I lost my camera.
This sucks balls.
skorea » 2008 » February
I lost my camera.
This sucks balls.
Yesterday I flew over Kamchatka’s volcanoes, without ever having flown onto them – as I had hoped to do, planned to do, and bragged that I would do.
It is tempting to get angry with myself for this. In the clarity of retrospection, it is easy to criticize myself for not doing the research to find ways to contact the tour companies, to find out first hand that not a one of them will put on a trip in mid-February. Dasha even warned me, back in Dalian.
Going to Kamchatka was a long journey, and the trip an expensive one, even without paying for hotels or the costs of a day of heliboarding. Food and drink were pricey (except for the sweet nectar of locally brewed beer, bottled on demand, and all the fish jumpingout of the water).
Getting my board retuned after my run-in with volcanic shrapnel was not cheap (although Maxim at the Kuba boardshop is a right P-tex magician and deserved every ruble fair enough).
Flying there and back was more than US$600 on Siberian air’s “Polly class” (an unfortunate name for their economy rates, but I guess they didn’t read the US papers back then).
And I never went heliboarding.
Yet I’m not angry with myself, nor at all regretful that I went. Regretful, yes, that I did not better anticipate the difficulty of just showing up and hoping to arrange everything ad hoc. But if it was known for sure that we’d need to go in mid-March at the earliest, I know Harold would not have been able to join me, and I’m not so sure I would have bothered myself. March would be fitting far less well into my plans of going home for winter and then back to China, via Korea, before too long. It is all for the best, then, that I was lured by heliboarding. For, otherwise, I very likely would have passed up an oppurtunity to visit such a distant and unique place. I’ve never been anywhere that I did not notice one single foreigner (Harold and Ukranians not withstanding). I would never have met what has been the most generous and welcoming local population of any place I’ve ever traveled, defeating Mexico and even Brazil, I feel it fair to say.
Maybe I will never manage to helicopter onto one of its volcanoes, but I’ve now discovered one of a very few rare places that are stupidly far from home but to which I’m certain I will someday return.
* * *
The roads of Kamchatka are only paved in and near the capital, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, and this time of year, paved or unpaved, all covered in snow and ice. The locals don’t seem to mind, driving their Japanese, right-hand drive cars as if snow was rubber and ice glue. Only the government, out of stubborn patriotism, drives Russian-made vehicles. For everyone else it’s worth it to pay the up-to $5000 extra in import duties and shipping costs to buy Japanese cars. Many of these are so small I would have previously thought them entirely unsuited for the snow, yet they defy at every turn everything I thought I knew about the laws of physics and the force of friction. (“vectors! break for the vectors! I duwanna die!”) The public buses are all Korean; Russia drives on the right side of the road (when it bothers to pick a side at all) and it wouldn’t do to have people walking into the middle of the icy street to board Japanese ones. Unlike colorful Central American reincarnations of American school buses no one other than the weather bothers to repaint Kamchatka’s second-hand Korean buses. Destinations never to be reached again are still written on the sides, secret to all but me. Ads for Busan beauty academies and faded instructions on how to use those newfangled RFID transit cards gave me something better to look at than fogged up windows and darkly-dressed, unsmiling Russian commuters, while I clutched my snowboard and felt out-of-place.
It was only four snow-cavelike bus stops to Krasnaya Sopka, the Red Hill, from Julia’s apartment. There are no chair lifts in Kamchatka, but around Petropavlosk are several decent hills with old, slow, Czechoslovakian-made rope tows. You can’t buy day passes, instead it’s $1.65 per ticket and it’s one ticket, one ride. Our first day at Krasnaya the manager, once he came back from lunch, turned on the lift just for me, Harold, and one middle-aged woman from Moscow.
At Moraznaya, the biggest ski hill, outside of the town of Yelizovo, about 40km from Petropavlosk, some enterprising lifties had forgotten to tear some of the collected tickets, and through a friend, were so kind as to give us 25% off. Just my little contribution to rewarding Russian entrepreneurialism and, in reducing the need to print new tickets, saving Kamchatka’s fragile environment. Moraznaya was bigger but icy, and Krasnaya was small but had good snow. I didn’t try any of the other ski hills, but despite their modest size and thigh-jarring Czechoslovakian rope tows, still good fun and not worth the long trip at all.
The people and the uniqueness are worth the trip, and along with those elusive powder bowl volcano peaks, certainly worth another …but maybe at the right time of year next time.
I have never raped a snowboard quite like this before.
