Where’ve Ya Been? Recapping 18 Months Wandering

18 Feb

Visited Countries

Between August, 2007 and January, 2009, I wandered through 28 countries on 6 continents. While my blogging efforts quickly fell by the wayside, I stayed true to my inner shutterbug, snapping about 30,000 photos, uploading about 15,000 travel photos to Flickr. I also posted about 400 short updates via Twitter. Now that I’m back in the United States, and done hopping cities every few days, I’m hoping to recap some of the highlights (and there were many) of my trip here on GoBigMike.

In this entry I hope to provide an overview of the whole trip, to answer the “So, where have you been?” question. I’ll also mention a few of the highlights from the experiences I had on this epic journey, but further detail will be reserved for future country-specific summaries.

World map, with cities visited

 Click above map for interactive version (clickable cities, scroll right for path)

The maps above give you a snapshot of my trip and path. Lots of lines, right? The path could have been more cohesive if I was more certain when I started that I’d carry on for as long as I did. But before this trip, I had never traveled for more than 3 weeks at a time, never been to non-Western locales, and never slept in a hostel. Committing to an 18-month march, with specific flights and dates seemed too aggressive for my tastes. Weather was also a major path plotting consideration: I wanted to avoid deep winter & brutal summer as much as possible. After many months of idle plotting, I decided to break my trip into 3 major legs, of roughly 4-6 months each.

Before breaking down the three legs, let’s pause for some geeky statistics & factoids for my overall trip:

  • Distances traveled (approximate) by:
    • Air: 70,000 miles/112,000 km (48 flights)
    • Rail: 4,660 miles/7,500 km (5,800 km on the Trans-Mongolian route across Russia)
    • Road: 14,100 miles/22,600 km  (11,000 km in buses from southern to northern tips of S. America)

    For reference, the circumference of Earth at the Equator is 24,000 miles (40,000 km).

  • Ends of the Earth:
    • Northernmost point: St. Petersburg, Russia (59° 55′)
    • Southernmost point: Antarctic sound, Antarctica (65° 15′)
    • Highest altitude: Gokyo Ri, Nepal (17,575 ft/5357 m)
    • Southernmost city in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina); Highest City in the world (Litang, China); good views of the highest mountain on Earth (Everest), and in South America (Aconcagua). Many other world’s highests/largests/deepests/whateverests.

And now without further ado, the three legs of my Big Wander: 1) Asia, the long way around, 2) South America and 3) Middle East & Africa.

Leg 1: Asia, via Europe

Traveling to Asia from Los Angeles via Europe is certainly the long way around, but I had long been interested in visiting Russia, and more specifically in riding the Trans-Siberian railroad. So I  started the first leg of my trip in Sweden in early August, 2007, and made my way from over to Bali, Indonesia, 6 months later, in mid-January 2008.

Countries visited:
Path thru Asia

  • Sweden
  • Estonia
  • Russia
  • Mongolia
  • China
  • Nepal
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Laos
  • Cambodia
  • Indonesia

Selected highlights, in no order:

  • trekking in Nepal with my father
  • St. Petersburg, Russia
  • road-trip through Tibetan region around Litang (China)
  • Angkor temples (Cambodia)
  • beaches of Thailand, snorkelling around Krabi
  • small village experiences in Mongolia, China, Laos, Cambodia
  • food in Thailand, Laos, & Cambodia
  • 4 separate adventures with friends from home

 My photos from Asia

Leg 2: South America (plus Antarctica & USA)

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro made an obvious (and awesome) starting point for my trip to South America. I then quickly dipped to the southern tip of the continent (and beyond, to Antarctica), and then made my way up to the northern tip, making the entire journey by bus. Fortunately I wasn’t on the same bus the whole route, and I was able to get out and enjoy these great countries. I was in South America from February through July, 2008. In August & September I paused in the United States, to restock, “refuel”, and recharge, while deciding whether to continue my adventure.

Countries visited:
Path in the Americas

  • Brazil
  • Argentina
  • Antarctica (not strictly a country)
  • Chile
  • Bolivia
  • Peru
  • Ecuador
  • Colombia
  • USA

Selected highlights, in no order:

  • South America from bottom to top by bus
  • Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
  • Lopes Mendes beach (Ilha Grande, Brazil)
  • Iguazu falls
  • Antarctica
  • Machu Picchu
  • mountains in Patagonia (Torres del Paine & El Chalten)
  • southwestern Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni & beyond)
  • mountains around Huaraz, Peru
  • coffee region (Zona Cafetera), Colombia
  • Colombia’s Caribbean coast (Cartagena, diving, Tayrona)
  • steak, wine & ice cream in Argentina, seafood in Peru, icy beer in Brazil
  • chatting with locals in Spanish
  • Burning Man festival (USA)
  • 3 adventures with friends from home, & making lots of new friends

 My photos from South America & Antarctica

Leg 3: Middle East & Africa

A year was my original plan for this six-continent adventure. Then Asia & South America both kept me longer than I originally planned: I had already been on the road for 12 months when I returned to the USA. And I was a little travel-weary from the near constant moving and sensory overload of amazing experiences. So I decided to pause for some recharging and reflection in the “friendly confines” before carrying on to more exotic locales. I nearly decided to end my trip as planned, but in the end decided I really wanted to travel more now, and to visit a few places in the Middle East & Africa, before settling down.

Weather and a few logistics problems caused me to abandon an original itinerary starting in East Africa and working north to Turkey. Instead, I planned to start in Turkey in early October, 2008, and work my way South to Egypt, and then return home in time for Christmas.  Fortunately I found my second wind for travel, and decided to extend my stay in Africa an additional six weeks, so I was able to visit southern Africa as well, before returning to the USA in late January, 2009. Several of my top memories for the entire 18-month trip happened in the final few weeks in southern Africa.

Countries visited:
MidEast & Africa path map

  • Turkey
  • Syria
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • South Africa
  • Mozambique
  • United Kingdom (London, en route)

Selected highlights, in no order:

  • Petra ruins, Jordan
  • Cappadocia (Turkey)
  • White Desert (Egypt)
  • scuba diving in the Red Sea (Egypt)
  • history around every turn (Middle East)
  • local foods in Turkey, Syria, Jordan & Egypt
  • small village trekking on the Meket Escarpment (Ethiopia)
  • minarets, mosques, & kind Muslims throughout Mid-East
  • swimming with whale sharks (Mozambique)
  • Istanbul, Turkey & Cape Town, South Africa
  • adventures with 3 friends from home

My photos from the Middle East & Africa

What’s next?

Several frequently asked questions have emerged in the few weeks that I’ve been back. I don’t have fully-baked answers for all of them yet, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. What was your favorite place?
    This one is especially tough for me to answer, and it’s the most common question. How do you pick one place out of the amazing places I’ve seen? The easiest answers are probably “Antarctica”, and “the Himalayas with my Dad”, because they’re crowd pleasers. But I honestly don’t have a favorite place. Recalling every place on the lists above made me smile, and those lists leave out many other great experiences.
  2. Did people hate you because you’re American?
    No, not at all. People are generally good at separating individuals from nations. Not once did a local person harass, berate, belittle or otherwise malign me because of my nationality. And no, I didn’t play the stupid “Oh me, no, I’m from Canada, eh?” game. I always answered honestly, and the most I usually got was “Welcome! Americans good people, bad President.”, which was certainly hard to argue with. Even in very remote parts of the world people were very aware of the US elections, and interested in its outcome and impact on our collective futures.
  3. What did you learn?
    I didn’t undertake this trip in search of great enlightenment, or expecting to discover the secrets of life. I ended up learning a lot about geography, a little about history & religion, and a bit about people. A few modest themes I observed:

    • You don’t need much to be happy. People with very little are frequently happier than those who have everything.
    • Our world is big, and filled with beautiful places & people. 18 months barely scratched the surface.
    • It’s pretty easy to travel nearly anywhere now, if you can speak English (and are flexible). Get out and explore!
    • Babies are cute everywhere.
  4. You’ve seen everything! What’s left?
    Hardly! I could easily go back to even the smallest countries I visited and have another month’s worth of great new experiences. And then there are the other 160 or so countries that I haven’t been to yet… I could easily put together an amazing itinerary to span another 5-7 years or so.
  5. Are you done yet?
    Yes, I’m done.  Wandering from place to place every few days was amazing, and I hope to do it again (and again?). But for now I’m finished doing that. Then again, the economy sucks, and there are some really good travel deals out there… :)
  6. What’s it like to be back?
    It feels pretty normal. I’m having sticker-shock at the prices in Los Angeles. And the inundation with marketing messages and consumerism is a bit overwhelming. But for now I’m happy to be back in the United States for a while, mostly because I have awesome friends here.
  7. What are you doing next? AKA When are you going to get a job?
    The answer to this question is still very much a work in progress. I don’t yet know what I want to do when I grow up! Midway through my trip I was convinced that I didn’t want to return to technology management or Internet work when I finished. But I’ve reconsidered, and am leaning toward knocking the rust off of my technical skills. Or at least seeing if it’s possible. I’m not interested in setting up an apartment and plopping down for a 9-to-5 job just yet, so I’m planning to do some consulting and help some friends with some ideas. If my brain rejects this return to technology, I’ll pick something new to do. My travels through the mountains and deserts reminded me that I love rocks and how the Earth works; maybe I’ll become a geologist some day?

