Friday, June 10, 2011

Last blogs

Thursday, May 19th, Transit to St. Petersburg (part 2)

We were picked up by our guide and bus (our guides name was Svetlana) and immediately went to Peterhof Castle. The grounds and the castle are bigger than Versailles. The first three pictures are of the grounds and the fountains are powered by piping of water from about the Castle and the use of smaller and smaller pipes. Visitors at one time came via the Finland Bay and up the center canal.

While we were waiting to get in at our appointed time, an unbelievably rude woman came up, shoved to the front of the line and when questions asked if we knew who she was (she told us she was the “Governor of Russia”—there is no such position). She said he had been waiting for her group and now they were ready—fortunately for us, the folks controlling entry would not allow her to enter before us—a small victory over an obnoxious person.

The grounds and the summer castle are quite beautiful and on the grounds are numerous other buildings where individuals stayed. I have posted some videos on the photo bucket site of events that occurred here. We then headed to our hotel and a nap and then on to dinner. It is the “white nights” time in St. Petersburg and it is light until very late, then dusky, then the sun is back up again. This city always seems lighter in attitude and outlook to me, and the population seems younger to me as well. Supposedly there are 5 females for every male there. The last two pictures are of the crew in front of one of the fountains and a new friend that Andrie and Angie made.

Friday, May 20th, St. Petersburg

Today was business visiting day. We visited the largest daily business newspaper in St. Petersburg and we were once again treated to an in-depth analyses. We also visited the Leningrad Chamber of Commerce (the youngest, the largest and the fastest growing of all Commerce in Russia) and a small but highly efficient trip/destination organization. This night we want to a show and the two photos are attached—but there is more video on photobucket and facebook. Kevin and Stefan were selected to perform and they did a great job—you can see Kevin’s reward for his efforts.

Our bus driver--Slava--was extraordinary and provided us with a great deal of history of the seige of Leningrad in WWII--I cannot begin to recount his commentary but it was as revealing as it was touching.

Saturday, May 21st, Last full day in Russia

Today was just a fun day—we started out at the St. Peter and Paul Fortress and visited where all the czars are buried (first photo of some of the beautiful tombs) and then went to the Hermitage (next three pictures—the bird is actually a clock).

It is an enormous museum and would take about 3 years to go through and spend a short time with each item. It was the private museum of Catherine the Great and “her mice” as she noted. After the museum, we went on a canal cruise that was just a great great deal of fun, walked around the city and had dinner then off to the overnight train to Moscow and home. The final picture is of an exhausted traveler in the LaGuardia airport as we finally arrived home.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thursday, May 19th--Syktyvkar to St. Petersburg

Today we met at airport for short hop to St. Petersburg. The flight left at 7 AM and every one looked a bit weary and worn down. Host families were there to say goodbye and more than a few tears were shed. I am always amazed at how strong bonds can form in such a short period of time. Uneventful and quiet flight.

Met at airport by our new guide, Natasha and we loaded up and immediately went to Peterhof on the Finland Sea. Peterhof was the summer home of Peter the Great and is larger than Versailles. The day was, as usual, sunny and cool a beautiful day to see the grounds, the fountains, and the home of one of the greatest of Russian Czars. After approximately 3 hours there (it is that big) we headed to our hotel which although old, was supurbly placed at the top of Nevesky Prospect and directly across from the railway station where we will leave on the 21st at 11 PM for our long trek home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday, 18 May 2011 Visit organizations

Today is overcast and drizzling--but not cold or uncomfortable. Our host families did a terrific job of delivering all to our meeting location. Every once in awhile though they cannot do this and our travelers are forced to find their own way in Syktyvkar which is both challenging and engaging. All have made it successfully thus far.

We went to see a "business incubator" and they say that 80% of the entrepreneurial firms they help are in existence 5 years later--that is a pretty amazing success rate (first photo is outside the incubator). We received an excellent briefing from the director of the incubator (second photo is us being attentive!!). They try to help entrepreneurs with training, education and improvement of skills in addition to developing a business plan and finding them sources of funds or venture capitalists (although the private sector investment is pretty weak). The third photo is of the state of Maine seal, framed and on the wall, that we gave to them last year--we are leaving tracks behind where we have been. The fourth photo is us crowded into one of the new start-ups on site. They can stay on the floor where the Incubator is located for three years than they have to leave (but they can rent space in the same building). The fifth shot is us outside the facility getting ready to leave.

