Saturday, June 7, 2014

Landing in Siberia

I half-sleeping there, in the gray forsaken banks of Khabarovsk-Novy airport. Anyone who saw me there never thought that there was a day I was a hard-working student full of intellectual worries, seeing the weight of the world in such abstracts things as double derivatives and wave equations.
It is commonly known that appearances may be deceiving; well my appearance is very deceiving of my past.

In the morning, the owner of that shopping outlet still doesn't like that I am there, scaring customers. I think I like her attitude more than if she saw me on television anyway.

I remember having sometimes dreamed about my first flight back in a quite glorious way. But life is an independent mind; it cares little for short-sighted fantasies of us humans.

The fact of life is that as I am writing this text, I can't remember the people who I was sitting next to as the plane took off from Khabarovsk. I didn't exchange a word with them until touchdown. I imagine the landscape under us, it must be as monochromatic for thousands and thousands of kilometers of birch and pine trees. At some point, we will fly over the mighty Baikal lake. I will visit it some other time.
I just remember after we touched down in Novosibirsk, a place which was a huge neglected place filled with rubble.
Roads are wide and messy. People are busy and bored. From time to time, from the rubble emerge magnificent Orthodox cathedrals. The Siberian weather is fast-changing. It either too hot or too cold. I keep switching clothes.
As I look for a means of transportation that could get me to Tomsk, I go to about every corner of the city before I manage to orientate myself. I am calling Janela but I'm clueless and she's helpless.

I wouldn't be so harsh to judge it but I must admit that I expected a bit more civilization out of the capital of Siberia. Or is it that maybe I always imagined myself return to civilization but fate made me return to Janela. And let's be honest, when you are with a girl like Janela, you don't really care to meet her in a warzone.
At this point, we are both running low on money. We made the choice of her not meeting me at the airport. Novosibirsk, though not so far, is a half-day ride from Tomsk because of the state of the roads. And since I hitchhiked all this way, I can manage to get there myself.

Since I paid for that airplane, I suddenly don't feel like hitchhiking. As if breaking the rule about free transportation, I took a bite out of the apple and got transported from Eden to Novosibirsk. In that sense, I did two trips in one, one spatial and one spiritual.
No wonder I feel lost.

I try to find a bus to Tomsk but nothing is going. I change my mind between hitchhiking and usual transport a thousand times. My mind is not serene, as it was as I entered every previous city, it was agitated, close to panic. An exaggerated emotional response to a mere few thousand kilometer leap but a more understandable given a trip across dimensions.

Everytime I want to buy a ticket, they expect money for me, it feels so unnatural, so absurd... why am I paying to move when I know thousands of people going there, will take me for free? But I am not a traveler now, I am a computer engineer on holiday; why would I hitchhike?

I run in between train stations, bus stations and I spend most of my time getting lost. The weather oscillates between too hot and too cold faster as evening approaches. And I am jet-laged. In the evening, after missing the last bus, I negotiate a ride for 1500 RUB (about 35 USD) in a group taxi. It's something between a taxi and a bus. There was another Russian guy and a Chinese lady who also spoke Russian; with an accent though.

But at least, I was going to Tomsk. From there, I have a stable place to stay because Janela will be there. No obligations or mental debt for being hosted by a good soul, I will be home.
As we drive and the sun sets on the lonely road between Novosibirsk and Tomsk, I wonder about all the cars that would take me there faster and free of charge.

Night falls and the taxi greets me farewell in something that looks like a nice and empty train station. I leave my bag and wait.
My phone is dying. I hope Jan had gotten my last messages. Maybe she is sleeping. I can wait until morning.

She comes by taxi. She's as excited, worried, bubbly and beautiful as ever. She is wearing a short elegant dress, way too sexy to be safe alone in random Russian taxi.
Way too sexy to be worn in the middle of the night in Tomsk. In this region of the world (Tomsk is far from being an example but is included), rape is common and so widely accepted that many men don't even grasp the difference between rape and consensual sex. Looking back, wearing a short dress was a risk incredibly disproportionate to look good.

Our reunion is as passionate as lighting.
Couples in the world can be lucky to have a hollywood-style spasmodic embrace, the two heroes running in the rain with the whole world blowing up around them and falling onto each other.
For us, it is the only way we meet.

The taxi driver, who was visibly more than happy to take in such a cute young lady, couldn't hide his disappointment when I entered the vehicle and he was completely ignored by our reunion.
He was so cast-aside that I actually felt for him. Janela is a contradictory gal, I thought. She can be so sensitive to feelings of her Kyrgyz acquaintances from the village, especially family to the point that she desperately hides her relationship and fears criticism as it were stabbings of a knife. Yet, she discards any feelings of attention, frustration of that taxi driver, hell she even discards any form of common decency in the back of that car that you can't help but wonder if she is the same person.
Why is that? Is it because he isn't central-asian? Or, most likely because all people are different and she has very complex personality which grew through the elements, constantly searching for light.

We drive to Zalivnaya street, in some part of Tomsk, not too far but not too close to the center. It's a wonder I can actually remember part of the address.
The apartment is close to a mysterious wooden mansion. There are some stairs leading to it and even a working elevator.

