Recap from Russia #2 - August 14)
 6:05am and we're standing in the empty parking lot in front of the train station. We are 4km outside of the city of Apatity. Even though it was summer, we had moved so far north that the temps still dropped below freezing at night. We donned our down jackets as we scurried along, trying to figure out how to get into town. We found the proper bus and paid our 40 rubles each (about $1.35, which seemed high) and rode. And rode. And rode. 

We were tired and cold and kept riding straight through town, eventually traveling down an empty road out of town. I looked around the bus and realized that there were only middle-aged women on the bus. Peering outside the smudged windows, I could make out a few stack pipes. A factory! We had missed our stop and were joining these fine ladies on their morning commute to work. 

I hustled up to the bus driver and asked him to stop. Right there, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Perfect. 

Well, at least we could still see the town. We walked all the way back and  in doing so, slowly warmed up. We also enjoyed a very peaceful sunrise over the forest, a pleasant buffer between the city and the factory.

<=This is the only Stalin statue that we found in Russia. It was in front of a school,  decidedly unkempt and hidden by trees. Lenin, on the other hand, is still everywhere. I say with absolute certainty from having visited every corner of Russia: in every city the main street is Lenin St. and the central plaza is Lenin Square, which inevitably features a large Lenin statue. Talk about cult of personality!

Apatity is a pretty boring town and we only stopped there to catch another bus, one that would take us to the smaller city of Kirovsk. Kirovsk had the only tourist center that we found in Russia, outside of St. Petersburg, though we didn't know it at the time. We made friends with the guy who worked there, and he helped us rent an apartment for the night. 
One of the "highlights" of Kirovsk according to our tourist map. The area is known for mining and skiing.

We wanted to go hiking in the nearby Khibini Mountains and so we spent much of the day in preparation. Little did we know, that the two nearby shopping markets would have the best chocolate selection anywhere in Russia and the best Napolean Cake. I kid you not. This was our lifeline to sanity and happiness, and we struck gold on our first try?!? Kristin and I must have investigated more than 300 super markets in all parts of Russia. Even in Moscow and Petersburg we did not find a selection as spectacular. 

It was a blessing and a curse. We had a few really great days of cake and chocolate. But then it kind of ruined the rest of our two months in Russia because never again were things this good. How were we to know?

(From Kirosvk - factories, lake, and the mountains in which we would later backpack. In Russia, there is a vast amount of wilderness but also an utter lack of environmental concern. Industrial pollution is the worst I have seen in the world, with the possible exception of China.)

Our hiking in the Khibini mountains was, well, challenging. This easily became our theme for our travels in Russia. We found a good map, which turned out to be the exception in Russia. We took a bus out of town to a run down sanatorium, from where we began our walk on the gravel road. Families passed by in their tiny Soviet-made Ladas, with trunks crammed full of buckets of wild berries, apples, and potatoes. 

After literally walking around an open-pit gravel mine, we entered "wilderness." For the next three days we only saw one set of campers, but we came across several remnants of soviet industrial exploration. We also learned that Arctic weather is brutal. The creeks dried up at times. There was almost no vegetation. And trails, well, lets just say we had to use our imagination. 

We returned on day three after our tarptent became a pancake, with two trekking poles poking through the roof fabric. I had done my best to make sure the tent was bomb proof, but the wind shifted and the broad side of our tent acted more like a kite. It was a really, really horrible start to the morning. Piercing rain and sleet, inconsistent but strong winds, no time to make breakfast, and we were walking into the wind and storm.

The rain stopped and we warmed a bit, but the sun never came out. We walked back down the lonely gravel road, took the bus to town, took another bus back to Apatity, and spent two days there. We rented an apartment (500 rubles, or $17) and ate a lot of cake and wrote a few emails and caught up on sleep. Next stop? Murmansk, the largest city in the Arctic. 

Walking past the Sanatorium as we stared the "hike." It appeared to still be operational, but maybe people come here in the winter for skiing?

Perhaps the only flat spot in the valley.

I *think* this is the trail.

On top of the mountain plateau.

Near the summit. Not sure what the Russians were trying to do here.

The clouds provided us with constant excitement.

The only form of life that we found on our trek.

Good morning world! Kristin likened this place to Mars.

Now let's go home.

So we can have our cake and eat it too.

27 October 2010

Thank You Mr. Stallone

Kristin and I are located in an empty resort complex 1.4km beyond the nearest village, where the public bus makes it's last stop. That village is 7km from the nearest town, which is another 35km from the nearest city.

