Tag Archives: Train

Kicking off Adventure Travel. Northern Vietnam.

11 Dec

I found the place. You know the place I’m talking about. It’s the place you go to when you are down, depressed, or despondent. When you’re trying to remember “the good times.” These places are few and far between. You treasure them. I have a few of them. Like New Smyrna Beach and today – biking through the rice fields in Vietnam. Now, I just need to figure out how to bottle the thing.

Arriving in North Vietnam, Lao Cai

Train pulled into the Lao Cai station at 5:00 AM. Train lady banged on our door and screamed words I don’t understand. I’ve been awake for what seems like hours. I looked at my watch. The Chinese “Adidas” watch read 11:30 pm. Can’t be right.   It wasn’t.  Chinese battery died. Bought in China for $3. Lasted 5 weeks. Now, need to add battery to list of random purchases in Vietnam.

I kicked the top bunk. “Ang, is this our stop?” NO answer. Tour-Burn turns over. People were getting off the train. Wait, people who like look me were getting off the train.

I screamed, “Ang, is this our stop?” No answer. He was still asleep. I kicked the bunk hard with both feet. I felt like I was back at summer camp. I heard him grunt. Something moved.

Yes, this was our stop.  Time to cram and slam.

The boys were up and out in 3 mins while I was still shoving. Why is it boys are faster than girls? I mean, I could be tossing into a bag some lip gloss, sunscreen and a camera, and I’m still last. By this time, the train lady was peering in the window and screaming some Vietnamese mambo-jumbo. I waved back, raised my eyebrows and smiled.

The train corridors were even smaller than the Chinese trains. A six-foot gal caring a backpack and over-sized  bag could not fit.  It was not even 5:15 am, and I was sporting a sweat mustache.  Made it to the door. Tossed my bags. Jumped out. And, yes, I was proud to say, the last one to disembark.

The sun was making its entrance.  The town of Lao Cai welcomed us with honking horns and diesel fumes. We were not even out of the train parking lot and my short term memory kicked in. I thought, “OMG! I forgot my Kindle on the train. I don’t remember touching it.”

I panicked. Told Ang to stop. And, yelled, “Ang, hold it. I need to check my bag for something. Left something….left something…”

I mumbled and ripped open my bag. And, there it was. Laughing at me. My Kindle. “SUCKKKERRR!” Yea, ever since I left 1/6th of my stuff in Chiang Mai, the brain goes into “gotcha” mode when I cram and slam. Not fun.

I wheeled my half-opened bag across the parking lot and into a welcoming restaurant across the street. I spied ambiance.

Freshly squeezed OJ was waiting. Back to happy again. I headed straight to the washroom. Sitting toilets. With toilet paper. That flushed. Happy again.

For breakfast, they served Vietnamese/French banquette, fried eggs, cheese and butter. Happy again. You just got to love the positives from French occupation. Oh, almost forgot, the Vietnamese coffee was to die for. No need for chemicals or cream to dilute the taste. Yep, was happy again.

After breakfast, we waddled to the bikes. I changed into my biking outfit – H&M black leggings and the stretched out, Perfect Fit JCrew long sleeve T-shirt.

Ang raised my bike seat to its limit and said, “You big…” I tell him wrong word. We use the word “tall.” He just smiled.

Me: “Ang, how long is the ride today?”

Ang: “Morning ride is twenty-five kilometers.”

Me: “WHAT!  It sounds like a lot… I think it is 18 miles or so, right?  No hills, right?”

Ang ignored me. I continued to think this through. Have I ever biked 18 or 20 miles before? Can’t recall. Certainly NOT at a pub crawl at CSU (Colorado State University.) And, I believe that was the last time I was on a bike for any extended period of time.

We took off. It’s after 7 am and the little/big town of Lao Cai was waking up with a bang. Families gathered on mini-stools made for midgets. Kids lined up for breakfast from the street vendors.

Old women carried baskets of fruits and flip flops to sell at market. Random men readied themselves for a day of sitting, staring and spitting.

We peddled on.

Within minutes we were out of the diesel aroma and into rice-land. The scenery changed in seconds. Teen age girls were hand washing their clothes at the river. Or, hanging laundry by the road. Their mothers or older sisters were walking to the field with plows in one hand, basket in the other and a baby strapped on their back. Banana fields, green tea fields, rice fields, mango fields littered the landscape. Green screamed at us. The air was dry. It’s hoovered between 68 and 72 degrees. No humidity. No bugs. No motor-bikes. Just Silence. Pure silence. Expect me gasping for air. Happy again.

We hit our first hill. Wait, how do you shift gears? Which side is which? First hill was a disaster. Used all the wrong gears. Walked it. Tour-Burn was cycling patiently behind me. Poor thing. He stopped. Waited. Helped. So kind. It’s nice. I could not recall the last time a cute boy waited on me. Wait, let me rephrase that one. I don’t recall the last time I ALLOWED a cute boy to wait on me. Very different preposition. And, I liked it. Instead of bucking it, I just smiled. It was nice.

The whole morning was filled with Vietnamese adults and children running into the street and enthusiastically greeting us in their high pitched screams, “HI! HI! HELLO!” Their energy kept me moving. And, the mini-hills got better.

We stopped at one point to help a farmer. It’s sunny these next few days and perfect time to dry out corn along the road teaming with mack-trucks, motor-bikes and water buffalo. We helped him sort his corn and he just smiled and smiled and smiled.

The next thing I know, a heard of water buffalo trotted towards us being led by 10-year girls. School does not start until 11:00 am for the older kids, so they can help with farm chores before school.

I really couldn’t imagine walking the dog, let alone a heard of water buffalo, before school in fifth or sixth grade. No doubt, I would have pitched a fit and been grounded for weeks…

After 25 km, we finally stopped. The bike bus was waiting for us. Ang asked if we wanted to keep riding for another 20 km or take the bus to the restaurant. Honey, I was on a high. There was NO stopping me. I say – LETS’ do IT. Both boys nodded in agreement. Off we went. For another 20 km.

