I once knew a man who had lived through terrible trauma. He and his sister used to own a small art and frame shop just off Hillview Avenue in Sarasota, Florida. I worked there part-time while I was in college. They were Dutch, and had spent their childhood on the family coffee plantation in Indonesia. Then the Japanese came, and the family was incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp for the duration of World War II. They told me many stories of their captivity, the creative ways they engineered their survival, the many examples of cruelty they experienced at the hands of their captors, as well as extraordinary bravery on the part of the most unexpected people. This kind of experience never leaves a person, the memories soften, drift to the back of the mind, but they'll never go away completely. The pain, fear, and misery these people suffered through was always present in their daily lives, like a filtering of the subconscious. Once you have lived through real starvation, Jon used to tell me, You will find no matter how well off you become, it is impossible to leave food on your plate.
As experienced mountaineers will tell you, it's the climb down from the mountain that is the most dangerous
We left Seoul, Korea three days ago, having only spent one night there. We missed out on fully enjoying this stop due to our mechanical issues, but these things happen on a long trip. Other aircraft in our group have had many more mechanical problems, causing even more delays- we're working on staying optimistic at this point. Our tour in Taipei, unexpectedly marked the end of the vacation. We're well past the half-way point in our journey around the world- we have "summited Everest", and are now on the return trip down. As experienced mountaineers will tell you, it's the climb down from the mountain that is the most dangerous- we must stay sharp. We reached Russia two days ago; the most challenging region along our flight path. The weather over the Bering Sea, and the Aleutian Islands, (our two possible flight routes to the US) is unpredictable and unforgiving. The airports here are few, the area is dominated geographically by remote mountainous wilderness, takeoff and landing permissions are hard to get, fuel must be arranged in advance, and our choices are further limited by our lack of flap capability. We're more comfortable choosing longer runways as our approach speeds and take-off distances have increased considerably. Alaska, the USA, looks so close on the map but this is a deception- we are still almost two thousand miles from the US boarder. One plane in our group has already left today, heading out to make a daring flight over sixteen-hundred miles of open cold water for Anchorage. They were tired of waiting and decided to just go, the US seems so close, it's an amazingly powerful temptation to make the dash for Alaska ourselves, but we wait.
Our first stop in Russia was the sea-side city of Vladivostok, once a home base for the Russian fleet during the Cold War, and a powerful military outpost. Today it's a dreary, dark, gotham like place with a lost identity; a city from which its young people only wish to escape. It was a jolting shift to go from clean, modern, friendly, Seoul, Korea, to cold, dilapidated, Vladivostok. The cream filling is gone, the Ho-Ho is gone. Much too suddenly our adventure has turned from a vacation, to a nail-biting ferry flight over hostile terrain in an airplane with mechanical difficulties. We landed under low weather conditions at the old air force base. I think the last time these runways were resurfaced, Leonid Brezhnev was still in charge; the potholes and frost heaves are treacherous. As we taxied in, we were quickly surrounded by several very serious women wearing rather severely tailored olive green and red dominatrix style uniforms.
They looked like badly cast extras from some sad communist spoof film- but I dared not laugh, as these girls looked quite capable of handling themselves in a knife fight
They looked like badly cast extras from some sad communist spoof film- but I dared not laugh, as these girls looked quite capable of handling themselves in a knife fight. They were at their most frightening when viewed from behind, it was then that they suddenly lost all resemblance to their womanhood. Our airplane was the last to arrive, the other aircraft in our group were parked in a tidy row, each with an entourage of dominatrix maidens. I'd barely gotten the door open when I was sternly ordered to remain by the aircraft until we had cleared passport control. One member of our group attempted to photograph one of these ladies and nearly had his camera ripped from his hands. Not surprisingly, no tours are planned for any of our stops here, just an over-night rest, and we're off again. The jovial attitude that has perpetuated through our many arrivals into so many other countries evaporated in Russia like a drop of water on a hot stove.
