Saturday, March 31, 2007


This week I got to make my first out-of-town trip – to Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 people located about 800 km north of Vladivostok. (Out here, this distance is considered “close.”) I went together with Anton Semyonov and Trond Lovdal from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an American environmental NGO that is over 100 years old and now has programs all over the world working to conserve – you guessed it – wildlife. WCS’s work in the Russian Far East is focused primarily on protecting the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard. Trond and Anton invited me along on their trip in exchange for help with translation – Trond doesn’t speak Russian – and I certainly wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to see some more of the Russian Far East and learn about a WCS project.

Anton and Trond’s trip was focused on WCS’s “Tiger Friendly” program. The coolest thing about Tiger Friendly is that it is an on-the-ground project working to demonstrate that conservation and sustainable economic development are compatible, and that market incentives can stimulate nature protection – something environmentalists love to talk about, but that is very hard to actually do in practice. Tiger Friendly engages owners of hunting leases – privately-owned plots of land on which may take place not only hunting, but also, for example, tourism, collection of herbs from the forest, and so on. It’s not rare that the territory of these hunting leases is also habitat for tigers.

How does the Tiger Friendly program work? Right now it focuses on sustainable harvest of herbs like Siberian ginseng and rosehips on the territory of these hunting leases. There is a buyer in the United States who is very interested in buying these herbs and using them to make tea, medicines, etc. These products are certified organic and also get another certification – “Tiger Friendly.” In the store they will thus have two labels, the organic label and the Tiger Friendly label. Consumers in the States are already willing to pay a premium for organic products, and the tiger certification only increases the value. (Coming soon to a Whole Foods near you! Really.) The “Tiger Friendly” certification means that the hunting leases monitor the populations of tigers and tiger prey on their territory, conduct local education programs about the importance of tigers, and so on. Since certification brings a higher market price in the States, the hunting leases also get a higher price for the herbs they harvest – giving them an economic incentive to participate in the program (and to help protect tigers, rather than poach them for an additional source of income).

The purpose of the Khabarovsk trip was to meet with the processor who gets the herbs from the hunting leases and then ensures delivery of the product to the buyer in the States. Under discussion was a project to see if Russians may be also willing to pay a price premium for Tiger Friendly certified products. The processor’s name is Evgeny Khrustov, and his company is called “Forest Products.” It was interesting to see the interest of a businessman in this project. Not that he was jumping up and down about it – but he saw the economic benefit to him and was ready to work. Kind of cool to watch NGOs and business in the same room.

“Forest Products” also makes a lot of different teas, syrups, honeys and jams from non-timber forest products harvested in the taiga. Khrustov gave us a bunch as a gift to take home to Vladivostok with us. It was good timing for me – the syrups are made from berries and herbs, and they have different vitamins and are good for your health. Since I have recently managed to get a little sick, I am getting some use out of the syrup that is good for colds. You just add a few drops to your tea. Russians are really into these syrups – it’s a cultural difference that is fun to try out.

While we were in Khabarovsk I also go to meet Aleksandr Kulikov, the super nice director the Khabarovsk Wildlife Foundation, one of the oldest environmental NGOs in Russia. The Wildlife Foundation is quite successful and professional, and it was cool to hear about its work, a lot of which has focused on habitat protection and creating nature reserves (they’ve created a number), education and science. They run an almost $1 million Global Environment Facility-sponsored project – very impressive for a Russian NGO.

Anyway, enough about the environment, back to the trip. We went to Khabarovsk on the overnight train. This is a 13-hour trip. We went in a coupe car, which means there are 4 bunks. I’m not a great train sleeper, but this was not a bad way to travel. Although if you ever feel that the comforts of modern human existence are deceptively artificial, just check out the bathrooms on a Russian train. That’ll take you back to reality. Granted, the train on the way back – which was more expensive – was better.

I’ve wanted to go to Khabarovsk for some time, ever since I saw pictures of it on the news in Irkutsk. It actually looks neat, orderly and nice to walk around in. And in fact downtown Khabarovsk is very neat, orderly and spacious: the streets are wide and straight, the sidewalks are clean and also very wide, the buildings are kept up and the architecture is rather classical and seems even coordinated. This is quite the contrast to Vladivostok, with its overly-crowded streets and buildings crunched up against other buildings, 1800s architecture next to Soviet concrete next to modern shiny green and blue and gold walls of who knows what kind of material, spilling and sprawling over the city’s hills. At the same time Khabarovsk, like Irkutsk, is said to be much more quiet and provincial than Vladivostok.

