As I’ve done a few times on our trip, I’d like to get a little geeky and provide our experiences with mobile networks, Internet access and mobile blogging across regions of the world. We try to buy a local SIM card and experiment with the local networks via prepaid mobile phone plans, when reasonable. I cannot vouch for the completeness or accuracy of this information – it changes quickly and my perspective is one of a traveler.
We moved quickly on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so it didn’t make sense for us to get a SIM card that may only works for a few days.
Internet: Wifi access is growing quickly in the major cities we visited, with access being very common
Mobile: If there is anywhere a mobile device should work, it is
Internet Access: We found free wi-fi to be quite easy to find in cities like
Mobile: We entered
We bought a Vodafone prepaid SIM card in
Within a couple of days, we had both GSM and GPRS working on the phone. Then, we left
Then lesson here is to watch out for roaming charges within
Internet: In most of
A final note: A gadget that would be amazing to have while traveling is a wifi detector so that you could be walking through a
In general, across all 29 countries we visited (except
I wrote this entry in September of 2006 from Helsinki, Finland just after arriving there from the Trans-Siberian Railway and a month in China. For a while I was consumed by learning about Communism and needed to get it on paper, so to speak.
This post is a bit of a departure from the usual travel topics and I hope you’ll pardon its serious and dark nature. Having been to
I figure that the root of my fascination is related to the fact that so many smart people believed in it so fervently and killed so many in an attempt to make it work – and the work continues to this day. To me as an American entrepreneur, Communism is endlessly fascinating because it diverges so greatly from my world view. The more I learn about it, the more baffled I become that so many could believe that it is a perfectly reasonable way to run a country.
I started the trip knowing very little about the Communist ideology, Marxism, Leninism or the history of the peoples’ revolution. After reading a number of books, visiting museums, etc., I think I have a handle on some of the basics. To test myself, I’d like to try to describe my layman's version for you as briefly and simply as possible.
Karl Marx was known as the father of Communism and the author of the Communist Manifesto – the first declaration of his theory in late 19th century. To Marx, capitalism (free markets, supply and demand, etc.) was evil and would eventually cause great misery to the people of the world. His goal was to stop it.
To understand why he thought this, we must consider the lives of workers in the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. At the time he saw a world where people were either rich owners or exploited and unhappy workers. Marx saw this as a great injustice that was getting worse through the growth of Capitalism. He foresaw a future where Capitalism would create a small handful of rich people and a world of miserable people that would get more miserable over time. This would even be extended to a worldwide scale with the world eventually being run by a few rich industrialists. This was what some called Imperialism and it was the end game of Capitalism.
Marx was successful in convincing a lot of very smart and powerful people that his was the true vision of the world and his Communist ideology its savior. He promoted the idea that the true power of a civilization lies within the working class and if properly motivated, the working class can rise up in revolution against the rich land owners. This was revolution and it was the first stage of building a Communist system which would be fair to everyone – a single class society that worked to provide what it needed for the whole society. The government owned everything and everyone worked toward a common goal of self-sufficiency. In fact, according to the theory, there would be no need for government in the future – it would “whither away” as the Communist utopia was achieved. Everyone would be well fed, protected and happy as they worked together as one.
Of course, history shows that this is not the case. Two contributing factors:
- Marx got it wrong. He did not predict the rapid rise of the middle class. Before he died, he saw Capitalism creating opportunities for a new class that were neither the rich owner nor the exploited worker.
- Marxism was just a theory: It described how things should work and what should happen, but it never described *how* Communism or revolution should actually be managed. It was a theory with no doctrine.
Of course in the 20th century there would be no shortage of world leaders to test the Marxist theory in the form of prompting a revolution and establishing a Communist government – supposedly freeing the working classes from Capitalist oppression.
The first serious revolutionary was Lenin in
What has happened since then is the subject of great debate. Most would agree that if there is a winner in the Cold War, it is Capitalism. Many questions remain about what went wrong with Communism. I’ll let you research the myriad perspectives on what happened and leave you with my own admittedly half-baked answer.
I think there are two main reasons Communism failed. The first is human nature. Communism underestimated the human need for achievement, competition and recognition. Making everyone the same reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator and bred more misery and frustration than it prevented. The second reason is leadership. Have you ever heard of the founder of a company having to hire a CEO? It happens often because the people that start things are not often the best people to manage them. Revolutionaries are great at revolution, but can be poor at administration and management. The history of Communism is rife with stories of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot making ludicrous decisions that caused the deaths of millions of their people. They grew omnipotent through revolution but lacked the skills to use that power in any responsible manner.
My guess is that human history will show Communism as a destructive and deadly force in the world, not because of the idea or theory, but its implementation. It enabled the centralization of absolute power that bred mass corruption and quickly became unmanageable. To give you an idea of the level of destruction, consider the number of deaths in these countries in the Communist era:
and Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s) - 30 million dead from starvation China and Pol Pot’s Communist Revolution (1970’s) 7 million dead from starvation and executions (1 in 7 Cambodians) Cambodia and Stalin’s Iron Rule (1920-50s) – 40 million dead from starvation and executions Russia
… and this is not counting the unquantifiable misery wrought on families and individuals in these countries as secret police, hidden agendas and propaganda were a fact of life.