Looking back, it does make sense that the amount of force on my board would be much higher while riding uphill. It also makes sense that riding uphill over sharp exogenous volcanic shrapnel with such increased force could violate an intense new topography into the base of my board. I should have considered some basic physics upon realizing that I wasn’t going to make it onto the thin strip of snow between the rocks. I should have used those 35 milliseconds to calculate that those little rocks – rocks that might not be such a problem on the way down – could be a big problem on the way up. Just consider, for a moment, the vectors. On the way down there is the vector pointing down created by gravity, and the vector pointing out, away from the volcano, created by sliding across the slope of said volcano. There are of course also some vectors of the frictions of the snow, the resistence of the air, photons bouncing off my goggles, the rotation of the Earth, and the pull of all that dark matter that I don’t believe in. But nevermind those. Mind, instead, the vectors involved with being pulled up the volcano by an accelerating snowmobile. There is again the vector of gravity, but this time it is being more than canceled out by the
four-stroke two-stroke Yamaha snowmobile ahead of and above me. Let’s say the rope with a seven-inch stick tied to the end, to which I’m gripping for dear life, is at a 25 degree angle. Now tighten that rope across the hypotenuse of the right triangle in your mind and pretend for a moment that I know what I’m talking about. The base of that right triangle ought to be some sort of vector, pointing into the volcano, translating into some serious gouging power should we start dividing volcanic debris into our equations. And, of course, some very tired forearms.
Lack of foresight in not letting go and just walking over the rocks aside, getting pulled behind a snowmobile waterskistyle is not my preferred method of getting up Russian volcanoes. I want a helicopter, of course. So far, however, arranging one has been surprisingly difficult – especially considering my willingness to pay. We had a good storm the second and third days here, depositing about a foot of snow. But, since then the weather’s been great. Clear skies, not too windy, and at the coldest maybe in the upper ‘teens (for my imperially-challenged readers, let’s just say that you’d be okay with a centimeter or two of insulation, though your deciliters would freeze in a cool metric minute).
February, I’ve been told, is usually however the snowiest month, and most operators don’t plan trips until March. So if we are to fly it would most likely be in a small helicopter arranged privately and paid for proportionately.
In the meantime, alternate belt-based ground transport has been the name of the game. On Sunday, being that there was large enough group, this meant a funky old, crawlingly slow but better than walking Chinese-made snowcat. This being more reasonably-priced than heliboarding, Harold and I split the cost to pay for our gracious host Julia’s way as well – her first time riding on the volcano.
She, her friend Nadia, and the ten-or-so other locals who had been up there since Saturday all had to go back Sunday night, job-having suckas. This left a large cabin at the base of the volcano, as well as piles of left-over food, all to Harold and me.
Only two of us to ride on Monday, it was left to Vidally, his snowmobile, two ropes with two short, stubby sticks tied to the end to get us up the volcano. Much faster and more agile than a two-ton snowcat, we were stoked to try and get up to some nice-looking bowls we’d been eying the day before. Unfortunately, we soon found that staying atop one’s board over two foot wind-carved ice crust ridges (while fighting those aforementioned vectors, of course) to be painful at best and impossible at worst. Vidally didn’t seem too happy about getting buffeted around on the snowmobile neither. So at Vidally’s wise suggestion we gave up and got dragged up the much more forgiving snowcat tracks into the same bowl we’d been riding the day before.
After a good afternoon of riding, we were given the option of getting pulled on our snowboards for 15kms back to the road. Despite the amazing forearm workout that would be, the choice was clear: Hell no, let’s ride the sled. Harold sitting, me standing dog sled style on the back, and snowboards lashed to the front, we rode that home-made looking sled behind not the powerful Yamaha, but instead an ancient and easily over-heated Russian beast. Straight out of an old Bond film, the speedometer on this Soviet snowmobile went up to 140km/hr, but the needle just flopped around with the bumps.
Spring is heliboarding season in Kamchatka. I had been warned of this by Dasha when Harold and I first sat down with her at a KFC in Dalian and discussed a possible February trip. Regardless, even before hearing details and seeing photographs over fried chicken and black tea, my mind was already made up.
Unlike players of Risk, I had actually never heard of the Kamchatka Peninsula by name when I first met Dasha at an apartment party near the D.U.T. campus. When she explained its location, I convinced myself I could find it in my mental atlas. It’s that bit dangling off the Bering Peninsula, north of that island that looks like it should be part of Japan but is actually Russian and full of oil? Right?
She said she they had big volcanoes covered in snow and helicopters to drop you atop them.
