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Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

Florida

Florida_2Tackling the entire state of Florida with your wife is a great way to test the strength of a marriage, and Corinna and I had not just one but two books – this and Lonely Planet”s Miami – to do!

We managed not only to stay married, but to produce one hell of a guide – if we do say so ourselves – to a state most think offers little more than South Beach and Disney.

We went crazy on the outdoor activities, museums and art galleries to try to get away from the golf courses (which we didn’t include at all), condo-lined beach resorts and the madness of Kissimmee.

As a bonus, we ticked off loads of people who felt different – Jay Clarke roared in the Miami Herald that we’d inexplicably excluded the city of Naples from our guide (we left it out because it’s a golf-course packed, condo-lined beach resort), though he relented a bit and said that our book offered “more than most”

Golly, thanks, Jay

But the second edition of the book promises to be a kinder, gentler, Florida. There’s improved coverage of native American activities and history.

And of course, newly updated sections on all the state has to offer, from Disney to Drag Queens.

And yes, we’ve included a nice fat section on Naples which, truth be told, is a perfectly lovely city with some exquisite restaurants.

Brazil

brazil-2What a blast. I covered the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, as well as updating the history, flora and fauna, and all that stuff in the front of the book, while Andrew, Chris, Robyn and Leo tackled the rest of the country.

The basic assignment I got was, “Cut the book by half the length. And make it funnier.” That’s the kind of job I love. So I went. I’d always wanted to go to Brazil, but by the time I got there I had been writing LP books for about five years, and frankly I was burned out. I called my wife from a pay phone in Minas Gerais state.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “basically everything is the same here as it is everywhere else, except that here I get to look at beautiful girls on the beach while I plod by with all my crap, as opposed to looking at ugly people in a city. So not much difference.”

Brazil, though marked the first time that I wrote a book entirely on the road, using a handheld device of the sort that used to be called a Personal Digital Assistant and is now called a “phone”. It was a WinCE machine that allowed me to type all my notes and corrections into the chapter file at the end of each day and send it via Internet home to Spain. For the first time, I wasn’t lugging all my notes and guidebooks and pamphlets and magazines.

Just half of them.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Surviving Oktoberfest

Alosius, the Bavarian fairy tale goes, descended from heaven to deliver a note from God to the Bavarian government, but got so sidetracked drinking beer in the Hofbrauhaus that he never got around to making the delivery.

If Bavarian beer is reason enough for one man to give up his place in heaven, it’s no wonder that each year 6 million people from all over the world descend on Munich for the Oktoberfest – the granddaddy of beer festivals.

The festival, which runs Sept. 16 through Oct. 1, is Munich’s largest and most economically important tourist attraction. Tourists and locals will leave behind almost $750 million this year, and a lot of that will be in chunks of $5 and $7 (the prices, respectively, of a pretzel and a one-liter glass of Bavaria’s finest).

There’s not a whole lot you can do about those prices, but there are ways of cutting costs during your stay.

There are several factors working against visitors economically during this year’s Oktoberfest, not the least of which is the near-collapse of the dollar against the deutsche mark (currently about 1.4 to the dollar). Where you can cut costs is on basics – accommodations, food and transport.

Accommodations
The largest expense is accommodations, and since hotel rooms are almost completely booked, it’s a seller’s market all the way. Unless you’re the most die-hard adventurer, go for a package deal; it can save you money. Average rack rates (“off-the-street” prices) in the city’s hotels range from about $60 to $125 per night; you can cut this practically in half by booking a package well in advance.

Unfortunately for hostelers, Bavarian youth hostels leave much to be desired – service can be grumpy and at the prices they charge you may as well stay in a bed and breakfast or guest house.

If you haven’t pre-booked, a wonderful local resource is the Fremdenverkehrsamt counter at the central train station and airport, and at the central office of the Munich City Tourist Board at Sendlinger Strasse 1 near the Marienplatz.

The friendly, English-speaking staff members at these offices will do their best to match your budget and book you into a hotel, B&B or hostel for a $3.50 booking charge. They also dispense reliable tourist information and maps of the city.

If you’re under 26, the cheapest place too stay is at the Jugendlager am Kapuzinerholzl – it’s a giant circus tent that gives you a place on the floor with mattresses and blankets, hot showers and free tea for an incredible $5.

Last but certainly not least there’s camping, and the weather is usually good enough to make this worth your while.

