Friday, December 30, 2011

Viva Vegas!

Las Vegas is a heckuva place. 
If you had asked me back when I first turned 21, I would have told you that I had no interest in going to Las Vegas. Gambling?! Waste of money. Buffets?! Gross. Glitz and themed hotels?! Cheesy. No thank you. Then somewhere on the way I started having a little more fun and you know what? Las Vegas is a heckuva place. It's still ridiculous, but it's a fun ridiculous and I didn't learn my lesson: After a good 6-8 hours in the casino, I was actually up $5. Time to start planning the next trip.

I can't really say that I saw the real Las Vegas. What I visited was more Las Vegas® and Old Vegas, which is the strip and downtown. Outside of these Disneylands, I'm sure that there is a far different side of Vegas, both good and bad. The next time I'm here, I'll have to spend more time off strip, where I suspect that there are some truly great local places, but for anyone headed to Vegas, here's my basic advice:

1. Forget that the monorail exists, and go public transit. The monorail is both not that useful because it drops about a quarter mile from the strip and not the best example of monorail technology. The bus, on the other hand, is a good deal. Be sure to pony up the $2 for the 24 pass for less stress.

2. From the airport, just take a cab. The shuttle buses are slightly less expensive ($6 per person), but a cab for two or more people is going to be less expensive.

3. On a related note, when you're getting ready to leave, don't forget that the airport is less than 10 minutes away. We made the mistake of allocating way too much time to get to the airport and ended up waiting around.

4. Bring cash with you. ATMs in the hotel will run you $5 per withdrawal and less expensive ATMs are hard to find (There's one here for $3, here (4th floor, and broken when I tried), and supposedly one here, just in case).

5. Do have fun. If you decide to play, don't feel shy about asking the waitresses for a drink (but do tip $1 a drink) and make sure you're comfortable losing whatever you put up. Set a limit and stick with it. Shows are good too, but shop around for the best price. Tix4Tonite managed tickets for us to Love! at about a 20% discount (but better deals may have been about). Whatever you like to do, do it.

After the break, more pictures from everywhere, including the Stratosphere and a couple of other restaurants! Keep reading!

Flight Report: To Sin City and Cheating on United

For the past few years, I've been a bit of a purist: United was my preferred airline, followed by Lufthansa. Continental was a good option because of the ARN-EWR flight, but overall I never really enjoyed them and I never experienced any perks with them except for a couple of lucky domestic upgrades. On Lufthansa, on the other hand, they once bumped me to first class for no apparent reason on a transatlantic flight and United   bumped me to business on my way back from Japan. That's very welcome.

However, now Continental has taken over United and there have been changes. Most notably, to the mileage program and as a direct result, I'm now shopping for a new carrier. Heading down to Las Vegas was a great opportunity to try out Alaska which is an airline I used to fly a lot with as a kid back in the late 80s and early 90s, but haven't used recently.

After the break, photos from takeoff and the flight, plus Mt. St. Helens.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Flight Report: Challenging Copenhagen Connection Complications

Flying back from Sweden gave me a chance to experience something new: A fully missed connection with no later flights to my final destination. In the past, a delay has meant a couple of extra hours and maybe a rebooking to a red eye, but this time around the flight I missed was the last one of the day and the flight that was delayed by three hours was the last one out of Copenhagen to the US. In other words, I’m not getting home today. Here's what happened...

The first plane of the day

The day started out well enough: One of my friends gave me a ride to the airport in exchange for a Starbucks mug with “Stockholm” on it, and the first flight of the day was a quick hop to Copenhagen: A true bread and butter flight on a trusty 737. It was a wet start from Stockholm and we were quickly on top of a steady blanket of clouds which would be the scenery for the flight. On the approach the cloud cover gave way and revealed a bit of the countryside of southern Sweden, and the landing itself was in some pretty gusty cross winds. Once on the ground and in the airport, this is where the fun started…

After the break, the full story, lessons learned, and another example of a Kosher meal in flight, this time on SAS.