OK. About 10 mins into it, my butt froze. Muscle spasm. The pelvis was not used to this much moving, over such an extended period of time.

What was I thinking? I tried to channel this joy and happiness I was feeling earlier. It was difficult. How does Lawrence Armstrong do it?

My attitude changed when school was being let out and all the boys and girls filled the street – again waving at us and screaming “Hello! Hi!” They were SO happy to see us. They could not stop grinning and giggling and waving. Innocent little Vietnamese girls in oversized floppy pink hats, hello kitty back-packs and school uniforms rode along side of us. Their enthusiasm and laughter were intoxicating. I forgot about my paralyzed pelvis and focused on their smiles and hats. I wanted their HATS. I had to find their HATS. I’m buying those HATS…

By the last 3 km, my lower body was on fire. Ang was very far ahead of us. Sweet, patient Tour-Burn was riding next to me. I finally screamed out for Ang, and he just pointed. I could hear myself, “Pelvis is paralyzed…Need to stop…” Tour-Burn said Ang turned into the restaurant. We’re at the final destination. OK, back to happy again.

We cycled up. Stopped. My legs buckled and I fell off my bike. I tried to stretch. Tried to walk. Tried the outdoor toilet. Couldn’t feel a thing… Finally after 10 mins or so, synapses kicked in. I had feeling. And, lunch was waiting. I inhaled and even splurged on a REAL coke. Needed the sugar to help fight the numbness…

After inhaling, we loaded into a wooden boat and cruised down the river for 2 hours. In a matter of minutes, I zonked out. I was full, just biked 45+ km and the sound of the engine just put me out for the count.

When my eyes popped opened, beauty danced around me in the form of limestone mountains, green rice fields, dense jungles and tranquil water.

Of course, this scenery caused me to think not about beauty but about the US believing they could beat the Viet Cong? And, why does stuff like this pop in my mind, when I’m supposed to be relaxed in a beautiful setting? This has GOT to stop.

The boat motored on and we passed men on bamboo rafts dredging up sand from the river. The sand was needed for cement to build buildings, roads….

I wonder if they have a permit or anyone with an engine and some bamboo can extract sand from a river bed? No one could answer my question.

We motored onward.

I knew we arrived for I spied her first. It was a tree. She talked to me. How do I know this? She is one TALL tree. And, I’m TALL. Tall beings bond with each other. I’m sure short beings do the same. Katie, Daph and Chop please chime in here. Do cats and shrubs talk to you?

Tall tree stood out. Her branches reached to the heavens and roots dug deep into the ground. This tall mama has seen it all – French forces, US paratroopers and Viet Cong as well as the occasional water buffalo, pig and China man. She has stories to tell.

I forgot about my partially paralyzed pelvis and lept from my metal chair to take photos. I could not stop taking pictures. Every angle – every light. Boat man, slowed down. I thought he was being nice so I could take at least 100 more pics before my battery died. Nope. We were disembarking at the TALL TREE. Travel angels unite. I just smiled and said “hi” to the tree. I felt protected here – protected from yellow fever, rabbis, mosquitoes and food poison. I belonged.

Tonight, we were to stay with an ethnic tribe. I believe only 10% of the Vietnam population is considered ethnic. This tribe is called Thai, but pronounced as DAY. Yep, I knew it. These are my peeps.

After photographing the tree, my battery died. SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. The Day tribe is one big fat Kodak moment. Man, I hope this village has electricity. I spotted a wire in the distance. I walked towards the wire.

Ang shouted, “Amanda – this way…” I had to figure out where wire goes. I felt like a heroin addict needing a fix…

Need a few electrons. Just one electron will do – Give it to me now.

I pulled out my American hat – “Ang, do these people – the Day tribe – have power? Battery died. Needs recharging – We’re talking crisis here…” He smiled. “Yes, have power…Goes out at night.” All I heard was “yes and electrons.” Confident my people would have access to electrons.

The Day tribe daughter welcomes us to her bamboo home on stilts wearing her red PJ’s, accented with the Burberry design pattern. Red is my favorite color. Plus, she is wearing an oversized light blue, silk pock-a-dot floppy hat. Want the hat. Of course, she’s a DAY.

Found out later, she is a little over 40 and just had her second child. Her little girl is now one. Day village daughter looks all of 30. I wanted to take a picture, but was too embarrassed. Ang told me that her older son is 19. He’s off – carousing in the town and won’t return back to the village. Day girl wanted a girl, for girls take care of their mommies and daddies. So, her kids are almost 20 years apart. Wow…

Ang took us on a sightseeing mission of the Day Village. The village seemed sooo remote. We put-putted for over 2 hours to get here. Ang told us that the town where we ate lunch is only 7 km away and remember our little boat never went over 3 mph. So, bug spray and Coke Zero are right around the corner. Nice to know.

We came across a little girl cleaning rice with a Whirlpool fan. She looked like a mini-rice terrorists with her black scarf around her head. She’s about 14 and it’s her job to get rid of the unwanted rice kernels. Seriously, I will never look at rice the same. It’s HARD work. A lot of labor. And, I will assert Mr. Uncle Ben should be charging triple.

Next, we walked over to the loud noises. Hammering and music. This is where the men were. Shock city. They’re not sitting and sipping, they building a pagoda for the monks. The village has collected money to build a formal praying area for the local monks. The village does not have a hospital, but will have an oversized monk place to pray. Good to know. After our walk about, we headed back to the bamboo house on stilts for dinner. Another amazing V-nam meal. We inhaled. Then, curled up in our mosquito nets. The boys slept. I typed. Want to remember every moment of this day, even the pelvis pain.

Rise & Shine

My eyes flew open around 5 am. Roosters crowing. Pigs grunting. Birds twirping. Geese landing on our bamboo roof. Two snoring men next to me wrapped in mosquito nets.

My body was still. Mind just absorbing the sounds. I’m waking up with the Day tribe. I feel so blessed to be here. How am I here? Seriously. How in the world am I curled up in a mosquito net, sleeping on a bamboo mat in Northern Vietnam. How? It truly is a wonder. I wake amazed and grateful everyday. And, I’m not just saying that – I hate it when people say stuff like that because it sounds so annoying. You just want to smack them. I mean, waking up happy, joyful and excited to be alive? How is this possible? Well, I can’t tell you how, just can tell you I am.

