Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Returning to Russia for the Eastern Economic Forum

Last week I returned to Russia, albeit briefly. It was very unexpected and under odd circumstances, but I got sent there for work! Last week was the Eastern Economic Forum, an effort by the Russian government to encourage foreign investment. Because I was taking a detour from the China trip, my sister A got to come along too!

Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/RMKKkha5fzARxXzU7

At the end of the China (previous) blog, we had eaten lunch in Seoul. There we got extra security screening, found a transfer desk, a bright green plane, and took a flight to Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East.

Vladivostok is a remarkable city, on the other end of the trans-Siberian Railway. It overlooks the Pacific from a series of gigantic hills which are still not quite overwhelmed by rapidly developing high-rise buildings.

We took a taxi from the airport, found our hotel, and checked in, all without incident. Then we found a nice restaurant just across the road and settled in for a series of small dinners.

I first traveled to Vladivostok about 10 years ago, then again 6 years ago. On both trips I made many friends all over the enormous country, but the very first one I had lost touch with. And there, in the restaurant, was someone who looked just like them. But wasn't, as it turned out when I asked their name! Still, that would have been cool.

We had 5 days in town, due to flights being booked out for the Forum. So we had most of a free day before having to Suit Up and Look Serious. I thought that walking through the whole town was a sensible substitute for breakfast so, raincoat in hand, that's what we did.

It was the first day at school, so the streets were covered in children with flowers for their teachers and bows in their hair. It was rainy and there were puddles everywhere!

We saw most of the town's sights, including cats in Sportivnaya Harbour, the mall, the submarine, and a little church, where the poor babushka couldn't decide to yell at my sandals or Annie's hair first.

We hailed a cab and ventured out of town to my friends place. A2 and A3 I had met 6 years (to the day) previously during a previous trip, and it was cool to find old friends again! They had a daughter, Z, who was very entertaining. A2's English took about 5 seconds to get warmed up and we were back to making rhyming puns, just like old times. They gave us some dumplings and some perspective on how Vladivostok had changed over the previous decade, certainly a lot had changed.

At length it was time to return to the hotel, get dressed for the governor's reception, and take a cab across both bridges to Russky Island, skirt security, and find our way to where the good food and 30 piece Jazz band was. It was a pretty good view, surrounded by all the buildings of the venue, looking across the bay to the main bridge, with a span exceeding 1km! 

The following day it was time to earn our keep so we made our shoes extra shiny and headed back to the venue, sampled the luncheon, watched some sessions on cargo transportation, and met one of the Hyperloop venture capitalist guys. We were ushered into another room where I took a seat next to the Russian transport minister and the head of Summa Group, a major Russian logistics/industrial company. A few deals were signed and we took some questions on the Hyperloop. I got to say a few words, alas not in Russian, and said something about how we looked forward to a combination of Russian steel and American technology to show the way in moving ship volumes of cargo at aeroplane speeds and ship prices. Fortunately, no-one asked any really difficult questions!

Duty discharged, we breathed a huge sigh of relief, borrowed some bikes and explored the campus. We found a fish market, some chatty volunteers, more dumplings, and our complimentary show bags, which contained lots of books, a (locked) tablet, and various Siberian teas. Eventually it was time to bail out so we headed back to the hotel, grabbed some dinner, and passed out.

The next morning, not all of my washed clothes were dry, so I hung them on a heated mobile drying apparatus - me - and went to the forum anyway. A and I found a session on attracting investment but began to suspect that the formal sessions were a screen for the real deal making that goes on in other, unadvertised, rooms, and decided to get into position for the plenary session. Starting only an hour late, I live tweeted it (https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=%23EEF%20from%3Acjhandmer&src=typd), but it was quite fun. It featured Vladimir Putin, Park Geun-hye, and Shinzo Abe, moderated by Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister. Most of the talk seem directed at each leader's respective domestic television news, but Kevin seems more keen on the UN top job. Shinzo seemed super keen to resolve the Kuril Island dispute and to sell Russia a bunch of tech, while Park continued to publicly ask the UN to enforce sanctions and resolutions against their recalcitrant northern neighbour. Putin was his usual self, keen to point out that Russia will only act in its national interest.

In particular, I thought it was interesting that in the context of the Kuril Island dispute, Putin was at pains to point out that there needed to be a face saving resolution, but that Russia would not trade territory for economic assistance. Of course, since 2014 and imposition of sanctions by the US and EU, Russia has been in dire economic straights. Putin complained about the fickle nature of the international community, in particular (though not explicitly) that the annexation of Crimea was not so different from the formation of Kosovo, but the outcome was rather different. Well, in real politik, Russia's actions in 2014 traded 10+ years of economic stagnation, particularly in the Far East, for some tiny scrap of territory on the Black Sea. So the trade does exist, in one direction, at least. More generally, the Far East's biggest deficit is in human capital. Putin pointed out that for the first time, ever, the Far East birth rate exceeded the death rate. But the emigration rate is still 3.5% per year. The population has halved in the last 25 years. I couldn't help thinking there's a lot of Syrians looking for a fresh start. Why have immigration controls at all, if you want to make up for 200,000 people leaving a year?

That afternoon we headed for the cafeteria, found a talk on the eastern Siberia spaceport, then wandered through all the exhibits picking up all the pamphlets we could ever need. Except from the Crimea-related tents, though they were by far the best funded! That evening we found a restaurant that specialized entirely in dumplings. By this point we realised every restaurant in Vladivostok sold small, cheap dinners, so you could serialize every meal, like Tapas, but with more walking. Dumpings are just a natural extension of this principle. We had to have every dessert on the menu.