Graduation Day and Diplomutdelning på Stadshuset

This was the reason that I flew out to Stockholm. Graduation day, which took place in the same hall as the Nobel prize fest, followed up a reception in the Gold Hall. Since I just got back, I don't have any of the pictures that others took, but these give an overview of where it was and why I wanted to attend. They only hold the event twice a year, so this was the one that I was invited to after graduating in October.

The ceremony takes place in Stockholm City Hall, which is a masterpiece of a building. Until now, I've only been here as part of a tour, but it's quite a different experience to actually be there for an event.

Friday, December 16, 2011

All I want for Christmas...

Dear Santa,

I would like one of these cufflinks, maybe the New York or SF ones. And world peace.

...but focus on which ever is less trouble for you.

Thank you,


[Uncommon Goods]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Flight Report: To Sweden for My Graduation

I officially graduated from KTH in October. The degree is in my hands and unless I end up coming back for a conference or some other reason, I have done everything that I need to do at KTH. My main interaction with my school from here on out will be to look up towards the campus when I switch to Roslagsbanan, the suburban train that serves Northeastern Stockholm. Before that, though, I have my graduation. In some ways, this is a bittersweet graduation. The policies at KTH are such that in order to attend the graduation ceremony in June, you have to have your degree issued by the end of April. For “normal” students, their defense would be in May and for those that defend in early summer, they are invited to the event in December.

The event itself is worth attending: It’s in the Blue Hall of Stockholm City Hall, which is a fantastic building and where the Nobel dinners are held every year. Despite its name, the hall itself is actually red from the bricks used. The story is that the architect originally planned to paint the hall with blue paint, but changed his mind on seeing the space. It is beautiful and it’s also open to the public, if you visit Stockholm. The Stockholm City Hall tour will take you through all the spaces and are offered in a variety of languages. That said, there is something disappointing about being asked to wait six months to celebrate an accomplishment and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to attend the celebration in the summer was part of the reason that I decided to expand my thesis and defend in September. No one celebrates something six months stale. It’s not even appropriate for a belated card. At that point, you might was well resign yourself to congratulating the person for their next accomplishment on time and feign ignorance. Basically, who has ever heard of a super bowl party in August? Or who has actually, seriously, celebrated Christmas in July?

After the break, three flight reports, some pictures of the in-flight meal, and some comments on suburban roads, plus pictures from the whole trip, including another shot of Mount Rainier.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Transit Pass Collection: Istanbul (Updated)

A little while ago, I posted about the the Akbil, which was the mass transit pass for public transit in Istanbul. Recently, I went back to Istanbul and found out that they've updated their systems! As a result, I got a chance to get the new card and take a few pictures of it.

 The card is basically what we see in most areas that have made the jump to RFID. It's no SUICA (then again, that's Tokyo. Nothing is quite like Tokyo, where you can buy donuts in the train station with your card). This one uses an ePurse which is drawn from to pay for rides, but I didn't notice any major discounts over using the tokens of Akbil.

 A transit nut too? There are close ups of the token after the break...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Food Friday: Pok Pok (Portland, OR)

The other weekend, my girlfriend and I drove down to Portland for the weekend. Portland is a fun town, and this time we really started exploring some of the neighborhoods on the east side of the river, including the great restaurants in the area. Pok Pok was one of them and it's perhaps one of the most original Thai restaurants I've been to anywhere.

The biggest thing here is the menu. There was almost nothing on it that you would expect to find. Phad thai? Absent. The standard stoplight selection of curry? Replaced by regional curry varieties. How authentic it really is, I can't say (yet) but they go out of their way to provide a different view of Thai cuisine and the recipes were researched and developed in Thailand and then brought back to Portland. After looking over, we eventually settled on two great dishes (and one alright dish): The Pok Pok special and the Neua Naam Tok (and the Khao Muu Daeng).