Food
Here’s where they really get you at the Oktoberfest tents.

After a liter of beer or two, the reluctance to part with $20 for a glass of beer and a chicken leg tends to waver, so make sure you eat before you arrive. Munich has an international range of restaurants, but national foods that are inexpensive in the United States – Indian and Mexican, for example – carry luxury price tags here.

Doing it yourself is obviously the cheapest way. Supermarkets vary tremendously in price. Avoid shops in the central train station at all costs, where prices for staple goods are 30 to 50 percent higher than in regular shops and markets. Also tempting – but expensive – is the outdoor Viktualienmarkt near Marienplatz, which looks like a quaint European market but is actually a luxury farmers’ market for rich locals and tourists.

The cheapest places to head for supplies are Aldi or Norma supermarkets. There’s a good Norma in the center on Landwehrstrasse just west of Sonnenstrasse, about five minutes from Karlsplatz (Stachus). The store has lots of canned goods, cold cuts, prepackaged bread, sausage and very inexpensive wine – you can get a decent liter of Italian, French or South African wine for $1 to $2.50.

Grabbing a little something is easy enough. Look for Muller bakeries and Vinzenzmurr delicatessens all over the city (several in the center). Muller has small cheese rolls and pizzas for about $1.75, and Vinzenzmurr has hot buffets and salad bars (watch the price there) and snacks from about $4 to $6, and a wide selection of cheeses. Buy a loaf of Supersonne (sunflower bread) or Finnenbrot (dark, heavy, grain- and seed-filled bread) from Muller and a couple of chunks of cheese and sausage at Vinzenzmurr – two of you will be set for the day for under $10.

Another good option for cheap eats are Metzgerei (butcher shops), which sell uniquely Bavarian snacks such as Leberkas, Schinkensemmel or Salamisemmel – respectively, a pate-like substance, ham and salami served on crusty rolls with mustard. Toss in some excellent German potato salad and enormous pickles and you can usually get a filling meal for under $5.

Finally, there are many Greek and Turkish fast-food restaurants in the area around the central station that serve shish kebab, falafel and Turkish pizza for about $3 each.

Getting Around
The festival is held at the Theresienwiese – Theresa Meadows – a 10-minute walk from the central train station, and is served by its own metro station. If you’re asking directions, say “d’wies’n” (dee-veezen), the diminutive nickname, which is what everyone around here calls the place. Trams and buses heading that way, though, sport signs reading “Zur Festwiese” – to the Festival Meadow.

You don’t want to have much to do with a car during the Oktoberfest; you wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the fair anyway. Munich’s excellent public transportation system goes on overtime during the festival, and the price of a ride is about $2 with the purchase of a Streifenkarte – five-ride strip ticket.

A special single-ride ticket for any area within two U-bahn stations of the central station is about $1. The tickets are available from kiosks, bus drivers and blue vending machines marked with a ”K” all over the city.

On any mode of public transportation (U- or S-bahn, bus or tram), you need to validate your ticket yourself. The ticket strips have numbered sections from 1 to 10. You need to cancel one section for each transport zone you will cross into; most rides in the city center take two strips.

Failure to validate your ticket can result in a hefty on-the-spot fine of about $85 by the ubiquitous inspectors who pop up out of nowhere and enthusiastically prosecute scofflaws.

Munich’s comfortable (usually Mercedes-Benz) taxis can be expensive propositions, with a short ride in the center averaging $7 to $10, and a ride to the airport commanding $50. If you’re ready to part with that, you can catch a taxi at stands throughout the city, or order one by telephone.

New Highway Screams Between Mexico City and Acapulco

Stretching more than 150 miles between Mexico City and Acapulco, the Autopista del Sol, or Sun Highway, slashes through the rugged countryside of the southern highlands, reducing the smog-to-surf commute from eight hours to just under four.

Although the drive is truly a pleasure, when a 150-mile stretch racks up $75 in tolls, it had better be a great road.

It is.

Five years ago, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari set his mind to improving Mexico’s highway system. By turning to private industry to construct and maintain sections of the highway system, the Salinas government has in one fell swoop dramatically improved Mexico’s tourism infrastructure, providing convenient overland routes to Mexico’s resort centers while generating tax revenues and stimulating the economy.

Economy, Aesthetics
But the Autopista del Sol isn’t welcome from only an economic standpoint; even those who’ve never noticed a road before concede that this is a really nice one.

