From Siberia to Tibet: Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert

I’ve traveled a lot, but I’ve never been to a country like Mongolia.  Scratch that: I’ve never been to a country anything like Mongolia.

The first thing that strikes you is that this country is not really suitable for human life.  The more gentle bits, such as that around capital Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), consist of treeless steppe with temperatures ranging from -40°C in the winter to 35°C in the summer.  The less forgiving parts, like the Gobi Desert and Lake Uvs, dispose of unnecessary vegetation and crank the extremes up to −58°C in winter and 47°C in summer.  Add in the wild temperature fluctuations caused by a continental climate at high elevation that can see UB hit temps below freezing every month of the year, and you can see why agriculture is effectively impossible.

At this point, I should note that I was born in Helsinki, Finland, ranked a respectable #5 on the list of the world’s coldest capitals (#1 is, of course, UB), and many a time I’ve wondered how on earth my ancestors survived in this arctic wasteland without central heating or microwave pizzas.  But at least in Finland, we had timber for housing and heating, fish in the lakes and sea, game in the woods, crops of rye and barley, turnips and rutabagas — whereas the Mongols had, to a first approximation, none of these.

So, when the Mongols were playing Yurtcraft in Hardcore mode around 1000 C.E. and the only resources were sheep and yaks, what did they do?  They built their houses out of wool, namely the felt used for yurts.  In winter they ate only meat, specifically boiled mutton, and in summer they switched to a lighter diet of only dairy products.  And to be clear, when I say “only meat”, I really mean only meat: no vegetables, no grain, no bread, no potatoes, nothing.  Meat.  For dairy, they had a choice of milk, cream, sour milk, yogurt, fresh cheese and dried cheese, but at least they could ferment some into mildly alcoholic airag (mare’s milk) or seriously alcoholic arkhi (yoghurt vodka) and so they could drink away the monotony for a while.

Given this fairly serious handicap, you’d expect the Mongolians to occupy about the same amount of space on the world stage as, say, their fellow pastoralists the Maasai of Kenya, whose colorful costumes and exotic diet regularly feature in the National Geographic but rarely beyond it.  But no: the Mongols gave birth to Genghis Khan, who during his lifetime built an empire twice the size of the Romans at their height, and whose sons and grandsons proceeded to conquer China, Russia, much of the Middle East and knock on the gates of Western Europe.

Alas, the Mongol Empire lasted for only about 100 years until inevitably splitting into warring factions (maybe siring an estimated 8% of Asia’s population wasn’t such a great idea?) and it was all downhill from there for a while.  The Manchu Qing dynasty eventually conquered Mongolia in 1691, and while Mongolia declared independence in 1911, Russian aid quickly turned into Soviet strings and the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, complete with local Stalin clone Choibalsan doing his level best to purge the intelligentsia.  This created another overlay of weirdness, with Cyrillic script and hideous Soviet-style architecture still dominating the streets of UB.

In 1990, the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People’s Republic along with it collapsed, and Mongolia acquired a new state ideology: bling.  This gave Ulaanbaatar its latest layer of shiny skyscrapers, modern art exhibitions, traffic jams, microbreweries, hot dog stands, fancy boutiques and even a VIP room at the train station.  It must be said that Mongolia remains a poor country and most of this is far beyond the reach of the common man — but in a country where a taxi ride is $2, a tourist’s dollars go a long way.

This newfound comparative prosperity has also expanded the Mongol diet, with former festival fare like buuz steamed dumplings, khuushuur meat pies and tsuivan fried noodles now served by fast food restaurants.  And when all the mutton starts to get to you — you soon realize that the entire city smells like boiled mutton — check out one of UB’s countless Korean places, serving up all the kimchi and Choco Pies you can handle.

While I found UB to be absolutely fascinating, the scenery in nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was equally so and definitely worth a day trip if not more.  Turtle Rock, Aryaval monastery (which sells pizza, because Mongolia), visiting a local tourist yurt, admiring the owner’s yaks and sampling many yak dairy products, pottering about on stubby Mongolian horses, visiting the yurt owner’s cousin’s distinctly non-tourist yurt and fermented mare’s milk straight out of a blue plastic bucket…  not a day I’ll soon forget.

Early on the morning of our final day, we boarded train #4 to Beijing and set off on a slow trundle across the Gobi Desert.  It’s large, it’s hot, it contains a whole lotta nothing — but the most striking sight was the heat-blasted, godforsaken town of Choir, a former Soviet military base that for some unfathomable reason has not been abandoned by its 8,000 inhabitants yet.  The town consists entirely of commieblocks and fencing, both in severe disrepair, plus an excessively jaunty silver statue of Mongolian cosmonaut Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa with his pants down.

