A Place in the Japanese Soul

Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia

The World's Gingseng Capitol

Pacific Rim Delux Hotels Guide


© 1996-2013 Asian Media Group Inc
No part of the contents of this site may be reproduced without prior written permission.


Crossing the Eurasian continent on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Photos and story by Albert Shen and Jeff Huentelman

fter years of dreaming and discussion, we find ourselves on the Aeroflot out of San Francisco. We will be met in Moscow by my friend Marina. She will take us to Dubna, a major nuclear research city two hours north of Moscow. From there, we will go by train to Irkutsk where we will stay two days and then train to Ulaan Baator, Mongolia where we will stay for two days, before going on to Beijing and Hong Kong. We are nervous. So many things can go wrong. We hardly understand Russian and are relying on our little Russian phrase book. Between Moscow and Beijing we have no contacts nor any concept of what to expect.

The Aeroflot is an hour late leaving. We nervously watch the continuous up and down movement of the wing flaps. The seats have no room, the windows are small, smoking is allowed and flourishing throughout the cabin, and my panty liners are riding up my rear. A female friend suggested pantyliners so we wouldn't have to bring so many clean pairs of underwear. We are surprised they haven't caught on as a part of male personal hygiene. The steak and salad are quite good. Not one American on board speaks more than four words of Russian. With the exception of my comrade Jeff. He speaks ten words of Russian!

We are calm and more confident now than we have any right to be. No more jitters or worries. We no longer have any control over the situation. And the others, in their blissful American ignorance of Russia, lets us feel comfortable in our ignorance. How can we be anything other than cultural geniuses compared to the Missionary and the Tourist?

Poor Jeff. He's 6-2. The distance from seat to seat is exactly the same as between his seat and his knee.

We land in Moscow 16 hours later after having pretty much slept the whole way. We are a little anxious about customs as we are smuggling in a compact disc player for Marina and several thousand dollars worth of cancer chemo-therapy drugs for her boss.


Customs turns out to be a breeze. We just have to fill out some obnoxious forms, then squeeze our way through the long lines. First lesson: be aggressive in lines or you will be last. And never smile.

Marina greets us outside customs. Very pleasant and upbeat woman. Speaks almost perfect English. I'm glad my former chemistry professor introduced us, otherwise we would have been totally lost. She takes us to the car and the driver tries to fit all our baggage into the front trunk. We begin our journey to Dubna. The driver is one of the fastest I've ever ridden with. To him 130 kph is normal for a narrow paved road filled with potholes. No wonder there are disabled cars scattered along the highway. Marina points to a hill we pass. It is one the Nazis couldn't capture during World War II. We pass a channel cut between the Volga and the North Sea built by Stalin using prisoner labor. Things are poetically depressing. Speeding to Dubna, I start to feel the atmosphere that created "the Russian Spirit". We have much to learn.

We arrive at the hotel. The rooms are single, clean and simple. Actually, it's more of a hotel/dormitory owned by the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. They even provide us with money for meals. I don't know. With the economic situation here it doesn't feel right to accept it. Marina is quick to point out that it's standard procedure for visiting scientists.

Morning. Up at the crack of dawn. In this high latitude sunrise comes beautifully early at 4 a.m. I find Jeff awake so we go for a walk.

What a beautiful morning. We take several pictures and walk along the Volga River. They say this is the only section of the Volga safe to swim in. Farther downstream the river is very polluted by industry. Jeff finds he can actually read some Russian signs.

I discover that the jeans I have been wearing have huge holes in the rear. I have been exposing my pantyliners to the entire Russian population.

Marina meets us at the hotel and takes us to meet Dr Vladimir Nazarov for breakfast. Nazarov has developed colon cancer which has spread to the lymph nodes and other organs. I don't know if the medicine we brought will help. It was donated by various doctors at the University of Washington.

Nazarov's condition is quite good. He has a very good sense of humor and we have a fun conversation via the translations provided by Marina and her daughter Tamilia. Vladimir talks of nuclear chemistry, the need for equipment at the Institute, the brain drain of students and the many scientists leaving to open businesses in the West. Vladimir is fascinating. He was at the Ural nuclear plant prior to the explosion there. I wonder if his cancer resulted from his work in nuclear chemistry. We will never know. Jeff has little to say because he is pretending to be a chemist. Marina exaggerated and told Nazarov that Jeff is a visiting scientist. That is the only way he could get invited. He's actually a buyer for a non-profit organization.

Marina takes us on a short tour of Moscow. We find out that her husband is Azerbaijani. The strains due to the Azerbaijan/Armenian conflict must be wrenching. Marina cannot visit her relatives there as a Russian presence causes strain with neighbors.

The tour of Moscow is whirlwind. We see the Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square. Funny, Red Square isn't as big as I imagined. Nothing compared to Tiananmen Square. The Czars Church is particularly interesting. All the czars are buried here. It feels more natural than odd. Silver caskets engraved with their names. Ivan the Terrible is buried under a specific corner, Marina explains, signifying his paramount status.

Later that evening we go to the Kremlin to watch the Nutcracker. Very good except the music is on disc. Marina is embarrassed by this. We assure her it was beautiful and that we really enjoyed the music. I give a portable flashlight to a little boy. He has a great time shining it around throughout the performance.

The next day we visit many scientists and talk about their projects. We visit their labs and tour the cyclotron and microtron. They use the microtron to produce iodine-131 for medical research use. Marina's research involves neutron activation analysis, a powerful technique that measures environmental samples at very low detection limits. I am a little nervous because I don't see much in the way of health and safety monitoring. Fortunately we aren't staying for long. I can tell Jeff is getting a little nervous with all the radioactive equipment around us. PAGE 2

Page 1 | 2 | 3

"Marina exaggerated and told Nazarov that Jeff is a visiting scientist. That is the only way he could get invited."