Halfway Through El Camino De Santiago, Where Expectations and Reality Meet in the Middle… Sometimes

Today, our 20th day walking along El Camino de Santiago, marks the halfway point between our starting point of St Jean Pied-de-Port in southern France and our goal destination of Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.  And, true to the word of of the prophetic Paul who we met in St Jean Pied-de-Port, we’ve moved on from the “Holy Spanish Tortillas, what is wrong with my body?” phase of the camino to the more contemplative “Hmmm, these tortilla sandwiches sure do taste good every day, but why is the magic starting to wear off?” second phase of the camino.  No, our minds haven’t broken, but we have found that the slow, daily march has begun to wear our mental and emotional capacity down a bit.  The idyllically romantic walk through beautiful countryside that we had begun to expect every day has started turning into a bit of a routine that goes something like this:

  1. Wake up to our alarm sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 AM.
  2. Don’t be surprised if you’re freezing.  Don’t be surprised if you’re boiling either.
  3. Try to do the right thing by getting ready for the day much more quietly than your louder, more boisterously Mediterranean amigos on the camino tend to be in the mornings.
  4. Eat some breakfast, which you hopefully purchased last night from the market so you don’t end up paying a substantial amount of money for what amounts to toast and coffee.
  5. Get walking sometime between 6:45 and 7:30.
  6. Walk until 10 or so.  Eat second breakfast, usually consisting of the afore-mentioned tortilla bocadillo, basically a sandwich on fresh bread with an omelette inside of it.
  7. Get moving again, after your spouse puts his/her shoes back on.
  8. Find a nice spot around 12:30 or 1:00 to sit down and make yourself some lunch.  Guess what lunch consists of?  Yep, you guessed it: a bocadillo!  Usually with cheese, avocado, and chorizo slices.
  9. Get into the albergue between 12:00 and 3:45 PM after walking between 15 and 30 km for the day.
  10. Kick your shoes off (or sandals, in Garrison’s case) and take a siesta!
  11. Buy groceries for dinner if your albergue has a kitchen.  Otherwise, get the pilgrim menu at a local restaurant, which consists of a 3 course meal with wine and bread for usually less than 10 Euros per person.
  12. Sleep.  Ignore any snoring symphonies you may be surrounded by.
  13. Do it all over again.

Yesterday I noticed I was feeling a bit glum in the morning.  Here we were, walking through a perfectly beautiful morning sunrise in attractive farm country, and I was feeling a bit down, possibly because I was tired but also maybe because it just wasn’t as beautiful as some of our other mornings have been.  Or maybe I was feeling like there were too many other pilgrims on the camino who didn’t seem to have what I deemed the right attitude or level of reverence or whatever.  And then when I thought of that, I got just that much more bummed out, because why should I care why others are doing the camino, and who gives me the justification to deem some reasons worthy while others not?  Later that day, we checked into an old convent that houses pilgrims along the way.  We found out the “kitchen” we had expected was a microwave and a sink.  Oh boy, microwaved lasagna here we come.

Then we were joined by some new friends who turned out to be from the city in New Zealand where I studied abroad for a semester.  And we had a blast chatting with them.  And then we were surprised to find that our Australian friends Laura and Terry had caught up with us and were staying in the same place!  The day had been completely redeemed over the last 45 minutes before we had to turn in for the night, simply because we were lucky enough to meet these friends in this tiny little kitchen that had previously been a source of frustration for me.  New friends and old friends alike came together in this space, and suddenly I’m going to bed feeling like I’d had one of my best and most memorable days along the camino.

We’re halfway there!  Who knows what the second half holds?

 

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Second Breakfast

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Garrison is very much enjoying his omelette sandwich for what is now a regular part of our day– 10:00am second breakfast.

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El Camino de Santiago: Highlights and Lowlights From Our First Week

“In the first third of the trip, your body will break.  Then in the second third, your mind will break.  And then, in the final third, suddenly you’ll be able to do whatever you want.”  – Paul, an interesting guy we met at the albergue (pilgrim hostel) in St. Jean Pied-de-Port.