At this point, I’m officially out of words.  It’s about time to cross the border into China.

<<< Life on a Train | Beijing, Xi’an & Xining >>>

 

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From Siberia to Tibet: Life on a Train

 

Many writers wax lyrical about the romance of long-distance train travel, but on this trip I sampled four them — Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, Beijing to Xi’an, and Xining to Lhasa — and the sad truth is that the passenger trains in these parts are strictly utilitarian workhorses, inferior to airplanes on virtually every measure of speed or comfort.   Here’s the lowdown on life in a 4-berth sleeper (kupé in Russia, 软卧 ruǎnwò in China).

Eat

When you’re on a train for 24 hours or more, you’ve got to eat something, and this leaves you with three options.

The first and most obvious option is restaurant cars, and the Mongolian ones with their intricate wood carvings and embroidered tablecloths even look quite attractive.  Alas, the food they serve ranges from bland but edible, like our Chinese breakfast set composed mostly of sausage, celery and chilli, to bland and near-inedible, such as the incredibly gristly beef served on the Mongolian train — I was picking bits out of my teeth for the next two days.  Perhaps we should have taken the hint from the plastic bags of frozen beef sitting in the corridor, tenderizing in the midsummer heat of the Gobi Desert.

Alternatively, you can try to buy food on station platforms, but this presents a number of practical problems.  First, stops are few and far between and rarely aligned with mealtimes.  Second, stops are short and on arrival you neither have any idea what the options are nor where to find them.  Third, if you do find something food-like, it’s often unclear how many days those mince-meat khuushuurs sitting on a table have been fermenting under the Mongolian sun.  We did manage to swing some pretty decent piroshki pastries in Ulan-Ude, plus rye bread and boiled eggs in Mongolia, but it really is the luck of the draw and you can’t count on finding more than packaged snacks this way.

Finally, you can bring your own food, but with no refrigeration or heating available (aside from hot water), you’ll be hard pressed to expand your culinary horizons beyond packaged bread, instant noodles and the giant Russian rye croutons called grenki.  (Best flavor: garlic with garlic dip.  You’re welcome.)  A useful compromise is to buy a meal at your departure station: you’re not going to find much more than fast food, but even KFC is likely tastier, cheaper and healthier than the alternatives.

All that said, you can generally rely on the restaurant cars to supply lukewarm beer at only mildly extortionate prices, which brings me to…

Drink

Russian and Mongolian trains forbid drinking alcoholic beverages on board; fortunately, this being Russia and Mongolia, beer is not considered alcohol.  (Seriously.)  Needless to say, this rule is widely ignored by all and sundry, although it’s generally wise to close your compartment door if you have one and avoid tippling at times when conductors are on the prowl.

The one free drink provided in abundant quantities is boiling hot water, supplied by a coal or wood fired boiler at the end of each carriage.  If you’re lucky, there may even be a thermos bottle in your cabin, which you can use to stock your own supply.  Bring along some teabags, instant coffee or cocoa, and you can stay caffeinated.  A pedantic nit: most travelers call these samovars, but in Russian they’re actually “titans” (титан).

Non-hot water, on the other hand, is in distinctly short supply, as the water from the bathroom taps is not drinkable.  Bring along more than you think you will need, particularly if it’s hot or high outside.  As for taking a shower or a bath, forget about it.

Poop

Yes, this section has no pictures.  (You’re welcome.)

The upside to strictly functional trains is that their toilets are also unencumbered with pneumatic vacuums and mysterious blue liquids.  Instead, when you press the lever, the bottom opens up and the contents are deposited straight onto the tracks, followed by a slightly apologetic trickle of water.  While this does an admirable job of preventing the toilet from clogging, it does also mean that the doors are locked while the train is stationary, including during those multi-hour border crossings.

On Chinese trains, you will also encounter squat toilets, although there are usually a few thrones to be found as well.  The upside to these is that, no matter how filthy the rest of the room, only your feet need make contact; the downside is that whatever your feet make contact with is likely to be unpleasant.  This is why everybody on board brings flip-flops to wear.   And whether your train is Russian, Mongolian or Chinese, you’ll want to bring toilet paper and soap as well.

Sleep

Fed, hydrated and voided, it’s time to sleep.  The uninitiated are often tempted by the idea of a hotel on wheels: just slumber away peacefully on board and you’ll arrive at your destination not just refreshed, but having saved on a night’s hotel bill!  Reality is more complicated.

