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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

taking the e-train across cyberia

"Gary and Lisa!

I don't know where you are at the present time, but I hope you can get my message before or while you are staying in Irkutsk. I left Russia almost five years ago and since then I haven't seen my wife and two boys. I'm wondering if you can take their picture and send it over the Internet. I hope they will join me here soon..."

Thus wrote Karim K., absentee father and World Wide Web surfer, a Tatar photojournalist who left Russia in 1991 for an assignment in Thailand and never came back, eventually making his way to Canada.

Photographer Gary Matoso and I received his e-mail message in Chita one morning this past fall, when we were about a month into a 12-week journey from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. Equipped with two digital cameras, two laptop computers and a chaotic jumble of wires, batteries and adapters, we had set off across the great Russian expanse; as we traveled, we electronically transferred our interviews, stories and photos to a World Wide Web site, where they could be accessed by computer users worldwide.

Karim had been following our journey from his apartment in Canada, logging onto the Internet periodically to check on our progress. As we neared Irkutsk, he was struck with the idea of asking us to drop in on his family.

When we got to Irkutsk in mid-October, we spent an afternoon with Karim's wife, sons, father, sister and mother-in-law. Each wrote a message for Karim, in longhand on a sheet of typing paper. Gary photographed the family with a digital camera (the photos are saved on computer diskette rather than film), and I taped sound bites of his sons talking to him. We then sent the information via e-mail to our partners in San Francisco, who uploaded the images, text and sound onto the Web, and within a few days Karim -- and thousands of other Internet users worldwide who tapped into the website -- could see and hear his six-year-old son saying, "Papa, send me some Legos."

Soon after, we received an e-mail message from one reader summing up the "cyberspace reunion."

"Your project reminds me of lyrics to a song by Paul Simon," he wrote. "'These are the days of lasers in the jungle.'"

Somehow even lasers in the jungle would have seemed more likely than high-speed telephone lines in a place like Ulan-Ude -- but, hey, these are days of miracle and wonder.

Since Gary and I set out from Vladivostok in early September of last year, we have received several hundred messages from people tapping into the website. Although our trip ended in St. Petersburg on Nov. 26, the site is still running, and will be accessible for at least several more months. So the messages keep coming in, some from people who mistakenly think we are still on the road.

Messages range from the philosophical ("Do you think the fate of Russia is determined by its leader or by the character of its people?"), to the plaintive ("I have a client who wishes to drive across Russia, and we have been told that there is no road between Chita and Blagoveshchensk. You are the only ones we can ask.") to the clueless ("Do you know how I could send a letter to Russia?").

Not surprisingly, many people wondered about the technical difficulties involved in our project.

"How are you able to communicate back to the Net? My experience with Russian telephone system has been one of long waits, and many hours before one can get through," one reader wrote us. The answer is: We made a pact with the devil. Well, not really, but I have to admit I wasn't convinced at first that there was any other way to accomplish what we were setting out to do.

We sent photographs, text and sound bites via e-mail from 11 different Russian cities. There were times when it took us up to 12 hours to successfully send all our files, thanks to slow and/or frequently interrupted telephone lines. Each city we sent information from had a Sprint node -- there are more than 100 scattered throughout Russia -- so our modems simply had to be able to hold a local telephone connection long enough to transmit the information. And as anyone who has spent time with a Russian phone knows, that's easier said than done.

Surprisingly enough, we were able to transmit all of our information from every city; our uploads onto the website (prepared by our partners in San Francisco) were never late due to any insurmountable technical problems.

If our readers on the Internet -- who all, obviously, have some knowledge of the World Wide Web's capabilities -- were surprised at how much information we could send out of Russia electronically, one would imagine that our Russian hosts, many of whom had never heard of e-mail, might think our project miraculous. In fact, there was a wide range of responses to what we were doing, from unconcealed amazement to vaguely interested, polite nodding; the only thing that all our hosts appared to agree on was that Gary and I seemed to really love spending hours sitting in front of our little computer screens.