Could a system of government that produced numbers like this be considered a positive force in the world? I think not. Yet, the Communist Party is still a major player in world politics. In
Maybe the real root of my fascination with Communism is related to how it helps me to understand all the things I take for granted. The more I learn, the more I wonder what my life would be like if I was a child of Communism. With an entrepreneurial American worldview, I find it nearly unfathomable.
On a personal level, we have met wonderful people in
The Russian Customer Service Handbook
As a person who is about to enter the customer service industry in
- Under no circumstances should you smile or laugh.
- When someone approaches you seeking help, feel free to ignore them for as long as possible. Finish what you are doing first and quickly look for other items to make you appear busy.
- If they speak a language you don't understand, the most effective response is to roll your eyes and sigh while turning away.
- Do not greet a customer or recognize their presence until they demand your attention.
- A cold scowl is the standard facial expression- use it effectively.
- When a transaction is complete, slide the money to the customer and walk away. "thank-yous" are not recommended.
- As you are completing a transaction, ask yourself "Am I being as efficient as possible?" If so, slow down or stop completely. Efficiency only matters to the customer.
- If your friend calls your mobile phone while you work, by all means answer it and do your best to complete the transaction while talking.
- Eye contact should only happen by accident. Try your best to make the customer feel as if they are inhuman, like a robot.
- Remember that foreigners are a nuisance and should be treated as such. They deserve no special treatment whatsoever.
- Because foreigners have not taken the time to learn the Russian language, their method of pointing and gesturing to communicate should be viewed with contempt. Remember: ROLL THE EYES - it is the perfect response.
- Foreigners do not understand how to deal with money and never provide exact change. When this happens, raise your voice a bit and hope that someone else can translate.
- If a foreigner cannot provide exact change, snatch the money from their hand with an aggressive motion. After you've gone to all the trouble to make change, slap it onto the counter forcefully and walk away. Perhaps, over time, they will understand.
If you should have any questions or concerns about this handbook, please don't contact me.
~Your Russian Customer Service Manager
It’s quite apparent that the Russians have mixed feelings about
Of course we had friends in the city that showed us around their neighborhoods and homes, which was a perfect introduction to the city. The warmth of the personal connection with people in
Suddenly I found myself in center of the former Communist stronghold, surrounded by reminders of the Bolshevik Revolution, the
And it is beautiful. Tiananmen has nothing on
It is said that
One of the important things that travelers must remember in
On the other side of the coin, the personal experiences we had with random Muscovites were more positive. While looking at a map on a street corner one night (the “tourist distress call”) a friendly young woman pointed us in the right direction. It seems that in general, the young people represent a new generation of Muscovites who are more likely to smile, provide great service and welcome foreigners. I would love to come back to
Phew! The Trans-Siberian Railway trip is officially over - we arrived in hip and modern Helsinki, Finland yesterday. Despite all the writing and videos on the train, we've fallen a bit behind - and we haven't even talked about Moscow and St. Petersburg.
We'll say more soon, but we both want to say a BIG thanks to Lilia, her sister Diana, and her friend Olga for showing us their Moscow. Lilia is from Moscow but lives in Holland and recently did an internship at Microsoft in Seattle, where we got to be better friends. We can't say enough about the generosity and hospitality of our Muscovite friends.
This is Sachi and Lilia over the Moscow River:
This is Olga with Matt (a fellow American traveler) and Sachi in Moscow.
And how can we forget Kuzya,the resident parrot, who can be bribed into speaking a few words for a pomegranate seed.
From the moment we arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia, I had the song "The Cold Part" by Modest Mouse playing in my head, which is a dark and desolate song that sings "so long to this cold, cold part of the world". I don't think the city is as cold and dark as I chose to display in the video, but I do think the video fits with the soundtrack that was playing in my head at the time.
The scenes at the end are from our homestay in Yaketerinburg. We stayed with a local named Eleana for two nights in former Communist housing blocks. She was nice, but was caring for a friend who was sick at the time and we have both become ill after staying with her. The housing was warm on the inside, scary on the outside.
Yakaterinburg is famous for the deaths of the last czarist family in Russia, the Romanovs, who were killed in a cellar in the city by the Communist Revolutionaries as a symbol of the end of their imperial rule. A sad and controversial story.
Yekaterineburg is at the imaginary border between Asia (and Siberia) and Europe, so the song even fit as we left...
so long to this cold, cold part of the world
It is a Trans-Siberian right of passage - drinking vodka with Russians on a train in the middle of Siberia. This video shares a few of the moments I'll never forget and a few that I can't really remember.
Read the story from this night
Given the opportunity, we will choose to hang out with the locals and in nearly every instance. The vast majority of the time, it has been a rewarding and interesting experience. However, on the Trans-Siberian Railway we’ve learned that there are Russian locals that you don’t necessarily want to “experience” for 2 days on a train.