The Pok Pok Special: Roasted Game Hen & Papaya Salad

Neua Naam Tok: Steak Salad

Monday, November 21, 2011

At the Top: Seattle (Columbia Tower Club)

This is the view from the top of Seattle at the Columbia Tower Club. Located on the 75th floor of the second tallest building on the west coast, this is as high up as you can get in Seattle and a fantastic view. I really wish I had had my other camera to be able to capture it better! I was here as part of a celebration organized by the French Chamber of Commerce for this year's beaujolais nouveau, which was a great night and a great deal (I'll be going back next year if they have it here).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gear: The Kindle Family

Gear: Kindle Fire

The Kindle Fire has been hyped as a true competitor for the iPad and a game changer with it's $199 price tag and bevy of features. I recently got my hands on one and in this post, we'll be exploring Amazon's first tablet and color Kindle. After the break, we'll take a look at what the Kindle Fire is great at and whether this deserves a place in your gadget line up.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gear: Kindle Touch 3G

As a frequent traveler, my Kindle Keyboard (as it's now known) has been a constant companion. It's been from Seattle to Stockholm, and Abu Dhabi to Athens. Everywhere I've gone, it's been my e-reader and my backup communicator so when Amazon announced their new Kindles, I had to get my hands on one for a review. After the break, we'll take an in-depth look at the Kindle Touch 3G (with Special Offers) and see if it lives up to it's older brother.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Donate your Orphan Miles for Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day is a day to thank the men and women who have served our country. While we wish everyone in uniform a safe return to their family, many soldiers return only after sustaining injuries in the line of duty. For these soldiers and their families, relocating temporarily to be with their loved ones as they receive treatment at a VA hospital can be complicated by having to worry about where to stay and how to pay for their accommodation. For these families, there is Fisher House, which provides a comfortable place to stay within easy reach of the VA.

Their program helps make a a difficult time a little easier, and you can help by donating any orphan miles you to their Hero Miles program. Your miles help cover travel to and from the hospital where the soldier is being treated. Many of us have a mileage program we don't use that much or will never earn enough miles to earn a reward. These orphan miles can be the difference between a wounded soldier having their family with them in a time of need or not. Donate your miles today.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Food Fridays: The Salmon Difference

Salmon is salmon, right? Not so! One thing that Seattle is known for is fresh fish and especially for our top notch salmon. If you think you don't like salmon, the fish here will convert you to a salmon lover.

This is what you usually find in the supermarket: Atlantic Salmon. It's farmed and that light pink color is actually from food coloring in the feed for the fish. It's perfectly fine fish, but...

...when it's sitting next to this, it's hard to thing about buying it. Here's what we get every year: Fresh Alaskan Sockeye Salmon. It's wild caught, usually fresh off the boat and that color is 100% natural. Doesn't it look delicious?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

12/1/2011: The End of Kindlefish?

Recently Google decided to change the way the API for Google Translate works and, more importantly, to change it from a free service to a paid service. On 12/1/2011, Kindlefish will no longer work unless I start paying Google to use their API. The fee isn't that much overall ($20 for 1 million characters), but I will need to rework the site to update it to the new API and I don't earn any money off of Kindlefish.

If you are a fan of Kindlefish or would like to support the website and service, please consider donating by using the link below! If I get enough donations ($40?) to keep Google happy and pay for the coffee needed to rework (and improve) the website, I'll keep it up and running. Using the new API, Kindlefish will end up being more reliable than ever and continue being there for you whenever you need it.

Update: So far, there haven't been any donations. I've been happy to provide Kindlefish as a free service so far because Google Translate has been free for me to use, but at the moment it looks like Kindlefish will go down temporarily in order to assess whether I want to start paying for access to the new API.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

5 Reasons I Don't Like DirecTV on Flights

About two months ago, I started receiving emails from PR companies for products and articles they are interested in promoting. I generally ignore these because this is just my personal blog and what I write about is what I'm interested in, not necessarily what is going to drive traffic. However, this e-mail caught my attention: "10 Reasons I Love DIRECTV on Flights".

Am I alone in thinking that DirecTV in flight is actually a bad thing? Here's my top 5 reasons that DirecTV on board isn't really all that great:

1. "Welcome aboard. That'll be $6". - Some airlines, like JetBlue and Virgin America offer a free selection of TV channels, but for others those screens are strictly for hire if you're in coach. Continental and Frontier both require a swipe of a card to watch your shows.

2. Commercials in the Air. - Even after you swipe your card, most of what you get is live TV and whatever happens to be on just then complete with commercials. There are some channels which are prerecorded with popular movies and series, but these are 10 out of 105 channels and I'm not sure if those are ad free. The last thing I want to see when I'm in the skies is a commercial for anything on TV.