It is a cute place, exactly what I need to put to rest my failing strengths. There is a clean bed, there is a shower, a bathtub even, there is a fridge full of good stuff. And we are here together.

It would be unfair to make from us a flawless couple. We have passion but we have grown apart from each other, our lives have drifted in different directions. We'll have to work to reconnect.
But now, we are both happy. The rain is falling and I am somewhere safe. We don't have to worry about my being attacked during the night or Janela getting kidnapped again. We don't have to worry about having anything to eat or about time differences.

There is so few things to worry about. And I just realize that I am so tired, socially and physically. I couldn't last a day more.

I could imagine a worse ending for my trip
I don't know if you, reader, imagine the unlikelihood of how all this ends. I am returning home but throughout this year, home has become a girl from some country called Kyrgyzstan who looks Chinese, who is Muslim, who is in a village where they home-cook bread and have a room with chicken in it, who lives in Siberia, who speaks English and Russian and who I didn't even know when this trip started.
And she is the person who is the closest to me which makes sense because she is my girlfriend but which also makes no sense because she is a Kyrgyz girl living in siberia from a village who looks Chinese.

"I think you can throw out your shoes," she says. It is true thay they look awful and I have the right to buy new shoes now that I have given up my travelling principles.
I wouldn't throw away things, all full of memories but my bag only has a finite capacity. And since Janela bought me a bunch of great clothes (she has very good taste), I decide to part of my korean jeans which are at least 5 sizes too big for me.

New clothes, I throw the old
Clean clothes now, hey, I'm almost an engineer again tomorrow!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Continental Russia

I am going through the small city of Vanino, or Sovetskaya Gavan', pretty much wandering around with no goal. I do have a goal though and that is get to the next big city of Khabarovsk where I can take the plane and everything will be finished.
Vanino is a place with not much there, but somehow still big enough for it to have no end by walk.
The Japanese sakuras are long gone and everywhere I see the neverending green of far eastern russia. Pine and birch trees live there, merely tolerating Vanino in their midst.
Vanineans, as most Russians I met, are busy people, bored and busy with their work. They don't pay much attention to me which I welcome because I have had my share of fame.
I wonder if I helped this Kyrgyz guy enouugh, if I should have helped him more of if I got cheated.
It matters not now, I am trying to make sense of my tablet's map.
The sun is shining through the blue sky and I feel like I would stay a bit more. But I also feel like the biggest adventure, the most usual thing would be returning home, to the usual things.
I get a ride just outside of Vanino by some russian guy in an old car, eager to help.

There, there is just an empty road, with no other destination than mine. Nobody stops and I understand that most of the traffic would be trucks from the ship. Unfortunately, they must be long gone; I surely lost too much time finding solutions for my Kyrgyz friend and getting to the spot. I should have overcome my fame-phobia and found myself a transport straight from the ship.

As I stand there in approaching noon, I can already take off my warmer clothes and just wait in a T-shirt. I so like approaching summer.

A truck stops. No miracle there, the driver is from the ship, there was some hickups unloading. Aren't we in Russia?
He says he's taking me because he saw me on TV but he doesn't make much of a fuss of it. He is a truck driver returning to his family. And he has a day more ride ahead.
My hitchhiking spot in the middle of the far east vegetation
The ride isn't very eventful. He asks me the two questions anyone asks me in Russia: what's the deal with that law about gay marriage being legal in France? and What do you think about Ukraine?
I tell him that I am not gay and that I don't trust much what the media says about Ukraine so who knows who's right?
He tells me it's a conspiracy involving America.
I tell him that I am dating a Kyrgyz girl and he warns me about the dangers of getting into the muslim culture and asks if the parents agree. As far as I know, they do.
I dismiss his worries, putting them on the account of ignorance but I'll later discover that I was the one who was being ignorant. The paving on the road stops but the road is still wide and in relatively good condition. It seems that we will never fall into the tiring 5km/h driving as we did with Ilona in Kazakh trucks.
What is amazing though, is how endlessly the landscape repeats itself. Would there not be this road, I could lose myself in this land forever. The diversity of vegetation is so little that I feel like I am in a video game from the beginning of this century. Pine trees, birch trees and them some other completely similar pine trees.
The road to Khabarovsk
I wonder how the explorers who built this road managed to orientate themselves. Or maybe many of them perished before the land was mapped.
We stop at a place where lay many pieces of timber. The driver says he must make this long and boring trip worthwhile and thus, we shall steal a small portion of this wood. He takes out a chainsaw and we cut some logs.
We cut some logs
My driver owns his truck so he is free to dispose of his time and vehicle as he wishes. It is hard work but it pays and it needs a capital. It costs about 2000 dollars for the boat trip from Sakhalin and back. So he better have a full cargo.

As a hobby, he likes to take care of his garden in Khabarovsk and he tells me many things about it. For instance, he likes planting trees. And the best trees grow exactly here, in the middle of the Russian far east so we stop again and again, take out a shovel and load small or bigger trees onto the truck. After that, we eat some Korean soup. It's from Sakhalin which is still way inside east Asia. He puts an egg in it and I eat it with sticks. Oh Korea, I miss you! Korea where are you? Claim me back! I may be Korean, I may be Japanese, what am I doing going home, the most foreign of all places?

