Gangs of Siberia

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This blog entry about the events of Thursday, August 12, 2004 was originally posted on August 16, 2004.

DAY 299:  As a tourist, you don’t really have to worry about the Russian mafia, so my Lonely Planet guidebook says; they are only involved in high-scale crimes involving big business or bribing police or politicians, like the Italian mafia in The Godfather.  Whether or not it was the actual Russian mafia that harassed me on the second leg of my train journey when three drunk Russians sicked fake or corrupt cops on me I don’t know, but that’s not to say the actual Russian mafia is alive and well, not only in Russia, but around the world.  I learned all of this at my family-run B&B’s son Nicolai, a fine 23-year-old Russian guy with very good English.

I didn’t run into Nicolai right away as I was up at eight in my Mongolian yurt in the B&B’s backyard.  I walked along the shore of Lake Baikal to get to the Ecological Museum after its opening, before the crowds.  There I saw not only more bullet points about Lake Baikal but taxidermy stuffed animals of the indigenous creatures of the region included wolverine, lynx, ducks, wolf and chipmunks.  Also on display were dried up or formaldehyde-preserved indigenous fish, like perch, sturgeon and Baikal’s endemic Golomyanka, a small clear fish with no scales.  But the main reason to go to the museum was for its new aquarium where indigenous fish and indigenous nerba seals swimming in a big tank of the lake’s freshwater.

After the aquarium I went to the fancy Hotel Baikal with its fancy hilltop view (picture above) and rented a bike for an hour to cruise by the lake with the cold lake winds, and to run some errands (i.e. fulfill my postcard duties).  I stopped by the B&B to get my address book where Nicolai was outside hanging out.  “I wanted to ask you if you know anyone that will marry me so I can go to U.S.,” he asked.  “Married and handle the papers.”

“Uh, I don’t know really,” I said, walking up the path to the yurts.

“I think maybe I’ll have to spend ten thousand or fifteen thousand to get a wife.”

I was sort of in a rush — my rental was only an hour — so I was off to talk to him later. 

After mailing out postcards, returning my bike and grabbing a lunch of smoked omul fish, fried rice and pine nuts (right off the pine cone), I went back to my Mongolian yurt for a one-to-one with the young Russian.  He and his mother ran the B&B in the summer, a fairly well-off one compared to the shabby ones down the block, with a new house on the property being built for higher guest capacity.  Nicolai’s father was quite the real estate entrepreneur, going into the business almost immediately when it was permitted after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, after the times that were a bit more, well for lack of a better term, Communist.

“I still remember in the eighties when our family had to get a ticket for meat and you got five kilograms for the family [for one month],” he told me.  But his industrious hard-working father used the tools of capitalism to his advantage, building a local real estate empire where he’d just collected rent from tenants and use that money to build more housing or office space in Irkutsk.  His business partner became quite prosperous too, leaving Russia with his family to live the good life in an affluent neighborhood in northern New Jersey outside New York City — only to be pursued by the Russian mafia sect in the metro New York area. 

“They said give them half of all his property or they will kill his wife and children,” he told me.  The guy, still bright industrious thinker found the loophole in this, renting a Jaguar instead of buying one (technically it’s not his property), but the Russian mafia saw through that.

Nicolai was not without problems with gangs of his own.  A former foreign exchange student in Iowa for three years of high school and six months of college, he had been surrounded by other foreign exchange students in the same program, particularly Hispanics in the division of the street gang, the Latin Kings.  They had come to like Nicolai and wanted him to join up as their Russian muscle, but he refused.  With their pressure and his homesickness, he returned to Siberia to be with family — only to regret leaving the States five years later.  He was now desperate to return, even if it meant buying a wife for the paperwork, so he could make money in the States as a truck driver. 

The day was going by fast so I bid my Siberian friend goodbye.  He told me that I’d have to come back to see the better areas of Lake Baikal — Listvyanka didn’t do it any justice — and I agreed.  Before I knew it I was on a bus back for Irkutsk.  The one-hour 4:45 bus didn’t leave until 5:00 and took 90 minutes, which would have put a cramp in my time schedule if I hadn’t gave myself some padding before my train departure. 

My last order of business in Irkutsk was to return the key to Nina’s apartment — which I wanted to give to her before I left for Listvyanka — but when I arrived back there she was no where to be found, and there was no way to leave a key in the foyer and lock the door from the outside.  I couldn’t even slip the key under the door because a wooden flap fit over a small ledge in the floor like a Tetris piece. 

Great, this is Nina’s revenge.