No, thank you.

3. More Flicker in the Cabin. - If you're on a red eye or in need of sleep, DirecTV adds to the light flicker inside the cabin which makes it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep.

4. Is there anything even on? - Think about it: When you watch TV at home, odds are you're watching your DVR or streaming a video from Netflix. How much live TV do you watch? For me, it's virtually zero, and none of this looks remotely interesting to me:

From my IAH-SEA flight a few months back

5. It's OK to Unplug - A flight only lasts a few hours and it's one of the few times where we have all the excuses to turn everything off. Why not enjoy being 35,000 feet in the air? There's virtually nothing you can do on an airplane that can't wait until afterward.

This is what you should be looking at.

(PS: The original article is here, but once you get there there's not much except advertisement. No thanks!)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Goodbye Viaduct

This last Saturday, WSDOT opened up the viaduct for one last hurrah before shutting it down for the first part of demolition. Between the hours of 9:30 and 12:30, anyone could come down and walk up and on the viaduct and being a bit of a transit nut, I decided to go down and look at the structure from a new perspective (as well as claim my chunk of the viaduct). It was an appropriately wet Seattle day, but even with that over 3,000 people turned out to say goodbye.

The viaduct may be an ugly, 1950 concrete wall on the Seattle waterfront, but what everyone came out for is this: The view. On a nice day, driving on the viaduct is the best introduction you can give a person to Seattle. On the right, a close up of the city and on the left the ferries, Olympic mountains, and the Sound. In terms of a comprehensive, easy to access, and beautiful scenic drive this is about is good as you can get in the city itself.

After the break, more photos from the event, including the people, their goodbye notes, and the structure itself.

Friday, October 21, 2011

McDonald's Around the World: Stockholm

I like McDonald's. I don't think that the food is great or that the service is top notch, but what I do like is that what we take to be something that is standardized around the world simply isn't. A Big Mac is a Big Mac, except when it isn't. For example, how do you offer a Big Mac when cows are holy and beef is taboo? You make it the Chicken Maharaja Mac (complete with two all chicken patties and tikka masala sauce). I haven't tried that yet, but I'm looking forward to it when I make it to India.

However, today my focus is the frozen north of Stockholm. Given that Sweden doesn't have any dietary restrictions, the menu is fairly similar, but even then local cultural opinions show through. Take a look:

The standard menu is pretty familiar. The classics are all there. The McFeast is essentially a quarter pounder with lettuce and tomato, while the CBO is actually one of their rotating sandwiches. More so than in the US, McDonald's in Sweden likes to swap out sandwiches rather frequently. Some of them are specific to Sweden, while other burgers (like the 1955 below) I've seen in other places, like Germany. 

Some of the  rotating menu is below. The hot wings and cream cheese stars aren't always there. 

After the break, it's a virtual cornucopia of McDonald's. We've got the menu signs for the Happy Meals, the night menu, and the breakfast menu, plus the McToast. Read on for McDonald's, svensk stil. 

Friday, October 07, 2011

Food Fridays: Stockholm Sampler (Saturnus Cafe, Pelikan, and Soldaten Svejk)

Not many of my posts involve Stockholm, and even fewer involve the restaurants here. The main reason is that eating out here is obscenely expensive and many of the restaurants are only so-so, which makes picking the wrong one a $40-50 mistake. You learn quickly to be very skeptical about places...

...but today I'm going to break that tradition and share a sampler of bites from Stockholm!

Saturnus Cafe: Tucked just north of the busiest part of Stockholm near Stureplan, Saturnus cafe is well known for its immense kanelbullar (cinnamon buns), but also offers up a range of French inspired bites, including the prosciutto, mozzarella and pesto sandwich. The cafe is small and cozy, although it can get very busy and crowded very quickly.

Pelikan: Located on Södermalm, the pelikan restaurant offers up a variety of Swedish dishes at prices that are fairly reasonable ($25+) in the Stockholm context. Their Swedish meatballs, pictured here, are very tasty and match the atmosphere of the restaurant, which evokes the a past era. The restaurant itself is a great space to dine in.