The mosquito net stirred next to me. The noise of birds landing on the roof must have stirred Tour-burn. My brain goes to “I need to get up…need to go to the bathroom…need to…” But, my spirit said. “Be still. Stay still. And, talk to me.” I did the later.

The boys stirred around 7 am. Breakfast was around 7:30 am. Green tea. Crepes. Bananas. Sugar. We inhaled and then hiked through the Day village, observing their morning rituals. Some women were up early, washing clothes… veggies… babies. Other women were heading out to the fields. Sweeping their floors.

Tots with no underwear were running around. I finally figured out why village kids don’t wear pants. Diapers are too expensive or non-existent. Cloth diapers are too expensive or a pain to wash. They teach the kids how and where to pee and poop as soon as soon as they can crawl. It’s potty training at is finest people…

We hiked for an hour or so then our bus drove us to Day 2 of our bike trek through Northern Vietnam. This was the strenuous stretch day, whatever that means. I’m just happy to be here. Just happy.

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.

Eating, Shopping, Training & Sittin’ in Mongolia Hotel Lobby

25 Sep

We’re off again. I’m growing fond of trains. Living in close quarters. Sleeping on a 3 by 6 foot mini-mattress, where worn sheets and pillows are provided by the host country. Cuddling at night with a plastic water bottle, ripe bananas, noddles housed in Styrofoam, crusty bread and last night’s vodka.

Substituting baby whites for bathing and baby powder for shampoo. Sharing recycled air with four others, whose hygiene and immune system don’t match your own. And, enjoying a toilet with 36 others whose nationalities and bathroom habits range from standing on TOP of the toilet to peeing on the floor. Yes, one can see why at age 38 I’m growing fond of train travel.

It’s 7:00 am. I believe a Wednesday. The Mongolian train’s final destination is Beijing. At the train stations, herds of backpackers strapped down with their personal possessions on their backs swayed in anticipation. I’ve never seen so many of them. Can I just please do the American thing and ask, “don’t they work? And, whose paying for this?” There’s not one universal answer for their stories are as unique as mine. But, I do wonder which socialist, high taxed, low hourly work week country do they live.

Once again, I’m finding other countries vacation and work policies are short of incomprehensible. Adorable Jonah is a tram driver from Sweden.

He’s been driving trams for over 6 years and has accrued almost 3 years of vacation. Can you frigging imagine? For the next six months he’s traveling Russia and Asia to chip away at his mountain of vacation time. When he returns, he’s secure. He has a job, in which is loves. I mean LOVES. His passion for his job excites those around him.

The next big plan is to become a train conductor. Guess what, a conductor’s vacation policy – even better. But, that is not what motivates him. He loves trains. He loves driving them at night. The streets are quiet. He says, “its like meditating. It’s beautiful. But, people are stupid and drunk. Not so good. They walk in front of trams. Hitting them is not so good.” He is one of the more honest men I’ve ever encountered. His eyes look like looking at Bambi’s soul. He speaks with such earnest. Wanting to connect. Wanting to understand differences. Wanting to understand your own truth. He’s a gift. He makes me laugh.

Jonah is conservative Swed. There’s election happening now in Sweden and he wants his party to remain in power. In his view, taxes are too high and government is too big. He wants more tax cuts and make it more difficult for people to take advantage of the system.

I asked, “I’m surprised. I thought Swedes were proud to be overly taxed and overly inundated with government assistance.” He says, “Proud of Sweden, Yes. Proud of people taking advantage of system, no. We pay too much in taxes. Government not always good with money. But, Sweden taxes is not the same as American taxes. You don’t pay taxes. This, not so good… The opposing party wants to increase taxes more. Bad for people. We have many problems. Taxes not solution.”

Tell me about… But, I’m fascinated by the assumption that Americans don’t pay any taxes… I’m constantly calling bullshit on that one to my social, socialist friends of Scandinavian and Europe.

Gosh, I can’t tell you how much I love Mongolia. It’s a ray of sunshine compare to the dark clouds of Russia. I think I’ve said it before, but these people smile. I mean smile. It’s amazing how individual’s energy or a country’s energy impacts your spirit. OK. Back to the last 8 hours first. Then, I’ll write a blog about Mongolia – the land of smiles and sunshine.

I did not sleep last night. This time, by choice. Well, more or less… Once again, I’m hanging in the Mongolian hotel lobby. A lot goes down in Mongolia after midnight. This time, the 16 year old porter boy is staying up with me. Last time, it was a young girl manning the front desk. Today, we got back to Ulaan Baatar (UB) around noon time from the GER camp.

My goal was to buy Mongolian cashmere, mail the cashmere at the Mongolian post office, take a Mongolian shower that includes hot water, stock up at the grocery store on train essentials – water, diet coke, bread, jam, cheese, bananas, chips, cookies, beer, misc… – for the two day choochoo to China, lunch at a Korean restaurant with the young bucks, pick up laundry at Mongolian cleaners that use actual machines not hands…I need to get all of this done by 9:00 pm. Not a problem. Right.

It goes without saying, Mongolian cashmere rocks. We’re talking about the cashmere sold at Niemen Marcus – the expense stuff. Not, the crap-ola you buy at Target or H&M that has cashmere fibers intertwined with nylon, pollsters, cotton and dust. Pure cashmere baby.

Gap Adventures provides a country, tour manager to help the tourons (morons) like us to get around the country. Tuya was our gal. She rocked! I asked here where is to buy cashmere for Christmas presents. She set me up. Before that though, I was telling her about my head cold. It’s coming. And, we’re going to China. I had heard that the Chinese don’t let you in if you are sick – cold, TB or STDs. Nothing. So, I was looking for a Mongolian remedy to zap the sniffles. She hooked me up.