Even when not manufactured in the DDR, the berths are generally uncomfortable, even in the misnamed Russian “luxe” or Chinese “soft sleeper”.  The sheets are nailed to plyboard (we ended up buying an inflatable camping mattress because my dad’s back was wrecked by the four nights of the Moscow-Irkutsk stretch), the blankets are covered in stains of indeterminate origin and getting onto the top bunks requires acrobatics.  If the window is closed, it’ll be stuffy and hot inside; if it’s open, every rattle, clank and blast of the horn is amplified and your toes will freeze.   While the Trans-Siberian and most railways in China are continuously welded and thus smooth, the Trans-Mongolian is not, meaning your bedtime lullaby will be a constant clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk.

In addition, border crossings are both interminable and inevitably timed to happen in the middle of night.  It was past midnight when we finally entered Mongolia after two hours of inspections, and while our arrival into China was at 9 PM, we all had to get off the train and wait for 5 hours, until 2 AM, while they swapped the bogies from Russian to Chinese gauge.

Unsurprisingly, you’re likely to wake up groggy and grumpy.  If you’re at your destination already, you’ll be decanted onto the streets and condemned to wander until your hotel opens; if not, you’ll probably catch up by napping in your bunk during the day, throwing your sleep cycle even more out of whack.

So why do it?

Well, that was quite the litany of whinging, why would anybody voluntarily subject themselves to this then?

It’s an opportunity to idle.  There is way more time than there are things to do, so you can read a book, play cards, study the finer points of Russian grammar on Duolingo, or just take a nap — and all the earlier kvetching aside, your train bunk is still more spacious and comfy than even a business class seat on an airplane.

Traveling by train, you get a sense of distance.  I flew Beijing to Irkutsk in 2.5 hours, and saw basically nothing even from the window seat.  Traveling the same route by train took 54 hours, and while I still can’t say I really know what it felt like to cross the Gobi by camel, now at least I have some reference point for the sheer scale of the feat.

But above all, you see a slice of real life.  It’s not always pretty (any train traveler in India will have a hard time unseeing the spectacle of the track sides being used as a public lavatory), but simply put, without taking the train you wouldn’t see ramshackle Siberian dachas, rusting factories around Ulan-Ude, yurt cities around Ulan Bator, ghastly commieblocks around a Mongolian military base in the Gobi desert, Chinese factories spewing grey smoke into the skies of Inner Mongolia, the green hills of Shaanxi, the shaggy yaks wandering around the plateaus of Tibet, the massive scale of construction around Lhasa and more.  This trip wouldn’t have been the same at all without it, and I have zero regrets.

On to Mongolia!

<<< Irkutsk & Lake Baikal | Ulaanbaatar, Gorkhi-Terelj and the Gobi Desert >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by and entertainment consisted of watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike while drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

<<< Preamble & Paperwork | Life on a Train >>>

From Siberia to Tibet: Preamble & Paperwork

IMG_20180708_065136.jpgFor the past 15 years, my father has been talking about traveling “from Hesa [Helsinki] to Lhasa” by train.  This year, we finally did it, and it was enough of an adventure that I’m resurrecting my long-dormant travel blog to tell the tale.  Expect plenty of pictures and less text.

Table of Contents

(actual contents under construction)

Paperwork

Pulling off a trip like this requires quite a bit of preparation, since each of Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet require their own visas or permits, which needs to be applied for in advance…  but not too far in advance, since they have expiry dates!   Most resources about the Trans-Siberian advise people to go via a travel agency to get these, but (excepting Tibet) it’s entirely feasible to do this on your own, so here are some notes for posterity.

Some personal notes, although the details will vary based on your citizenship and where you apply: this is all for an Australian applying in Australia. Also, despite minor differences in the requirements on paper, standard Australian passport photos were fine for all three.

Russia

img_20180517_090142This is the most complicated by a long shot, so get this one first. I applied in person at the Russian consulate in Sydney, using the detailed step-by-step guide here, which was extremely helpful.  The guide, that is; the consulate, on the other hand, felt like a live-action version of Papers Please.   Apply for your visa appointment well in advance, since it may take a few weeks to find a free slot!

On arrival, I was first treated to the sight of an extremely angry businessman chastising a security guard in an ill-fitting green polyester suit on the other side of a locked gate: “You’ve been incredibly rude! I’ll report you to your manager!”  The guard didn’t even roll his eyes, just asked me for my appointment and let me in when I claimed to have one.

At reception, though, another unfortunate soul had made a reservation but had neglected to bring his chit.  Nyet, try again in a few weeks.  The high-tech QR scanner didn’t much like mine either, but it grudgingly accepted the 16-digit code when punched in manually.

The waiting room was plastered with signs strictly forbidding the use of mobile phones, which are rounded ignored by everybody including myself.  When my number came up, I headed to counter 4, whose previous victim was undergoing an interrogation:

– You are attending a conference?
– Yes.
– You cannot use a business visa, you must apply for [inaudible] visa.
– But but…
– Here is form.  Next!

