The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Antarctica: Graham Land

Graham Land: A Land where Grahams roam proud and free!

Graham Land: A Land where Grahams roam wild and free!

I finally succumbed to temptation and took a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.

I saw a great range of wildlife: many, many humpback whales, a pod of killer whales, a leopard seal, great hordes of swaggering Gentoo penguins, some shyer Adelie penguins, many chinstrap penguins, wandering albatrosses, petrels, and more.  The scenery, with ice bergs, ice cliffs, jaggy snowy crags, was truly striking – alien, forbidding, beautiful all at once.

But for me the high point was our landing at Neko Harbour, in Graham Land, on the Antarctic continent itself.  I promptly declared the Independent Republic of Graham Land.  By viewing this website you are hereby declared an honorary citizen.  You may expect your first tax bill shortly.

Caracas Supermarkets

Long displays of Chocolate Muesli (!) at a government supermarket

A long display of Chocolate Muesli (!) fills out the shelves at a government supermarket

Venezuela has a mix of nationalized and private businesses, but all with strong state controls.  So I was curious to visit some Caracas supermarkets.  I started at a large private supermarket.  This had a decent range of imported and local foods, but there were many surprising gaps: no milk, no basic flour, no basic cheese, no chicken, no fresh meat. But there was plenty of yoghurt, expensive sausage, preserved meat, fancy cheeses and special “improved” flour.  The difference is that the non-available goods are all price controlled, with the prices set to artificially low levels, well below the true market price.  So naturally demand is high and supply low, and shortages the norm.  And since yoghurt is not price-controlled but milk is, there is yoghurt but not milk.  Sigh.  As I commented to my guide, Adam Smith would have said “I told you so!”

Socialist Rice!  From state-run farms to a state-run supermarket.

Socialist Rice! From state-run farms to a state-run supermarket.

We next visited a government supermarket, selling mostly price-controlled goods. The state runs nationalized farms, distribution systems and supermarkets, giving it complete control of the supply chain.  The supermarket had an oddly limited range of goods and the long ranks of shelves were often stocked with long ranks of identical packages. Some of these were basic staples from government controlled farms, but there were also things like Pepsi, or Del Monte canned vegetables, or other imported brands.   There were the same gaps for milk/cheese/flour/etc as in the private supermarket.

Venezuela has vast oil reserves and should be a wealthy country.  But even beyond the supermarkets, Caracas felt subdued and even shabby, with even the supposedly high-end malls in the Las Mercedes district looking tired and surprisingly quiet just before Christmas.

The government has several different official rates, starting at 7 Bolivars to the dollar and  running up to 96:1.  The black market rate is around 180:1.  The government allows imports at these different rates depending on the perceived priority of the use.  Medicine and food get the best rates.  The supermarkets are allowed to obtain some foreign currency for food at the lowest official rate, meaning they can offer a supply of imported goods at low prices.  But the rules are of course arcane and there is much scope for corruption.

Gas in Caracas costs 0.9 Bolivars per liter. So it’s dirt cheap. Prices have not been allowed to rise since the 1990s, partly as the last attempt to remove subsidies had been the final straw that had provoked widespread popular unrest in 1989.

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”).