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Map – Trans Siberian Train Route

25 Sep

For those who want to check out the Trans Siberian train route.

More detailed map of the Trans-Siberian Rail below…

What do you mean the Train Wheels are too Small? Gettin’ into China

25 Sep

It’s September 23. Friday. 11:23 AM. On the train. About three hours away from Beijing. I’m sure you are so sick of another damn train blog. I’m tired too. I’m on the top bunk. Stomach pains. Smelling cig smoke. Listening to the door bang and bang and band. Our compartment saddles up next to the working toilet. They say the air condition is on – so all windows are bolted. I’m becoming desensitized to recycled cig, urine air.

Sitting here. Watching China reveal herself to me. A lot of building going on in Northern China. Then, you hit nothing – looks like scenes in Avatar. Spotted the great wall an hour ago. It was built in Northern China to keep the barbarians out – and the annoying Khan family from Mongolia…

We boarded the “to” China train yesterday AM. Last night was the highlight. Leaving Mongolian was easy. We had a two hour stop. No bathroom. No leaving the train. After the Mongols wished us well – we headed off to China border only 30 minutes down the road.

We pulled up around 9 pm and left at 1 am. Not only had they check our passports, but also take apart each car and change the wheels. That’s right. Change the wheels. The train tracks are smaller in China. They took our passports. Locked the toilets. Locked us in the train. They ripped apart each train and drove it into a tunnel where they jacked us up about 10 feet.

It was a weird sensation, watching other trains being lifted up into the air by over sized jacks or whatever they’re called… And watching the many, many Chinese changing the big wheels. (Job security) When it was our turn, they slowly lifted us up. We could not feel a thing. We were not moving. But, we were – then we here major clanging and the metal scrapping. The train jolted. Jolted. And, it was silent. They lowered us down and then they slowly started reconnecting the train. There’s a new restaurant car – selling Chinese food instead of Mongolian. Bring on the rice baby!

Next stop is Beijing.

Day 4 – TSR… Huh??

22 Sep

Trans-Siberian. Last night.

My last night on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Irkust was from hell. I really thought the train was going to tip over. Winds were ripping. Train was gunning. Our compartment was jumping. The train took corners so fast that luggage, vodka bottles and lonely planet books rolled back and forth like they’re gliding on ice. Everyone in my train car was asleep. Zonked. Snoring. How can they sleep through this. The conductor is on crack. He’s about to flip this thing. Any moment. They need to get ready…to bolt.

I’m getting sick. Fever sick. Stomach sick. Four days of recycled air. What do you expect. Mom – just skip this blog – I’m talking about those things unbecoming of a young, classy woman. Yes, I’ve gotten an email from her telling me tone down my bathroom talk. So, Mom, jump over this blog. It’s all about the trials and tribulations of traveling… Digesting and disseminating bacteria is part of the ride.

I believe my bacteria born stomach illness is due to an over indulgence in pancakes. Not our I-Hop pancakes, but Russian pancakes. What I’ve found in Russia is any piece of bread that is fried in oil or butter is considered a pancake. They fry a lot of bread here. The bigger cities have a fast food joint serving just pancakes. Though, fast food pancake is equivalent to a crepe in my world. Thin dough is fried and you have options of cheese, pork, mushrooms, gravy, chocolate, bananas – whatever you want – to stuff in the middle. AWESOME! And, it’s cheap.

On the train platforms in Siberia, there’s no crepe pancake option. You only have the thick dough fried pancake option. Think Pizza Hut pan pizza but with fluffier flour. Outside is a thick dough. Inside, you may have minced meat, cabbage, potatoes or eggs. The first ten pancakes rock. The second ten, rocked my stomach.

So, it’s in the middle of the night. It’s the last night on this portion of the Trans-Siberian. We’re stopping in Iskurk and heading to Lake Baikal after this. Can’t wait to stop rocking. Can’t wait for a bed. Can’t wait for a shower. After disinfecting and enjoying the lake, we’re back on the train for two nights in route to Mongolia. Thinking of getting back on a train, when I’m still on the train, makes me want to hurl. Damn, this train is rocking.

Crack conductor is taking a corner at high speed. I hear the wind. Thank God I can’t see outside. I envision cliffs and nothingness. Why not do something productive with my insomnia. I’m going to work on an escape plan for when he flips the train. What’s the hardest thing I have. My lap top. I’ll use it to bash the window. I’m seriously concerned here. It’s like trying to sleep on the Hulk or Spider-man at Universal. Unless you’ve consumed kegs of vodka, there’s no rest for the sober. I’m up for the night.

I find my flip flops and flip to the toilet. It’s not as bad as you think. The smell doesn’t make you dry heave. There seems to be toilet paper. And, train lady seems to empty the trash occasionally. It’s all a a positive in my book. I go inside. Lock the door. The train slows down. Shit. No pun intended. When the train stops, it means that the bathrooms shut down. Why? Because they have police checking under the cars for smugglers. They have a man using a pipe to bash all the metal under the train, checking for leaks. The bathroom crap-ola flushes on to the tracks. So, the police or pipe man does not want shit on their head when their trying to do their job. I hear her. It’s too late. Train lady locks me into the bathroom. It’s 4:00 am. Great. I have to go – can’t – have to wait for the train to move. I’m just praying to the Temples of Relief that this train stop is minutes not hours. I wait. I need to move. I start doing squats. I stretch. I look in the mirror and count new wrinkles. I look deep into my eyes and read them – tired, tired, sick, tired, get me out of here. That’s what they’re saying. About 5 minutes go by. We are standing still.

I hear banging on the underbelly of the train. They are using a pipe or something. I hear them banging under this bathroom. I don’t move. I don’t want them to know I’m in there. Don’t know why – but feel like I’ll get in trouble. I mean, I’m locked in the bathroom in Siberia. Now, I start to laugh. I have to laugh to buy time. Why didn’t I bring reading material. You can only look at a toilet for so long. What feels like hours, but maybe another 5 minutes goes by, the train starts to move. Slowly. Now, the conductor is moving like a snail. I have to dump and he’s just ruising. We start to gain speed. I hear train lady unlock my door from the outside. OK. I can use the bathroom. Nice. And, let’s celebrate that I brought my own toilet paper too. Thank you Temples of Relief.

We pulled up at the station in Istruk around 5:30 AM. The Young Bucks slumbered out. We’re in a haze. No one slept. But, I was the lucky one that pulled the all nighter. Off the train, straight to the bathroom and dry-heaved. My body was pushing out the contaminated air and straining for the clean stuff. We loaded a bus to Lake Baikal. Anna met us. She’s our Russian tour leader. The Young Bucks resemble zombies – out of it.