Another stop is the road builders. That is where we take on gas. Gas is expensive in the cities but the road builders get a bunch of it for very little and can sell it for very little as well. My driver fills his tanks and I get a pack of milk. Apparently, the road builders get a free pack per day to compensate for the hard work. And hard work it is! There are just two or three guys building that road, int he middle of nowhere with no phone coverage and don't even think of the internet.

The repeating landscape reminds you that there is nothing... forever. Some guys spend up to three months there at a time. One of them has a girlfriend in Khabarovsk, they must be in much more long-distance relationship than I am.

On the road again, we drive and drive. Nature repeats itself and I fall in a quiet state of sweet end of adventure. Fate is putting me down into feathers.
Sometimes, we pass a bridge. Lucky decision it was to hitchhike this few kilometers, I would have regretted not to see the legendary Siberian wooden bridges.
They are big bridges spanning widely across streams or rivers and despite their untrustworthy look, every vehicle, big or small, passes through them.

"Это хороший мост," (this is a good bridge) says my driver pointing at the wooden wreck.
I really don't share his enthusiasm. I have collected enough respect for the might of nature not to risk drowning so close to my goalless destination.
"I wouldn't drive across this bridge with a skateboard, let alone with a truck!"
"Alright french guy," says the driver with an amused look. "I'll drive and you can film me".
 I run and the driver drives. Some logs crack lightly but the truck goes trough without any trouble. I love this bridge.

We stop at a place to eat dinner. It's a beautiful sunset in the far eastern video game. Russian far east, you are boring, predictable, you are scary, wild, I love you, you are just like my girlfriend!

As soon as I have set foot in Russia, I have decided that I won't try to trick any Russians into charity, the consequences may be Putin-esques. But I get invited for the borsch soup anyway.

And we pass the Amur river. Mighty and beautiful, it eats the cold ground into thousands of little ponds. The landscape near the Gassi lake is truly breathtaking. Impenetrable except on thick winter ice because of the many swamps.
Me and the Amur river have just met, I love her already and already must we break up. This last ride is both calm and eventless and full of breakups with newly founds loves of my life.

At last, we exit the green and in the dark of the night we reach the absurd city of Khabarovsk which I don't love. Why absurd? Because it has nothing to do there. Birch trees, pine trees, and an endless single road. That is what is Russian far east. Not cities, not Khabarovsk. Birch trees, pine trees, roads. Khabarovsk, go screw yourself, you know nothing of the place you live in.

The driver greets me farewell at the airport. I empty my luggage next to a shopping outlet that sells the most useless things in the world. The lady doesn't like it because I am scaring away her customers. I buy a ticket to Novosibirsk for 400 dollars. This gesture leaves me completely lost. I am paying for transport which completely absurd. Not only is there no reason I shouldn't get a free airplane but I am paying for a distance that I could cover by foot. The world has become crazy and I with it. My unshaven, unwashed silhouette, hung with a dirty black backpack repaired with a strong Japanese fishermen's string from Hokkaido and deer horns completely illustrates how crazy the world is. The only constant in my life right now is Janela. The rest is seriously fucked up.
My bag weighs 19.6 kilograms

This is my fucking life!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Famous on a floating piece of junk

The boat I am supposed to take just left. It is a cargo boat which also acts as a ferry. The only glitch is that a precise schedule isn't really a thing in russia. Word goes it will dock tomorrow. Little do I know that I should take tomorrow in a general sense, in the sense "tomorrow, mankind will set foot on Mars" not tomorrow as the day after today. But what would you expect of someone who has been living in Japan until a few days ago?

Kholmsk has its own beauty. It is still a junkyard but it is also a cute little city amongst hills just besides the ocean. Wherever you go you have a beautiful view. Some roads are paved, some are dirt roads.
Kholmsk amongst hills
I don't know what is it about Sakhalin but it gives me an eerie sense of zenitude. The sun is shining and I enjoy the green again and again. Just in sight is an oil rig platform, floating in the sea. There is a majestic volcano visible from everywhere. It looks as if it was the protector mountain of Kholmsk.
"Beware Sakhalinians," it says, "I look over you but remember that once I was a hellish beast."
The city ends very quickly to give into wilderness and I wonder where are these wild bears.
They are my main worry and I start looking for a shelter for the night.