Peer pressure is an issue on the Trans-Siberian train with consistent reminders from other travelers that this is the “vodka train” and you must drink Russian vodka. This pressure is lost on the Russian locals though as they need no pressure whatsoever to drink on a train. It is a requirement for them and when mixing with foreign travelers the requirement is shared by all.
So we found ourselves in the dining car on the second night of a 48 hour journey from Irkustk to Ekaterineburg.
Between Slava, the gigantic ex-Russian Army captain with bullet wounds and Victor, the pudgy Belushi-esque ex-Mafia family man, we had our hands full. While our English friend Paul was busy being pressured by Slava into drinking more vodka than he wanted, I got a dose of vodka with Victor and his fellow Russian friends, who seemed to be complete blockheads. We drank more, became friends, toasted to health, arm wrestled and looking back I can say that I have never witnessed so many scars on so many people. I think these guys have had a hard life.
For some reason I accepted Victor’s invitation for me and Sachi to come to his room and drink more vodka. Not only did this end up with me losing a few hours of memory, but it caused Sachi to end up babysitting Victor’s Coke-spewing 4 year old child “Sergei” for over an hour. She was not happy and I had no idea why. What I did remember was Victor telling me at some point in the night that the wolf tattoo on his arm was from his 3 year prison term. Apparently had “only killed one person” while in the Russian mafia. Had I had my wits about me, I may have escaped at that point, but I didn’t.
The next day I awoke to a hangover, an upset wife and a half-drunk Russian ex-con banging on the door at with a 2 liter beer in his hand. We were still friends and he was clearly doing me a favor by bring over the beer. He started with the old Russian saying “A good friend drinks vodka with you yesterday, a great friend drinks vodka with you today!” as if I might appreciate the classical nature of the moment. I would have none of it, despite him barging in, pouring a glass, spilling it on the floor and insisting I drink no less than 15 times. Of course Sachi was now noticing that she would now clean up after both father and son in our compartment. I was at a loss for more ways to say “nyet” – nothing seemed to work. Sachi would later say that when he came in she wanted to kick him in the face. Of course, I was implicit in this frustration.
Later Victor hooked back up with the Blockheads and they formed a roaming band of drunk-in-the-morning Russian annoyances. They went from one end of the train to the other, peer-pressuring everyone from the night before to drink with them. One of them even forced his way into the compartment of understandably shaken American and Canadian girls. He would later be quite accurately called a stalker.
This band of drunks eventually caused the revelers from the night before to close their doors and hide out for the majority of the morning. Many, including Sachi and I ignored knocks at our doors. The foreigners on the train tried to memorize compartment numbers so we could visit one another without keeping a door open. There was talk of passwords being used. We were held hostage by the locals.
By about the drunk Russians had passed out – we could hear Victor snoring through the compartment walls and from that point the foreigners on the train began to appear like refugees after a bombing campaign. Shaken, annoyed and hungover, we stuck together and decided that drinking with the locals is fun, but sharing 2 days on a train with the same people is another story all together.
Watch the Video Here.
We were greeted in the "Siberian Capital" of
For the first time since visiting small villages in
The town on the South Eastern shores of
The homes themselves are remarkably similar, with dark wood and ubiquitous, but unique window dressings called Siberian Lace. The Siberians believe in spirits who are able to enter homes through windows and the windows are designed to prevent the spirits from entering. The windows are colorful works of art that beg for photos and appear too good to be true. If they were plucked from this Siberian location and appeared in a city, you could imagine flag-bearing tour groups ooohing and aaahing at the traditional designs. Yet, here they are surrounded by gardens, livestock and splashed mud. These windows are an example of the reality of travel that I long to experience.
Another Siberian experience is the use of a “banya” or sauna. The tradition works like this… The banya is prepared by building a fire in a furnace-like compartment of a small wooden structure. The fire heats water that is used for bathing and the “sweat room” where you sit naked and relax. I have decidedly mix reactions to the sweat room. I don’t like heat and I already sweated enough for 5 years in
Bolshoe Goloustnoe, more than any other village we’ve visited on the whole trip, seemed to take us back in time. Here are a few examples.
- The toilets are located outdoors and over a deep pit in the earth near the garden. When it fills up, they cover it and dig another hole. Yes, despite pulling fresh, clean water from an aquifer that is associated with the lake, the homes in the village do not have running water.
- Only a few weeks ago mobile phone service arrived in the village. Prior to that, the only phone in the village existed in the Post Office and even it was often in disrepair.
- The village does not have Internet access.
- The villagers are very curious about foreigners, described as a look at someone from another world.
- Few vehicles exist in the village and some of the old-timers have never left the village in their lives.
- Many of the farmers in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are subsistence farmers, growing food to eat rather than sell.
- The village lacks tourist infrastructure – no restaurants or souvenir shops.
I didn’t realize it until we arrived, but
We didn’t expect it, but Bolshoe Goloustnoe and
To look at Lake Baikal doesn't do it justice - it is just a big lake in a beautiful and peaceful setting. Only by learning a little about it can you appreciate what a special place on the Earth it really is. You can learn more via Wikipedia too.
Music: Yo La Tengo - You Can Have It All