What a cool sounding place, I thought, with no real idea that I might actually think of going there. Some days later – discussing I don’t remember quite what with Harold – I mentioned “this girl that I met who’s from this place…”
“Kamchatka? I’ve always wanted to go to Kamchatka!” His eyes lit up, and he blamed a National Geographic article with “the most stunning photographs of volcanoes and bubbling pools of sulfuric water…”
I felt a little out of the loop, liking to fashion myself a knower of exotic awesome places as I do. So back in my apartment that evening, I fired up my SSH tunnel through the Great Firewall, and asked my trusted advisors Wikipedia and Google Images what I was missing. They both told me I might as well just go.
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* * *
When I first decided to move to China after Korea, I thought that the only reasonable way to get there would be the boat from Sokcho to Vladivostok, and then overland from there. But when I decided to attend D.U.T., whose fall semester started on September first, a whole one day after my contract with EPIK would end, it seemed such a route might feel a smidge rushed.
Lucky timing indeed, for little did I know that by attending D.U.T. first and visiting Russia thereafter I would met loads of Far-Eastern Russians who are ready to bust backflips to welcome you should you accept their many invitations to visit their strange land.
* * *
I don’t think Dasha really expected us to come, but when we surprised her with concrete plans, she sprung into action. Finding out that hotels based out at about $100 per night, she somehow found a friend who was incredibly willing to take in some random, stinky foreign guys she had never met before.
Julia is a 22 year-old super-girl. She spends long days working in public relations for the Kamchatka government, her nights climbing rockwalls like some kind of sticky-handed spider monkey, and her weekends snowboardling like she was born with a snowboard pre-attached. After meeting Julia and her not at all sarcastic friend Natashka at the airport, we dropped off our stuff and headed out to “Good Food”, Petropavlosk’s answer to TGI Fridays, with the same red stripes and the same kitschy interior, but no English on the menu the name of the restaurant aside, and tastier food. There we met Dasha and many other new friends with whom we later went to “Sports Bar.” This club, with a $2 cover, had three large floors: night club on the frist, billiards on the second, and some kind of rock’n'roll-themed bar on the third. Russian billiards involves a table that is too big, pockets too narrow, and balls as well too big and all the same color of white. It seemed better to stick to some ol’ fashioned 8-Ball. I still embarassed myself appropriately with my lack of skill.
Reportedly a small Wednesday crowd, the dance floor downstairs started filling up after midnight. I bought a bottle of Vodka to share with my new friends, thinking I might beat them to it.
This, however, set off a rather cataclysmic domino effect of bottle buying. Somewhere into the group’s third bottle of Parliament I was told that Sports Bar is a favorite for fight starters, and I got my hopes up I might be able to witness – from a safe distance – a good Russian bar fight. Unfortunately I missed that night’s fight, which took place outside, and even more unfortunately saw the aftermath. I hope an ambulance came soon, but at 4:00 a.m. alreadly there was no need to stick around and watch that poor soul bleed.
There was to be no snowboarding the next day.
When Oleg asked Katya & Katya – the nicest and prettiest two girls this side of the Bering straight – if they might be so kind as to pick up an American coming on a bus from Zarubino, their first impulse, they later told me, was to wonder if I hadn’t perhaps teleported there. Having been to Zarubino, I can understand why they were so perplexed as to why any foreigners would be in such a place. I’m not so sure there is even so much as a village there. I saw some docks, a customs house and a few dirty old brick boxes. A few of these might still loosely be referred to as homes, the rest – a solid majority – were but shells of their former inglory.
To answer Katya & Katya’s question, the reason any sane foreigner would ever visit such a cold, windswept, barren, and ugly stretch Russia’s Pacific coast, is that it is the first port where South Koreans can reasonably expect to not get shot. It is also an hour from the Chinese border. Zarubino, such as it may be, it thus the port of call for the many South Koreans on their way to North-Eastern China, particularly those climbing the Chinese side of half-North Korean Baekdu Mountain.
The ferry from Sokcho actually goes all the way to Vladivostok, but it spends the night in Zarubino first – something I for one hope never to do. The bus, conveniently waiting outside at the docks (for where else would it wait?), leaves as soon as the last person clears the glacial paper shuffling of the three justifiably surly immigration officers.
At the Sokcho ferry terminal, they told me I could change dollars to rubles in Zarubino. They also told me I could use dollars to buy snacks on the boat. Both cold, heartbreaking lies. While changing money back into Won to buy coffee on the boat annoyed me, not being able to buy that bus ticket greatly worried me. Luckily, I’d already been adopted by some Russians I’d met on the boat.
