Ars Electronica Festival 2017

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A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

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Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.
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Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.
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The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.
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The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.
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A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.
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RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.
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A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.
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A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.
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A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.
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An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.
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Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.
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Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

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* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.

European Capital Hop: Prague is magic

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Prague in the late afternoon, as seen from the Petřín Lookout Tower

Before I visited Europe, I remember hearing from friends and family about the magical beauty of European cities. “They’re gorgeous!” people swooned, “The cobblestone streets and rows of old buildings are photo-tastic. It’s magical!” So far, we haven’t really gotten that. Sure, the old town of whatever city we happen to be in is nice, but it hasn’t been anything to write home about.

But Prague stands out because it does feel magical. Part of it is the architecture: rows of pastel-colored buildings, each covered with neat cinnabar-colored tiles; the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys; the lights of the city shimmering on the Vltava River at night. It really is gorgeous, and Prague’s title as the “Heart of Europe” is well-earned.

Part of the magic is also in the pricing. We’re coming from the sticker shock of Vienna, but that aside vacationing here is downright affordable, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Czech Republic, like Hungary, is still recovering economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union. We found two beds in a hostel in Malá Strana for $24 a night. We ate lunch and dinner and dessert out for $36 a day for two people, less than $10 per person per meal. And while we weren’t eating at the fanciest restaurants, we got REALLY good food. This bar right around the corner from our hostel called U Magistra Kelly was our regular go-to, with hearty entrée portions, sweet fizzy lemonade, fresh beer, and a killer baked brie.

In short, Prague is the magic city of Europe everyone has been telling you about. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

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The waterfront along the Vltava.
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The Prague Astronomical Clock, representing the movements of the sun and moon while keeping time.
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An ivy-covered storage courtyard.
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A statue over one of the doors.
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Giant mushrooms sprout from astroturf in this man-made display.
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Wedding photoshoots are common. The couple pose alongside a fence covered in ‘love locks’.
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An ornate lock on a door in the city.
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A bronze relief on the Charles Bridge, effaced by thousands of hands over time.
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Workers repainting a buildling.
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A katydid, lost in the city.
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That baked brie I mentioned earlier, from U Magistra Kelly.
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Streetcars and pedestrians share the narrow streets.
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Street art in the northern part of the city.
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St Vitus Cathedral (I think), bathed in golden floodlight at dusk.
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Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge at dusk.
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The lights of Pragues bridges reflecting on the Vltava.
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Bear-shaped cookies posed in a window at the local bakery.
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Men weld trolley tracks in the north part of Prague.
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Picnickers gather apples in the same park that hosts the Petřín Lookout Tower. The orchard is free to pick from, with a limit on how much you can take home.

 

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More views of Prague from the tower.

 

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Sunset from the tower.

 

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A shot of the moon from the tower.
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Prague at night.

 

Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.
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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.
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The little mushroom that could #1.
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The little mushroom that could #2.
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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.
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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.
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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.
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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.
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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.
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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.
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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.
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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.
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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.
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A salticid in a patch of grass.
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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.
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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.
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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.
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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.
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The color of moss.
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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.
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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 2

View part 1 here.

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The Other Trans-Siberian

During one stop, we disembark to stretch our legs and find a sleek, forest-green train waiting across from ours. Emblazoned on the side is the seal of the People’s Republic of China, and beneath that in three languages it reads “Beijing – Ulaan-Baatar – Moskva”. The people spilling off of it are mostly white, dressed in shorts or jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps, all armed with cameras and cell phones. A flurry of camera shutters captures tourist selfies with their train, our train, and each other. This is the one of the Trans-Siberian “experience” trains that people take from Beijing in China all the way to Moscow in Western Russia. It takes nine days. Nine days on a train.

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How Do You Say

In Russia, I am functionally mute, voiceless because I am wordless. I rely on Stoytcho to translate into Bulgarian-Russian, hear a response in which might understand one English-like word (like ‘politicheskii’), and then rely on Stoytcho to translate the rest. It wears him out quickly, so our conversations with Russian cabinmates, Nikolaj and Ivan, are brief bursts followed by long silences. And in those silences I can ask a question that I’ll always understand the answer to: как сказать это?”