At 6:30 am, Anna kicks the tour into full force. She plugs in the bus microphone. Turns the volume up. And, begins to tell us how wonderful life is in Siberia. How her town is having their 300 year celebration next year and we are all invited. How the recent president gave all WWII vets a free apartment for their bravery and for ensuring freedom for her country. PAUSE. I’m sick. Tired. And, train-hung over. But, freedom? Please define freedom. Her statement goes back to Russian’s revisionist history. Stalin built one of the largest Siberian work camps (Gualegs) a few miles from here and took out another 30 or so million after WWII. Is this freedom? I looked around the bus. Does anyone I’m traveling with listening? No. Young Bucks are tired. And, Anna is talking so fast it sounds like one big, fat run on sentence to them. They’ve tuned her out. Revisionist history marches on.

Driving to Lake Baikal reminded me a lot of Lake Placid and Maine. The leaves are changing from green to yellow. The roads are curvy. Desolate. The lake is the size of our 5 Great Lakes combined. Let’s just say it is HUGE. And, its deep. (insert)

The older houses – or shacks – are all made out of wood. I love the architecture. The windows are orange and colorful . And, they all have mounds of firewood stacked outside. If there is a fire, then they are screwed. No fire insurance in these parts. I bet it is so cold in the winter.

We arrive to the Russian home of – I can’t remember their names… They greet us. They have a two story home built for travelers like us. Passing through and wanting a home cooked meal. We were so excited for heat, shower and breakfast. First thing, we ate breakfast – yogurt, crusty bread, stale cheese, salami and water melon. I ate 3 yogurts, then ran upstairs to dry heave again. I showered. It felt so good.

My hair had not seen suds in 4 days. Body either. The water turned the color of my hair – diswater, dirty brown. Glorious! I disinfected and willed myself downstairs. So tired. So sick. Already popped a Cipro. I had to stop the growth of bacteria in my stomach.

We all head out to the Lake. It’s cold. Like 40 or so. It felt good. Fresh air. We walked along a dirt path, passing mini-farms, wooden homes and ferrel dogs. Once at the lake, we decided to rent a boat for an hour or so cruise. We were in search of seals. My word, we’re near the arctic. So, it’s time for some seals. The boat was old. Big. And, the skipper slept on it. I was cold, so I hung out on his bed as I watched him steer the ship. Cig out of his mouth. I don’t think he’s bathed in a while either. I was become so drowsy, I was about the fall asleep in his wool, smelly blanket.

Boat ride over. The Lake tour reminded of me of Maine and Lake Placid without large houses. I bet in 3 to 5 years from now this place will be teaming with tourists and large homes. It’s prime. It’s ready. It’s the soon to be Siberian summer get away.

We were hungry. Again. There is NO way we’re paying more than $5 for lunch, so we end up at a pancake/pastry shop. More fried bred. I think this was more like fried bread donuts for this bread was very, very thick. The last thing my stomach wanted was fried bread. Well, whatever. I ordered fried bred with rice and eggs.

I ate it. Looked up and saw two men carrying WSJ bags speaking Russian. I wonder if they are reporters or just killed a reporter. I’m kidding. It got me thinking. Traveling reporter? I’m not sure if Lake Baikal is their market – yet. There is not much here yet. Americans are so demanding. We expect people to understand the word for toilet – and Russians – they are not there yet. No joke. You should see us trying to mime toilet to waitresses. Or, they could be reporting on Lake Baikal’s Siberian rich. Or, the bag could have been a present. I had fun fantasizing.

After lunch, Fredrick from Sweden and I headed back to our home to nap. My body was dead. I slept for 4 hours, woke at 8 for dinner – smoked fish and mash potatoes – and went back to bed. My body was like THANK YOU!

Today, we walked around Isturk. I could live here – well, let me put it in context. If I had to live in Siberia, I could live here. Cute town. Fresh air. Great markets. The people here have a strong Asian look. Beautiful. Because it is mixture of the ice blue Russian eyes, black hair and round faces. I could not stop starring at them. The men are not as cute – for they’ve been into the vodka for many years and they are carrying the more bloated look. Someone said their life expectancy is closer to 60 because of the drinking. I certainly saw the Russian drinking on the train.

Now, I’m sitting on another train. It’s late. We’ve stopped someplace. Everyone in my compartment is asleep. The train is running slower – thank goodness. Tomorrow around 11 am or so, we hit the Russian border. They lock all the bathrooms and make you stay in the train. It could take 3 hours or 9 hours – it’s up to the police. They call this border day. After we cruise through Russia, we hit Mongolia. Mongolia is the same for border. Mongolia recently changed and said that US does not need VISA. I hope they got the memo for that is not what they’ve heard on the street. My thought is – If US VISA does not work, then plastic VISA will. One way or the other, it will be an adventure.

MASH – our fearless tour leader who is from Mongolia – does not know. Nice. I don’t trust he could get me out of a Mongolian prison.

They say a snow storm is approaching and they just turned on the air condition. Looks like I’m getting sick for sure.

More to come tomorrow. Need to get my rest….

Day 3 – TSR…It’s running together

22 Sep

Day three or four.

It’s now all running together. I’ve slept three nights on the train, that I know. We bounce.  We rock.  We drink.  And, the train forces us into a spacey haze. My fellow travelers – the young bucks – have a routine. They wake, drink coffee, eat noddles, take a nap, eat noodles, drink tea, take a nap, drink vodka, eat noodles, drink beer, sing songs, drink vodka, eat noodles… then go to bed.

My routine is – wake early, head to restaurant car, hang with Mark from London, drink black coffee, eat rice porridge with cream and butter, drink coffee, write, read about Siberia…. get off at a stop, walk around, stretch my legs, buy dumplings with cabbage, water and bread… make coffee, graze on nuts, learn how to play poker, win at Swedish card games, drink beer, eat bread, drink warm beer, eat bread, down shots of vodka, sing songs, brush my front tooth and go to bed… No naps here. The lull of the train does not make sleepy, it invigorates me because we are moving – traveling across Siberia. I don’t want to miss anything.

We’ve traveled through four time zones. Yes, as

I look out the dusty window, all I see is distance. Inaccessible. Cold. Distance. The word Siberia, to me, means distant and detached. I read some place if Siberia were detached from Russia, it would still be the largest country on earth. It’s bigger than US, Alaska and western Europe combined. In the Siberian town of Yekaterinburg was where the last Russian Czar – Nicolas I and his family – were slaughtered by the Soviets. They tried to get rid of all traces of their body, but transport broke down and they did not have enough acid…or so the story goes. Years and years later, the bones were discovered and confirmed that his entire family and servants were brutally murdered. Stalin to Yeltsin and rulers in between wanted to destroy the house where this brutal murder took place so it would not become a tourist destination or shrine. I’m learning that the Soviets recreated or rewrote history as it best suited their interests. No one really knows what happened after Lenin and before Putin.

Looking out the window – old, dilapidated wooden houses fly by. Blue, orange and green chips of paint rest on the wooden fences and window panes. The color adds some energy to the landscape’s dreariness. Small farms of cabbage, potatoes and more cabbage are in neat rows. From where I sit, the homes are built for small people – like leprechauns and not amazons. Smoke billows out. It looks cold. It is cold. I wonder about insulation. When temperatures reaches -45 F or -75 F, how do they stay warm? Hot water? I’m from Florida, so this type of cold frightens me.