Not too much into the city as I don't want to get woken up by people sneaking into my tent in the night but not too far because of the bears. I end up climbing a small hill just behind the last houses behind Kholmsk. Someone started building something there. Maybe just a shelter, maybe even a house. It is made out of concrete and bricks. One of the walls has partially fallen down but the resistant concrete holds the roof in place. I decide to build my tent on the roof. It was basically a choice of whom I was more afraid: bears or russians. I could have hidden the tent from the russians inside the half/opened shelter and risk a visit by bears or put it high up risking discovery by russians but safe from bears.
My tent is safe from bears
View from my tent
I had quite a difficult climb up there so I feel safe. And since I am not on a strict no-money policy, instead of eating the great Sakhalin fish I got from the girls I bought a bunch of cookies with cream and chocolate and spent the evening eating them in my tent.
Since I am still afraid of bears, I seal my food in a plastic bag and hide it a fair distance from my tent. The fish are quite far and I keep some bread just under the shelter.
The sun is setting late again, I am just a couple of weeks again from the summer solstice. So I am sitting in my tent, the ticket money in my pocket, safe from bears and russians looking at the sea and I realize a very strange thing: I think I am bored.

Sunset on that little platform
The next day, in the morning, I try to find my food. The bread that I left downstairs was eaten and the plastic bags were torn. I couldn't find a trace of those fish.
As I go towards the ticket office to track that ticket of mine, I notice people staring at me in the street. I wonder if I have offended someone. But things get even more strange when I ask a guy where is that ticket office for the ferry to Vanino.

"I love France! France is great! Zinedine Zidane!"
"Excuse me?"
"Yes yes! You take your girlfriend to France! Your trip is great!"
"I think you've got me confused with someone else"
That sounds like me but is it possible that the news report is already out? And even if it had already aired, who the hell still watches television in the 21st century?
Turns out that everyone. And turns out that ASTV is not some small shitty television, it's the first channel watched on this island. For someone who has never watched TV like me, this is a first hand lesson of reality.
"No no, you are Filip, guys this is Filip, he has hitchhiked from France all the way to Sakhalin. Of all places, Sakhalin!"
He tells me where to take the tickets and I am quite happy to leave his company, this situation is a bit uncomfortable for me. I don't know what they told about me on TV and I have no idea which person  these people expect me to be. One thing I fear is that they destroyed my sex life on Sakhalin forever and a day because they probably mentioned Janela as my girlfriend.
Many people who read my blog would wonder why do I have such a free attitude towards women given the fact that I have a girlfriend whom I love. This is because we always had a free relationship which allows intercourse on the side as long as it is done in a safe and responsible way and as long as there is no romantic feelings involved.
Of course I very much doubt that Sakhalin television would portray me as such.

The lady at the counter tells me that the boat is not there and that it will come tomorrow. Therefore, I go on killing time by walking in the streets and nature of Kholmsk. The seacoast is beautiful and quiet but it is separated from the path I am walking in by heaps of rusted debris. Giant pipes which may or may not still be in working condition are running alongside it. I wonder what they are here for? It seems that this city has the potential of doing something in a steampunk universe but like the old volcanoes around, it is asleep. The sky is blue and the sun is shining on me. Long gone are the days when I had to wear my coat. I go to main square to buy some chocolate because that's all I eat when left on my own.

Some guy comes to talk to me with his son. He says he finds my hitchhikings internesting and didn't see me on TV and that is very reassuring because I don't have anything mysterious to live to.

When he hears I am waiting for the boat he invites me home, appearently it will be a long wait. He lives in a building in the center of Kholmsk (but the town is so small that everything is the center) which looks like the average Sakhalinian ruin. Inside however, the appartment is nice and cosy and even with fast internet.
My host's wife cooks borch, the russian soup and I can have a shower. One thing about russia is that I can no more find over-luxurious hotels like in Japan to sneak in and have showers as much as I want.

My host and his son
When my social mood is lower, I just go play with little Max. He spends his time playing with cars and saying *vik, *vik, *vik because he can't say gruzavik yet which means truck.
Max and his "vik"
My host gives me another bag of Sakhalinian fish.  In the evening we drink a bottle of blackcurrant wine which turns out to be one of the few alcoholik drinks that I like.
When I am completly drunk, I get a phone call. It is the french radio and I have my usual interview. Sakhalin is definitly not my place for the media. I end up being drunk live on the radio station in front of probably thousands of listeners. But strangely enough, it is not my worst interview. I can even put it on my blog, as opposed to my TV interview where I really look stupid and that's not even Nina's fault.

The next day the ferry is still not there and after I finish playing with Max and talking to the wife who by the way looks gorgeous, my host takes me on a tour of the wherebouts of Kholmsk. We go all the way until the road stops. There is a lot of green and the coast is rocky. There are a few beaches on the city but they are so littered which garbage that you can't even see the sand. Broken glass from vodka bottles is sticking out everywhere and sometimes even rusted needles. It would be especially unwise to lie on this in a mere bathing suit.