    Also, after 16 years of living in greater Los Angeles, I’m interested in trying out some new places. I’m planning to spend a few months living in a few places I’ve enjoyed in my travels, and see if one of them feels more like Home than LA does. I’ll be starting with Austin, Texas, in March, 2009. Serious candidates after Austin include Chicago, Buenos Aires, and Cape Town. It’s an evolving list.

So that’s the basic trip recap. It was an amazing 18 months, and I don’t regret for a second my decision to spend my time and money this way. Highly recommended!

In future entries I plan to provide country-specific recaps, and additional summaries on gear, logistics, and more.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Me on beautiful winter's day at Shutters, Santa Monica

GoBigMike vs Gobi: A week in Mongolia

6 Sep

“I figured we’d survive the cold desert night with the van as shelter and our dry, warm gear. But a submerged van and wet gear out here cast that into serious doubt.”

[My pictures from Mongolia are here. Many are through the window of a wildly bouncing van.]

The platform at Ulaan Baatar was abuzz as the hundreds of locals got off, and the next round of passengers waited to get on. I said a few quick goodbyes to my German friends and the other folks I’d spent the previous 42 hours with. I happily spotted a woman with my name on a sign, sent from the Nassan’s Guest House to pick me up and take me to the hostel. We made our way through the throngs of Mongolian faces, dumped my bags into the car, and fought our way into Ulaan Baatar (“UB” from here) traffic.

UB streets are a battleground, with everyone fending for their own lives. Cars rule the road, and pedestrians are constantly at risk. But so are the cars; lanes mean very little, and cars drive as much by honking “sonar” as by formal rules of the road. I was glad to be encased in steel, piloted by someone familiar with the local rituals, rather than trying to find my way around on foot. This was the first place I’d been that felt truly foreign.

We arrived at the hostel, and Nassan met us at the car. I had found Nassan’s Guest House on Hostelworld.com from Irkutsk, and had sent them an email asking to pick me up from the train, and let them know that I was interested in setting up a tour into the Mongolian countryside, preferably with some other English speakers. I also asked for some help getting my train reservations from UB to Beijing, as my original ticket purchased in St. Petersburg didn’t have a date or seat assignment for this leg. Nassan said she had info on these items, but that I could clean up and see here in the office when I was ready. I was glad we didn’t have to go over details immediately, because I was feeling woozy for some reason.

After relaxing for a bit in my private room, I visited Nassan’s office. Another guest was also interested in doing a 5 day trip around Mongolia, so we decided to link up for a trip into the Gobi desert, departing early the next morning. News about the train was not as good; the Thursday train that I wanted was sold out, with little hope of getting a last-minute opening. I had been talking with my friend Shannon about meeting up in Beijing on Friday, but we hadn’t finalized plans yet. There was a slight chance of getting a seat on the Saturday train, and Nassan’s staff would keep an eye on this for me.

Still not feeling great, I headed off to the State Department Store to buy food for my trip into the desert. The store was a large, multi-storey building, easily recognizable as a department store. It also contained a full grocery store. I picked up some dehydrated soups, fruit, bread, peanut butter and snacks. I was excited to see a case of Cholula–one of my favorite hot sauces–in one of the aisles, but decided not to buy one of the giant bottles (looking back, I probably should have). Despite the dire warnings of many people about the dangers of the streets of UB, nobody attacked me or slashed my bags on the way back to the hostel. Over my several days in UB, I never had anyone approach me and never felt threatened in any way, even when walking around (probably too late) at night.

When I announced to my college friends that I was going to do this big trip, I asked people to let me know if they had good contacts anywhere. One of the most surprising locations for a contact was Mongolia. My friend Stacey’s brother-in-law John runs horse tours in the northwest regions of Mongolia. He spends the vast majority of his time out in the wilderness, but he happend to be in UB between trips when I arrived, so we met up for dinner. I met him at City Cafe (or Coffee, depending on where it was written) for some tasty Chinese food, and a few beers. We chatted a bit about Mongolia, travelling, and Stacey & Rob (and the funny events around John’s arrival for their wedding: “Arctic bus”). John’s fiancee and business partner Sam, and one of their clients, Emily, met us out as well.

After dinner we headed to Dave’s Bar, for their weekly quiz night. We arrived at Dave’s to find a parking lot full of thrashed cars, the lucky finishers of The Mongol Rally, a wild race from London to UB in small engine cars.

Mongol Rally cars 
Mongol Rally participants, General Lee!

I also spotted my cabinmates from the last train, Michael & David, at a table. We joined them, and teamed up for quiz night. We had a blast with the quiz, and finished second out of 12 teams, losing only to the supernerds who go and win every week.

Chatting with the Rally participants was also highly entertaining. Everyone who ran the race was very cool and had great stories of their adventures over the past six weeks.

For our Friday morning departure into the Gobi, Nassan had told me to be downstairs at 8am (John semi-jokingly told me this meant we’d probably leave around 11, factoring in “Mongolia time”). Arriving as instructed, I sat downstairs alone for about 15 minutes, then wandered up to the office to investigate. “Oh, I meant to tell you 8:40, not 8:00″ Nassan said. Grr. She introduced me to my fellow traveller, Shigeaki “Kuri” Kurimoto, who was waiting in the kitchen. Kuri was 26, from Tokyo, and a fellow geek (a system admin for a telecom company). We chatted while waiting for our driver to arrive. Kuri didn’t get to practice English much in Tokyo, but he had a moderate command of the language. He came to Mongolia with a dream of lying on his back in the Gobi at night, looking up at thousands of stars.

The driver arrived at about 8:40, and we were ready to go shortly after 9. Nassan surprised us just before departure by telling us that we’d need to pay for the driver’s meals, and/or share our food with him. This would have been good to know earlier, to factor into shopping, especially since she’d said the $270 fee covered the driver, car, gas, lodging, and dinners. Oh well, not a big deal, as meals are quite cheap in Mongolia.

Our driver, Amartugs (“Omra”), spoke basic English, supplemented with a broad, easy smile. Omra’s wife worked in the local US Embassy, and he worked as a guide and driver in Summer, and taught karate in the off-season. It would turn out that we’d have been far better served if his second job was as a mechanic.

We were rolling in a standard issue Army-green Russian-made off-road van. They’re built with the engine directly between the driver and passenger seats. This typically means that the interior of the van is roasting hot, which was certainly true on our case. These vans are built tough and high, to handle bad roads–which Mongolia has plenty of.

Roads in Mongolia are legendarily bad. And the legends are true. Driving out of UB, I was shocked at how bad the paved roads were. Gigantic potholes that would swallow a VW Bug consumed entire lanes. Drivers frequently left the paved roads and drove onto the dirt shoulder to have a smoother ride. Then we got to the bad roads. Imagine the roughest dirt road (if you’ve ever been on one…) you’ve ever been on. Now make it 3x worse, and 300 miles long. Toss in some washboard sections, and a healthy dose of serious potholes, and you’ve got a sense of basically every road outside of UB. After about two hours of exhausting bumping and jittering along, you get the hang of when to tense up and when to relax. Oh, and of course there are no seatbelts, silly! You’re riding bareback, yeehaw! I was jolted so hard by one bump on our first day that my shoulder–not just my head–was slammed into the ceiling. You also get some bonus time in the saddle, as there are no road signs anywhere, so you’ll head down a branch in the road, drive for a while, then stop to ask a local on a horse if you’re heading the right direction. Quite often you’re not, so you get to backtrack, which usually involves making your own road for a while.

After UB disappeared in the rearview mirrors we were into the great open expanses of Mongolian steppe. We would drive for hours each day and only pass a few cars, some tents (“gers”), and maybe a tiny village. The landscape was mostly wide-open treeless plains, with the occasional small mountain range. Skies were huge.

Big skies

Kuri and I were introduced to ger living and Mongolian hospitality a few hours outside UB. Amartugs pulled off the road and approached the first ger we’d seen in a while. He hopped out and stuck his head inside the door, then waved for us to join him. The Mongolian nomads are very hospitable, and openly welcome strangers into their homes for a chat, meals, or a sleepover. I was surprised to see a solar panel system, and satellite dish outside the tent. But I’d later learn that while the nomadic life is generally simple, it’s not totally devoid of modern amenities. The tent’s interior was about 20 feet in diameter, with small furniture items lining the outside, and open space in the middle. “Try Mongolian national beer!” Amartugs said as he handed us each a bowl of something that the tent’s hostess had scooped out of a 50 gallon barrel in the “corner” (round tents don’t really have corners, right?). This was airag, fermented mare’s milk, a lightly alcoholic drink enjoyed widely across Mongolia. It has a strong odor and a stronger taste of incredibly sour yogurt. Mongolians can down large bowls of it in two gulps. Not one to shy away from a drink, I tried hard to force down the whole bowl, but only managed about half of it. It’d take a few years to get used to, I think. I never made it through a whole serving in my time in the desert, and Kuri was only able to endure a few polite sips. We were also given some incredibly hard cheese. Reminiscent of parmagiano regianno in flavor (mild, salty), it resembled a jaw-breaker in consistency. Gnawing our way through a few tough, tasty pieces, we said farewell and drove on toward the Gobi.

