The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Tibet: Everest Base Camp

Everest from RongbukTibet has been on my target list for many years. I finally made it!

I took the train in from Lanzhou to Lhasa and then overlanded out to Kathmandu, with a short detour to the Chinese Everest Base Camp, up at 5180 meters (16990 ft). We drove up from Shegar and got to EBC shortly after dawn, on a wonderfully clear day, and were rewarded with an epic view over the mighty mountain. Hurrah!

Scotsman at launch controlsYou enter through the basement blast doors and then ride the tiny elevator 11 levels down into the armored control silo. You and one of your comrades man the launch control consoles. A quick consultation, then 1-2-3 you each turn your launch key and simultaneously push your launch button. And the SS-24 ICBM roars into the sky!

Well, fortunately there aren’t any missiles in the silos anymore, but otherwise it was an authentic USSR missile launch sequence, in a real cold war Soviet ICBM silo. The consoles we were using were the originals and really could have launched nuclear doom back in the day, so pushing the launch button made for a very eerie experience.

Launch control consoleI’d been down a US ICBM silo (at the Titan Missile Museum) and simulated a launch there. So I was excited to have a chance to launch a retaliatory strike from inside the USSR. The Pervomaisk Missile Museum is in Southern Ukraine and is based in an old Soviet launch complex. We were told that the site had hosted SS-24 missiles targeted at the US East Coast. The missile silos themselves have now been filled in, under disarmament treaties, but the control silo has been preserved as part of the museum.

The complex has a surface museum, with models of the various silos, and there are also a few old missile and giant transporter trucks. But the high point is definitely visiting the control silo, playing with the controls and then lounging in the small crew room. As with the Titan command silo, the Soviet command silos are heavily shielded and the command structure is suspended within its silo to resist shock.

The Museum is near Pervomaisk about a 3 hour drive South of Kiev. I visited on a day tour run by SoloEast (aka TourKiev).

Into the control silo...Scotsman in the silo crew room

Chernobyl Tour

Pripyat Swimming Pool

Pripyat Sports Center

Touring Chernobyl feels distinctly odd. The name conjures images of a doom-ridden wasteland, but the reality is very different. Even deep inside the exclusion zone there is generally only low radioactivity, roughly the same as normal background, and it has turned into a pleasant green wilderness, marred only by a scattering of decayed buildings. We could wander around fairly freely with only very minimal precautions. The main problem (beyond the reputation) is there are still radioactive particles in the soil, etc, so it is unwise to go digging around Chernobyl Reactor 4and it is certainly not a wise place for long term residence.

We visited various eerie abandoned buildings, especially in the abandoned Soviet city of Pripyat. We wandered through an abandoned school, a grand sports center, a never-opened funfair. All slowly decaying and returning to nature. The road into Pripyat has been mostly taken over by trees, with a relatively narrow track kept open.

Chernobyl new sarcophagusThe high point of the tour was a stop near (but not too near) the notorious Reactor 4, where we had a good view of the reactor building now shrouded in the old sarcophagus. The immediate reactor area is still dangerously hot, so for safety the new protective sarcophagus is being built a short distance away, in two halves, and will then be rolled into position over the old sarcophagus for better containment.

Lenin at Chernobyl

Lenin at Chernobyl

FChernobyl Radiation checkinally, on exiting we had to go through radiation monitors, which happily declared us all clear.


I visited on a day tour run by SoloEast (aka TourKiev) from Kiev. It worked well and I recommend them.

Buddhist Elista

Elista PagodaI’m in Elista, in South-West Russia, Europe’s largest (only!) Buddhist city.  A Pagoda, a Golden Temple, stupas, a giant golden Buddha statue, assorted Buddhist art.   And amazingly few tourists.

Elista is home to the Kalmyks, a western arm of the Mongols, who settled in the plains North of the Caucasus in the 17th century.  They’ve had a complex history, including wholesale exile to Siberia under Stalin, and a subsequent slow return under Khruschev.  Since 1991 there has been a major revival of Tibetan Buddhism, including visits from the Dalai Lama.

The city has strange juxtapositions.  In many ways it feels like a typical, mundane, post-Soviet city, with decaying industry, drab Soviet apartment blocks, and rickety infrastructure.  But then suddenly there’s an unexpected Buddhist shrine.