The group arrived at the San Hotel around noon time, yesterday, from the GER camp. Tuya had to kick hotel managers ass about pipes breaking in my room, a man shimming down into my bathroom and organismic screams in the hallway. I believe there were a few other issues as well. After her little chat with management, we headed down the dusty streets of Ulaanbaatar, zig zagging across open man holes, broken concrete and paint peeling buildings to a pharmacy. We hit the pharmacy. And, bellowed out some Mongolian. Little girls went a running to the shelves. They came back with little plastic packets of colorful balls and powders. This train festering bacteria was theirs to fight.

The little pharmacy girl and Tuya went back and forth and back and forth. My word, it’s only a cold. They conceded. I needed yellow balls, red balls and orange powder. It’s all “herbal.” Mongolian herbal may mean something different than US herbal. Who knows…But, I will tell you – the snots have left me. I keep popping the colors and drinking the orange. China can’t reject me now…

Commercial break. Lauren from Jersey just walked into our train compartment. She looks tired. Hell, we all look tired. “Yea, I didn’t sleep much last night. Well, you know…Yea, I was electrocuted.” WHAT! Her words were so blase. No emotion. No expression. I fear she has the Russian disease. Electrocution is a possibility when you stay in no star hotels and travel to places like Mongolia, Russia, China…

I asked, “Are you OK? What happened?” She says, “You know. Our room is really dark. We had two lamps. I went to plug one in but it had US sockets, not Mongolian. Damn, like that’s so NOT cool. So, I grabbed the other lamp. Try to put it in the adapter…and ZAP…I screamed. I mean, I really screamed. It hurt like a bitch. No, I was not near any water. So, I’m lucky about that….I mean, not being near water. So, I’m kind of out of it today…I think my brain cells are fried. Damn, I’ve never been electrocuted like that. Yea, so I couldn’t sleep. Other than that my night was cool… Oh, yea, someone stole my cell phone too…I forgot about that…”

After she casually gives us her 411, she walks off to the next compartment to tell the same story. She’s taken on herself to organize a tour to the Great Wall of China when we arrive. Now, That’s going to be interesting.

That’s the norm around here. Electrocution. Theft. Bucked off horses. Mongolian hospitals. Fake organisms. Sliced open toes… Every morning, over breakfast, we all gather to talk about what happened the last 6 to 8 hours while we were sleeping. Every morning, someone has a story – trivial or major – no matter. It can include bowl movements and strange rashes to spider bites and bats landing on your pillow. It’s part of the travels.

OK. Back to buying cashmere. Tuya’s friend has her own cashmere factory. She designs her own apparel and sells it in her beautiful shop. She’s a single mother, raising three children on her own. She was schooled in Germany and speaks German, English, Russian, and Mongolian. Prior to having her own business, she worked for the government run cashmere factor as an executive. It went private when they kicked out the Russians in the early 90s, when communism took a flying leap off a cliff. So, she decided a few years later to start her own cashmere business. A bank gave her a loan. And, Bam…She’s in business, catering to the affluent Mongolian.

Tuya was telling me that the Mongolian women are very strong. They work, support the family, raise the children — do it all. The men are weak. She said, “It’s hard to find a good, Mongolian man” OK – global THEME ALERT. Why are the men – generally speaking – so sorry. Women seem to be doing it all. Carrying all the weight. Maybe it’s always been like this for thousands and thousands of years and I’m at an age where a woman’s fortitude versus a man’s laziness is being thrown in my face, regardless of country, race, or economic status… Maybe, I’m just more aware of this growing gap between women and men. As they say at the train stations, “Mind to Gap.” Maybe us gals need to say, “Mind the Men.”

I really do try and stay away from all of my tangents when I write. But, random things just pop in the head. OK. Back to cashmere. Few days prior, I checked out the Mongolia department store, called the “State Department Sore,” and scooped out some scarfs and hats. Impressive. A green cashmere hat found its way into my hands and kept me warm at the GER camp. Tuya told us “to be careful. Department store cashmere may not be 100%. Only certain brands are 100%. You need to stick with me.” Kiki from Norway, Pat from England and I stuck with Tuya. She took us to her friend’s elegant shop off of Ghangis Khan square. Channel, LV, Prada… I was thinking. I can’t afford this. Wrong.

Tuya had already negotiated discounts. Now, this is very normal for tour guides to bring you to “friends” shops so they can get a kick back. But, this was not the case with Tuya. Gap Adventures and the other tour groups she works with cater to the backpacking set – these are the folks who “refuse to pay more than $1 for water.” Majority aren’t seeking quality cashmere. When we told the group we’re setting out to spend money and paying with what we call a CREDIT CARD, horror was written on their faces. To think VISA stands for something more than an official entry into a country….

OK. Let me set the stage. I’ve been at a GER camp for the last 24 hours – hiking mountains, hanging with four legged animals and cuddling up to an iron stove lit by wood. I’ve not had time to shower for the red and yellow balls and orange powder purchase took a priority. My jeans are brown from riding Mongolian ponies. My hair is brown from oil. My shirt is brown because that its color. I look like shit. And, I walk into an elegant, upscale store smelly and with NO lipstick. My mother would be horrified. “Honey, I’ve never….” I will say I baby wiped the pits. So, the BO was down to a minimum.

Little, Mongolian shop ladies showed us beautiful scarfs, gloves, hats, sweaters… You name it. And, it was inexpensive compared to US prices. We’re talking $25 to $35 for 100% cashmere scarves and pagminas….I loaded up. Next stop was the Mongolian post office. Tuya said – not to worry – the Russian hostility attitude was checked at the border. Hmm… We’re talking about government postal workers in a developing country. Smiles and services are not included in a stamp price. We will see….

Tuya said it was best to mail packages from Mongolia compared to Russia and China. In Russia, “they will steal or just not send it unless it is express mail. They rip you off…They don’t care… China it is the same.”

Tuya was right. I was wrong. We were greeted with smiles. Painless. Now, let’s see if the box arrives in 2 weeks… Maybe Russian Nicoli was right – “Americans are smiling on the outside and feel angry on the inside. Russians look like they are angry on the outside but are laughing on the inside…” I think Mongolians are happy on the inside and outside. This is a country feeding off of 300 days a year of sunshine.