Like Vlad, Khabarovsk is also a stone’s throw from the border, separated from China by the Amur River, on the banks of which the city is built. The Amur is one of the largest rivers in the world, and it was cool to go down to the embankment and check it out, even if it is frozen over at this time of year. While in Vlad most of the snow has melted and the temperatures for the last week were in the 40s, in Khabarovsk it was about 20 degrees colder than here, and there it is still winter – plenty of snow to go around. But Vlad reminded us today that it also is not ready to let the spring come too soon – we got another snow and gale-force wind event. The winds here are amazing – they’ll literally blow you away, and we seem to get a day’s worth of good wind every 2-3 weeks here. Good for clearing the air of exhaust fumes.

But this time around most of the snow melted on contact with the ground, so perhaps spring really is just around the corner.

Pictures: 1. Karl Marx street, one of the main streets in Khabarovsk; 2. The Amur River and embankment, 3. free stuff from Forest Products – teas, honey and syrups, 4. cool church in downtown Khabarovsk

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Day in the Life…

Many of the Russians I have gotten to know more closely in Vladivostok have asked me, So, Cheryl, how exactly do you usually spend your days here? For an example, here’s how today went.

On Thursday mornings I have two 80-minute lectures at the Environment Institute at Far Eastern State University (DVGU), so I get up rather early (about 7:00), and head over to the university at 7:45. I walk there. Right now the snow is melting during the day in the city, but things freeze at night, and early in the morning the streets and sidewalks are still rather iced over. So I shuffle along as best I can, especially on the hills. Today I took a nice fall – I find this happens once every 2 weeks or so. I’m not alone, and I find that people falling on the ice fails to attract much extra attention around here.

So my classes. In fact they are closer to 60 minutes in length, because they always start late and often end early. The first class (Nature Protection and Regional Environmental Issues) starts at 8:00 am, and I’ve detected a pattern for how it goes: the professor reads a very good lecture (today’s topic was a continuation on criteria for and approaches to evaluating ecosystem health), but he talks a little too fast for us to get everything down. The Russian students are not too appreciative of the entire academic experience, as far as I’ve gathered. One girl in the class usually takes notes, while everyone else talks and sends SMS messages on their cell phones. General practice at DVGU tells me they’ll probably all copy down the one girl’s notes some other time.

I take my second class, Political Geography, with a different and much more well-behaved group of students. They are more like the Russian students I took classes with in Irkutsk. Almost all of them actually take notes and pay attention during lecture. This group also has taken a little more interest in me, and while I have yet to meet anyone in the Nature Protection class, I feeling comfortable chatting with the Political Geography students. Today one of them, Ira, decided we should get together sometime and took down my phone number. Ira is going to the U.S. for a couple of months this summer on a pretty well-advertised (and popular) exchange program that sends Russian students to California, New Jersey, New York, Florida (maybe other states, too) to work a waitress- or tourist-type job, just for the experience, apparently. Ira is assigned to New Jersey. I tried not to show my disappointment for her.

No time for swimming today, as the pool is crowded at all day times except from 11:00 to 3:00, and I have to go out to the Institute of Marine Biology this afternoon. After my Political Geography class I go to the bank to pay my telephone bill. Paying your bills in Russia is not quite as simple as paying in the States. You don’t get to mail in a check or pay online. You get your bill in the mail and go to the nearest cashier’s office. The office closest to me is at one of the main SberBanks in town, about a 15-minute walk from my apartment. I imagine I’m pretty lucky to have this close proximity.

Besides the waiting in line, paying the bill is simple. Then it’s a muddy walk off to the nearest train station to catch 12:05 electric train (“electrichka”) to the Institute of Marine Biology (IMB). Today I have 2 main purposes there: to meet up with Liliya, IMB’s education specialist, who works from home most days, and to consult with Andrei Maliutin, the director of the Far Eastern Marine Zapovednik (Nature Reserve), assuming he hasn’t left for Moscow – a plan left precariously hanging in the air.