In a frenzy I called all the local contacts I had as “Mr. Jinx” watched me from the floor.  None one was around, but luckily I managed to stick the key on the side of the door, in between the door and the frame, and dashed off to the train station.  There, Nina was waiting for me to get her key back, and with body language I told her where it was.  She bid me goodbye in Russian and body language, although I don’t know if she was saying “Good luck” or “Later, asshole.”


IT’S FUNNY HOW I COMPLAINED that the Trans-Siberian Railway wasn’t the international party I thought it would be because for my fourth and last leg of the journey — my “official” last leg since technically I’d continue southbound into Asia on the Trans-Mongolian line — was every bit the way I imagined.  In my car I heard the languages of German, French, Spanish, English and of course, Russian.  Unlike the Russians on my previous legs, these Russians spoke some English, so a language and culture exchange was inevitable.  I shared a compartment with three Russians, Valentina, (another) Nicolai and Alexander, an Asian-faced Russian who was a cop in Irkutsk on his way to visit family in his hometown of Ulan-Ude, our destination.  We pretty much played Twenty Questions with each other over beers to see how life was like on the other side of the world.  Funny, whenever Alexander stumbled on his English, he’d say, “Umm… ” and then smile.  I knew exactly how he felt.

As I rode the train through the night with my friendly compartment mates and the friendly young British couple down the hall, it was good to know that with a whole new gang of Siberia to be with, it didn’t have to be all violence and money.






Next entry: It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Asia

Previous entry: Deadpan Looks By The Deep Blue Lake




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Comments for “Gangs of Siberia”

  • THERE YOU GO, two more entries for the western hemisphere Monday morning rush, featuring my last two days that end in Russia.

    I’m still in Ulan Baatar, Mongolia—known by ex-pats as “The UB”—but will be off tomorrow to the countryside to ride horses with the nomads.  Translation:  I will be in the NIZ for perhaps three days (possibly more if I don’t get time to check in since I’m headed out the morning after I get back to The UB).  I hope to be back with the beginning of my adventures in Mongolia, a really interesting place that I wish I allotted more time for.

    NEWSFLASH:  Chinese visa acquired.  Mission accomplished.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  12:39 PM


  • OH NO!  Not Rick James!

    Also, I caught some of Olympic basketball… what’s up with PR kicking USA’s ass?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  12:45 PM


  • Hey Erik

    Your pictures are great.  Siberia looks beautiful.  Sounds great too, ....except for the Mafioso of course.
    300 days is pretty amazing. I’m envious.  Denise and I are finished our 6 months in 3 days.  Can’t wait.

    Have fun and take care
    Ang

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  03:13 PM


  • Erik - hurray on the visa!  And glad to hear you had cool compartment mates this time.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/15  at  03:28 PM


  • adventures of the “Get along Gang” ... hahaha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  06:18 PM


  • i just read the good, the bad and the ugly…  man does the fun EVER end! but your pictures do look beautiful, who would have thought. wishing you safer travels. smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  06:30 PM


  • ErikTGT: great pics…using the hi-res lake/phallic symbol as my desktop.

    btw, i hate your brother.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  06:55 PM


  • congrats on the visa….

    usa team basketball sucks….that’s all…let’s go argentina!

    yeah, rick james…they ran the vh1 rick james special repeatedly the weekend he passed…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  07:10 PM


  • ALL: something for Erik’s declared NIZ days…

    http://www.stokeyouth.co.uk/coffee.html

    enjoy grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  07:11 PM


  • markyt: i am the laughing stock of my office. thank you!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  07:19 PM


  • LP - you’re welcome goes without saying…

    grin

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  07:45 PM


  • Markyt - LOL actually I’m still giggling 5 minutes later.  Great link.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/15  at  07:49 PM


  • Hey Erik: I think you should devote a entire book to being mugged, robbed, and scammed overseas. It would be funny, educational and shed light on why it happens as it does in different places. Perhaps the Lonely Planet should say “Save 2000 dollars for extras like being mugged before your next trip to ?”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  08:01 PM


  • Yea, Rick James…and right after the Chapelle show was making him famous again..for anyone who watches…

    Damn I’m jealous Erik!  Going riding with the horses in Mongolia!  -And I’m stuck here in the city with a useless horse tatooed on my arm! - Have a great time! > Can’t wait to see the pics!!

    The travel channel show, ‘Super Heroes guide to NYC’ was real good!  Especially if you love comics…and nyc!  I was born and lived here all my life…and got goosebumps…yea, I’ll admit it!

