The Fire Island Breach

An op-ed in the New York Times last week really hit home my thoughts on the post-Sandy recovery projects in the New York area especially in regards to the situation on Fire Island, a place that I hold dear.  The plan in place now pumps millions of tons of sand and places it in locations along the beaches of Fire Island.

The piece correctly argues that this project is a massively expensive waste of money, time and sand.  As the author says, “Natural reformation of the sand dunes will take longer, but nature is already repairing the island. Free of charge.” 

This is in line with my long-standing opinion that the shifting of Fire Island is not a problem that needs to be fixed, rather it’s how we build on these ever-shifting barrier beaches that needs to be fixed. 

The government however seems determined to spend millions of dollars in the effort to actively alter the environment so they can appear to be proactive.  This is unfortunate for the environment and for taxpayers.

The author of the Times piece is Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University (located in the heart of Appalachia).  Their website has a lot of great information and descriptions of projects and research about shorelines on the East Coast.




Istanbul (day 2) – Cappadocia

Wed 11-May: My first full day in Istanbul.  I teamed up with an Argentino named Mariano and we hit up some of the more major sites – the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the spice market and the Archaeological Museum – the highlight of which was the actual chain the Byzantines pulled across the Golden Horn to prevent the Ottomans from encircling the city.  I was still feeling ambitious as the day wore on so we split ways and I took up the recommendation of a friend I had made in Sofia to visit a neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus.  The ferry across cost $1 and the bus ride up the straights cost $1 and the Turkish tea that I sipped as I watched ships passed under the shade of a 300 year old tree cost $1.

Thurs 12-May: After a lazy morning in the hostel, I headed back out in to the fray of sightseeing.  I went to the Galata Tour from which a colony of Italians helplessly watched the Turks pillage Constantinople.  Then I headed up to the old Roman aqueduct where I had a run-in with a shoe-shiner (I did him a favor of picking up a brush he dropped – he wanted to shine my shoes as a thank-you but ended up wanting me to pay $31 – NO WAY DUDE).  I hit up some pretty fabulous mosques and managed to find some decent places to eat.  Went back to the hostel and drank with some people there.

Fri 13-May:  One last loop around Istanbul before leaving for Cappadocia.  I hit up the old city walls (I am very fascinated with the fall of Constantinople) which are filled with gypsies who were staring me down.  I don’t know if they were eyeing me up or just curious why I was there.  The walls were rugged and beautiful – filled with trees growing through crevasses and the smoke from gypsy fires, clothes drying.  After a quick bite to eat, I walked along the Sea of Marmara towards my hostel and then on the bus bound for Cappadocia.

Sat 14-May: Cappadocia is in Central Turkey, not too far south of Ankara.  The landscape is vastly different than anything I have seen on my entire trip.  More like the American Southwest than the rest of Turkey.  It definitely felt like I was in the Middle East here – especially compared to cosmopolitan Istanbul which has a European swagger.  At 9am I arrived at my hostel after a long bus ride and even though I was exhausted I was eager to jump right in on a 9 hour tour of the countryside.  It was definitely worth the $45 to be guided around the massive expanses of the region.   In the evening I went to a restaurant and had a chicken cooked in a clay pot and broken open at my table.  It was delicious.

Sun 15-May: After a solid rest, I met some people in my hostel for an all day hike around the town we were staying – Goreme.   The major features of the area are strange rock formations and houses built in to the sides of canyon walls.  We spent the better part of the day getting lost in the various canyons and ridges of the area.  It was a lovely Sunday.  In the end though, I had to get on another overnight bus – bound for Antalya on the southern coast of Turkey for some time at the beach and some good weather finally.

Chicken Kiev – the thinking man’s chicken nugget

I boarded a train at the Kievsky Voksal in the southwest corner of Moscow at 11:23pm on Sunday night.  The station was a bit deserted except for the usual massive number of heavily armed Russian police.  The train pulled out of the station and I immediately fell asleep.  I was woken by Russian border security at 4am.  One of my proudest moments of using the Russian language was my simple but important back-and-forth with these guys.  I went back to sleep.

I woke up at 7am and the sun was shining in Ukraine.  I looked out the window and saw green.  I felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz – all of a sudden there was color!   After going through Ukrainian immigration at the Kiev train station, and dropping my things off at my hostel, I started exploring Kiev.

Kiev is a beautiful city – simultaneously more European but less cosmopolitan feeling than Moscow.  There is the usual massive Soviet monuments littering the city, beautiful gold-domed churches, but Kiev’s  tree-lined boulevards made me think of Hausmann and not Stalin.