I got to the window.  My friendly greeting was unanswered.  I piled my papers and passport on the counter and careful examination ensued.  Everything was going swimmingly, until…

– Your visa invitation is 1 to 5 July, but your visa application 1 to 8 July.
– Yes, I am traveling out by overnight Trans-Siberian train.
– Why are you going to Irkutsk?
– To see Lake Baikal.
– Hmm.

This was clearly highly suspicious, but the bureaucrat showed grandmotherly kindness and accepted my unworthy application.   Learn from my mistake, use the same dates on your letter of invitation (I used ivisa.ru) and the visa application, and feel free to add plenty of buffer — you’re never asked for an actual hotel reservation.

So now it was time to pay up at counter 6, but the old Chinese lady there was in trouble too.  Neither of her credit cards was accepted, EFTPOS didn’t work either, and rejected receipts were piling up.  The gentleman behind me had prepared the exact amount in cash, which was also unacceptable.  Eventually my turn came and, wonder of wonders, my card worked!  The printer spat out a receipt, Svetlana sliced it in three with a ruler and gave me the smallest piece.

– Come back May 17. No appointment, collect at reception. Next!

I returned as requested, arriving at the consulate when they opened at 9 AM sharp, along with a bunch of other people.  We filed inside, but the “Visa Pick-Up” counter was resolutely closed.  Eventually Feodor arrived, but when somebody had the effrontery to approach the counter, he silently pointed at a small sign saying that Visa Pick-Up is available from 9:30 AM.  So we waited for half an hour under the steely glare of Comrade Putin, and then I finally got my grubby mitts on my shiny new visa.  Victory!

Cost A$135, processing time two weeks plus wait for appointment.

China

img_20180517_095124By comparison, getting the Chinese visa at the fully-outsourced Visa Center in Sydney was a miracle of socialist efficiency with Chinese characteristics.  Appointments are required, but are usually available next day and apparently you could get one on the spot too.  I arrived two minutes before my appointment at 10:00, and my number was called at 10:01.

You will need to fill out your tediously long application online and print it; it’s not an online application!  You will also likely be asked for proof of how you will enter and depart China, so bring along train/flight tickets or reservations.  I also had an itinerary from a tour agency in China, which is not strictly necessary, but it was sufficient to cover all other documentation needs.

Cost A$109.50, processing time four business days.

One catch if you’re also planning to visit Tibet: China won’t grant visas to people who want to go to Tibet unless they already have Tibet Travel Permits (TTP), but you can’t apply for a TTP unless you already have a visa.  The only way around the Catch-22 is to make up an innocuous itinerary that involves panda-watching in Chengdu or something for visa purposes, and then apply for the TTP afterwards.

Mongolia

img_20180524_172646There is no Mongolian consulate in Sydney, so I applied via post at the Mongolian Embassy in Canberra. The documentation and travellers’ reports are not clear on whether you need to include train tickets for a tourist visa, but I called them up and was told that a “tourist agency itinerary” was enough. I sent along my ticket reservation receipts (not an actual ticket) and that was good enough. Also, Russia & China take credit cards but Mongolia insists on a bank cheque, so order that at least a week in advance.  It’s also highly advisable to register your mail both ways, meaning you need to prepare a self-addressed envelope and get the post office to register it before you send off your application.

Cost A$230 (!), processing time 4 days.

Note that transit visas are cheaper (A$150) but have tighter documentation requirements (“Detailed travel program provided by the Tour agency”), so I played it safe.  In retrospect, though, Mongolians don’t seem to be the same kind of sticklers for paperwork as the Russians and the Chinese, so this would probably have been fine.

Tibet

dsc_6014Unless you’re a PRC citizen (including HK/Macau), the only way to visit Tibet is to join an organized tour.  This is expensive, particularly if you do what we did and opt for a custom/private tour, but it’s a pretty routine process and the tour agency handles all the paperwork.  That said, there is a certain element of nail-biting involved, since the permit can only be applied for 20 days before arrival, takes around 8 days to grant, and can be denied for no reason if there’s anything happening in Tibet that China would prefer the rest of the world didn’t hear about…

Before 2008, there were occasional stories of people hitching into Tibet and sneaking around without permits.  As of 2018, I feel confident in saying that you won’t get very far these days: your permit is checked constantly, on average 2-3 times a day, and in places including train stations, airports, road checkpoints, hotels and major tourist attractions like the Potala Palace.

Elapsed time

I started my paperwork on April 21st and received my final visa on May 31st, so around 40 days end to end.  (The Tibet permit can only be applied for 20 days before entry into Tibet, but this is handled by the travel agency anyway.)

