The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Xinjiang: Shipton’s Arch

This morning I was out at Shipton’s Arch, near Kashgar, Xinjiang, China.

It was unknown outside of local lore until British traveler Eric Shipton discovered it in the 1940s.  It is probably the tallest natural arch in the world.  It grows out of a mountain slope and then bridges over a deep canyon.  So one side the arch is only 60 meters or so up from its base, but on the other side it is about 450 meters.  There is a great view through the arch to rugged mountains beyond.

The hike up to the arch was about 45 minutes, starting as a gentle slope, but working up to a steep scramble over ice and snowy rocks, with metal or wooden steps in the steepest parts.  The observation platform at the top is at about 9500 ft.

 

 

California: Nike Missile Site

The Nike Missile Site in the Marin Headlands, just North of San Francisco, is the sole preserved site from a giant 1950s era US national anti-aircraft defense system.  This site was one of six defending San Francisco, using nuclear tipped anti-aircraft missiles so they could reliably take down incoming Soviet nuclear bombers.  Gulp.

On the day I visited, a couple of the veterans who had worked on the site were hosting tours and displays.  Their accounts were fascinating: they described how to operate the various radars, lock on to targets and deploy and fire the missiles.  Back in the day, this was cutting edge national defense technology and the operators took it very, very, seriously.

The tour went down to the basement bunker that holds four restored missiles.  Then one of the guides operated a giant elevator that lifted a missile up to the ground level, where it was then deployed into firing position.  Wow!

Nearby the radar installation demonstrated how the three different radars handled long range detection, target tracking and interceptor tracking.

At first, the idea of firing nuclear tipped defensive missiles sounds almost insane.  But then you have to put it in context.  If you detect an incoming Soviet nuclear bomber squadron planning to bomb the Bay Area, then using nuclear warheads to destroy it out over the Pacific may be the least bad option.  But still, gulp.  I am glad we live in more peaceful times.

The museum is quite small, but I found it exceptionally interesting and it was fascinating to hear directly from the veterans about the site operation and their own experiences.

Moscow: Vostok-1

To my gleeful amazement, I unexpectedly ran across Gagarin’s Vostok-1 capsule yesterday!

I was out wandering in Moscow and at the VDNKh exhibition center I discovered a newly opened museum “Cosmos”. It turns out to be a big new Space Technology museum. And sitting in the lobby was the original Gagarin Vostok-1 capsule. Oh wow!  I’ve been trying to visit this for years and I was really pleased to finally and unexpectedly see it!

The Vostok-1 capsule is normally kept at the restricted-access RSC Energia Museum, which until recently was closed to foreigners. I am amazed that the Cosmos Museum guys managed to pry the Vostok-1 capsule away from RSC Energia, who normally guard it like a particularly suspicious mother bear with its favorite cub.

By an odd coincidence, I had finally managed to arrange a private visit to the RSC Energia Museum today (for a princely 580 Euros).  Here they explained, rather grumpily, that the Vostok-1 capsule was on a temporary loan to the new Cosomos museum and they were expecting it back imminently, if not sooner.

Even with Vostok-1 away, the RSC Energia Museum has lots of other good stuff, including:

  • The Vostok-style capsule that had been used for Belka and Strelka. This Vostok-style capsule had held a smaller capsule with the two dogs.  After re-entry, the smaller capsule with the dogs was ejected, just as a human cosmonaut would be before the main capsule landed.  Both the larger and smaller capsules landed safely.  The RSC Energia exhibit includes both the larger capsule and the in-situ dog capsule.  My guide assured me that both are the originals.
  • Another similar dogs-in-space Vostok-style capsule.
  • The Vostok-6 capsule of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
  • A three-crew Vostok variant, the Voskhod-1(1964).
  • The Voskhod-2, which had been used with 2 crew and an airlock for the first space walk.
  • The Soyuz-3 capsule, the first successful Soyuz mission.
  • No less than five other Soyuz capsules, including the capsule used in the Soyuz-Apollo mission.

So a total of five Vostok style capsules and six Soyuz capsules!

Soyuz and Vostok capsules

Scotsman in an authentic Soyuz capsule

I very much enjoyed the RSC Energia tour, even without Vostok 1.

Finally, note that Moscow now has three Cosmonautics museums:

  • The new Cosmos Museum inside VDNKh.  This is a good large museum, but almost all the exhibits are mockups or replicas.  The Vostok-1 is only there temporarily.
  • The older Museum of Cosmonautics, just outside VDNKh.  This is mostly replicas, but has a few original pieces, notably a Soyuz capsule and Michael Collin’s Apollo-11 spacesuit.
  • The restricted-access RSC Energia Museum out at Korolev City, which has many original capsules.

Perm-36 Gulag Museum

Perm-36 is the last surviving Gulag camp, now the “Museum of the History of Political Repression“, about 90km East of Perm.

It was abandoned in 1988, became extremely dilapidated, then was reclaimed as a Museum in 1994 and partially restored. So what is visible today is a mix of original buildings and reconstructions. It is all post WWII however, so there is nothing from the Gulag heyday of the 30s or the Great Terror itself.