 

9 days into our long walk along El Camino de Santiago, we are finding that our bodies do indeed break a little quicker than our spirits.  Nothing serious has broken, but our bones and feet aren’t the happiest they’ve ever been.  Here’s a quick look into some of the highlights and lowlights from El Camino so far.

Highlights

  1. Walking through beautiful countryside every single day.  For about 15-30 km, depending.  Seriously, it’s like we’re walking through Mossflower country from the Redwall books.
  2. Eating like Europeans.  These folks know how to eat!
  3. Meeting all sorts of other pilgrims along the way.  Interestingly, there are absolute buckets of Australians.  Who knew??
  4. Going to church.  It’d been a really long time for me.  And this has been a pretty different church experience for me.  We’ve been to 4 Catholic masses over the past few weeks, in 3 different languages.  Pretty eye-opening for this non-Catholic!
  5. Speaking Spanish with the locals.  This has been a re-education for me, since I really hadn’t spoken in Spanish this much since I finished my minor in it back in 2004.  There’ve been lots of blank stares, lots of hand motions, and lots of laughter.  I gained some confidence in my skills when I successfully shooed the abuelita who runs an albergue as she tried to get me to stop washing my dishes so she could do them.
  6. Taking pictures, but also balancing this with just soaking it all up with my eyes and letting a few good pictures go uncaptured.

Lowlights

  1. Walking with completely saturated shoes from slogging through an unexpected 8 inches of snow in the Pyrenees.
  2. Getting blisters on our feet.  Right after we proclaimed that the whole blisters thing was nonsense and that we never get blisters.  Ouch!
  3. Sore muscles and bones every single day.  Sometimes followed by some not-so-warm showers, which just makes everything a little worse.
  4. Actually, that’s it!  That’s all I can think of.  Not bad!

Here are some photos that seem to show a little bit of what we’ve seen and where we’ve been.  What an adventure!!

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Starting El Camino de Santiago

The Year of Fun has done a whole lot of travel lately by rail, with a few airplane rides thrown in for good measure.  When the blog was last updated, you learned about Anna and Garrison’s whereabouts as they worked their way west through Russia.  So, where have they gone since then?  Well, have you heard any rumors  about our two protagonists heading to Paris?  They’re all true.  And while they really truly loved their time there, you won’t see them enjoying the metropolitan pleasures of city life anytime soon.  Instead, they will be slowly making their way through southern France and northern Spain on foot, headed towards Santiago de Compostela, Spain on El Camino de Santiago.

That’s right, folks — our two protagonists will be traveling over 700 km on foot over the next several weeks, traveling along el camino francés (the French Way), starting from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port and making their way through the Pyrenees before turning west through Basque country in Spain all the way to the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula.  It’s traditionally a spiritual pilgrimage, which promises to provide plenty of time for meditation and introspection, etc.  Many pilgrims also dedicate their passage along this path to a particular cause or purpose.  Some seek a sense of spiritual clarity, some seek a spiritually cleansing and a bit of a restart along an old path they’d previously wandered from, while others simply seek the continued success of the University of Michigan basketball team.  Some are also just ‘along for the ride’, so to speak.  What are Garrison and Anna’s purposes for their passage along this path, you ask?  Follow along over the next several weeks to find out, as they also find out for themselves.

Buen Camino, friends, wherever your paths are currently headed!

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Trans-Siberian Railway Parts III & IV: Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg to Suzdal

The great thing about these two sections from our Trans-Siberian Railway journey is that we can laugh about them now that they’re over and done with.  Laughter was one of the last things on our mind during the four day long haul across Siberia, though.  Here’s why:

  • In a money-saving effort, we decided to book tickets in a platzkart carriage.  More details on this below.
  • Compounding the effects of the afore-mentioned decision to ride platzkart, we also decided to take the older, cheaper, slower train: Train 099.  More details on this below.
  • As a direct result of both of the above decisions, both Anna and I were battling varying levels of nausea and general queasiness the entire time.  By ‘entire time’, I mean roughly 80 hours.  Oof!

So, as I mentioned above, we were in a platzkart carriage.  Here’s what you need to know about platzkart.  It’s 3rd class.  It’s basically a carriage with 54 bunk beds crammed into it, each made for a person approximately 5’10″ tall.  The bottom bunks have a nice view out the windows with space to sit up, whereas the top bunks really have neither, although you can catch a glimpse out the window if you really contort your body around.  On the old carriages, which we had for the 53 hours from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg, there’s one bathroom for everybody, and there’s really no ventilation at all except when the train stops at a longer stop, which is just a few times every day.  And since we’re in Russia, everyone smokes for some reason.  All the time.  Now, the icing on this delicious Russian cake is that for some inexplicable reason, it is unreasonably hot all the time.  Despite the fact that it’s well below freezing outside.  This was a true 3rd class experience.

Our train left Irkutsk at 03:00, so we went to the train station around midnight and waited, psyching ourselves up for the unknowns we thought we were prepared to encounter.  Here are a few of the things we just didn’t anticipate:

  • The shirtless men curled up and sleeping in each of our berths (bunks) after we located them.  Thankfully the cranky provodnitsa (train attendant) woke them up and got them out of there.
  • The only other berths available in the area having everyone’s belongings all over them, including but not limited to assorted pots and pans, bags of food, and general luggage.
  • The number of travelers who were apparently bringing all their worldly belongings with them.
  • The incompatible cultural norms regarding personal space and general courteousness of the diverse train riders.

After the first night’s sauna session sleep, I decided to make some new friends, so I plopped myself down on some of the bottom bunks around me and made some feeble attempts at polite conversation with the help of the “Useful Russian” and “Useful Chinese” sections in the back of our guidebook.  It turns out people are plenty willing to try to get to know you and share things about themselves in ‘Angrusky‘ and ‘Mandarlish‘ if you show them a map of the rail system and some pictures from your travels.  I had a nice time getting to know a lady named Svetlana, a high school science teacher of 36 years, and her grandson Pavel.  Svetlana used her grandmotherly ways to convince me to wake up in the middle of the second night to help them move their belongings off the train at their stop.

I also got to know the large Chinese group on the train pretty well.  This process unofficially started when we got on the train; the two guys sleeping in our berths were part of this group.  However, this process officially started when someone in their group noticed me drinking some tea from my new mug, bought duty free at the China-Mongolia border.  They must have noticed the Chinese writing on the mug, because all of a sudden I looked up due to the sudden silence and noticed what seemed like 14 or 15 Chinese faces just staring at me.  Eventually, I was showing them pictures from my computer and trading coins with them, as well as showing them our arsenal of ramen noodle packets.

The views out the windows were actually very scenic and attractive.  Much of Siberia is exactly like what you’d picture it to be: a huge continent’s worth of beautiful taiga and grassland, or steppe as they call it here.  Like a huge, never-ending “Up North” for any of you midwesterners who happen to have read this far.  Beautiful stuff.

After 53 hours, including three nights and two days, we got off the train in Yekaterinburg feeling surprisingly exhausted.  This is the town where the Romanov family met their demise, so we checked out the memorial and cathedral built on the site where they were executed.  Mostly, though, we found places to eat some better food than we had been eating for a few days and to use some Internet.  Those places?  McDonalds and Sbarro.  Yes, we actually ate better food there than we had on the train.

Later in the afternoon we got back on a different train, this one much newer, for the remainder of our trip to Vladimir, where we took the bus to Suzdal.  This carriage had two bathrooms that seemed to be clean (score!), and a very friendly provodnik who enjoyed chatting with us, as well as a much better ventilation system.  The clientele was vastly different, as this train traveled between the university town of Tomsk and Moscow, so we were finally in the conditions we had expected the previous train to provide us.  Finally!

