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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…

Getting out of Russia…

24 Sep

After our jaunt at Lake Baikal. And, after my four hour power nap and eight hour night sleep, we loaded on a bus and made our way back to Irkutsk. Yes, I saw Lake Baikal. But, its a lake. There was only so much to see. And, after my harrowing train experience the night before – no sleep and planning for an escape plan as conductor on crack hurls us off a cliff – my body needed sleep or it was going doooooowwwnnn.

I mentioned in the other blog, Irkutsk is the one place in Siberia I could see myself living. THAT being said, I don’t see myself in Siberia at all. Just want that in writing. My tendency is to smile. Their tendency is to sigh. This spells unhealthy relationship.

But, if someone was threatening to peel the skin off my big toe and was forcing me to choose a town in Siberia, then I would choose Irkutsk. First, it has a train station. And, I’m growing very fond of trains. Second, it’s a 45 minute drive to Lake Baikal – Siberia’s Lake Placid. Third, the residents have rewritten history. You are forced to believe everything is “sunny” in Siberia. The word Gulag has been erased from their vocabulary. Stalin’s name is …. just a name. And, President Dmitry Medvedev recently honored WWII heroes by a free apartment life for fighting for freedom in the Great War. Freedom? Freedom from what – I would counter the boggie man was Stalin’s purges not the Germans hiking to Siberia for a booty call.

Yes, life is good in Irkutsk. They’re preparing a large celebration for its 300 year old birthday. FYI, you’re invited. The government is pumping in money to restore buildings, roads…just in time for happy dance.

Yes, the Lenin statue still looms large at the center of town. But, the ingenious Irkutsks gussied him up and planted smiley purple, yellow and red flowers around his feet to deflect from the “You go to Gulag” look. Pigeons have found his fist pointing to the sky a perfect repository for their poop. Lenin is fairing well in this land of make-believe.

In real history, Stalin purged the Irkutsk people… and their churches. He sent those who disagreed with him to one of the work labor camp (Gulag) right down the road. Or, his peeps just killed them. I read some place he demolished over 200 Orthodox churches in Irkutsk but kept around 50 around. Could be wrong. Let’s just say, it was a lot. It was Stalin’s custom to convert the more purposeful churches into productive places – stables, storage or shelter for the Red Army….

One Russian Orthodox church we visited was converted into a bakery. Can you imagine Irkutsks heading to work at the local Orthodox church to roll dough among ornate byzantine murals depicting the life of Christ, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. It just makes me smile.

After our “drive-by” tour, Anna – our Irkutsk tour guide – let us go. We’re free to roam. OF COURSE, our fearless Mongolian leader, Mash takes us to another fucking cafeteria for lunch. Cafeteria’s aren’t even popular in Siberia…I mean, come on dude… It’s all about cost with Mash…Not about the experience.

Screw it. I had a slice of pizza. Cheaper and better. Bacteria wise, who knows. My stomach has been rocked for a good week now – so, what’s the difference. Let’s add some more people to the party and let them fight it out. Let’s just hope I’m close to a toilet when the blow up occurs.

After the food, I spied a Diet Coke. I thought it was counterfeit. I almost shit in my pants. (FYI: Just had coffee laced with real sugar and real cream. I’m high right now… Typing fast…bad language is spewing…This is a warning for my 4.5 fans – two of which are Mom and Dad). Back to shitting in pants. I almost did a flip. I ran over. I wanted to give this street vendor all my money and bow down. I’ve not had a DC in 5 days now. Instant coffee just SUCKKKKKKS. I bought two DCs and was coming back for more later. Now, do you understand why I could live in this Siberian place? They even have DC!

After the gang inhaled meat soaked in pans of grease, MASH went his way and we rolled off into the sun set. The day was nice. Sunny. Very Sunny. All we cared about was breathing fresh air and getting some Vitamin D. We walked through parks. Went to a market. Strolled to cafes. Just killing time until our train left for Mongolia. I believe we were setting off around 8:00 pm or so.

We found a river. Well, the river found us since the city is built on one. We sat our carb enriched asses on the steps by the river front and starred at the water. We watched a train go by carrying a billion dollars worth of oil. I start making – from what I thought was – profound comments about Russia, Siberia, Oil, Business, Oligarchs, Politics…hoping someone in this group would engage. I needed an intellectually stimulating conversation– I was jonesing, baby. Nope. All silent. They all took pictures of themselves and I mumbled to myself. Seriously. Mumbled about Siberia. And, rich Russians doing prison time.

Back to trial matters. There was a Mom and Kids play group forming. I watched them. More importantly, I was checking out their strollers. No jogging strollers for these moms. They probably don’t sell them in Siberia. The strollers encasing their newborns were the same style I used for my baby dolls when I was a child. Wait, these were a foot or two taller. But, you get my drift. Wow. Again, tried to have a conversation about baby strollers – Any takers? NOPE. So, I took pictures to send to friends at home with a caption saying, “your life could be worse.” The wheels on these strollers were metal and are in need of some serious shock absorbers. One mom had twins, so her stroller was very interesting looking. The babies were bundled up in blankets with a thick plastic sheet over them. Nice. Nice. Nice. Don’t want to read into this.

