The Trans-Siberian

Train friends

Novosibirsk spoils

Somewhere near Irkutsk

Sunset on the Trans-Siberian

Provisions on the Trans-Siberian

From Moscow to Irkutsk, Russia, via the 340 Trans-Siberian train

Travelling platskartny (3rd class, open carriage, cheapest option; something like 3000+ miles for about 120$) proved to be totally freaking awesome. I ended up getting basically adopted by the three guys across from my bunk, Vlad, Mikhail, and Erik, and a German-speaking babushka in the bunk next to mine, whose name I never caught. Mikhail and Erik kept me fed the entire trip. I, being one with ever so much common sense, forgot to buy supplies for the journey in my mad dash to make sure I got to the right station after wandering around the wrong one, and these guys basically saved my bacon. They also kept telling me I was too skinny (in Russian) and to eat more (those are the two guys in the photo with me) and to come back to Russia in summertime and visit them. The babushka kept giving me apples, candy, and once, fish and potatoes, and I think she was convinced that I spoke German.

I wish I’d taken more photos, but as platskartny is an open carriage, taking photos felt like it’d be a big invasion of privacy and just awkward. Also, the train windows are filthy, which makes photos all look kind of boring and grainy. I am glad for many things on this trip so far, including the fact that a.) I am not a picky eater nor allergic to certain foods, b.) I am not claustrophobic, and c.) that I enjoy my own company a fair amount. That being said, the journey would have been 100x better if I spoke halfway decent Russian. Vlad very kindly translated as much as he could into English for me, but that only gets one so far. For the really interesting questions, like religion, life goals, hopes, dreams, politics, etc. I could not understand anything nor convey my own thoughts. It’s incredibly frustrating to be surrounded by people who are intensely curious about you and vice versa and not be able to have a decent discussion. This was to be a recurring theme throughout Russia for me…

Anyway, the train was insane. Thank heavens that no one offered me any vodka at any point in Russia (I hate vodka). In fact, there was far less alcohol on the train than I had previously imagined. And unlike the movie Trans-Siberian, there was far less drugs, sex, and danger. Also, far fewer English speakers. There was a lot of sleeping, since the sun didn’t rise until about 10am and set at 4pm, and you cross multiple time zones. There was a lot of staring out of the train windows. There was a lot of smoking (but not by yours truly). The three guys shook my hand and congratulated me on my “strength” (?) when they found out that I don’t smoke. There was not a lot of showering. There are two bathrooms for the whole carriage, each with a sink which you cannot stick your head under. But I have a plastic orange cup from Florence with which I was able to sort of wash my hair with twice. And I used a lot of baby wipes. I finished Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux and the fifth Percy Jackson book. I met a pair of Italian brothers who are expanding their wine business into Russia, and who tried to give me some life advice. All in all, not very eventful, but very relaxing. My cold from Moscow (that I suspect was due to pollution..which doesn’t bode well for China..) was cured by the enforced rest.

The best parts of the trip would have to be the times where communication wasn’t so vital. One night, when a very young brother and his sister were on the train, we played (what I think was) a Russian version of Hearts, which I was terrible at on my own. The little boy started helping me, though, and we won every subsequent round. A lot of laughter that night. There was the night that we decided to do twenty questions via drawings, which I have in my sketchbook and will treasure for always. Some things are surprisingly hard to communicate via drawing, especially bridge building (Erik’s profession). The pinnacle of it all had to be my last night on the train, when we stopped in Novosibirsk and ran across the frozen train tracks to pick up more groceries and ice cream, and we ate dumplings from a platform vendor, and we wished each other Merry Christmas. And on this night, the German-speaking babushka searched for chess competitors, and we ended up playing. She thoroughly trounced me multiple times in a row, but kept shoving candy at me the entire time (to soften the blow?). She was intense! We played chess for so long that the lights went from the regular night time lights, to the dim lights, and finally they went totally off. Mikhail and Erik had a flashlight, so we rigged up a swinging flashlight over the table and continued playing on. Ahhh, it was wonderful. I will always remember that chess game, like a perfectly frozen postcard, as the highlight of my trip to Russia.

I think that I what I was looking for in Russia was a human connection. I definitely found it on that particular Trans-Siberian train. I think that that’s what we look for in our travels, or at least, one of the main things I look for. To know that for just one moment, someone else in the world cares about you, even just a little bit (or a lot) and is interested in you and your life when your paths cross in this world.

And then came Irkutsk…

To Russia, with love

Cheap champagne

To Russia

Mockba

The arch

They look familiar...