Elista Golden TempleThe centerpiece is the Golden Temple, built in 2005, an extremely flamboyant structure, with concrete columns, elaborate decorations and much gold leaf.  Inside is a giant golden statue of the Buddha, complete with pink fingernails, and many Tibetan Buddhist murals.

Unfortunately, the temple comes across in some ways as an alien implant, using external designs and motifs, with no evidence of local Kalmyk influence on the art or construction. The Kalmyks had followed a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but I suspect they must have developed their own styles and traditions. So I am curious as to how well this wholesale import of a pre-fabricated Buddhist tradition is being accepted by local society.

When I was there the temple was very quiet, with only an occasional worshiper.  There were a tiny handful of Russian tourists, but no other Westerners.

What more could you ask for?  A statue of Lenin?  Yes, he’s here too, lurking with a rather disapproving expression in the shadow of the Pagoda.

Elista Golden Buddha Elista Lenin
I came in by bus from Astrakhan (5 hours) and I’ll be heading out on another 5 hour bus ride to Stavropol. To help other travellers, here’s an image of the Elista bus timetable. But note that many services are marked “закрыт” (“cancelled”).

Revolutionary Block PartyI’m in Matanzas Province, Cuba, traveling with Smithsonian Journeys. We were scheduled for a “block party with locals”. Which sounds boring. Except that it turned out to be with the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. And the event had escalated – we had more than 200 locals attend and a local Communist Party official joined the event to make sure that we all got the Right Messages ™.

The CDRs were founded by Fidel Castro in 1960 as grassroots block level organizations to promote socialist values and to “Defend the Revolution” against both external and internal enemies. They used to have a significant internal monitoring role, although that has now faded and they are more focused on coordinating grassroots social services.

CDR BannerThe official organizer of our event was the local CDR President, a bulky, tough looking guy. But the introductory speech was from a tough minded woman who we were told was the Provincial Head of Ideology. Oh wow. She seemed to be treating the event as a career moment and gave a model speech, mostly targeted at the locals, extolling the virtues of the CDRs. She explained how the CDRs help organize blood drives, medical care, recycling, etc, etc. There was various revolutionary rhetoric throw in, emphasizing the active role of the CDRs in defending the Revolution today. At the end she concluded with how they “watch over the community 24 hours a day”. I am sure she meant this in a benevolent sense, but she also seemed oblivious to the more sinister connotations.

Our Cuban-American guide Alex dutifully translated the speech, but he was looking increasingly distanced as the rhetoric mounted. His expression was a strange mix of disapproval and wry amusement at his predicament, eventually shading to fairly overt hostility. But he bravely stuck it to the end.

The CDR president organized dancing, drinks, fun, but avoided making any but the shortest welcome and thank you speeches. Rumor has it that he owns at least one Pizzeria.

We then had a very loud party. I tried asking a few political questions of the Head of Ideology, but I didn’t really get anywhere beyond the most scripted answers. How do your deal with change? Ideologist: we are continually adjusting and moving forward. I strongly suspect there had been some degree of pre-briefing for the Cuban attendees – in three separate conversations the topic of the five Cubans held in the USA came up.

At the end, after tactful farewell speeches and everything seemed done, the CDR president suddenly turned to a giant poster of Fidel and proclaimed “And we owe it all to him!” Which caused Alex to roll his eyes some more. And then we fled.

Cuba: Classic cars

Cuban Classic Car.1

For many years, Cubans were banned from buying and selling cars.  If you had a car, you could keep it, but you couldn’t sell it or replace it.  As a result, old cars were cherished, and pampered 1950s American  cars are common on the streets of Havana and other cities.

As well as the classic American cars, there are also many Soviet Ladas from the 1980s and many new Chinese cars on the roads.  Many people are assigned new cars due to their work and there are also lots of shiny new buses and taxis. However, only within the last years have private individuals again been allowed to buy new cars and these are priced at several times the US market prices.  So I think we’ll see the classic cars for many years to come.  They’ve also turned into a significant tourist attraction in their own right –  a tourist taxi ride in a well maintained classic can cost several times that for a shiny new taxi.

The mechanical properties don’t always match the external appearance. I took a couple of classic car taxis, and while one was fine, the other gasped and slowed to a crawl on even a very modest hill.   But it was still fun to ride!

Cuban Classic Car.2Cuban Classic Car.3Cuban Classic Car.4

Cuban Classic Cars.5