Amartugs supplied the soundtrack for our journey. He had an MP3 player that plugged into the cigarette lighter and broadcast a weak radio signal that the van’s radio could pick up.  Omra’s device held about 30 songs, and he had it loaded with mostly English songs. He’s a huge Enrique fan (as are many people in Asia, for some reason), and pop in general. We rocked out to Enrique, Dido, Eminem, Rihanna (of course), and a cool Mongolian trance tune by Mr. Dizzy. Unfortunately I hadn’t followed Andy’s advice and brought along a tape adapter for my MP3 player, so I was unable to supplement the selections. Songs that I’d never heard before (or intentionally blocked) became burned into my brain.

Our van sputtered to a stop mid-afternoon, in the middle of a vast valley. Amartugs yanked up the engine’s cover, and removed his own seat to get full access. He poked and prodded the engine for about 15 minutes with no luck. I watched several large hawks hunt for lunch, and Kuri marvelled at the great open spaces. A semi truck loaded with wood for a house stopped, and the driver came to stick his head in the van. A few minutes later, another truck stopped. The sight of several Mongolians scratching their heads over our engine would become a frustratingly familiar over the next few days, but it was interesting to see how any passer-by would automatically stop to offer help out here in the steppe. After an hour of tinkering, the makeshift mechanics figured out that we had an electrical problem of some sort, and created a hotwire rigging of the van’s ignition to route around the problem.

Mongol Mechanics at work

Shortly before sunset we arrived at our destination for the day: Bagagazryn Uul (“small rocks”). The carved rock formations reminded me of southern Utah. We scrambled over the rocks for a few minutes while searching for a “secret secret” monastery, where monks had hidden decades earlier to escape persecution (they were still found and killed). This secret monastery was also home to anomaly: trees! The only cluster of trees I saw in my entire time on the tour grew in this tiny rock enclosure.

As darkness fell, we settled down in our lodging for the night. We were supposed to stay in family gers each night of our tour, but the several family gers that we had enquired at previously were already full, so we were staying in a tourist (spare, effectively) ger adjacent to a family ger. We were still treated to a traditional family dinner, of plain flour noodles and mutton in broth, with “tea” (half milk, half water). After dinner, when I asked Amartugs where the toilet was, he chuckled, waved his arms broadly and said “There are many toilets!” Any bush, boulder or hill suffices as a toilet in the Gobi.

After a cold night in the ger (only the second time on the trip I used my fleece), we awoke to a treat of fresh yogurt for breakfast. Our hosts had prepared this overnight in addition to the typical Mongolian breakfast: leftovers from the previous evening. With just a little sugar added to it, the yogurt was delicious. We packed up the van and were on our way by 8:00.

On this second day we drove for hours across the bumpy nothingness of the Gobi. The endless plain stretched out on three sides, and small mountains grew slowly before us. We stopped a few times during the day to see small temples and the occasional interesting rock formation, like “White Moon Hill”. We were under warm, sunny skies, but we could see rain clouds over the mountains throughout the day. Late in the afternoon we encountered our first village in two days. It was at the edge of the rain clouds, and we had our first rain, and could see streams of water running through town. We needed to fuel up, so we made our way to the local gas station, where we pumped gas. And I mean literally “pumped” gas. When you want to fuel up, you need to crank a handle to get the gas up out of the storage tanks. We left this little village under dark skies, and headed into the mountains. Our goal was the “flaming cliffs” of Bayanzag, site of several important fossil discoveries in the early 20th century.

About an hour outside the village the road turned into a stream. The first steady rain in months had saturated the loose soil, and pooled up in the dirt track road. As far as we could see–several kilometers–our road was a brownish, silverish river snaking through the desert.

Pontoon time...

With no gers in sight, and not wanting to backtrack to the village, we forged ahead. Big mistake. Ten minutes into the watery adventure our van started to struggle. Amartugs dropped the van into 4×4 mode, and it shivered ahead for another few minutes before sputtering to a stop. “Shit, shit” he said. He managed to get it started again, but the wheels just spun in place in the slick mud. He tried rocking the van loose by switching between drive and reverse, also with no luck. We were stuck. “Maybe push?” he whimpered.

Kuri and I hopped out into the calf-high cold water and put our shoulders into it. I resemble a sumo wrestler, but Kuri would never be mistaken for one; with his slight build he wasn’t able to apply much force to the effort. Twenty minutes of fierce struggling resulted in a few feet of movement, but the van was still dead in the water. Starting to feel the gravity of the situation, Amartugs told us to look for rocks. Luckily we were able to find nearby the only decent sized rocks available in the desert for miles, and we worked one into the hole created by the spinning rear tire. Omra used this as a platform to generate some momentum for the van, and got it moving under the light of the moon. He used this opportunity to turn the van around, to head it back for the only dry ground we knew of. Kuri and I scrambled through the thick mud as quickly as we could in our bare feet to keep up, and we hopped in.

Still several hundred meters from dry road, the van started to buck the track, and fought its way onto a split between the upper and lower paths. It seemed almost certain that this high-riding van was going to tip over into the cold water of the lower track, as Omra tried to fight it back under control. I figured we’d survive the cold desert night OK with the van as shelter and our dry, warm gear. But a submerged van and wet gear out here would cast that into serious doubt. Kuri and I shifted our weight to the right in a feeble attempt to counterbalast the tipping van. At what seemed to be the last possible second, Amartugs was able to right the van, and got it under control again, and we levelled out. Phew.

But the struggle through the mud had overtaxed the engine, and it started to smoke. “Uh, the engine is smoking” I said. After a few seconds of no acknowledgement from Omra, and frightened looks from Kuri, I shouted “Omra: fire, fire!!”. “Shit, shit!” he exclaimed as he shut down the engine. Luckily the engine wasn’t actually on fire, but things seemed grim. Kuri and I trudged through the mud ahead of the van to pack it down and create a grooved track as best we could, while Amartugs investigated the engine situation. We were withing throwing distance of dry ground, but it looked like we’d be spending the night over the water. The engine was good for one last go, and we managed to push it free of the mud lock and it crept forward onto the dry ground before sputtering its final death rattle. We tried fruitlessly for another twenty minutes to revive it, but it had clearly given its last rotations to our cause.

Amartugs floated the idea that he’d head off into the night to find help, but this seemed pointless with a sea of thick mud between us and any potential help, and no lights to be seen across the horizon. He reconsidered, and we prepared to spend the night in the van. I tried to make light of our situation with Kuri by pointing out that the stars were out on display, including large visible patches of the Milky Way. This offering brought a momentary smile, but it was wiped away shortly by exhaustion. Happily the van had a gas stove on board, so we were able to heat up water and make some of the soups that we had brought. With warm bellies we hunkered down under all the blankets, sleeping bags and clothes we could find. Omra slept in the driver’s seat, Kuri took the middle row, and I had the back row of seats in the van. I tossed and turned through the night, stuggling to find a comfortable position, and to manage my temperature under the heaps of blankets. I managed a few hours of sleep before catching the spectacular sunrise over the distant hills.

We all rose at 8:30, and Omra immediately headed off to find help. Two hours later, with no sign of Amartugs or other help, Kuri and I started to develop plan B. We figured we’d wait another two hours, and then start walking up the road. Fortunately we didn’t have to exercise this plan, as another car finally appeared over the hill an hour later. This was the first other care to come down this road since we’d gotten stuck 16 hours earlier. It was another tourist van, carrying Malcolm, a solo Australian, and his guide. We explained our situation, and waited while Amartugs sprinted toward us from some distant location. We quickly agreed to tow our van back to the nearest ger, where we’d leave it, and then get a ride in the working van to the nearest village.

During the hour-long ride to the nearest village with mechanic services I felt my spirits lift. This new van was more comfortable, and I enjoyed chatting with Malcolm and his nearly-fluent guide. Since Malcolm’s itinerary roughly matched what Kuri and I had planned, we figured we’d join his trip, and Amartugs would stay behind to deal with the dead van. Unfortunately this plan and my spirits were squashed by Nassan when Omra phoned UB to run it by her. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume this was because of money that would have changed hands. So instead of joining Malcolm, we were to stay in the village, and wait for a replacement van which was to arrive later that afternoon to take us to Bayanzag. Malcolm and his crew headed off on their way, and we were put up at the incredibly sketchy hotel in the middle of the village.

This day was a big one in the village, and across the country. It was Naadam, a day to celebrate with traditional Mongolian sports: archery, wrestling, and horse riding. We were able to catch the last two wresting matches of the day, between the biggest, strongest young men in the village. Mongolian wrestling is a pure match of strength and leverage. The winner is the last man to be forced off of his feet; touching the ground with anything other than your feet means a loss. Ceremony precedes and follows each match, with the participants bowing to the elders, and then the victor gets to do a hawk flap/soaring dance.

Mongolian wrestling match 

As soon as the championship match concluded (the biggest man won easily over his smaller, tired opponent who had just finished a long match), the crowd rushed up the hill to get into position to watch the end of the horse races. I enjoyed watching the villagers interact. Lots of smiling and laughing. A few inquisitive folks approached us, but limited overlapping language kept the exchanges brief. Naadam festivities concluded after the horse race, and we made our way back to the hotel for a short nap.