We met the Young Bucks travel group at a Korean restaurant. I’ve never had Korean. There were twelve of us jammed in small restaurant. It’s so interesting how we all react to “imposing” on businesses, whether it is a restaurant or store. Tuya asked the Mongolian restaurant workers to move tables so we can all sit together and share the meal. The Swedes, Norwegians and English all cringe. They hate “putting people out” and would rather suffer themselves than ask a paid employee for something extra. American girl here is like, “that’s their job… to take care of customers.. if they can’t move tables, then will tell us….Let’s ask…Plus, we tip….” My European and Scandinavian friends think I’m rude and they’re embarrassed. I think they are wishy-washy and a pain in the ass… Australians and NZ are pretty forceful – or tell people what they want – like Americans. So, it’s always good to have them in a group. The Canadians just follow the group. They are just along for the ride. Yes, I’m generalizing. But, it makes me laugh how right I am..

So, the restaurant workers move the tables to the center of the restaurant. My friends are freaking. I don’t even notice. Tuya helps us order. She tells the group that we’ve ordered too much food. Our resident Korean/Swed – Hanna, who was adopted from S. Korea to Swed parents – told us that it was not enough food. Guess who was right. Tuya. Our table had stacks and stacks of food. I felt at home. In the States, we’re all about packing mounds of meat, lard and rice on plates. Overeating is our birthright. The rest of the group, were horrified again. They have not seen this much food in such a long time. But the food spurred on US travel stories where they’ve ordered at a US restaurant and received mounds and mounds of food. They talked about how embarrassed they were…. And, even more embarrassed when they ordered just one meal and asked for an extra plate. Such an inconvenience for the kitchen staff, no?

By the way, the Mongolian cuisine is all meat all the time – horse meat, cow meat, chicken meat, goat meat, sheep meat, yack meat – and random meat. If you are a vegetarian or have food allergies, then Mongolia is not your place. They drink unpasteurized milk and cook with heavy creams from cows, goats and yacks. The creams and milks are delicious…

Young bucks order Tiger beer and Tuya and the waiter have a heated exchanged. The restaurant did not have beer in the fridge, just fanta and water. Unacceptable. Tuya – I could tell – told him as such. The Mongolian waiter ran outside. Paid some street kid to get us beer. We got our beers. But, the kid brought back warm beer, instead of ice cold. No matter. Warm beer works with Korean food. It’s so damn spicy that any liquid quenches a burning esophagus.

Tuya was telling me how many Mongolian go to S. Korea to work in factories. They make very good money there. The factories feed them, provide housing and they send their money back to their families so they can buy an apartment, take care of their parents or send a kid to private school. She said that when kids get married, they can’t afford a house/apartment. They normally have to move in with their parents. That’s hard. If they go to S. Korea they can save and buy an apartment when they return. Apartment for life. Fully paid for. Sounds familiar. You see this trend everywhere. Prior to S. Korea, Mongolians would go to Japan. But, with Japan in economic crisis, the Mongolians have opted for S. Korea. She said there is a large Mongolian population living in the US west coast. And, these Mongolian BBQ restaurants are a US born phenomenon, not Mongolian. They have them in Mongolia because of the US, not the other way around. They don’t “own” it… Who knew…

After cashmere and postage, Kiki and I headed back to the hotel. It’s about 7 pm. Pat, our 78 year old traveling companion, was walked back to the hotel an hour prior. I still can’t figure out why Gap Adventures would assume the liability of someone close to 80 traveling with a tour group whose mission is low budget, no frills, no nothing. We have to carry our own bags up flights of stairs. We have to haul this our personal effects through through metro stations, onto buses, through train compartments, over pot holes….

Besides that, the trans-Siberian is a hard trip at any age. But, at that age, when you are frail – its frightening. And, it’s not fair to the group for we are very, very worried about her. Our group leader, fearless Mash from Mongolia, seems not to notice of her fragility for he rarely walks with her or helps her with her bags. That’s a whole other story.

What I really can’t figure out is why in the hell her two sons and daughters would permit her to do this trip – alone. If this was a cruise or one of those post all included trip, that’s one thing. But, we’re talking about sleeping in bacteria filled trains, making and eating store bought food in your bunk bed, finding your way to the toilet on a train hurling out of control in the middle of the night, walking miles a day, fending off thieves in markets, going to sleep at 2 am and waking at 5 am to catch a train in 20 degree weather… I can go on and on and on. This is the day in the life of Trans-Siberian travel…It’s hard.

OK. Last night. Picked up my laundry. Yes, paid $8 for someone to disinfect my clothes in boiling water. How happy am I? Washing shirts and underwear in a bathroom sink, with cold water gets old – but not only that – you never believe anything is really clean. I’ve taken to washing my pants while they are still on in the shower, then soak them after. That’s one thing I do miss – washing machines.

Next stop is the super market to buy train staples. It’s getting dark. Tuya and other say that Mongolians, like Russians, drink a lot. Especially the men. Too much vodka means too much frightening. Too much fighting means too much crime. Police are – well – they can be paid off so justice is in the eye of the beholder or the pocket book. It’s best if you do go out at night, to stay together or just stay inside. But, it’s around 8:00 pm. I have a few hours until the vodka kicks in. I make a dash for the grocery store.

By the time I returned to the hotel, the young bucks had left for dinner. I opted out. I just needed some alone time. Put myself in time out. I’ve been with people for 24/7, and like recycled air, I’m becoming ill. I don’t want to have another conservation about traveling. About packing. About what we are not doing in China. About spending too much on lunch. About rude service. About getting lost. About insects bubbling out of the toilet. About bowel movements. Nothing. I need to be quiet.

