IMG_4119 Estonia’s capital Tallinn is a city caught between two worlds: the city’s old town is a quintessential old European city, with red tile roofs and narrow cobblestone roads. As a port on the Baltic, the old town is daily inundated with throngs of tourists fresh from cruise ships, eager for local food, learning, photo opportunities and cheap souvenirs. The Estonians abide, with souvenir shops, Medieval punch-and-judy shows, and tours around the zig-zagging streets. The only hope of seeing the Tallinn’s old town peacefully is to come early in the morning or on a low day (you can check here).

Beyond Tallinn’s old town lies a fascinating cocktail of architecture from concrete Soviet apartment blocks to modern glass-shrouded malls. Estonia was part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1989, and many people here speak Russian as a second or even first language (use of the Estonian language was discouraged under Soviet rule). But today a growing number of Estonians speak English as their second language, and the country has some of the highest scores for Economic Integrity and a burgeoning technology sector (ever heard of Skype?). But Tallinn still feels like a place caught between two worlds – not quite Soviet, but not quite Baltic.


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This is why people are staring at you: the good, the bad, and the strange


When you travel, especially off the beaten track, you’re going to get stares from the locals. Those stares can be uncomfortable, especially if you come from the U.S. or a closely-related culture where staring is considered rude. Why are they staring at you? Is it something I did? Why don’t they stop?

Staring etiquette varies from region to region and over time. For example, the Japanese rarely stare because it’s considered rude, preferring to steal glances of you through a long side-eye when you’re not looking. In contrast there’s neighboring China, where sometimes people will not only stare but also point at you, and it’s not considered rude. Because the world is increasingly cosmopolitan, staring seems to be considered rude in more places and I think it now happens less. Back in 2004, my mom got lots of stares from locals in Shanghai because she is white. Fast forward to present day, where she gets hardly a glance.

But in many places off the standard travel itineraries, be prepared for some stares or uncomfortably long glances. For those of you who aren’t used to this, here’s a primer for you on why the locals are staring at you and what to expect.

First, are they smiling? Then it’s probably…

The Good

Overwhelmingly if you’re getting stares and smiles, it’s a good thing. People are probably fascinated by you because you look and dress differently, you’re new, you’re interesting!

Especially in highly-isolated and rural places, you may be the only foreigner passing through they’ve ever seen. This was the case for us in Indonesia, where people frequently stopped to greet us and ask for a selfie, even if they spoke only broken English or no English at all. Because Stoytcho is tall (6’4”) and white, he was a magnet for every middle-school tour group at every temple, so we’re in about a dozen class pictures.

Yep, here’s one of those class photos. I do not know whether it is more or less appropriate that I wore a “Damn! I love Indonesia” shirt.

In some cases, people are staring and smiling because they’re happy to see you, a tourist/visitor/traveler because you’re a herald of positive economic outcomes. We found this to be the case in Medellin Colombia, where we’d catch people staring at us, strike up a conversation with them, and find them thanking us for coming to their country. Things were really bad in Medellin (linkout) only a couple decades ago, so for people of Medellin, tourists are a big deal. That will probably change as more visitors come to the city, but for now, they stare and smile because you’re a sign of how much better life is now.

A local jugo vendor we made acquaintance with makes faces for photos.

Lastly, sometimes people stare and smile because you’ve done something silly but harmless, like mispronounce a word. This will happen a lot if you’re trying to learn some of the local language. You’ll often hear this accompanied by a stifled giggle and someone may try to correct you. But that’s life and in no situation has a language mistake this ever been held against us.

Now, if people are staring at you and frowning, it may be…

The Bad

Every culture has its own maze of written and unwritten rules and social norms and superstitions that are impossible to understand and difficult to remember for foreigners. So if someone is staring at you and frowning, you’ve probably done something wrong.

For example, you didn’t listen to this sign.

The good news is that while breaking cultural rules and norms is usually bad with varying degrees of seriousness, as a foreigner you’ll generally get a free pass. The only two exceptions to that free pass are: modesty-related and religion-related customs. Modesty-related customs are often dress codes or interpersonal interactions, like how much skin you can bare in public or how much romantic public affection is acceptable. Religion-related customs can vary, but usually relate to the aforementioned modesty, cleanliness, or separation of the sexes. Breaking these often makes a lot of people uncomfortable, or makes a lot of work for someone (i.e. they have to re-purify some sacred area thanks to your transgression). Hence, the frowns you’re getting.