When we got to Suzdal, we spent a few days just calmly walking around this country village and taking in the sights, as well as getting our laundry washed.  We did a homestay with a lovely family who rents out their extra rooms.  Suzdal was an important city from the Golden Ring era of Russian history, and it has a very religious background.  Apparently at one point in the village’s history there was one church for every 12 of its citizens!  Many of them still exist today and they make for some amazing panoramic views of the village.  This was the perfect place to rest and recuperate from our Trans-Siberian journey.

Here are some pictures from this part of our trip.

 

Bonus content below from our time in Moscow as well.  We enjoyed Russia, but we are excited about our next phase of the trip.  Details to follow soon.  Here are some Moscow pictures.

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Trans-Siberian Railway Part II: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Russia

With leg one of our railway journey already behind us and with tickets for leg two in hand, we were eager to prove to the entire universe that we learned some lessons from our first attempt.  To summarize our revised approach to boarding the train while maintaining some sanity, we gave ourselves a full 60 minutes to walk the entire kilometer from our awesome hostel in Ulaanbaatar to the train station.

To our delight, this worked out perfectly.  The train was already there, so we boarded and found our four person kupé (2nd class) compartment.  Just like on the last train, we had the whole compartment to ourselves, so we made ourselves at home and settled in.  The train left at 21:00 for the 33 hour journey, so we planned to play a game or two of Tetris (because we were headed to Russia) before turning in for the night.

That’s when the quirky parts of this train ride commenced.  Anna left to get some hot water from the samovar, and when she returned 30 seconds later she found that I  had a new friend sitting right next to me on my bed, a Mongolian man who was very interested in the map at the back of our copy of Trans-Siberian Handbook.  Other than communicating by pointing to places on the map, pointing to ourselves, and saying the names of places we were headed as well as our names, we shared some smiles and handshakes.  After the few moments of extended silence that followed, I indicated to him that we were headed to bed  by closing my eyes, leaning my head against my hands, and snoring a little.  He smiled and nodded his understanding and got up and left our compartment.  So that cleared that up — he wasn’t on one of the other berths (code word for ‘beds’ on trains) in our compartment.

We found ourselves joined by our new friend numerous times throughout the journey, sometimes involving him simply opening our door when we’d had it closed for a little privacy, but most often on mutually agreeable terms.

Other quirks along this ride included:

  • exceedingly long stops (4-6 hours long) on both sides of the Mongolia-Russia border, where all the locals get their belongings carefully examined by customs officials who pretty much don’t give a rip about westerners’ belongings,
  • Our entire train suddenly only consisting of one carriage getting tugged along behind the engine as we crossed the border,
  • Our entire train subsequently only consisting of our carriage sitting all by itself with no engine for 6 hours at the Russian border station before being attached to the rest of a Russian train,
  • Being literally the only two people who didn’t get off our carriage at Ulan Ude, where the line officially changed from the Trans-Mongoliana to the Trans-Siberian.  Our new friend disappeared before we could catch him…  Maybe that’s just the Mongolian way.

We got off at Irkutsk somewhere around 6:00 or 7:00 AM and were delighted to see it was snowing — a first for us since we were driving across Kansas way back in October.  The next few days were spent on the following tasks:

  1. Deciding our remaining itinerary in Russia so we could purchase tickets.
  2. Purchasing tickets.  After several attempts, we eventually succeeded in this without using one of those English-speaking agencies that charge you more money than if you just buy the tickets yourself.  Anna did an excellent job writing in Russian!
  3. Enjoying the old Siberian architecture on display in Irkutsk.
  4. Staying in the smaller village of Listvyanka for a few nights and hiking around on frozen Lake Baikal.  This was probably the highlight of the trip for me so far.
  5. Utilizing the banya, a Russian sauna/bathhouse.  My favorite part was when we ran outside to roll around in the snow before coming back in.