We went to a truly local place for lunch and it met our needs perfectly--fast, cheap and good and then we were off to a very successful pulp and paper mill--Mondi. Mondi is owned by Austrians, and it is the largest paper and pulp mill in Europe. They are in an expansion faze (not like in Maine) and have expanded their paper and board production by 20% and their pulp production by 25%. They also supply all the heat and electricity for Syktyvkar. They have four major machines at the facility. The next picture is our arrival followed by a photo of us "suited up" to tour the facility. We received a safety briefing and we were off. They have 4 major machines in the facility and are ISO9001 certified and very ecologically minded--they constantly talked about their social responsibility and sustainability efforts. We only got to see about 10% of the plant. It employs 8500 individuals and it is an important employer in the region. Surprisingly enough you cannot smell anything in the plant area because they have made a major effort to eliminate odors. They have an enormous recovery boiler that can be seen in Syktyvkar 20+ km away. They are moving to a monopoly position in Russia in office and offset paper. They have reduced their use of water and energy and are tough with regards to reseeding and sustainability of forests. The plant used to employ 15,000+ but technology and modernization has both improved productivity and reduced the employment in the plant.

After the tour we were taken to the executive dining room (the next to last picture) where we thought we would get some coffee and tea--instead we were served a three course full lunch (salad, soup and entree). I am pretty sure all were stuffed after this meal.

We then went to a conference room to hear from a member of their board, an HR director and an outside consultant on leadership (in addition to hearing from our guide and the head of external relations).

We then headed back to Syktyvkar and our last evening with families and in Syktyvkar itself. Our flight tomorrow leaves for St. Petersburg at 7 AM (arrival time at airport 5:40 AM) so it will be an early day. We arrive in St. P approximately 90 minutes later and will go to see Peterhof Palace (look it up on line it is an amazing place) then check in to our hotel.
Sadly our hotel does not have internet so I will have to find a spot to continue communications. We have 3 full days left in our Russian experience. I hope you take time to talk with your loved ones about their experiences here. Our last day in St. P involved us checking out of the hotel at 9 AM, touring the Hermitage, St. Peter and Paul Fortress, a canal ride and an 11 PM departure to Moscow, arriving at 7 AM and immediate transfer to airport for 12:55 flight home--arrive at JFK approximately 3 PM on Sunday and have a 6+ hour layover before we get to Portland--if you track the time closely we spend 46+ hours after our check out in St. P transiting to home.

I am sure everyone will be delighted to be at home. It is funny at times when some of our colleagues talk to me and start gesturing and I need to remind them I speak English. You may experience this yourself as well as hear an occasional Russian term or two. You should ask them about the "game" they learned here.

This evening, Andrei Strukov afforded me a unique honor. He is from Syktyvkar, fluent in Russian and a savior on this trip for each and every one of us every day. He invited me to come to his XX high school reunion--they held up choosing a date until they knew he would be here. He had a graduating class of 31 and 17 showed up. The Russian was dizzying, filled with laughter and clear reminiscences of their times together. It was interesting for me to observe this even though my Russian is not that good.

Well, I have packed, it is after midnight and a 4:30 wake-up call will come far too soon.

John F. Mahon

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Tuesday, 17 May 2011 Visit to Village and Region of YB

Arose this am to yet another sunny day and a harrowing ride to YB about 90 minutes outside of Syktyvkar. The road was in unbelievably bad conditions and the driver drove the bus like a small sports car (I wonder how many brakes he goes through a year!!!).

Arrived in the village of YB--which is actually more of a region with several villages in it.  We went to the local museum and the first photo if you look closely is the flag of the state of Maine and the seal of the state of Maine which we gave to the Museum--wow, we have artifacts in the museum!!!  We then had a tour of the area and went to a local home for lunch the next 4 pictures show our table, a samovar (with hot tea) and all of us enjoying the meal.

Then we had to work for our meals, so you have a few photos showing our team sawing wood and carrying water from the well.  You will see a photo of our folks with a forester as we planted some trees (and it had to be recorded in an official record), playing games and actually driving a car.  It was a very different day.  We were able to visit a local farmer and find out about life in Yb (last year, for example, was pretty difficult, this farm lost 5 sheep to wolves).  His comments were interesting, he noted that financially people are better off, but the level of friendliness and support of one another has declined.  A rather interesting commentary.

There is a lovely church and nunnery on a hill overlooking the river and we have visited it in the past.  Not this time--there is new "mother superior" and she was taking her "sacred" lunch and was not to be disturbed so we did not get to walk and view these grounds.

The cemeteries here are unusual--every family has to make arrangements and bury their loved ones and then build a fence to protect the grave.  What is interesting is that the also place tables and stools there so that they can have meals and visit with their deceased relatives--quite different from here.

All is well, returned to Syktyvkar and all dispersed to families and a free evening.


Monday, 16 May, 2011 Visit to Komi Center

I do not know if you have looked on a map, but Syktyvkar is pretty far north--it is daylight here until about 10 PM, then it gets sort of dark and then around 2 AM it gets sunny again.  The videos that are posted on photobucket ( are of students and faculty at the Academy of Public Service--their performances lasted more than 90 minutes and I have just provided a small sampling of them--they were varied and involved a large segment of the faculty and staff.