We explained the project and demonstrated the camera for many of the people we wrote about, and for all of the people we stayed with. Gary would take photos of our hosts, then pop the camera's diskette into a specially modified slot in his laptop, and voila! The pictures would appear on screen, no fuss, no muss and no smelly chemicals. I saw the technology for the first time myself only a few days before we left for Vladivostok, so my eager exhortations to "Lookit that!" were not, as some Russians seemed to suspect, a condescending implication that they should be awed by our display of new American technology, but rather because my own awe at watching the process had yet to abate.

Explaining what the World Wide Web is -- difficult enough for me to do in English -- proved to be a challenging task throughout the trip.

"What publication are you writing for?" was the natural follow-up question after I explained that Gary and I were journalists doing stories on the people of Russia. I'm afraid my attempts to explain the Web frequently sounded like a cross between Confucian sayings and schoolkids' brainteasers: "Well, it's not printed out, but you can read it."

"Our partners put it on a computer in San Francisco, but then people all over the world can read it by dialing their local telephones with computers."

And of course, the pseudo-philosophically insipid "It's everywhere, but nowhere, really."

When we interviewed aging communist agitators on Chelyabinsk's Revolution Square, some accused us of concealing who we were really writing for. "What are the political leanings of your editors? Every magazine has a slant," one man insisted. "Why should we talk to you if you won't tell us who you're writing for?" And even after people understood that we were writing for the Web rather than print media, it was somehow difficult for many to grasp totally. One woman that we interviewed in Siberia asked, after we had explained the system thoroughly, "But it's not going to be published in Russia, right? That might cause problems."

When I explained to her that it could be read by anyone in the world who has a computer, modem and Internet connection service, she smiled dryly and said, "Except in Russia, right?" She, like a surprising number of other Russians we spoke with, assumed that Russia must somehow be an exception to the "global access" of the Internet.

In fact, we received a number of messages from Russians who were following the site. Some sent along e-mail addresses for contacts in cities on our route, and many of them even asked us to "link" their own websites to ours. "It's fun for a Russian to sit in Moscow and follow you on the Web," wrote a man named Andrei.

From St. Petersburg, a reader named Alexander wrote to say he is producing an Internet magazine called Art Petersburg, for which the board of directors he listed includes noted poets, composers, and staff of the Hermitage and Russian Museums.

And then there was my personal favorite message from Russia, which Gary and I received early on in the trip: "Hi guys!!! We are from Moscow journalistic agency! We want to invite you to Moscow in our journalistic party!!! Some times it's very interesting and funny! Write us if you can or can't. Bye bye!!! We wish to see you soon!"

For some reason, a number of people who contacted the website seemed fixated on the question of food: "This is a wonderful thing you are doing. But what are you eating? I cook, it's not political or anything, but what are you eating?" wrote one woman. Someone named Samela felt that "interesting manifestations of domestic cookery would be intriguing." One man named Nicholas was more than simply curious; he was concerned. "Living in Russia sounds like it must be hard," he wrote. "My question is how do you get food, and if you do get food what kind is it?"

Dear Nicholas, we didn't just get food. We got tons of food. We stayed with Russian families along the way, and the only real threat to our health was death by overeating. And overdrinking, if the truth be told. Gary and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of our Russian hosts, none of whom had ever met us before, and many of whom were simply friends of acquaintances before they picked us up at the train station and we became friends for life over steaming heaps of pelmeny, pickles from the dacha and lemon vodka in oversized shot glasses. "Have you ever had pelmeny?" each new host would inevitably ask. Not in this time zone, we could truthfully reply.

But not every host proffered the usual Russian fare. In a small village outside Ulan-Ude, between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, our Buryat host presented us with plates full of every anatomical part of a freshly slaughtered sheep, boiled and thick with the dusky smell of mutton. Many guts were eaten that night, but inexplicably, our hosts did not offer us the greatest delicacy: the head. We were simultaneously affronted and relieved (as well as a bit tipsy), and experienced one of many moments on our "trans-Cyberian" trip where our perceptions of the "ordinary" and the "exotic" became blurred: What's weirder, carrying a computer with you everywhere in a little bag, or eating sheep brains and loving them?

