The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

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

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