Here are some pictures for all you visual learners out there.

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Good Morning, Russia!

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Garrison enjoying a traditional Russian breakfast prepared by our lovely host, Irina. Yum!

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Trans-Siberian Railway: Part I – Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

It’s 7:44 AM, and we’re on the subway in Beijing.  We’ve staked out some space close to the door for our sleepy selves and all of our belongings: one roller-bag-that-turns-into-a-backpack for each of us, one small backpack on each of our backs, and one box-that-the-new-blanket-came-in that is currently filled with ramen noodles and other travel goodies.  We were supposed to be at the train station a solid 19 minutes ago, but the train leaves in 21 minutes still, so we both valiantly hang on to any optimistic and happy thoughts we can muster.  Personally, I am thinking about how great it is going to be when we are on our train and peacefully enjoying the bag of afore-mentioned cream puffs we bought last night for approximately 26 cents.

The subway stops, but it’s not our stop yet, and one or two people are getting off at a surprisingly slow pace for a Beijing subway.  A few others get on.  We all stare at the doors to our subway car as they don’t close for another 8 seconds.  8 ticks of the clock closer to our impending doom of missing our train.  Because even if we miraculously get to our stop at lightning speed once the subway starts moving again, we still have to get through the insane lines at the check-in gates that we saw yesterday when we came to scope this whole process out.  I decide that the time is right for me to adopt the local philosophy of “waiting in lines is for the foolish” — I am resolved that I will soon be the tall white man pushing his way through a swarming mass of Chinese folks, explaining/yelling to anyone who happens to be listening/understanding my English (not likely) that we simply loved being in China but also that our need to get on our train is much more important than their need to get to get on theirs since they are undoubtedly on time and we are late.  While maintaining my hopeless optimism that the cream puffs will be simply amazing, I prepare myself for this all out embodiment of hypocrisy.

7:47.  We’re at the next subway stop now, but somehow we still aren’t at our stop.  How did this happen?  We had this all planned out.  We really are going to miss our first train along the Trans-Siberian Railway….  No, no, we aren’t.  We’ll make it.  Because, cream puffs.

7:49.  Finally we get to our stop.  We get off the subway.  We find the exit signs.  We go up the escalators.  We get our bearings above ground.  We head over to the check-in area, where the swarming mass of humanity is undoubtedly waiting to check in for their trains so they can get to their important job interviews for dream jobs or so they can go to their great grandson’s wedding.  And we’re going to cut straight to the front of the line.  I am psyching up for this moment of unreasonable entitlement.  I’m ready to do this.  The authorities will understand if they’re called to the scene.  Anna doesn’t know about my plan yet, but she’ll understand and won’t judge me.

But what’s this?  We’re here, but there’s no crowd.  Where did all the people getting off the subway go?  Where are the throngs of people we saw yesterday?  Why are there only a few people waiting patiently in the 3 or 4 lines open for business?  Who cares… We get in line, hand over our tickets and passports, mumble what we’re pretty sure means “thank you” in Mandarin as we get our tickets and passports back, and bustle into the station.

7:53.  We go to the incorrect gate, but before we sit down thinking we’re home free, Anna in her infinite wisdom figures this out, and we head in the direction we think the employee points us toward.

7:57.  We’ve got this.  8 minutes to go, and we just showed our tickets and passports to the man at the correct gate.  We’re still hustling and getting much sweatier than you’d expect given the chilly temperature outside, but we’re on our way to the correct platform, and then we’ll just get on, even if it isn’t the correct carriage.  We’ll just make it work.  Our destiny includes us getting on this train.

8:02.  It’s a miracle!  Lightning has struck.  Team USA just beat the USSR at hockey.  Mary has been hailed, and she answered back.  The Detroit Lions just won the Super Bowl a playoff game.  We’re on the train, sitting in our compartment!  With 3 minutes to spare, yours truly looks out the window for a minute before diving into the bag of cream puffs.

