Monday, February 24, 2014

Olympic Wrap-Up

Kristen says...

I love the Olympics. Love love LOVE them!
It has been hard to choose between these two awesome bags! (The left was a gift from Chris' grandmother, the right was my backpack from 2nd to 6th grade!)
It has been really awesome to be in the country that is hosting the Olympics again (even if I'm actually geographically farther from the games than my family in the States). There is really just something special about being around the "home team."

Of course, it was also a little different, since the past two times (Atlanta 1996 and Salt Lake City 2002) were in my home country, so I could unabashadly love everything about them, because they were, you know, in my country.

Still, it has been really neat to see the Russian reaction to the Sochi games. We watched the Opening Ceremonies with other Americans, but each working day of the games I turned on the NBC broadcast over the lunch hour at the Consulate (one of the advantages of being 17 hours ahead!!) and spent a lot of time enjoying the games with the added Russian perspective.

We had a nice time congratulating each other when competitions were won, and consoling each other when things didn't go our way. (It was especially sad when I was watching the withdrawal and subsequent retirement of figure skater Evgeni Plushenko (pron. PLUshenko, I've been told multiple times--emphasis on the PLU) with my Russian colleagues. It was very interesting to see the range of emotions from sadness to anger about that particular event.)

Chris also got to experience something really cool last Saturday night when Russia and the US faced off in the hockey game. We are 7 hours ahead of Sochi, so the game was going to start at 11:30 pm Vladivostok time. Hockey is, as you might have heard, kind of a big deal in Russia, and so clearly everyone was going to stay up and watch this the local movie theaters and hockey arena made a very smart fiscal decision and sold tickets to people who wanted to watch the game on the big screen!

Chris and some of our colleagues got tickets to the game's presentation at the brand new, really nice ice hockey arena and had an interesting evening watching the game surrounded by excited Russian hockey fans.
 Before the game the arena was opened for those who wanted to ice skate:
 And then the game began:

So that was pretty cool!
 I didn't go for many reasons, one of which was that I'd come home from work the day before with horrible headache (and I didn't think an 11:30 pm hockey game would help that), and another was that I find hockey exceptionally boring. (In the spectrum of sports, hockey ranks slightly higher than soccer and just below basketball and baseball...American Football, swimming, track and field and figure skating, of course, are nearest the top...)

Still, I've watched my fair share of the Olympics...and done a bit of Sochi shopping...
So cool! This is a very popular item here in Vlad, I'm quite happy I found one before they were sold out! :)
So, just like the Sochi Bear Mascot, I'm shedding some (mental) tears at the end of the Olympics, but looking forward to August 5, 2016, for the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in Rio! :)

And, as always, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that some day, somehow, Chris and I will actually attend the Olympic games...That is my Olympic dream! :)


Monday, February 17, 2014

Some Vladivostok Sights: Submarine Museum, Funicular, and More!

Kristen says...

I know that this may seem a little strange given that we've been here for over a year now, and Vladivostok is not known as a tourism destination, but there are a lot of things here that we haven't seen!

TripAdvisor actually has 53 "Things to Do" listed in Vladivostok, which is pretty cool (even if a few of them are actually duplicates).

This weekend, thanks to a visiting TDYer (temporary duty) wanting to see the city, we had a legit reason to visit four of them, three of which were new to us and one we saw in a new way...

Saturday just after lunch we met our friend downtown at the S-56 Submarine Museum, an old Soviet sub that for 100 Rubles (150 if you want to take pictures) you can travel through at your leisure.
The sub is located right next to Vlad's WWII monument. which you can see in the background
 The museum had two distinct parts. The first part was wide and full of memorabilia and artifacts.
The inside of the first part of the museum
Chris and the proletariat flag
Pegged chess board used by sailors at sea
The face that inspired millions of Russians to join the armed forces--you can think of it as the Soviet version of Uncle Sam
A model of the submarine
 The second part, accessed through a series of portholes, consisted of the engine room, the cabin for probably an officer, and finally the bunks for the regular seamen which were, apparently, in the same place as the arsenal...yikes!
Through the porthole!
Coming in from the other side
 Engine room:
Chris at the helm

It's always funny to see this type of thing in Russian rather than English
Cabin for someone who wanted to be comfortable:

Requisite picture of Stalin outside the comfy bunk
And the bunks for the regular guys...and the weapons!