Soldaten Svejk: A noisy Czech pub located near Medborgare platsen is also home to some of the best priced meals in Stockholm. The most expensive item on the menu is about 133kr ($21), which is the price of an appetizer in many other places. Eating in will get you a table almost immediately, but if you're just there for beer (and they have a nice selection of Czech beer) you'll be in for a hunt to find a place to stand. Great food and beer is slightly offset by how loud it gets in the bar. If you're looking for a quiet place to talk with friends, this is not it, but if you're out for a hearty meal and celebration this is the perfect spot. 

"Raggmunk" (Potato pancake) and Bacon, with lingon berries. Fantastic!

Pragerschnitzel covering up a potato salad and some saurkraut. Traditional and tasty.

Monday, October 03, 2011

First Kindle (2011) Reviews are Starting to Appear!

The first reviews of the new $79 Kindle are starting to appear. The Kindle Touch hasn't been released yet, which is what I think most people are waiting for (or the Kindle Fire), but the first and least expensive kindle is out and has been combed over by the people over at Engadget.

The new Kindle looks like it's a great basic reader and at $79, it's a really inexpensive device, but the choice to scrap the keyboard in favor of size and leaving out the killer new features found on the Kindle Touch like X-Ray make me wonder if this is the right way to go. For $20 more, the Kindle Touch gets you everything the basic Kindle offers and a more.

Update: Gizmodo now has their review up, with more of the same but slightly less enthusiastic. Their basic conclusion is to wai for the Kindle Touch as well, with a 3/5 rate.

via Engadget
via Gizmodo

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Flight Report: Ulaanbaatar to Stockholm (Across Russia, Finale)

It's been more than 3,500 miles by train, plane, and bus from St. Petersburg, across Russia and finally over to Ulaanbaatar. It's been a great trip and now we have to head back to make sure that my mom can catch her flight back to the US.

For this flight, we've gone with Aeroflot. It's not part of my usual alliance and it's reputation is less than sterling, but how would they stack up today? Not that great, unfortunately. From a technical side, Aeroflot has shaken off the older Soviet planes, with the majority of it's fleet being newer airbus planes. In our case, we got an older Boeing 767 and a massive delay. More than 4 hours on the ground with zero explanation.

Lifting off, we're on our way out of Asia and back to Moscow before heading on to Stockholm. With such a late departure, we're going to misconnect in Moscow without a doubt. Will we make it back? What's the in-flight meal like? All this and more photos after the break.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Kindles! Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch

Amazon just announced the latest generation of Kindle devices: The new Kindle, the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire! As a Kindle geek, I will be ordering these to get a hands on view when they come out, but for now these are looking like some great new devices! Which one suits you, will depend on your reading style and what you want out of the device.

Check out all of the new devices and a preview of them after the break!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mongolia (Across Russia, Part 9)

After so many days in Russia, stepping off the bus in Ulaanbaatar was entering a whole different world. Siberia still had many of the tell tale signs of being distinctly Russian, but Mongolia was distinctly and unmistakably Mongolian. The only similarities were many of the same communist style buildings (the plans surely given to the then communist Mongolian People's Republic by the USSR), but a city is more about what happens in those buildings and between them, rather than the buildings themselves and here it was clear that we were not in Russia anymore.

Our schedule was tight: We arrived in the evening, I would meet up with my friend's from Sweden who by chance would be in UB at the same time headed the opposite direction, we would depart for the country side to stay with a nomadic family overnight, come back the next day, have the afternoon to sight see and then the next morning, it would be to the Chinggis Khaan International Airport to fly back to Sweden. This was the last stop of our trip. It would also be one of my favorites.

 After the break, we will head in the countryside for some stunningly beautiful shots of the Terelj National Park, the equally fascinating Zaisan Memorial in UB, and more...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Break from Russia: An Amazing Flyover of the World

One minute worth of our blue marble rolling under the international space station. Simply amazing. I wish I could see this view some day.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar (Across Russia, Part 8)

Our next stop after the wonderful Lake Baikal was Ulan-Ude, which was a transfer stop to Mongolia. We had decided that taking the bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar was a good choice, since it actually takes less time than the train and costs a fraction of the price. Some things in life you never expect to know and for me the price of crossing from Russia to Mongolia ($40 per person) is definitely one of those pieces of information.