Besides the empty road that leads from the village to our place, there is a dirt road that continues past us. It turns to dirt and mud as it winds slightly down hill. The road goes through fields, fallow for the winter. There is a second road that goes up the hill behind us. It is nicely paved and zig zags at least 20 times before it flattens out for a bit. Then it climbs up further to a smattering of few house. I've only run up to that first flat spot, admiring the nearly three hundred and sixty degree view.

Do you remember Rocky IV, when he was training to fight against the Soviet champion (Dolph Lundgren)? Rocky moved to Siberia and trained for months in the brutal weather, using very simple exercises to get back in shape - chopping wood, running in the snow, pull-ups, and so on. This was the Rocky that went back to his roots, in a way, like Johnny Cash and American IV: Man Comes Around

Well today, while running by myself down the dirt "road," I felt a little bit like Rocky. The wind was at my back, the hill was in my favor, but I knew that both of those would be against me on the way back. A mob of cows was being herded uphill, dogs yapping away. The clouds hung low in the valley and the mist was palpable. I chose my steps carefully, avoided the mud pits and cow pies, and fell a smooth (but tough) breathing rhythm.

In no way is our life like Rocky's but I still felt the same solitude, in a good way. We are in the middle of nowhere and there is nobody with whom we can talk. We have only the same rudimentary exercises to keep fit and healthy. We are forging a simple lifestyle in a relentlessly changing world. We are living deliberately.

Everybody finds their own inspiration. It on this day that I am glad to have watched at least one cheesy, shamelessly American-centric flick from the eighties. Rocky - thank you. 

26 October 2010

Solovki Islands

(Recap from Russia #1 - August 9)
In an effort to share with you the joys and challenges of traveling through Russia, I am going to use part of our downtime in Bulgaria to catch up with our tales. Let's take a trip back to early August . . .

We left St. Petersburg on humid Monday morning heading north by train. My initial plans were to visit the islands of Kizhi or Valaam, which are both beautiful islands with rich religious histories and situated in large lakes north of Petersburg. Kizhi is known for it's all-wooden churches and structures that date back hundreds of years. Valaam was a self-sustaining colony of monks that hosted artists-in-residence. 

I had already visited both islands on a four-day river/lake cruise back in 2001 and decided to skip these sites this time around. We have a policy of not paying to go into churches. While the islands are beautiful, there is no appropriate way to appreciate this beauty, either by hiking or camping. 

Instead we opted for something more remote, more rugged, with a harsher climate and even harsher history: Solovki Islands. 

24 October 2010

Massive Shopping Spree

There are two small shops in our village, where we buy our fruits, veggies, and yogurt. However, we spent the better part of last Monday traveling to the big city of  Burgas to stock up on hard-to-find goods, cleaning supplies, treats and a few kitchen items.

Check-out at the Burgas Carrefour, where we spent $220. The cashier laughed as she handed us our receipt. It is now hanging above our kitchen table as our sole wall decoration.

To get back home, we had to take three buses and walk 1.4 km. My backpack weighed more than 25 kg (60 lbs).

The weather was overcast all day, every day and it rains often. However, that also means there are no mosquitoes and it is never too hot to run. Oh, and that giant squash that Kristin is carrying? It cost us $1.50 and will be used in at least 10 meals.

22 October 2010

Ten Thousand Shots

In the last fourteen months I have taken more than 10,000 photographs. I love taking photos because it allows me to share the beauty of the world with my friends and family. As we all know, it is very difficult to really capture the world in such a format. I am satisfied if I can even show you 1% of what we see.

I have yet to talk about some of the items that we are travelling with. To start it off, let's begin with . . .

The Camera I Have
To take all of these photos, I have used my trusty Panasonic TS1, which is waterproof, crushproof, dustproof, freezeproof, sneezeproof, chocolateproof and dannyproof. I sometimes like to brag about the invincibility of my camera by "accidentally" dropping it in front of unsuspecting acquaintances. While I get a kick out of that, Kristin chides me that I don't need to prove the camera's durability, and that someday I might actually break it. This is my third waterproof camera and I have not broken one yet . . .

Panasonic Lumix TS1 
12MP Digital Camera with 4.6x Wide Angle Zoom and 2.7 inch LCD

I have had this camera in my front right pant's pocket literally every day that I leave the house. I bought this camera for five main reasons, in addition to being indestructible:
  • Wide-angle lens, to get those shots that are too big for normal lenses
  • Long battery life
  • SD card (not XD or memory stick, to which some other manufacturers are still clinging)
  • HD movie capability
  • Excellent reviews for the relative quality of photos
Oddly, the newer, better model of this camera is cheaper than the old one that I have. 