Women cover themselves after leaving a temple in Vietnam.

Some great examples include those stares that young woman in the tank top is getting while she wanders around in Indonesia, or that guy who didn’t wash his hands and feet when coming into the temple. In my case, I committed a terrible fashion faux pas: wearing boots in the summer. I got an average of three scowls a day for that, apparently because it’s weird and just not done. It was so bad that Stoytcho’s aunt (linkout) concocted a white lie to get me to wear a pair of her shoes when we went out for ice cream because she didn’t want to be seen with me in boots. The solution? I switched to flip flops.

A Russian woman gives me the usual down-up-scowl: first she looks down at my boots (actually moves her head down), then she looks up at me, and frowns. This happened so often I started trying to get photos of people doing it.

It can be hard to avoid breaking the customs of another culture while traveling, but this is where a bit of research in advance can help a lot. Before traveling, type in “taboo” and where you’re going to see if there are things you should avoid doing or wearing. These can vary in validity, so it also helps to consult a friend, acquaintance, or a travel forum.

There’s another reason people could be staring at you without a smile, though. That’s…

The Strange

Because you’re strange, you’re weird, or you’re confusing. They’re staring at you because they’re trying to place you in some kind of context and having trouble. It’s not you, it’s them.

Like this, although they’re also probably staring because we’re in the middle of rural Java hitching a ride in the open bed of a pickup truck with giant backpacks. This clearly doesn’t happen every day.

For better or worse, a lot of our judgements do stem from a person’s appearance. A white-person dressed in cargo zip-offs, a hat, and sunblock? Probably a tourist, has some money. Black woman, dressed nicely? A rich tourist or a model. A latino-looking guy in grungy clothes, carrying wares? Likely a local street vendor. That Asian-looking granny sitting on a park bench in rumpled clothes? Reasonable to assume she’s a resident octogenarian. We feel comfortable when we can place people into some kind of context and make assumptions about how we can interact with them. And when we can’t do that, we get confused and sometimes we stare.

Me, ethnically ambiguous because I’m half-Chinese and half white.

As someone who’s ethnically ambiguous, this happens to me a lot. I look just enough like the local people almost everywhere we get stares, especially when I’m not with Stoytcho (who obviously looks like a foreigner). In South America, people would stare at me because I didn’t look totally white but I was an English-speaking tourist. In Japan, the ambiguity almost got me into trouble (linkout). And in Russia, the locals stared because I looked like a local Buryat girl dressed in weird tourist clothes. I got stuck in between the boxes of local and tourist, and it messed with people enough that they’d inadvertently stare at me for that extra second or two.

If you’re prone to receiving this kind of stare, the best way to deal with it is to smile and not take offense. It’s hard because when people stare at you, trying to figure out who or what you are, they don’t usually look friendly. They may even be frowning, although it’s an unconscious frown caused by their confusion. But if you make eye contact with them and smile, they usually realize they’ve been staring and avert their eyes or they’ll smile back. You may not fit neatly into their mental world, but that matters less once they realize you’re friendly.

When you greet a stare with a smile, you make friends. They may even strike poses into the camera for you.

Bugs of Russian Summer

A long-horned beetle (maybe Agpanthia villosoviridescens) crawls around on flower buds near the shore of Lake Baikal.

It’s winter here in present-day Boston, and working my way through these Russian summer photos is a unique form of torture for someone who’s never fully adjusted to winter being a season. It looks so warm and sunny and bright in the photos, and it’s so gray and cold outside. Augh. While I was busy longing for the eternal summers in our photos, I thought I’d put together a post of all the various Russian bugs we saw. I did one for Stolby Nature Preserve already, so this will be everything else. Now you can long for summer right along with me, or if you don’t like bugs, be grateful that summer is still a ways away.