In the office where Liliya works there are guests, and I get to meet Denis, one of the guards from Kedrovaya Pad Zapovednik, a much too tiny reserve created specifically for the protection of the Amur leopard, the world’s most endangered large cat; Diana Solovyova, a scientist from Wrangel Island Zapovednik (Nature Reserve), which has some of Russia’s best ecological monitoring programs (particularly for birds); and a scientist from Denmark who is joining Diana’s team from Wrangel Island for a month in the field as his “vacation.” Diana and the scientists from Wrangel Island are already here in the Russian Far East for the second year in a row. Their purpose? They spend two full months in the field studying merganser (that’s a duck) populations to the north of Vladivostok, in the Lazovsky Region near Lazovsky Zapovednik. Part of their study involves evaluating the success of placing artificial nests in trees on the river for the mergansers, to see if they will use them successfully when there may not be enough natural nesting sites. Diana invited me to come out and spend some time in the field with them in April or May, and I’m all for it. Mersangers are not a bird you get to see too frequently, and the Wrangel Island team has some cool science going.

Maliutin fortunately (for me) had not left town, so I got a chance to have a chat with him today, too. Despite the fact that he cancelled his working trip to Moscow because he was too busy in Vladivostok, he smiled when he saw me, invited me right on in, and found time to chat with me for nearly an hour without making me feel like I was bothering him. He’s quite a good-natured guy, and always ready to see if he can help in some little way – by finding a book in his library, chatting with another scientist, etc. Today we discussed the two quite different topics: 1. problems associated with lack of clear legislation defining the rules for marine ecosystems, and 2. Far Eastern Marine Reserve’s development of a monitoring system based on monitoring a defined set of biological indicators. That is, rather than conduct a simple inventory of the abundance of all the species in the reserve, the sizes of its individuals, and so on – a common practice in Russia, which unfortunately fails to take into account limited resources and the need for forecasting – starting in 2003 Far Eastern Marine Reserve began monitoring a key set of species that occupy different trophic levels (levels in the food chain). These species are indicators – changes in their composition, numbers, etc. should be reflect changes in the ecosystem as a whole.

Maliutin and I also discussed my goal of conducting a comparative analysis of protected area management experience in the Russian Far East, and how to best approach this task. Maliutin recommended taking the same approach as with the monitoring system we had just discussed: define a set of key indicators that should be comparable across all the protected areas in the Far East, and develop a corresponding evaluation system. Not a bad idea! It is very generous of Maliutin to advise me on this question, quite on the spur of the moment – he’s certainly not required to. In this sense people like him are crucial for me for the Fulbright. Although I have 2 official advisors here (the director of DVGU’s Environment Institute and the director of the Institute of Marine Biology), I very rarely interact with them, and I certainly do not limit myself to consulting only with them. I use everyone I can here as an advisor, and I am lucky to have met specialists like Andrei Maliutin, Anatoly Kachur, Liliya Kondrashova and others who are ready to give me valuable tips, academic advice and encouragement.

By 5:00 it was time to head back to downtown Vladivostok on the electrichka. The electric train is a unique Russian experience. Every time there’s something different to observe. There are always poor vendors walking through the cars selling ice cream, t-shirts, socks, newspapers and more. Usually there will be some young people in your car listening to music on their headphones or cell phones at a volume loud enough for the whole car to hear. Sometimes a few scraggly guys will get on at one stop, dragging a guitar or two with them, serenade your car with music you may or may not want to listen to, or that may or may not actually qualify as music, for a few minutes, ask for money and get off. Today I headed home with Natasha, IMB’s museum director, and Gennady, her husband and a scientist in the Laboratory of Shelf Communities. They’re both super. And today in our car on the electrichka we got a new experience (for me, that is): a group of students got on, and two of the girls sang Russian folk songs, off-key, as loud as they could (drowning out our conversation completely, for example), dancing eventually included, for the last ten minutes of our ride. Amusing. Ten minutes of such amusement is enough, though.

As we walked from the train station to the main square downtown Natasha told me about interesting happenings she and Gennady had be privileged enough to observe on public transportation – a bus ride from Seattle to San Francisco – while in the States a few years back.