If I had been in a hurry, I could have shaved a week off this by booking my Russian visa appt earlier, another week by paying for express processing for Russia & China (not available for Mongolia), and a few days by paying for express mail to/from the Mongolian Embassy.

The journey begins here: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal >>>

 

That is not your name: the Kafkaesque world of Russian Duolingo

In preparation for an upcoming Trans-Siberian journey, I’ve been polishing up my rusty Russian with the help of Duolingo.  Initially, I thought the examples had been written by someone with a sense of absurd humor:

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Although there definitely were Russian touches:

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Soon, however, things started to get not just brusque, but positively grim.

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Very grim: it appears that the author was an orphan.

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An orphan scarred for life by growing up in a Soviet Union of austerity, fighting over scraps of dark Russian bread.

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Soon, though, the dialogue becomes positively Kafkaesque.  Imagine the dank Lubyanka cell where this interrogation took place:

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The pitiless KGB interrogator is not fooled by your pathetic attempts to deny your anti-Soviet agitation.

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You are guilty, and so is your entire family.

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And they have ways to make you talk.

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Nice mother you’ve got there.  Would be a real pity if something happened to her.

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The author knows that the laws of survival in the gulag are simple and harsh.

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Yet like Ivan Denisovich, our hero struggles on, overcoming their sentence in the labor camp one day at a time through sheer strength of will.

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Tales from the Zaibatsu: The Engineer’s Zabuton

IMG_20170207_061514So here’s a thing that actually happened, down to the last detail.  (Almost, anyway; names and locations have been disguised to protect the guilty.)

My friend works at a Japanese megacorp you’ve heard of. Let’s call it Matsumura Fishworks, a subsidiary of Tamaribuchi Heavy Manufacturing Concern.  They’re a very traditional Japanese company, where documents are formatted by aligning cells in Excel and salarymen tote around printouts of their Outlook calendars.

The local branch of Matsumura has a smallish factory supplying widgets for the local region, which they’re planning to expand significantly with an eye on exporting to emerging markets as well. This is a really big deal for Matsumura and the planning for new factory has been going on for a good long time, with hundreds of people involved and dozens of new staff hired, but everything’s sorted, leases are signed and construction work is about to start.

Before that, though, Matsumura decided to go on a factory tour at one of their main suppliers, who are located in a Southeast Asian country. This involved sending a delegation composed of a bunch of people from the local branch, including my friend, and another bunch of people from Matsumura HQ, all spending around two days on a plane so they can spend a day and a half at the supplier.

BibAlex_ReadingRoom_LargeWhy only a day and a half? Well, turns out this SE Asian country is Islamic and they scheduled the visit during Ramadan, the fasting month, when the Muslim locals wake up super early to eat before dawn, go to work, get increasingly hungry and grumpy, and knock off around 1 PM to go home and nap until the sun sets and they can eat again. What’s more, they decided to visit on the last two days of Ramadan, right before the start of Eid al-Fitr, when as few people as possible come to work and roads and airports are a swirling maelstrom of chaos since everybody is going back to their home towns. (For comparison, imagine visiting a US supplier on Christmas Eve or arranging to end a business trip on Thanksgiving.)

Fortunately, they found a good way to make use of the free afternoons when the supplier’s office was closed: have meetings between the Matsumura employees only.  Score one for Japanese efficiency!

IMG_20170119_120452But I digress.  Returning to the main story, why does it take two days to get from Japan to SE Asia and back?  Well, it doesn’t, and in fact there are even direct flights from Tokyo to the supplier’s city.  However, Matsumura corporate policy says only flights by Preferred Airline may be used, even when they take twice as long and cost three times as much, as they did in this case.  So everybody flew down to Singapore, did their duty free shopping and sat around in Changi Airport for a couple of hours, and then caught a connecting codeshare flight to their actual destination.

You know what happens when you change planes? Your bags change planes too, or every now and then, they don’t quite make it and get lost.  My friend, who’s pretty hip with this business travel thing, knew this and was smart enough to take only a carry-on bag. However, most of the Matsumura ossan didn’t get the memo and so, of the ten or so people who flew in, two lost their bags.

One bag disappeared completely: there’s no trace of it after Singapore. This bag’s owner is happy, since there was nothing valuable in there except his corporate laptop, which was a old piece of junk, and now he has the perfect excuse to expense a new one. Yatta!

A second bag also didn’t show up. Enquiries were made, and the airline confessed that the bag got loaded onto the wrong plane at Singapore and was sent to Shanghai instead.  Oops.  Good news is, they found the bag in Shanghai and loaded it onto another plane going to its intended destination.  But because the Matsumura crew was on the ground for only two days, the bag didn’t make it back in time before they left…  and at time of writing, they’re still looking for it.