Amartugs came in and informed us that we wouldn’t have a new van to take us further that day. But another van was waiting to take us back to get the old, dead van. I resisted this, preferring to stay at the hotel and rest.  Omra prodded a bit, saying “2 hours, maybe 3″ to get the van back to the village. I knew better, but gave in and joined the mission to get the van. Dumb. Five hours later we were struggling in the dark to get the new van unstuck from the mud patch it became mired in while towing the old van. And this time we had no warm blankets or additional clothes to put on.

Stuck again...

Luckily the residents of a ger about a kilometer away heard our engine revving repeatedly, and came out to see what was happening. They only had a motorcycle, so they couldn’t pull the van out, and even with their help we weren’t able to free the van from the mud. After another hour of fruitless labor we called it a night, and trudged back to their ger. I finally reached my breaking point; the Gobi had won. I wanted out. Instead I had to settle for another dinner of flour noodles and tough mutton and another cold night in the desert. My sour mood softened slightly as I watched the Mongolians chatting in the ger, and I drifted off to sleep.

We awoke to car lights at 3am. A couple had ridden off earlier on the family motorcycle, and now returned with a neighbor in a 4×4 truck. Twenty minutes later the van was freed from the mud, we were on the (bumpy) road back to the village. Kuri and I were deposited in the back seat of the 4×4 truck for what would be a truly miserable ride, as the driver alternated between smoking and stopping for brief naps along the way. My seat squeaked loudly as we bumped along, which greatly agitated the passenger in the seat ahead of me, and made it impossible for me to sleep. Kuri was exhausted enough that the slept through this horrible voyage. I hated him for this. We finally made it back to the village and our hotel after almost 2 hours on the road, and I passed out.

“New car at 12,” Amartugs informed us at 10:00. We treated ourselves to a much deserved shower at the “shower store” a few doors down, and then joined Omra in our room to work through a bottle of vodka. Amartugs would stay behind with the dead van, and we would be getting 2 new drivers with the new van. The new car was an hour late, which was fine, as it gave us more time to hang out together with Omra. We polished off two bottles before the new van arrived. We loaded up the van and were on our way. We wouldn’t be able to visit Bayanzag, the only sight I was really looking forward to, but this was ok. Kuri and I both agreed that we really just wanted to get back to to civilization. I dozed on and off as we bobbed along. We stopped briefly to see the ancient Ong monastery, which at this point is really just some adobe wall remains, and a few reconstructed temples (utterly missable, IMHO, despite the nice views over the river bend).

Our drivers, who spoke almost no English, had also apparently enjoyed some vodka or similar earlier in the day. I deemed them Drunk & Drunker. They kept us on the road, and I never felt in serious danger, but Kuri told me later he was really concerned. We were not amused when they pulled over to a ger high on a hill late in the afternoon to get some airag. The comedy of errors resumed when the van wouldn’t start after this stop. Thirty minutes of tinkering, and the engine fired up. But the sun was setting, and the van’s headlights didn’t work. Amazing. Kuri completely lost it at this point. He started waving his arms wildly and yelling in Japanese. This got Drunker worked up. Then Kuri punched the van, and Drunker responded by punching Kuri in the face. I jumped in at this point, trying to calm down all parties. Fortunately the family also joined in the peacemaking efforts, and after a few minutes everyone was tranquil. Kuri decided to spend the night in isolation in the van though.

I spent a fun night in the ger with the family. After yet another dinner of flour noodles with mutton, we shared a few drinks. A few of the neighbors joined us as well. The fathers thought I was an OK guy, so I was offered one of the daughters to “bunk down with” for the night, which I found amusing. I politely declined. I made my way out to the van to make sure Kuri noticed the amazingly clear view of the stars we were enjoying that night. Without no clouds the sky was amazingly twinkly, and large bands of Milky Way were clearly visible.

My Mongolian family 

“UB city, go go!” was our mantra for our final day. We were ready to get off the road, and Kuri had a flight to catch that night. We were up and on our way at 8. And we broke down an hour later. Drunk & Drunker dismantled the engine while Kuri and I laughed hysterically and pulled our hair out.


The guys got the van running, and Drunk proudly poked his own chest and proclaimed, “Mechanic!”.

I endured several hours of “Mike!! Mike!! blah blah blah” as Drunk tried to ask questions, assert things, or play tour guide as we chugged toward Ulaan Bataar. After several unexplained, agonizing stops on the city’s outskirts, we finally arrived at Nassan’s Guest House at 7pm. Hallelujah!!! Nassan met us, and led me up to my new room. “Did you have a good trip?” she asked. Nearly choking, I told her “Not really, we had so much car trouble.” She replied, “I know. Gobi desert is very hard.”  Kuri’s flight home was at Midnight, so we got cleaned up and headed out for some dinner at City Cafe. Vegetables! Flavor! Ger living isn’t for me, but I admire the spirit of the folks who make it work for them.

Me & Kuri

Wednesday morning I caught up with Nassan in her office, and she told me that they’d been able to get me a ticket for the Saturday train to Beijing. But I wanted to get there earlier, as Shannon had confirmed that she was going to arrive there on Thursday evening, and stay for a few days. I spent Wednesday recouperating and relaxing, with a little temple sightseeing thrown in.

Thursday morning I decided I was ready to get out of Mongolia and to join my friend in Beijing, so I bought a ticket for the 6pm flight to Beijing. The train gods won; I was ready to fly the final leg of the Trans-Mongolian. After a few hours at the impressive Gandantegchilen monastery, it was time to head to Chinggis Khan International Airport. I wore a big smile as I boarded the plane. I was ready to put the Mongolian saga behind me, and to see a familiar face in a new country.

I’ve met many travelers who loved their time in Mongolia. I think I just had bad luck there. Mongolia probably deserves another shot in the future, but for now I’m humbled by the Gobi. GoBigMike vs Gobi: Gobi wins.

Random musings:

  1. Mongolian must be the inspiration for the Klingon language in Star Trek. It can sound beautiful in song, but in everyday conversations it’s rough.
  2. If you’re going on a van tour of the Gobi, don’t leave anything in an open bag. Our groceries got tossed, bashed, and scattered all over the van because we didn’t think to tie the bags shut. Oh, and pack a shovel and some flares.
  3. General travel thing, further confirmed in Mongolia: People will wear any t-shirt that has English on it. Most likely the person has no idea what it says or means, and the English is frequently funny, too. I need to take more photos of this, but here’s a fave, spotted in a tiny, remote village in Mongolia:

The Slow Train Into Mongolia.

30 Aug

28-30 August

[My photos from the train ride are here. Most are crap, as they were shot through the dirty windows of a speeding train.]

Happily reunited with my German friends from the long ride from Moscow to Irkutsk, I was feeling good about the ride into Mongolia. Then Manfred said to me, “You have food, yes?”. Uh, no. I had planned to follow their lead from the previous train, and just buy as we went along. But that wouldn’t be very feasible on this train, for while it made more frequent stops, they were only for 1 or 2 minutes, and vendors didn’t come to the platforms. Crap. A quick scramble through a few of the kiosks across the street, and I returned with enough water and snacks to get me through the 40 hour journey.

We boarded the train shortly thereafter, and I was again in the same wagon with the Germans. It turned out that the entire wagon was “the foreigner wagon”, with maybe one Russian mixed in. My cabinmates were Joseph, a teacher from Austria, and David & Michael, two buddies from Dublin. Down the hall were a few Americans, some Frenchies, several more Germans, and a lone Dutchman (where are all the Aussies???).

The train creaked off to a slow roll, with cheers from our cabin. Russian trains (and most, I suspect) don’t have any active air conditioning when the train is stopped. So we had been sweating in our little cube, and looked forward to the airflow. Of course, this was the slow train, so it stopped after about 5 minutes. And again another 10 minutes later. And so on, through the night. We chatted for a bit, and commiserated about the agonizingly slow progress we were making. Arnol, the Dutchman, had similar travel plans to mine, so we spent some time comparing notes, and exchanged info to potentially link up later in China.

My ticket was for the top bunk. I decided to risk lowering the retaining bar, given the train’s slow pace; would a “sudden” stop really toss me out of the bunk? And when was the last time I’ve rolled out of a bed in my sleep? This gave me a few inches of extra space, and allowed me to get some decent sleep. I slept through the only planned longish stop of our trek, a 40 minute stop at Ulan Ude, Russia.

Wednesday would be a day of waiting, and celebration: it was Manfred & Brita’s anniversary, and my birthday. We were scheduled to spend roughly 8 hours parked on either side of the Russian/Mongolian border. As we crawled along the last few kilometers of southern Siberia, we were able to detrain at the short stops to stretch our legs for a few minutes.

Manfred had briefed us on the protocol at the border. We planned to sit in our wagon for the first few hours, and then we’d be free to roam around for a few hours. But the provodnik came through and told us (this one spoke a little English, and good German) that we’d get off the train as soon as we parked at the Russian checkpoint, and need to return in 3 hours. Manfred said the process has been evolving on his trips over this route in the past several years, and this was the third change in a year. So we hopped off the train under sunny, clear skies to find some treats in the border town.