So I walked the 30 minutes back to my apartment – being careful not to get run over, of course – and got home just in time to make dinner, watch a silly sitcom while it cooked, eat and write you this blog. A good day in Vladivostok!

Pictures: 1. Vladivostok train station, 2. main square in Vladivostok -- monument to the fighters for Soviet power

Thursday, March 15, 2007

People Profiles: Anatoly Nikolaevich Kachur

Today (Thursday March 15) I got to go over to the Pacific Institute of Geography (TIG) to have a one-on-one consultation with Anatoly Kachur, the institute’s deputy director (=#2 in charge). He rocks!

I got to meet Kachur because I take a class (“Nature Protection and Regional Environmental Issues”) with him at the Environment Institute of Far Eastern State University. (It is common for universities to attract scientists from their city’s scientific institutes to read a lecture for a semester every now and then.) Kachur’s lectures are all inevitably on topics of great interest to me, from resource use to ecological monitoring, and are quite good (although he talks so fast that many of the Russian students simply give up on taking notes); plus it is immediately obvious that Anatoly has a ton of experience and a wealth of knowledge. He has traveled in the United States and Asia, and he participates in a number of international projects (e.g., the constantly-stalled project to create a transboundary Russian-American national park in the Bering Strait, creating a Russian-Chinese-Korean reserve in the basin of the Tumannaya River, etc.). Kachur not only occupies one of the highest posts at TIG, but he is also the Russian director of a regional United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) project that brings together Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to study the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea. A big achievement of the project (now 10 years old) thus far has just been to get everyone speaking the same language, so that they can effectively exchange information about the environmental state of these seas – it’s not an easy task.

Kachur invited me to TIG to consult with him about reading and sources for my research, particularly related the history of resource use and development of the Far East. (Fun trivia fact: he recommended reading 2 books by Prozhivatsky, one of the first Russian explorers out here and rumored to be Stalin’s father!) He also gave me a number of loans from his own personal library, most regarding long-term nature conservation programs developed for the Primorsky Region (Vladivostok is the capital of this region) and international cooperation in protecting natural areas (transboundary protected areas, etc.). He had a number of very relevant recommendations (some of the best “scientific” proposals I’ve received so far) for me about things to do and people to meet, and I am very lucky that he was willing to put aside the time to chat with me and share his experience. (He’s a very busy person – 4 or 5 of his subordinates must have come in for signatures during the course of our hour-long conversation.) Plus he talks just as fast in person as in class, so we got to cover a lot of topics! (from real questions of environmental conservation to aspects of the Japanese work and social system). The coolest thing about Kachur is that he, like many ecologists, is really doing this because he cares – and you can see it right away – despite his rank and experience, it’s impossible not to see his enthusiasm, as well as his genuine interest in and commitment to his work and to learning.

People Profiles: Liliya Gennadievna Kondrashova

Since I am fortunate to get to spend a lot of my time in Vladivostok meeting and working with really awesome people, I thought I would write about some of them on my blog, so you can get to know them too. They are an important part of my life here, after all!

Liliya Kondrashova works as an education specialist at the Institute of Marine Biology (Russian Academy of Sciences). Together with the director of IMB’s museum, Natasha, Liliya coordinates a number of programs for kids and university students. Their big program for this spring is a competition for middle-schoolers called “A City by the Sea,” which gets kids to think about the sustainable development of Vladivostok – a timely topic, given a recent announcement from Putin that the Vladivostok region is about to receive about $25 million in federal investments for economic development in the near future. Kids find out about the competition through their schools and their peers, and participants do things like determine how much trash their families (and schools) produce, how much water they consume, etc., find out about new environmentally-friendly technologies, and think about options for future development in Vladivostok. The program also involves university students, who lead a seminar called “A Lesson for the Future” for all the kids who participate. These university students are awesome – sincerely interested and committed volunteers.

Liliya and Natasha are incredibly vibrant and full of enthusiasm, and they are also great specialists. It’s fantastic to watch them work with kids. The programs they coordinate are realized only due to their own enthusiasm, and often on their own monetary resources, too. This year over 150 school kids have signed up to participate in the “A City by the Sea” competition. The winners get a trip to Popov Island in the Far Eastern Marine Reserve in May.