We're camped out in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, our second Russian stopover. We flew the thirteen hundred mile leg from Vladivostok, non-stop. We had a bit friendlier reception at this airport, but I wouldn't call it "warm". A cold drizzling rain makes this dismal little town downright depressing. We're staying in a very basic hotel that sees very few Americans- we get a lot of strange looks when people overhear us talking amongst ourselves. There are lots of flies- I'm not sure why but they're buzzing around everywhere. We had a pilot meeting this morning and decided the weather was just too risky so we've opted to stay over a day and wait for a better window. The one bright spot is the food; it's really good. Attached to this worn and tired little hotel, there is a fancy new-ish casino with a twenty-four hour restaurant. With its shades of "Caesar's Palace" decor, disco dance floor, and flashing colored lights, one could close their eyes, and still know for certain they were definitely not in Vegas. A few people speak English here, which is another surprise. I will say this about the Russians- they eat well. We've enjoyed the "grilled Halibut with tender nuts"- fantastic. The fried squid rings were the best we've ever had. We went across the street to a shopping center where we found a cafe on the third floor that served a wonderful Russian style crepe- what they called a "pancake" in English. We ordered a variety of flavors and found them all highly yummy. Breakfast is included with the room and was served promptly at 7:30 am, Art and I showed up in the hotel cafeteria at eight. Our fried eggs with Russian styled bacon, red caviar, and toast was waiting (since 7:30!). For some reason, there seem to be only two kinds of women here- scary Brunhilda types, and potential super models. The men are not very attractive regardless. Our taxi driver from the airport was a three-hundred pound muscle-man with tattoo covered tree-trunk arms and a shaved head. He liked to play deep throated Russian ballads on his CD player. The contrast was the array of cute plush-toys he had carefully displayed on his dash.
After nine-hundred flight miles, we land in Anadyr. We're less than two degrees below the Arctic Circle, this is remote Siberia
We have a weather window- yeah! We're off to Anadyr, our last stop before reaching Alaska. The skies have cleared, and for the first time, we can see just how spectacular the scenery is here. Russians may not be that cheerful, but they live in a very beautiful country. Huge, snow covered volcanoes are everywhere- some are smoking. There are glaciers, vast forests, and pristine alpine lakes. Taking off from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we were able to get some terrific shots of the mountains. It's wonderful to see that there truly are vast wilderness areas still left in this world. The deep green mountain range seems to go on forever, I look down trying to find any evidence of human activity and see none- no roads, no villages, only a vast open emptiness. There are other towns up here, but they're pretty remotely scattered. After nine-hundred flight miles, we land in Anadyr. We're less than two degrees below the Arctic Circle, this is remote Siberia, even in July, there is still quite a bit of snow on the tundra covered mountains. The coastline is vast and empty but beautiful. We roll up to the main terminal of this stark, Russian Air Force base.
Once again we're surrounded by several unfriendly-looking men in uniform, and a fresh batch of dominatrix maidens- one of whom is clad in an olive-drab mini-skirt and tall black leather boots. I pop open the door of the Pilatus and wave to the crowd, [Howdy! How ya'll doin'?" Nobody smiles or waves back- there is only silence and stern faces. The two guys in our group who've been flying a Cessna Mustang jet, are parked next to us- we didn't know it at the time, but they'd been there for over an hour, trying to straighten out a paper-work issue. I walked over to see how they were doing- they looked very worried. One of the guards sharply ordered me back- "Do not talk to the other aircraft"! The problem was, they had a current officially stamped general declaration, but it was on a form that these folks didn't like. There was a lot of yelling, and people were very unhappy- our handler, "Olga", tried to be nice to these two guys, "I apologize", She said to them discreetly, "but you must realize, this is the Russian way." When they finally got their clearance to leave, those two guys fired up that jet and fled. Things went a lot smoother for Art and I. We had our papers in good order and actually had a pretty quick turn-a-round. They didn't like our current, officially stamped, general-dec either so we gave them an old out-of-date one that was on the form they liked. We got our fuel, had the rest of our papers examined, and a guy looked over the inside of the plane. When we finally received our clearance to leave- we were outta there!
The cold war may be over officially, but it's far from gone in the minds of Russians. The products of the old Soviet fear propaganda machine- suspicion, anxiety, and aggressiveness, still linger here. The memories of suffering under the communist regime linger here also. The old policies- the way the Soviet system treated its citizens with utter disregard, strict control, and a complete lack of compassion remains. Basic etiquette, friendliness, a sense of hospitality are a rare commodity. The nightmares are still fresh- there are still many people with a painful past. It wasn't like this in Cambodia- another country with a painful past, but in Cambodia, there are very few survivors of that nation's holocaust; hardly anyone who suffered under Pol-Pot's tyranny lived through it. Cambodia today is a nation of very young, optimistic people who's only knowledge of their past is based on what they've read. In Russia, it's as if the entire country has post traumatic stress syndrome. With the collapse of the old USSR came the rewards of capitalism, free trade, and free enterprise- all are plentiful these days in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia today has seventy-nine billionaires, thousands of millionaires, and a surging economy. In the major cities you'll find the young Russian nuvo-riche driving Maserati sports cars, draped in furs and diamonds- they can't take in the good life fast enough; they were denied for so long. But those places are so far from the Russia we visited, economically as well as geographically, they might as well be on the moon. Here, in far eastern Siberia, the people do not smile easily, and when they do, it's fleeting.
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