A salticid waves hello from its perch on my finger, Ulan-Ude.
A large black ant rests while foraging, Ulan-Ude.
A grasshopper hides under the embellishments of an ornately-carved door at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
A salticid perches atop a wooden beam at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum in Ulan-Ude.
A ladybug (perhaps Cocinella magnifica) on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Two scarce large blues (Phengaris teleius) mate on a legume flower near Lake Baikal.
Two long-horned beetles mate on a bed of flowers near Lake Baikal.
A bee beetle (Trichius fasciatus) climbing on flower buds along the shores of Baikal.
A brilliantly-colored crustacean shell, cast away by its owner on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Half of a beetle shell, maybe from Cetonia magnifica, from along the shores of Baikal.
A salticid found a park in Ulan-Ude.
A Scallop Shell Moth (Rheumaptera undulata) rests on a window in St. Petersburg.
A checkered blue butterfly (Scolitantides orion) rests on a granite step in Ulan-Ude.
A horsefly perches on a wooden post at the Outdoor Ethnographic Museum, Ulan-Ude.
A water snail slides over the reeds of a local pond in the countryside just beyond of Moscow.

DIY Vodka Tasting Tour

The Peter and Paul Fortress, as seen from across the Neva River.

We’re now in St. Petersburg, a distinctly European city filled with colorful characters and locals. The change in both architecture and atmosphere is amazing, but makes sense—Peter the Great built this city from a nothingness of swamp to be closer to Europe and learn her ‘modernized’ ways. He was astonishingly successful. One story (shared with is by Guy of a previous post) tells of Peter’s dispute during the city’s construction with a noble, his close friend: “The noble told Peter the Great ‘Your majesty, sir, we cannot build a city here. There is only swamp. Nothing can survive here!’ Peter asked him ‘Do you see that tree over there?’ ‘Yes,’ the noble responded. ‘That is where you will build your house.’” Now St. Petersburg stands as a gateway between Russia and Europe, one that most tourists can access visa-free.

Tourists walk in front of the Hermitage during a brief respite from rain.

That has not helped prices, which are sky-high in the city for everything from food to housing. Our hostel is friendly, but housed in a dilapidated apartment building with cracked floorboards and uneven walls. We found two bed bugs earlier today (picture here); after an obsessive search of our beds and our rooms, we determined there were no more in the immediate vicinity, zipped up the backpacks, and put them as high up as possible.

Our hostel room was a bit nicer than the hallways. At least it’s cute.

BUT we also have amazing company in our roommate Javier, who comes from along the U.S./Mexico border but just came from working in China. To celebrate, we decided to go a vodka tasting at the local Museum of Russian Vodka, until we found out it’s 1,000 rubles per person to taste only 3 types of vodka! So we did a better, potentially worse thing for us: we went to local liquor stores and bought as many different small bottles (~100 mL) of vodka as we could find. Because our hostel forbade alcohol consumption on the premises, the three of us gathered in the dusty stairwell on the floor above for our vodka tasting.

Our vodka line-up. Wish us (and our livers) luck, people.

Here are our ever so not-expert notes on their flavor profiles and drinkability:

Vodka #1: Belenkaya (Беленькая)


76 rubles for 100 mL, this stuff looks solidly middle-shelf.

Stoytcho: This stuff is alcoholic with no real flavor, nor is it particularly smooth.

Natalie: Augh. Harsh alcohol taste followed by fruitiness of ketones. Tastes like I imagine the lab’s 80% ethanol cleaning solution tastes.

Vodka #2: Taiga


79 rubles for 100 mL, with a name that’s weirdly not in Cyrillic.

Stoytcho: Much smoother, fern and forest notes. Much lower bite of alcohol.

Natalie: Much less harsh front alcohol flavor, back of the throat burn. Fruity, reminiscent of peach bruise flavor with a bitter aftertaste.

Vodka #3:  Chistye Rosy (Чистые Росы)


149 rubles for 50 mL, this is the fancy BIO-labeled (Europe’s version of USDA Organic), high-end stuff that’s kept in a glass case. Its name means “clean dew”, though I’ve never known dew to have an alcohol content this high.

Stoytcho: Good burning sensation, not as smooth as Taiga but more flavorful.

Natalie: Also smoother than the first one, a little burn at the front of the mouth and back of the throat. Flavors are more pine-nutty instead of fruity.

