Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Gobi and Mountains

Adam and I spent 15 days in the Mongolian countryside, the desert and steppes and hills and mountains. We lucked out when looking for a tour. We were at a guesthouse looking into tours when a couple of Dutch guys we met briefly on Olkhon Island strolled in, about to book a trip with a group of their own.

We piggybacked on their group tour, and after cake and tea and supposedly homemade jam by Mamma, we were scheduled to leave in two days.

This is how it went for 15 days: pack into a badass Russian van and bounce across some seriously rugged roads at high speeds with your driver singing along with Mongolian music; stop to piss occasionally in the endless landscape; arrive at some sort of attraction and look around, climb around, fool around, and take photos; bounce across the land to a small ger camp and move your stuff into the round felt tent and relax by playing cards, bad music, or drinking booze when you had it.

Since there were 8 of us, we had two vans, each with a driver and guide. There were two Americans: Adam and myself; two French: Julie and Jeremie, a couple; two Dutch: Peter and Paul, both young and talkative, they only stayed 9 days due to visa issues; and two English: Tom and Alice, both 20 or 21, and Tom being a giant of a man.

Our two guides were both women, 28 and maybe early 30s and their English was good enough, though one had an unfortunate habit of talking way too fast and using "like" enough to annoy a valley girl. Our other guide wasn't as proficient in English and had a habit of giggling away questions she didn't understand, but both were super nice and kept us fed and generally informed.

Our drivers were fast and liked to sing. I never got their names, but one spoke a good amount of English. He was the one that drove us around after the Dutch split.

The drivers were always tinkering with their vans when we were parked for the night. A driver is much more than a driver here, he is a mechanic and navigator as well, and one of the more foolish things I heard the Dutch boys say was that they thought they could do a self-drive tour if they had more time to organize a jeep. It is not easy driving around, and even navigating with a GPS in an endless land devoid of landmarks doesn't sound like fun to me.

We stayed in gers every night. A family generally has two or three, and we stayed with families who were used to dealing with our tour company, so we usually had beds to sleep on. The gers were heated with stoves that burned yak and cow shit, which really isn't as nasty as it sounds. The gers in the wooded parts of the country burn wood, and doing that for a few days was nice.

Sometimes we wouldn't interact with the family much, sometimes we would. A few families toward the second half of the trip had little boys and girls we played with and gave pencils and notebooks and watercolors to. I blew a little girl's mind by pulling coins out from behind her ears.

We stayed for 2 nights in the 8 Lakes region, and some of us helped with daily chores like carrying water or chopping wood. One old weather-beaten guy compared tattoos with me and really enjoyed drinking our vodka.

All our meals were cooked and served to us, and the food got repetitive quick, but it was always hot and tasty and plentiful so it's hard to really complain. On a couple special occasions, we got freshly slaughtered goat. The first, we ate heart, liver, blood-filled intestines, lungs, kidney, etc. after watching the goat feebly die. The guy cut a circular hole in its belly, and then cut an artery inside somehow. He skinned and butchered it in his ger like he had been doing since he was 16, and there was surprisingly little blood.

The second fresh goat experience we had involved goat cooked by steaming coals and rocks. We were served an enormous bowl of barbecued body parts that were indescribably delicious. I, for one, very much enjoyed tearing the seared flesh off a goat leg with my bare hands and teeth. I felt like the worlds happiest caveman, covered in grease and full of meat.

The bathrooms were something else as well. Pissing required you just walking off wherever you liked, and usually shitting did too. The exception was when you were at a ger camp with a squat pit toilet. These weren't always pleasant, and sometimes were without doors, but it was more than compensated for with the most breathtaking views one could reasonably expect while shitting: rolling hillsides of gold grass, craggy rocks splitting the land, and horses and yaks grazing at will.

As for the activities, we did quite a lot. We rode horses and camels, climbed sand dunes and mountains, hiked past lakes and through canyons dotted with ice, saw temple ruins and desert cities, explored around a 20 meter waterfall and were treated to pure, clean air and clear starry nights and sunsets and sunrises unimpeded by nothing but the distant horizon. We even got to shower twice, though Adam inexplicably turned down both opportunities. What's up with that, man?

Late fall isn't generally the time to do such a tour around Mongolia, but I'm glad we did it when we did. It would probably be more expensive, and it would certainly be crowded with other tourists. We passed permanent tourist ger camps that were desolate when we saw them, but it was easy enough to see a shitload of whiteys scurrying around the place like ants in the summer time. We were tailed by another group from the same guesthouse, and I saw only 3 other tourists besides them: an American couple who stayed in the families ger when we were in a ger of our own for one night, and an older guy from LA who said hi briefly at a monastery market in Kharakhorin.

We had the countryside to ourselves for the most part, and I wouldn't want it any other way. Adam and I may go out on another tour, shorter, but to a different part of the country. Probably east or north. And why not? At $40 or $50 bucks a day for everything, it's certainly cheap enough, and who knows when we'll ever come back to Mongolia, as nice as it is?

Word Play; Horse Play

Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps the crisp and clean Mongolian air getting to me after seeing so many cities, but I started to notice that there are a horse load of "horse" related idioms. Here is a list that Ethan and I thought of during our trek through the Gobi Desert and Hangai Mountains (but I didn't beat a horse to death in trying to make it all inclusive):
  1. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
  2. Horse around; Horse play
  3. Eat a horse (we actually did eat some horse and camel meat along the way)
  4. On a high horse
  5. Putting the cart before the horse
  6. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink
  7. Beat a horse to death
  8. From the horse's mouth
  9. Hold your horses
  10. Dark horse
There are definitely more, so feel free to comment and add.

Mongolia: The Tour

We spent 15 days outside of Ulaanbaatar, which means 15 days in absolute nowhere, and it was spectacular. We had two opportunities to shower, and Adam turned down both. Not your hygienic hero narrator though, I was smelling like roses the entire time. Just ask anyone.

We had electric lights about half of our evenings and Internet for absolutely none of it. It was nice to get back to the city and clean up and relax and smell some smog again.

I've uploaded photos which can be found either on the link to the right, or by clicking here.

I'll get some real posts up soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Way More Photos!

Ulaanbaatar fortunately has a decent Internet connection. I uploaded a lot more photos, some of Korea, most of Russia. The links on the right-hand sidebar will always bring you to these albums, or you can check them out here:



That should do for now. I'll have a whole lot from Mongolia after my 15-day tour through the desert and mountains. Until then, enjoy.


Here's a joke: Why did the chicken cross the road in Mongolia? Answer: It didn't; what do you think it is, stupid?

Ulaanbaatar has it all compared to the Russian cities I visited: fast Internet on decent computers, signs in English, people that speak English, international food, backpacker/budget traveler-friendly guesthouses and shops, cheerful looking people, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it also has about a million cars. Crossing the road is an adventurous undertaking. You just walk into traffic and weave your way through, just like Frogger. Except in Frogger, you get multiple lives.

The Border By Bus

Old Korean buses go to Russia to become new Russian buses. City buses running through the cities I stopped in had partially scraped off Korean lettering, and I even saw a bus from Gyeong-sang Buk-do, the province I used to live in. It really warmed my heart.

Long distance buses in Korea are extremely comfortable. They usually have spacious reclining chairs, three to a row. Sadly, it wasn't one of those buses that Adam and I took across the border to Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar.

I got into Ulan-Ude at 6AM and took a taxi to the opera house to meet Adam and get on our bus. It was an old Korean bus, sure enough, but it was four seats to a row with about a foot of leg space between the edge of your seat and the back of the next.

I didn't really notice the problem until the guy ahead of me reclined all the way. Whatever else can be said about this bus we were on, the seat really reclined a lot. Bad news for my legs. I couldn't get comfortable enough to really get a good nap, which is a shame, because the roads were actually smooth enough to sleep on. Theoretically.

I sat next a Russian Buryat girl on her way to finish her final year at the university in Ulaanbaatar. She was a strange case. She had light eyes, bleach-blond hair, and what looked like bleached skin. I guess she wasn't a big fan of the appearance her race bestowed upon her.

Adam was three seats up since I wasn't sure if I was going to get the last couple days out of my Russian visa and wound up buying our tickets separately.

It was a twelve-hour trip. It doesn't seem bad compared to three days on a train, but twelve hours is still a long time. About two of those hours were eaten up by customs procedures. Twice, Russian officials got on our bus to check our passports and visas, then we went through the customs building, and were checked once again.

