Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Only in Moscow: Naked, Dead Guy in an Owl Cage

So every so often (actually, pretty much every day), one is reminded that Russia really is a different place. I love Russia's randomness (I'm not the only one), and one of my favorite examples was a news story in the Moscow Times a few months ago, reprinted for your bewilderment below:

Man Found Dead, Naked Inside Owl Cage
Moscow Times, 22 March 2007

A scantily clad, 32-year-old man was found dead early Monday in a pool of blood in an owl cage at the Moscow Zoo.

A bird keeper at the zoo found the man, Alexander Luparev at about 10 a.m., lying in the cage, which is home to a Siberina long-tailed tawny owl.

Vladimir Zdorenko, deputy prosecutor at the Presnenskaya interdistrict prosecutor's office, said it was not clear what killed the man ---blood loss from a blow to the head, or freezing to death.

Luparev's clothes were strewn across the concrete base of the cage. Also found were his documents, an undisclosed amount of money, and a half-empty, one-liter bottle of vodka.

Sometime after midnight, Luparev climbed the gates of the staff entrance of the zoo, which is on Krasnaya Presnya Ulitsa, opposite the Krasnopresnenskaya metro station, prosecutors believe.

Luparev is believed to have been drunk.

He then made his way through the zoo and entered the unlocked owl cage via an unguarded staff entrance.

At this point, no one quite knows what happened. Luparev apparently hit his head on the ground -- possibly following an altercation with the owl -- and fell unconscious.

He is believed to have died between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. The owl, which flew out of its cage after the incident, was found perched in a tree next door to the zoo Tuesday evening.

"The owl is still in a state of shock," zoo spokeswoman Natalya Istratova said Wednesday. She added that the owl was not eating or drinking and that she feared for its life.

Istratova declined to name the bird keeper who found Luparev. "She hasn't stopped crying," she said.

Yes, it's true, and there's nothing I can possibly add to this...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Heliskiing in Greenland

This time last year, I was in the Artic with a group of intrepid skiers determining whether Western Greenland was sufficiently skiable to set up a heliski operation. Even today, this is one of my favorite trips with some of the most amazing scenery I've ever seen.

A group of ten skiers and our three awesome guides were based out of a tiny whaling village on an island off the coast in a region that gets maybe 50 tourists a year, from where we flew every day to the nearby mountains to ski from spectacular peaks down to gorgeous glacier-covered fjords. We also skied a number of "first descents" (slopes & mountains that had never been skied before) which was a particular rush!

We stayed with local Inuit (Eskimo) families and ate meals of whale, reindeer, musk ox, and other local delicacies, which were interesting (if not habit-forming) meals, accompanied by a fabulous wine stash that one of our enterprising team members managed to have flown in.

Greenland was everything that I could have imagined. We had a week of epic heliskiing and enough memories (and photos!) to last a lifetime.

I'm currently discussing a trip for the 2008 Heli season to either Kamchatka (Far Eastern Siberia), the Caucasus (Southern Russia), or Kashmiri Himalaya (Northern India), so anyone who's a keen skier, shoot me an email if you are interesting in coming along!

Photos from the trip are here.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Kiev- Running in Stilettos

Coming back from Kiev, that city blows me away in every sense. Often described (admittedly by Muscovites) as "Moscow five years ago", that description doesn't even begin to describe the vibrancy and uniqueness of Kiev. Despite the political paralysis of the Ukraine as it continues to grapple with the growing pains of a young (and corrupt) democracy, Kiev's consistent growth yet great quality of life is incredibly endearing. All the Kiev locals we met raved about their lifestyles in Kiev (many of whom had lived overseas), and their passion for their city was matched only by their disdain for Moscow. ; )

The city centre is packed with fascinating monuments and sights, intriguing side streets and great restaurants, not to mention the Ukranian girls whose beauty and ability to perform feats of navigation and athleticism on towering stillettos are are the only nationality I've seen that could rival Russia. In fact, I think the key metric of stilettos per square inch is even higher in Kiev than Moscow! That and the mandatory uniform of microskirts (not to mention the ubiquitous oversized D&G logos) is probably the only part of the "Moscow five years ago" description that fits.

Kiev's nightlife is varied and interesting. Although we were handicapped by the time of week we were there (like Moscow, definitely recommend being there on a weekend), the happening clubs we did hit had some innovative design (loved Tsar), creative cocktails, and a great crowd (did I mention the women?).

I had a great time travelling with Lesha and Ksusha, Russian friends from work, and am extremely grateful to Masha & especially Yulia, new local friends from aSW, who made us feel incredibly welcome!

Most of all, I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing Ukranian friend fly in from NY to show me her version of Kiev (heavy on the bars & restaurants, light on the monasteries & museums- just how I like it!).