Siberian became the peasants Wild East. It was born out of optimism and dissent. They came here to own land. Farm it. Provide for their families. The father east they traveled, the government and church tentacles became less choking. Siberian solitude set them free….Until Stalin. It reminds me of our settlers of our Wild Wild west – self-reliant, realistic, stubborn…and loathed corrupt governments and churches.

Misty rain. The train lumbers over more bridges. I think we are going around 75 mph. The train keeps moving. We have fourteen stops today. We’re moving through some of the richest oil fields and natural resources in the world. But, it’s all so distant. Life out here feels heavy. Heavy.

My blond waitress serves me porridge. Today, it’s not really porridge buy white rice with a large chunk of butter. Looks like they did not have time to mash it. No worries. Rice and butter and black coffee works for me.

Last night, my compartment roomies had dinner in the restaurant car. Yes, we splurged. Some Russians were doing shots of vodka and started dancing with the waitresses. They could barely stand up. Old men. Pudgy. Big bellies. Pitted, inflamed red skin. Dry hands. Clothes – what looked like – cake in dirt and cement. They could have been the train workers. Next to them were some Dutch travelors downing vodka. By this time, our table put down two bottles of wine and we’re moving on to hot beer.

WE had no idea of the time. I believe we went back to our comparements around 1 or 2 am. I woke around 4:30 am – at a train stop – having to go to the bathroom. Well, the rule is you can’t flush the toliets when the train stops. Yikes… the reason is that it spills out on the train track. I could hear men mumbling in Russian and tapping on the train canisters. They were checking to see if anyone is stowed away underneath. I was praying that this stop was 3 mins or so. Nope. No suck luck. I paced back and forth down the hallway in my striped stocks, tights and oversized night shirt. Willing this train to move. I looked out the window and watched the train police check under the trains. And, circle it. What an awful job. In the middle of freezing Siberia, checking for stow aways at 4:30 am. The train finally starts to lurch forward. I run into the restroom and shut the door. It lurches to a stop right when I flush. DAMN. I hope I did not spray anyone. Fearful, I bolted out of the restroom and into my mini-compartment. Safe. I feel back asleep.

I woke a few hours later to the train stopping again. It was 7 AM or 11 AM, depending on who you asked. I put on my boots, sweater and ran out the door. I have 15 mins of freezing freedom – to buy dumplings, bread, water and dry fish. (Not buying dry fish!) Everyone hurries off the train with the same thing in mind. I see two young, dirty guys who look like they’ve been partying all night sprint from the train to the mini-store. Moments later, they are running back to the train with four oversized beers in hand. Man, they must have been partying all night – and decided to continue on throughout the day. I wanted to applaud them. And, applaud the fact my room is not next to theirs.

We wake early tomorrow – around 5 AM – and go to Lake Baikal for a few days. We’re off the train. I can’t wait to take a shower. My hair has gone from dishwater to dirt brown. I see fragments of blond. Oil is good for the hair. Or, so they say. I’ve been using baby wipes to wash. I don’t feel as nearly as I thought. But, I certainly don’t have the “fresh” feeling either. If I can keep me breath fresh, then I feel good.

After Lake Baikal, we get back on the train for Mongolia. I believe it is an overnight train as well. A few days in Mongolia, and then down to China. Strange. Very strange. I enjoy the quiet time. Just sitting. Writing. Talking. There is something isolating about it all – Just like Siberia. You’re absorb by its silent isolation.

Day 2 – TSR…Stink sets in

22 Sep

In heaven. Back in the restaurant car. The Russian babes are back. Just pointed at random Greek and Russian letters on the menu, and low and behold, she serves me rice porridge weighted in cream and butter. Bring on breakfast! Rice, butter, cream are my favorite food groups.

Yesterday, I ordered coffee and cream and got coffee and a chocolate muffin. Today, I order coffee and cream and get lard enriched rice porridge. Starting to like the restaurant car on the Trans-Siberian rail. Wait. Amber/red-head is coming my way with a smile. Look at this… An espresso with three cubes of sugar. I’m in heaven! After this, I’ll be ready to go cruising train cars looking for love…

In the last 24 hours, we’ve passed three time zones and crossed from Europe into Asia. Yesterday, was officially Day 1. I had thought it was Day 2 – because we got on the train late on Day 1 in my world. Nope. Wrong. What I figure is we are on this moving bunk bed for 5 days and 4 nights. Underwear and clothes wise, I had planned for less as did everyone else. Stink factor was just elevated a notch.

Wait. A group of Dutch folks just walked in the car. The Russian babes pushed them away. I’m confused, again. The restaurant car is empty. Not asking questions. Just writing. I told the cook that I liked her rice dish by grunting, smiling and pointing to my stomach. She probably thinks I’m prego and told the girls that I could stay. No matter. The Dutch are out. The stinky American girl satisfied with rice, butter, cream, sugar and caffeine gets to stay.

Right now, the landscape resembles parts of the Midwest. Fields full of tall grass, spots of lakes and yellow trees at a distance. Cows, hay and your occasional person walking along side of the train tracks. We are traveling through Siberia’s farm belt, mine vaults…and concentration camps. Soviets called them Gulags.

I read, back in the 20s and 30’s, Siberia was resource rich but thinly populated. Those who were unenthusiastic about Stalin were sent to Gulag. When Stalin’s terror shifted inward, the Gulag population grew from 30,000 in 1928 to over eight million in late 30s. This is per-WWII people. Over 90% of the inmates died. Gulags continued after WWII and it wasn’t until ten or so years ago, Yeltsin released the last 10 Gulag prisoners.

They say over 8.5 million Soviets died in Siberian prisons. This does not include those killed in WWII, which for Soviets estimates range from 25 to 30 million. Jews killed in WWII is between six to eight million. All Soviets killed during Stalin’s regime are estimated to be 50 million. But, there’s no official count. And, you wonder why they walk around with an “eat shit and die” look on their face. Their history is one of brutality, confusion and mistrust.

Right now. It’s fall. The weather is brisk. We just stopped at Kansk Enis. I believe over a million people live in this town. For the past three hours, I’ve been chatting up Mark from London. He’s been traveling off and on for three years. His “on” period is for 4 months at a time. He’s heading to some place I can’t pronounce or spell to buy furniture to sell it back in London – at least, this is what I heard him say. He is a professional in that his company was responsible for marketing and promoting Vonage. He employed 50+ people in London. Very attractive. Again, when you travel and try to get someone’s “story” it ebbs in and out of conversations. It’s not linear. So, when you look back, you still wonder –”who is this person… what’s his name…and what does he do… and why is he traveling…” It’s amazing if you can walk away knowing all of this.

When travelers meet, they share past journeys and future destinations. Mark’s is sharing his South and Central American experiences. What I find humorous is travelers assume you’ve not been to any places they have been to. And, their experiences are unique. He’s been carrying on and on about his love for Central America for a good 45 minutes. I lived there for a year and traveled throughout those countries. I, too, know the place. I get it. But, I just smile. Why burst his bubble and his passion for tortillas and tequila.

Darion forest, which butts up to Panama and Colombia, is one place that he wants to return. He speaks about the indigenous tribes and the great lengths one has to go through to get there. Now, I really am keeping my mouth quiet for I’ve traveled through this area as well and actually stayed with a family where housing consisted of mud walls dirt, dirt floors, curtain doors and a live chicken for dinner. I remember they gave me a blanket for a bed and waking in the middle of the night having to go to the bathroom. That meant, walking down the hill and squatting under a tree. Screw that. I’ll bust a kidney before I’m walking out there. I could hear Ferrell dogs – or wolves – screaming and fighting over tonight’s food. Dirt floor here I stay… The next day, the family took me to a remote area where indigenous tribes from all over came to touch my skin and cook – more live animals sacrificed before my eyes. No, I did not encounter FARC or drug lords…

As Mark continued on and on, I just smiled. He does have nice eyes. I’ll just stare at his eyes. Let him talk… for I still have not washed my face, brushed my teeth and am sportin’ my PJ bottoms, black boots and peach undershirt with a tank top. No comb either. Haven’t seen a comb in two days.

So, what did I do yesterday? Well, not much. I mean, we are on a train and there is only so much to “do.” I wrote. And, was joined in the restaurant car by my fellow friends. Kiki from Norway and I talked about our love for travel. She’s struggling with the fact that people back home thinks she’s “strange” or “running away” or “selfish” to be traveling for five months instead of “getting on with her life of work, finding a husband…mortgage payments…” She is disappointed in her fellow Norwegian friends for they keep their head in the sand and don’t want to know what is happening in the world. She attributes this attitude to her country’s passivity in that their history is of one of non involvement and passisitivity. They refuse to even be part of the EU, even though they follow all the rules.

I understood what she was saying for I used to struggle with this “unconventional” label for a while. We assume what is good for the rest – or society – is good for the individual. It’s much easier to keep people in a box. It’s much easier to project our wants, needs and urges on others. The fact that I’ve never had this strong need to get married, is troubling for some. A want is a different matter. I would love to get married. Damn, I love a lot of things – But, I don’t need a conventional marriage to have a full and hopeful yet troublesome and adventuresome life. What I find beautiful about people is how our individual decisions can jolt us, mold us and deliver us into being what God wants us to be.




But, when it came to being miffed about my perception that my friends “don’t care” about world affairs, it was my father who had to knock some sense into me. I had just moved back home to Orlando – home of the boy bands and rat theme park – from DC. I jumped into a book club where the majority of the girls were married and had kids. Our book was Kite Runner – story about growing up in Afghanistan. I was ready for a lively discussion about woman’s rights, war, Taliban…foreign policy. A mini-Economist party! Yea!

Not the case. A friend in the room kicked off the discussion by saying, “So, is this true? The Taliban actually exists? And, they actually do this to people?” I could feel my pasty white skin turn to splotchy red. I was angry and mystified at the same time. Where has she been? Did she even know we are at war? She kept on, “And, do women really have to be covered up? Is this a true story? I don’t believe it…” By this time, I was on fire and could not keep my mouth shut. Oh…it was bad. I came across as a condescending bitch. I heard the irritation in voice. I saw my eyes open wide and then squint in annoyance. I saw my hands move and point. This was verbal vomit to the “Nth” degree. I talked about the Taliban. Afghanistan. Their war with Russia. US funding Bin Laden. On and On and On… Finally, someone with more sense than me, distracted me – trying to shut me down – and asked, “so, how do you know this?” I responded, “I read the newspaper.” BAM! Put on the Bitch cape and fly out of the room.

I left angry. How could these women – who are trying to raise sensible, aware children – not know about the Taliban? Bin Laden? I mean – come on!!!


I called my Dad. He will commiserate with me. I needed to talk to someone who will affirm my feelings. All I could think about was I just moved back home to a place where people not only do not read newspapers, but they don’t even read. That’s what I told my Dad. He responded very calmly, “Do you know which school system is “A” rated? Do you know who is chairman of our school board?” I said, “No…but who cares…that is not important…blah..” He stopped me. “No. It is important. It is important to them. They are raising their families. That is one of the most important issues – to them. It’s the same with you and Afghanistan, Middle East policy, war…. Be careful to judge them…They could say the same about your lack of knowledge about the public school system.” SHUT UP Dad. He was soooooooo right. I hated hearing that. But, his words knocked me along side of my head. I ate humble pie.

I shared this with Kiki. She nodded. She heard it too. While it is easy for us to get upset or annoyed at our friends for not having the same passions as us – or curiosity of people around the world – it does not mean that they are any dumber or any smarter or any better. It’s when we become indifferent and no longer interested in anything but ourselves. It’s when false pride takes over is when you have a problem. Pride that leads to our indifference is what kills… It’s questioning systems… Experiencing places..Observing people… Absorbing histories…And, doing for others that keeps us living.

We all shared a beer. Don’t recall the time because we continue to move through time zones. Guess you can really drink at anytime. I just moved my watch forward from noon to 3:00 pm. Happy hour? After that, I came back to our cabin and learned how to play poker and Texas Hold’em from the Swedes. Lost at Poker but won at Texas Hold’em. We were betting with bobby pins.

The vodka crowd started up around 10 pm and I opted out. Our group went to bed around 11:00 pm to jostling and swaying train. I’m surprised how well I sleep.

Full circle. I’ve been typing off an on today – since 8 AM with Mark until now…4 PM. Day 2. My suite mates are all taking naps. My word, they sleep a lot. I’m staring at the wheat fields about to start reading about Ghangis Khan’s daughters. I mean, we are going to Mongolia. I had no idea that Mr. Khan ruled from China to Europe back in the 12th century. Go guy!

I’m still so excited to be here. I’ve changed out of my Pjs into gray leggings. I’ve brushed the teeth. Feeling good. Before I start the book, I’m going back to the restaurant for a beer.

Day 1 – Trans-Siberian Rail… Across Russia

22 Sep

Load’em up.

I’m sitting in the restaurant cart on the Trans-Siberian train, final destination is Beijing. Wow. I’m really at a loss for words. Wow.

I’m going to first describe where I am now at 11:25 am on Tuesday, September 14. Then, I’ll elaborate on how booth #3 became my trans-Siberian resting place.

The train is surprisingly nice. We’re in second class, meaning we have a door to our compartment and restrooms are in walking distance. Our car was “made in China,” an upgraded 1950s Russian model. Just don’t know how to describe it. I’ll take pictures. It’s a typical train.

The Russian restaurant car is another story. It’s old. Actually, it is more in line as to what I expected. Worn floors with patches of orange and blue spec terrazzo. (Go Gators…) Eight mini-booths – four on each side of the car – seating either two American contestants of the Biggest Looser or six Russian women.