Remember that littering sucks

Kholmsk is a pretty place
In the early afternoon at last the boat has arrived. The rusted harbour where nothing seems to work and where nobody seems to care about anything has a strict as hell traffic control. There even is an X-Ray scanner for the bags which go on the ferry.
The ferry. Or cargo boat which occasionaly takes passengers, the Sakhalin-8 is a fortress. It is huge, so huge that I can't even get it all into my camera frame. But as much as the Sakhalin-8 is a fortress, I am not so sure it is a floating one. I am a trusting person, I trust that the Titanic won't sink even though I watch that movie for the tenth time but this, this is going to sink!
The Sakhalin-8
The mighty Sakhalin-8 is even more rusty than the harbour in docked in. It must have been built during the early Soviet Times and hasn't been touched ever since. It is a piece of garbage, just like the garbage on the beach except that this one floats. Momentarily. Passengers start to gather in the hallway and people check my passport from time to time. I mostly start conversations with two people. The first one is a Kyrgyz guy who seems very kind to help me. He says that he is going to see his russian girlfriend in Krasnoyarsk and he is travelling on very low budget like me. I am quite moved that I met a fellow Kyrgyz and I tend to trust him.
The second one is a big guy who seems to have a lot of influance around here. I don't understand what is his position but people seem to respect him, including the police.
We are told several times that the departure is imminent but everytime it is postponed.
Me and a the Kyrgyz guy
At last we depart. Or at least, we start the security checks. I don't know what the big deal is about exiting Sakhalin. They don't have enough budget to hire the lady behind the counter full time but they have the security personel to control the ins and outs of Manhattan. First we are checked by the police at the entrance of the lobby, then we are checked again before the entrance to the harbour.
And there, we wait again. People have concerned looks on their faces. The scene reminds me of gloomy version of the late british settlers disembarking on the American continent.
Rusted iron pipes are hanging above our heads and I wonder what purpose they could have served and if they serve anymore.
Passengers waiting for the boat
At last we embark on a bus which takes us to the boat. It looks even more like a piece of junk from close by. As cool as it sounds to embark on something that is going to sink, I really do not want to sink with it. I am the only true foreigner here. There are Kyrgyz people but that's the soviet republics.

We enter the giant floating garbage can that is supposed to be a ferry slash freighter.
I hear that people have been refused entry into this thing for no reason because it is russia and security officers pretty much do what they want. But I was wise to make friends with the big fat master of the flock and I was on television.
"Vsyo normalno," he says to the policeman who was giving me an inquisitive look. He lets me go.
As I enter the big giant of rotten steel, I wonder if I didn't push it a little too far... again. Nata was right, Russia is tough. Tougher than any country in europe probably. Tough and random, it is not made from soft frenchies raised in the Cote d'Azur. Everybody on that ship looks like they just have been released from prison. Ironically, I shall not judge them, I still have my number 20 glued to my glasses as a souvenir of my detention in Tokyo.

Throughout the whole way, the Kyrgyz guy is very helpful. He is carrying a television set but he asks if he can help me with my bags. We enter the floating junkyard through a rusted blue iron tunnel.
There is so much rust from the inside that I feel like the gas molecules in the trans-russian gazprom pipeline.
Passengers entering the ferry
The boat is giant. Maybe it is leaking in but it is so big that it would take it a day to sink. And that's about the length of the sea crossing.

I climb up the iron stairs, it is as I was exploring an abandonned house. But this abandonned house will be set afloat through 250 kilometers of sea. From the deck the Kholmsk harbour is in ruins. Actually it is not really in ruins, that is just its normal state. I look at the deck. It looks as if it belongs to that port. I am riding a ruin. The green paint fails to hide the rotten metal underneath the boat and there is a smell of burned plastic as the motors warm up.
The corridors are old and they stink. They lead to the cabins. The cabins are metal boxes with no aeration, the air is heavy and oxygen is scarse. Everywhere there are heavy metal shafts that I am afraid to touch if they were to open into the sea and flood the cabins.
In my cabin I can hear the ship going through the water and I wonder how far am I from that scene in Titanic where Leo and Kate racing through the flooded corridors towards the surface.

The deck
The boat leaves the harbour slowly but surely. I already miss Kholmsk in the distance. I guess this is the conclusion.

The Kyrgyz guy meets me on deck, he asks if I need help but I have a feeling that he actually is more lost than me and he's beeing a little too helpful for some reason.
"Hey that's the TV guy!" I hear somewhere behind.
A few people are waving me huge signs. Others want a picture with me. Oh no, this is not cool. I still don't know what they showed on TV, what are these people expecting of me?
After I have lunch with a bunch of people who think they know me and who I don't know I go on deck where some guy jumps at me from behind. He is exactly the type of stereotypical russian who makes pushups with his fingers and lifts cars with his legs. Fortunately he doesn't want to throw me overboard, he just wants a picture with me to put on facebook. I spend most of my time with the Kyrgyz people because I feel them closest to me.

Me and some of the Kyrgyz onboard
But I feel trapped, on this boat. It is huge but it is not big enough for me to hide from my little fame. People think they can control fame but it is one of the things hardest to control. In this boat, with all those people who whatch Sakhalin-TV, I feel a little bit like an unwilling participant in a reality TV show.
I end up going down to my cabin and pretending to sleep until I actually end up sleeping.
Our boat is slow but steady. The next day the sky is blue and the boat is almost in Vanino. It was a very long ride.
The more and more we approach Vanino, the more the Kyrgyz guy tries to stay close to me. I realize that his helping and protecting persona was all an act. He wasn't the leader he pretended to be, he was a lost child in need of help. Altough I explained to him countless times my way of travel he didn't really understand that I truly meant to hitchhike until I left the central bus station of Vanino where the bus took us from the harbour.
He was hoping that I would help him to take a bus to his girlfriend and pay for it because he didn't have enough money to get to his destination.
This was not for a lack of clarity, it was just a cultural misunderstanding. Kyrgyz people talk and act differently, I just meant what I said. I gave the poor guy my remaining rubbles (russian money), that was enough to get him to Khabarovsk. It was interesting to see how the journey changed me. I had less money than this guy, I did not speak the local tongue as perfect as he was and I had no real plan of what to do. Yet I was calm of reassuring of my temporary friend.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Crossing a place nobody knows