Liliya herself is from St. Petersburg, and her parents still live there. She moved out to the Russian Far East about 20 years ago, and up until the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they moved to Vladivostok, Liliya and her husband lived in a small village (about 200 people) near the coast. Here Liliya started the village school and ran it herself. Since then she has had quite the interesting professional career, from working in for environmental NGOs to teaching in Russian schools (she has also hosted U.S. Peace Corps volunteers!), but always staying committed to environmental education. In the late 90s Liliya traveled to the U.S. through an exchange program she organized largely herself and visited a number of nature centers in the Southeast. Her dream – in addition to moving back to a little village by the sea, after her 10-year-old son Dima grows up – is to build a Marine Nature Center for kids in Primorye, which in itself would also be a green building.

Liliya has taken a lot of interest in me ever since I arrived here; she is very talkative and very cosmopolitan, and I have learned a lot just from our conversations – on topics ranging from literature to movies to education to what to do in life and more. Last Saturday (March 10) Liliya invited me to participate in a “Lesson for the Future” seminar and afterwards invited me over to her apartment for dinner (as well as searching through her home library and checking out her husband Sergei’s pictures and films about scientific research on both land and sea in Primorye). This was really nice. Liliya lives at the top of one of Vladivostok’s many hills, and normally she would have an excellent view – except that it was again snowing on Saturday. Not only does Liliya have a view, but she also gets plenty of wind, which means the air quality is much better (those exhaust fumes get blown right away!). Since we were already having a storm on Saturday the wind up there was truly nuts, however, but that just makes for all the more adventure. When Liliya and Sergei walked me home that evening it was truly a scene from the classic American concept of Siberia (or Dr. Zhivago) – 50 mph winds, snow no longer actively falling but literally swirling from drifts on the road and ground, packed ice underfoot – so you just put your head down and try to keep walking :-). After all, when will I get to experience something like that again?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Snow, Women’s Day and Russian Science

After Monday’s blizzard Vladivostok is truly a winter wonderland. I don’t think I have ever seen as much snow in a city as there is right now in Vladivostok. The last couple of days have been very cold and clear, too (only today did it get warm enough for some of the snow to start melting), so we have avoided a lot of ice so far – you have to enjoy this while you can! On Monday evening after the storm it was so calm, clean and peaceful in Vlad, and the air was fresh – you have to savor those moments. (They are quite rare in this bursting-with-traffic city.) Over the last few days we have seen many stuck cars, people pushing cars, drivers being polite and not running over pedestrians forced to walk in the streets due to unplowed sidewalks, mountains and walls of plowed snow as tall as or taller than your average person. Some streets downtown (and many sidewalks) have been cleared, while other streets are under a foot of snow, with a few lines of tire tracks forming the necessary ruts for cars to get by. All together it’s a spectacular sight.

I am lucky, because I walk almost everywhere, and the only form of public transportation I am dependent upon is the electric train (elektrichka), which is not too affected by the snow. Hiking through all this snow in the city is quite the hard work – and certainly keeps you warm in the chilly weather. But, I am enjoying it while I can and admiring the views and all the white -- once the thaw begins, it will not be nearly as clean, and much more slippery.

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day, a big holiday in Russia (and a number of other countries, I believe), even if Americans have not caught on yet. Women get gifts, flowers, chocolate, cake, and so on, and all day long the TV and radio and everyone talks about how amazing women are. (Ah, it’s so nice to hear the truth broadcasted throughout the land!)

Everyone has off work on March 8, so you have to celebrate Women's Day during the second half of the work day on March 7. (This way, really, you get 2 holidays.) At the Institute of Marine Biology we had a little party with cake, wine and chocolate. Many Russians actually spend March 8 itself at home relaxing. I was rather against this option. There is in fact too much snow in Vladivostok right now to get out to go cross-country skiing, an original potential plan for the holiday. Instead Leslie and I got together in the afternoon and decided to make a trip to the Arseniev museum. (Leslie is a Fulbright teaching assistant in Vladivostok.) Vladimir Arseniev was a famous explorer of the Russian Far East, and I have been really interested in him ever since I first watched the Kurosawa film “Dersu Uzala.” I am planning to read a few of his books while I am on the Fulbright.