Our hotel is hidden from the street. So safety is an issue. Nice, right? The grocery store is 3 blocks away. I pass karaoke bars, a run down apartment complex, pile of human shit and a pub called NATO. The blue NATO signs offers no reassurance. At the intersection is where it gets interesting. Rarely do you have a cross walk. So, you must just walk out in front of traffic and ignore cars. If you look at the car, you have a higher chance of getting mowed over. Uh, slightly different than home. I place my foot down, and jet across the street. I see the store. One eye is closed. I don’t want to see the car that will nail me. Though, I do hope its a Renault not a van.

Got across just fine. Found the grocery store like I own the place. See, this is uneventful. Why? Because the store had a SIGN saying “food market,” unlike Russia who’s attitude is – good luck sister in finding us…we really don’t want your money or you…

The store was stocked with mostly Mongolian, Chinese and Korean brands. I did see Kellogg cereal with duct tape and Nestle instant coffee. I head to carb central. Mongolian breads go stale in hours. Maybe it’s the flour. No clue. I sit and look at the packaged breads trying to determine which one will last two days. I pick the softest one.

Kiki said she found tuna. I decided to splurge and try for some protein on this trip. One thing I vowed NOT to do is to consume plastic noodles packaged in Styrofoam cups. The smell makes me want to hurl. I was in search of peanut butter – I have not seen peanut butter since the States. I did not start looking for it until Poland. So, the Middle East could be stoked with Peter Pan for all I know. Anyway, no peanut butter. I bought some bananas, an apple, crusty bread, strange cheese, yogurt, raisins in a zip lock and three diet cokes. I did not have ONE diet coke across Russia. I believe that is one of the reasons my stomach fell apart. No Diet Coke chemicals to fry the baby bacteria…

I loaded my backpack with the foods and hurled it on my chest. I think I’m going to do that when I get back home. I’m going to go to Publix. Instead of bagging it. I’m going to throw it in my backpack. Strap it to my chest and walk out the door. Now, talk about looks — And, I’m going to pretend that I don’t speak any English. I would like to see how the high school check-out gals would treat me. Done. That will be on my return “bucket” list… That, and drinking loads of FRESCA.

I walked back to my hotel around 9ish. The place was quiet. I packed, again. It takes me 45 minutes to pack this damn bag. I’m still trying to figure out how to make all this shit fit. I’ve been discarding clothes. Discarding shoes.

But, bought boots and a sweater. But, I would have hoped that my bag would have gotten smaller. Nope. After Bhutan, I’m yanking a lot of things. I’m keeping an ugly pair of hiking pants and button down shirt for the Monk trek. After that, its gone baby.

OK. After packing. I went downstairs to the hotel lobby. Only one cable for internet. It’s around 10:30 pm. I’m updating my blog. Trying to rearrange my trip to Thailand. I want to stay longer there. I need a weeks worth of $2.50 massages. It’s now midnight. The porter dude cranks the TV. Dirty Dancing is on. I’m watching him. He’s mezmorized by Patrick Swayze. Yea, I can see that. Then, he flips to Ghangis Khan kicking ass in some fight. He’s mezmorized by that too. Get that. He’s a dude. Then, he lands on Celine Dion in Vegas. Really? Can we PLEASE go back to the Khan. I will take him over Celine. I keep my head down and continue to type.

It’s after midnight and the lobby gets into action. A man walks in the door. He’s talking loud. He does not see me. The porter boy just wiggles his head “no.” Porter boy does not look at the man. Down at the desk. Can’t look at the young girl walking into the lobby. He’s sees her before me. She has the man’s jacket over her head. It’s like she’s cold or something. Probably ashamed. The man is in a nice suit. Looks like a business man. The woman is dressed in a black skirt, tights and shirt. Once again, nothing that scrams, “SLUT.” The porter boy continues to shake his head.

The man says some loud words, grabs the girl and walks out. I catch the porter boys eye. It is vacant. I can only guess what that was about.

He goes back to TV. We’re now listening to a Mongolian show. It’s like a game show. Why do they have to put the volume on notch 100. I tune it out. Back to videos. Shakaria comes on. Porter boy eyes grow wide. He can’t take his eyes off the scream. Damn, neither can I. The woman’s voice and dance moves are amazing. I loved her when I was in Honduras and love her music now. I hear clicking of heels down the marble stairs.

It’s now after 1 AM. A young woman – about 22 – and older Mongolian male make their way down the stairs. She has dark glasses on. He looks straight ahead. He nods at the porter boy. Man does not see me, neither does the girl. The girl keeps her head down. They leave. I have not heard the orgasm screams like a few nights ago. Either these men aren’t performing or were asked to tone down the moans, screaming and rocking of head boards. My last thought is it’s a Wednesday night – so, it could be a “slow”night.

We’re coming to 2:30 am. Another couple comes in. I think its the same man with another woman. I’m not sure. I hope not. But, the porter communicates, “there’s no room at the inn…” They leave. This time the young woman looks at me. She does the once over and dismisses me. Rightly so… I mean, I’m once again wearing crayola crayon brown PJ pants, a zip up hoodie and black suede long boots. My hair is down. And, a Velcro curler is in my hair to keep my bangs down. I would love to imagine what she is thinking of me. I bet it’s good.

It’s 3:30 am and I’ve posted all of my Trans-Siberian travels. I did my last communique on Facebook, for China has shut out the social networking site. Three weeks and no Facebook. The Young Buck travelers are having a hard time of this. The thought of not being able to facebook friends for three whole weeks. I don’t participate in that conversation for either I will come across as a fuddy dud, judgmental or just a retard techie.

I head to bed. Up four flights of marble stairs. Our room is frigging freezing! We only have a sheet. They forgot a blanket. Typical. I need the GER’s iron hot fire now. I throw on more clothes and jackets. I get into bed. Set the alarm for 5:45 am and wait it out. There’s no sleep.

Have I told you how much I love Mongolia? Thank you God for sharing Mongolia with me. In a few hours, we head to China.

Hello Mongolia – Land of smiles & sunshine

25 Sep

Mongolians don’t sigh, they smile. Even their border agents smile.

