The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

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

Russia-Azerbaijan Border

The Russian-Azerbaijan border used to be closed to foreigners. But a couple of recent postings over on the Lonely Planet forums had indicated that the Russian regulations have changed to allow non-CIS citizens to cross.  I was in the Caucasus, so I thought I would give it a try, starting from Derbent in Dagestan and going through to Baku. Here are some notes for anyone else taking that route.

Derbent Citadel

Derbent Citadel

I originally planned to take a bus or a shared taxi. In Derbent, the long distance buses leave from the South Bus Station. The timetable there lists a Baku bus, leaving Derbent at 11:20 and getting into Baku at 16:40. Hurrah! But when I tried to buy a ticket, all I got was headshakes. When I went back to look at the timetable, people indicated I shouldn’t pay any attention to it. The ticket office ladies were trying to be helpful and seemed to be saying that I needed to take a taxi to the border. Hmm. It looks as through the bus may not be running at the moment for some reason. And I couldn’t find any signs of shared taxis.

I did find a taxi driver willing to go to the border. But then we ran into the problem of there being several crossing points and which one did I want?  I thought it would be easiest to take the major M29 route, which runs across the Samur River to the Azerbaijan town of Samur.  But in the end I left it to the taxi driver. For some reason he didn’t seem to want to try the M29 crossing and near the border he cut across from the M29 through minor dirt roads to try a crossing near the Russian town of Filya.  At that crossing the Russian immigration officer made it clear I couldn’t cross there, but redirected us towards the Yalama crossing.

[Afterwards I learned that the M29 road crossing often suffers severe delays and I think my taxi driver was trying to help me by taking me to a faster crossing.  It wasn’t clear to me whether or not cars were being allowed across at Yalama, so if you have a car it may be safest to stick with the M29 route.]

Along the way we got stopped a couple of times at police checkpoints. At one, I was taken aside and my passport very carefully scrutinized. Then there was some rubbing of thumb and fingers together and significant smiles. It was clear that a small gift was expected. But I gave a very polite “no” and after a repeated try and slightly disappointed looks this was accepted with good grace.

Baku Flame Towers

Baku Flame Towers

At Yalama I was able to get through without major difficulties. My passport and visas did get an unusual degree of scrutiny on both sides and the Azeri officer in particular looked at almost every pixel. He even wanted to see my US Green Card, but I think that was mostly just curiosity. After exiting on the Azerbaijan side I found plenty of people offering “taxi?” and after a quick break, I chose one and we leapt off at full Azeri racing speed to Baku.

I left Derbent around 8:00am. It was about one hour from Derbent to the border, about an hour total to cross the border and then a little under 3 hours to Baku. Plus some lost time at the failed crossing point.

I speak only a few words of Russian and I have lousy haggling skills, so I paid 1300 Rubles for the taxi to the border and another 2500 Rubles for the taxi to Baku. A skilled Russian speaking haggler could probably do much better.

Makhachkala to Derbent: I had got to Derbent from Makhachkala by a marshrutka from Makhachala’s South Bus Station. It took 2 hours and 170 rubles.  Marshrutkas seem to depart quite frequently, at least every half hour. At Derbent I got dropped off at the central bus station. This seems to be only for local traffic (the long distance buses use the South bus station) and the staff there denied all knowledge of a place called Baku.

Safety: Dagestan has safety issues at the moment and there are regular ugly incidents between Islamic insurgents and the police. I recommend reading up carefully on current status before visiting. The situation is ugly, but the militants don’t seem to be targeting the general population, let alone random travellers. I saw a fair amount of security in the government area around Lenin Square in Makhachkala, but less elsewhere, and very little in Derbent. I felt quite safe walking around both cities, although I realize that can be misleading.   People I met were all friendly and helpful.  (But please do not try to go wandering alone in the back country!)

Magnetic Termite MoundThe Magnetic Termites of North Australia are extremely cool.

Their mounds look rather like tombstones. They are some 5-8 ft tall, very thin East-West (about 4 inches) and long North-South (2-3 feet). They are aligned like this to reduce the impact of the sun on the nests.

The termites are known as magnetic termites or compass termites because of this alignment. But the worker termites are blind, so how do they actually manage the alignment? By sensing the sun’s heat? No…

Recently, Mad Scientists ™ experimented by using magnets to distort the local compass direction. The termites then obediently built a nest aligned with the magnets rather than with true North. So they really are magnetic termites, doing magnetic sensing! Way cool!

The nests I saw were in Litchfield National Park. There is a large array of the tombstone like mounds in a small area, looking like a grave yard. This made me wonder if the name “Litchfield” might have come from “Lich Field”, but no, it turns the park name comes from a famous Northern Territory pioneer.
Magnetic Termite Mounds

Samara: Stalin Bunker

I am in Samara, where I have successfully infiltrated the Stalin Bunker.

The bunker was build in great secrecy and in great haste in 1941, when Moscow was in danger and Kuibyshev (aka Samara) was the fallback Soviet capital.  But Moscow survived and Stalin chose to stay in the city even during its most dangerous moments, so the bunker was never actually used in anger.

The bunker entrance is hidden behind an innocuous steel door. You then head down 8 flights of stairs, mounted in an armored steel cylinder, to reach the top of the bunker proper. The bunker then occupies seven levels, with the “Stalin” level at the very bottom, 190 steps from the surface.

The current decor is a modern restoration of what the long ago Stalin headquarters might have looked like.  There is a large formal conference room, with a giant war map.  Opposite is a mid-sized office, with a giant “Stalin Desk”.  All ready for the great man, should he suddenly reappear on the scene.

