The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

San Marino

I’ve finally made it to the Most Serene Republic of San Marino!

As well as being a micro-state (and my last “official” European country), it’s actually quite fun in its own right. I’m in the eponymous City of San Marino, which sits on a tall and very steep hill, with strong defensive towers. You can see why it managed to stayed independent in Medieval times – it would be a major pain to take and it isn’t guarding any important routes or resources.

There aren’t many real sights, but the city is actually quite fun to wander in for a few hours, with quaint zig-zaggy streets. I visited the Public Palace, and looked into the parliament chamber, which is fully equipped with modern electronics. I also watched a short video about the state and its government, which was quite useful. It has been a true republic for many centuries.

Overall, I found San Marino unexpectedly charming. Partly because the location is much more scenic than I expected. But I also liked the low-key and unpretentious nature of the state. Both Monaco and Liechtenstein suffer from being anomalous feudal holdovers, whereas San Marino is an ancient, authentic and democratic republic, which has chosen to guard its liberties and stay independent.

Pamir Passes

Kulma Pass, from the Tajik side

The Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan was finally opened to foreigners last year, so I seized the moment and took a road trip through from Kashgar to Murghab, then up through the high passes into Kyrgyzstan. There had been a little early snow, enough to make things scenic, but not enough to block any of the passes.

The Kulma Pass border crossing is at 4362 meters (14313 ft), on the Eastern edge of the Pamirs. I had transport pre-arranged on both sides. West China Expeditions took me from Tashkurgan to the main Chinese border post and also drove me the final 20 km up to the top border post, which was very helpful. On the Tajikistan side, Pamir Off-Road Adventure met me and took me down to Murghab.

The Chinese border post didn’t open until 12:00 Beijing time, but they then processed me out quite quickly. They X-rayed my bag, but didn’t ask to check inside, let alone review my laptop or phone. (But you shouldn’t rely on that – this border post is known for sometimes making very thorough searches.) At the top of the pass, the final Chinese review took only a couple of minutes and the Tajikistan entry took about 20 minutes.  I noticed a score or so trucks waiting on each side to go through, but I seemed to be the only foreign traveler.

After a day in Murghab, we headed up the Pamir Highway to Osh (Kyrgyzstan). After a quick stop at the scenic Kara Kul lake, we went up though the Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters = 15272 ft) and then through the Tajik-Kyrgyz border at the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters).


Ak Baital Pass (4655 meters)

North from Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 meters)

We hit some shallow snow drifts on the road and got stuck a couple of times. But we eventually made it through. I was very glad to once again safely reach Osh, with its fine statue of Lenin and its excellent Hawaiian Pizza. 🙂

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 a strenuous 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 two Soyuz capsules 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 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 orders 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 – 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.  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.

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.