Metro tiles

St Basil's Cathedral

Moscow peek

Moscow, Russia

I am sure I’ll be writing much, much more about the Trans-Siberian train, but I’ll try to start catching up with everything that’s happened on my journey so far. This is a lot to catch up on, so I think I’ll split it into several parts over a few days while I attempt to get to Beijing and meet my dear Mandi…by the way, I’m currently in Ulaanbaatar after a 5-day train from Moscow, an 8-hour marshrutka ride from Irkutsk around Lake Baikal, and a 13-hour bus from Ulan-Ude; 1 very pathetic attempted mugging (don’t worry, they weren’t successful); and 5 slips on ice.

I am pretty sure that UB is the anti-Mongolia, as it totally sucks here. (And everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to Mongolia says the countryside is amazing.) I’m excited to be leaving tomorrow. I’ll be totally honest: so far, my trip has been nothing like what I expected. It’s been a lot lonelier than I thought – so far, I’ve met a grand total of 7 other travellers, only 4 who actually wanted to chat – and in general, a lot harder than travels in Europe. You can know something in your head, but when you’re lost for four hours, in the snow, in a city that you don’t know, and you can’t ask a single person for directions and have them understand what it is you’re looking for, well, it’s absolutely exhausting. And only having about 5-6 hours of daylight blows. Since I’m a solo female travelling, I really don’t want to risk being out at night by myself. (Which really sucks because I am a total night owl.) Also, I have not had a single bit of alcohol for much the same reason. It’s not like I’m an alcoholic or anything, but I do like beer. However, it’s depressing to drink by yourself. It is nice to be paying for one bed in a hostel dorm and getting the whole room to myself, though. And the people who’ve helped me along the way have been amazing. I think that part of the reason they are so helpful is because I’m a girl by myself (and they all say I’m crazy). Overall, though, it’s very empowering to know that I’ve gotten this far! Parts of the trip have been really fun. My next post will reveal some fun details.

Soundtrack for the rest of this post (the not depressing part!): To Russia, my homeland & Transatlantique.

The flight to Russia was a good introduction to the country. Leaving from NYC, we were delayed inexplicably for about 4 hours, then sat on the runway for another 2 hours once boarding. At least they gave me a voucher for refreshments due to the delay. Also, the in-flight services included one glass of cheap champagne and one glass of cheap red wine, so I was appeased. Transaero proved to be pretty legit, despite not being able to change my ticket at all once it was purchased since my origin was the US (not Russia). I’m pretty sure it was due to the New Year’s holidays, but there were about 30 people on a Boeing 777-200, so we each could take five rows to ourselves. Boss. Flew over Iceland but it was late at night and did not get to see anything interesting. And there was applause from the other passengers when we landed. Hmmm.

Next, Moscow. I already did a post about the metro, but unfortunately didn’t get photos of the metro station with stained glass windows (pretty sure it was Novoslobodskaya, but I only saw it on my way to Yaroslavsky for the Trans-Siberian). Curses!

Couchsurfing, once again, proved to be completely invaluable. In Moscow, I was taken in by Genrikh & Victoria, an absolutely wonderful couple who were the very definition of hospitality for a weary traveller. Genrikh was particularly delighted to speak with a native English speaker – something I haven’t heard very often in my life – and cooked me absolutely delicious food, took me on a walking tour all over Moscow, and we discussed life, Georgia (the country, not the state), and our plans for the future. Moscow is a very beautiful city, particularly around the river…the view from near the Vorob’evy hills at night time across the river is as gorgeous as any view in Venice. (Only super blurry photos of this, sorry y’all.)

Every time I feel myself thinking pessimistic and cynical thoughts about humanity, I think about the best of my couchsurfing experiences and I just can’t hold onto them. Moscow was highly enjoyable through the lens of my couchsurfing experience, and I’ll do another post on it later. However, having gone to Russia to experience proper snow, I can safely say that I think I’ve experienced it as much as I need to.

After Moscow, with a lovely farewell from Genrikh – “Enjoy your road.” – it was time to board the train to Siberia.

A ride on the Moscow metro

yellow submarine closeup

don't speak the language

mosaic

in the hall

detail

like a star

white ceiling

yellow submarine

blue balloon

Moscow, Russia

I’ll be honest, the thought of riding this particular metro intimidated the hell out of me before I got here. Mostly because I was supposed to have the Cyrillic alphabet memorized before arriving in Russia and, well, that didn’t happen. But, thankfully, like most metros I’ve ridden it makes sense once you get the hang of it and accidentally exit when you don’t intend to. And I think it may be the fastest and most efficient metro I’ve ever ridden. The stations are also pure insanity and way over the top on the circle line (number 5). I love how gaudy and crazy they are.