Perm-36 went through three phases:

  • 1946-53: A conventional Gulag camp, mostly housing criminals and for workers convicted of anti-social crimes such as chronic absenteeism, etc. Perm-36 was a relatively mild labor camp, not an intensive punishment camp.
  • 1953-72: A special prison for servants of the Stalinist regime who had fallen out of favor with the new regime. This included NKVD officers, politicians, etc. These prisoners were relatively privileged.
  •  1972-88: A special prison for dissident and anti-Soviet elements. There prisoners were typically well educated and their treatment relatively mild.

The most interesting surviving buildings are:

  • The entrance/administrative building. This includes the visitor rooms. The later, more privileged prisoners were allowed to either have face-to-face visitor meetings with a guard present or in especially privileged cases to have two or three day shared room stays with spouses or other family members.
  • One barracks building, which had housed 50-60 people in each of four barrack rooms. Back in the day, they would have triplex bunks, and two small stoves in opposite corners, which would be less than adequate for the colder nights.
  • A punishment block. This included some short stay cells for a first offense, and a long stay unit for 4+ weeks for repeat offenders. Guards might decided to target specific prisoners as “offenders” based on order from higher up. The main punishment was reduced rations. Long term prisoners had to work at simple factory tasks.

The main task of the Gulag camps in this area was logging, to help provide wood for rebuilding efforts after WWII. Perm-36 was originally part of that, although I got the impression that part had probably faded away in its later years with more privileged prisoners.

Before 1953 security was light as prisoners had nowhere to flee. After 1953, the camp had five levels of fencing. A reconstruction is on display. Two of the fences were wooden walls, intended to mask visibility in and out. One fence was electrified, not to kill but to stun and sound an alarm. The Museum plays recordings of angry barking dogs to add authenticity!

Since this is the only surviving Gulag camp, I’m glad I visited. But at another level, it was only mildly interesting. Both my guide and the Museum signage tended to convey an impression that it was “not that bad” and merely a labor camp. Now of course this is all post WWII, when things were probably much better that during the horrors of the 1930s. Even so, my impression is that the Museum is also sanitizing the 1940s experience. This is after all the period described in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  It would have been interesting to have death rate data for example. It would be easy to leave with the impression it was “just” a labor camp, and I think the reality was much harsher than that implies.

The city of Perm itself also offers one surprise, a gigantic bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet security police. A man who made Stalin look warm and cuddly and is still fondly remembered, by some at least.

 

Gdansk: Neptune

As a loyal follower of Neptune, as soon as I arrived in Gdansk (née Danzig) I made a beeline to the bronze Fountain of Neptune, a stylish affair dating from 1615.

When I got there I was surprised to find Neptune sporting a stylish tee shirt.  He looks good in it, but say what?

The tee shirt bears the letters KONSTYTUCJA, which turns out to be Polish for “Constitution”.  Apparently the Lord of the Oceans has come out in support of the Polish Constitution against government numbskullery.  Reuters has an article all about it “Neptune statue gets T-shirt

Apparently no smiting has yet occurred. The tee-shirt appeared on August 10th and the local authorities seem to have been content to leave it in place. I offered up a slice of Starbucks carrot cake to Neptune, to show my support.

Gdansk/Danzig has a very scenic old town center.  It has the benefit of being mostly a post-WWII rebuild, where they wisely omitted the boring 19th c bits and rebuilt the city center as the great Hanseatic merchant city ought to have looked in 1800.  They did a nice job!  Yes it’s a romanticized rebuild, but it is actually quite charming with lots of tall gabled buildings and giant redbrick churches.

P.S. The authorities modified the Neptune statue in 1988 to add a bronze seahorse tail reaching awkwardly up to cover Neptune’s groin.  That seems a bit retrograde, given his accoutrements had been exposed for all to see for three centuries.  And people wonder why the Baltic herring fisheries are in such decline!

Hawaii: Lava 2018



Fissure 8, from 3000ft
I’m out in Hawaii to see the current lava flows.

I started at 4:00am with a bouncy boat ride with Lava Ocean Tours. I had sacrificed a delicious lemon muffin to Poseidon, so the sea was reasonably smooth and we got a good view of where the lava river is hitting the ocean. There’s a lot of steam, so we were mostly seeing glows rather than actual lava, but we got a reasonable view of the intense glow where the main lava stream seemed to be entering. Sadly, Sane Captain Rick was observing the new 300 meter limit, so we only got fairly distant views, unlike my 2016 trip where Mad Captain Shane was taking us in really really close.

Then I took a couple of helicopter tours, one of them a “doors off” tour.  The helicopters are required to stay up at 3000ft, so we got good, but rather distant views of the current live flow from Fissure 8 and of the grayed-over lava river flowing down to the ocean.

The current eruption is the most intense for many years, so if you want to see some good red lava, then right now is a great opportunity.  It may continue for years, or it may stop next month, so seize the moment!