To get to Ulan-Ude, we took the #362 night train from Irkutsk. As with all the Russian trains, it arrived and left punctually, but this train wasn't like our other trains. Besides the samovar, which was almost identical to the nicer trains, this one was older and definitely part of a completely different strata of trains in the RZD system. It was visibly older with more wood and less comforts, but one bonus was that the old wooden framed windows could be opened.

After the break, we'll take a look at the largest Lenin head I've ever seen and the trip from Ulan-Ude to Mongolia!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (Across Russia, Part 7)

After Tomsk, we headed off to Irkutsk by way of the world famous Rossiya (Train #2). To catch it from Tomsk, we had to take a smaller train to Taiga and then wait there until it showed up at 4am. This wouldn't be all that bad, except for the fact that the train stops for two minutes before moving on.

That's correct: Two minutes is all the time you have to get yourself on the train before they move on with or without you. The train station there also doesn't have the best information, so a big source of stress was figuring out which track we needed to be at when the scheduled time was approaching. Thankfully for us, everything went according to schedule and eventually we figured out which track it was with a little help from the locals.

We had plenty of time to look around.
The #2: The Rossiya pulls in to Taiga at 4am
From here, we had 26 hours to go until our next stop in the city of Irkutsk and our visit to Lake Baikal. After the break, we'll take a look around town, visit the freezing cold water of the world's oldest and deepest lake, and the vintage car collection of Retropark out by the lake.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Tomsk (Across Russia, Part 6)

Deep in Siberia, there is a town which was bypassed by the transsiberian railroad and where the annual average temperature is just one degree Fahrenheit above freezing. From the bluffs above the river Tom, it is plainly clear that from here land stretches out seemingly endlessly and that the feeling of almost impending expansionism of Moscow has been replaced with far less pressing concerns. Tomsk is a city of students, the river, wood lace architecture, and overall life at a far different pace and it shows. Just take a look at the locals...

Dancing. In the park. Just for fun. In a yellow polka dot dress.

After 52 hours on the train, Tomsk was our first taste of Siberia and one that did not disappoint. We were lucky enough to get a ride to our hotel (the Sputnik) from our cabin mate on the train. We added Tomsk to our list of places to visit after my mother spotted a few videos on Youtube, like this one and this one, which featured the city and reading up in our guide book. She fell in love with the trams, the wooden houses, and made it her goal to take the #2 tram and see the houses along with the route. After the break, we will take a look around town and see what's going on, including a very tasteful WWII memorial, the interior of a wonderful cathedral there, and see some of the houses she wanted to see.

In central Tomsk, which is the historic area of the city, wood is the material of choice and especially log houses. This region of Siberia is verdant, rich in forests, and the residents here have a couple of great examples of wood lace architecture. The yellow house above is the peacock house, which is still used as an active residence today. The current residents are not overly fond of tourists gawking at their house either... while eventually friendly, we were greeted with a sharp, "What do you want?" in Russian. Overall in Russia, there is a national phenomenon of an immediate sharpness wherever you go, and not speaking Russian doesn't help anything at all. If you're lucky, you'll meet someone who is curious about you and what you're doing in the middle of Siberia, but usually you can feel them groan as you walk up. It's a much different culture than Seattle, for instance. Most Seattleites are more than happy to point tourists in the right direction, even there is a language barrier.

Of course, while there are some spectacular houses like the one above and the peacock house, there are far more which are in various states of repair. These houses are workhorses, but all of them have at least some detailing around the soffits or window frames.  The image below is a good example of a standard house in good repair. Sadly, many of these fine houses suffer from negligence or -even worse, poor foundations and drain pipes. Foundations made from brick are one of the prime culprits we could see for the ruin of many otherwise good houses, and the drain pipes pooling water by the foundation often contribute to the premature demise of the foundations.Once the foundation goes, the houses sit on the ground exposed to water, which then causes rot in the wood. There are plenty of houses we saw while there that had succumbed to this fate.