Between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, nothing’s changed much on 95-D, the main funnel road leading south from the capital. But just south of Cuernavaca, the newly opened 95-D splits off from the 70-year-old non-toll road (still called 95-D as well), and for the rest of the journey the Sun Highway is smooth, shimmering, fast and often beautiful.

After the stop-and-go madness of Mexico City’s chaotic, smog-filled streets, the pleasure of doing 70 mph on a smooth stretch of open road is almost narcotic. As the highway twists and turns through beautiful valleys and hills, it’s much easier to take in the bold landscapes than to give serious consideration to the relatively traffic-free conditions until you run smack into the reason: The many toll booths along the autopista charge some of the highest tolls in the world.

The toll booths are frequent, but if the idea were to spread out the charges to cushion the impact, it fails miserably; at one toll booth the fee is 120 pesos, or about $36.

All told, a round trip on the New Jersey Turnpike costs $9.20, though to be fair this is not New Jersey. Consider also that the 150-mile round trip through the new Channel Tunnel between England and France will work out to be just less than $240, and a 300-mile journey on Japan’s highways runs $108.

But unlike trips on many other toll roads, on the Sun Highway you really see what you get for your money. On a trip earlier this year, I saw road crews everywhere: scrambling to plant flowers, sweeping the median with hand brooms, placing signs for scenic stops and being generally persnickety about keeping the road shipshape.

The attention to detail is not merely cosmetic. Even to a novice, it is obvious the highway has been built to specifications that would give an autobahn designer an inferiority complex. As the road twists around mountainous curves (affording spectacular views of the valley), you can see drainage funnels every 30 feet or so, with concrete water channels running to the edges of the cliffs to prevent erosion.

Dizzying Bridge
Perhaps the crown jewel of the autopista is the glistening suspension bridge that spans the Mexcala River at about the halfway point between Cuernavaca and Acapulco. It’s 600 feet down to the river and if the dozen or so people milling about on the span were any indication – they just pull over and park in the middle of the bridge! – the view must be spectacular (I was scared to stop).

One major impact of the autopista is that bus travel from Mexico City to the coast no longer needs to be an endurance test. While very inexpensive bus service (which takes eight to 10 hours along the old 95-D) is still available, making the journey in style is still very cheap by U.S. standards. Estrella de Oro bus lines runs a luxury bus service from Mexico City’s southern bus terminal that takes just under five hours and costs $25.50.

On the Autopista del Sol, you won’t see broken-down buses roaring at breakneck speed around dangerous mountain curves, or livestock plopped into the seat next to you just as you are falling asleep. Service on the comfortable, Mercedes-built luxury buses that run on the highway is impeccable; the driver even took time to introduce himself to the passengers and let us know that coffee and tea were available in large thermoses at the back of the bus.

Despite its practical advantages and its lovely views, the excessive tolls may doom the Autopista del Sol to use only by long-distance trucks, luxury bus service and well-to-do motorists. While tourists tired of battling with potholes on Mexico’s older roads will find the autopista and the other 2,500- plus miles of privatized roads a godsend, it’s too bad the average Mexican driver will be hard put to take advantage of them.

Soviet Spoke In The Wheels Of Progress

Life has changed very little over the past few years for Stanislaw Kudrzycki, a shift supervisor for the Polish national railway (PKP) and his 19-person crew at Kuznica on what is now the Poland-Belarus border.

At the railway station of this desolate town, a 24-hour a day operation functions a in exactly the same way it did when it was established in 1972 to change the wheel trucks on trains crossing into and out of the Soviet Union. The Russian rail gauge is 24cm wider than European gauge (a legacy of Tsarist xenophobia), the reasoning being that foreigners intending to invade by train would first need to capture rolling stock.

If the system ever did thwart foreign invaders (it managed to severely impede progress of Nazi troops, who scrambled to regauge the lines to Moscow during World War II) it caused far greater frustration to rail travelers from Europe, who were compelled to change trains at the Polish Soviet border.

As one traveler put it, “the border crossing was the worst part of the trip. It was freezing, we had to go to the nightmare of the Soviet customs clearance before walking half a kilometre hauling our luggage. The experience didn’t exactly translate as ‘welcome to the Soviet Union.’” But in the 1960s, as the Soviet authorities began to rely upon tourism as an important source of hard currency income, they were forced to change the abominable border conditions.