The Mongolian side was a lot quicker. We went through the customs building and then an official checked our documents once we were on the bus again. It was at least half as long. Communism - 0, democracy - 1.

We immediately saw horses roaming the plains and hills on the Mongolian side, and cruised through run-down shack towns occasionally before stopping at a heavily Westernized Mongolian restaurant for a long overdue lunch. It was the first thing we had eaten since we left about 9 hours previously. My eyes were almost bigger than my stomach, but I finished my beer, fried chicken-layered-on-beef-and-cheese, salad and rosemary potatoes.

By the time we got to Ulaanbaatar, we still had a long ride ahead of us. The traffic in the city is a complete fucking mess. It was like we were on an overcrowded and really slow conveyor belt, but we finally got in and were met by the woman who ran the guesthouse we booked for our first couple nights.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost

Monday, October 11, 2010

Olkhon Island

Adam apparently did some research in what there was to do in Irkutsk, and it turned out the thing to do was leave Irkutsk and go to an island in the middle of Lake Baikal. I didn't really know any better, but went along with it.

After a couple of nights in mostly vacant new hostel in a mostly sketchy neighborhood in a mostly under-construction building, we got picked up in a minibus for the 6-hour ride to Olkhon Island. We picked up a few other passengers - a doughy Asian matriach, a young couple of exceptional ugliness, and a couple of otherwise unremarkable passengers.

We left the grimy urban sprawl of Irkutsk and drove at very high speeds north. We had lunch at a yurt-esque lunchhouse before we ran out of pavement and bumped and bounced like crazy to the ferry to Olkhon.

Once over the frigid water, it was more bumping for another half-hour until we got to Khuzir, the largest settlement on the island, and a place reminiscent of what I imagine a Dark Ages hamlet to look like.

It was all roughly-hewn wood shacks and stockade fences, with dirt roads under the jurisdiction of packs of ragged dogs. Smoke rose from chimneys to add a nice touch to the town. The island had been on the power grid only since 2005. The one place to use the Internet on the island was in a tent. It was like a massive log cabin summer camp.

We stayed at Nikita's Homestead at the end of town closest to the Shaman Rocks. The compound had an even more distinct summer camp feel. Three hot meals a day were included in the price, and we showed up at the canteen regularly to get served up delicous hearty meals.

The rooms were in rustic buildings placed here and there within the Homestead's walls. We had a three-bed room to ourselves. Two massive ceiling beams of solid wood ran along our ceiling and there was a single outlet in our room which we plugged the heater into. In the bathroom stalls there were two plugs each. Didn't make sense, but it must've had something to do with the eco-friendly nature of the place. All wastewater was reclaimed, toilets didn't flush, and every building was highly insulated.

Nikita turned out to be a former Russian ping-pong champion. Adam and I saw him playing with his little son, maybe 8 or 9 years old. His son was wailing the ball like a pro and Nikita simply stood around casually and returned everything. His son was alternating sessions with another young girl who was even better, yet still failed to make Nikita try, or even move, to make a return.

We spent one day on a minibus excursion to the northern cape of the island, stopping along the way for picturesque cliff and seaside photos. We met a French-Canadian couple who turned out to be really nice, despite Francois' affinity for the Montreal Canadiens.

That evening some Austrians and a pair of French-Canadian guys built a fire in the fire pit after an accordianist played music while two Russian women sang folk songs. James, the young Kiwi, drank a shit-load of vodka and entirely disproved his vigorous claim that, "Students know how to drink!" by nearly falling into the fire and stepping on a sleeping dog on the way out. He'll learn, he is a student after all.

The next day Adam and I rented mountain bikes for a 16 kilometer ride to the only lake on the island. Wrap your head around that: a lake on an island in a lake; god, that's so metaphysical.

Adam almost made it to the lake but was forced to backtrack when he realized he lost his point-and-shoot camera. At one point on the ride there, the track we were following headed downhill for a good distance after we had just spent a good amount of effort ascending. Adam decided to go off-road and blaze his own train in an attempt to maintain elevation to get to the cross-trail we would have to wind up climbing anway. I said fuck it and decided to stay on the trail and cruise down the hill.

It turns out that humans can generally be trusted to build roads where it makes sense to build roads. Adam had to go up and down hills that the track I rode on passed in front of. And he lost his camera somewhere along the way when he failed to close his bag the whole way. Hard luck.