Not so comfortable
After we left the submarine we walked across the street to look at the chilly Amur Bay...I don't think now is the best time for a swim!
 From there we headed to another Vladivostok sight, the Funicular railroad:
 For a mere 9 Rubles we rode the historic trolley car up the hill toward destination #3!

Happy Valentine's Day from Vladivostok!
I was planning to save this sight for a visit from one of my brothers who is a student of languages, but since he assures me he will not be able to make it over was a nice day to check out the Eagle's Nest Mount viewpoint and monument to Cyril and Methodius:
Notice all the locks from happy couples along the railing--we even saw a bride and groom getting their picture taken there
 The view was, predictably, breathtaking:
 And an excellent place to get an updated picture of Chris and myself, hooray!
 Also, there was a 10-ft inflatable tall matryoshka doll...awesome!
Love you, Vladivostok!
So that was a fun day...and, despite the heavy-duty coats and gloves, it was relatively warm...I think it topped out at 34°F!! Heat wave! :)

Of course, the fun didn't stop there, but this blog post will...don't worry, more to come, later.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Trip to Thailand (Part 2)

Kristen says...

Happy Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics!!

Chris and I had a really interesting experience today--we went to a friend's house to watch the Opening Ceremonies but due to a technical glitch ended up watching not the NBC "American" version, but the local Russian version...which of course showed the same thing, but with all commentary in Russian...

Luckily, Chris had DVRed the NBC version, so this afternoon I re-watched the entire thing with Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira...and was glad I did, because I got a lot more out of it actually understanding the history and reasoning behind the symbolism (instead of guessing, which is what we did this morning). :)
But you wanted to know about the last part of our Trip to Thailand...

If you remember, we spent our first day in Thailand visiting the Reclining Buddha and the Monastery of Wat Pho, as well as the Grand Palace and the Wat Arun.

Something I failed to fully discuss were my thoughts on the Grand was really, really huge, and gorgeous, and really, really Thai. However, and this is not at all a bad thing, it did not meet my expectations of what a Grand Palace should be.

To me, a Grand Palace is Versailles, or Schönbrunn Palace, or I suppose even Monticello, in a way...what I expected was a house that you could go through and see how the monarchs lived, see some of their clothing or dinnerware or something personal...

What the Grand Palace in Bangkok was, was Buddhist temples.

European palaces (and American estates) are all about the people who lived there. The Grand Palace in Bangkok was all about Buddha.

Which, in a way, makes total sense, since most of the people there (94.6 %!) are Buddhist, but in a way makes no sense at all since the monarchy is still alive and well and totally it surprised me that there was no place where the common people (and visitors) could go and see how the monarchy lives (I mean, you can tour Buckingham and Kensington Palaces in London!)

Anyway, not a bad thing, just not what I expected.

So, at the end of our first day we were pretty tired and a little footsore (the first day in sandals always gives me blisters between my toes), so we went out for a quick dinner at a German restaurant (AMAZING, I had the cheese spätzle, yum!) and then went to bed.

Day 2 was pretty boring, we had to work. Ho hum.

Dinner that night was much less boring, we went out to a burger place and Chris fully enjoyed this:
Huge burger, fries, good times
and I fully enjoyed this:
Thai Tea--very similar to Hong Kong tea, except that it's served cold rather than hot, and uses sweetened condensed milk rather than evaporated milk. Not too bad at all.
 Next we went to a neat restaurant with an outdoor terrace on the top of a downtown building for drinks and an amazing view:

On our way back to our friend's house we saw some other fun Bangkok nightlife, including a number of mobile bars:
 Oh, and protesters:
Yep, I'm not sure if you've been following the news in Thailand, but there have been large protests in Bangkok over the past weeks, and we arrived within a week or so of their beginning.