Lena, thank you SO much, despite our navigational hurdles, I couldn't have had a better guide to Kiev!

Am now looking forward to staying in Moscow for at least the next few weeks to enjoy Spring, which I hear has finally arrived (it was snowing on the way to the airport as I left for this trip)!

Photos from the trip are here.

Riga- All grown up

I just spent a lovely weekend in Riga, celebrating a close friend's impending loss of liberty (also known as marriage).

I was excited to go back to Riga, a city I hadn't been to in almost 10 years. I had loved it then, the palpable excitement at the pace of change, the country shrugging off its 50 years of Soviet-enforced indolence and re-embracing its language, values, and unique identity, while modernising at breakneck pace.

A decade later, the difference is astonishing. Fortunate to arrive on Independence day, the clean, orderly streets were thronged with flag-waving Latvians, prosperous and creative bars and restaurants were doing brisk trade, and the beautiful old city was resplendent with reconstructed or restored monuments and architectural delights.

While (for a tourist) Riga retains some benefits of it's recent history (lower prices and Russian women's fashion amongst them), the city is now virtually indistinguishable from other Western European capitals. Blink in the old city, it could be Stockholm; in a nightclub and it could be Berlin. Latvia (or at least Riga) is no longer Eastern Europe. And while that for most residents is a positive development (although there were plenty of people I spoke to (mostly Russians) who didn't think so), as a visitor, I find that mildly disappointing, the quaint charm of the Baltics replaced by comfortable but bland Western Europeanism...

Rather than my yearnings for yesteryear, you'd probably prefer to hear more about the excitement of Riga? It has a well-deserved nightlife reputation, gorgeous girls and great nightclubs, and I think it's safe to say our whole crew had some late nights and an absolute blast of a time... Throw in some go-karting and shooting, and it's a perfect boy's weekend!

It's hard to write about Riga & it's nightlife without reference to the overwhelming number of English people there now that the Baltics have been "found" and budget airlines fly direct. I can't complain too much, since my other 7 compatriots flew in from London and we were, after all, on a bachelor party weekend (stereotype anyone?), but it did detract somewhat from Riga's considerable delights.

A few photos from the trip are here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cosmetic Surgery in Russia- Visa or Mastercard?

Random fact of the day... I was having drinks with the Russian consumer credit risk manager for a major international bank the other day, who mentioned that of all personal loan applications in Russia, over 30% of the stated (let alone those who lie) reasons given by women for taking out a personal loan is for cosmetic surgery... Wow.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

To NY and Sydney & back in a week (from April)

As much as I love living in Moscow, it's always nice to visit my other hometowns of NY and Sydney.

However, it may have been a little much to try and do both in one week.

In late April I spent the weekend in NY visiting friends and partying (and comparison-shopping NY's nightlife compared to Moscow) en route to my close friend Stephanie's wedding and my parents' 35th wedding anniversary in Sydney the following weekend. Despite the 70+ hours spent in transit around the world, it was worth it to be able to see so many close friends and family in such a short space of time.

To celebrate my parents anniversary, we flew a small seaplane from Sydney Harbour to another river north of Sydney for a delicious lunch, accompanied by a beautiful view, and some local wildlife!

Steph & Mike's wedding was gorgeous. They had a lovely ceremony at Mike's school in Sydney, followed by a reception on the roof of Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, next to the Harbour Bridge and across from the Opera House. It was a spectacular location and a great party!

To everyone I managed to see on this brief trip, it was awesome to see you, and to those of you who I didn't get the chance to hang out with, hope to see you sometime soon!

The photos from the brief trip to Australia are here.

My Office Fire (from April)

Since this is a new blog, I figured I'd backfill a few interesting stories from recent history, especially those which illustrate the day-to-day randomness of life in the fascinating town of Moscow...

Most of the time in Moscow, the fabulous people, restaurants, nightlife, and metro can lull you into feeling that Moscow is just another large Western city- think New York, London, Paris (actually, the Moscow Metro is far better than any of these cities combined!)... However, one is frequently and rudely awakened to the fact that you are in fact living in an emerging market with special rules all of it's own. Recent examples include almost being run down by a mercedes with a blue flashing light on the wrong side of the road (sidewalk, actually), being in a nightclub cleared by tear gas, and in early April, having our brand new office building catch on fire.

Thankfully all tenants are safe, our company offices were undamaged and "luckily", the sprinklers failed and our offices aren't damaged by water. We're hoping to reoccupy shortly.

Photos are online here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Swiss efficiency

I've long been used to the fabulous efficiency of the Swiss... Secluded in their mountainous Shangri-La, they've had centuries to dream up new means of efficacious precision. After a recent trip to Davos (and subsequent use of the autobahn at excessive speeds to make a flight back to Moscow), I personally experienced an outstanding example of the results of this reverie when I received a speeding ticket (via NY, no less) for exceeding the speed limit by 1km/h!

Apparently I have to pay the princely sum of CHF 40 for going 51km/h in a 50 zone...

At least the Swiss accept payment by credit card.

Adventures in Kazakhstan

Just got back from a long weekend in Kazakhstan. It was a ton of fun, and a land of contradictions- very little was as I expected, and it delivered in every way possible, from the green & European city of Almaty, to the stunning lakes, mountains, & gorges and the great nightlife & restaurants... I can't say enough wonderful things about my fabulous hosts Katya & Joel, who vacated their apartment for me, loaned me their driver, hosted a fabulous dinner with their lovely friends, and organized my Kazakh adventures to the second! ; )

You can check out the photos from this trip here.

When Katya asked if I would be OK to go hiking after arriving on a red-eye with only two hours sleep, I thought nothing of it (most readers wouldn't find this surprising). My first inkling that I might be a little over my head is when my new friend Dima turned up in his heavy duty 4WD loaded with technical climbing gear and we proceeded into the Tien Shan mountain range (remember "Spies Like Us"?). After powering up the first 2600m above sea level in thick cloud (aparently there are gorgeous views), we abandoned the vehicle and started hiking upwards. After passing some stunning lakes, an old Soviet observatory, and some strange godforsaken astronomic facility, we passed the snowline and started climbing...

As we passed 3500m (11,000ft), I wasn't sure whether it was my lack of sleep, lack of fitness, the altitude or my lack of anything to eat or drink since noon the previous day, but I was definitely feeling it! Eventually we topped out at about 3,800m (12,500ft) on top of a local peak, and the views indeed were spectacular. After 7 hours we finally made it back to the car...

That evening Katya invited a number of great people around for a delicious dinner, and then I ventured out to see what Almaty had to offer in terms of nightlife! As it turns out- quite a lot... ; ) While not quite Moscow in opulence, variety or talent- Almaty rocks pretty hard!

After crawling home at 7.30, Joel picked me up at 8 and took me to a corner where I was supposed to board a bus to the countryside. Problem was, since I was still drunk, and there were 15 buses there, and I wasn't exactly sure who Katya had called nor exactly where I was going, I avoided the buses with livestock and instead found myself bundled onto a bus with a load of Kazakh university students (and most of their parents) on a school trip to Charyn Canyon with only a Kazakh & Russian speaking guide...

4 hours later (and no clear idea where we were going, except that I now understood that Charyn Canyon is billed as Central Asia's "Grand Canyon" (it's definitely better I wasn't aware of this supposed comparison before arrival)), and a couple of stops (which I belatedly realized were intended for us to purchase a goat or two to sacrifice for lunch (or at least something to eat and drink for the five hours in a smouldering desert canyon)), we arrived at the canyon. The canyon was delightful, although one of my highlights was chuckling to see that Kazakh devushki (girls) behave just like (some of) their Russian compatriots, as ~6 of these girls loaded up their poor male companion like a pack mule while they clambered unencumbered up and down the canyon (predictably, a couple were in heels), complaining vociferously about pretty much any effort required... 5 hours later one of them noticed that I was strangely quiet (maybe it was the circling vultures) and offered me some water, after which a vociferous (and culturally enlightening) discussion ensued as to life in Western Kazakhstan vs. Moscow, NY & Australia, and KGB-style interrogation as to exactly why I didn't have a girlfriend or wife, after which, apparently satisfied I wasn't a circus freak (fooled her!), one of their number (approved by her mother) decided we would make a great couple... Thankfully I dashed from the bus at an early stop before I found myself writing my next travel report from the (distant) shores of the Aral Sea...

Monday started a little late, as I caught up on some sleep, and then Sergei (Katya's driver) took me to the fascinating Medau ice rink (largest in Central Asia! & Shymbulak ski resort (closed for the season)- as you can see, I hit all the Almaty hotspots!

As the evening before a public holiday, Monday night was a big night out. I had a great dinner with a new mate Stefan, and then met up with Sameer, Duke & Stephanie (an adventuresome Wharton 03 classmate and two Princeton in Asia interns), and we hit the nightlife and the rest of Almaty's hotspots...

On my final day, with spectacular weather and an amazing view of the mountains from Almaty, I had a leisurely Kazakh/Uzbek lunch w/ Joel, Katya & Dasha (it's always demoralizing when a 2-year-old speaks better Russian than me), then wandered the city before heading to the airport...
For those of you with a Borat fetish, there was little to be rewarding for you, although I did get a great photo of Pamela Anderson on the cover of a local paper... ; )

Next weekend- Ukraine!

My first post

As someone new to this whole blogging thing, I figured this might be an interesting way to keep people abreast of what's going on, as well as keep track of notable thoughts and events!