In the morning I am awakened by Nina the reporter. I kind of thought they've forgotten about me but it seems not. I don't want to get up, I feel so comfortable in Ekatarina's appartment. I would like to know her more, to know Sakhalin more. But I have to go on. Nina took my timeline in consideration and organized to interview me in the morning. I kind of hoped for a translator: since I will  have my face appear on television, they can't expect me to talk in my bad russian.

"We didn't have time to take a translator to English," says Nina, "And your russian is about the same as our translator's anyway"

I am bit startled by that quote but I not that surprised. If it goes horribly wrong, I should be off that island before everybody hates me.

A television shooting can be loosely linked to reality at best. This is not the reporter's fault and especially not Nina's the media is like this by nature. We often say news reporting as unreliable, yet deep down, we trust it, we take infortmation from it, it affects our reality directly.
For example we see a clear demarcation line between a news report or documentary and a movie fiction. From what I came to see, that line is much more blurry if it even exists.
When King Geoffrey Baratheon sadistically slaughters people in Game of Thrones you do not hate Jack Gleeson, the actor who plays him. However, if a guy beats up another guy on a reality TV show or even a news report, you do not hate the character, you hate the person.
And you should because there is no such thing as a person on television. There are just characters and that we fail to realize.

A movie is a series of sequences acted by actors according to a script. A news report is also a series of acted moments according to a script. There are differences of course. A news report has freer script, more room for improvisation from both the actors and the reporter. Another big difference is that actors in a news report are not professional actors, they are normal people who act a part tightly based on themselves.
But they still remain actors, characters. They are not film doing things while they are doing them, they are re-enacting them at best.

But I have to be fair. It would not be true to say that a story reported by the news is plain fiction; it is linked to reality. Things may not have happened in the same order as shown on the screen and most of the implied things will be misleading but that is just how television is made.

It is no reason for scandal or for accusing reporters of doing a bad job. This is their job description and Nina is doing it great. The public should just be more informed of how television works. By the way, my videos report my journey about as accurately as television would. If you want a close measure of reality, read the blog.

I didn't know that television was like this when they first pointed the camera at me but even if I had known, I would still do the news report and gladly.
Attached to a bit of television fame was the hope of leaving the island and finally getting... almost home.

Nina was really passionate about the report. She came with the cameraman with a big black car. The cameraman was a bit scary but then again so was everyone else.

We did a series of unrelated shots which would later be reassembled. Most of the interview was shot above the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on an elevated wooden platformed which made everything look more impressive. Other shots were made of me walking and typing on my tablet.

I am being interviewed in the hills above the capital city of Sakhalin

My russian was a bit ridiculous but Nina was great with her guidance. She was much more into it than the cameraman and I felt a bit sorry that I couldn't do a better performance because of my poor russian skills.

Time was running out and at 11 AM I needed to get going. Nina wanted to film my last hitch from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk but in case it wouldn't work, the cameraman would take me with his car. Against their scepticism I got a ride in a few moments in a dirty but powerful jeep.

It is one thing I noticed here on Sakhalin, cars are strong and often covered with dirt, sometimes even in the capital city. That is because access roads to the most interesting oil sources are very bad and russians can afford big jeeps.

The road that we follow is surprisingly nice, it is paved and there is a lot of traffic... at least compared to Mongolia. I had already given up one of my plans to hitchhike to the northern top of the island and then take the hovercraft accross the very tiny strait of tatary (7.3km wide) because I thought no traffic would go there. I was wrong; on Sakhalin everybody is riding to every place to that island because of rich oil sources.

The jeep leaves me to the intersection, on a gas station. There are some police cars and I am a little bit scared. I am a little bit scared of everything on Sakhalin since I left Japan. I would like to stay a bit more with Ekatarina and Nina. But nobody cares about me and whenever they care, they are nice. It's just... I can't believe how remote a place I am... I can't believe I will be home soon. Now I am on Sakhalin, a post-apocalyptic island 9 time-zones away from home and soon I will be with Janela living a normal life. How can I hitchhike now as the toughest of the survivors when I am to be a computer engeneer tomorrow? It is as weird as when I first started. Only backwards. Perhaps it is so scary because I don't want anything bad to happen so close to the end.

The next car drives me a little bit further. It is a kind russian fisherman who likes my journey. Every experience is reassuring. He leaves me on another intersection but this one is quiet. The road is still good, there is no gas station and nothing there. I like quiet. I sit to contemplate the silent beauty around me. Nothing is wrong. I would like to stay there a while, in this state of wonder and just innocent happiness flowing at me directly from the surrounding nature. But the daydreaming must stop and I have to go. I am on a deadline. And I should be afraid of Bears. Bears, bears, bears, Sakhalin is full of bears and I don't want to encounter them. I have dome my share of one bear encounter in Japan and that was enough thank you very much.