I was asked to make a few remarks and I noted how in all my visits to Syktyvkar we have never been greeted as warmly as this--it was both informative and incredibly gracious.  To my great surprise and pleasure, ALL of our group rose to their feet spontaneously and applauded our hosts.  It was a remarkable moment and displayed their cultural sensitivity.

After the show we had a reception and during the performances themselves we were served salmon in pastry and the pastry itself was shaped like a large salmon.  After some tea and lively discussions amongst Russian and American Students we had to go to the Komi Folk Center where we were hosting our host families at a reception.  While there we were treated to traditional Komi dress, culture, food, songs, dances and games.  I have loaded up some videos to the photobucket noted above so that you can enjoy the games and music and song.  As you can "see and hear" we have tried to afford our travellers an intellectual and cultural experience and they have willingly engaged in all activities.  This reception was an opportunity to thank all of our host families for their gracious acceptance of our students into their homes--I hope you talk to your loved ones upon their return and hear first hand of their experiences.  It was along day (and worthy of three separate blogs) but an enjoyable one.  Be sure to read Angie Bohovich's blog at: for another view of the events here in Syktyvkar.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Monday, 16 May (Syktyvkar)

Because Andrei and I have to meet with people and often smooth out schedules we are staying in a hotel here--the Avalon (and you can find it on line).  This year it actually has wireless internet (it did not the previous two years) and that is such a gift in communications.  Unfortunately our hotel in St. Petersburg does not have an internet connection so I will have to figure out some way to keep the blog going.

Today we awoke to a cool sunny morning (not cold) but cool and we went to the Museum here in Syktyvkar which deals with the history of the Komi Republic--we picked up two knew aides--Natasha, our interpreter and Yulia the administrative assistant from Syktyvkar State University.  All of our travelers were delivered on time, healthy and "rested" to the museum.  Again just a few photos here--the record player should bring back memories to some and the second photo is of an item used to clean, are you ready, ears!!!

We then went to the Academy of Public Service--a college established by the Governor of the Komi Republic to prepare students for public service.  The next two photos are of us receiving a briefing by a faculty member there and Mr. Baker giving some gifts to our speaker (Mr. Baker inherited this duty from Ms. Wicks--Mr. Baker is on the left!).

The next 6 photos are from a simply AMAZING reception we received there.  We went into an auditorium (look at how packed it is) where students and faculty made presentations in English, and then we had a simply unbelievable variety show presented to us by students of the Academy (it is an undergraduate degree program).  It is hard to see how UM would provide such a warm greeting like this.  The program went over 2.5 hours and we had a reception afterwards (which is the final picture).  There are photos of us with "some" of the performers, a certain traveler with his harem of belly dancers, and our reception.

So many things happened today that I need to make several different blogs about it.


Academy show

Saturday, 14 May (Departure from Moscow) - Sunday, 15 May (Arrival in Syktyvkar)

Our final in Moscow proved to be a cool one--but we cannot complain us we have had absolutely terrific weather. Off to Tretyakov gallery. Before we went into the Gallery we went to a bridge over the river. The bridge has "fake trees" where recently married couples place a lock on the tree and then throw the key into the river (probably not good for pollution) to note that their relationship is a "lock." When the "trees" are filled, they are moved to the banks of the river and off the bridge. The first two photos are of the tree and one lock that just caught my attention. It seems to be surprising nostaligic and romantic act for Russian married couples. The next photo is the front of the Gallery and the final photo is of a piece of art that caught my attention. The painting is so vivid and alive you can almost hear the birds singing and feel the cold.

We then went for lunch in a nearby restaurant and then off to a 26 hour overnight train ride to Syktyvkar. The next photo is where we had our lunch. As we headed to the train it started to rain, so I think folks were glad to be out of the weather and also looking forward to some rest on the train itself. The next two pictures are of them working in the dining car (which we essentially took over--the costs there are too high for most Russian Travellers) and in their 4 person compartments--not a great deal of room, but adequate.

The ride allowed us to see the Russian country side and to experience life outside of the big cities of the country. We watched as the view changed to rolling country side, flowing rivers from the artic, small dachas (essentially vacation cottages), and poorer and poorer villages. As we closed in on Syktyvkar late Sunday afternoon, we actually saw snow on the ground (and as we later found out they had snow storms earlier in the week before we arrived). Syktyvkar is the capital of the Komi Republic, a region rich in natural resources and heavily forested like Maine. It lies north and east of Moscow.

The moment of arrival in Syktyvkar is full of tension and concern--our travellers are a bit worried about who they will be staying with, how will they communicate and will they essentially get along with one another. As we pulled into the train station, there was a crowd to greet us and the next thing was controlled chaos on the station platform. The next 8 photos are of our folks meeting their hosts. In a matter of minutes they were gone. We would not see them again until Monday morning (folks these photos are in the next email--please delete this sentence).

John F. Mahon

May 14 pictures

On the train to Siktyvkar

Meeting the host families in Siktyvkar: