Tag Archives: in transit

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…

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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.