Monday, November 06, 2006


Volgograd...The World's Longest City!

Somewhere Over the North Atlantic
Today’s Doonesbury cartoon features an Enron exec calling his wife on plane phone, “Good News Honey!” he says, “I just left US airspace!”

And so did I.

So far so good, but gawd almighty, I have so far to go. This trip won’t be quite as long as my first trip to Russia. Last year I visited Tomsk, one of the closed cities of the Cold War. Tomsk is located deep in the Siberian less than five time zones east of Moscow. Literally on the opposite side of the planet from Hyde Park.

Let Sleeping Astronauts Lay...
The gal sitting to me is an honest to goodness astronaut! Johnson Space Center, NASA, zero G training. She’s 32, with a PhD from UT, lives in Houston, and is on her way to Space City outside Moscow. It’s her first trip to Russia. She’s reading “Carrying the Flame” by I forget which astronaut. The introduction is by Charles Lindbergh. Now, Colonel Lindbergh, pilot of the “The Spirit of St. Louis,” took off for his historic flight to Europe from Robertson Air Base in St. Louis. My middle name is Robertson (not “radio,” as some seem to think) and it was my great great uncles who, as part of the Robertson Airmail Company, backed up Chuck in his successful attempt to cross the Atlantic...and to collect the $25,000 prize. Anyway the pretty young astronaut doesn’t seem particularly impressed. Her NASA ID reads “Astronaut” and she has a red American passport. She sleeps soundly for like, six hours, and wakes up only when we land.

At my Going Away Party, I took an informal, unscientific poll, asking the following question: “Will my SHOES be given any special inspection or attention?” A little more than half the folks said yes. So far customs and security have been a walk through. We’ll see on the return trip in a coupla’ weeks.

Two Cheeseheads and a Texan...
The flights to Moscow are always full and this flight is no different. So far, I have met one fellow, Damon, a retiree from Wisconsin who is on his 52nd trip to Russia and East Europe! He’s an ACDI/VOCA volunteer, staying at the same hotel, the AeroStar, as me. This is great. We will share the driver and it just means a lot less concern about being having to be constantly “on guard.” Damon, a spry 71 year old, taught me a great trick to get through the lengthy Immigration lines. The “Russian Citizens” line is always much shorter than the foreign nationals line. When there is no longer a line in the Russia booth, jump over to there, THEN, jump the line to the “Red (Diplomatic) Passport” booth. Worked like charm! Instead of standing in line for nearly an hour, we breezed through in a coupla’ minutes.

The two Cheeseheads, Wisconsin dairy farmers both, and I are deposited in the good ol’ Hotel AeroStar. Still suffering from this nagging head cold and a little lag, I took a hot bath, (the bath water a lovely minty green color...) and three naps. Then a nice dinner, and some serious discussion on storing bull semen, neutral sex cows (“Martins”), manure dispersal rate permits (go for the Federal permit), etc. You learn a lot on these trips.

And of course there was a little good natured ribbing about braggart Texans, including the classic joke: A Texas rancher and a Wisconsin dairy farmer were talking, bragging, about their land. The Texan, sticking his chest out says, “My spread’s so big it takes me all day just to drive around it in my truck!” To which the dairy farmer, with a pull on his overalls, dryly replies, “Yessir, I used to have a truck like that!”

BTW, the other volunteer is from a small farming community north of Oshkosh. His name is Bruce and it’s his first time overseas. He’s wearing his highschool gym sweat shirt. He was sure glad to hook up with some other ‘mericans. (Me too. Traveling with a coupla’ other folks almost always makes things easier. But if you want adventure, head off by yourself.) Anyway, Bruce is wearing one of those “WWJD” bracelets, which I’ve come to learn means: “I Don’t Tip.”

The AeroStar is a bustling place. Lots of foreigners and business-types. Last time I was there, I guy hit me up for $600,000 to build a complete state of the art digital editing studio. I told him I didn’t have that much cash on me....

The National Iranian Karate Team, and, uh, Me
While there, the lobby is suddenly full of athletes, coaches and guys who yell in cell phones. The athletes, all young, fierce looking Arab men, are the Iranian National Karate Team! I decide against bringing up Bush’s “axis of evil” comment when I found myself, alone, with four of these slabs of muscle in an elevator car. I’m in the back of the car. My floor comes up. The door opens. None of them move. I have no idea if they had pegged me as an ‘merican, (or, to be fair, if they care...) There is one of those moments; were you begin accessing risk, contemplating danger , looking for paths of escape. I say “excusa” and this one slab of muscle, pivots, doorlike, and lets me exit. I take another mint green bath.

Clearly the travel arrangements for my return trip here to Russia are a big improvement over my first trip. Last February, after enduring the ten hours flight between JFK and Moscow, I had just a few hours until I had to fly on to Tomsk...five more time zones due east into the great frozen expanse that is Siberia. The flight was delayed, of course, barely escaping before a “typhoon” (blizzard) engulfed the city. By time I landed in the swirling snow of the Tomsk airport, I was wasted.

As I write this, I am comfortably, warmly, ensconced in my own private berth. Lap top on my lap, legs up, with pillows and sheets tucked appropriately. The lap top serves as a substitute for my big ol’ geriatric house cat “Lucky” Lucy. Both are warm on your lap and make pleasant sounds. However the laptop doesn’t shed and has spell check. Sorry Lucy. The Russian train cars are quite nice, certainly not as sterile as the Swiss or German trains, more on par with, say, the Italian coaches. I am snacking on dried fruits, nuts and meats. Very comfy. I don’t know how much this train trip and private berth cost (ignorance is luxury!) but it’s worth every Ruble. I was able to get some nice video shots through the window, with the billions of birch trees whizzing by, with a schmaltzy sound track provided by the on-board radio speaker system. If you can imagine the Doodle Town Pipers, in Russian, that’s it.

And in the morning I will arrive in Volgograd where I will spend the next two and a half weeks consulting with a local grocery chain/warehouse/ distribution company.

World’s Longest City
Volgograd bills itself as “The World’s Longest City,” an incredible 90 kilometers long, but only 12 clicks wide, running along the dry side of the Volga River. It is also known as “The Port of Five Seas”: Those seas are: the Black, the Caspian, the Azov, the Baltic and the White.

BIG Mother!
Giant stature of Mother Russia, more than 86 meters to the tip of her sword. Visible for many, many miles. The book, and now Hollywood movie, “Enemy at the Gate” was based here in Volgrograd. The Nazi advance east was finally stalled here. The cost: 1.5 million Nazis dead, 1 million Russians dead, the entire city leveled to the ground. The famous T34 Russian tanks were made here. There are 16 of the tank’s turrets mounted as memorials around the city.

Russian Test Pattern
Unlike Moscow, there is virtually nothing in English in Volgograd, not radio, not print, not even many ads for western products, and not a single English language TV station on the nine channel cable line up in the Hotel Bank.

Jim’s Volgograd Client
SupermarKIT. “KIT” means “whale” in Russian. The company “Service Product” has two retail stores, with another to open, hopefully, while I’m here. Plus a warehouse/distribution system, not to mention a night club with bowling, billiards, disco, liquor, etc.

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