My impressions of Moscow so far are pretty positive, overall. However, unlike New York City, the first stop on my trip, I definitely couldn’t see myself living here. It’s been pretty difficult adjusting to travelling solo, and on top of that, this is my first time solo in a country where I don’t speak the language (and almost no one speaks English here).

I’m hesitant to make any sweeping generalizations about Russians, but so far, many people I’ve encountered don’t live up the Russian stereotype. I have had people I don’t know smile at me. When I was completely lost on the metro on my first ride from the airport to the apartment I’m staying at, every single person I stopped and asked for directions (via gestures, pointing, and helpless looks from me) was incredibly helpful and worried about me getting there. An older couple I stopped in a park argued for several minutes over the best path, drew me multiple maps, and we were sort of able to communicate in a little French. They were the ones who got me to my destination. I have also had people randomly chat to me.

I don’t think I’d recommend Russia as the first place for someone to travel solo, particularly if you don’t speak Russian. But I would most definitely say you should visit Russia at least once in your life.

I questioned myself on the plane ride over as to what exactly was the point of this trip, feeling totally lost on a plane where everyone was speaking Russian. What am I looking for? What do I hope to experience? What is the bigger purpose of gallivanting around the globe? I’m not totally sure that I know what it is that I’m seeking. But I do know that I had a glimpse of it this morning. I felt that feeling of utter belonging sweep over me, the feeling that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, the feeling of being right where and when I belong. It’s a feeling that I very rarely experience (Ireland and Spain and Austin, TX come to mind), and almost always it’s been while I’m travelling. That experience, combined with the well of emotions that I felt stepping into the Red Square and seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral for the first time, makes me think I might be headed down the right path…whatever that may be for me. More to come – especially thoughts on NYC!

*I apologize in advance for the formatting and picture quality from here on out. I don’t have access to Photoshop and it appears the regular formatting options won’t load in wordpress…yay.

Down the rabbit hole

the pier

        nom nom nom   sorry mandi

what is this i don't even

mmm kingcake

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

Finally, a post about my upcoming trip! I feel like it’s easier to talk about my previous travels, because it’s only with time and distance that I realize what it was I learned from them. I find it harder to talk about upcoming journeys because a.) I am kind of superstitious about dumb things, and typing things into a blog about an upcoming trip is one of them (completely illogical, I know), b.) I have so much to do, I can’t believe that I decided now was a good time to start a blog, and c.) I don’t have any photos to post of a trip I haven’t gone on yet!

But anyway. I’m super excited right now, so much so that even after working somewhere around 10 hours today and being completely exhausted, I want to type this up! I’m so excited because I got to skype with my lovely friend who I’m going to visit and travel with in China, M., for 2 hours tonight! Our plans are coming together nicely. Now if only we can manage to find each other in Beijing…(Which is a dilemma I’d love to find myself in many times over: having to find a good friend in a foreign city so we can adventure about. A tough life indeed.)

M. is absolutely wonderful! (Hopefully she’ll forgive me for posting photos of her on the internets. ;) ) Somehow, we attended the same high school but managed to never meet one another. I ended up working at a coffee shop that M. had worked at previously (before she studied abroad in China). When we finally met after she returned to the US, we ended up becoming good friends after working some long and crazy shifts in that same coffee shop making weird raptor noises at ungodly hours, at Christmas parties playing Candyland, after adventures on abandoned piers, and over King cake and nachos.

Anyway, long story short, M. moved to China and has been working there for a few years. I said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I came to visit you in China?” And M. said, “Let’s do it!!” And thus, the epic plan to take the Trans-Mongolian to China was born. From the very first time that we talked about it, to actually discussing the minute details of when and where to meet up…it’s been a long road, but it really is a dream coming true. In exactly one month, 9,530 miles away from my current location, we’ll be meeting up again to hunt for Peking duck in Beijing. The last time we saw each other was a late night chat in a gas station parking lot in the hot and sticky humidity of Louisiana.

Some days, I feel very lucky and blessed indeed, no matter how bad or long of a day I’ve had. Today is one of those days. To know that my hard work is going to support something I love doing makes it all worth it. But getting to explore China with an amazing friend? It’s the icing on top of a sweet cake.

A city by the sea

Calton Hill

Crisps!

Make a wish

The View from Calton Hill

Homemade pancakes!