They redesigned their train cars to the little more than flat bottomed cargo containers with seats, which could be placed upon changeable wheel truck assemblies. The trucks consist of two axles, four wheels, shock absorbers and a seat upon which the train can be fastened using a “male/female” connector in the manner similar to a key fitting into a lock. For inbound trains the European-gauge wheel trucks are removed and rolled out from underneath the cars, and Soviet-gauge wheel trucks are rolled in and attached. The outbound procedure is the reverse.

A Bit of History
In 1972 the Soviet Union constructed the changing station at Kuznica and contracted PKP to operate and maintain it (it has always has been a Polish operation despite the facility’s decidedly Soviet appearance). Now, as a train reaches the border, its cars are separated and placed next to hydraulic lift platforms which work in essentially the same manner as giant car jacks. After the wagons are separated, they are hosted 2m off the ground, the wheel trucks are rolled out from beneath the train, and new wheel trucks rolled in. Once the new wheel trucks have been manually lined up with the lynch point, the wagons are lowered onto the trucks fastened and re-connected.

It is a complicated, labor intensive operation. After each car has been lifted, workers walk underneath and attach the wheel trucks to a steel cable which pulls them down the track; they are then stored until the train’s return. When the new wheel trucks arer rolled in, they must be manually positioned using such crude tools as bent pieces of track as hammers and extra long crow bars to rock the wheel trucks backwards and forwards until the connecting points are aligned.

To one not aware of what is happening (and most Westerners aren’t), the procedure can be a harrowing experience with threatening Cold War over tones. Passengers are forbidden to leave the cars during the operation, which often takes place very early in the morning, and spend the turnaround time watching workers scurrying beneath their windows. Armed Polish soldiers patrol the kilmometre-long stretch of the work area, and the eerie silence is broken only by the constant slamming of wheel trucks being pulled into line and rolled down the tracks.

Dangers at Every Turn
Every aspect of the procedure, which takes between 60 and 90 minutes per train, is dangerous. During the winter, when the average temperature falls to minus 15 degrees Celsius, workers stand exposed for periods of up to two hours and than retreat to an overheated lounge area; illnesses are common. The hydraulic lifts, which are both electrically and manually operated during the procedure, have failed on at least one occasion, sending one of the 50 ton cars and its passengers crashing to the ground.

Workers say that one woman passenger has been killed, and seven people have lost limbs, when they were caught between 9 ton wheel trucks that were being rolled down to track. Drunken passengers routinely fall out of the cars. And there’s always the danger that a conductor will forget to lock the door to prevent entry to a car’s toilet, which empty directly onto the tracks. Should someone flush during the wheel changing procedure, the consequences are unfortunate for any worker who happens to be standing on the tracks beneath the drain output.

Kuznica, five hours east of Warsaw, is a tiny farming town also happens to have major railroad border crossings. These are seeing more business than ever. Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics bring all their worldly possessions to sell in Warsaw’s markets, and wait in line at the border for an average of three days to cross into Poland. On their return, having sold their possessions and car in which they came, they buy a train ticket to Kuznica where they walk across the border. They then walk a few kilometres to the Grodno station, where they can pay for connecting tickets in roubles.

Where Mr. Kudrzycki and his crew used to be controlled absolutely by the military – even to the extent that they had to request permission to go to the toilet – they are now very much under their own control. These days, the crew makes it very clear to the guards that they are merely putting up with them.

Even the once powerful and feared Russian train conductors, who would use any opportunity to exercise their authority, now stand by sheepishly as the workers go about their business. “They still try to throw their weight around from time to time,” says Mr. Kudrzycki, “but now they’re just a joke.’

“We used to do our job while the army stood guard, keeping passengers into cars, making sure people were taking photographs of the facility or sniffing around near the border,” one of the workers said. “Now the Army is ‘protecting’ us from the Russians, trying to keep them out!’

The whole crew, having a tea break between train arrivals in their smoke filled lounge, began to laugh. “An hour ago, to Russian passengers got sent back over the border,” said another. “They tried to get in invitations written in outrageous Polish – bad grammar, made up streets and towns, ridiculous names. It must have been written by a Pole with a great sense of humor.” (While Russians do not need a Visa to enter Poland, they must have an invitation from a Polish citizen)

The crew’s tea break ends. The St. Petersburg-Warsaw train is pulling in, and we follow Mr. Kudrzycki to the 15m control tower. Standing at his control console, he presses one of several dozen lighted buttons as he speaks. The action has no discernible effect, and a worker’s voice blares over a two-way radio speaker: the remote control is not functioning, so he’ll do whatever needs to be done manually. “That’s normal,” Mr. Kudrzycki says, pointing scornfully to the console, which looks like a 1950s comic strip version of a control panel of the future.