Our older cabinmate, Ivan, has two young daughters and knows this game well. I point to something and say “как сказать это?” He smiles and returns an answer. When I point to the sugar cubes, he returns “сахар”. When I point to the pillow, he says “подушка”. When I point to an apple on the table, he gives me “яблоко.” My pinhole view into the Russian world grows question by question, word by word. Ivan is infinitely patient.

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Goodbye/Hello

In our conversations, Ivan speaks glowingly of his wife and daughters. He’s been away repairing electrical pole wires around eastern Siberia for six months, and now he’s finally headed home. This train is the second-to-last part of his trip; at the next station, he’ll board another train to carry him through the last part of his journey home.

Ivan disembarks in the early hours of the morning, while Stoytcho and I are still huddled in our bunks. His rustling wakes me up, and I squint over at his bunk to find him packing things away. Seeing me awake, Ivan smiles and holds an apple up to me. “яблока?” I ask. “Da,” he says, followed by words I don’t understand and a gesture to take it. He points to other food left on the table, packets of noodles and fruit. “What about you?” I ask him, pointing between him and the food. Ivan responds with some more words I don’t understand, and Stoytcho below me translates. “He says he has better stuff at home, this is for us.” “Ah, спасибо,” I smile. “пожалуйста”, Ivan replies. Then he’s gone. I drift back to sleep and am only vaguely aware of the click of the door as someone else comes in to take Ivan’s bunk.

In the morning we have a new cabinmate. He’s quieter and more reserved than Ivan, but he’s curious enough about us to engage in idle chat. We find out that he’s a Lieutenant in the Russian Army, but little else—he’s vague on his destination, his work, and his life. When he asks what we’re doing here, we explain the trip around the world. “Natasha just finished her PhD in Biology,” Stoytcho tells him. “Ah, I majored in Biology at university,” the Lieutenant replies with a smile. “Has he found it useful in his work?” I ask Stoytcho, who translates the question on. The Lieutenant replies with a laugh, “Not really with my job. But it helps when I’m hunting.”

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Drunken Russian Men

The battery of my phone is running low, so I plug it into one of the few outlets in the hallway outside our cabin and sit down next to it. There’s nothing but darkness out the window, so I pull out a fabric flower-making kit I got in Japan to while the time away. I sew and watch the occasional light streak by in the darkness and listen to the chatter and laughter from the cabins. Eventually, the traincar slows to a stop and the speakers overhead announce the station name. In response, cabin doors open and people spill out into the hallway to get out into the night air.

Two gigantic men, more than thrice my size, stumble boisterously out of their cabin and notice me sewing. One waves and I wave back with a “Здравствуйте.” “Ah, you speak Russian?” he turns and walks toward me excitedly. I pinch my two fingers together and squint in a universal “a little” sign. “Where from?” he asks. “США” I reply, and try to explain our trip. “один лет…нет, один год…мир,” I say and make a circle in the air to indicate going around the world. They don’t get it, and sway as they stand in front of me trying to make sense of the situation. Stoytcho steps out a moment later and after an exchange in broken Russian, the guys invite us out for a smoke and stumble toward the exit. They’re clearly drunk, and the last thing we want to do is make two drunken Russian men angry.

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Outside, the smoke from the two guys’ cigarettes drifts through the open air, mingling with the smoke from dozens of cigarettes. People cluster together, sucking in the smoky air and chatting. Most are balanced, but some people are sloppy drunk despite a ban on bringing alcohol onto the train. This includes our two hosts, who offer us cigarettes that we politely decline and tell us how wonderful our trip is, how wonderful we came to visit, and how wonderful we have each other. We smile and nod but are unsure of what to say. Stoytcho once showed me a video of a drunken Russian man punching an unsuspecting newscaster in the head and I can’t help fearing that as an eventual scenario, though I feel ashamed about believing stereotypes. These guys just want to have a good time.