I am picked up by two very young girls. They are 19 and 21. They are going to a nearby village and want to show me the whereabouts. They are so afraid of bears that they seldom exit the car. We get stuck in mud one time but the older one steers it like she were in an action movie.
I get a big bag full of Sakhalinian dried fish which are about the best dried fish I have tested in my life. Even better than whatever I could find in Japan.

We exit the car near a river with white rocks. Everything is green, quiet and beautiful. God will  I miss the east... Will I miss beautiful girls showing me around with a smile and giving me their number as opposed to their western counterparts with one finger on 911 as soon as you ask them for the time. Will I miss the hospitality, the air, the russian language. The thrill. Maybe I won't miss the thrill...

My guides for the brief time here
The girls tell me about life in Sakhalin, about the beauty, about bears. They have seen them many times, better find a good shelter for the night. They tell me to stay longer but I have to go on, to Kholmsk. They just briefly show me their village which is a really small pack of houses on the side of a dirt road. They leave me on the main way and sign farewell. With my bag of deliscious dried fish in my hand, I have just become a lot more interesting for the bear population which, by the way, is probably bigger than the human one.

The guy who drives me to Kholmsk is just great. He hears that I want to hitchhike a boat and he is determined to find the managment office.

We find it, it is not far from the Kholmsk harbour. A blond woman opens.
"I have an unusual request."
"Is there something as usual requests here on Sakhalin?"
I explain to her my situation and contrary to the Japanese, she is not the least bit surprised.
"I'll get you the chief"
This is the first time I meet someone who treats my journey as a casual matter and fully understands it at the same time.

The chief is a tall man in a suit with a little bit of gray hair. He doesn't speak much, he doesn't show a whole lot of emotions but his presence feels the room.
I explain my journey to him and hand him the map of my way.
"And I would like a free ticket to Vanino on your ferry, sir"
There is a moment of silence.
"Where did you learn Russian?"
"Here and there, on the way."
He pauses again and dives into deep thought. He then picks up his phone and dials the ticket office. No reply.
He looks at me with an inquisitive look. I regret a little bit that I entered this office, now he will call the FSB and I'll end up in jail.
"You know what, you have some courage to come to my office to ask for a ticket. And I appreciate a man who has balls. So here is your ticket. You know where the terminal is." He gives me an enveloppe with the price of the ticket in it. "This is the fastest way. Good luck."

And he drowns his gaze back in the computer.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sakhalin is my home after a thermonuclear disaster

In 170 kilometers in the North-Eastern direction I will be crossing 2 time zones. Last time that happened was when I crossed from Kazakhstan to China, ages ago.
But this time, I won't step into the unknown that much. I know the language of the country I am stepping in and this is the first time such a thing happens on this trip... ever.
Russia will be the last foreign country I step into in this hitchhiking trip and today feels like a beginning of the conclusion.
Sakhalin time, left, Japanese time, right
So that's it, I guess I can hitchhike to anywhere. I don't feel I have to prove anything to anyone. Thus, I don't need to get to Kamchatka. I might get there sometime in my life, why not. By paid plane, probably. Could I get to Kamchatka by hitchhiking? I think, yes; but you'd have to take my word for it and frankly, I don't care at all if you don't believe me.

As I am resting while the ferry is slowly advancing through the water, I feel a huge relief. Right until now, everything worked. It doesn't really stress me out that I will still technically be on an island.
I don't really think about the future so much, I just enjoy the view. And it is stunning. Islands are scattered across the seascape like proud breadcrumbs.

On board there are several people, almost all Japanese. There is the CEO who everyone tries to get a hold of him, especially the russian camera crew also onboard, and the poor man doesn't know where to go and he ends up talking to me, maybe because I am the only guy who doesn't try to catch him with a net. He is a polite Japanese man, a little bit shy given his position. We don't speak much though, my Japanese is not that good and my mind is slowly switching to russian.

After a long ride, land appears, wide and far away from the right side. It is the tip of one arm of the large Sakhalin bay.
The tip of the west arm of Sakhalin bay appears on the right
It is a very long arm and it seems inhabited... at some point at least. I can see a round white structure, seemingly observation posts or something. After a while, there is land on both sides and then I see Korsakov, the southern harbour of Sakhalin. It is an industrial ugly harbour with lots of machines falling apart in a depressive manner, needless to say that everything that stands here is from the soviet times and hasn't been touched since.

There are many talks between improving relations between Japan and Russia since they are geographically very close neighbours but seem unnaturally distant. In my mind, I have always blamed the Japanese and their nationalism for this but I must say I was wrong.
The russians don't even have a proper customs office in the harbour. It's seems like foreigners disembarking at the shores of Sakhalin are an unlikely inconvenience.

