It’s quite apparent that the Russians have mixed feelings about
Of course we had friends in the city that showed us around their neighborhoods and homes, which was a perfect introduction to the city. The warmth of the personal connection with people in
Suddenly I found myself in center of the former Communist stronghold, surrounded by reminders of the Bolshevik Revolution, the
And it is beautiful. Tiananmen has nothing on
It is said that
One of the important things that travelers must remember in
On the other side of the coin, the personal experiences we had with random Muscovites were more positive. While looking at a map on a street corner one night (the “tourist distress call”) a friendly young woman pointed us in the right direction. It seems that in general, the young people represent a new generation of Muscovites who are more likely to smile, provide great service and welcome foreigners. I would love to come back to
It is a Trans-Siberian right of passage - drinking vodka with Russians on a train in the middle of Siberia. This video shares a few of the moments I'll never forget and a few that I can't really remember.
Read the story from this night
Given the opportunity, we will choose to hang out with the locals and in nearly every instance. The vast majority of the time, it has been a rewarding and interesting experience. However, on the Trans-Siberian Railway we’ve learned that there are Russian locals that you don’t necessarily want to “experience” for 2 days on a train.
Peer pressure is an issue on the Trans-Siberian train with consistent reminders from other travelers that this is the “vodka train” and you must drink Russian vodka. This pressure is lost on the Russian locals though as they need no pressure whatsoever to drink on a train. It is a requirement for them and when mixing with foreign travelers the requirement is shared by all.
So we found ourselves in the dining car on the second night of a 48 hour journey from Irkustk to Ekaterineburg.
Between Slava, the gigantic ex-Russian Army captain with bullet wounds and Victor, the pudgy Belushi-esque ex-Mafia family man, we had our hands full. While our English friend Paul was busy being pressured by Slava into drinking more vodka than he wanted, I got a dose of vodka with Victor and his fellow Russian friends, who seemed to be complete blockheads. We drank more, became friends, toasted to health, arm wrestled and looking back I can say that I have never witnessed so many scars on so many people. I think these guys have had a hard life.
For some reason I accepted Victor’s invitation for me and Sachi to come to his room and drink more vodka. Not only did this end up with me losing a few hours of memory, but it caused Sachi to end up babysitting Victor’s Coke-spewing 4 year old child “Sergei” for over an hour. She was not happy and I had no idea why. What I did remember was Victor telling me at some point in the night that the wolf tattoo on his arm was from his 3 year prison term. Apparently had “only killed one person” while in the Russian mafia. Had I had my wits about me, I may have escaped at that point, but I didn’t.
The next day I awoke to a hangover, an upset wife and a half-drunk Russian ex-con banging on the door at with a 2 liter beer in his hand. We were still friends and he was clearly doing me a favor by bring over the beer. He started with the old Russian saying “A good friend drinks vodka with you yesterday, a great friend drinks vodka with you today!” as if I might appreciate the classical nature of the moment. I would have none of it, despite him barging in, pouring a glass, spilling it on the floor and insisting I drink no less than 15 times. Of course Sachi was now noticing that she would now clean up after both father and son in our compartment. I was at a loss for more ways to say “nyet” – nothing seemed to work. Sachi would later say that when he came in she wanted to kick him in the face. Of course, I was implicit in this frustration.
Later Victor hooked back up with the Blockheads and they formed a roaming band of drunk-in-the-morning Russian annoyances. They went from one end of the train to the other, peer-pressuring everyone from the night before to drink with them. One of them even forced his way into the compartment of understandably shaken American and Canadian girls. He would later be quite accurately called a stalker.
This band of drunks eventually caused the revelers from the night before to close their doors and hide out for the majority of the morning. Many, including Sachi and I ignored knocks at our doors. The foreigners on the train tried to memorize compartment numbers so we could visit one another without keeping a door open. There was talk of passwords being used. We were held hostage by the locals.
By about the drunk Russians had passed out – we could hear Victor snoring through the compartment walls and from that point the foreigners on the train began to appear like refugees after a bombing campaign. Shaken, annoyed and hungover, we stuck together and decided that drinking with the locals is fun, but sharing 2 days on a train with the same people is another story all together.
Watch the Video Here.
We were greeted in the "Siberian Capital" of
For the first time since visiting small villages in
The town on the South Eastern shores of
The homes themselves are remarkably similar, with dark wood and ubiquitous, but unique window dressings called Siberian Lace. The Siberians believe in spirits who are able to enter homes through windows and the windows are designed to prevent the spirits from entering. The windows are colorful works of art that beg for photos and appear too good to be true. If they were plucked from this Siberian location and appeared in a city, you could imagine flag-bearing tour groups ooohing and aaahing at the traditional designs. Yet, here they are surrounded by gardens, livestock and splashed mud. These windows are an example of the reality of travel that I long to experience.
