Saturday, October 20, 2007

Первый снег

У нас во Владивостоке идет первый снег. Хотя мне казалось, что прекрасная, теплая и солнечная осень никогда не закончится, вот листья только начинали падать... а в четверг очередной циклон уже подкрадывался к нам, температура резко упала, ночью начался дождь, утром поднялся ветер, и к ужину в пятницу наблюдались первые снежинки. Сегодня (в сууботу) утром всё вроде стихло, но после обеда снова пошел снег. Вот вид из моего окна.
Прощай, лето!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Neighbors, New Doors

In mid-October I got new neighbors. They bought the apartment next door to me. The biggest effect so far is that we got new doors on our hallway! (Really, those who have lived in a Russian apartment building may understand my excitement at any household improvements.) My hallway has 2 doors leading to our floor's 2 elevators (one working, one eternally out of order) and the stairwell. Apparently the new neighbors were very disappointed with the hallway's appearance generally and the draft situation -- it gets very cold in the winter, as the hallway is not heated, plus there are cracks in the windows, and the doors blocking off the hallway from really cold places like the stairwell don't close well. So, they paid to have new doors put in! They are really spiffy and look super.
This is one of our new doors, leading from the elevator to our hall. It even has a peephole. It isn't squeaky or rusty or anything.

This used to be our door. And this is the door on the other hallway on my floor -- what our door used to look like. Since people almost always own their apartment in Russia, and don't rent, there isn't one person (a landlord) who looks after the building. So that means common areas like hallways, doors and windows in hallways, elevators, stairwells, etc. often aren't in great shape. It is certainly very rare for an individual apartment-owner to pay out of pocket to improve these areas.

Fall continues to be beautiful in Vladivostok! This is a view of the Amur Bay (Pacific Ocean) and the First River area, including where I live, from the hills above.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Conferences, Dinosaurs and a TV Appearance

From October 1-10 I went to two conferences. The first was the 8th annual Conference on Russian Far East Zapovedniks (nature reserves), held outside of Blagoveschensk in the Amur Region. Presentations aside, the best thing about this conference was that I got another chance to see some of the wonderful people I've met while visiting some zapovedniks in the Far East. It definitely made the 34-hour train ride worth it -- and I say that even considering that the guys in my car spilled beer all over me about halfway through the trip. (Although they tried to make up for it by asking me to marry them, that didn't save my jeans.) This first picture is me after the conference with a number of reserve scientists, from Khingansky Zapovednik (Irina, Tatyana, Marina, Alyosha and Slava), and on the end is Misha from Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik.

The conference was held at a little Soviet-era resort, Mukhinka, and there was a little lake and beautiful forest all around. The fall colors there were just amazing, and walking in the woods here was really delightful. The river in the background of the second picture below is the Zeya, a large tributary of the Amur.

During this conference I also made my first (in Russia or the U.S.) TV appearance! The local news service came out to the conference one day, and since I was the token foreigner, of course they had to interview me. Unfortunately I didn't get a copy of the recording, which is too bad, as I actually have the ability to sound rather intelligent in Russian these days. However, here are pictures of me with the cameraman, and a very blurry picture of me on "Vesti" (the news) on TV, with my name up there and everything (click on picture to enlarge).

Oh, and the Amur Region is also famous for dinosaurs! In the area near the capital, Blagoveschensk, in the 20th century scientists discovered 10 new species of dinosaurs (6 plant-eaters and 4 carnivores). Below is me with a duck-billed plant-eater, Olorotitan arharensis, who lived in the area more than 65 million years ago, but just got dug up and put together in the last 8 years.

The second conference, Sosnovka, was outside of Khabarovsk, about halfway between the first conference and Vladivostok. Every year this conference brings together a number of Russian environmental NGOs, from Moscow to Kamchatka, and I got to see some old friends, meet some new people I'd been long hoping to meet, and even meet some people whose names I'd seen on articles before, but who I never expected to meet in person! It was a really cool experience to get to go and hear discussed a number of issues facing the environmental community, from oil and gas to forestry regulations to mining and hydropower. (Obviously an extractive industries theme running through Russia's development plans, unfortunately.) Sadly I did a very poor photography job at Sosnovka, and the best part was the guitar playing and singing anyway, which you need video for.

This sign reminds vacationers at the Mukhinka resort to "take care of nature!"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Terney, Tiger Day and Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik (Sept 20-27)

At the end of September I finally made a trip to the largest federal-level nature reserve in the Primorsky Region, Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik. Founded in 1935, it is one of the oldest nature reserves in all of Russia, and it is also one of only 8 UNESCO World Heritage nature sites in Russia. Sikhote-Alinsky Zapovednik is best known for the endangered Amur tiger: the reserve is estimated to be home to 30-40 of them. Since 1992 the reserve has been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on a project to radio-collar and track tigers in the zapovednik. Unfortunately my trip was much too short, and I didn't see even any tiger tracks. However, WCS did fit a tigress with a new radio collar just last week, on October 8. Pretty amazing.