The museum was, well, interesting. From our guide, an elderly Russian women dressed in quite a bit of pink, we learned that Arseniev was a noble person, that he loved everybody and everybody loved him, and that Chinese people, as a rule, apparently have no redeeming qualities. In short, she was quite the character, although I’m not sure how much she knows about Arseniev. I asked a lot of questions nonetheless, forcing her to admit that we were very interested and curious Americans – in a good way. (Me: Can you tell us about Arseniev’s expeditions? What were some of his greatest achievements for the Russian Far East? Our guide: No, we can’t talk about that. But you can buy this book we have for sale – true, it’s rather expensive – and read about this. You can only read about these kinds of things.)

I'm going to say it was not a complete loss, though. I think we learned a couple of new things. And hey, we got to take our picture with a tiger skin.

Working at the Institute of Marine Biology means I get to have some interesting conversations with Russian scientists. Although you know that science and funding for it is in a bad state in Russia, it always more striking when you chat with someone personally. Many laboratories in the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences are no longer able to organize collective work around a few well-defined themes, meaning each scientist in the lab does his own thing. Larger-scale field work and expeditions are nearly impossible to finance (without international support), and equipment is terribly out of date – IMB’s youngest research vessel is 23 years old, and the marine institutes in the Far East (IMB, the Institute of Oceanography, and others) expect that soon they simply will not have any functional research vessels at all. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that scientific research institutions can no longer attract young specialists – the salaries for scientists are so low (about $200/month) that it is impossible to live off of them, and young people are going into more profitable fields. IMB has plenty of specialists in their mid 40s and 50s and up…but attracting young people is a real problem. Although Russia’s increasing national wealth hasn’t changed the situation for science thus far, let’s hope it will in the future.

Pictures: 1. Ice on my windows, 2. Check out all this snow!, 3. Having some cake on Women’s Day at the Institute of Marine Biology, 4. Leslie checks out the tiger skin at Arseniev’s house-museum, 5. The snowplows have made new mountains for the kids of Vladivostok to conquer on Aleutskaya Street :)

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Blizzard #2 for Vladivostok

When I was getting ready to move to Vladivostok, everyone told me it doesn’t snow very much here.

Today we had our second blizzard in less than 3 weeks.

Although this time around the winds didn’t get up to 50 mph sustained for an entire day (although the wind was certainly quite respectable, especially the gusts), this storm brought us much more snow than Vlad’s Valentine’s Day blizzard, and by midday today we had about 2 feet (with more potentially to fall, or so they claim). This time around the city of Vladivostok appeared to be taking a few more measures (at least downtown) to try to clear the snow and prevent Vlad from again turning into a huge ice rink, but it doesn’t seem too likely that the roads or sidewalks will recover very soon.

They say Vladivostok has not had this much snow, or two storms quite like this so close together, in over 100 years.

Of course, everything in town is closed (you know it’s serious when Russia closes for snow!), but as I can’t sit at home for an entire day (and especially not for 2 entire days in less than 3 weeks), I took quite the hike in the storm this afternoon (2 hours may be a bit longer than recommended in this weather), and here are some pictures.

Happy spring!

Pictures (I think you can click to enlarge): 1. and 2. cars stuck near my apartment complex (birds-eye view), 3. a path is cleared on one sidewalk downtown, 4. this (former) staircase is quite snowed over, 5.kiosks near Far Eastern State University, 6. cars are still a-driving on Ocean Avenue (Okeansky Prospekt), one of the busiest roads in town, 7. this bus is stuck! in one of the largest intersections in downtown Vladivostok, 8. in this weather Vladivostok

drivers actually share the road with pedestrians, 9. buried car near my apartment

Friday, March 2, 2007

Swimming in Russia

Swimming in Russia is not the same as swimming in the United States.

After scoping pools in Vladivostok for a couple of weeks (there are several here, ranging in price from expensive to really really expensive), I went swimming today for the first time. I picked a very large sports complex called “Olympiyets,” which is located right on the harbor on the Amur Bay, about a 40-minute walk from my apartment (and I walk, because I do not enjoy the bus, which takes almost as long anyway). The pool at Olympiyets is 8 lanes and 50 meters long (actually, it felt shorter than this to me – but it’s been awhile since I’ve been in a 50-meter pool), and it is the nicest pool in town, as well as the cheapest.