Train pulled up to the border. Mongolian customs’ agents politely asked us to to leave the train while they added more cars and cleaned. We disembark. It’s cold. I mean cold, cold. We picked up the pace and bolted to the one room train station. Mongolians packed from wall to wall, loaded down with duffel bags, boxes and plastic satchels in route to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. They pushed and shoved, but they with smiles. Think I’m going to like Mongolia.

The Young Bucks did what we do best – sniff out cheap beer and crusty bread. Mash, our Mongolian tour guide, told us he did not know of a food/beer mart in walking distance. Not a problem. The Europeans, Americans, Canadians and Scandinavians will find one. And, find one fast. We have one hour until we re board the train.

It’s dark. Outside it’s freezing. Roads are dusty. Pot holes. Unfinished road construction. Small concrete structures with peeling paint. Protecting our faces from the cold and win, we take off for the light. It’s about 1,000 meters. We’re gaining on the light… stupid tourists in search of beer.

Door swings open. And, Mongolian shop keeper sees twelve round eye, white foreigners. She starts mumbling. Another girl from behind the curtain joins her. We’re all smile. We scored. They are smiling because they’re in shock. From the look on their faces, they don’t see many tourists. Mash helped us make our purchase. I think a liter was like $.90. I walked outside – for fresh air. I liked watching people – the town. Who are these people? Where do they work? Why do they live here? Where’s the clinic? School? Watch and observer.

Yea, well my observing leaped to annoyance in a matter of seconds. The no-teeth Mongolian bee-lined for me. Only me. A super blond, young, beautiful Swed is standing next to me. Nope. He wants me. Check the box again for the DNA challenged, the unemployed or midgets finding TallGirl attractive. No teeth Mongolian man comes close. Starts talking. Smell of liquor combined with dirt turns me on… I pull the Russian sigh. He smiles again. I sign. Russian sign has zero affect. Turned my back, open the door, walked back inside and stood in line for a beer. Emily found this little episode HY-sterical. Ha. Ha…

Back on the train. With beer. I think its around midnight. We wait. A nice Mongolian FEMALE solider asks us for our passports. I was a little nervous for Mongolia recently changed its rules saying US residents do NOT need a Visa. Well, our tour leader, MASH did not even know this. Lauren in our group is from Jersey. So, we were talking contingency plans in case the Mongolian train agents did not get the memo. For the past day or so, folks on our trip have been talking about how easy or difficult it was to get a Mongolian Visa. Lauren and I would just look at each other – smile – and whisper, we’re screwed.

Well, low and behold, Mongolian train agents DID get the memo about US citizens not needing a Visa. Thank goodness. Looks like we’re staying out of a Mongolian detention center. Lauren said she felt nervous. No nerves about the Visa. I was more uptight about my upset stomach. My thought was Mongolian detention center at least had flushing toilets. No joke. It was THAT bad.

After they searched our compartments, the Mongolian customs’ agents welcomed us to Mongolia, again. The train lurched forward and we set off for the capital city, Ulaan Baatar. The locals call is UB. YEA! We arrived around 6 am. Tuya, our Mongolia country tour guide, picked us up along with the bus driver, Mia. They soon become my new Mongolian BFFers.

Our micro-mini bus came from S. Korea. I tell you this because we’re very large people. It looks like a clown show at the circus trying to fit our bags and big people into such a small bus. The San Hotel stood before us. It’s around 7 am and Tuyo had the kitchen serve us a HOT breakfast by 7:30 am.

See, I heart her. We’ve been living off of bread, platform food and beer for 2 days. Anything soaked in hot grease is welcomed by this point.

Fried egg. Hot random sausage-like meat. Cucumbers. Cream bread. Instant coffee. Now, guess what was the best. Hello, cream bread. I was told cream bread is made by taking thick, cows cream. Heat it. Skimming the fat. Somehow turn the fat into an oil. Use the oil to fry the bread. Talk about double delicious. The French have nothing on Mongolian fried cream bread. I could have put away a pound of it.

We showered. Hot water. I blew dry my hair. First time in weeks. I put on mascara. My word, I’m such a great candidate for ‘before and after’ pics for regular grooming. I feel like someone is saying overhead….”Ladies and Gents… This is what you look like with limited grooming…No showering…no lotion…no brushing…no nothing… And, this is what you look like with 30 mind of grooming… showering wit soap, moisturizing, drying hair, putting on make-up….” It’s remarkable. I truly.

At the Russian border patrol the passport agent did THREE double takes at my photo. Then she asked me stand to get a better look. She was either annoyed that I was smiling in my passport picture – a BIG No No in Russia. And, I’m serious. Or, she could not believe someone could go from cute to narley sooo fast.

After sanitizing the body, the Young Bucks were off to tackle Ulaan Baatar. Mash gave us the 411 on his city. In a few mins time, we hit a gigantic square where Mr. Ghangis Khan is featured. Yes, it’s a damn big square because it was a damn, big family operated Empire that took and ruled the land from East to West. We’re talking about China, Russia and parts of Europe over the span of hundreds of years. You have to give the Mongolians a lot of credit. They were fierce horsemen, arrow-men (not sure if that is a word) and warriors. Don’t mess with the Khan family.

Mongolia is on the move. You smell progress and a side of corruption in the air. Mash and I were talking. He said that if you are an honest Mongolian businessman, you won’t get ahead. You won’t make money. You have to do things on the side. Be corrupt in order to make money. My response was, “yea, it was like that in the states in the 18th and 19th centuries… then lawyers were born….” I laughed. It will take years and years to weed out corruption. You need to have systems in place. Transparency. And, a stable judicial/legal system. He said in China they execute politicians who take brides or CEOs that are corrupt. The baby milk scandal a few years ago, the Chinese government killed the top people managing the company who were responsible for tainting the milk. Damn. I wonder if they will do the same with the CEOs that put lead in toys… This is the stuff you DON’T read about.

Yes, Mongolia is moving. There are over 2 million Mongolians living in the country. And, over 1 million live in the city – Ulaan Baatar. Just by my observations, its seems like a young city. We’re talking about 20s and 30s and 40s. They are hip.

The women here are NOT teetering in stiletto heels, like the Russians. They take the practical approach to navigating potholes. After Soviet empire took its last breath, Mongolians kicked them out and are making a run at capitalism – Mongolian style.