I went on to the lake alone while he retraced his tracks in a futile attempt to hunt it down. I wasn't sure I had made it to the right lake when I got there because it was hardly more than a mud-ringed puddle with a bunch of cows milling about.

Anyway, it made for a great place for a picnic of the food the canteen had packed for us, and I relaxed after all the riding, the first exercise I've really done for maybe two months, thanks partly to the surgery I had in Korea.

Making my way along an alternate route back, I finally came to the ridge from which it was all down hill. I lowered my bike seat and cruised down for maybe 20 minutes straight, first through the woods along a rugged trail, and then out into the open and sunlight as the trees gave way to rolling hills. After a short traverse with patches of Lake Baikal visible, I crested the last hill and had an open downhill shot to the coast. Horses grazed freely to my right, and ahead the horizon was dominated by the glittering deep blue lake with white mountains on the far shore. To the north was Khuzir, with the Shaman Rocks clearly visible 4 or 5 kilometers off.

It was a truly breathtaking ride. I burned down the hill towards the lake, nearly skidding out and going over my handle bars here and there, and chapping the shit out of my nose and lips, but it was an absolutely unforgettable ride down, and made the trip to the underwhelming lake more than worth it. I felt that if I returned home to the States the next day I could do so fully satisfied.

Olkhon Island is worth a trip to Siberia. It's quiet, peaceful, and in the middle of some amazing nature. I guess it gets pretty hectic in the high season of the summer, but we had just missed it. Nikita's was a great place to stay despite the bistro running out of beer. The food was great and the banya's were invigorating after a long day of hiking or riding or whatever. The air was clean and fresh, the water of the world's deepest lake clear and clean, but way too cold to swim in in early October.

I wished we were staying longer, but we got back on a minibus to Irkutsk with James to find the same hideously ugly couple were accompanying us back to Irkutsk. At least they had each other I guess.

10 Tips for the Trans-Siberian Railway

Ethan has been kind enough to let me contribute to this blog. I thought it would be too much work to keep up my own personal blog and I doubted I would have something inspiring in which to write and share with a good frequency. I’m not pulling any punches in this post, so let me apologize in advance for any Russian people I may offend (I still need to cross a border to get out). Here are a few tips and tricks you may find useful for your own Trans-Siberian Railroad adventure.

  1. Arrive about 30 minutes early before the train departs. That should allow you enough time to grab some food from the supermarket (for the days long train ride) and sufficient time to get stopped by the police for jaywalking to the supermarket.

    a. Not being able to speak Russian has the advantage of defusing any sort of run ins with the law. Apparently, apathy on the job is universal.

  2. Not being able to speak Russian has a similar affect on the train ticket sales clerks. Here are some tried and true methods at accomplishing the important task of getting your train ticket:

    a. Our Kiwi friend James recommends pulling out a map, pointing to the town or city while smiling, shaking his head up and down, and repeating the word “tomorrow” in the local language. Its not the most tactful approach, but he made it half way across Russia using this method. When I think about the fact that about every 2-5 weeks I will need a different language to converse with locals, there is a lot to be said about this approach.

    b. Ethan and I have been successful at writing down everything we need using the Lonely Planet and a Russian phrase book. Quantity, departure date, class, one way or round trip, how much does it cost, and what time does it leave are the important things. A good method for getting information back is providing the clerk with the information you want using fill in the blanks, like this: Train # ______ leaves at ________ Moscow time and costs ________.

    c. Befriend a Russian that speaks English, like our very kind and helpful couchsurfing host Marjana. That is the way to go if you are so lucky.

  3. You’re going to meet some Russians. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone on a Russian train. But as a consequence, be prepared to drink some vodka. Perhaps a half liter of vodka. Per hour.

    a. If you don’t want to have any vodka, I suggest you tell your new Russian friends that you are an alcoholic. Our translator Mikael told me the cure for the common cold in Siberia is vodka with some powered vitamin C mix, so our guests were not very convinced with my “I have a cold” line.

  4. Keep the conversation going even if you have no idea what is going on. Saying “da” will work, and repeating the last word of the sentence also seems to get a good response. Be prepared to find out after the fact that you’ve just been engaged to the husky woman in compartment 13 because you agreed that her Clydesdale strong legs would make her a valuable asset in America -- I guess she’ll join a sleigh of work horses.