We’re eventually saved by my lack of a jacket and break free of conversation with the two men to return to our cabin. The Lieutenant, laying in his bunk, glances up as we open the door and we nod to him as we walk in. In an instant, he bolts up, looks out the door in both directions, and pulls it shut. He then sits down, and staring Stoytcho straight in the eyes he whispers in a low, hurried tone. I know none of the words he is saying but know the chill creeping up my spine. The Lieutenant glances at me for a second and concludes his sentence with a sharp, cruel twist of his hand in midair between us. “What…did he say? Did I do something wrong?” I ask Stoytcho after the Lieutenant has returned to his bunk. Stoytcho turns to me and sighs, “No. But he said we should stay away from those two guys because they’re really drunk. And Russian guys, when they’re drunk, they can turn on you just like that.” He ends the sentence with the same sharp, cruel twist of his hand in the air.

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Destination

I sleep fitfully that night. Every time I’m awakened by the train jolting, I’m momentarily afraid that we’ve missed our stop. This is irrational, because fifteen minutes before our stop the train attendant comes by to bang his fists on our cabin door and shout, “Krasnoyarsk!” I’m not sure if this is standard, or we’re getting the tourist treatment.

The Lieutenant is no longer with us in the cabin, disembarked at some station in the night without a trace or whisper. But Nikolaj remains with us, and as we pull into Krasnoyarsk Station he comes out for a cigarette and to say goodbye. We wish each other safe journeys and depart. I wonder whether what standard Russian conduct is on the Trans-Siberian; do these trips lead to exchanges of contact information, new friendships, or even love? Or is a shared journey on the Trans-Siberian an ephemeral phenomenon, a distinctly-partitioned act in the play of human life where characters that are strangers meet, speak, and share space for a brief duration before departing again as strangers?

We get lost in the station for several minutes trying to find a nonexistent information booth and a wifi signal. When we finally stumble out into the sunlight, a twenty-foot high mural greets us with the same face we left behind in Ulan-Ude’s central square. He is the constant, ever-present companion in Russia: Lenin.

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Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

Hiking Baikal Day 3: Back to Ulan-Ude

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It’s our last day on Baikal, and we’re determined to make the most of it. We hunt for agate on the shore and explore a small stream feeding into the lake. Small fish dart in the stream shallows, bees buzz between flowers, and the grass ripples in the wind. Everything is green and alive with the hum of summer.

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Don’t worry, I found a spider for you.


On the way to town for lunch, we pass a group of guys. One is in a tracksuit and holding a selfie stick, while the other two strip down to their underwear and dash into the water with shouts and howls. They manage to stay in the water and swim for a few minutes before they return to land. Because the water temperature hovers at a bone-chilling 50F even now, it’s an inspiring if not unsurprisingly short display.

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Watching the guys jump around in the water.
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Oh yeah, we also got a selfie with them.


We make our way to the bus stop and city center to find our favorite cafeteria of the past 24 hours, a tiny hole-in-the-wall kitchen run by a pair of local ladies. One of them greets us cheerfully, takes our order, and in a few minutes comes by with Russian staples of milk tea, pickled carrot salad, and stewed beef and onions over grietchka (buckwheat). There’s also a special today—fried dough balls filled with ground beef.

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We eat slowly, watching music videos on the cafeteria’s television while people bustle in and out around us. Stoytcho makes some small talk with the woman at the counter, and when she finds out we speak English she asks for the words for several foods they have. She says she’s been trying to learn English but there’s not much on TV and she doesn’t have access to the internet. We translate the cafeteria’s menu for her on a piece of paper as a gift for her to practice, and to make ordering easier for any future English-speaking visitors.

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Our translated menu, with English, Russian pronounciations of English words, and the Russian.