After 30 minutes of wandering we finally found a shop that sold beers, so we bought a few to enjoy in the sun while we waited. And waited, and waited. Most of the passport control and customs focus in these crossings is on the locals and traders. For simple tourists like us, the scrutiny is minimal. When we returned to the train for inspection, the process was very quick and quite painless. Passports and papers quickly scanned, stamped a few times, and then agents took apart several secret compartments to make sure nobody was smuggling anything. We were all cleared in about 40 minutes, and were able to get off the train again.

This was the slow train, both because of the number of stops, and because of a peculiar arrangement whereby a Russian locomotive led the train to the border, and then a Mongolian locomotive took over for the Mongolian leg. On the other, faster options, the Russian loco took the train the whole way. As a special birthday treat for me, our Mongolian escort was delayed an extra 2 hours, expanding the 40 hour ride to 42. Ah well, at least we were able to spend the time off the train, in the sun (this would have been far less amusing in mid-winter…).

After our Mongolian steed finally arrived and was attached to our train, everyone boarded the train and stayed in the hallway, curious to see the border zone. We were able to snap pictures on the Russian side, but as soon as we hit the no-man’s land we were told to put away the cameras, as the Mongolians are sensitive about it (seemed odd). Either side of the zone had a few manned towers, and the Russian side had a few ancient looking tanks covered in tall grass. The best was our final image of Russia: army officers playing volleyball (Yes, Top Gun references were made. Slider, you stink!)

And then we stopped on the Mongolian side for entry processing, and to attach up to a massive local train. After another quick stamping process, we cracked open the vodka and beer for a few hours of celebration before bed.

I woke up with a fog in my head, and to fog on the ground. The Mongolian countryside was definitely different than the Siberian landscape of the past many days train travel. More hills, more green, dotted with white tents (gers), and more horses evident.

We were awakened early in anticipation of our 7:40 arrival in Ulaan Baatar. And of course we ended up being 1:40 late, given our late start the night before. As Ulaan Baatar crept into view, shrouded in a brown haze, we said our farewells, and prepared for a hectic scene on the platform.

Beaten by drunk Russians at Lake Baikal

28 Aug

[My photos from around Lake Baikal are here. Some are shot from a bouncing van. Sorry.]

“So here I am at midnight in a wooden hut just feet from the world’s largest lake, with a blazing fire, surrounded by 5 Russian guys I just met, and everybody’s naked. And then they start lashing me with birch branches.”

Irkutsk, the main train stop for Lake Baikal, is actually 60 kilometers from the lake. The guidebooks mention hydrofoil service that runs on varying schedules from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island, which was where I wanted to go. So I made my way around Irkutsk with all my gear. I arrived a sweating mess at a completely vacant boat dock. No boat today. So from there I humped it over to the town’s tourist information office, where I found out that there was a final bus heading to Olkhon in about an hour. Tired of schlepping my gear, I opted for a taxi to the bus station. I managed to buy the right ticket, but the ticket contained zero information about where to get on the bus. The attendant pointed me to stand 5, for bus 221, leaving at 12:30. By 12:20 there was still no sign of bus 221, but minibus 632 was loading up. As I stood there confused, a nice local man asked me if I spoke French, and then helped me discover that the bus number really didn’t matter, and that I should get on number 632.

Minibus 632 to Olkhon was more like a clown funny car. We ended up with 3 more people than seats. And the Russians don’t believe in seat belts. I ended up with a seat facing backward, with a large Russian man in my face. For the first time on this trip I had found someone who sweat as much as me! Over the next 6 hours on our painful trek to Olkhon, Maxim and I would chat in broken English. Max had studied English in university, but hadn’t used it in 10 years. We’d exchange a few words, and then an hour would pass. “I have question: what is your profession?” Max would ask. Another agonizing hour of washboard dirt roads, and another question. He was getting warmed up.

We finally made it to Lake Baikal, and boarded the ferry to the island. After paying the 25 Rubles per-day usage fees, we reboarded the bus, heading to the main, small village, Khuzir. Max decided he wanted to join me at Nikita’s Guest House. Reception informed us that there weren’t any single rooms left, but they had a double room we could share. Sure, what the heck. We checked into our cozy penthouse cabin room.


And I had my first shower in almost 5 days. Oh so nice. The pit toilet was less nice, but at least Nikita’s supplied wood shavings to help freshen things up.

After a tasty dinner, Max informed me that he was going to meet his friends for “Real Russian banya!”, and that I should come. Banya is basically a sauna, with some birch-branch lashings and cool water dips mixed in. Sure, what the heck, “Ok, I’ll join”. We wandered into the village to find a shop to pick up some supplies (whiskey for Max, vodka for me), and we set off to find Max’s friends. And we wandered. And wandered. Finally after scaring several locals by asking directions, we made our way to a small forest atop a hilltop overlooking Baikal. We could see the silhoutte of a small hut near the water. “DIMA!!!!” Max shouted repeatedly, while dark figures near the hut would alternately yell “NYET!” or various other things. Sure that this wasn’t them, and that I was probably about to meet my maker out here in the middle of nowhere, I had a few moments of panic. Max was sure this was his crew though, so we headed down the hill to the beach. And sure enough, it was them. His buddy from Moscow, Dima, had made some friends that day. Denis and Andre, also from Moscow had joined the banya fun.

So here I am at midnight in a 6×10 wooden hut 15 feet from the world’s largest lake, with a roaring fire, with 5 Russian guys I just met, I can’t understand anything that’s being said, and everybody’s naked. And then they start lashing me with birch branches. “It tradition! Good for skin!” I learned. It’s also traditional to stoke the fire up so hot that you can barely breathe (“Good for health!”). I also learned several other rules of Russian banya that I now can’t recall, but I remember that each of them started with “Mike, Mike, you must…” and Dima would lose focus. And then the rule would follow a minute later (one of the rules was something about not drinking vodka during banya, but that didn’t seem to stop us a bit later…). After about 15 minutes of cranked heat and lashings, it was time for our first dip. So out into the night we dashed, into the icy waters of Lake Baikal. Wow, what a rush. Full moon, midnight, and no lights around for miles, other than a few campfires and a forest fire off in the distance. The process was repeated several times over the next hour, and then we were done. We polished off any remaining booze on our way back to the shack that Dima and the guys were staying in. And then I had another brief moment of panic when Denis busted out a gigantic knife to cut up some sausage and cheese. But of course, it was all just for good health. ;)   Max and I stumbled our way back to Nikita’s to crash. I awoke Sunday morning with a mild hangover but a very fresh-feeling face. The banya experience was definitely a highlight of the trip so far.

back at the scene of the crime

My time on Olkhon was like being at summer camp. We swam, rode bikes, played ping-pong, enjoyed nature, and relaxed. At night we were entertained by local musical talents, and we’d finish the night meeting other travellers around a fire pit. Nikita’s is a magnet for backpackers making their way through Siberia, so it’s a little “English is the primary language” oasis. It was a great break in the trip for me.

It turned out that Max is my Russian brother. We’re both big, sweaty men, both left-handed, geeks (he’s also a Web guy), good at ping-pong, photo nerds, and enjoy riding bikes. He’s the father of 2, and working on his second marriage.

Nikita, of Nikita’s Guest House, was a Russian table tennis champion several years ago. This means he was crazy good. This seems to attract other good players to his guest house. While Max and I rallied, a man played with his daughter. I could tell he was quite good. They left, and Max and I started to play a game. 10 minutes later, then man returned with another man and they started to rally. The most amazing ping-pong I’ve ever seen ensued. The second man turned out to be Nikita. While the first man was very good–a serious player–Nikita was ridiculous. He basically sat back and played defense against this guys who was just cranking every shot. And Nikita never missed. Well, except for the infrequent lob that would hit one of the random wires hanging from the roof of the shack. Every once in a while Nikita would crack an offensive shot, usually for a winner. Very fun to watch. Oh, and of course I won my game over Max, as I would all of our games (USA!!! USA!!! USA!!!).

max at the table

On Monday, my final full day on the island, I took a van tour to the north end of the island with about 20 others. Bumping along over rough roads, we saw the burnt ruins of a real-life Gulag, Crocodile Rock, and some generally nice scenery, with sharp cliffs that dropped into the dramatic blue of Baikal.


And we got our first glimpse of “Big Baikal”, the main body of the lake, including the deepest spot in any lake in the world. I enjoyed hanging out with distinctive French brothers Antoinne and (doh, forgot), and their buddy Juan from Portugal (who spent a semester at Claremont Graduatelast year…).


Back at Nikita’s, Max and I scrambled up Shaman Rock for some fun photos.

Tuesday morning I got up early to catch the bus. I said my farewells to my new friends, and boarded the minibus. Same friggin backward-facing seat this time. And I even intentionally got to the bus 15 minutes early! Arg. Fortunately the trip back seemed smoother and faster than the trip in, despite the largely surly French occupants of this van. Coincidentally, Denis and Andre were on another bus at the same time, and we met up at the ferry landing station. I had been working on my Russian photo pose, but I just can’t muster the same look they strike.

Back in Irkutsk I spent 45 minutes in a taxi trying to find a functioning Internet connection (Lonely Planet let me down on this one…). After my Net fix, and a quick dinner with fellow traveller Alex, I made my way to the train station. Several minutes of confusion later, I finally gleaned from one of the agents that I shouldn’t worry, my train wasn’t listed yet but it would be soon. Not like plane travel. And 10 minutes later, I saw my German friends. We were all going to be in the same wagon together again. Yay! But the train that I thought was going to take 28 hours was going to take 40. Ow.