Next on our day, was sauntering down to the cafe on the water. Bathroom? Kiki and I asked the bartender lady the toilet location. She sighed. Sighed again. She did not answer. So, I started using all the words I know for toilet. “Toil-et? To-lite? WC? Water Closet? Ba-th room? Pee Pee?” I just kept on saying words until she responded. Come on lady. We’re women here. You’re a bartender serving liquids. We need to pee, NOW.

She walked slowly over across the bar. She’s in NO rush. Turned down the Russian, depressive music and look at us again. Her actions told us that she did not “hear us.” Once again, I started with enunciating toilet. She starred. Sighed. Pointed up the stairs. The stairs led you OUT of the park. Let me say this again – out her restaurant and out of the park. Really. We have to hoof it out of the park to pee.

Kiki and I smiled. Well, this will be an adventure. We start walking. Around 4 minutes later – Yes, we’re out of the park on a street corner – there was a brown shack, two wooden doors and window in the middle. An older lady was sitting inside. Staring at us walking towards her. Kiki – Norwegian girl – and I smile. We’re doomed. We smiled. Old lady sighed and pointed to a sign. Cost ten rubles to pee. I will pay almost anything for a clean bathroom. I happily handed her the rubbles and walked into the temple of relief. GEEZ. Stink—a-rama. I paid for this. I wrapped my scarf around my face, twice. Peeing like a terrorist. I could hear Kiki trying to talk to the woman. Bathroom woman claims not to have change… Right. It’s a con. Kiki is not letting down. She needs her change. I busted the door open and fled for clean air. I turned around, Kiki walked in. Her eyes bulged. I giggled. Waited. The poor woman has to smell this shit all day long. What about the winter time – UGH.

We head back to the friendly cafe. The boys ordered beer. Apparently they are having a quarrel about getting change back from the happy bar tender. We drank beer. And, bolted back to the hotel. They’re hungry. I caught up on internet stuff. I meet them at the London Pub restaurant inside the hotel. They are downing pizza. Damn, looks good. I have an hour until the bus leaves for the train. I order a pizza. We all chat – drink beers – talk about how poor we are… It’s 10 minutes until the bus leaves. I ask AGAIN for my pizza. “It’s coming. Three minutes…” From the look on their faces, they forgot – again. Or the chef is on a cig break. Either way, pizza is in jeopardy.

I pay for the pizza. Go upstairs. Grab my bags. Put bags on the bus. Go back inside to get the pizza. I gave them 7 or 8 minutes. The waitress says “five more minutes.” I told her, “I want my money back. Sorry. Bus is leaving. Need to catch a train to Mongolia.” Money in hand, now, please. I pulled the American card. She looked panicked. The hostess and the coat guy, had the “we don’t give a crap look.” So, no urgency to please from those two customer service award winners. I followed the waitress back to the kitchen. She is screaming at the cook. He moves like molasses. No, he’s not fat. No, he’s not in bad health. He’s just Russian. He looks at the oven. Pulls the oven door down. Looks in. Utters 2 words. I look at him, her and say – “What?”

He takes out the pizza – like he has all the time in the world. He puts the pizza on the table. Next, he meanders across the kitchen looking for a box. This size won’t work… That size …. not sure. He starts to make one box, puts it aside. I’m about to come out of my friggin skin. I breath. I’m about to hurl my body over the counter top and make the damn box myself. I asked God for patience. Uh, nothing is happening. Instead, my blood is boiling. The waitresses smiles and says, “I understand.” I bet those are the two words they grilled in their heads at London Pub restaurant training. “If you say, I understand, those foreigners will back down… Act like you care…”

What felt like a zillion years, the chef finally hands me my pizza with an annoyed look on his face. He sighs. Waitress signs. I run. No thank you from me, lady. Yet, I almost felt myself say, “sorry” but something inside yanked that word out of my mouth. That’s a red flag. Russia is getting her claws into me…

I sprinted to the bus. It’s in the negative Celsius range at this point. I’m sweating. My travel buds are all waiting. I sit, the bus drivers bolts for the train station. The pizza is too hot to eat. When I open the box in the station, the cheese and mushrooms are piled on one side of the box and the bread is on the other. I have no napkin. Forks. Nothing. I bet the chef planned this. Knew if the box moved, his toppings are going to slide right off. Screw him. I’m eating it anyway. I’ll just burn my finger tips and shove in the food like a good, classless, American pizza eater.