IMG_20170209_203845This bag’s owner is not happy, and in fact the entire Matsumura branch office is now in a bit of a tizzy.  Turns out this was not any old bag, but the suitcase of the Chief Engineer.  In the suitcase was a laptop, and in the laptop were the complete plans of the new widget they’re going to build in the new factory.

“Oh dear”, I told my friend. “You must be worried about the plans falling into the wrong hands and the Chinese cloning up some cutting-edge Matsumura widgets in Shenzhen?”

Well, actually, no, that’s not the primary concern.  The main problem is that Chief Engineer was the only person authorized to have a copy of the plans, and the master copy, meaning the only copy of the Chief Engineer’s work for the past year, was on that laptop.

“So you’re telling me there was no backup? Nothing in the office or the cloud?”

IMG_20170207_171508Well, as a matter of fact, there was a backup.  Every day, the Chief Engineer would faithfully copy the day’s changes onto a USB stick, just in case something happened to the laptop.  Can’t trust them ‘puters, you know.

“That’s good. Or… did something happen to the USB key?”

As a matter of fact, something did. More specifically, Chief Engineer brought the USB key along on the same trip, and packed it in the same suitcase as the laptop.  So now they have both gone missing.

And because Matsumura doesn’t have the plans, they can’t build the new widget, and the entire factory expansion has been put on hold until the runway bag can be located and brought back to its rightful owner.

“Huh. That’s pretty crazy. Why did Chief Engineer check in his laptop in the first place? Shouldn’t he have brought it in as carry-on luggage?”

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Well, yes, and as it happens his carry-on luggage was a nice little satchel just big enough for his laptop. But unfortunately Chief Engineer had to take out his laptop and check it in, because he had to carry on something more important, something that simply couldn’t be checked in…

His ergonomically molded, high-tech, ¥10,000 Tabi-Zabu™ butt cushion.

But not to worry!  Matsumura has found a way. The Chief Engineer, distrustful of all this newfangled IT stuff, made regular paper printouts of the plans, as did the Test Engineer and everybody else who worked with him on this.  So now all those people hired for the new factory, including my friend, have been roped into helping reconstruct the product plans.  Page by printed page, character by typed character.

Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Jaan, Singapore

A friend of mine recently came into possession of a stack of CapitaLand vouchers, and while looking for a place to dispose of them, we realized that the entire Equinox complex perched atop the Swissotel Stamford — not long ago the world’s tallest hotel — accepts them.  What better excuse for a birthday splurge at my near-namesake, the newly renovated Jaan?

Making reservations at Jaan is hard, not because it’s so popular, but because you have to go through the Swissotel’s centralized system and they usually just refuse to answer the phone.  But reserve we did, and I asked if I could bring along a nice bottle of Lebanese wine…  to which I was told that yes, certainly, but a token corkage fee of S$100 (about 5x the cost of the bottle) would be charged.   Yowza!  Scratch that then.

We showed up at 7 PM, along with two other groups of customers, only to find the entrance to the restaurant closed.   After five minutes of drumming our fingers and collectively wondering if we were in the right place, somebody finally showed up and let us in; not, perhaps, the best way to treat your customers.  The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows on the 70th floor is impressive, although I was mildly disappointed to find us facing towards the endless housing block jumble of eastern Singapore, instead of the rather more dramatic Singapore River, banking district and Chinatown area.

Jaan offers 5/8 course tasting/degustation menus for $180/250 (plus around $100 extra for wine pairings), but we decided to go for a la carte.  The a la carte menu was fairly stripped down: half a dozen appetizers, three Poissons et crustaces, three Viandes, and half a dozen desserts, all listed in French and English.

Amuse-bouche

Prawn and mango ceviche with kaffir lime froth, served in a shot glass.  This was just terrible, a pretentious attempt at fusion that didn’t work on any level at all.

Super-skinny breadsticks (crostini?) with squid ink-parmesan puree and butter.  A work of art in appearance — if not for the waitress’s explanation, I would’ve thought what appeared like a bunch of twigs in a glass was a table decoration — and very tasty too, especially the subtle sea flavors of the squid ink dip.

Appetizer

His: Tartar of Hokkaido sea scallop with dabs of oscietra caviar and a spray of random vegetables ($68).  The one whole grilled scallop was mindblowingly tasty; the tartar paste was just generically fishy (and I usually love raw scallop).  The grudgingly dribbled caviar came atop halves of baby potatoes, and the veggie side dishes included artichoke, asparagus and peas, carefully boiled and laid out into a strip not unlike a Japanese garden.  A little uneven, but pretty good.

Hers: Foie gras ice cream (!) and a layeed foie gras pastry of sorts ($5x?).  This was really, really good, especially the pastry-thing: the pureed foie gras with a little crunch from the pastry with a little sweetness and spice from the sauce just hit all the right spots, and while the idea of mixing goose liver and ice cream sounds pretty disgusting, it worked quite nicely.  Best dish of the evening.

