train to Rostov-on-Don

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What can I say about this ride besides the fact that it was LONG.  It was a 30 hour train ride.  I boarded at 1500 and didn’t get off until the following evening at about nine or ten p.m.  Fortunately, the Ukrainian girl in my compartment spoke excellent English and we were able to talk throughout the trip.

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It was a good ride and I was able to see much of the Ukrainian countryside.  The police and customs agents were much friendlier than my last visit.  A drug dog came through the train at the border but he didn’t seem to find anything on our train.  The train attendant served coffee or tea whenever we wanted it and it was included in the price of the ticket; it was nice not to have to dig for change for every cup of coffee.

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The train had many stops along the route.  At each little station the locals came out to sell their products, fruit and vegetables, beer and soda, bread, and even ready-made lunches.  I purchased a lunch from one woman; it included 3 meat patties, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes.  It was quite good and cost me about $4.

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 A little boy from the next compartment came by every few hours and kept us entertained throughout the ride.  I’m (again) growing accustomed to the cigarette smoke; all of the smoking passengers smoke in the walk-space between the train cars.  The small room fills full of smoke and as soon as they return to the passenger car, the smoke pours into the sitting/sleeping area.  My eyes are a bit red and the lungs feel heavy; it makes you wonder what smoking does to the lungs of people who kill two packs a day?

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At some point we passed over the Dnieper River.  I scrambled to get my camera to take a photo.  It wasn’t until  the next train ride that I realized that the best photos could be taken from the open window in the bathroom.

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Of course, that entailed having to actually visit the bathroom.  And whatever the photo does, it doesn’t capture the smell:

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Odessa, Ukraine

jumping point for the trans-Siberian Railroad…

Checking in at LAX I remember how bad the American Airline companies have become.  Only after traveling around the world do you realize that the American consumer is getting the short end of the stick.  For example, Turkish Airlines service, meals, & fares rival any American carrier; they have great fares, a good meal, and their staff is friendly and helpful.  The last flight I took on American Airlines I thought that the entire crew needed a serious attitude adjustment.  On most American carriers, not only do they NOT feed you, you have to pay extra for a checked bag.  I don’t see why they don’t include the bag price, add a meal, and just raise the prices ten or twenty dollars?  It all seems so silly.

As I put my passport away, I look again at my Russian visa.  I have only 30 days; 30 days to get across that great big country.  To put it into some perspective, Los Angeles and New York are about 3,000 miles apart.  Just part of the way across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok is 6,000 miles.  And the trains only move at about 55 miles per hour…  Despite the distance, getting the visa was tough – it seems that Moscow is still living in the cold war; anyone with a U.S. passport is still suspected of being CIA or a spy.  To get a visa, you first have to be “invited” to Russia.  Your “host” must make a formal letter, with all the requisite stamps and approvals and send it back to you.  You submit this form along with your visa application, photos (2), and fees to the Russian Embassy or Consulate.  $300 later, you have a visa.  Almost no one makes the invitation forms themselves.  Instead, we rely on travel agencies who do it for a nominal fee, say $40.  In the end, you get your visa, but with added bureaucracy, time, and expense.  After arriving in Russia, you must “register” yourself with the local police within 3 days.  Every time you move, you must re-register.  If you are staying at a hotel, they will usually do this for you.  But in my case, where I’m staying with a family in Yoshkar-Ola, we will have to go to the local police department.  Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that…  But, it’s close to impossible for Russians to get Visas to the US, so, I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Poland’s LOT airlines was late with my connection, so I was stuck for a day in Warsaw.  They put me up in the Courtyard by Marriot – it was actually in the airport parking lot so I didn’t have to go far.  Polish jokes aside, everyone in Ukraine tells me LOT airlines is always late…  I wonder if those jokes have an origin somewhere in reality?

At least they put me in a nice hotel :-)

Odessa, Ukraine is as I remember it.  It is a sleepy beach community in south Ukraine on the Black Sea.  It is a popular tourist destination for the CIS countries (former USSR) and there are visitors from Russia and other parts of the old empire.  In the city center, there is a main walking street.  It is similar to the Riverwalk in San Antonio or 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California.  The streets are lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and of course, one McDonalds.  Only in the east can you find a McDonalds full of women in size 3-5 – LOL.

