Dachas

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

Rainbow Beach + Carlo Sand Blow

After Bundaberg, we drove back down the coast toward Brisbane, 4 days away from our relocation rental dropoff location. The next stop was Rainbow Beach and Carlo Sand Blow in the eponymously-named Great Sandy National Park.

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Fishing in the surf at Rainbow Beach

We got lucky and found a parking spot right above Rainbow Beach (next to the Life saving club), then hopped out and looked for directions to Carlo Sandblow. We’ve learned our lesson by now – hike before ocean swims, lest you want a lot of uncomfortable chafing. In retrospect, and if you’re doing this trip, drive to Carlo Sandblow first and bring water. It’s a long walk. For those of you who want to park at Rainbow Beach or got dropped off by the bus there, here’s how you get to the sandblow from the parking lot:

Head south from the parking lot through the grassy park with the playground, following the street. When the street turns inland, follow it for a few hundred meters and you’ll encounter a stair on your left side. Go up the stairs and follow the sandy path.

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The park you’ll walk through on the way to the sandblow. You could always stop a few minutes and rest in the shade.
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The stairway up to the Carlo Sandblow

When your path diverges, you can take either fork to the sandblow. The left will take you there via Mikado firebreak; the right takes you out to a cul-de-sac where you can walk the paved Cooloola Drive south to the start of the Carlo Walking Track. Either way, the walk is ~30 minutes.

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Walking through suburbia. If you end up walking on a paved street, don’t worry, you’re still on track to find Carlo Sandblow. Just keep heading south.

The Carlo Walking Track is a well-maintained path and we had no trouble following it, which is good because the trail is part of the much larger Cooloola Great Walk that spans ~100 km of the Australian coastline. This small portion winds through dry forest for roughly 20 minutes, filled with Australian birds and bugs.

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The dry forest trail on the way to Carlo Sandblow
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Ants found along the trail. They fold their abdomens above their bodies to keep cool and survive near-lethal ground temperatures.

Then breaks out onto the wavy, golden sands of Carlo Sandblow that span 15 hectares in every direction. There’s no shade from the sun and the intense heat on the dunes is unrelenting, so be prepared. But the windswept sandscapes are well worth it:

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Viewing the sandblow from the trail’s end. If you fancy a long hike, the trail picks up again on the south side of the sandblow. 
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The Queensland coastline, as seen from the sandblow.
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The blue-green surf of Rainbow Beach meets the golden-red sands of the dune. NOTE: No beach access is available from Carlo Sandblow, and any attempts would hurt the dune so don’t try.

Oh, and if you’re going, don’t be a weenie and hike all over the dune. Every person’s step shifts the sand, and too much human activity could destroy the dune’s structure. But fret not, the Queensland Government has provided a sign that tells you where the best views (and photos) are:

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The Queensland Government’s oh-so helpful sign indicating lookout points and other interesting info. 

After exploring the dry dunes for an hour, we hiked back to Rainbow Beach for a heavenly, refreshing swim. Being new to the area, we asked the local lifeguards about any hazards, but there were none beyond jellyfish. Since stingrays are a problem on a lot of California beaches, I asked the lifeguards about stingray risks and they were quick to reassure me. “That thing with Steve Irwin was a freak accident,” one guy said quickly. “Oh,” I replied. I hadn’t even thought of that, but the lifeguards probably field stingray questions several times a year because of it.

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A mummified juvenile triggerfish, about the size of an egg. Dozens of these little guys were scattered along the beach’s high tide line.

We saw neither stingrays nor jellyfish during our two hours of swimming, but there was an odd array of dead juvenile triggerfish, their little bodies mummifying in the sand and sun. The poor little guys probably got caught in a strong storm or current and got swept up here. But it’s just one more thing the tide can bring in Australia.

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Rainbow Beach, as seen from a windswept tunnel in the sandstone of the Carlos Sandblow.