As I look around, I’m not sure if it’s ever had a deep cleaning. Windows need a strong dousing of ammonia. The double pane windows are forced shut and the mold wanting to grow in the corners has turned to a lifeless brown. Russia appears dusty.

A Russian emblem rests at the windows base to give the room an air of elegance. The tables are wooden with a polyester gold and crimson fabric stretching over its top. (Go Seminoles…) When the sun hits the booth seats, it shines a winter, plastic green. There are two waitresses, showing off their magnificent cleavage under their tight, white button down shirts. The black tight skirts accent their grandma-looking underwear, and the nude Haynes hose conceal their narley feet in the black open toe sandal. Heavy black make-up line their eyes and it looks like they both are wearing the same crimson color lip stick. One is blond. She’s about 4’11 and round. The other wears the amber/red hair dye and is 5’5 in stature. Heaviness, bewilderment and annoyance are the three expressions they wear best.

Our waitresses don’t “look” Moscow or St. Petersburg-ish. They look like single moms, surviving the elements of their Siberian hometown. They landed this gig of riding the Russian rails to support their kids, father of their babies and consume “free” food. Speaking of free food, the cook just walked out. She is the first heavy woman I’ve seen in Russia. Hair slicked in a pony tail. No shoes. Full skirt. Olive green apron. If you sent back your food, she’ll more than likely let you starve.

Music is playing. It’s that damn Eminem song. It must be popular in the WWII countries. I hear it all the time. I sit in the restaurant car by myself sipping on coffee and nibbling on a chocolate muffin I did not order. I asked for milk and got a chocolate muffin with chocolate shavings. O’well. There is condensed milk somewhere inside the thing. Can’t and won’t send it back. I want to eat later.

It’s fall. Leaves are changing. We’re ambling by old Russian towns. Homes made out of wood and tin roofs. We’re passing by industrial plants and buildings. I’m thinking of cold winters.And, I can’t but think of Stalin’s campaign to kill and murder Russian traitors. How in the world was it possible for him to kill up to 30 million – some estimates say as high as 50 million – Russians pre and post WWII. I would have thought people living out in these providence would have killed his soldiers or his men. But, the civil war was so subversive you just never knew who was a traitor or not, so you just killed… friends, family…anyone who was against the Party. How could he inspire a national identity of Soviets in a country twice as large as America? Its unimaginable in these times – yet still happens today, all around the world.

Let me focus on the train ride and then I can devote time to another blog muddling through killing for the sake of security.

Did I tell you that I’m so happy that I’m here? That I’m having this surreal time. I keep pinching myself. Keep thinking…Is this me? Really?

Yesterday in Moscow was uneventful. The day prior, the Swedes, Canadian and I “did” Moscow. I will tell you more about the Kremlin, Gorky Park and Lenin’s tomb later. Our Moscow hotel is super-touristy. It’s a high rise among other high rises built for the Moscow Olympics in X. Now, fast forward X years, economic rival of this despondent area has not taken hold. We are near a metro stop and a grocery store. So, all is not lost.


One of my Moscow hotel highlights involved the all you can eat breakfast buffet. Let me back up for a minute….I’m traveling with a bunch of young bucks from all of the world who either just graduated from college or are in the their late 20’s taking a break from work. Love that…”taking a break from work at 26.” All of them have a tight, tight budget and freak when a meal costs more than $2.50.

No joke. I was there once. When I backpacked in Europe, we had zero cash. Allison, Katie and I resorted to begging for cookies at the Athens airport and serving as “whatever” girls in Greece – bars giving us free drinks if we hung out in their bars. More girls…means more boys…means more money for the bar… So, I get it when they say they are poor and on a budget.

When Young Bucks discussed plans for breakfast this AM, the majority voted to walk over a ½ mile to buy $.35 bread and $.75 cheese. I pulled the “mature” card and said, “Have fun! I’m going upstairs to the breakfast buffet for $11.00 and filling up for the day.” They gave me a puzzled look.

I walked into the restaurant and was in heaven. Two rows of breakfast options. I spotted…coffee stands. Cappuccino stands. Fruit stands. Bread stands. Cheese stands. Sliced meat stands. Salad stands. Pastry stands. Seriously, for $11 this was CHEAP. I must tell you how much I ate in 1 hour. Started with beans and barley. Moved to real omelet – watched her make it – with cheese, ham and chives. Moved on to three scoops of sweat porridge. Back to more barley and beans for the fiber. Four cups of coffee. Tried a Russian pancake with jam. Back to another scoop of porridge. Six slices of water melon. Yogurt and granola for the stomach. And, ended it with water and another cup of coffee. I declined the bread, cheeses, cut meats, salads and corn. It’s all about moderation. So, they hoofed it while I sat and inhaled it. I think I got a better end of the stick because for dinner, I had a lovely banana and yogurt and chased it with three shots of vodka.

Today, the young bucks set out to traverse the Moscow metro to photo all the ornate metro stations. I had zero interest. Though, I must say that the metro is exquisite and one of the most clean to date. For clarification, I don’t remember the Paris metro for I was the college backpacker with over 50 pounds of products and fashion accessories loaded on the back. I walked in a 45 degree angle as I navigated Europe. I don’t recall looking up. I heard Japan and Moscow are the two busiest metros in the world. I believe it.

So, the young bucks left and I spent the afternoon meandering around Moscow and planning my trip in China and Thailand.

We were told by our fearless leader, Mash – Mongolian who is NOT fluent in Russian – that we were to meet at the hotel lobby at 7 pm but must load up with food for the 4 day train ride. He said, “the train’s restaurant car is expensive and paying $2 for water or $3 for a hot meal is truly unacceptable.” Just say no to Russian train extortion. I got caught up in the cheap food and I’m going to starve hysteria as well.

It’s 5:15 pm. I’ve got over an hour to go to the grocery store and organize my bag for the 4 day/night train trip. Mash, our Mongolian fearless leader, pointed out earlier the location of the grocery store where humans can touch food and place them in the carts. You see, the mini-grocery stores store their food behind glass windows and some woman – possibly a former prison guard from Siberia – screams at you when you point to a food product or water.

I walked over to the tall building. Walked in. Can’t read any signs. Didn’t spot any food on the first floor, so I took the escalator up. Second floor is all clothes. Took the next escalator up. Third floor is all lingerie and kids’ toys. Shit. Here we go again. My eyes take in the shoppers’ bags. Do I see cans, boxes, green stuff hanging out of any bag? Nope. There is not a grocery store in this building. Don’t tell me I’m lost. I go back outside and look around.

I walk around the building. I took the bold move and opened a door with no sign and walked down a long hallway. At the end, there was a salon – yes, they’re using scissors – and the grocery store. YEA! It’s now 5:45 pm and I’m back on track. I shove my pack-back in a locker, grab a cart like I own the place and start shopping. I hit produce – bananas, apples, pears, oranges. Who cares if I have to carry this along with my two bags to the train. Next aisle are the nuts and dried fruit. Pricey, but that is fine. I can afford $3 raisins.