Main course

His: “Duo of Pigeon”, two halves grilled in red-wine-type sauce, plus a miniature salad with two pigeon legs served cold in a mild Chinese-style sauce and pats of apple-ginger(?) compote ($68).  The grilled pigeon was quite OK, if no match for the duck at Kafe Warisan; the teeny tiny little legs were very tasty, but, well, teeny tiny.  In all, competent but unextraordinary.

Hers: Pumpkin soup ravioli with popcorn and black cod a la plancha with bacon bits ($5x?).  Yes, bacon bits, and intensely salty ones at that, which pretty much obliterated any taste the cod (already plenty salty in itself) might have had.  I snagged one of the raviolis and kind of liked the intense sweet soup within, but she didn’t, at all.  Quite disappointing.

Dessert

I was somewhat intrigued by the offering of le bar “Snickers” with ice cream ($20), but in the end, we just shared some chocolate mousse with white chocolate vodka sorbet ($22).  The sorbet was quite good, although the vodka was hardly noticeable, but only a single spoonful was served and it melted pretty much immediately.  The mousse came wrapped in a unidentifiable and quite tasteless red jelly wrapper and was quite dense, so much so that it was hardly a mousse anymore, but hey, it was chocolatey.

And finally, the house plied us with little violet-colored lavender pastries (very sweet: I liked ’em, she didn’t), orange peel dipped in chocolate (usually a favorite of mine, but these were kind of blah), and a miniature Madeleine-type pastry flavored with almond (?), all served on a metal plate engraved with “Jaan by Andre”. Ooh.

Drinks

Jaan has an extensive wine menu, spanning the globe (albeit with an emphasis on French) and the gamut from $90 to $17,000 bottles (a Chateau Margaux), but they do not offer wine by the glass.  We (fine, she) opted for a Beni di Batasiolo Barbaresco 2003 ($160), which was a very good choice: a very light and drinkable red, which paired quite nicely with the fish dishes as well.

My eyeballs were set rolling, though, by their other drink menu: this is the first time I’ve seen a water menu in a restaurant, offering everything from artisanal Welsh well waters to bottles from Japanese mountain springs, all (needless to say) at ridiculous prices, some north of $20 for a 0.5L bottle.  Our pick of a very lightly carbonated Saint-Géron ($12.50/750mL) was OK — at least it’s better than Evian.

Overall

The damage done came to just over $500, easily my most expensive dinner in Singapore (or, on second thought, anywhere), and we didn’t even order from the expensive end of the menu, which had things like Kobe beef steak for $125.  The service was very good, the views were nice, the setting was OK, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at these prices, the food was a bit of a letdown.  I doubt I’ll be back.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait International Airport

Kuwait, the airport, is just weird. Entry into the terminal is through a bizarre scrum of four gates leading to different check-in areas for different airlines, with cars honking at each other outside and a constant flow of passengers, trolleys and porters trying to squeeze through both in and out. If going to Zones 2 or 3, you first have to trudge through an honest-to-Allah multilevel shopping mall, complete with Debenhams department store and Harley-Davidson outlet; on the other side, finally, lies Check-In Zone 3 for local LCC Jazeera (crammed full of pax) and Qatar (almost queueless). After a brief scare of demanding proof of my Singapore residency, successfully bluffed by flashing my Access Card (which is no such thing, but has enough state seals, embedded photos and IC contacts to make it look terribly convincing), I was checked in and could start wondering how I’d spend the next two hours.

The inside of the airport is old-fashioned but well-maintained. The gates go from number 1 to number 26, which might make you think KWI is pretty big, but unfortunately everything between 7 and 20 appears to be missing. There’s a boozeless but nonetheless amazingly popular dutyfree (why, I know not; an iPod Shuffle 1GB costs nearly twice what it does in Singapore), a McD’s/Pizza Hut, a Costa Coffee, and that was it. Except for a Ghiraoui chocolate boutique, which I inspected in detail, playing a fun game of “spot the chocolate” by comparing the unlabeled pralines with an illustrated brochure, and eventually handing over my last five dinars to the equally bored (but rather cute) Filipina salesgirl in exchange for rather more than 5 KD worth of chocolate.

On the way in it was the ammo boxes, on the way out it was the soldiers: none in full uniform, mind you, but those GI Joe haircuts, desert camo everything and combat boots are a bit of a giveaway. Even some of the Filipina ladies were toting about “US Army Reserve”-branded bags.