The zapovednik's headquarters are located in the little village of Ternei, on the Pacific coast and near the border of the reserve, a 10-hour (minimum) drive north from Vladivostok. I stayed in Ternei at WCS's research center, which was really nice. Ternei is a town of about 4000, and at this time of year, with the wonderful fall weather, it seems something close to paradise. These first two pictures are views of Ternei.

While I was in Ternei 4 scientists from the zapovednik and an American graduate student were doing field work to test a model that should predict the composition of forests in the area. They let me come out to two of their field sites with them, which was great. If the model accurately describes the forests in the zapovednik now -- which is what they're trying to test -- then it may be a good predictor of how forest composition here might change in the future (due to factors such as climate change, etc.). In this picture Nancy is explaining a technique to Lena.

Overall the forests in the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik are very unique -- truly one of a kind today, as similar forests have already been lost (i.e., logged) all around the rest of the world. Here Misha is measuring tree height in a secondary forest.

Sveta is measuring diameter.

We worked in 30-m diameter circular plots (counting trees and species, measuring diameter, height, etc.), and we measured off sectors in each circle using measuring tape.

Misha is measuring diameter, and Galina is recording. Misha, Lena, Galina and Sveta were just wonderful. Much like the science staff at Khingansky Zapovednik, they are quite literally too nice for words. Misha, Galina and Sveta have all been working together at Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik for more than 20 years -- so they are also quite the source of information.

An old cabin at an old ranger station near one of the reserve's research sites. This reminded me of something like Shenandoah. We stoked the stove to make tea.

This is the Pacific Coast in the zapovednik.

More coastline.

There are literally dozens of seals lounging on these rocks. Sveta counted over 200. This part of the ocean is also part of the reserve.

Mmmm...mushrooms. Mushrooms and mushroom-hunting are a very important (and delicious) part of Russian culture, and September is mushroom season out here. But these mushrooms, although edible, were in the zapovednik, so you can't pick them.

I was also lucky to be in Ternei on Tiger Day. This holiday is celebrated throughout the Primorsky Region in September, in a number of different towns and cities. It started in Vladivostok back in 2000. The main and original sponsor is an environmental organization in Vladivostok, although a number of groups are always involved in planning. In Ternei the participants included WCS, Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, a local environmental club, Uragus, local schools in the Ternei District and more. The holiday started inside with a number of performances (dances, skits, etc. -- not all tiger-related), and then there was a parade around town.

At the parade. Each group (club, school, NGO, etc.) had its own banner and its own cheer about tigers.

This is Volodya the Tiger. He's the hero of the day.

One thing about the Far East is that there are amazingly beautiful and pristine areas, like Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik, right next to areas of near environmental disaster. This is a mine in the town of Dalnegorsk, not far south of Ternei. The mine is no longer operating, it seems -- or at least ore is not being trucked out of town anymore -- but a whole lot of decaying Soviet-era equipment and crumbling factories have been left behind here, and it's hard to imagine it being cleaned up soon.

Environmental news stand in Terney.

Chickens! This picture is for you, Mom. Well, and for Dad and Dan. There were plenty of chickens on the side of the road in Terney.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Meet me in Saint Petersburg (August 31 - Sept 8)

This year my very brave parents decided to close their eyes, hold their breath, join hands, hope for the best and make their first trip to Russia. After hearing so much (much more than they ever wanted to know, perhaps) about my travel here for more than 4 years now, they decided to check it out. Although I have yet to convince them to visit Siberia or the Far East, Mom and Dad did come to Saint Petersburg for the first week of September. This first picture is my mom and dad on the Catherine Canal (from Nevsky Prospect, Petersburg's largest -- and quite famous -- downtown thoroughfare.)

Petersburg was the first place I ever visited in Russia; I lived there for a month in July of 2003, but haven't been back since. I still learned plenty of new things for myself this time around. One of the coolest things was my parents' interest in the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), so this time I learned a lot about the city during the years of WWII, the colossal efforts that must have been taken to restore it since then, and more.

Despite knowing no Russian or the Cyrillic alphabet, my parents did learn to recognize words like "coffee house," "restaurant," and, of course, "McDonalds" (something they wouldn't see in Vladivostok) by the end of the trip. Overall they deserve quite the kudos for trying to learn more about strange and overwhelming country that their daughter is for some reason fascinated by. My dad was even reading War and Peace on the plane ride over! And, after surviving the Petersburg metro several times, hopefully they now feel ready to take on anything.

Also, this blog entry is made possible by the photography skills of my mother. Thank you for being the photographer, Mom!