There are only a couple of hours before our bus leaves, but there’s something we have yet to do. After watching those guys go running into the water, it seems like a shame for us to leave without swimming in Baikal. Granted, neither of us brought swimsuits (our hosts back in Ulan-Ude warned us it would be too cold until August) and Stoytcho is a bit sick, but when else will we get this chance? We decide to go back to the shore and give it a shot, one at a time so the other person can watch the stuff.

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Some random cows that wander around Goryachinsk.
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Normal people interacting with Baikal in a normal fashion–not swimming.

I go first, stripping down to my undergarments. The wind feels cold on my skin as I face the water and pick my way gingerly over the rocky shore. The first splash of water touches my feet and I suck in air. But keep going, I tell myself. The water becomes ankle deep, then knee deep, and finally deep enough that I can throw myself in and submerge in the icy water. When I come up, I’m hyperventilating and trembling. It’s cold. I swim around to keep myself warm, and after a minute I no longer feel cold. Only a slight tingling feeling remains and I feel like I could stay in, but I see Stoytcho waiting on the shore for his turn. Facing the wind chill onshore is another shock, but after drying off I feel fantastic. Stoytcho and I switch off, and he wades into the water to swim around for a few minutes.

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Not pictured: how cold I felt.
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Stoytcho takes his turn swimming in Baikal.

We have so much fun that we make our bus with only a few minutes to spare and clamber in last. This bus takes us back down the coast through Gremyachinsk and turns inland. A few people get off here and there, but most of us are headed to Ulan-Ude. The sun sinks lower over the pine forests and plains rushing by, casting the sunset-orange glow over everything.

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The stops become more frequent as we reach town, and people disembark at the Buddhist temple at the city’s edge and a few of the city’s suburbs. A woman sitting in front of us catches my eye and smiles. She’s familiar but I can’t place from where. When she stands up to disembark, she walks back to us and hands me a handful of candies in shiny wrappers. Then she scampers off the bus. I grin and wave at her, and she smiles back and I remember—she’s a shopkeeper from Goryachinsk. We wandered into her general store and Stoytcho asked for directions to the bus stop. She must have seen my bewilderment as I stared at all the candy, uncertain of what anything was. Now thanks to her kindness, we can find out.

Hiking Baikal, Day 2

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Our second day of hiking Baikal’s eastern shore begins with moonset, followed by sunrise. We decamp and hike north to Turka, a shoreside town where we get breakfast and ask about a bus to Ust-Barguzin so we can get hike Svatoy Nos. We’re directed to a bus stop outside the town’s grocery store and wait for a bus that never arrives, so we decide to walk on to Goryachinsk, through pine and birch forest, sunny fields, and stony shoreline. Around midday we set up the tent in the shade of a tree and nap to the sound of lapping water on the rocks. It feels strange to see so much water but smell no salt, feel no ocean spray, hear no cries of gulls.

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It’s already late afternoon when we finally reach Goryachinsk and discover that we won’t be going to Ust-Barguzin—we had to catch that bus back in Ulan-Ude. All the buses that stop here in Goryachinsk go elsewhere, mostly back to Ulan-Ude. Someone suggests that we could try waving a bus down or hitchhiking up there, but we’re tired. We’ll just have to try for Svatoy Nos the next time. And for now, at least we have the hot spring of Goryachinsk to soothe our aching feet after 33 km of hiking in two days. The water is so hot that it burns our feet, so we make small pools at the edge of the hot stream to trap the water. It’s the perfect temperature after a few minutes of cooling.

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As the sun sets, we return to the shore of Baikal to continue northward to find a place to pitch the tent. Stoytcho feels tired and achy, the first symptoms I had of my flu the previous week, so we’ll return to Ulan-Ude on the bus tomorrow. We find a small copse of trees a couple kilometers north of Goryachinsk to pitch the tent and watch the sun set, illuminating the undersides of clouds with pinks and reds as it sinks beneath the horizon. We watch the chilling wind blow across the lake as we shelter in our sleeping bags and tent, huddled between the trees.