Regardless of what the houses are like, it's what goes on within the walls that makes a city livable and alive. Being a student town (home to a major university), brings a certain level of youth culture into what would otherwise be a pretty sleepy city. Graffiti, along with a few recurrent artists like the one below, can be seen around town and because it's summer there are plenty of students on leave in all of the city parks.

 Some of the younger residents have been up to their own graffiti. While I don't encourage vandalism (like the one above), these types of drawings by kids give an insight into what their world is like: We have the sun, happy faces, a Ferris wheel (which is in the main park of Tomsk), dogs and cats to start off, but we also get a picture into what they hope for the future: Money, cars. Refreshingly, there's also a no-smoking thing drawn by the kids themselves. Smoking is a major problem in Russia today, but maybe the next generation will be able to move beyond being dependent on tobacco and  negative impacts that go along with it.

For sight seeing, there are only a couple sights that really, truly stand out. We have the WWII memorial, the view from which we opened this post with, the cathedral, the ancient trams of the city, and a statue in "honor" of Chekhov, who did not hold Tomsk in high regard.

"Anton Pavlovich in Tomsk—drunkard's view, lying in a ditch, who never read Kashtanka". This is the inscription at the base of the statue. The statue and the inscription is in response to his comments on the city, which he described as dull and full of drunks and ugly women. The feet of the statue are enormous, which can be seen here, as if it was created by memory of the drunkard. We had no clue the statue was there (it's not in the guide book), but pictures of it were everywhere. It's located across the street from the one thing he apparently liked in Tomsk: A restaurant.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the WWII memorial which stands at the end of the main street, Lenina, forming one end of the main axis for the city. An eternal flame stands at the foot of a monumental statue surrounded by forest and between the main approach from the city and the view from the bluff (which is the first photo in the post). At the base on either side are the names of soldiers from the region who died in the war and where people still leave flowers today. The exact meaning to the statue I don't know, but we have a soldier and and older woman in a moment of determination. He is grabbing the rifle from her and I can only assume that the lady is his mother, sending him forth the front. At the same time, her expression is of pain suppressed: Implicitly, her son is one of the names in the monument, reminding us of the human cost of war, even while honoring (idolizing?) the fulfillment of duty.

Memorials like this have to walk a very fine line between honoring the fallen (and their families), while avoiding a glorification of war. I found this one to be fairly successful in this regard, but what makes this space successful, in my eyes, is the ability to create a space of reflection within a rather attractive park. The grounds are birch forest and it's on the bluff, which presents an amazing view. It's a well used park with children playing along side people visiting the memorial itself. Paths through the forest allow for some seclusion (including from the city itself), while the view and the bluff creates both a flow of people past the monument and a dramatic reveal where all of Siberia, earth, water, and air, unfolds in front of you as you approach the edge.

Yes, there was a white dove on the war memorial.

The last two sights to share are the trams and some sights along the street and the cathedral. The trams that run throughout the city are a combination of beyond ancient tram cars and more modern stock. In total, they are about 25 cents to ride and run on rails which look to be nearing 100 years without much maintenance done to them.

These trams are found throughout Russia, most likely due to Soviet central planning, but are still in service today. They are tough old beasts and the passengers are just as tough. It's not uncommon to see a babushka who looks like she can barely walk climbing up and down the steep stairs to get on or off these guys. No low floor or kneeling buses here!

Along all of the streets, there are people selling things, including garden fresh produce, berries and cut flowers.      Some sellers were obviously doing better than others, but this is a fairly common sight throughout Russia. The changes in the economy over the last 20 years has not been easy to adapt to for many.

Finally, we have the cathedral. We met someone who was teaching English at the cathedral there, and while she was talking with my mother she insisted that we take a look at the freshly renovated cathedral. We had just been to the chapel section of the cathedral (which is open nearly all the time), but the upstairs was off limits. While we didn't want to bother her or anyone else at the cathedral, she was adamant and we were happy to be able to take a look. Traditional orthodox churches have a different quality to them, in part due to the tradition of icons and their particular style. While some churches in the 1800s adopted a then "modern" style of painting (i.e. more western), under a period, in this case the interior had just been completely redone in a classic style. The results were amazing. We both were awestruck by it.

Next week, we leave Tomsk behind and head to Irkutsk and the spectacular Lake Baikal!