Approaching Korsakov harbour
As we dock to shore and wait a bit, two russian customs officers get on our ferry. They have a bag full of documents and stamps and that russian look on their faces that makes you wonder weather they are bored to death or if they want to kill you.

The two bored to death officers just sat at some table on the ferry with their computer and began arguing amongst each other. Evidently, they had no idea what to do with us, the passengers. After a while, they opened agent, a chat application used by everyone, especially teenagers for sexting. The protocol is unencrypted and it's one more example that officials know nothing about technology.

Thank god we have hollywood movies to show us how able and dangerous everyone is.

After the russian officials exchanged confidential information on agent which were probably intercepted by anonymous, we were escorted to a big recycled bus which arrives into the docks. The way between the ship and the bus is supervised by other bored to death officers. The bored to death driver drives us to a semi-destroyed backyard. We enter the house by a backdoor and inside are the customs. Unreal, russia does not disappoint with stereotype.

On Sakhalin, women are stunning beyond description, they are redefining my vision of how a girl could even look like. Girls don't even look like that in my fantasies and I can assure you that my imagination wanders a long way from reality. They are tall, shortly dressed with makeup and high heels walking through the rubble. Men look like super-ripped human tanks who are bored with life and I wouldn't want to get into a fight with one of these guys... except maybe if I was fighting for a Sakhalinian girl.

I start a conversation with one of the russian girls on the ship, she is one of the reporters, she is from Moscow but one day she decided to work on Sakhalin which was a choice misunderstood by everyone. Because Sakhalin is a very different type of civilisation. But russians have guts.

Average Sakhalinian supermodel crossing train tracks on red light, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
When we are processed (I have to explain why I have deer horns around my bag) I ride with the reporters towards the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Nina, that is her name wants to interview me for Sakhalin television and while I don't like TV much, Nina is nice and I agree to it.
There is another upside to giving an interview. I need one more boat hitchhike and I need fast. Maybe if I am on Sakhalin TV in may play in my favour when I ask for a free ticket.

As we drive forward, I can't help smiling how everything looks familiar. I talk with Nina and I understand all she's saying. I can read the road signs. They might be in a slightly different language and in a slightly different dialect but overall, I feel like driving through my home town of Prague after thermonuclear explosion went off there. I feel home.
This military base did not fight and bravely resist. It kind of always was like this.
I even have a couchsurfing there, so lucky me! In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, one person and one only replied to my couchsurfing, Ekaterina. She is finishing her apartment and she lets me stay there. It is good I managed to learn Russian on the way because while Ekaterina seems to write good English with the help of the internet she certainly doesn't want to or can't speak it.
Nina and Ekaterina organized the transfer from the television car to her apartment and I was soon comfortable with a place to stay in yet another city.
Ekaterina was my russian guardian angel, she even gave me a beeline sim card with internet access. And I certainly felt more safe that way, the first days in a foreign country are the most intimidating. And while Sakhalin feels a bit like home, it also feels like a warzone and I don't really know which one should I choose.

Ekaterina dances, she pole dances as a hobby. She is a Russian pole dancer on an island after a nuclear apocalypse. Try to beat that. To be fair, she is actually an accountant.

Couchsurfing in Sakhalin
I should be fair to Sakhalin's civilisation. Yes, it is a pile of rubble but it is a functioning one. The military bases who wouldn't attract the filthiest Parisian squatter operate probably better than their french counterparts. The rotten train tracks have functioning barriers which lift automatically when a train is passing thus blocking cars from forcing their way through. The awful communist-style buildings which look like they're rotten to the bone have electronic secure and reinforced doors.
Yuzhno-Sakhalin works, it is war-ready; it is just not pretty. But I guess russians don't care about that, if you take a look at their faces they seem to be bored with life anyway.

The upside to all this is that you can drop a thermonuclear warhead on Sakhalin any number of times you wish, it will still look the same, work the same and the population will barely notice. I guess that counts for something, especially during the soviet times.
Don't bother nuking Sakhalin

Medical vehicle
I grew to like Sakhalin as Ekaterina and her friends showed me around. From the hill just above Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk you can see the whole town and there is a ski trail running from there to the very town. In winter, when the sun goes down and the lights are up it must be quite a magic ride. Ekaterina's friends are really cool and I am pleased to realize that they don't intend to murder me because of the Ukrainian crisis.
Usually there are two questions that russian people ask me:

  • What's your position on the Ukrainian crisis?
  • What's your position on gay marriage?
Fortunately I am now fed up with Europe because they accuse my girlfriend of being a prostitute because she's asian so my opinions about Europe fall right into the Russian propaganda system. And also, I am not gay. Nevertheless, even if I was, Ekaterina and her friends are tolerant enough not to kill me.

We eat strawberries on the hill while watching the sunset. Not often but sometimes, I see the Japanese cherry blossom. It is the latest cherry blossom that happens, here on Sakhalin. The town is a bit polluted so we don't see much clearly.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the top of the ski trail
Ekaterina is going to visit her parents so I have the apartment for myself. I even have my own key, like... forever, it's a gift. I think it is a nice though that for the rest of my life I'll have a key to an apartment in the middle of a forgotten island on the other side of the world.