It all started when a woman asked me to help her carry her bag of bricks and bowling balls up the rickety slippery 30 foot tall collapsible stairs onto the boat.
(Carrying it back down was even more fun, the stairs by then generously crusted with frozen sea foam.) Later she and her (milfy if I might so say) new friend, Nadia, saw me fumbling with the little pinkplastic sewing kit I’d just bought at the on-board Family Mart with some unfavorably reexchanged won . I’d torn my currently only pair of jeans that morning, and thought I’d have a stab at a mend. Next thing I know, Nadia is right in my face demanding “———- jeans! ———- jeans!” where “———-” is an appropriately Russian sounding word accompanied by an enthuiastic pull down and remove motion.Well, when a woman like Nadia tells a man like me to take off his pants, refusing does not enter his mind. I quickly complied, throwing a blanket over my boxers. She and her friend then sewed my jeans for me. They later fed me dinner (they had packed bread, sausage, eggs, and cheese) and together with Dennis, the 22 year-old anglophone student, helped me fill out the immigration card.
The next day at immigration they insisted that I go first (“maybe there can be some problems”, in the words of Dennis. [I had no problems.]) When I couldn’t change money for the bus ticket, someone else changed $20 with me at a very generous exchange rate.
I saw on a map that it was 130kms from Zarubino to Vladivostok, which I found surprising considering that I’d heard the bus took four hours.
As it turns out, the first two-thirds of the way were unpaved. The landscape continued to be just about as charming as it had been around Zarubino; frozen yet overwhelmingly brown.
Dennis let me (and just about everyone else on that bus, poor guy) borrow his cell phone to call Oleg, our absent host, to figure out just who it was that he’d roped into taking care of his snowboard-laden foreign friends for the evening. Oleg, a former schoolmate of mine in Dalian, was only coming to Vladivostok on the twelfth, but had left his keys with Katya & Katya to let us stay in his apartment for the night.
Katya & Katya got me at the bus station, paid for the taxi to Oleg’s place (the $20 I’d changed didn’t leave me much after bus fare), helped me to a bank, showed me downtown Vladivostok’s many wonders, and when we got some coffee, sneakily paid for that too before I got a chance – I’m learning that to pay for things with Russians requires either sneaky speed or bold aggression. And after all that, went back out to pick up Harold. That Harold and I arrived in Vladivostok within 3 hours of each other was somewhat of a miracle, considering he took an even stupider route than I did: from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to fly to Haerbin, and then an sleeper train to Suifenhe, a bus to a border crossing sufficiently remote that his was the first EU passport the guard on duty had ever seen. From there, another bus to Oussirysk and the final train from there.
Katya & Katya led us to some really tasty dinner, and then spent what must have been a solid twenty minutes negotiating with the taxi company, whose office was conveniently downstairs from Oleg’s apartment, convincing them to pick as up at 6:30, take us first to Katya’s apartment so we can give her the keys, and from there to the bus station where we could get our bus to the airport, about 45 minutes out of town. I don’t know what was quite so hard about setting that up, but I’m coming to accept that Russia is a land of wonders.
When I first left Korea for China, I debated whether or not to change the name of this blog. As clever a name as “skorea” is (thanks Marzee!), does it really apply if I’m not in S. Korea?
Of course, as some of you may have noticed, I never did end up writing to the blog while I was in China, so whether or not to change the name of blog became a moot point.
Now I again find myself leaving S. Korea, and I’ve already resolved not to change the name of the blog. I’ll always be Skory (with some margin allowed for various transliterations) and so the world through my eyes might as well always be Skorea.
Now please allow me to give a meek apology to anyone out there who has been feeling a lack of the world through my eyes. Allow me to catch you up:
I took the slow boat to China. I studied a semester of Mandarin at the Dalian University of Technology. Dalian was fun. I lived with this guy. I made friends. I can even speak a modest amount of Mandarin, read an even more modest amount, and write a very very modest amount of it.
Missing the last two weeks or so of classes and the final tests, I didn’t quite finish that semester. China being however so accommodating to those who pay, I got my certificate anyway. I spent Christmas with my family back in Berkeley and then new year’s with the ol’school crew in San Felipe, Baja California del Norte. The rest of January involved lots of not once studying Mandarin, configuring my new toy (on which I now write), learning how vulnerable to and unprepared for avalanches I am, and following www.crossfit.com.
And then it was back to Korea, where most of my friends from last year no longer are. But I still managed to see a few old friends, and make a few new friends.