Next, I hit the soup and noodle aisle. People warned me about which ones to buy – “don’t buy the soups that say ‘boil’ water. You want instant.” Easy enough if it is in English. So, it was there in the noddle/soup aisle that I tried to translate Russian to English. I spent 10 min comparing Styrofoam cups of noodles. With 23% confidence, I picked a brand. Next was to figure out the flavor. I looked at the pictures, but they all look the same expect a red color here or a brown spot there. Red may mean “pepper” and brown may mean “meat or mushroom.” Time will tell. I’ve never been into the overly salty noodle thing. So, why not start now. In Moscow.

I smiled when my eyes located can foods with a lift open top. Hold the phone. I love can foods. I live off can foods. I jetted down the can food aisle and found what I was looking for – mini-kidney beans, corn and green beans. Perfecto! I will reduce my 12 Styrofoam cups of soup to 3 and substitute with some can food. I’m really happy. I love beans. Love corn. Love lift-off tops. Though, I can already see my fellow travelogue looking at me like I’m “whacked.” O’well. I’m playing the older, mature card right now. It’s fun. I’m finally the “strange one” where they will talk about my eating habits. Spending habits. Consuming canned food habits.

Commercial break. The Trans-Siberian waitresses just cranked up the music in the restaurant car. Loud. It’s sounds like a Russian Fifty-Cent. YO. They are mumbling the music as they pass by. Underneath every booth seat has storage room for food or dead bodies. Duly noted.

Back to the Russian grocery store. Next on the list. Mug. Vodka. Putin mugs were on sale for $2. Who knows what it says – “Death to America!” Or, “I heart Putin!” True bargain. Putin is in the basket.

Then, I hit the vodka aisle. I looked like a super nerd for I whipped out my calculator. Here’s the logic – not paying $4 to $9 for vodka. That equated to severe hangover, regardless of one sip or consuming the entire bottle. I was going for the $10 to $15 range. This assured me some sort of confidence that I would wake up the next day. I choose the vodka that had a lock on it. Looks premium. We’re talking about $12 here. No chasers. Buy that on the train or just drink it straight.

We all met at the hotel lobby. The young bucks were filling me in their metro-train tour details. I told them I spent the day meandering and working on a few client projects. The word “work” surprised them – I could see it in their eyes.

I seriously would love to hear their fabricated stories about me – the mature TallGirl. When you travel, the group becomes BFFers for a set amount of time. Like high school and the workplace, there’s the “cool” crowd and the “uncool” crowd. Uncool are your outcasts or just “damn crazies.” Late at night, after a couple of drinks, you sit around – drink, smoke, laugh – and talk about the uncools like you’ve known them for years. “What’s up with him…she made me buy a coffee for $2.75 today…did you see the size of his backpack…he doesn’t shut up…Typical Canadian….”

We had to take the metro (subway) to the main train station to catch the Trans-Siberian to Beijing. People were throwing their backpacks over their shoulder and I decided, split decision, that I would do the same. That is, carry my pack on my back, instead of rolling it. I had bought the roller suitcase with an option to wear.

I heaved the 40 or 50 lb bag up, over my shoulders and onto my back. My mini-pack was resting on my chest. One hand was carrying my can goods, noodles and fruit and the other hand is gripped to the mini-roll-on. Mash – our Mongolian leader – gave us instructions.

If we loose the group, then get off at stop four. Jump to the brown line. Get off stop 2. Then, walk to the train.

Got it – right. I was not going to loose the crowd so I didn’t pay much attention. Anyway, it was our Mash’s job to ensure he does not loose the group, not the other way around. We set off. After 5 minutes of walk, my breathing got thick and my shoulder joints were poised to snap in two. I focused. Walked. Did not want to hold up the group. I knew we had to buy tickets at the metro. If I made it to the metro, then I could use the rollers – like a normal person.

Hit the metro. Looks like everyone but Maria and me pre-bought their metro (subway) tickets. The group of young bucks walked through the security gates. I yelled at Maria to wait for me. She did. I tried to get the handle up to roll my backpack, but I had bent the metal frame while wearing it on my back. That’s right. Backpack is busted. In the Moscow metro. I busted my backpack. I told myself, I don’ t have many options. Just be calm. I asked God for help. I felt calm. Smiled. Even giggled. This is funny. Found the strength to carry two bags with my hands. Picked them up. And, Maria and I were off to catch up with the young bucks.

Took 56 marble stares down to the metro subway platform. Looked around. Our group is gone. Just us. Maria said she knew what stop. I put my faith in her and tended to my bag. We boarded the metro car and were off. Priority was fiddling and fixing my backpack so the metal arm extends and I can roll my bag. Cold Russian eyes were just staring. Not with curiosity. Not with amusement. Just with blank loathing. Well, I’ll give them this. We looked …like what you expect – crazy.

My guardian angle fixed my bag and the handle sprang up. Just in time. We hit the fourth stop and people were everywhere – pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s the mob mentality. Maria was frantic. I saw it in her eyes. I also saw the buddy system concept of sticking with friends was not in her vocabulary. She jetted off leaving me in the dust. She clamored and push like the rest of them – fighting her way up the escalator. I followed – way behind. My eyes were just focused on her red back pack. Up the escalator and out of the building we went. What? We are not suppose to be outside. This stop is where we transfer to the brown line, not our final destination. My bag is fixed. It’s time to focus – stop following and become assertive.

I walked over to the train’s “gate guard” – an older woman, with a big smile and a blue square hat. I pointed to the map. She told us where we were. Yep, I was right. We’re at the wrong place. Maria did not believe her. Maria raised her voice and started asking her questions. Gate lady looked confused. I thought to myself – calm down Maria… This is NOT a big deal. We will figure it out. We’re late and lost, not going to prison.

I said to Maria, “What this means, is we have to buy new tickets. Go back down the escalator, take the metro train to the next stop and transfer there. Tickets are 26 rubles, or less than a $1. I will pay for it…You get in line. I watch our stuff…” This set Maria off. “We are NOT buying new tickets. We should not have to buy new tickets..this is not our fault.” I repeated that I’m buying the tickets. Let’s keep moving. I stood off to the side, near our gate guard lady, and felt confident that Maria was going to have a melt-down buying not one, but two tickets. She angers easily and does not communicate well.

Well, the “wrong” station for us was the “right” station for ALL of Russia. Hundreds and hundreds of Russians were clamoring for tickets and entrance onto the escalator. I stood. And watched people of all ages, all backgrounds, all classes and all walks of life pass by. I asked God for help. For patience To protect us from thieves. And, to lead us to our final destination. I was calm. I watched. Then, I spotted the thieves. Once you stop, look around and you will see them before they see you.

Two men on the prowl. First, they tried to jump the gate. But, our fearless gate guard lady screamed at them. Busted. They crawled into line. I watch them scan the crowd. It took a matter of seconds. Their eyes landed on my bags. Then, on me. I looked right at them. My eyes were not deviating. “Don’t fuck with me…I see you …I’m ready for you…” Brown, hard eyes on mine. Neither one of us moved. They whispered. I did not move. I was ready for them. Bring it on.