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Buryat Dance Festival “Ekhor Night”

IMG_8602 Want to experience Ekhor Night and learn to dance Yohor for yourself? The 2018 festival will be July 14-15 at the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum.

Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route. IMG_7842

The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.

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A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.

IMG_7895 As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets. IMG_7850

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After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.

IMG_8372 IMG_8446 The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. IMG_8482 Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. IMG_8565 IMG_8523 We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle. IMG_8613

Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.

My Dad’s Home

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Today’s excursion out into the city is a solo one. Though my dad is still busy teaching and couldn’t meet us in Taipei, I’m curious to know where he grew up so I sent him the question via email. He responded with a snapshot of Google Maps containing a rough-drawn circle over a bit of Yonghe District. “I lived at “#30 Baofu Road Section 2. […] No physical trace of my house or the neighborhood remained. The only tangible thing left is the Baofu temple. I fell into the pond in front of the temple when i tried to pick some lotus flowers. Still remember the underwater image, green water and a lot of straight underwater stems.” So today I’m going out, alone, to try and find Baofu Temple and what remains of #30 Baofu Road.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know much of my family’s life in China before the Communist Party took power or here in Taiwan after they fled, and what little I do know is gleaned from secondhand sources. I only really know my grandmother’s side, the Hu Family, because they were the most numerous among the survivors and the relatives that lived nearby in Southern California. I know that once my grandmother’s family was once wealthy and lived in Suzhou, a city about two hours outside of Shanghai. I know that the family house still stands there, an immense traditional family compound enclosing an inner garden, used when I last visited as excess storage space for a nearby hotel. And I know that to escape the Chinese Civil War and communist revolution, my grandmother and her husband (of the Ma Family) fled with my uncle and aunt here to Taiwan sometime in the early fifties, where my dad was born. They lived here until my grandfather died, when my grandmother decided to emigrate to the Albequerque, New Mexico, bringing my dad to the United States somewhere during his high school years. But that’s where the facts end, and beyond them lie is a series of nebulous, achronistic anecdotes and stories.

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Back in the real world, I’ve found my way to Ren’Ai Road and turned right, in the direction of Baofu Road, navigating busy traffic stops and dodging people, equipment, and motorbikes planted on the sidewalks. When my dad described his childhood, it sounded like he grew up more in the countryside or in a sparse suburb. He told me about catching frogs and bugs, and to this day he doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon because it reminds him of the stinkbugs found here in the summertime. But any semblance of nature has long been paved over in this district. As people flocked here to live and commute to Taipei City across the river, the buildings here were flattened and then-new apartment complexes rose more steeply and densely in their place. The population continued to grow. In 1979, before being swallowed up into the New Taipei City municipality, Yonghe City was one of the most densely-populated places in the world.

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I make a final turn onto Baofu Road, Section 2 and take a look around. There are no visible numbers on the apartments here, although again any building around here was built after my father left. But Baofu Temple still stands, a brilliantly-painted building with traditional curved roofing and an open front façade leading to the altars indoors. To my dismay, there’s no sign of the pond my dad mentioned, likely a casualty of the construction process of what is now a parking lot in front of the temple building. There’s also no one else around to ask, although what would I ask them? “Did you know a kid back in the early 60’s who went by the name Ma Tzen and once fell into the pond here that no longer exists?” I could ask something akin to with my rudimentary Chinese and Google Translate, but then what? Would I understand the response? And would anyone here now have even lived here back then?

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I walk around inside the temple, where decades and a few renovations ago my family would have visited for festivals and prayers and offerings to the deceased. I can’t read much on the walls, for things are often not only in traditional characters, but also in “grass writing”, a stylistic form of Chinese characters akin to cursive for us English speakers and unintelligible for those who can barely read to begin with. In one corner, though, I find a stack of incense sticks wrapped with gold foil-inlaid papers and a price written above them on a shelf. I’ve visited temples and gravesites of family members enough to know that these are offerings for the dead, to be burned so they reach the deceased on the other side. I drop Taiwanese dollars into a nearby lockbox, grab a packet, and head outside.