This is a Respectable House
        Down from Arthur's Seat   The Keep

Cowgate graffiti
Up the hill

Bagel
A look out from Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh, Scotland

There’s a piece of me that feels a little pang inside every time I look at a map and see Scotland. There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place mentally before you take a journey. What that right place is, well, that’s up to you. But for me, I wish I’d taken things a little slower when I first went to Europe. Or had more time there. Or more money. Hahaha, always more money, especially for travel in Europe…but overall, I really don’t regret going. I’m so happy that I did.

I do regret, however, only spending three days in Edinburgh. My evil step-brother, P., and I had a friend studying abroad in Edinburgh, K. She is amazing. And she was the best host ever. She let us stay in her dreamy 6-person flat right near the Cowgate, fed us lentils, drew us maps, took us to the falafel bar, and put up with me doing my laundry in the bathroom that took two days to dry.

It was the first time I’d ever walked on cobblestone streets. The tangible sensation and the realization that I was somewhere older than I’d ever been – far older than my own home and country – is something I will never forget.

And I’ll never forget climbing up to Arthur’s Seat by myself, accidentally taking the long, winding, not-clearly-marked path because I am too dumb to read a very simple map. But it was glorious. As I struggled to reach the proper summit from the next hill over, the sun suddenly burst out from behind the clouds and illuminated my way up to the top. I felt wild, and free, and gloriously alive.

Oh, Edinburgh. When I think of it, when I see Scotland on a map, I think of the exact burst of emotion that welled up in me at that moment. Standing there, seeing this incredibly beautiful city spreading out from me towards the ocean, backlit by a gorgeous sky, made me ask myself some hard questions. That moment was one of the motivating factors that made me decide I wanted to travel extensively. Really, what had I done to deserve such an opportunity? Moments like those are the moments I love to experience, not just in travel, but life in general: ones that cause me to stop and think, “Damn, I am so lucky, so blessed, so happy to be here.”

On reflection, the weekend we spent there was perfect. It introduced me to train travel and made me fall in love with it. It introduced me to a lovely seaside medieval town. And it was full of laughs and good company and conversations. I’ll always remember that weekend fondly. I didn’t want to leave. I still want to move to Edinburgh, however implausible it may be. But I almost don’t want to visit it again. I worry that my first impression was so good, that I’d never want to spoil the magic of my memories of my time there. Perhaps Edinburgh will always remain a treasured memory and a wonderful dream.

An overnight train to Nice

The border?

The fountain

Cruisin' along

Lol backpacks

The square

P & the beach

Nice, France

Ahh, the French Riviera. I ended up there entirely on accident and after a harrowing 16 hours in Milano Centrale’s train station. Still, all good travel stories come out of some kind of adversity. Having to figure out how exactly to check one’s baggage when there are no clear directions for doing so, how to read the supremely unhelpful map, where to buy some lunch that isn’t way overpriced, and bribing border guards so they don’t kick you off the train – all good kinds of adversity, but mostly in retrospect. Not when you’re cranky from little sleep and worried about where you’re sleeping that night.

But being able to laugh about it afterwards with one of your best friends in the world? Worth the hardship. And it’s one of those things that makes solo travel less appealing. For all the freedom that you have when you travel by yourself, for all the great people you’ll meet along the way, sometimes it’s wonderful to be able to reminisce about the time that it took you two days to get from Rome to Paris and for a few hours, you both just hung out and enjoyed the sun and the view on the beaches in Nice.

In December, drinking horchata


   

       Rach in Hispania       

Alhambra - the view from the hostel

Granada, Spain

In Granada, we had the most incredible view of the Alhambra at night from our hostel’s windows. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still picture it perfectly in my head.  In Granada, we ran in flimsy ballet flats like madwomen so we wouldn’t miss our night entry into the Alhambra. The guards let us know how much longer we had at each checkpoint and radioed ahead so that we would be allowed in. In Granada, we got lost coming down the hill at night and had a completely insane taxi driver who drove the wrong way up one way streets. In Granada, we were accosted by a random hippie who offered us weed and gave us hugs in the square. In Granada, we wandered for hours aimlessly in the Albayzin, waiting for the tiny, hole-in-the-wall seafood shack to open up (it never did).     In Granada, we drank horchata de chufa to our hearts’ content.

In Granada, I realized that what I wanted to do was travel for as long as I could. It was the end of my first time travelling abroad and I woke up each morning there thinking, “I’m not ready to leave this yet. I don’t know if I ever will be.”

Soon, I’ll embark on my next adventure. I’ve travelled a bit since then, but I still have so much of the world to see. And a year and a half after we drank horchata in Granada, I still feel the same way.

I still want to travel as far, as much, and as long as I can. I can hardly wait.