The following morning was September 4, the 29th anniversary of my existence, so we spent the morning taking calls from various family, to the point where we missed our usual breakfast of 3D quantities of pancakes and Russian depth. We decided instead to feed the mind and wandered through slight drizzle to a museum nearby, a house which once belonged to Arseneev, a wanderer/adventurer/explorer type who lived there 120 years ago. His whole family died at one point or other from bandits, fires, or post-communist purges, but the house preserves a lot of detail from that period, and some very interesting stuff from his various explorations in the Ussuriland area, as well as some nice furniture.

Pancakes cannot be canceled, only delayed. We found a cafeteria devoted to them and proceeded to uphold the newly formed tradition of gluttonous consumption, followed a mere 30 minutes later by lunch at Zuma cafe, a very upmarket place with a modern Japanese bent and tasty sushi. We enjoyed a conversation with another local couchsurfer, called A(4!), before surveying some of the local shops in town. Soon enough, A2 and A3 showed up (sans Z) and we headed down towards the lighthouse, climbed a building to look at the view, skimmed some stones, and wallowed in nostalgia. It was the place I spent my last day in Russia 6 years before too. I have always liked wild shores, grey skies, slate seas, wind, mysterious sea birds, ambiguity of purpose, and lots of spikey rocks. A good place to celebrate a birthday!

Back in the center of the city we hit the regional museum, though I was saddened to see all the really cool exhibits on La Perouse and bears fighting tigers had been removed or replaced. Last time I checked there was a genuinely awesome museum in Khovd or Olgii, in Mongolia, I hope they haven't been 'updated'! We decided to go on one last walk through town, found the footings of the enormous bridge, examined various fixtures, got blown around, then back to the hotel to pack. 

That evening we had built up an enormous appetite so we returned to Brothers Bar and Grill and ordered 7 (tiny) dinners, then ate the lot. The table was already tall and the chairs short. After the meal, our eyes were level with the silverware. 

The following day I woke up early to call my fiance C, still at the South Pole, on the occasion of our anniversary. Really inconvenient that I wasn't born a day later, all things considered. A and I did one last walk down to the ship terminal to check for souvenirs, without much luck, and then checked out and headed for the airport. Given how long it took for the cab to show up, he drove extremely fast and cost quite a lot of money - perhaps $20 for the hour long trip. 

The airport was new since my previous visit, but the baked-in process disasters were familiar. Two lines for check in, neither able to handle Chinese speakers on a flight to Hong Kong, neither able to handle excess baggage, requiring a detour to two other counters to make sure everything was legit. And some local officials scratch their heads and wonder why it is that the rest of the world goes out of their way to avoid doing business there! The Russian Far East is an amazing place, contains amazing people, and harbours incomparable treasures in mineral, timber, etc, but bureaucratic inefficiency is like a gas, it expands to fill the space in which it is allowed to exist.

The flight to Hong Kong was uneventful. Immigration was swift and painless. We met our cousin A5 at the taxi rank, then went to his 3 story beach cottage on Lantau island, on impressively windy roads. We met A5's lovely wife R, and baby F, which I made sure to steal for a while. We had a terrific dinner, played with the dogs, and headed back to the airport.

At the gate, there was more than the usual trouble as 4 Cathay Pacific agents attempted to determine whether my EAC (temporary green card) was a thing. After 30 minutes, the aircraft was ready to depart, they decided to phone a friend, after which I was ushered onto the plane. On the flight I watched Steve Jobs, XMen Apocalypse, and Batman vs Superman, and managed to cry in all of them. Plenty of Michael Fassbender! Cathay has much nicer screens than American, but they use the in-armrest headphone jack, which gets damaged every time someone slides by, so basically doesn't work. Such a shame!

Back home in LA, I get to go to secondary immigration screening, as is usual. It's pretty late, how bad could it be? The room contains 65 (I counted) other people. Phones are strictly forbidden, I see 8 other people have them confiscated after trying to text panicking relatives. The agents say they can't be sure how long it will take. Some people take days. They just can't tell without looking at the documents, which are right in front of them. If their families are worried, they can get in touch via their embassy, they try to respond within 48 hours. People effectively disappear. I open a travel book to Kamchatka and day dream about running with the bears down rivers alive with salmon. An Indian woman with limited English is accused of lying about her financial resources. The agent threatens to take her 10 year old son into protective services. The guy one window over is trying to explain to his agent that he served 6 months for domestic violence somewhere in Indonesia, but it was 8 years ago. The agent has to check with his supervisor. When/if my green card is ever approved I'll write a detailed blog on the whole process. For all Russia's faults, there's a standardized fee for a business visa, with basically complete freedom of work and travel. 

About 75 minutes later, I'm called. What sort of visa am I? Self sponsored, national interest waiver. Very good, welcome home sir. I'm out. Back in the world, where people don't just disappear, where human dignity seems to exist, at least for people like me. I climb into a lyft and, despite it being 1am, get stuck in traffic for over an hour. Welcome home!

Here's where I usually write a summary paragraph of a trip. 6 days in Vladivostok was too long. The world is too big and yet not big enough. It was a mistake to go to the Russian Far East but not into the wilderness. It took 4 days of 12+ hours a night sleep to feel normal again. Still, it was very cool to be able to help push a project which embodies the hope of technology to make peoples' lives better.

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