Vodka #4: Russkij Sever (Русский Север)


71 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle says ‘I’d rather be out on the Russian tundra’, which is fitting for something named “Russian North”. It sports a couple of tiny awards printed on the front, but goodness knows what they’re for.

Stoytcho: Sweet and corny, too sweet for my taste. Smooth though. Upon second taste, I get old rubber hose.

Natalie: Slightly sweet, but more of a barley or wheat flavor. Smooth-ish, but not as smooth as Taiga. On second taste, I get barley.

Vodka #5: Legenda Imeperi (Л егенда Империи)


70 rubles for 100 mL, I get the feeling this bottle is lower or middle-shelf based on the bright bottle label and font. This is “Imperial Legend”, so let’s see what that legend is all about.

Stoytcho: Fairly smooth with a mild burn. A bit sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.

Natalie: This tastes just like lab ethanol smells, but it’s less bitter. Again, fruity like bruised peaches.

Vodka #6: Tri Starika (Три Старика)


80 rubles for 100 mL, this alcohol has a similar lower- or middle-shelf shiny, ornate label with a peacock. Let’s see what “Three Old Men” tastes like.

Stoytcho: Highly alcoholic with a middle-to-high burn. It’s middling-sweet and slightly bitter.

Natalie: Nooooo… Harsh, alcoholic, a little sweet but mostly burny with a medicinal hint reminiscent of ginseng.

Vodka #7: SORDIS Liricheskaya (SORDIS лирическая)


82 rubles for 100 mL, the clean label indicates this is ‘middle-shelf’ vodka. A sticker on the front says this vodka is ‘silver-filtered, special story’. So that’s a selling point, I guess?

Stoytcho: Lower alcohol than Tri Starika but the same rough burn. It’s more bitter, but somehow a bit smoother.

Natalie: It’s sweeter and less harsh than the last one, but has a hideous bitter flavor. Ughhh…so bitter, nasty. God, this is what I imagine isopropanol tastes like.

Vodka #8: Urozhai (Урожай)


65 rubles for 100 mL, with a simple, colorful label that says ‘yeah, I’m pretty cheap.’ The name means ‘vintage,’ so maybe we can take the bottle to a secondhand store afterward.

Stoytcho: Plain flavor, mild burn, low alcohol flavor. Nothing of special note.

Natalie: Semi-smooth with a tongue-throat after-burn. Main flavors are wheaty and bready. Hey, this is like drinking a slice of bread! (Stoytcho: no, that’s kvas).

Vodka #9: Staraya Kazan (Старая Казань)


65 rubles for 100 mL, this is “old Kazan Lux”. Kazan is a city at the edge of the Urals, famed for its architecturally gorgeous ancient fortifications and mosques. Let’s see what Kazan has in store for us.

Stoytcho: High alcohol, mid-level burn. Sweet sticky taste, overall terrible and gag-inducing.

Natalie: very sweet, with rubbing alcohol aftertaste and throat burn. Not super fruity, just sweet. Ok, now THIS is the lab ethanol I’ve been inhaling as it evaporates off surfaces for the last five years. I bet this burns perfectly if I need to sterilize some equipment.

(All of us voted this one the worst. Sorry, Kazan.)

Vodka #10: Zelyonaya Marka (Зелёная марка)


77 rubles for 100 mL, this bottle of ‘Green Mark’ is in an odd position. For one thing, Stoytcho has already read online it’s some of the best Russia can offer. But they also didn’t have any “original” flavor Green Mark at the store in a convenient 100 mL format, so we went with ‘кедровая’ or ‘cedar’ flavored.

Stoytcho: Smooth, mild burn, with a grassy sweetness. This is indeed really good.

Natalie: Sweet, slightly pine-nutty, would pair well with juice. It’s not to burny and fairly smooth, kind of like Listerine. Ok, I’d drink this.

Our tasting room: the stairwell above our hostel.

In Summary

Between each taste-test, we rinsed our glasses and our mouths out with water. After we calculated the first scores, we tried the top five vodkas iteratively until we had a definitive ranking. And our winner is…Zelyonaya Marka! Perhaps we were biased by online reviews, but it was pretty drinkable. Here’s how all of the vodkas ranked, just for you:

1st: Zelyonaya Marka
2nd: Taiga
3rd: Urozhai (surprising for the price, I know!)
4th: Legenda Imperi
5th: Belenkaya
6th: Chistye Rosy
Everything else: please don’t make us drink it again.