“You hear that radio? It was installed last month,” he continues, “I’ve been here for four years, everyone else since 1972, and they only installed a radio last month. Before that we would use hand signals, or send messages in a chain: he tells him, that guy tells the other guy, the other guy comes upstairs and tells me…’

There may be a lot of problems, but Mr. Kudrzycki is still sure of at least one thing: he’s not in danger of being laid off. “In Portugal,” he says almost wistfully, “they have the wide gauge rails as well. But they’re using a new technology. They have contractible axles on the trains; as they cross the border the axles expand by springs and become wide enough to run on the rails.’

“But,” he continues, “my job’s safe. Do you have any idea how expensive that system is?’

Please…Don’t make Me Go To Vorkuta

In 1994, when I ran into John Noble, coordinating author of Lonely Planet’s Russia Ukraine & Belarus, at the Travellers Guest House in Moscow about a month into the research of that book’s first edition, I brought up something that had been worrying me for weeks.

“Please,” I begged, “don’t make me go to Vorkuta!”

Anyone looking at the map of coverage in that book will notice a gaping area between Arkhangelsk and Vologda regions and the Ural Mountains. That’s not because there’s nothing there, but rather because there’s not much there that’s interesting – unless you’re a timber exporter, oil-spill cleanup worker or soft drink salesperson.

John let me off the hook on Vorkuta, but asked me if I could at least do Syktyvkar, the republic’s capital, located in its south-west. Sure. The train ride out from Arkhangelsk was a bit shorter (about 30 hours/US$15 with a train change) and I spent the first half of the ride fending the advances of a somewhat-past-middle-aged and inebriated woman, and the second fending the worst hangover of my life, brought on by what was described to me by the restaurant-car attendant as “very good Ukranian wine” and what turned out to be a mixture of spiritus (almost 100% pure alcohol) and red juice.

Syktyvkar is a perfectly pleasant city. Established in the 16th century, the town began life under the name Ust-Sysolsk, and its layout was designed by St Petersburgian planners to take full advantage of its position on the Sysola River. The town is almost a grid, with the railway station at the western end of the main street, ulitsa Kommunisticheskaya and the airport (which does not appear on any of the otherwise fine maps of the city) just outside the city centre at the south-east end of Sovietskaya ulitsa!

But aside from a nice stadium, a couple of nice parks, some well-stocked shops (like Greenwood’s, near the railway station, selling Western goods) and a darn good Communist Party Hotel (it still uses the name – KPSS), there’s, well, nothing to do. Indeed, when I asked Tanya, a gloriously cheerful employee of the private tours and excursions company in the KPSS hotel, what there was to do around here, she said, “Nothing.” She smiled when she said it. Tanya told me she was from Vorkuta, and I asked her what was there to see or do.

“Less,” she said, “than there is here.”
Surely there had to be something.

I went to the Vychegda Bar/Cafe. The downstairs cafe has the best potato pizza in town – drove the other potato pizza guy right out of business. There’s a museum on ulitsa Ordzhonikidze (Gesundheit!), dedicated to the life of Komi poet Ivan Kuratova. On prospekt Oktyabrsky there’s the lovely Ivangelsky Khristian church, which broke ground in 1991 and put all that gold on the roof in 1994.

Tanya was right. Even the town recognises it: its coat of arms is a sleeping bear. I went back and asked her again. Surely there had to be something, I mean, her boss had gone to the trouble of opening an excursion bureau, hadn’t he? “Well,” she ventured, “there is a turbaza outside town. It’s nice’. So within ten minutes she had caled a friend of hers, a large, thick-necked, leather jacket wearing gentleman driving a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and off we sped.

We went to the Turbaza Lemu, 17 km outside of town, where there were some small cottages, a river, some trees and a sauna. There are cross-country ski trips in winter, and mosquitoes in summer. Suffice it to say that Tanya had been right the first time. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place – in fact I had a lovely time and met some charming and wonderful people – it’s just that there’s no tourism infrastructure and lots of industry.