Another Siberian experience is the use of a “banya” or sauna. The tradition works like this… The banya is prepared by building a fire in a furnace-like compartment of a small wooden structure. The fire heats water that is used for bathing and the “sweat room” where you sit naked and relax. I have decidedly mix reactions to the sweat room. I don’t like heat and I already sweated enough for 5 years in
Bolshoe Goloustnoe, more than any other village we’ve visited on the whole trip, seemed to take us back in time. Here are a few examples.
- The toilets are located outdoors and over a deep pit in the earth near the garden. When it fills up, they cover it and dig another hole. Yes, despite pulling fresh, clean water from an aquifer that is associated with the lake, the homes in the village do not have running water.
- Only a few weeks ago mobile phone service arrived in the village. Prior to that, the only phone in the village existed in the Post Office and even it was often in disrepair.
- The village does not have Internet access.
- The villagers are very curious about foreigners, described as a look at someone from another world.
- Few vehicles exist in the village and some of the old-timers have never left the village in their lives.
- Many of the farmers in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are subsistence farmers, growing food to eat rather than sell.
- The village lacks tourist infrastructure – no restaurants or souvenir shops.
I didn’t realize it until we arrived, but
We didn’t expect it, but Bolshoe Goloustnoe and
To look at Lake Baikal doesn't do it justice - it is just a big lake in a beautiful and peaceful setting. Only by learning a little about it can you appreciate what a special place on the Earth it really is. You can learn more via Wikipedia too.
Music: Yo La Tengo - You Can Have It All
I boarded the train in Ulan Battar with what I figured were blisters on my behind from hours of riding Mongolian horses on the steppe. The horses and saddle were a bit too small for a western butt like mine. Sachi, the lucky, found that a couple of layers of skin had been worn away. This is not a good way to start a two day train ride.
From the moment we stepped on the train, we were focused on the upcoming border ordeal with
We knew we were supposed to arrive at the border at so we both got up at to do what we could in the last minutes of the unlocked toilet. The train arrived, the toilets were locked and we were left alone for 4 hours until , when the wait began for the border guards to arrive and take our passports for processing.
For the entire train journey to this point, we operated only in the moment - by necessity. There was no train itinerary and the attendants only communicated in very basic terms. So we sat and waited and looked for our fellow passengers to appear on the platform - a sure sign that we can leave the train for a brief moment. Other than that we just asked "Can we get off?" and then try to figure out if the answer was a “yes” or "no”. Our fellow Western travelers were in a similar predicament.
The border crossing into
Just before stopping at customs an Asian women entered our berth and hung a jacket on a hook and walked away as if we would be happy to carry the jacket with us through customs. Sachi promptly hung it outside where she collected it quickly. Shaaah, as if.
Counting the arrival at the Mongolian border and 2 hours of free time on the Russian side, the ordeal did take about 11 hours and no plastic bottles were needed. However, I will never forget an event just before departure that almost made me mess my pants. A group of 5 of us left the train station to visit a shop about 500 yards from the station and we left with over an hour before our departure time. Our quest was successful and we came back to the station with vodka bottles in hand - but something important was missing. Our train was not sight. We rushed up to the platform and looked around as if it might be camouflaged somehow - but no train was on track number 2. Soon after we also realized that all five of us lacked any necessary means to catch another train. We had all left for the store without a passport, train ticket, extra money or credit cards. For a fleeting moment, our world and prospects for recovery seemed quite bleak and I wondered how I would be reunited with Sachi, clearly on her way into
Our first impression of our train compartment was one of amusement. Two couches facing one another, a small table, a window and lots of metal clips, hinges, handles, ladders and switches that did not appear at the time to have any utility. What made us laugh was the decoration – I would call it Russian Grandmother style. Darkish floral print that was perhaps dark with age and usage with gold satin frill. The curtains matched the beds and the diagonal tablecloth really tied the room together nicely. Ugly but certainly sufficient for the 1.5 day journey.
It wasn’t long before we realized that we were on the way out of
After the first 12 hours, we went to the dining car and returned to walk through a train filled with a dusty fog. It had a sweet smell, not like fire, but a bit like freshly cut wood. You could feel the air on your eyes and it your nose and it settled near the floor. The air was crunchy. At dusk we looked out of the window across the hall through a dust covered window. Through the dust spattered glass, we could see sand - the very beginnings of the
Border crossings are a bitch. Since the toilet flushes directly onto the tracks, the toilets on the train are locked during the border crossing into
In some strange turn of railroad evolution it came to be that railroads were connected that didn't match in width. Such is the case with the Trans-Siberian train which must be refitted with new wheels or "bogeys" before heading into
: After crossing the Mongolian border, the train pulled up to Zamyn Uud, where we expected to get out and use the bathroom. Instead, the border guards boarded the train, took our passports and left. Soon after, amidst yelling and running down the halls, the train left the station without our passports. After leaving it then stopped and then rolled very slowly toward the station once more before going back two more times. Like everything else, no explanation is given. Later we received our passports and all was well.