  5. Be prepared for stuffy cabin berths maintained at sauna temperatures. It will be the worst on the top bunks, and the temperature will increase throughout the day, being the most uncomfortable just before it is time for bed. Then you can lie in bed for the next 7 hours engulfed with bitter frustration knowing that it is 10 degrees cooler for your bottom bunked mates that are using their heavy sheet for warmth. But that is just a guess how one might feel in that situation.

  6. Don’t even think you’ll get a good nights sleep due to the awful temperatures. I suggest the following alternatives:

    a. During the day, hang out at the head of the wagon. When none of the provodnitsas are around, throw all the wood out the train window. The potential consequences may seem worth it the longer you are on the train.

    b. Bring sleeping pills. I’m not sure you’d be successful getting these in Russia if you don’t speak Russian. Plan in advance.

    c. Forgo sleep and try to nap during the day. This will allow you time to read in the narrow hallway in the middle of night and get strange looks from the providnitsa that occasionally will have a 15 minute conversation with you. (“Conversation” in this sense is defined as sounds uttered in the general direction of another individual who does not understand any of it. Not a single word).

    d. Triple up on tip number 3a.

  7. You’ll want to make sure you bring food that is non-perishable and can survive storage for multiple days at high temperatures. Here is a list of some recommended options:

    a. Fruits and vegetables. That’s just sound nutritional advice.

    b. Ramon noodles. Hopefully your doctor just ordered you get about 10 times your recommended daily sodium intake. The head of each wagon has a boiler for hot water. I can guarantee it is sterile and will certainly melt skin if it touches you. But don’t expect it to be crystal clear due to all the rust.

    c. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

    d. Melted chocolates. You can opt for regular chocolates at the beginning. You’ll need these to treat your guests pouring shot after shot of vodka.

  8. Here is a list of things that, through trial and error, are not well recommended:

    a. Spicy soft cheeses. If the cheese isn’t spicy the first day, it will be on the second. On the third day, a response team from Chernobyl might arrive. You’ve been warned.

    b. Hard deli meats. At 80 deg. F, your delicious salami will start sweating and oozing white globules of fat out (sexual innuendo not intended). It seemed like a good choice at first, but I couldn’t even think about it on day two.

  9. Some people will be skeptical if you carry around a DSLR camera. As Ethan cautioned me as I was about to walk around the train with my camera, “I just got some long looks from some shady people while walking to the dining cart”.

  10. Some Russians may have a hard shell, but upon further conversation, all of them I’ve talked to have been incredibly friendly. And if you run into any problems, it doesn’t hurt to be American. The Russian psyche seems to have a bond with America, despite all the cold-war history. I think one of the highlights of my second train ride was meeting an inebriated Russian guy, Alexy’s friend, who was so excited to learn we were American, he wrapped Ethan and I in a big bear hug while uncontrollably laughing with joy and shouting “Amerika” three octaves higher than just a moment ago. Awesome.
- Adam

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Trans-Siberian Part 2

Adam and I moved into a 4 person kupe cabin with a beefy mother and daughter pair. They looked like they were in for the long haul, dressed in full-on train clothes, with bags of food ready to eat and a duffel bag full of DVDs to watch on their computer.

At the time, they were watching "She's Out of Your League" dubbed in Russian. That movie sucks really hard by the way, don't watch it whatever you do. Sorry Moise.

I figured we'd spend the entire three days with them. We did, but I have no complaints. They didn't bother us, and I don't think we bothered them. They certainly didn't push vodka and pig fat on us.

There were no spontaneous drinking parties on this trip, but we did learn something else: Russians will speak to you in Russian for a long time, even though you clearly don't understand Russian.

This is endearing at first. You think, "Oh this guy is really interested in talking to me!" That lasts for about five minutes and then you realize that no matter how many times you nod your head and look bewildered, they won't stop.

Such determination is borderline obnoxious when it goes on too long. I learned that there is something to be said for the American attitude of instantly giving up on someone when communication is even slightly difficult.

As it was, our provodnitsa cornered us nearly every time we left the cabin. She was pleasant and friendly, a welcome change from the generally stern provodnitsas, but she would go on and on and on while we just smiled and repeated a random word now and then to feign comprehension.