If you do go to Syktyvkar, for whatever reason, the best bet for lodging is the Hotel KPSS at the corner of ulitsas Lenina and Ordzhonikidze, where pleasant staff charge only about US$5/10 for clean singles/doubles and you don’t even need a boxy suit to get in. The cheapest place in town is the dormitory just across the steet from the airport, the Airport Hotel, where foreigners aren’t totally welcome, but can weezle their way in for an astounding US$3 per night. It’s at Sovietskaya ulitsa 69, about a ten-minute walk from the railway station.

The town has two other offerings, the Hotel Tsentralnaya at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 83 (US$11.50/12.50) which is clean but faceless; and the Hotel Syktyvkar – a monolith near the railway station which (snort) charges what they consider to be a quite reasonable (get ready) US$135 per person!

Change money at the Sberbank – the address is Sovietskaya ulitsa 16 but the entrance is on ulitsa Babushkina, or the Komibank at Sovietskaya 18. If you’re going to be playing any basketball, there’s a wierdly well-stocked sporting goods store at Kommunisticheskaya ulitsa 10, off the roundabout. A huge Dom Knigi bookshop is nearby, a bit further east on the same street. The Aeroflot office at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 53 sells tickets to Moscow (three flights a day, US$120), Arkhangelsk (four flights a week, US$86), St Petersburg (one a day, US$116) and Yekaterinburg (one flight a day, US$100).

I never made it to Vorkuta.

The SoBe Boom

It used to be called “God’s Waiting Room.” And even today, if you mention Miami Beach to people who haven’t been here or read about it lately, they might conjure up an image of octogenarians mingling poolside while Aunt Sadie implores them to wait half an hour before going into the water.

But to the arbiters of Fabulousness, SoBe (the inevitable contraction of “South Beach,” as southern Miami Beach is called) is The Fabulous Spot in the United States.

How long the SoBe Boom will last is debatable. Designer Gianni Versace is so confident the scene is here that he recently announced his spring fashion shows will be split: one show in Milan and a second in South Beach. Then again, there are distinct murmurs among the European and Supermodel crowd that SoBe is in danger of imploding and getting – gasp – passe.

Locals are not worried. After the film, television and European fashion shoots, the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, Sharon Stones and Madonnas, Versaces, and the thousands of oh-so-trendy people who swarm the chic neon- emblazoned cafes and boutiques of SoBe leave, South Beach will still be here and better than ever.

The current boom, which showed signs of stirring to life in the mid-’80s, brought renovation and the restoration of the city’s Deco District. But overzealous developers were given a very short leash by local preservation groups, which made certain the deco look wouldn’t be demolished in favor of the high-rise monstrosities that line the beaches to the near north.

The gamble paid off. The Miami Design Preservation League, founded by Barbara Baer Capitman, succeeded in having the entire Deco District placed on the National Register of Historic Places, cementing federal protection of the buildings.

Today, many of the Beach’s locals are imports from New York, people who, tired of sitting five hours in snarled traffic on their way to the Hamptons, decided that SoBe made a lot more sense. They brought younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by recession, looking for cheaper digs and a new audience.

This conglomeration of affluent and educated domestic transplants, mixed with the city’s established immigrant communities from Cuba, Haiti and South America, resulted in as solid a neighborhood community as one could ever hope for.

Something for Everyone
Like a large, accommodating restaurant, the Beach has been cunningly and wordlessly zoned to please everyone without offending anyone. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, fabulous to pedestrian, the answer is “Why not"” And best of all, it is still relatively inexpensive.

Miami Beach is laid out in a sensible grid, where uptown is north. The Deco District, from Fifth to Sixth streets between Ocean Drive and Alton Road, is either a walk into the ’20s or an unguided tour of the very best in American kitsch, depending on your views.

Ocean Drive
A walk along Ocean Drive from north to south is a safari through the trendy. To your left is the kind of beach where low-flying planes trail advertisements for nightclubs, restaurants, performances and, in one instance, an enormous full-color poster of Marky Mark in his underwear. To the right are the hotels and sidewalk cafes that seem to want to spill into the street itself. And vehicular traffic would appear to be limited to vintage roadsters, ‘63 Mustangs and grandiose Harley Davidsons.

The fashionably impaired need not worry; despite the Drive’s undeniable chic, it’s definitely a come-as-you-are affair. In fact, the minimum requirement is a pair of cut-off blue jeans, a T-shirt and an optional pair of in-line skates. Everyone who walks the Drive eventually has an espresso and a people- watching session at the News Cafe, SoBe’s de-facto meeting point. This is the place to spend an afternoon watching or gawking at Miami Beach’s Beautiful People. As they strut, sashay, blade and groove their way past your sidewalk table, order a cafe con leche and one of their baguette-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, keep an eye peeled for famous models and try to look pretentious and self-congratulatory to fit in. It’s great fun.

Get your bearings while checking out the interior of one of the Beach’s finest deco treasures by heading to the roof of the Park Central Hotel. The seven-story beachfront property has a sun deck, and no one seems to mind that visitors just walk past reception, take the elevator to the top floor and gaze out over the city. Go around 4 p.m., when the huge luxury cruise ships chug through Government Cut channel on their way to the Caribbean. The roof offers a stunning view of the ships against the Miami skyline and the beach.

Lincoln Road Mall
Ocean Drive may have a firm choke-hold on Things Fabulous, but most of the real South Beach begins at the Lincoln Road Mall. Renovated by the city in 1960 and just beginning a new $12 million face-lift, this wide, pedestrian- only stretch of sidewalk is the cultural epicenter of SoBe, with galleries every 100 feet or so, sidewalk cafes with only a moderate sprinkling of models, and the Lincoln Theater – a deco delight that is home to the New World Symphony.

Books & Books, a well-stocked book shop, is another gathering spot, often host to visiting writers, while restaurants along the mall offer the finest in cuisine from Pacific Time (an award-winning Pacific Rim restaurant) to World Resources (brilliant Thai, the restaurant/outdoor cafe is also a crafts shop), to Cuban and everything in between.

Biweekly “Gallery Walks,” promoted by the Lincoln Road Preservation Committee, take place on alternating Saturday nights. These walks are not an organized affair, they’re just something that everyone here knows about.

“I’ll see you on the Road” is the gathering protocol, as thousands stroll the mall, dashing into gallery openings and art-school presentations.

Even during the week, Lincoln Road is abuzz with gallery- and restaurant- goers, as well as the ubiquitous skaters. Running the length of the mall is a center divider of concrete planters filled with lush greenery and awkwardly shaped palms that make a picnic-style, late-afternoon snack almost irresistible.

A stop at Epicure Market on Alton Road at 17th Street reveals aisle after aisle of spectacular fresh produce, imported delicacies and prepared picnic boxes. Just up the block, the Biga bakery sells some of the most sumptuous bread in the world, and with that, a picnic on the mall is an absolute delight.

Washington Avenue
If Ocean Drive is the height of chic and Lincoln Road is the local hangout, Washington Avenue is the Beach’s engine room. Here’s where the seedy runs headlong into the trendy, and old meets new. Do what you will in the rest of the city, but when you need a pair of pliers, a bicycle inner tube or a quart of milk, you’ll end up here.

While many of the tiny, family-owned Cuban bodegas and sidewalk espresso windows have long since moved on, there is still a major Cuban presence on Washington Avenue. Most of the grocery stores and shops post signs in Spanish, with a usually poorly spelled concession to English-speakers scribbled at the bottom.

Washington Avenue is where all pretensions are cast away. And while a few trendy shops (including one devoted to selling condoms) are insinuating themselves into the fold, the area is more practical than anywhere else on the Beach.

There are notable exceptions, and a big one is the Wolfsonian Foundation at 1001 Washington. The foundation, a study center, runs a small gallery featuring an exquisite collection of decorative arts, and also houses one of the most extensive collections of local television and film archives in the world.

Somewhat lower on the cultural food-chain, the 11th Street Diner is an original art deco diner from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., built (their menu tells me) in 1948 by the Paramount Diner Corp. in New Jersey. The diner was transported to the beach in 1992, restored to its original glory and currently is a 24-hour gathering place that serves up a mean three-egg omelet.

Just up the road is Lulu’s, serving up very dependable Southern cooking, and for a late-night cappuccino and some live Cuban bands, Cafe Manana is the ticket.

Whenever the current Fabulousness ends, South Beach, like St. Tropez, will remain one of the world’s truly great beach towns. Tanned, rested from its decade of neglect, and ready for more, the community is now wealthier in all respects and determined to learn from its mistakes. Its new convention center has been a great success, and it will continue to bring in money and visitors for years to come. And if the atmosphere of cautiously relaxed prosperity is any indication, South Beach is not about to let success go to its head