This is something else I did not do in Petersburg my first time around -- get my picture taken with Peter and Catherine the Great! Peter the Great was tsar of Russia from 1682-1725, and he founded St Petersburg and moved the capital of Russia there (from Moscow) in 1703. The capital stayed in St Petersburg until 1918, when the Bolsheviks moved it back to Moscow. Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762-1796. While Peter won Russia a northern port, St Petersburg, on the Baltic, Catherine won the country a southern port, Odessa, on the Black Sea. Ports of course were very important to Russia's development -- it's no fun being land-locked. There are Peter and Catherine the Greats all over St Petersburg and the palaces on the outskirts, just waiting to take their picture with tourists (for a $4 fee).

St Petersburg is a city of palaces. Tsars' palaces, people richer than the tsars' palaces, you name it. Above is St Petersburg's first palace -- inside is preserved the wooden house where Peter the Great lived when the city was being built. Peter didn't really like big stuff. All the palaces he built for himself were pretty little.

And on a more grandiose scale... This is the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, picture taken from Palace Square, where Nevsky Prospect ends. The 4 palaces of the Winter Palace (this is just a view of the most famous one) were built in the mid-1700s. The Winter Palace was the winter residence of the tsars. Obviously, they gave themselves a little upgrade over Peter's modest digs. Today you can go inside the Winter Palace, but you can't see what the tsars' rooms looked like -- the Bolsheviks weren't really too big on preserving that stuff. Instead you can tour the Hermitage, one of the world's largest art museums. The collection was started by Catherine the Great, and initially was a private collection of the tsars. Today the Hermitage has over 3 million pieces of art -- you could literally spend a lifetime there -- including 2 Leonardo da Vincis, Raphaels, many Rembrandts, etc. The interiors of the Hermitage alone are quite unreal and extravagant. Perhaps my mom will post a picture of them in the comments section :-).

This is the Aleksandr Column, in Palace Square in front of the Hermitage/Winter Palace. It commemorates Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars. (Aleksandr I was tsar at the time.) At the top an angel is crushing a snake with her cross. (You guessed it -- Napoleon is the snake.) This column has no foundation and rests on its own weight.

Here's another snake-crushing monument. (The dudes in front are part of one of numerous wedding parties.) This is a monument to Peter the Great called the Bronze Horseman, since made very famous in a poem of the same name by Russia's greatest writer, Aleksandr Pushkin. As my dad astutely observed, the back hoof of the horse is also crushing a snake. However, this snake is not Napoleon but the Swedish king Charles XII, whom Peter defeated in the Great Northern War to win the territory that includes St Petersburg.

In the summer the tsars got away from their drab living in St Petersburg and the Winter Palace and went out to the suburbs. This is me and my mom in front of part of the main fountain cascade at Peterhof, the construction of which was started by Peter the Great in the early 1700s. Peterhof is on the Gulf of Finland, 20 km from St Petersburg. Peter may have abandoned his modest principles *just a little* when he went to build this palace and particularly the beautiful grounds, meant to rival Versailles. There is quite a lot of gold and many amazing fountains here, and it is difficult to imagine a place being more extravagant, although I suppose we'll just have to go to Versailles to compare. Like all the tsars' suburban palaces, Peterhof was occupied by the Germans in WWII, and much of the grounds and palace interiors were destroyed by them. From here the German army used to fire on St Petersburg, aiming for the huge gold dome of St Isaac's Cathedral downtown.

This is the main palace, or Catherine Palace, at Tsarskoye Selo. (The weather wasn't as super for our visit there -- St Petersburg can already be pretty chilly, windy and rainy at the beginning of September. Fortunately we had sunny -- if cool -- weather about half the time.) Peter the Great gave the land here to his wife, Catherine I, as a present in the early 1700s. Most of the building was overseen by their daughter, Elizabeth (her architect was Rastrelli, responsible for much of the baroque architecture of St Petersburg), and then Catherine the Great. Both Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

St Petersburg was home to come of Russia's greatest literary and artistic geniuses. This is Dostoevsky's tombstone.

This building is home to the House of Books (Dom Knigi) on Nevsky Prospect. It just looks cool. It was originally built to house an American sewing-machine company, which I suppose could serve as a partial explanation of the architecture.

This is the Church on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Aleksandr II was assassinated in 1881. Fortunately this church was not destroyed by the Communists, although it was closed and used to house theater props, among other things. It took longer to restore it (25+ years) than it did to build it. The inside walls are covered in very ornate mosaics. Along with Kazan Cathedral and St Isaac's Cathedral, this is one of the most famous churches in St Petersburg -- and they are all right downtown, literally within minutes' walk of each other.

This bear is helping us toast our trip. You have to indulge in the Russian stereotypes sometime. The vodka was in fact really good.

The Venice of the North? Many people claim that St Petersburg deserves this title.

We also took a trip to Novgorod for the day, climbed St Isaac's Cathedral, wandered around the Peter and Paul Fortress in the rain, visited the Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, where many of the estimated 1 million victims of the siege of Leningrad are buried in mass graves, and much more. Perhaps Mom will post some more pictures.