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Knowledge about is less powerful than knowledge of, and I find myself fumbling with what to do next with this packet of goods for my deceased family members. I decide to light the incense first, and though I have no lighter, someone has thankfully just finished burning offerings in the nearby oven. I hold the tips of the incense sticks over the remnants of their offerings to catch the twisting orange tongues, and in a few seconds the sticks catch fire. After shaking them to put the flame out, I carry them over to the altar, bow three times, and push the incense sticks into the altar’s sand.

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The gold-foil papers are a bit more more difficult to burn, and it takes me a few minutes of piling them into the oven and turning over the remnants of the still-smoking previous offerings to get them to light. Then I add the remaining sheets slowly, pausing to step back and out of the stinging smoke. Bit by bit, the sheets disappear into the flames, transmuted from paper into smoke and ash, disappearing into the atmosphere.

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Hang Nga Crazy House

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A view of the guesthouse portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House. Yes, you can stay there, although it’s not the cheapest accommodation in Da Lat.

You know how some cities have an iconic ‘thing’, the likes of which you can’t find anywhere else? Something like the Hollywood Sign of Los Angeles, the Sagrada Familia of Barcelona, or the Opera House in Sydney. That’s what Hang Nga Crazy House is to Da Lat. An ever-growing, organic architectural feat, the twenty-seven year old structure is the child of Dang Viet Nga, an architect who found inspiration in the natural beauty surrounding the city. It opens its doors on weekdays, allowing visitors to explore the structure’s winding paths, snaking staircases, and baffling rooms. And it’s a one-of-a-kind place, in part because almost anywhere else in the world it would have accrued hundreds of building code violations. Watch your head while you take in the magic.

This was my favorite place in Vietnam because of its architectural whimsy, but also because it’s still under construction. Hang Nga Crazy House has already swallowed up two nearby lots that went on sale, and Dang Viet Nga shows no signs of stopping. As we wandered through the labyrinth of passages, we stumbled into sites under construction and some laying fallow, waiting for the artist’s hand. Several artists work on the house at any given time, and they’re excited to show you their art.

Below are our most amazing pictures of Hang Nga Crazy House. It stole my heart with its unapologetic quirkiness and unwavering commitment to the organic form. I’ll have to go back one day to get it. ❤

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The guesthouse, hidden amongst trees and bougainvillea.
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Narrow stairs with low railings snake around the structure like vines, leading you between different buildings.
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Two women pose for a selfie atop a stairwell.
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A maze of stairs leading between the different levels.
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Touirsts duck under another stairwell while climbing, as another tourist eyes the short railing warily. This place is definitely not childproofed or adultproofed.
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People wander the labyrinthe paths, which wind through gardens and over buildlings.
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The front garden, complete with concrete mushrooms and a koi pond.
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A live soursop tree grows among the buildings. The entire Hang Nga Crazy House is a mix of living plants and concrete structures shaped like living plants.
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A tourist finds his way into the under-construction region; you can see the normal apartments across the street in the background.
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The back portion of the Hang Nga Crazy House lies fallow, waiting for artists to continue work on its extension. The project has grown from its original size, and looks poised to grow more.
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Artists discuss a mural in an under-construction part of the house. I have a sneaking suspicion that the woman in the hat is Dang Viet Nga (the project mastermind), but chickened out out on asking her.
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Stoytcho stands in an under-construction ocean-themed part of the house, where coral and anemonae await paint in the background.
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I talk with artist Hoàng Đức Thành about his work on the house. They’ve been working for months on this part, using reference material to create undersea-inspired sculptures from concrete and plaster and painting murals on the room’s walls.
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Hoàng Đức Thành’s workspace and reference material.
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A Google Photosphere produced from one of the balconies, making the house no more or less strange than it already is.

Want more architectural wonderland? You can find it here, because I don’t know how to embed Flickr Galleries into WordPress yet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/146223950@N02/albums/72157687692351401