Ukrainian food was also a revelation compared to Russia.  It is basically the same far but cooked with more pride, more flare and more flavor.  It was also cheaper.  My first meal in Kiev consisted of a great dark Ukrainian beer, borscht, a medley of vegetables in a butter sauce, buttery bread, and “kotlet kuryana z sirom” literally chicken cutlet with cheese but known to us as chicken Kiev.  All of this cost me 34 hrivna or $4.25US.  I loved every bite of it.  I had meals at this restaurant many times and was always very happy.

Kiev is a great city but three days was enough.  I had been thinking about extending my time in Ukraine and taking a ferry from Odessa on the 11th, but again I felt itchy to get going.  I bought a ticket for another overnight train from Kiev to Sofia.   It was more train travel than I had hoped but the train trip was made a lot nicer with the company of a lovely Russian woman named Zoya who lives in Sofia, a beautiful Iranian girl going to medical school in Ukraine and a Swedish traveller who was heading to the same hostel as me.  The countryside was also a new site – gone were birch trees and industrial wastelands – now there were huge plains checkered with green grass and yellow flowers, horses pulling families in carts and shepherds tending to their flocks.

I had crossed in to the EU and it felt like I was in a new world.

Moscow to the End of the Line

The first sight of Moscow wasn’t spectacular.  It wasn’t terrible either.  After days and days of birch forests, abandoned factories, farms and small industrial cities, it was refreshing to see something different.  There was more people, more Communist imagery and more housing blocks.  Yaroslavsky station was a concrete heap but the metro station below was glorious.

In Moscow I visited the Kremlin, Red Square, the Cosmonauts Memorial, Arbat St., and Pushkin’s home.  I met lots of cool people and went partying with some friends I had met on the ferry from Korea and some Russians that they had met along the way.  I was intimidated by the idea of going to a Moscow nightclub but ended up having a great time and not spending an obscene amount of money – 1000 rubles (about $40) made a great night out.

The Russians in Moscow often speak English very well and are very friendly.   Lots of people were very eager to help out if I looked lost and were excited to talk to foreigners.  This was quite different from my experiences in Siberia, where one had to try a lot harder to talk to people.

It was nice being in a real Western city for the first time since I left New York last year.  Moscow lived up to or exceeded all of my expectations for it yet it still failed to really dazzle me the way some other great cities have.  Maybe a part of it is timing – I was there during a holiday and many people were out-of-town – and maybe it was partly a result of the over-militarization you see in Russian with the Militsia glaring at me.

I was happy to be getting on the train again and head to Kiev and finally a new country after two weeks of travelling.  Keep on keeping on.


Vladivostok to Irkutsk

I spent one day in Vladivostok.  It is not a very impressive city.  The city hugs a pretty large natural harbor.  There are pretty majestic islands surrounding the port but the city itself is pretty industrial.  I tried doing everything that was listed in my guide-book but none of them really seemed terribly worth the money or even the effort.  I ended the day waiting in the waiting room of the Vladivostok train station.

As I was waiting to board the train, my first taste of what I was in store for was when two tough looking Russian cops dragged a drunk man to the train door.  I wondered if we were transporting a prisoner on our car, but I’m pretty sure that they were just helping a local drunk catch his train.   The provadnitsas – the women in charge of each train car – helped me find my seat and made me make my bed.  I was all alone in my little area but in the middle of the night – an older couple and a younger guy had appeared.  I quietly read my book – the couple left and were replaced by two Russian solders.  There were tons of soldiers on the train.  Most of them were pretty mean looking, but I lucked out and was with some pretty nice guys.  I speak a little Russian and one of them spoke a little English, so we were able to get on a little.  We shared food and beers.  That’s the most important thing. I felt safer being in their group a little.

Me and My Siberian Friends

The view at the window alternated from being amazing to amazingly dull.  There were a few really beautiful scenes.  The train mostly passed through birch forests but near the northern tip of Manchuria, the forest gave way to a vast steppe.  Just like how I imagined Genghis Khan’s home to look.   The train stopped and we had time to buy provisions at the station,  I was roundly mocked by a large group of soldiers when I purchased five 1L bottle of beer.  I thought to myself “I’m being mocked by Russian soldiers on the steppe in a beautiful town – this will probably be the only time in my life this happens, just roll with it.”  The sight of rolling hills, birch trees and quaint wooden houses became tedious by day three.  Then Lake Baikal.  So beautiful, so big, so cold.

I couldn’t wait to get off the train.  Even having befriended these guys, it was pretty tedious to ride the train for three days.  Time sort of took on a strange form and my body got used to inactivity.  I slept a lot but was always tired.  I had a lot of time to think.  When I saw the soldiers reunite with their families – I got home sick for the first time since leaving New York over one year ago.  It made me a little frustrated that I would be on the road for so long.  It made the idea of all of the days on trains that lies ahead so nauseating.