Sunday, September 10
We awoke with the anticipation of a school kid on a snow day - what would we find when we opened the curtain for the first time? It turned out to be a scene of absolute nothingness - more nothing than we had ever seen anywhere. We looked out over an ocean of pure sand - the middle of the
Soon after waking we rattled into a small stop at the edge of the desert called Choyr, where eager Mongolian kids greeted us selling stones of quartz and amethyst. I expected to be mobbed when I stepped of the train, but they were polite and not tenacious on a level that I expected. I suppose
The run into Ulan Baatar was grassy rolling steppe - no vegetation over a foot high and gers that dotted the horizon along with their sheep, horses and cows. Disturbing the landscape on the train side were barbed-wire fences and electrical poles which are well used by White Tailed Eagles - certainly the most entertaining wildlife in view. The scrubby steppe is surely home to bite sized rodents that teased the eagles from their perches. It was not at all odd to see an eagle swoop down and attack just outside the window. It's nice to know this desolate place is feeding something so effectively.
Signs of Ulan Baatar slowly start to appeared from the window in the form of Gers that seem to be moving closer and closer together. A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home – basically a round tent made of white felt or canvas. Most have no electricity or running water. Outside of the city you noticed gers as a white dot on the horizon, surrounded by livestock. It seemed that in the outskirts of Ulan Baatar, the nomads are inching their way towards stationary city life by planting their gers in more permanent positions around the city. In fact we would see them in downtown too.
The most immediate and striking aspect of Ulan Baatar was the women, many of whom were quite beautiful and dressed in the most up-to-date western fashions. I didn’t expect this in Ulan Baatar. The city itself is not beautiful and I described it at the time as appearing to be part refugee camp, part abandoned construction site and part modern city. It had all the conveniences that anyone would need – Internet cafes, supermarkets, movie theaters, restaurants, etc. The city has a reputation for lawlessness and aggressive pickpockets, but we saw no evidence of them.
Within an hour or so we boarded a mini-van and departed the city for Elstei Ger Camp, about 50 kms outside the city. Within about 30 minutes we reached the steppe – the land of absolutely endless rolling hills of grass. This is where we would spend the next two days.
Here are a couple of my favorite photos from our stay here...
This video is about our stay at the camp…
Being out there in the middle of miles of rolling grass covered hills in Mongolia, there is little to do but ride horses- small but tough Mongolian horses.
Lots more coming soon- the connections have been few and far between... I just uploaded a load of pictures of Mongolia to Flickr as well.
The train trip has exceeded our expectations in a big way. The train itself is OK, but Mongolia and Siberia have been highlights of the whole trip, except for my saddle sores. Unfortunately though, it's a bit harder to upload all the pictures, videos, etc. Once we get into the big cities like Moscow we'll be sharing a lot more. Here is quick video to get started...
In couple of hours we board a train from Irkutsk to Ekaterinberg, Russia which will take about 48 hours.
We are about to begin the first legs of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first stop: Ulan Baatarr, Mongolia, where we will spend two nights at a Ger Camp (I'm not really sure either). We are both so very excited - this trip marks the end of Asia and the beginning of perhaps the most anticipated journey of the year. Woo hoo! Here's the plan:
- September 9th: Depart
- September 10th:
(2 nights plus travel) Ulanbaatar, Mongolia
- September 14th:
(Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel) Irkutsk, Russia
- September 18th:
(Urals) (2 nights plus travel) Ekaterinburg, Russia
- September 21st:
(2 nights plus travel) Moscow, Russia
- September 24th:
(3 nights) St. Petersburg
- September 27th:
Of course, this also marks the end of China, which has been amazing in so many ways - mostly unexpected. There is something I'd like to share about China before I go (with more coming later).
Tomorrow (September 9th) is the 30th anniversary of Chairman Mao's death and today on CNN International (one of two English stations) there was a segment on Mao. Two different sections of the segment were blacked out and we can only guess that the government was involved. There was a specific woman that spoke in the segment and whenever she came on the screen, it went black. This appeared to be blatant media censorship right before our very eyes.
I doubt I will ever be able to reconcile the contrasts that appear in China. It seems to be going at light speed into the future and stumbling backward at the same time. Amazing.