Random musings:

  • Earlier I mused about the sexy look that all Russian women strike when posing for a photo. I got a good answer from a lovely young Russki at Nikita’s. She basically said it’s not them acting fake; they’re always told to try to look better, be better from when they’re very young. So they’re just doing what comes naturally, by training. I’ll buy that. I still don’t get the guys pose though.

they were smiling just seconds earlier. honest.

The fast 76-hour train to Irkutsk

25 Aug

[My photos from the train ride are here. Most are crap, as they were shot through the dirty windows of a speeding train. But at least there are a lot of them!]

Vowing to learn from my previous mistakes with trains, I arrived early (again) at the station in Moscow on Tuesday night, and triple-checked my train number versus the platform number when walking to the train. There’s no way I could have repeated my cross-platform dash from St. Petersburg here, as this train was incredibly long (30 wagons, many of which were cargo-only), and I was booked into the wagon furthest from the waiting area.

Happy to be arriving early and at the right train, I handed my ticket and passport to the attendant for my wagon. She looked confused, and turned the ticket over a few times, held it up to the light, and generally scratched her head. She blurted something at me in Russian. “Ni Russki. Angliski?” I replied. “Nyet” she said. Uh oh. She handed my ticket to her assistant, who went scurrying off with it.

During the ensuing 10 minutes waiting for the assistant to return, I met several friendly Germans, who were going to be in my wagon. We chatted for a few minutes, and then the assistant returned. She conversed in Russian with the attendant, and then the attedant came over to us and spoke in German to my new friends. After a few exchanges, she turned to me and said “Nyet ticket!”. Panic. The Germans said “She says ‘incomplete’”. “Wait, I have more papers!”, I said as I frantically dug through my bag, searching for the envelope that contaied my future tickets. When I produced the cover and extra sheets for my future trains, the attendant reviewed them and smiled. “Billyet!” (ticket) she said. Phew. Apparently when you book and international or multi-leg ticket in Russia, you should always give the attendant everything, and not just the “boarding pass” for that leg, like you would for a flight. Another lesson learned.

I boarded the train, and found my cabin and seat. Happily, I was booked into a lower bunk for this 76-hour marathon trip. And this was train #10, one of the best, fastest in use in Russia. On slower trains this is an 85+ hour journey. My cabin was occupied by 3 Russian men, one about my age, and the other two appeared to be in their late 50′s. They scowled at me. When I put my bottle of Russian Standart vodka on the table, one chortled (we’ll call him Nikolai; I didn’t get his actual name, even though I offered my name, and he rode almost the entire trip to Irkutsk) and the others didn’t react. This was not going to be a party cabin.

We turned out the lights about an hour after departing, and went to sleep. I again slept on and off throughout the night, even though I was much more comfortable in the wider, longer lower bunk. At 5am, the two men in the top bunks prepared to get off. And at the stop 15 minutes later, I awoke to some commotion and cries of “mama!” and “doodoo!” in my cabin (fortunately “doodoo” meant “train”, not what it does at home…). Nikolai was getting the boot to another cabin, in favor of a mother and her 18-month old son. Delightful. I tried to catch some more sleep while they settled in, but Denis (“Dyenis”), as he would later be introduced, was relentless in his squeaking.

Later in the day we were joined by “Coughing girl” and her boyfriend. Oh, and “The Friend Who Has a Bed Down the Hall But Who Spends All Her Time in Our Cabin”.

Rolling through a time zone per day, the next several days were spent napping, getting to know the very fun Germans, reading, napping, and making Denis giggle. Denis would crack up any time he waved at me and I would wave back. It was a simple game, and I was good at it. His cuteness won me over after starting out way in the negative.


After a few hours, he started saying “dyadya”, which sounded like “dada”, which was a little scary. Natasha would later explain that “dyadya” basically meant “uncle” or “friendly man” in Russian. Phew. Natasha spoke a little basic English, so we’d chat a little every now and then. When “Hotel California” came on over the loudspeakers, she said “Scorpions?”. “Close, Eagles.”

The music selection throughout the trip amused me. Between Russian rock and “standards”, Akon, Rihanna, and Enrique would make appearances. “I wanna lick your ice cream and you can lick my lollipop” was the chorus of a song in English with a dance beat that I hadn’t heard before. Pure genius.


As birch forests, defunct factories, and small, bleak villages rolled by, I spent some quality time chatting with my new German friends. Manfred was the elder statesman of the group, and the mastermind of the tour. A retired forestry man, he had been doing conservation consulting in Mongolia for several years. He enjoyed train travel, so he always took the Trans-Mongolian route. And his wife and friends would occasionally join. This time 5 friends (his wife Brita, Heide, Baerbel, Peter, and Joerg) were along for the trip. Manfred educated me on the evolution of the forests around Russia, saying that the birch forests we were seeing now were not native; they were planted in the 1900′s, and that in 40 years the next generation of native trees, the pines (“needle trees” as he called them) would reclaim the land. We also talked about rivers, to which I was able to contribute a little, as I’d just finished reading “Lost In Mongolia“, a book about 3 guys who raft the Yenisey River from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean (Thanks IQZ!).

By Thursday my body was starting to get a bit sore from inactivity and laying about. We were only able to get off the train a few times per day, for about 20 minutes while at various stops. My buddy Nikolai would give me tips in rough English and grunts (and groans when I didn’t understand). At most of these longer stops, vendors were on the platforms, selling various foodstuffs and toys. Some stops also had alcohol stands. Thursday night we took advantage of this, and knocked back a good bit of vodka and beer. I slept better Thursday night. :) I also tried some smoked fish from the platform. I ate about 1/4 of mine and donated the rest to the cause. Not yummy in my tummy.

Natasha, Denis, and Coughing Girl and crew all got off at Novosibirsk late Thursday night, and I got a new batch of roomies. This time it was a family of 3, with a 7-year old son. English was very limited, but in an exchange of pointing at maps with the father, I gathered that he had grown up in extreme northeast Siberia, along the strait across from Alaska. And he had been stationed with the military in Kaliningrad at some point.

For reasons unkown to me, Friday found the train conductor laying on the horn far more than previous days. We also got a change of scenery, with the flat plains of previous days giving way to rolling hills and more picturesque villages.

We found fresh raspberries on one of the platforms and made some tasty “raspberry vodka soup” for an evening treat, and called it an early evening.


Long-distance trains in Russia all run on Moscow time, even when you’re 5 time zones away like we were now, or 10 like you are in Vladivostok. Our train was to arrive at 4:15am, Moscow time, on Saturday.

I woke up at 1am as my cabinmates prepared to make their exit from the train. I finally had the cabin all to myself, but only for the final few hours of the trip. Ah well, it had been sort of fun getting to sort of know people with whom you can sort of kind of barely communicate. The wagon attendants woke everyone up an hour before Irkutsk to make sure people would be ready to get off (and not miss the pre-stop 30 minute bathroom lockout window…). After packing my things I compared notes with the Germans, and confirmed that we’d be on the same train together again in a few days, heading from Irkutsk to Mongolia. So as we de-trained, we said “See you later” (insert your own rendition of the “Auf Weidersein” song here), and I headed off into Irkutsk to try to find a way to Olkhon Island, on Lake Baikal.

Moscow Mania

25 Aug

[My photos from Moscow are here. And yes, I groaned when I wrote that title too.]

I arrived in Moscow with sore feet from St. Petersburg, so I planned to take it easy. The great folks at the Trans Siberian Hostel let me check in early, and I was able to take a shower and have a nice nap in the early afternoon in my dorm room. In the evening, I managed to make my way on the giant Moscow Metro to Red Square, which was quite cool to wander around in.

My roommates were two nice Italian guys, about my age, Lorenzo and Eugenio. We ended up hanging out the following day, and making our way out to the nearest “Golden Ring” city. We had quite an adventure running around trying to find the right bus to take, getting ping-ponged around across a 10 block area about 15 times by different people. So we settled on the train, which was packed on the way out, and an interesting experience. The Kremlin at Kozal contained many beautiful churches, and was worth the trip.

On my final day in Moscow, I headed inside the Kremlin. There are several impressive churches there, and some fun giant Russian items too (Tsar Cannon and the bell).

After that I decided to unwind by walking to the sculpture garden, where I saw several cool Soviet-era sculptures, and generally had a nice relaxing time.

The cool folks at TSH once again came through for me, as they let me grab a shower and hang out for a few hours before I headed for my train, even though I had checked out earlier that day. Natasha said because of my performance the night before at happy hour (and the sumo wrestling later in the evening), I could have whatever I wanted. :)

I’ll write more about the train journey from Moscow to Irkutsk in a future post, but I’ll leave you with this: this time I found the right platform and train, but after about 10 minutes of scurrying around with my ticket, the attendant came back to me and said “Nyet ticket!”.

Stunning St. Petersburg, part 2

21 Aug

[ I added another 100 photos to my St. Petersburg photo gallery]  

This will be a short post, to get caught up.