But relief finally came – we made it to Irkutsk.   This is a much nicer city than Vladivostok.  It’s a lot prettier, it’s a lot more happening and the weather is nicer.

A Russian Orthodox Church in Irkutsk

In Vladivostok

Vladivostok – Leaving Korea was harder than I thought it would be. I had too much going on in the end and didn’t feel like I had enough time to do everything I wanted to do. It was very sad to say good-bye to my bosses and to leave my apartment and my friends and it was even hard to leave the little city that I never really liked. I went to Seoul with Jina and had lunch together and said our good-byes – again very sad.

On the bus to Donghae, the darkness was broken by an almost full moon, the TV and neon green, red and purple Christmas lights. I was sort of frustrated by my decision to travel by the slowest modes of transportation our current century has to offer. If I were flying, I would be in the air by then, I would be far away from Korea. But I was still in Korea, I still had to fumble my way around in a new city and wait and wait to leave. I had a lot of time to think and to look back. I just wanted to go forward.

Donghae was a very pretty city. It’s sort of what I had imagined Gunsan would be before I came to Korea. The port and the sea are in front of the city and there are mountains in the back. In the morning, I had the time to explore but I was carrying my pack so after getting a cup of coffee, I hopped in a taxi and headed to the DBS Cruise Ferry terminal.

My last view of Korea

Most of the passengers on the ferry were Koreans and Russians, but they seemed to be mostly Koreans who worked in Russia and Russians who worked in Korea. My bed for the night was a large floor with mats and pillows – not too different from sleeping in a Korean bath-house. I always sleep real well like that. The food was decent – 10,000won for an all-you-can eat buffet – and the bar was reasonable too – 5,000won for a big draft beer – the bartender was from Gunsan.  It felt good to be moving, even if very slowly.

After a day of sailing across some pretty windy seas, our first sight of Russia was some pretty majestic looking islands.  After another hour, the more expected landscape of decaying heavy industries took over.   Rusty ships, massive scrap yards, factories. The ship was greeted by a line of men and in classic Russian military gear – the furry hats, big coats and angry-looking dogs.

Vladivostok has a reputation for being ugly and dull – many Russians on the boat who are from here told me as much.  It’s not easy to argue against the reputation but coming from Korea, I can’t help but be a little taken by this city.  The roads are terrible, the sidewalks are worse, there’s a lot of trash floating about and there is a strong scent of diesel in the air, but there are also some charming old buildings and hills with spectacular views of the harbor.  It feels like the last outpost of a great civilization, for better and for worse.

Vladivostok harbor from my window at Hotel Moryak, Vladivostok

I’m seeing what I can of this city but I’m mostly killing time till my train leaves this evening.  I board the 007 H Сибирь – the “Siberia”.  I’m going to be riding in a third-class sleeper – the cheapest class on the cheapest train from here to there.  It’s three days from Vladivostok to Irkutsk – hopefully it’s not terribly uncomfortable.


Looking Back: Korean Highlights (October 2010 – April 2011)

  • Jirisan (10 October 2010) – Definitely one of the nicest and most excruciating weekends in the past year was climbing the tallest mountain in South Korea.  The climb up was difficult but nothing memorable.  The hike down involved two dislocated shoulders and took twice as long as the ascent.  The night was spent with some of my best friends in a minbak (a Korean-style hotel with mats on a heated floor) near the base.  It took many trips to the jjimjilbang and to the doctor to recover.
  • Thanksgiving (28 November 2010) – Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday and this year it was nice to celebrate it with as many of the trappings of home as possible.  Some friends were able to get turkeys from the Air Force base and hosted a potluck.  Even though many of our favorites were hard to cook in Korea, the extra effort was definitely worth it for a slice of Americana.  Thanksgiving was one week before my half-marathon and the day started off with our last long run before the big event. Running, eating, being with friends – what’s better?
  • Half-marathon (4 December 2010)  – I did it.  I ran a half marathon.  Not easy.  Going to Seoul with the big group and renting the big group hostel room is always fun but having the shared experience of the run and the last of the nice mild fall weather made it all the more memorable.
  • Thailand (11 December – 18 December 2010) – Thailand is Thailand.  I don’t know what else to say other than it was amazing and I REALLY didn’t want to come back to Korea afterwards.
  • Seonyudo (2 April 2010) – After a long winter of staying in and saving money and getting ready for the end of my contract, I had one last Korea excursion.  Maybe the shortest excursion but also the most different was to the Seonyudo Islands right off of Gunsan’s coast.  Seafood and shooting off fireworks with drunk middle-aged men and a great girl feels like an appropriate way to remember Korea.