Same with Alexy, a cheerful guy with hard-to-ignore toothrot who gave me his email address seconds after meeting him. I have no idea what he expected me to do. I'm guessing it had something to do with sending him a photo. He accosted me a couple times and let me practice my "da"s and nods.

Alexy's drunk nameless friend was the same way, but far more animated and red-faced than Alexy. He seemed to want to know what car we were staying in so he could come mystify us some more, but he never followed up fortunately.

And in the dining car, too! Adam and I were playing backgammon and a table of two drunk Igors and a Mongol Alyosha came over and pushed their way into our seats. Igor Number 1 was a little brighter than the rest and cleared everyone out after a few minutes, only to have them all come over again, until the dining car provodnitsa yelled at them. Then they just yelled random English phrases over from their table, like: "Shudda fuckup!" and so on. I assume that's all they picked up from the movies.

Not to say I don't want Russians to talk to me, that's not what I'm saying. I just want to make it clear that "conversations" exceeding 5 minutes when neither party understands the other can be a bit tedious.

Not everyone was like that though. I was standing by the single open window in the aisle, next to a young Russian guy that looked like he was a soldier. He turned to me and said, "Tourist?" and I said, "Da." He nodded and turned away for another minute. He would say one word, I would respond. Then we'd wait a minute, and I would say something, and he would respond. It was an exchange as refreshing as the air blowing into the overheated carriage.

The hours rolled by, and the train would rock and sway. We played games on our top bunks, make little picnic lunches of sliced meat and cheese and bread, or watch the scenery go by. The leaves were different each day, going from light orange to a gold, and more bare to less as we traveled west. We took photos through the train windows and drank beer in the dining car. When there was a long stop, we'd get out and stretch our legs with everyone else.

We napped and we made train-themed playlists for each other on our MP3 players. Adam made me one solely of The New Pornographers. The one I made for him went like this:

  1. Bruce Springsteen - John Henry
  2. Jeffrey Lewis - Roll Bus Roll
  3. Flock of Seagulls - I Ran
  4. Gorillaz - Stylo
  5. Johnny Cash - Orange Blossom Special
  6. The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Arkansas Revisited
  7. The Pogues - And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

We finally got off the train in Irkutsk, after one moderately comfortable night sleeping, another a little too hot, and three days of needing a shower and a change of clothes.

Couchsurfing Khabarovsk

Adam and I considered staying in Khabarovsk for just the day, and getting on another train the evening of the day we got in. Thank god we didn't; it would've been a miserable, tiring day.

Instead we reaped the benefits of and took an early morning tram to meet Marjana. She speaks very good English and works at the American Corner, so we couldn't find anyone more suitable to host us.

We cleaned up and rested a bit. Adam nearly stayed in and just slept, but I thought that would've been a bad way to start things off with someone you just met and agreed to let strangers stay in her house. He got up and we headed out to town.

We got a nice tour around, it's a much more spacious and clean city than Vladivostok. A massive river runs along the side of the city near Marjana's workplace and next to a couple really impressive churches.

I really dig the gleaming Russian onion-dome look on churches here. We walked along the promenade after lunch, and walked around and around and around. I could tell Adam was dying, and I was pretty beat too.

We eventually got train tickets for the next day with Marjana's help. We would've been screwed without her, as we had to figure out our route: either straight to Irkutsk, or to Severobaikalsk, via Tynda and the Baikal-Amur Mainline. We decided on the direct to Irkutsk route.

The most bizarre aspect of our day and night in Khabarosk was the charity auction. Marjana has a Kiwi and/or Australian friend (it was strange, he never made clear where he was from, though he mentioned both places many times) who asked her to go with him to some charity event for orphans.

I've never done such a thing, and being guests we couldn't just say no, tired or not, so off we went when he came to pick us up at Marjana's work.

We drove to a super beat up and run down part of the city, to a derelict two or three story house with a bizarre playground outside of it. The jungle gym had logs hanging from it, and the fuselage of an old Soviet aircraft was just sitting there.

Up inside the house, there was a mini stage with chairs set up in front of it. A couple of Russian women were droning away about godknowswhat, the orphans, I assume. It nearly put Adam and me to sleep, but that would've looked real bad, as we were mentioned as being guest from America, and the orphanage recieved funds from the US government. They started auctioning off artwork and crafts made by the kids.