The Camera I Want
I am very satisfied with my camera for what it is. However, there are times when I really wish for a better camera (and a tripod). Short of buying a super expensive and cumbersome DSLR with various lenses and such, I have found a new breed of cameras that is bridging the gap between simple point-and-shoot and professional DSLRs. These newest generation of "super-zooms" have a really good set of features, take great photos, and are not prohibitively expensive. 

If I could get a new camera, these three would be at the top of my list:

Canon SX30 
  • 35x wide-angle lens (24-840mm)
  • 2.7" pivoting LCD screen
  • now has rechargeable Li-on battery
  • $419

Panasonic Lumix FZ40
  • 24x wide angle lens (25-600mm)
  • 3.0" stationary LCD screen
  • longer battery life
  • $325

Panasonic Lumix FZ100
  • 24x wide-angle lense (25-600mm)
  • 3.0" pivoting LCD screen
  • 1080i HD movies with digital stereo recording
  • CMOS sensor
  • $402
All the cameras have: manual controls, 14 MP, HD movie capability, rechargeable Li-on battery, and image stabilization. The previous models of these same cameras have consistently gotten rave reviews and these all have improved since then.

The SX30 has the best zoom, the FZ100 is the lightest and cheapest, and the FZ100 has the best sensor and movie recording. They are all great and would be a big improvement in capabilities, as compared to my current camera.

I am not going to buy the camera now, but maybe when we get to western Europe.Until then, I'm sticking with my trusty tank of a camera. Nothing beats the simplicity of my current setup.

20 October 2010

What I Did Today

Despite being in a foreign country and living in a very isolated location, Kristin made today a very special day for me. Yes, it's my birthday and I am turning 30. Starting a new decade does not seem scary or too significant. Everyday is what is important, and everyday I hope to live like it is a special day. With Kristin, that is all too easy.

So what did we do today? Well, I woke to a giant Russian birthday card that Kristin had been hiding away for the last two months. We stretched, went for a run, and returned to cook our usual super-healthy breakfast (whole grain hot cereal, fruits, nuts, yogurt). We did laundry, by hand in a bucket. Hopefully our clothes will dry by tomorrow!During the day we communicated with various friends and family members via Skype, gmail chat, emails, and Facebook.
For lunch, Kristin prepared a delicious and healthy macaroni and cheese (inspired by, but nothing like, my grandmother Patsy used to make). And to top it all of, she created a raw vegan german chocolate cake. It was absolutely amazing!

Now we are winding down, finishing up a few errands, before we watch The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I remember watching this film shortly after my parents divorced. It was my eighth birthday and my dad took me and two of my brothers to an actual movie theater (maybe the first time I went to a theater).  We got banana splits at the ice cream shop and then watched this movie. I  never watched the movie again, but I always thought it was good. Terry Gilliam directed it and he is one of my favorite directors. He directed Brazil, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing, Twelve Monkeys, and was an original member of Monty Python. He was born in Minneapolis, so maybe that's why Kristin has agreed to watch his film tonight.
Anyhow, thanks for all the emails, chats, comments, posts, VOiPs, ecards and more! Where would we be without the internet?

Our apartment is on the ground floor unfortunately, but we have floor to ceiling windows and the complex is empty!

The fantastic cake, Russian birthday card, and custom-made silver crown. I am living like a king!

19 October 2010

Blogging from Bulgaria

Hi All! Kristin and I have just arrived in Bulgaria, only two weeks after leaving the Mongolian border but is now half a world away. We spent 4-5 days on buses and trains to get from the Altai Mountains to Moscow. After five days in Moscow, we flew to Istanbul and spent another five days there.

After a few bus rides and one border crossing, we safely arrived at our new "home" in Kosharitsa, Bulgaria. My friend has generously lent us his vacation flat near the coast of the Black Sea. The resort complex is virtually empty, as are all the nearby cities.

We are going to stay here for a few months and work on our computers. Kristin is working on a scientific publication. I am busy with a few projects. The main goal is to develop an Android/iPhone app (with coding help from Kristin).

So far we have really enjoyed our stay here. We go running everyday on the empty road behind our flat, winding up a forested hill. The weather is rather drab, but it's bearable. We each have a "desk" with our laptops (thanks Janie!) and notes and papers littered about.

In my non-working time, I will continue to blog and catch up on the last two months of travel through Russia and Turkey. So stay tuned for more!

This was our first dinner in our new home. Apple, carrots, two types of cheese, whole wheat bread and hummus. No cooking required! We were so tired and starving when we finally arrived - this meal was perfect.