On my final day in St. Petersburg, I managed to get up early to pack my things and make it to the meeting spot a few blocks away for a walking tour from Peter’s Walks. The tour lasted about 5 hours, and we walked through the less visited parts of St. Petersburg, South of Nevsky. It was interesting to see some of the large local markets (akin to farmers markets in the US), and some of the apartment blocks. Our group was mostly Americans, with a French family mixed in. Our guide was excellent.

After the tour, I walked around more on my own, crossing over the Neva to “the spit of the island”, where all couples go to smash champagne glasses as part of their weddings.

The view of the city from the other side was also great.

I also climbed up St. Isaac’s colonnade, to get views over the city.

My train to Moscow left at 12:20am from the Moscovsky station, near my apartment. I got there an hour early to make sure I’d be relaxed and things would go smoothly. Of course, they didn’t. When the time came to board the train, I walked to the platform and found my carriage. But nobody was getting into our carriage, due to a person at the front not having the right ticket, but refusing to get out of the way.

We stood for about 5 minutes while the attendants tried to get the person to move aside. The other passengers started shouting at him, so he finally got out of the way. We were now about 5 minutes from planned departure time, and 80 people needed to get on board. Then most of the passengers were being handed their tickets slowly; I don’t know why they didn’t have their own tickets in hand. I finally cut in line, since I had my ticket in hand, to make sure I got on the train. And then I became the guy with the wrong ticket. The attendant said “No this train”, and pointed to a different platform. Crap. With 2 minutes before departure, and 2 loooonnng train lengths to traverse, I had to sprint with all my gear. I got to the right train in time, and they had me board the front car. I then had to shimmy my way through 15 carriages with incredibly narrow halls, where Russians were usually hanging out (and of course they didn’t step out of the hall and into their suite when I came by).

I banged my way through the entire train. This totally sucked. Drenched in sweat, I finally found my car and suite. And of course there was another problem… There are 4 beds per suite. In my suite sat 4 people, a family. After standing for a few minutes to cool down, we started to talk a bit. The family booked 3 of the tickets in the suite, and a 4th down the hall. Since I didn’t really care, I offered to take the other spot down the hall. This turned out to be a mistake, as this new bed was a top bunk, versus my bottom bunk. The bottom bunks have more space. The top bunks aren’t Big Mike size. They’re a little too short, and too narrow. So I didn’t manage much sleep, but overall the train was ok. My 76 hour-long ride to Irkutsk from Moscow is to be in one of the nicest trains in Russia, so hopefully I’ll manage more sleep there. And I hope I’ll make a few less mistakes on that one.

Stunning St. Petersburg

18 Aug

[ My photos from St. Petersburg]

I arrived into St. Petersburg just before midnight on Tuesday night, via an easy 7 hour train from Tallinn. Working with Alex, a travel agent in Petersburg, and boyhood friend of one of my friends in LA, I had pre-arranged a private apartment, and a transfer from the station to the apartment. Easy peasy. The apartment was great, but a bit hot (it had been 35C/100F in Petersburg that day). I opened the windows to let in some fresh air for a bit, and went to bed. This was my first big mistake.

My sleep wasn’t easy, with the heat, soft/hard in all the wrong places mattress on the fold-out bed, and the sensation that I was being bitten by mosquitos, despite no evidence of the buggers when I shined my light around. I woke up about 3 hours later covered in mosquito bites. BIG swollen ones. As in “am I going to grow an extra limb there, or what?” big. They had mercilessly drilled into my bare skin like Gasprom does the endless white tundra expanses of Siberia. Extreme measures were called for. I flipped on the lights and went to work destroying the squadron of mozzies that were now too drunk to take flight. I think I killed about 10 between the 3 rooms of the apartment. I then slathered on a cocktail of 100% DEET and magical anti-itch/swelling potion that my doctor had thoughtfully prescribed for my travel medical kit. I love this lotion; instantly killed the itching, and the swelling was gone by morning. I managed a few hours of unmolested sleep, but was very cranky when it was time to get up.

Two hours later, I was even more cranky. I struggled hard the first few hours on the streets of Petersburg. I only had a weak map, and I had misunderstood my location during the drive the night before. Oh, and all the signs are in Cyrillic. After an hour standing on the same corner in Vossitiniya plaza, I finally figured out where the disconnect was, and started making my way West on Nevskiy, the main drag in Petersburg. I needed to meet up with Alex to pay for the apartment, and talk about my intended train travel, which he was helping to book. About midway through the 45 minute walk I finally saw the first clear bank (Citibank), so I stopped in and pulled out many thousands of Roubles. Thirty minutes later I was sure I was going to lose all those Roubles and more, as I stood on one of the top floors in what felt like a crackhouse apartment building. Another navigation error on my part led me into the wrong building about a block from Alex’s office. Fortunately he quickly responded to my SMS that I thought I might be outside their door, but was afraid to knock, saying I wasn’t at their door, and he’d meet me on the street.

I was happy to see Alex. He’s cheerful, and his English is very good (he worked as a tour guide in English 10 years ago, before co-founding an agency catering to Italian tourists). We chatted for a bit about my itinerary in Petersburg, and he offered some suggestions. And then we talked about my train tickets, which he was working on procuring. I got my Internet fix at an open desk in their office while he worked on train options.

Alex’s office is quite close to several of the main tourist sites in Petersburg, so I decided to do the Lonely Planet’s recommneded walking tour, to clear my head and hopefully warm me up to the town. Wow, did it ever. Once you’re in the right spot, and correctly oriented, it should only take about 90 minutes walk to convince you that St. Petersburg is a beautiful, world-class city. St. Isaacs, the Admiralty, the Neva, the Hermitage, the canals, Our Savior on Spilled Blood are all a short walk apart, and are all stunning.

The Winter Palace/Hermitage:
Winter Palace / Hermitage

Our Savior on Spilled Blood:
Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Learning my lesson from the previous night, I didn’t invite my blood-thirsty enemies into my apartment Wednesday night, and I managed a decent night’s sleep with the fan blowing full-force on me. I got started later than I’d planned, but still ended up having a fantastic day. I headed back down toward the Hermitage, and caught a hydrofoil boat headed towards Peterhof (Pedroverets).

Peterhof is a massive, sprawling, word-defyingly large compound outside Petersburg, with manicured gardens, wooded areas, beautiful fountains, and gold-domed buildings. My words won’t do it justice, and the photos hardly do. I spent about 5 hours wandering around (including a brief detour off the grounds to visit a cool church about 10 blocks away). And I didn’t even go inside any of the buildings, due to the lines and my satisfaction with the grounds.

A small part of Peterhof:

The cool church a few blocks away:

Exhausted, I plopped down in a seat in the hydrofoil for the 30 minute ride back to town. I tried to stay awake to enjoy the views on the way back in, but slept through most of it. Alex and I were to meet up for a few beers, so I headed to his office to meet up with him. We ended up going to “Beer Exchange”, a sportsbar with lots of European beers on tap. The TV’s in the bard were showing St. Petersburg’s main soccer team, “Zenit”, playing a match in the European cup against a Czech team. Petersburgers LOVE Zenit (it’s their only city team; Moscow has 6 such teams), so the locals were cheering and groaning loudly at all the right times, and I tried to follow suit. Zenit ended up winning, so the game was followed by about 5 different celebratory fight songs. Alex and I did our best to talk over the din, on topics ranging from cars to travel to *gasp* politics.

Friday morning I again overslept (pattern here?), before mustering to the Internet cafe. My main destination today was to be the Hermitage, the gigantic museum. Of course, it started raining just as I left the cafe, so my walk was through alternating light spit and real downpour. Good thing I picked up an umbrella in New York! :)   Arriving mid-afternoon worked to my advantage with the lines at the Hermitage, though, as it only took about 10 minutes wait to get through the line and into the museum. It’s a big-time museum, on par with Paris’ Louvre. In just shy of four hours I managed to hit all the floors of the 2 main buildings, but not all the rooms. There were several special collections (mostly on jewels) that I didn’t have access to, and several other rooms or entire wings were simply closed without explanation. But there was plenty to see, and I nearly gave up before wandering to the first floor to see what turned out to be some of my favorite displays of the day, the bronze age and earlier discoveries around Russia. Sure, the Greek and Roman antiquities were excellent, as were the extensive European painting collections, and the like. But I rather preferred the simple, Russian-only collection on the first floor. Actually, the star of the museum is probably the museum itself; mostly housed in the old Winter Palace, many of the rooms are show pieces in their own regard.

bronze age weapons
just one of the many splendored rooms

After a few minutes snapping photos in the large square out front, I started making my way toward St. Isaac’s church, to get up above the city for some great views.

But the weather had other plans. It started to rain again, and a block short of the church it started pouring. I ducked into the nearest cafe, which turned out to be a Czech beer house. There went the aspirations of climbing the church today… :)   I had a few beers and some tasty Czech pork concoctions, and Alex came and met me to drop off my train tickets through Beijing.

I’ve got one more full day in Petersburg, before I hop on a train just after midnight Saturday night to Moscow. I’m hoping I don’t oversleep this time; there’s lots of great stuff yet to do, and I need to pack up and clear out of the apartment. While writing this up, I did a load of wash, which was nice. It’ll be a while before I have access to my own washing machine again.