It's probably not right to insult the artwork of orphan children, but it was pretty undesirable stuff. A couple kind-hearted women were buying the things anyway though. I wanted to help, or buy something, but buying children's artwork to carry around didn't seem like a good idea.

There was an intermission, and various interludes of Turkish drums and Russian folk songs. I wound up paying 1000 rubles for a nice throw rug that I thought my mom would like. Keep your eyes on the mail, Mom. It's coming your way.

That evening, Marjana's husband Andrey cooked us spaghetti with meat sauce. For how simple the meal was, it was surprisingly delicious. Then he taught Adam and I how to play backgammon, which was perfect because I have a mini travel game set that has been entertaining us, and backgammon was the one game included we didn't know how to play.

In fact, it was a very good thing we learned, because the next day we got on a train and didn't get off for three days.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Trans-Siberian

Adam and I had a kupe berth leaving Vladivostok in the afternoon. We hauled our bags in and said hello to the woman we were apparently sharing the four-bed room with. She soon moved next door to hang out with her friend, leaving the place to ourselves.

Soon a Russian man stumbled into our cabin. He spoke no English, and though we were quite clear that we understood no Russian, he managed to hold a ceaseless one-sided conversation. It turns out that this is a trend with inebriated men on trains.

After maybe 20 minutes of gesticulations and lots of nodding and saying "da", all I gathered was that his name was Igor and he didn't like playing cards. In fact, he seemed frightened at the prospect.

The next thing I understood was "vodka". He said the word while making a tipping gesture with his pinkie and thumb. Adam was feeling sick but I agreed, not so much wanting to drink, but if he was drinking, he wasn't talking.

Igor came back with a small unopened bottle, and then had to go find a glass when he discovered that I didn't have one. The drinking commenced with occasional interludes of Russian soliloquys.

Eventually, a bear of a man with dark hair and a tiny braid in the back came in, casually speaking English to translate what Igor was trying to tell us. This was Mikael, a driller who explained his job by saying, "Bruce Willis in Armageddon."

Mikael kinda scared Igor off for some reason, maybe because he could speak English. "School lessons", he insisted, although he was surely being modest. Mikael was 28 years old and his handshake nearly pulverized my hand.

We talked a bit with Mikael, about his three girlfriends and learned that in order to avoid mixing up the names of Russian girls, we can just say "ripka", the equivalent of "honey" or "darling".

Soon three more guys from an adjoining cabin piled in, with a large bottle of vodka and zakuska, drinking food to be taken after vodka shots, like a chaser. One such delicacy was pig fat, but the best zakuska, word had it, was pickles.

I didn't want to get too drunk and wind up like Igor, who occasionally wandered past our cabin, looked in and nodded and wandered on, so I was relieved when the big old guy who brought the vodka poured a couple of shots to empty the bottle. Then, I thought "Oh Jesus" as he brought out an unopened bottle.

The Trans-Siberian guidebook warned us that turning down drinks is extremely difficult in Russia, as Russians can be very determined. One method the book suggested was to say you were an alcoholic. Another method that Mikael used which seemed to work was to say you are on antibiotics. At least I thought I heard him use the word.

The three guys who joined us all worked for the same company. They were good fun, just for the fact that Adam and I found ourselves in a pretty interesting scene, crammed into a steamy kupe cabin with four Russians, "regular Russians", Mikael translated for us. I tried insisting that we were regular Americans too, but Mikael replied, "Regular Russians do not travel in America."

Fair point.

The party came to an end before I got very drunk fortunately. The woman who was originally in our cabin got off earlier in the evening, but she was replaced by a young mother and her four-year old daughter. Adam was spot on when he said the daughter was eerily similar in looks and cuteness to Cindy Lou-Who of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas".

Well the guys cleared out when she arrived, and fast. It was a funny scene. We all got ready for bed, and I soon realized that it may have been better if I got a lot more drunk because the cabin was way too hot to sleep in.

Adam had it worse than I, saying he didn't sleep at all when we got off the train around 7AM the next morning. I got some sleep, but could've used a lot more.

We had considered just dumping our bags somewhere and exploring Khabarovsk for the day and leaving in the evening, but thank god we decided to spend the night Couchsurfing and relax a little.