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Walking the streets, the Ukrainian women look as though they have just stepped off of a Paris fashion show.  Everyone wears 4” heels, and curve hugging clothes that make all of the visiting men suffer from a rare form of whiplash.  The local men, long accustomed to the beautiful women are long since immune and don’t even seem to notice the beauty that surrounds them.  Oleg, my friend and local guide tells me it takes about 6 weeks before you don’t notice them anymore.  I find it hard to believe.

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While visiting Odessa for about 2 weeks, I decided to go to the Ballet.  The Odessa Opera House is an iconic landmark in Ukraine and is a well-known landmark in Ukraine.  It is a beautiful building and the inside wood is gilded in gold leaf.  It is a custom for married couples in Odessa to go to the Opera House to have their photos taken after the wedding.  There is a beautiful garden and fountain on the Opera House grounds.  I went to the Opera in Minsk in 2002, I believe the tickets for box seats were $2 US.  For first row second section (close enough, but not too close that you have to stretch your neck – considered the “best” seats) at the Odessa Ballet set me back $5.  It is wonderful to experience world-class culture in the professional arts for such a great price.

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I can gladly say that for two weeks in Odessa, I didn’t do much at all.  I ate, slept, sipped coffee, relaxed, people watched, exercised a bit, and practiced my Russian.  After 4 ½ years in the Middle East, it was nice to just sit down and do nothing.  Oleg rented a nice apartment for me.  It is a spacious place, maybe eight or nine hundred square feet including a fourier, bedroom, living room, fully stocked kitchen, bathroom, and even a balcony.  The price is about ½ of what I paid for a smaller hotel room on my last visit to Odessa.  With the kitchen and the fridge, I’m able to stock food and make my own breakfast and cook my own coffee.  Some days I go to the café, but it is nice to have breakfast still wearing pajamas and watching TV (albeit it is in Russian and I “maybe” understand every 10th word).  The apartment also has Wi-Fi internet making it very convenient and comfortable.

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One day my interpreter/Russian teacher and I ran into her mother in the park.  I was “forced” to pose for  a photo with “Mom.”

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Aside from high fashion, Ukraine shares one characteristic with Russia – the never-ending disco music.  No matter where you go, you will be surrounded by driving disco, techno, or house music – the kind of music that has a steady beat, techno keyboard sounds, and a futuristic sound you might hear in a rave or night club.  It doesn’t matter if you are in a clothes store, at the park, in a taxi, in a sushi restaurant, or in the hotel lobby.  Chances are, you’ll hear some kind of disco music.  Without fail, if you climb into a taxi, as soon as the car starts moving, the taxi driver will turn in some disco music for you.  It is almost as if the Russians find comfort in disco and the taxi driver is trying to make you feel at ease.  I don’t mind it sometimes, but when you’re at the park enjoying the squirrels and birds, the driving disco from the shoe store on the corner just spoils the mood.  And in a sushi restaurant?  It just seems very non-traditional Japanese.

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I am surprised at the bank advertisements.  Grievna deposits are paying 30% and Dollar/Euro deposits are paying 13-15%.  The government of Ukraine insures all accounts to US $20,000 and many European and American banks have branches here.  So, a Citibank deposit in Odessa, denominated in US dollars pays about 15%.  Many foreigners are coming and investing in Ukraine.  The credit crunch is global, but it seems that some countries are willing to pay to attract capital.  Even marketing has come to the eastern block; I see a huge billboard that reads in Russian “Ukraine bank and us” next to a family looking at their bank statement.


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Odessa market

I think that you can tell a lot about a society by going to its market.  Whenevver I visit a country it is something I like to do; I go and watch what the people are buying, what they are eating, how the food is prepared, processed and stored and I like to look at the people themselves.  How a hotel clerk or a taxi cab driver is dressed won’t tell you about a society, but going to its market: you see first hand how the people “are” in their natural and uninhibited nature.

Located behind and around the train station, Odessa has  a large and thriving market that has everything from fresh produce to fish and fowl and other items like knives, TV sets and stereos and clothing.  On a Saturday (above), the market is in full swing and vendors have set up their wares with customers shopping and haggling.  If you are a backpacker traveler, this place is a “must” for stocking up on travel items like bread, fruit, water and cheese.  Everything is fresh and the prices are downright affordable.  I was able to purchase a dozen eggs for 8 grievna (about a dollar).  The markets had a large floral area that was doing brisk business.  It seems that the men buy a lot of flowers for the ladies and it is customary, even on a first date, to bring flowers.  I saw a lot of women carrying flowers and it seemed that they are a regular gift in Ukraine.