And that was that. Boarding was ordered, we were marched into the airline by tube (no buses here), and the Kuwait Towers loomed on the horizon as we did a few turns and then set off to Doha and home.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Kuwait City

Kuwait was rather more fun than I expected. My arrival wasn’t particularly propitious: it took me over an hour to get my on-arrival visa, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the hotel, the city was wreathed in a persistent slow-motion sandstorm for the first three days, filling the air and even the swimming pool with dust, and at work half the hardware on site was missing and the customer’s idea of reasonable timelines was rather different from ours. But the Courtyard Kuwait City is a mind-bogglingly amazing hotel for a Courtyard, our partner’s technical people were actually competent (such a refreshing change from the usual), and Kuwait had one immense advantage over my previous work site: it’s not Saudi Arabia.

It only slowly sunk into me how different these two “conservative Islamic” countries are. Yes, both ban alcohol and pork and like to execute drug smugglers… but that’s about it, as in almost all other things, Kuwait is infinitely more laissez-faire than the Saudis. Women can, and do, wear pretty much what they want, with a remarkable array of head-turners at the (ultra-expensive) Arraya Centre mall next to the hotel and some even lounging about in bikinis at the hotel pool. Music in public is allowed, which — even subconsciously — just makes a huge difference to how lively a restaurant or shop feels. And while prayer calls were piped into shopping malls and echoed along the streets, nobody cared if you trotted off into the mosque or not. Saudi papers, and streets, and TV shows, are full of effusive paeans to the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques HH King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the vast tentacular branches of the al-Sauds; Kuwaiti papers, on the other hand, are full of Parliament debates, squabbles between voting blocks, elections, demonstrations and all the noisy trappings of a democracy; while Kuwait certainly isn’t a real one, it certainly feels like one, and even the occasional paeans to the wisdom and sagacity of HH the Amir were usually tucked away on page C17.

Above all, though, the best thing about Kuwait is just that you could feel at ease: in Saudi, you’re always a little on edge, not even because of the ethereal threat of terrorism but just always being a little unsure if you’re staying within the tightly prescribed boundaries of Allowed behavior…

The downside to visiting Kuwait in late June, though, is the heat. After the dust storm and its momentary (comparative) coolness wore off, the mercury crept closer and closer to 50 degrees, making the daytime feel literally — not figuratively, literally — like a sauna. Metaphoric saunas are usually associated with humidity, but no, the real thing is actually quite dry, and that’s how it’s in Kuwait too: you can walk outside for a few minutes, thinking “gee, now that’s hot”, before you start to sweat. But the evenings were quite tolerable, and even the daytime furnace heat was almost enjoyable if spent at the Courtyard’s breezy rooftop pool, which by afternoon had heated to the point that the jacuzzi next to it was usually cooler.

A Querulous QR Quest to Q8: Doha to Kuwait

QR132 KWI-DOH Y A321 seat 14F
QR137 DOH-KWI Y A320 seat 18ANear-identical planes, identical service. On the tarmac in DOH before boarding, we stood in the bus and watched box after identical box of what was most probably ammunition for the war in Iraq, all marked with orange “EXPLOSIVE” diamonds, being loaded into the belly of the plane. Eek?The A321 had the same seats as the A330, minus the AVOD (and hence no more metal box stealing half your foot space, yay!), while the A320’s styling was more old-fashioned — I thought I was on a B737 at first — but no different in seat pitch or any other amenities.

The hop from Doha to Kuwait or v.v. is only just over an hour, so inflight entertainment consisted of exactly the same Tom & Jerry cartoons both ways. We were served a “refreshment” consisting of a small sandwich, cookies, a miniature Bounty chocolate bar and tea/coffee/juice/water.

Probably the most memorable thing about the second flight was my seatmate Handy Assmat(*), who showed up wearing a pink polo shirt, shorts, flip-flops and carry-on consisting in toto of a tiny Swarowski gift bag and a mobile phone. Fashion faux pas aside, this alone wasn’t enough to qualify for being an Assmat — in fact, I was initially mildly jealous of such fearsome packing-fu and Zen-like disregard for material things — but he soon started chomping away at those dingleberries: first a loud phone conversation informing not only his girlfriend but everybody in the vicinity that he was only in eco because first class was full (which it wasn’t, I might add), and then he proceeded to delete messages from his phone, one by one, throughout the entire flight, taxi, takeoff, and landing. Clickety clickety clickety. And none of the cabin crew, who passed by half a dozen times and clearly saw it, said a thing. (Was it in flight mode? I’m not sure, but how would the flight crew know?) I was even more surprised to see him board the same connecting flight to Singapore… but once on board I never saw him again. Good riddance.

(*) A guy by this name is actually the manager of a Chili’s in Kuwait, and his first name is correctly spelled Hamdy, but it seemed rather more appropriate this way.