We survived!



The Russian (and also other eastern European countries but really mostly Russia) tradition of the ‘dacha’ goes back a long way. It started out as a large house in the countryside, and is now, after some turmoil, basically the same. A house with a plot of land, somewhere near but definitely outside a city’s borders.


The royalty back in pre-communist days had dachas as summer estates, large houses and ornamental gardens for entertainment and repose. The industrial revolution brought about a larger upper and middle class who also wanted to join in the quiet country life, so they too bought land and built dachas.

Then came the Soviets. They took the dachas and redistributed them and placed rules on the size and scope of newly constructed ones. Dachas became a reward mechanism for those in the party’s good graces. Did a good deed for a party higher-up? You get to use a dacha for a while. Become a rising and prominent member of the elite? You get assigned a dacha all to yourself. Until you fall out of grace and the dacha is revoked along with probably a few other things.


Around this point in time, dachas were summer homes. They didn’t have indoor plumbing and they had relatively small plots and house sizes. They usually didn’t have great insulation, so they weren’t ideal for living out the cold Russian winter in.

When the USSR fell dachas once again became private property. Construction rules were relaxed and those who had income built their dachas to be large, year-round houses. Their garden plots became functional gardens growing potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. Many of the dachas we saw had little greenhouses in the plot so they could grow long into the shoulder seasons.


Modern dachas come in two neighborhoods – specific dacha-only areas, and small villages. The dacha-only areas are traditional. Large chunks of land are divided and then used as summer retreats. The small-village dacha is an outgrowth of everyone ever moving to the cities, leaving the outlying villages empty. Cheap property leads to more people being able to afford a house, and so, former actual villages, now filled at least partially with part-time dacha residents.


For most, the dacha is a source of enjoyment and pride. The garden provides a little extra, and the ability to get away from the city on a regular basis – for long periods during the summer – refreshes the soul. In poorer areas of Russia, the food that a dacha garden brings is often enough to help a family feed itself during the year without cutting back drastically on other expenses.


The family we stayed with for a night on the shore of Lake Baikal were at their dacha, preparing for a summer celebration. When we got to Moscow we met with my mom’s aunt who was residing for the summer at her family’s dacha. It was lovely to meet her and speak Bulgarian again for a bit.


We helped out in the garden, but mostly relaxed, took pictures, went swimming in the local pond, and walked around. The dacha lifestyle is meant to be relaxing, revolves around walking and meals, and is meant to be shared with family.


Grand Strategy in Moscow

Traffic outside of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?

The connection

Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.

The art gallery

We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.

A bronze statue in the museum

After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.

Two visitors read the plaque in front of a painting at the gallery.

Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”

This painting depicts serf wedding arrangements being made between families.

Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.

The Grand Strategy

Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.

We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.

Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.

For some photographic context, here’s the building we’re staying in tonight.

Moscow, the capital

Photos from the the capital of Russia, celebrating the space race, architectural grace, and its ever-growing consumer base.

A relief of Yuri Gagarin and the scientists who made spaceflight possible at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
A larger-than-life statue of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, beside a model of Sputnik, first man-made object sent into space.
A twist on the traditional Matryoshka at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
The top of the monument at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
Spasskaya Tower on the Red Square, one of the ceremonial entrances to the Kremlin.
Workers assemble scaffolding to prepare for an event in the Red Square.
The State Historical Museum on the Red Square
A waxing moon over Moscow’s downtown and the Kremlin.
Men construct a new bridge across the Moskva River, causing traffic delays.
A man jogs through a construction zone while on his cell phone.
A view down the escalators of the Metro.
GUM, the historic shopping mall on the Red Square, is conveniently located across the way from Lenin’s mausoleum.
Odd Matryoshkas for sale at a souvenir shop on the promenade.
A man sweeps the promenade in front of a summer display, part of a month-long festival celebrating artisinal jam and honey.
Tourists take photos of their ice cream in front a fountain in GUM.
The Moskva and Cathedral of Christ the Savior at dusk.