Conde Nast Traveler
Food and Drink, Russia, STUNTS

Vodka and Caviar ('natch)


Day 39: At dinner I did a stupid thing. I ordered caviar. I had just finished reading a book about caviar called Caviar, by Inga Saffron, which was mainly about how terribly and alarmingly abused sturgeon stocks in Russia have become since the fall of communism and that this ancient and fascinating creature with the most delicious roe of any fish in the world may soon become extinct in the Caspian Sea. It is a sad and painful subject to read about, but the descriptions of all that caviar left me in quite a state.

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Russia, STUNTS

Trend Spotting in Red Square

Meinfrontofstbasil_80dDay 39: Moscow's fairytale, onion-domed masterpiece is called St. Basil's Cathedral, and contrary to popular opinion it is not Vladimir Putin's house. (Though if he were to suddenly claim it as such, no one would be too surprised.) Few other structures inspire as much awe or appear so vivid in real life as St. Basil's. If Disney's Magic Kingdom rates a 12, it rates a 94. It was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of the Khanate of Kazan; an event that took place in the 16th century. I don't know where Khanate of Kazan is, but I imagine it didn't meet a good end because "the Terrible" wasn't a reference to Ivan's tennis serve.

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Russia, STUNTS

Trapped Inside a Russian Existential Play

Stationatnight_80daysDays 38 to 39: The Trans-Mongolian Railway is not a train journey. It is a Russian existential play, and the fact that it commences in Ulaan Bataar and finishes in Moscow is what's known as audience participation.

The curtain lifts on the dining car, which is so filled with smoke that it's difficult to read the No Smoking sign hanging above the doorway. A table at the far end is occupied by three men who listen to Russian pop on a portable stereo made by Hyundai. These three men are smoking at all times. Occasionally they break into a game of dominoes, but nothing interrupts the smoking.

The first man looks like Vladimir Putin and is well dressed. We will call him Vladimir. Vladimir will occasionally get up to do something, but this is very rare and almost all of his time is spent sitting at the table with the second man. This second man smokes even more than the others and does not wear a shirt. We will call him Shirtless Igor. When one of his friends gets up to do something, Shirtless Igor beckons him to sit back down by gesturing with his hands in a way that says "be reasonable," all the while blowing smoke out of his nostrils. Very occasionally, Shirtless Igor will roust himself out of the booth and walk down into the next carriage to use the bathroom, a trip that takes him past The Travel Writer's Room. As he walks, he issues wet, gurgling coughs. The Travel Writer wonders who Shirtless Igor is and how it is that he knows the staff on the train so well. The Travel Writer figures that he must make the journey often, perhaps for work reasons, and that the staff have, over time, all become his friends.

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Russia, STUNTS

Lake Baikal's Babushkas and Their Tasty Smoked Fish

A little smoked fish caught in Siberia's Lake Baikal

Day 37: I haven't sampled all the world's railway station public address systems, but I think the PA in the Siberian town of Ulan Ude stands a very good chance of being the most annoying. Announcements begin with the first melodic refrain of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," a tune whose merriness is debatable in the first place. They come fast and often--at least two a minute--and at six in the morning, the thought that runs through my head is that the woman making all these announcements had no idea what she was in for when she applied for the job. She is busier than Jack Welch.

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Mongolia, Russia, STUNTS

Battling Cabin Crashers on the Trans-Mongolian Railway

The Trans-Mongolian Railway.  Home for the next four days

Day 36: Mechanically speaking, the Russian train is superior to the UVZ. Mechanically speaking. Comfort is another matter. The UVZ was an '05, so it still had some of that new-car freshness. The train, I am guessing, is a '55, and its new-train freshness has been long since depleted. This isn't all bad. In between the cars, the vestibule spaces, where passengers wait to unload, have an extreme industrial theme, with a pervasive gun-metal grey color scheme and sharp corners that give a strong Soviet flavor. The cabins themselves have seen better times and the upholstery has swallowed its fill of dead skin and dust. Sitting down, I begin to fantasize about a long and intensive fumigation--three days of marination in chemicals and steam. But I'm not sure that would quite do it.

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Food and Drink, Russia, STUNTS

Moscow Restaurant Suggestions

I'm close to wrapping up my trip here in Mongolia.  The next stop will be Moscow where I will spend four days.  If you have any suggestions on where to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, please let me know.  Something old school, preferably--I can get fusion and minimalistic and all that stuff back home.  I'm looking for borscht and blinys and caviar. 

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The editors at Conde Nast Traveler answer questions and share travel secrets, tips, and dispatches

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