It is in places where you see the older people, the Babushkas (grandmas), that you begin to notice the disparity in wealth between the young and the old and in the cultural rift between the generations.  In the photo below, you can see a middle-aged woman and a grandma and walking in the background (partially obscured) is a younger woman, dressed in a skirt and talking on a cellular phone.  As I watch the Babushkas selling nuts and fruits for pennies, I wonder how is it that this younger generation can afford so much talk time at .10 cents a minute.  I mean really, everywhere you go, the young are always on the phone chatting away as though they had a million dollars in the bank.  The economy of the E-block has long been a mystery to me.  Most people who live on a $150 a month salary seem to spend that much in a weekend.

So, if we look at this photo, we see the younger woman in a very liberal style of dress, the middle-aged woman dressed conservatively and the Babushka is wearing a proper Orthodox head scarf.  It’s almost like looking at a time machine.  In my first visit to the E-block in 2002, I noticed many similarities between the Russian Orthodox Church and Islam.  The women all cover their heads, everyone kneels during prayer and the ritual of the ceremonies was much more ritualized as you would find in a Muslim service.  One must wonder how the two  religions, in close proximity, have influenced each other for the past thousand years.

In many places in Eastern Europe I see women wearing headscarves and I think of how France and some other countries scream foul when a Muslim woman wears a head scarf.  I wonder if Orthodox Christian or Jewish women were wearing them would it be such a problem?

Looking down one of the main market streets we can see the vendors and a typical Ukrainian couple; he is wearing his trademark European black socks, has a short Russian/Ukrainian haircut and his girlfriend is dressed in a sexy little sundress with tall heeled shoes.

You know when you’re approaching the fish area in the market by the smell.  Odessa has quite a wide variety of fish but I usually get mine at a restaurant.  Should you ever come to Odessa, I highly recommend the salmon: it is relatively inexpensive (by western standards), is usually quite fresh and the style of cooking makes it absolutely tasty.  The entire time I was in Odessa all I ate for lunch or dinner was salmon and I probably lost an inch off the waist LOL.

In this photo, a pair of Babushkas are selling some freshly killed and plucked fowl.  Ukraine is a relatively poor country and most people shop at these open markets where the prices are much more affordable than at chain grocery stores.  While in those stores, I did see brisk business but for large staple purchases, there is no beating the value of the open market.

Nuts, specifically walnuts, seem to be a staple industry in this part of Ukraine.  I saw dozens and dozens of women who were selling walnuts (in the shell) and those that had been separated.  While waiting for customers, these women smash the walnuts with small metal hammers, separate the nut from the shell and then bag them for resale.  If you are taking a follow-on train or bus to another city, I recommend a few bags as they make a great (and nutritious) snack.  I couldn’t believe how cheap the nuts sold for and wondered how these women paid their bills for pennies a bag.

I ended up buying some nuts from this woman.  It seemed that the prices were the same from vendor to vendor but, the look on her face, it made me want to give her my business.  I asked if I could take her photo – and as I was a paying customer – she reluctantly agreed.  Everywhere I’ve been on this trip, and anywhere in the old E-block, anyone over the age of 40 years seems deathly afraid to have their photo taken.  I am sure that this fear of photos goes back to the repressive years of the Stalin regime.

Despite the tough economy in Ukraine, business drives on.  As I looked and observed, I could see signs of the “underground” economy, a lot of cash moving around, but still a lack of overall movement of wealth.  This is quite obvious at the bank advertisements that show deposits paying from 12%-30% interest.  The Ukrainian government has been criticized for its corruption and recently quarantined any capital withdrawals from the country (hence the heft returns on bank deposits); anyone who had $ deposited in a Ukrainian bank was not free to take it out of the country.

It was not until later, while looking at my photos, that I realized I had taken a photo of the same nut stand.  The photos were taken about a year apart and when I looked at them separately, I noticed that one of the vendors was still wearing the same shirt.  I wonder how many shirts he owns?  And then I’ll see a group of 5 or 6 young people at a bar dropping $80 or $100 dollars on cocktails and I scratch my head and wonder just “how does this economy work?”


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