We boarded the train for Mongolia. It’s a nice train. I was expecting worse. Well, the bathrooms were worse but overall, nice train. The goal was to arrive the next day at the Russian border so they can kick us foreigners to the curb for good. The train ride was less frantic. The conductor must have kept his vodka and crack habitat to a minimum that night. We did not shake as much, and I actually slept for a few hours. I woke – felling refreshed and narley. Typical train feeling.

So, Russian border crossing. We pull up at the border. They make it difficult. Imagine that… Everyone must get off. “You come back in three hours. Bags stay on train.” In Russian border town, you don’t have many options to kill time.

Here’s the quick run down — One small train station to sit and stare through the reinforced, dust-laden windows. One toilet, with a hole in the floor where you must pay to stand. One food mini-market shalepping sausages, potatoes, noodles in Styrofoam cups, 1990s snicker bars, Fanta and water. One cafe reeking of compost or animal flesh. One outdoor market selling counterfeit Chinese crap. One hill to hike to overlook the city. One cemetery adorned in turquoise wire, fake Christmas wreathes and broken vodka bottles.

A few of us choose the hill option. We needed to stretch our legs. And, our lungs were yearning for fresh molecules. We hiked to the top. Sat and watched more billion dollar oil tankers pass by. I should have counted the cars. I’m talking about 200 or 300 train cars full of oil passing through. I’m talking about wood. I’m talking about cars full of coal. This town is poor, but liquid gold passes through its borders every day. Can I please have a conversation with someone about this?

And, the dead people. They really do buried their dead in style. Cemetery plots look like play pins for kids. All decorated in turquoise. Dried flowers. Fake Christmas wreathes. Pictures of the dead. They’re must be hundreds buried. The dates are more recent. It’s one of taboo subjects. So, I just took pictures. Probably jolted some spirits.

Three hours later, we boarded. And, sat in our micro-mini train compartments. And waited for the Russian agents. Someone who thought it was f-u-nny, yelled “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Off to a good start.

Just a quick aside, the Russians locked the toilets. And, then you’re locked in the train compartment. So, there’s no bathrooms. No escaping for a minimum of 3 hours. We ran into a Canadian who said they waited for over 9 hours for the Russians to process everyone. Damn, no access to a toilet or a hole in the ground for a very, very long time. We talked about buying adult diapers as a joke… We had bets on who in our group is going to pee in their pants first… Not me. I drink Super Big Gulps for a living. Big girl. Big bladder. Big time.

So, here comes Mr. Sunshine. First Russian agent, opens the door and blurts “passport.” He then, sighs with annoyance. Us – the tourons – are just not fast enough. We’re still fumbling. He’s still sighing. It’s a nation of sighers. Russian agent grabs the passports, leafs through them. Finds the Visa. Hands back the passports.

I’m sharing a train car with our fearless tour leader, Mash from Mongolia. Now, remember, he’s in charge of taking 15 folks across Russia via Siberian land. Russian agent starts to grill Mash in Russian. He’s Mongolian. Mongolians are known for smuggling goods in and out of Russia. Russians don’t like them. Mash, who speaks barely any Russian, becomes nervous. He starts to answer in English. Russian agent looks even more hostile. There’s more sighing. English language, I sense, is the enemy…

Mash looks confused. Blinks his eyes. I just stare. I’m not opening my mouth yet. I’m the hated American. I’m traveling with the “I don’t get involved” Canadian. She neutralizes me. I sit. Watch. Become annoyed with Gap Adventures, again. I mean, COME ON!

A business has employed a Mongolian who speaks very little Russian to take 15 people across an inaccessible, hostile Russia on a train. Not only that, Mongolians have the reputation to smuggle goods into and out of Russia. The agents are going to question every and all Mongolians – no matter what.. Period. Now, that’s fine. But, what happens Russian agent man decides they want to detain Mash. They could do it. Detain him. For no reason. And, keep him for as long as they want. Then, what? What would Gap Adventures do? What do we do? Just keep moving on.. Just curious. I mean, COME ON people. I’m loosing faith in this company more and more by the minute.

Russian agent keeps grilling. Mash asks to write his answers down. He slowly looks for a pen. Maria hands him one. The Russian agent looks like he’s going to smack Mash up side the head any moment. Apparently the agent was asking about what he was doing, on what days, etc. You would think he would know this – being a guide and all. And, would think all of this information would be in a folder. Nope. After Mash answers his question, the door closes. We look at Mash. “Does this happen often? I mean, are you embarrassed every time?” He just says, “yea….” And, leaves it at that.

Russian agent #2 comes in and collects our passports and leaves. We all just sit and wait. And wait. About two hours later, more agents get on the train. They ask us to leave our compartments so they can search the place. It takes a few minutes. Not a big deal. Hour three going into hour four, our passports are returned to us. There is no smile. No “safe travels.” No nothing. They just hand it back and walk on… Yea, screw you too. Mash says, “You can’t get back into Russia now. You’re in no man’s land…until Mongolia…” Hopefully in no man’s land, they smile. And, better yet, let’s hope they let you go pee.