Meanwhile, I see Maria at the corner of my eye holding up the line. She’s waving her hands. An older Russian male steps in the help. Again, I say “thank you God.” I just keep staring at the thieves, praying the line would go slow and by the time we were on the metro, they would be just at the ticket window.

Maria came back with a story about the tickets. We walked to gate guard lady let us through the gate for the disable. That we were.. She smiled. My angel. There’s only one escalator. About 50 to 75 people are vying for the opening. I’m have two roller bags, a back pack and can food. I was pretending that my bag was a child, deserving space on the escalator. I kept my head up. Pulled the Russian thing – looked angry and resolute. Maria is off – she’s dusted me again. I wanted to scream inside. We get to the metro platform. She rolls her eyes when she sees me. Can’t loose me, baby..

We squeeze our way onto a crammed car. This train car was an old Moscow, 1940’s train car. Old, slow and loud. Everyone was staring at us. Fine with me because they would be able to witness if I were to get jumped or robbed. Though, I don’t have the confidence they would do anything about it. We fall out onto the next stop. Maria is off and running. I asked her to stop. I asked for us to regroup and look at a map. We got into trouble next time by just walking. I saw some teenager boys ogling at us. I walked over – smiled and pointed to the map. The taller of the bunch, showed me where to go. I walked off, blew him a kiss. They all giggled. Ok. Flirt worked. Now, let’s get on with it.

We walk for half a mile underground to the next metro tunnel. Maria was 200 feet in front of me – trying to dust me again. Amazing. We hit stairs. It’s the mob mentality. Someone pushes me. I loose my balance. I see myself falling down stone stairs – An angel in the form of an older man reaches out for me, grabs my bags and helps me down the stairs – slowly. I thanked him. He smiled and rushed off. Maria is no where to be found. I go to the the platform and wait for the next train. I see Maria. I walk over and smile. There’s no need to say anything. Why. She looks stressed. Flexibility and calmness is not her DNA. Strange for a girl who loves to travel.

We get on the train. Not as many people. I breath. Finally relax. Next question is – will the group be waiting for us? Where is the large train station for China? I had 3 minutes to let that bother me. Meanwhile, I need to get rid of the frightening “what if” thoughts of falling down the stairs. And, going to a calm place of gratitude that God protected me. I mean – for real. I was a split second from busting a knee or my head. I needed to purge evil thoughts about Maria. I needed to forgive her selfishness and be grateful that she stayed behind. The doors flew open. Maria was gone. I got off the train. Regrouped. Found a woman with a large roller bag. She has be to going to the large train station. I walked over, asked if she spoke English and if she was going to the train station. She said, “Yes. I take you.” Once again, thank you God.

I see Maria’s red bag climbing the stairs. I now have a “new” friend. I look up at the top of the stars and spy Kiki from Norway and David from Belgium. They’re waiting for us. YEA! What a relief. In my heart, I knew that all would be fine. It was just another adventure. I believe Maria did not think so.

I gave Kiki and David our 13 second sound bite of our “wrong stop, bought a new ticket, crowded..” metro experience. They said that Pat – our 76 year old English woman – was trampled on at one of the metro stops. If it weren’t for Canadian Dave, then she could have been real hurt. Shit. Our little situation was just that – little bit of nothing. Pat, on the other hand, that was real scary. Frightening. How’s Pat? “She’s shaken up. A man walked in – pushing. She fell to her knees. People were pushing. They walked over Pat. Dave reached down and got her before anything worse could have happened.” Shit. Shit. Shit.

Ok. Many things run through my mind. First, Gap Adventures should have arranged a bus to pick us up at the hotel to take us to the train terminal. It would have cost us $4 per person. We have 16 people traveling and taking this size group through one of the busiest subway system in the world at rush hour, says “disaster.” Pat falling or me getting lost is bound to happen. As a business, you want to protect your assets – your travelers – and doing this means paying a few extra dollars for a mini-bus. Further, Mash- our fearless leader – should have made sure the entire group was together at all times. And, he should have been walking with Pat the entire time. Gap Adventures credibility was shot on this one. Truly unacceptable.

The air changed once we boarded to train to Siberia. We were all giddy. Trying to board the train, I had issues with balance and bags. I was holding up the line. So, this tall Russian young man, picked up my bags, actually SMILED and walked me to my compartment. Damsel in Distress! Very thankful. He understands English but can not speak a word. He looks like he can murder someone on the outside, but seems kind on the inside. It’s the Russian look…

There’s four of us to a compartment. Emily and Hannah from Sweden. Maria from Canada. Me. My hope was the beds were long enough. The overnight from St. Petersburg to Moscow, the bed was short and as people walked by, they knocked my feet and kept me awake. Mosh said it’s a newer train built in China. We have air condition – windows don’t open – and enough space for our bags. It’s fun.

We unpack. And, I go looking for the vodka. The cool crowd was a few compartments down. David – the Belgium – had the vodka out and was passing around shots. I joined in. We fit eight people in there. John and Franklin from Sweden. Kiki from Norway. David from Belgium. Lauren from New Jersey. Hannah from Sweden. Emily from Sweden. Anastasia from South Africa living in London. Collin from London. And, me. Some stood, but most of us squeezed in. We drank shots. Talked. They talked a lot about the differences between Norway and Sweden. I did not know that Norway was one of the most expensive countries in the world, next to Japan. No one eats out. They go to Sweden to shop and buy booze. Swedes go to Germany to buy booze. Germans go to Czech to buy booze. Czech goes to Ukraine. Love that… Also, I did not know that Absolute Vodka is a Swedish brand. Hmmm.. These were the type of intellectually stimulating conversations we were having.

We made bets on who will stick the most – the fastest. We have four days and four nights without a shower. We are bartering shots of vodka for baby wipes. We narrowed it down and believe John from Sweden will stink first since he was wearing his last clean shirt. Must agree. The New Jersey girl started talking about US health care. She doesn’t know shit. I had to keep my silence – well, a little. Can’t help it. So, Franklin from Sweden and I had an offline conversation. He said that he is a conservative Swed in that he thinks they are taxed to high. He used to work for an insurance company in Sweden. He says their system is broken too – it might be free – but you’re not talking about quality care.

I told him, that it is a complicated. I was talking with a gentleman from New Zea land who says that “we deserve health care from our government.” The word “deserve” is what I struggle with. That is not an American word. We work. We pay taxes. We work. We have freedom of choice. We don’t do nothing and deserve a lot. Franklin agreed – he says people milk their system too. They are having issues with immigration. Iranians and others are coming over for surgeries. The government is debating, “do we charge them?” My expression looked confused. “I mean, you would consider NOT charging foreigners who made the individual decision to pay for a flight to Sweden for a surgery…” After a couple more shots of vodka, we solved all the health care problems…right.