There were many times when Gary and I felt absurd and slightly helpless in comparison with our hosts: They served us meals that they had grown, harvested, pickled and prepared themselves, while Gary and I were thrown into existential panic whenever we lost the two-prong adapters for our laptop computers.

"How is it that you can be anything but next-to-extraterrestrially conspicuous with a computer and digital camera in that part of the world?" wrote a guy named Dave, and, in Buryatia at least, it was a reasonable question. Gary and I took a bus to the tiny village of Khoshon-Uzug with laptops, cameras and sound equipment in tow, and only a handwritten letter in Buryat to guide us. A Buryat woman in Ulan-Ude had sent us to meet her elderly friend in this tiny village, where there were no phones and no running water. "I don't know her address," said the woman. "Just ask someone when you get there; everybody knows her. Then give her the letter. It explains everything about why you've come."

We did find the woman just as easily as had been promised, and clomped up the front steps of her wooden house feeling like the mobile CIA. As we laid our computers and cameras on the knotted wooden floor, she clapped her hands excitedly and invited us to the table. "You are the first foreigners I have ever met," she declared, wringing our hands eagerly in turn. "Except for Mongolians, of course, but I don't really count them."

Gary and I came to rely on a steady flow of messages from readers, not only as a gauge of what was interesting about the site, but as a source of moral support. Fortunately, the great majority of correspondents sent words of praise -- the only measurable negative reaction we had was to a story we did on the gay and lesbian community in one of the cities.

But even those criticisms were relatively muted, and were easily outweighed by the letters from people who said that, although they would probably never actually travel to Russia, they felt almost as though they'd been there by wandering around the website.

In the midst of all our hectic photographing, translating, interviewing, writing, editing, catching trains and wrestling with unexpected problems like having to dig a diskette out of one laptop with needle-nose pliers, it was a welcome relief to receive reader mail, and see what reactions the website evoked.

"My interest in your trip is great," wrote Tony from Florida, "My wife's heritage is American and Lithuanian. Sometimes I think she is too little Missouri, and too much Vilnius."

A reader named Vladik wrote, "This is really not a question, but sort of an inquiry. I've always wanted to go to Chukotka, and see how the Chukchi live with their reindeer. I've been trying to find contacts, but have not had any luck."

And a doctor in Alaska wrote, "Hello friendly adventurers. Have you met through your journeys or heard about any folk healers or folk healing centers or techniques?"

Some of those who wrote for information were a bit more demanding about it: "Subject: Serguiev Posad or Zagorsk. I need a computer contact with someone in the above-mentioned town who knows English," was the entire text of one message we received.

And another read only: "What important facts do you have about the Chernobyl accident?" As opposed to unimportant facts, presumably, which I somehow manage to accumulate more easily.

"Hi Lisa, I am a 'world's used public phonecards collector.' My question is how to reach somebody to swap or to find somebody who could send me some of them," wrote one man, while another wanted to know "Could you please arrange a meeting with a person who participates actively in criminal business in Moscow?"

And my grandmother even sent a message, telling me about her trip to the west coast of the United States as though she were filling out the back of a postcard: "Crater Lake is the most beautiful lake I've ever seen -- because of its gorgeous blue color. The color is caused by its great depth..."

But the best was from a man named Karl, who sent us a message that unwittingly captures the zeitgeist of the new electronic era. He wrote:

"Subject: Feelings of isolation. For sometime we, in SoCal, have experienced a feeling of isolation from neighbors and former havens of friendship: our church, our schools, our local governments. How have these alienations affected the Russian people? Are their feelings similar to ours: are our feelings engendered by competition and open competition? or what is an explanation? Also, will someone explain how I can get 'GAMMA 1.8' on my fairly new NEC MultiSync XV15 driven by a 2mb (dram) Diamond Stealth video card? I use a 28.8 U.S. Robotics modem and it seems to retrieve images quickly but the gif's appear as if they were negatives."

Odd that.

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