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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?’

Where are the Nuclear Wessles?

subphotoI’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a “Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t “very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (“Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The “fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

“Hi!” I said, with a smile, “May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, “Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, “Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

“What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

“He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, “You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”