In Russia you can’t just buy a membership to a pool (or gym), show up to the pool any time you want, and swim for as long as you want. This would be far too simple. First, you have to get a “spravka,” or certificate. Theoretically this is to verify that you have no terrifying diseases communicable in a chlorine-saturated environment, but as far as I can tell in reality it is just a way to make money. A nurse checks out your hands and feet, asks you very seriously if you know how to swim, and then writes a little note saying you’re all good. (That’s the “spravka.”) This little note costs 150 rubles (about $6), and you have to get a new one every month.

Then you can swim. But, you can only start swimming on the hour. This means you should get to the pool about 15 minutes before the hour. First you go to the Administrator and buy a ticket to use the pool. At Olympiyets, this ticket costs you 90 rubles (about $3.50), and it allows you to swim for one 45-minute session. The whole daily pool schedule is divided into 45-minute sessions (8:00 – 8:45, 9:00 – 9:45, and so on). This is pretty standard here, and it is the only regime I’ve ever seen at pools in Russia. So, you buy your ticket, and you go wait outside the locker room. At ten minutes before the hour they let you into the locker room, and then exactly on the hour you can start swimming. By the way, you are not allowed to swim if you do not have a cap and goggles. Forty-five minutes past the hour a little bell rings, and you get out. If you want to swim longer, you can go back to the front desk Administrator and buy another 45-minute ticket for another 90 rubles, wait outside the locker room until ten minutes before the hour, and go through all the steps above again. I kind of doubt anyone finds this to be worth it.

Another note of interest is that there are no outlets in the locker room at Olympiyets. This means everyone dries his/her hair in the corridor outside the locker room – that is, in one of the main halls in the gym. This is totally normal and apparently expected, because there’s even a mirror for it.

Despite the seemingly strict regime, most Russians are not, in fact, very serious swimmers. But they like to go to the pool! This means that if you’d really like to swim laps, like me, you should ask while you’re scoping the pool, “Когда бывает мало народа? (“When are there not too many people?”) Otherwise, you are likely to get to the pool, and there are 50 people just sort of floating and standing around, and you will not even get in the minimal amount exercise possible in your 45-minute session. Fortunately, at Olympiyets between 11 and 3 there are apparently not too many people, and I got the lane all to myself when I went at 2:00 pm today.

Now, if you ever told me 5 years ago that I would go through this whole get-the-spravka-only-swim-on-the-hour-AND-pay $3.50 to swim for a whole 45 minutes, I would have never believed it. But I have to say that it was totally worth it. The swimming itself was SUPER. It was so nice to be in the pool again, and of course I felt great after. And, the good thing about the price and the 45-minute regime is that it rather excludes overdoing it (hmm, one of my character traits?), so I should have no excuse not to go consistently, since I certainly won’t be able to say I’ve burned myself out.

Since naturally they don’t let you take pictures of the pool in Russia, I better mention a couple of other things I’ve done recently, just for the sake of putting some photographs on this post. This week I met the director of the Far Eastern Marine Reserve, who assured he would take me out on the boat when the scientific field season starts (I hope! J ); got my first vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis (a real problem in the Far East in the spring and summer – the vaccination procedure is no simpler than the pool, of course, and involves visiting 3 separate rooms); went to a seminar on marine waste (and learned some rather frightening news about what’s on the bottom of the bays and inlets around Vladivostok), and visited a local school to help conduct a lesson for students participating in a environmental competition called “The City on the Sea,” which encourages middle-schoolers to think about ways sustainable development is possible for Vladivostok.

p.s. A big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my little brother, Dan, who is 20 today!!!


1. Artur Maiss of ISAR-RFE and Petr Sharov (familiar faces to many of you, of course) contemplate the state of the Amur Bay at the seminar on marine waste, 2. Golden Horn Bay and the Churkin neighborhood of Vladivostok across the water, from the Egersheld peninsula, 3 and 4. At the “City on the Sea” middle school lesson: 3. Only about 5 kids thought that the future would actually hold sustainable development for society, but 4. Almost all of the kids nonetheless wanted and hoped that sustainable development was the path that society would choose.