    It focused on marvel comics heroes, of course spidey, daredevil, FF, Avengers…they showed the actual building that the comics ones were based on, streets, etc, along with interviews from Stan Lee, artists and New Yorkers.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  10:05 PM


  • yeah, lp is definitely the laughing stock of the office now. he screamed so loudly, it scared the crap outta me. i turned around expecting a giant spider on his head or something, and all the other people from cubes away came running. =P now people are saying “boo” to him whenever he walks by.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  10:20 PM


  • HA HA HA!!! That is STILL making me laugh!!!

    Yes, the mafia is alive and well… very active in Seattle too - they take cars apart and put them back together and make a huge profit… and when I was in Russia, I got tickets to things that I prolly shouldn’t have… b/c of my host family.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  03:41 AM


  • Markyt:  Even after having been warned beforehand about the contents of the link, it almost made me jump out of my chair…twice…and I would’nt really consider myself the “jumpy” type.  Funny they never aired it…seems like a great way to position the brand in consumers’ minds.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  04:36 AM


  • Markyt: James: OMG, I must have missed that link before.  Just tried it.  Got me too, lol, nice one!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  07:48 AM


  • I’m finally caught up!  I just read at least 14 entries.  Looking forward to hearing about and seeing Mongolia.  I’ve been wanting to go there for a few years now.
    Thanks for keeping up with the blog. smile

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/16  at  11:21 AM


  • I love happy endings…

    Neven is on to something! A humorous book about your not so pleasant misadventures would be a great read!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  07:24 PM


  • Hi Erik, I’m new here, well, not new but I decided to finally say hi smile My name is Arabela. I’m 26 years old and I’m from Mexico, and I love reading your blog. Every morning I come online to see if you have written. Good luck and take care smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  09:31 PM


  • Markyt YOU ROCK!!!  Besides my nearly daily fix of Erik’s musings your little NIZ link has been all the rage around my office.  We have had everything from “oh that’s interesting” to near heart attacks.  After getting everybody in the office we are even luring in visitors and delivery people now.  I have not had this much fun not working in my “office space” for ages.  Thanks for the brillant link.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/17  at  10:09 AM


  • ROB - glad I can bring some added bonuses to your “office space”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/17  at  05:11 PM


  • Here is something else to read while Erik is in the NIZ.

    The new cast of Survivor is up on CBS:

    http://www.cbs.com/primetime/survivor9/index.shtml

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/17  at  05:41 PM


  • LIZ - no AR5 last nite since yankees game again!  what’s the site were you DL the episodes?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/17  at  05:47 PM


  • You guys did see AR5 lastnight?!! That sucks! I’m glad I live in Canada where pre-emting AR5 is unconstitutional!

    I wont tell you what happens… Unless you ask.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/17  at  07:59 PM


  • Good work bud! The pics of the shruken fish looked creepy…

    Keep on writin’ in the free world!

    Word Life.

    Moman!

    Posted by Moman  on  08/17  at  10:34 PM


  • MARKYT:  That link doesn’t work anymore!  What was it?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  12:37 PM


  • NEVEN:  Great idea… although, as you may have figured, I’d rather NOT work for Lonely Planet… 

    Anyone out there with publishing contacts and or PR people that can make this Blog more public?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  12:39 PM


  • ha. i had figured out what might happen in that video, and it still made me jump even though i knew it was coming. :|

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/18  at  01:33 PM


  • ERIK - I think you need to ask LP what the link was!

    hahahah

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  03:14 PM


  • MARKYT - for AR5 and any other program you might miss (plus illegal movie and software downloads) get BitTorrent which is a P2P.  Then go to http://www.suprnova.org - it usually has the episodes up about 6 hours after they air.

    Posted by Liz  on  08/18  at  04:00 PM


  • Thanks LIZ!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  05:43 PM


  • Erik - I’m trying my best to get it to all the people I know in the PR world… PROMISE! Publishing is NOT my forte…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  01:18 AM


  • Nicolai is cute, shouldn’t cost ALL that for a wife!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  02:09 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Asia

Previous entry:
Deadpan Looks By The Deep Blue Lake




THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY

Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:

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The Big Trip: the original sixteen month around-the-world trip that started it all, spanning 37 countries in 5 continents over 503 days (October 2003–March 2005)

NIZ: acronym for "No Internet Zone"; a place where there is little to no Internet access, thus preventing dispatches from being posted.

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The Trinidad Show: a nickname of The Global Trip blog, used particularly by travelers that have been written about, who are self-aware that they have become "characters" in a long-running story — like characters in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

WHMMR: acronym for "Western Hemisphere Monday Morning Rush"; an unofficial deadline to get new content up by a Monday morning, in time for readers in the western hemisphere (i.e. the majority North American audience) heading back to their computers.

1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year — I guess you could call them "1991ers" in 2013 — young, entitled millennials on the road these days, essentially.




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