The Bunker authorities make heavy play on the Stalin name, although he probably never actually visited. The authorities also carefully preserve a distinctly Stalinist style towards visitors.  They only admit pre-arranged groups and do not allow individuals.  It is possible to pay for of an entire group of 20, but you still need to book in advance and since the bunker authorities don’t have an email or speak English, you typically need to work through a tour agency (more below).

I was lucky enough to arrive as a group of fourteen young students and their teacher were about to enter.  I was initially given head-shakes and my entrance fee turned away.  But after a bit, after there were some discussions in Russian, I was deemed harmless and allowed to tag along with the student group.  This meant I needed to wait patiently through several very thorough lectures in Russian on the history of the bunker, but that was a small price to pay to get into a tour.

On the way out, make sure to admire the modern Stalin-themed stained glass window near the entrance.

Practicalities: The bunker is at 57 Ul. Frunze (53.196710, 50.098201), under the Academy of Culture. It has its own separate entrance around the back. Nominal hours are 11-1 and 2-3, Mon-Fri.

Stalin Bunker Plan

Stalin Bunker 1 Stalin Bunker 2

Stalin Bunker conference roomStalin Bunker OfficeStalin Bunker Stained Glass

I emailed three tour agencies to try to arrange a visit (Samara Tour, Y-RA, Samara InTour) without success. Eventually I reached a company “holiday-tours@mail.ru” who were willing to set up a tour for me, but at the group rate of 5000 Rubles, which seemed a little stiff.

The best bet is probably to try to join on to an existing tour. There seemed to be groups going through roughly hourly, on the hour, when I was there. It seems that if they are under the group size limit (which I think is 20 people) and you seem harmless, they may let you tag along. I paid 80 Rubles for my visit, but I may have lucked into a student discount.

Magitogorsk
I’m in fabled Magnitogorsk, Stalin’s Steeltown USSR. The steel plant is truly vast, running for miles along the Asian bank of the Ural River. Some parts are old and decrepit looking, others appear sparkling and ultra-modern. On a snowy day like today, the plant is covered with a pall of smoke and steam, as hot smokestack gases hit the icy air.

This was the mighty steel works that Stalin decreed should exploit the ores of the Magnetic Mountain, safely behind the Urals, far from any invader. In its heyday it was a symbol of Soviet industrialization, a vast new plant built from scratch in the middle of nowhere at enormous human cost. For detailed histories see Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, John Scott’s Behind the Urals, and Kotkin’s Steeltown USSR.

Lonely Planet is mostly silent on Magnitogorsk, so here are a few pointers for your visit:

Urals to the Front in Victory Park (53.407248,58.992398) is a giant WWII monument showing a steelworker handing an enormous sword to a Soviet soldier. The monument is on the European bank of the Ural River and provides a good view over to the Steelworks on the Asian side.

The Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Kombine Museum at Pushkin Prospkt 19 (53.394086,59.061326) (8-12 + 1-5) covers the history of the plant construction, its WWII contributions, and its more modern history. There are some small dioramas and a giant scale model of today’s steelworks. But pride of place is taken by several large models of the latest ultra-modern sections of the plant, with animated equipment and with moving lights or metal foil representing moving steel.

The fine Local Lore Museum at Ul. Soviet Army 51-A (53.392004,58.988903) is dedicated to the city’s history, from the Kazakh and Tsarist periods, through the crash industrialization era, and into the Soviet glory years. This includes a fine selection of Soviet posters exhorting steelworkers to new heroism.

There is also a small City History Museum at Ul. Soviet 145/3 (53.39584,58.963577) but that is mostly a subset of the MMK and Local Lore museums and can be skipped.

Two smaller monuments are the Tent Monument at 53.426009, 58.997673 commemorating the incredibly harsh initial living conditions in tents on the frozen steppes; and a Socialist Realism statue of a Heroic Steelworker at 53.437145, 58.981434, in front of the train station.

There is a hilltop viewpoint at 53.385607, 59.055632 at the south end of Ul. Kirova, which provides good vistas over the factory area.

The symbolic Factory Gates at 53.41524,59.05416 feature a blackened but resolute Lenin fronting a series of bas-reliefs of striving steelworkers.  The statue of Stalin used to stand here.

Practicalities: I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Laguna at 9 Ul. Naberegnaya, which includes an indoor water park and a good sushi restaurant. I’d recommend Coffee House at 37 Pr. Lenina as a relaxing place to gorge on lattes, cakes and muffins.

Urals to FrontMMK MuseumMagnitogorsk Local Lore Museum

Magnitogorsk Tent Monument Magnitogorsk Steelworker Statue

Magnitogorsk Lenin

(Lattes, muffins, sushi and water slides. What would Stalin think?)

There are frequent buses (5 hrs) to and from Chelyabinsk. The main bus station (outside the train station) is a little confusing. There seem to be three competing bus companies, each with its own ticket office. They overlap on routes, but have separate schedules and separate departure areas. On departure make sure to check with one of the ticket controllers that you are waiting in the right place, and don’t just trust the signs!

I mostly used the tram network to get around. Here’s a route map. Tram 4 runs from Ul Leningradsky on the West side across the Ural and past the MMK Museum.

The city has a reputation as being heavily polluted, but I didn’t notice any particular problems in my short visit. Rather to my surprise, given the rather alarming appearance of the steel plant, the air at ground level seemed fresh and clean.