Random notes:
* the mullet is in full effect in Mother Russia. I’ve started sniping some photos of prime mullet glory when I can. But it’s really everywhere.
* similarly, the ladies are indeed lovely here. Seen more 6-foot tall women in the few days I’ve been here than in my entire life.
* when posing for pictures, Russians don’t smile. Men try to look tough (or disinterested), and women try to look sexy. I need to work on my poses.
* English? Not so much. Very limited speak/understand here. Guess I need to get used to it…

Tallinn Tales

16 Aug

[My photos from Tallinn and photos from the train trip ]

Tallinn wasn’t on my radar originally. It only came up when I let friends know that I was really planning to do this trip, and that I planned to start my Russian adventure in St. Petersburg. Gooch and Greger both independently chimed in, lobbying for a visit to Tallinn, which they both loved. And now I’m part of that club.

Tallinn’s old town is incredibly charming, with every corner or head turn a new, storybook view. The town’s ancient defensive walls and turrets, mixed with the many church spires make it the prototypical European old town. Toss in the cobblestones, limited car access, and lots of tourist infrastructure (bordering on too much, especially when the cruise boats let out…), and it’s a friendly place to spend a few days.

I arrived into Tallinn’s airport via a 45 minute flight from Stockholm just before Noon on Monday morning (yet another time zone hop forward…), and quickly recovered my checked bags and breezed through customs and passport control. The helpful info desk pointed me toward the bus that would take me into the city, and I was on my way. On the bus I started chatting with another solo traveller, an Aussie turned Kiwi on a walkabout with his family. He left his wife (“partner” in Aussie parlance) and son visiting her family in Sweden, to come check out Tallinn. He was heading for the Alur Hostel, which I’d seen online the night prior as one of the recommended spots in Tallinn, so I decided to tag along.

We wandered around confused for a good 20 minutes before finally just heading for the spires, and made our way through old town with our heavy packs. Gene had booked a private room ahead, and none were left when I inquired. So I decided to have my first go at dorm-style hostelling. I got a bed in a 6-bed mixed-sex room. I chose one of the 2 beds that wasn’t part of a bunk, figuring that’d give me the most isolation from someone else’s noises. None of the other packs in the room were locked or cabled to anything, but being a first-timer I decided to go the “safety first” route, and cable locked my bags to the bed frame before heading back to the lobby to meet up with Gene.

We ambled aimlessly through the maze of streets in old town before plopping down at a random sidewalk cafe for waters and a snack (I had a tasty feta salad). A bit more wandering after that led us to the main tourist information booth, where we found a tent offering guided walking & bike tours. We opted to join the 2-Hour Low-Key Walking Tour. Our tour guide was a spunky local girl, with an impossible to pronounce name. The tour was low on facts, high on fun and “not the normal tourist stuff”, which suited me fine (though I could have lived without the 10-person twister game under the hot sun…). Our tour ended up lasting 2.5 hours, and I was tired from walking at the end. Gene and I asked if anyone wanted to join us for a beer in the square after, but we got no takers (don’t think it was something I said?). We didn’t let that stop us though, so we enjoyed one of the local brews (mmmm, Saku) and people watched for a bit.

over Tallinn old town 

After some rest and cleanup time apart, Gene and I met back up for dinner at 9pm. I wanted to try some local flavor, and was in the mood for fish, but almost every restaurant was serving some form of Italian or just heavier meats. We opted for a place that had “Trout Casserole” on the menu. The “trout”, when it arrived, turned out to be salmon, which was slightly amusing but fine by me, with mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes. After a mellow dinner we headed to Hell Hunt, “the first Estonian pub”, for a pint to end the night. I tried their house-brewed cider, which I actually enjoyed, despite several warnings earlier in the day from some Brits that it’d be far too sweet to enjoy. Gene and I wished each other luck on our travels, and parted ways at the end of the night.

On Tuesday I had a 3:30p train to St. Petersburg to catch (picked up the ticket easily on Monday at the Tallinn train station, a 10 minute walk from old town). I had planned to get an early start on sightseeing, and then rest in the afternoon before the train. I was either incredibly lucky, or I can handle hostel dorm stays, as I slept in until 11:15 on Tuesday. I awoke to an empty room; I didn’t even hear my dorm mates get up and about. I quickly got cleaned up and packed my things, and left the big bag at the front desk to pick up just before my train.

My main goal was to get above the city, so I headed for the tallest church spire. 260 steps later, I had nice views over old town. And just as I was about to head back down the stairs, Gene showed up on the platform with me.

Randomly reunited, we head up Toompea hill to look inside the churches up there–along with the mobs who had arrived on the cruise ships–and then to the market to grab some snacks for later (for the train, for me). Gene and I parted ways for good (gave him one of my Moo cards; everyone digs those), and I headed off to the train station.

The Tallinn train station is compact, so it was easy to find my train. My ticket was for a specific seat in a specific car, so it was just a matter of finding the right spot. I was pleasantly surprised that the train seats were basically like airplane seats (sure, would have been happier if they had  been La-Z-Boys). I had been experiencing some buyers’ remorse for not having said “Bed” when asked “Seat or Bed” when buying the ticket the day before. But my seat was fine for the 7+ hour ride to St. Petersburg. There was a young American couple seated facing me 2 rows ahead, and we chatted a bit on and off, between me nodding off and listening to my “A Spoonful of Russian” podcasts.

Me on the train

Our train plugged along at a reasonable pace. The landscape was mostly unremarkable, a mix of small forests and farmland. At 6:20 we hit the Estonian border, and the train stopped for passport control and customs. We were treated to 50 Cent, Europe, and Lenny Kravitz blasting over the train speakers while we waited the hour for processing. We started rolling at 7:15, and not a moment too soon, as the train was getting stuffy without any air movement. Of course, we only rolled for about 5 minutes before hitting the Russian border, where the process was essentially repeated, with more snooping about and passport stamping. At 8:05 we finally cleared Russian inspection, and were on our way, unimpeded to St. Petersburg. Unbeknownst to me and the American couple, we crossed another time zone en route, so we were surprised when all the locals started getting ready to de-train an hour before we thought we were supposed to.

The approach to St. Petersburg train station made it clear that St. Pete is a BIG city; lots of highways with semis moving things around at 11:30 at night. I was very happy to see a man with my name on a piece of paper at the end of the platform. This was Vladimir, the driver from the agency sent to take me to my apartment. Vladimir spoke decent English (vastly more than my “spoonful” of Russian…), and made quick work of the St. Petersburg streets to the apartment. Fifteen minutes later I was in my own private pad, my home for the next several nights.

Fun with friends in Sweden

12 Aug

Sweden is another extremely easy stop for me (and most Americans). I’ve got great friends–Greger & Fran–in Uppsala, everyone speaks English extremely well, and you can even basically read the signs and menus, without any knowledge of Swedish.

My flight from Newark, NJ, was delayed on the ground there for an hour, but the flight itself was easy enough (managed 5 hours of sleep, out of the 7 hour flight). I hopped the train from Arlanda airport to Uppsala, where Greger & Fran live. Greger met me at the airport with their car, as it was raining. We dropped my bags at their flat, and headed out for a walk around town. The rain letup after about 20 minutes, making for pleasant cruising weather. For some reason I didn’t grab my camera, so I don’t have any photos of the now silly-looking “castle” (looks more like a barracks) built on the hill over Uppsala. The hill did offer nice views of the town though.

Greger & Fran live ridiculously close to the town’s major landmark, the Cathedral of Uppsala, as seen in this silly video:

At just shy of 400 feet tall, the cathedral is easy to spot from most places in town, so it makes finding “home” quite easy.

After our stroll around town, I grabbed a quick nap, then we headed out for dinner with Fran. I had a tasty veal patty in brown sauce, with lingon berry compote, and we sampled some brews.

My hosts had plans on Saturday, as it was Fran’s birthday weekend. They headed North out of town, and I caught the train into Stockholm to look around. The weather was much better this day, with mostly sunny skies. I briefly wandered around old-town Stockholm, and then got on a ferry out to one of the thousands of islands that surround Stockholm. My destination, Vaxholm, is a very popular one with locals and tourists alike. The tourist hordes were overwhelming, and I didn’t find anything particularly enchanting about the island, other than the cute Swedish kids singing, as featured in the video below.

I only stayed on Vaxholm for about an hour before catching a ferry back to Stockholm. The time on the boat in both directions was nice, and the highlight of my time in Stockholm. See my Flickr photostream for photos. Greger told me that the Vasamuseet was worth a visit, so I made my way around the harbor to its location. But I arrived just as it was closing (6pm, despite guide book saying 7pm…), so I wasn’t able to get inside. I ended up with some nice views of the city though, so not all was lost.

Stockholm harbor

The train whisked me back to Uppsala, for a lazy solo evening. I found a little cafe near Greger’s, “Caviar”, and had a fantastic grilled swordfish steak on a nice potato salad with spring greens.

I slept in this morning, and dinked around on the computer until Greger & Fran returned in the early afternoon from their adventure. We spent the rest of the day hanging out, including a viewing of The Simpsons Movie at the local theater (Swedish subtitles only improved the hilarity factor of this should-have-been-a-double-episode flick), and sampling some tasty cakes for Fran’s birthday.

Tomorrow morning’s 6:30 wakeup for my 8:30 flight to Tallinn, Estonia is going to come all to soon. It’s been a nice, relaxing weekend here in Sweden. The adventure level starts to ramp up quickly after tonight!