8:05.  The whistle blows, and the train leaves.  We’re headed to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  It’s a 30 hour journey, and it’s just the first leg of the larger train journey in store for us.  We wonder what types of fun we’ll find along the journey and while we’re there.  We wonder if we have enough clothes to keep ourselves warm.  We smile, and enjoy the ride.  We’re on the first leg of our Trans-Siberian Railway journey!

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China: A Tale of Two Great Walls

In case you missed the last couple blog posts on our latest Year of Fun exploits, allow me to catch you up a little.  There’s some good news and some sad news.  First, the sad news: no more fresh coconuts or mangos for us.  After a solid two months, our time in SE Asia has come to a close.  No more sunsets over turquoise waters.  No more curry every night for Garrison.  No more fresh coconuts for Anna.  Did I mention we’re going to miss the coconuts?

But here’s the good news: our next stop brought us numerous unexpected delights, many of them in the the form of super tasty and amazingly affordable little pastries coming from the pastry shack around the corner from our guesthouse in Beijing.

Here's Anna after eating probably a few too many cream puffs.  No, wait, I meant not enough cream puffs.  Never enough!

Here’s Anna after eating probably a few too many cream puffs. No, wait, I meant not enough cream puffs. Never enough!

Yes, our next stop was Beijing, China.  Our worst fears included potentially finding out we didn’t like authentic Chinese food, that we wouldn’t be able to breathe because of air pollution, and that everyone would be rude to us because we didn’t speak Mandarin.  The air pollution turned out to be pretty bad, but….  Highlights included us realizing authentic Chinese food was actually very delicious, having 99.9% of everyone we interacted with be nice and/or helpful to us, being the main attraction in a bunch of locals’ photos at Tianenmen Square, and going to the Great Wall.

Which brings me to the title of this blog post, regarding the existence of two Great Walls.  No doubt you’re familiar with the Great Wall of China, built to protect the Chinese population from the constant threat of Mongol invasion.  Well, China has recently built and continues to maintain another humongous wall, the Great Firewall of China.  Due to this cyber-wall’s existence, all websites on domains such as facebook and wordpress are blocked in the entire country, thus effectively blocking Team Awesome from updating their adventure blog.  So, to all vicarious adventurers, one thousand pardons for the delay!

Enjoy a few pictures from our time in Beijing!

Goodness gracious.  The Great Wall of China.

Goodness gracious. The Great Wall of China.

Nature reclaiming the lesser used portions of the Wall.  I only went a few steps beyond the sign saying 'off limits'.  I wanted to go further, but I didn't.  Hopefully Santa Claus is back from his annual tropical vacation and has begun watching our every move again, 'cus this should count for like 20 presents!

Nature reclaiming the lesser used portions of the Wall. I only went a few steps beyond the sign saying ‘off limits’. I wanted to go further, but I didn’t. Hopefully Santa Claus is back from his annual tropical vacation and has begun watching our every move again, ‘cus this should count for like 20 presents!

The Forbidden City.  To paraphrase Homer Simpson, "Mmmmmmmmm, Forbidden City."  No donuts here, though.

The Forbidden City. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Mmmmmmmmm, Forbidden City.” No donuts here, though.

 

Meanwhile in Middle Earth, Smaug descends upon hapless Laketown...  (insert Chinese subtitles here)

Meanwhile in Middle Earth, Smaug descends upon hapless Laketown… (insert Chinese subtitles here)

 

Up next: Updates from the Trans-Siberian Railway as the Year of Fun takes the adventure up north!

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Same, Same… But a Little Different

“Same, same” is a highly useful phrase we have picked up in the last few months. I’m quite fuzzy on the etymology, but as best as we can tell it is used to compare two different items that have something in common. We thought that it applied aptly to these two pictures we took today…

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Selfie #1 was taken as we spent the morning exploring a section of The Great Wall of China. Selfie #2 was taken after we spent the afternoon exploring Middle Earth with the help of some 3D glasses and a cinema megaplex.

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