We stayed up until 1 AM or so. We had a 10 minute stop in Vladimir Pass, once a Russian capital. It’s foggy. Ominous. I envisioned the KGB appearing through the industrial complex to “seize us.” Snapped a few photos, crawled into my mini-bed made for tall, skinny Russians. And, slept well. The vodka must have helped.

At 9:15 AM our cabin of four woke, quickly dressed to jump off at our first “lay over” station. We had 15 minutes to stretch our legs. It’s now 1:23 pm and we’re slowing down to stop at Balezio, Russia. No clue where or what it is. It’s pretty ugly from the window. Old trail yard. Old cement, blown out buildings. Blue sky. It’s around 45 degrees. We’ve stopped. Let’s go and see what Balezio has to offer…







Milling around Moscow

22 Sep

Moscow is a big city. I liked it. Don’t want to move there. But, I the gray grows on you. It’s progressive, fast and commercial. I’m amazed it’s now one of the most expensive cities in the world. They’ve been open for business – officially – for a little under 20 years.

Advertisements line the buildings. High priced shops. People walking fast. Clicking of high heels. Someone said that 15 or 20 million people live in Moscow. And over 1 million ride the metro everyday… I believe it. It feels congested. Feels big.

We technically had two full days in Moscow. We woke early and headed out – to “do” the city. More importantly, do the Kremlin, see Lenin’s dead body and dance in Red Square. The overnight train from St. Petersburg arrived into Moscow at 6 am. We checked into our hotel around 7 am and headed out looking for food around 8 am. Mash, our clueless leader from Mongolia took us to an overpriced coffee shop that serves “pancakes” (aka fried bread) to get our day started right. None of us had showered in days. Super grime was setting it. Yes, the smelly, bloated and caffeinated were taking on Moscow in style. Buyer beware.

We took the amazing Moscow metro to Red Square. On average, over 1 million folks ride the Moscow metro. Impressive. More impressive was its architecture, cleanliness and assurance that the weak or disabled can ever step foot in the place adorned with marble stairs extending to the heavens.

We get to Red Square. It’s misty. Rainy. Wet.  Yes, the sun comes out later… Thank God!  I believe we’re there on the day everything is closed. A line had formed at Lenin’s tomb. Is he really in there? I mean, embalmed and all? I had no desire to see a dead Lenin. Let alone, pay money for the cause. I’m glad everyone in our group felt the same.

Red Square is impressive. We strolled. Took pictures. Acted like we knew Soviet history. Ran from the rain. And, talked about our next meal. It’s always about food and $$ with the backpacking set. Our little Mash said he was going to get us a tour guide for the Kremlin. He was not fluent in Russian, nor knew much about history. So, we needed to pay extra for the revisionist history by a a true, well-paid Russian tour good. He gold us to wait. We did… We did wait… An hour later, Mash came back smiling but with no guid. We’re annoyed. Another thing about the traveling back packing set, don’t screw with our time and $$. We could be spending our time on a bench, getting lost or talking about what happened 12 minutes ago.

All of us are slightly annoyed. Mash asked if we’re willing to pay $5 a person for a Kremlin, certified guide. There’s a hitch. This Kremlin guide only spoke Russian – and I can bet he does not have laugh lines either. What Mash is telling us is that we would to pay extra $$ for an English translator. Let’s step back for one moment…..Let me remind you that the man responsible for taking 15 people across one of more inaccessible countries – and I will add hostile to foreigners – does not speak Russian and therefore, can’t translate to English. I smell danger… More on that later.

Anyway, the hitch was we need to pay more $$. Well, you have to remember the young bucks of the backpack set travels on a tight, tight budget. Spending more than $1 on water is extortion. We asked Mash was this tour $$ worth it. He said, “No, not really…No, I don’t think so…” WHAT! We’ve been sitting here an hour – waiting on you – and you tell us that we really don’t need a guide…

Peeved at Mash. We all bolted. Bought tickets. Went through metal detectors. Got inside the Kremlin. Not overly impressive. The Kremlin architecture mixes old Tsarist buildings with “screw you” Soviet architecture. The area is closed during most of the week, so we’re lucky to be here on Sunday. We sauntered around. Maria bought a touring tape in English to help us sort out “what’s what and why.” We should have known, the voice on the tape only talked about inane things like the types of plates, saucers and bells used by previous Czars. Who cares. It’s misting even more. e’re all tired. Dirty. And, the feeling of hating Moscow is in the air.

One part of the group heads back to hotel to nap and shower. Hell no. Not our group…. Emily, Hannah, Maria and I vow NOT to go back to our hotel and stay in Moscow until 7:30 pm – it was the group dinner time. Our thought was if we go back to shower, then we may not want to leave the hotel.

After the Kremlin, we walked over to the mall on Red Square. It reminded me of the Bellagio in Vegas. Elaborate. Amazing. Large. Expensive. I’m sure Stalin murdered million here in it’s hey day. I mean, Lenin’s body is a stone’s throw away from Cartier…what do you expect.

The dirty, smelly travelers were in search of food. We found a cafe. Ordered. Food did not come for at least an hour. Russia may be trying their hand at Russian corrupt capitalism, but they’re lacking in service. No service. They seem displeased when they see customers – highly annoyed actually. That communism – you can’t fire me – attitude is pervasive.

I pulled the American card and returned my food because the waiter pissed me off. He promised me no mayonnaise. They sprayed the sandwich with mayo. I took another 30 mins for the sandwich. I’m sure they took turns pissing on it out back.

After a bad lunch, we decided to do the walking tour in Lonely Planet. It’s a 10 km walk through Moscow – to Gorky Park and through old neighborhoods. The walk was invigorating. We crossed over one bridge to an expensive area of town. We could tell by the number of Land Rovers, BMWs, etc…

The rich were in line vying for flats on the river. I guess these were kids of the mafia or Russian oil money. Who knows. But, highly entertaining. I took pictures. Mind you – we have not showered in 2 days and walking through upscale, billionaire areas. I’m surprised the fashion police did not pick us up.

We happen upon Gorky Park. I thought it was just a park. Made for a great movie… I had NO idea it was an amusement park. BLAST! Rides. Roller coasters.

Women where out in their three inch platforms with their baby strollers. Other women, were looking for husbands. Other men, were drinking vodka.

All at your typical Moscow amusement park. We had a blast walking around, riding rides and taking in the scene. It was a scene…

By this time, it’s time to meet the group. They are clean. We’re dirty.

We go BACK to the mall for dinner. I’m annoyed. We’re in Moscow and we’re having dinner at the mall. Really? It’s buffet style. Even worse. I voiced my opinion and asked if there was something more Russian around? Mash shrugged his shoulders and led us to the mall. Fine. I just wanted to get home, shower and go to bed anyway. Chicken. Rice. Beans. That works. No worries, the ugly American rears its head much later.

After dinner, we jumped on the magnificent metro and headed back to our hotel. It was a long day. Yes, Moscow is manageable. But, my heart is in St. Petersburg. Nicoli was right – Moscow is built on messy money. St. Petersburg is built on Russian class…