Mongolia is a very rich country. It’s lands house copper, coal and coveted minerals. Some say, they have the largest copper fields in the world. South Korea has set up shop here. China too as are other countries. The new president – according to our bus driver – supports capitalism and business, but is trying to slow things down some. While progress is good, its corrupting. Rich are rich. Poor are poor. But, there appears to be a growing middle class.

While filling cracks in Poland, I heard about the BEST Indian restaurant in Ulaan Baatar. It’s called the Taj Mahal. I told the Young Bucks about it. Indian food seems to be a trend. Or, if you live in London, you live off it.

A large group wanted to go. Taj was on the 6th floor of a 5 star hotel. Again, hotel star ratings are NOT universal. We asked for beers and they returned COLD. Take that back. This is a 5 Star outfit, for sure. Indian just leaped over Mexican as my new favorite food. It’s time to toss the tortillas…

That night, we took in a traditional Mongolian cultural show. The performances radiated positive energy and joy, unlike the Russian ballet dancers performing Swan Lake. As I was watching Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, I was wondering what was off – what the missing piece in their performance. The dancers, just danced. Lifeless ballet. My seat was close enough, I was able to read their expressions. Annoyance. Boredom. More Annoyance. My Swan Lake experience occurred my second night in St. Petersburg so I was still sorting out the Russian sign and ice cold eyes.

I chalked up the ballet performance as “the dancers were tired.” On the other hand, the Mongolian performance probably do their show 7 days a week for the last ump-teen years. It does not show on their faces. They want to be there – performing. They are joyful. My word, what a change a smile and positive attitude can make –

Pictures below:

After the show, we went to another friggin cafeteria. This time, it was an all-you-can eat Mongolian restaurant. FYI. We gluttonous Americans are the ones who kick-started the Mongolian restaurant concept, not Mongolia. Feeling full from the Taj, I restrained from seconds. But, did a taste of their unsweetened desserts.

I couldn’t sleep. I plopped down at the Mongolian hotel lobby to connect to WiFi. They have only one cable cord in the entire hotel. The lobby was jumping. Karaoke bars closed around midnight. Hooks up start happening around 12:05 am. Men asking for rooms, around 12:15 am. Couldn’t tell if the hotel charges by the hour or night. You have your older men in suits and younger girls – who, by the way looked classy and not slutty. Here I was, the white tourist sitting cross-legged on the couch. Laptop on. Wearing old jeans and a black fleece and mittens. (Still cold) I did not fit. Because of that, the “men seeking a room” crew tuned me out.

At one point three couples were waiting for a room. Then, the song “All the Single Ladies” came on the TV. Beyoance was dancing across the screen. And, I started to giggle. Oh, the irony. The song goes….“If you like it…then you should have put a ring on it…If you like it…then you should have put a ring on it…” These young things should be saying it to these horny Mongolian men. Irony was beautiful. They got their rooms. I headed up four flights of stairs. Crawled into bed ALONE around 1 am.

About 1:30 am or so, I hear some mans’ voice and water running. Maria, my roommate, is standing in the middle of the room looking at the bathroom I asked, “what is up?” She says, “we have a leak. The pipes burst. And, there’s a man crawling through our bathroom ceiling. I called the front desk…I thought you left the water running, but when I opened the door, this is what I got…” I forced myself out of bed. I just wanted to throw the pillow over my head and go back to sleep.

I look in the bathroom. Steady water is falling to the floor. A man’s is standing on his tip toes on our toilet, half is body is in ceiling. Not sure if he is a hotel worker or a pervert.

I pop my head out the hallway, waiting for the hotel clerk. A woman’s loud moans permeate the air. What? Brain fog is lifting. What is GOING on here… The ceiling man jumps down off the toilet. Mongolian bell-hop walks in and they go at it. Everyone seems calm. Front desk gal walks in. Sizes up the damage and asks if we want to move rooms. Then, she narrows her eyes and let’s these guys have it. I stand back. Listening to them. And, listening to the loud moans.. Their faces are not distracted by the sexual cries. They are focused on the front desk lady. By the looks of it, this is a normal situation. Loud screams of ecstasy. Pipes bursting. Men crawling in the ceiling. I look down, feeling out of place in my crayola crayon Pjs and long sleeve t-shirt. Desk clerk lady hands us a new key. Second floor.

We pack up. I ask Maria if she is hearing the sex noise? Maria gets flustered when things go array, so she’s more focused on packing then being immature like me. We go. We pass by the rooms. I turn around to look at the Mongolian man’s faces again. Blank. They are not even grinning. They are probably thinking they have to clean the room after they finish doing their business. OK. This is a new experience for me.

Its closer to 2:30 AM. We have to be up early for GER camp traveling. I crawl into bed. I laugh. I go back to what just happened here? And, who and hell was that man shimmering through our bathroom ceiling? Does he work at the hotel? Or, just some perv checking on the sex addicts in the other room… So confused. So, don’t care. I need sleep.

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.

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 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…

Off the Grid – Trans Siberian & Mongolian GER

20 Sep

For my 1.2 fans…  I’ve been off the internet grid for 5 days, traversing Russia and Siberia via rail.  I wrote everyday – so I hope to have it posted this week. I’m sure you’ve been wondering “where in the world is Tallgirl” and did she make it out of Russia – land of no smiles???

In Mongolia now.  Leaving tonight for a GER stay — tent for harsh living in the middle of no where. Loving Ulaan Baatar.

A quick Mongolian hotel update. Asleep at 12:30pm. Woke at 1 am to water spewing from the ceiling and man shimmering through crawl space in my bathroom.  Loud cries of women faking organisms permeated the 4th floor. Hotel clerk screaming. I just watched.  My take? Man was spying on sex girls, excitedly kicked a pipe & was busted.  As I said, it’s all part of preparing for tonight’s stay in a Ger – tent suited for harsh lifestyles.

Party on rock stars… Let’s hope the GER has accessible toilets…Bringing the Imodium for this one.