I've never spent a lot of time around protesters or protests, but I have seen footage on the news and I have to say these seemed like very peaceful and controlled protests to me. I asked the taxi driver who took me to the airport about the protesters and he reminded me that Thailand is a Buddhist country, and the teachings of Buddha promote peace...thus the low-key protests.

Our third and final day started early again, this time with a trip to the amazingly huge Chatuchak (JJ) Weekend market:
Needless to say, the market was also amazingly overwhelming, but we didn't get lost and we didn't get ripped off (as far as we could tell) so it ended up pretty well! :)
Walking around the market. Photo by Tim Kase, used with permission (Thank you!!)
 I have been to a few markets around the world (most notably the night market in Hong Kong and the big market in Guatemala) and this was by far my favorite market experience. As opposed to Hong Kong, this one had a much greater variety and was full of things I actually wanted, and opposed to Guatemala, the sellers were SO nice! Instead of high pressure sales/following you around trying to sell you things, they just said hello and smiled at you. Lovely.
More market offerings. Photo by Tim Kase, used with permission (Thank you!!)
One of the funniest things about this market was this amazing sign:
 Yes, squat toilets can be found in Thailand, too, but often they are interspersed with "regular" toilets, too...and this sign showed how to use the regular toilets for those who needed to know. Thailand definitely wins the prize for best signage!

After about two hours at the market we were tired and hungry, so we headed back to our friend's apartment and got some food, then spent a few hours by the pool. Then I took a little nap because my plane back to Vlad was going to leave at 1:00 AM (ridiculous time for a flight) and I was tired! :)

Before the sun went down on our last day, though, we took advantage of the fact that our friend lives in a really, really tall building...with a helipad on top.
 So, we went up to the top of the world!

 We went up first via elevator, and then had to walk up some fire stairs.

Notice anything interesting? Level AA takes the place of floor 13, because floor 13 doesn't's a superstition thing. :)
Anyway, here's the view from the helipad:
Beautiful Bangkok
On Top of the World. Photo by Tim Kase, used with permission (Thank you!!)
Chris :)
The photographer. Photo by Tim Kase, used with permission (Thank you!!)
 After our trip to the top, Chris and I ran one more Thailand errand:
Chris had a fitting for his new suit and blazer!
Yes, like so many before him (Obama and both George Bushes included) Chris visited a tailor in Bangkok to take advantage of the low prices and excellent craftsmanship to get a custom-made suit. Snazzy. :)

After that, it was a waiting game until 10:30 when the taxi came to take me to the airport for my 1:00 AM flight (again, that is a ridiculous time for a flight!) Notice I am talking about just myself, Chris actually stayed in Thailand for another week for training, so I came back by myself.

It was a smooth flight, and due to the early hour I actually managed to sleep for about 5 of the 5.5 hrs of the first flight, hoorah! In fact, I slept so long that I had this cute little note on the seat in front of me when I woke up just in time for the descent:
After a short two-hour layover in Seoul (where I allowed myself to enjoy a delicious frozen treat unavailable to me in Vladivostok)...yummy!!!!
 It was back on the plane for the 2.5 hr flight to Russia!

Something interesting that those who haven't traveled internationally lately (or at least haven't traveled in Southeast Asia lately) and who understand World Geography might be wondering is, why does it take 2.5 hours to fly from Seoul, South Korea to Vladivostok, Russia, two cities located just under 500 miles apart (think Omaha, NE, to Chicago, IL)?
 Check out that flight path!
 That is why. International airspace issues are really, really interesting!

So, long flights aside, I made it back to Vlad no problems. I had planned to take the airport train back home, but found it wasn't running for another two hours after I arrived, so I took a bus instead.
Good times. There was a movie and everything! :)

And, so, even though it was almost 70 degrees colder in Vladivostok than it was in Bangkok, there were some definite advantages to coming back...first of all, of course, was the adorable puppy waiting to welcome me home, and the second was this, the city welcoming me back:
I never get tired of this view. Beautiful!