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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Good Morning, Russia!

image

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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…

image

image

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

So Long, Mekong

image

We left the Mekong, sunshine and coconuts behind as we bid a fond farewell to South East Asia. As sad as we were to leave (there might have been some misty eyes) it feels good to switch things up. We are currently enjoying a little cool weather, tasty dumplings and some epic sight seeing in Beijing China.

Stay tuned, more on China to come…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Gibbon Experience: Zip-Lining Our Way Over Laos

In our last blog post, I left you all with a bit of a 16-bit teaser about our upcoming exploits.  Hopefully the Donkey Kong video didn’t send you into the dreaded YouTube Vortex, a never-ending spiral of time-wasting YouTube videos.  But if it did, I hope you at least got to relive some classic video game fun from the 90s.  Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love some 90s nostalgia now and again?  Especially about the video game where you get to romp through the jungle, jumping from tree to tree, collecting as many bananas as primately possible!

So since the previous blog post, we’ve done a great number of things, both in Laos and Thailand, but without a doubt the highlight from this part of our trip was our excursion into the jungle with The Gibbon Experience (they have a seriously cool mission, check it out!).  Over three days and two nights, we hiked with a local guide through old-growth jungle outside the little town of Huay Xai, Laos, zip-lined hundreds of meters across huge valleys, and slept in tree houses overlooking the afore-mentioned valleys.

Here’s how we got into our treehouse.  Just kidding, this picture is just a temporary placeholder for now until we stay somewhere with a better Internet connection and I can upload a video.  Sadly, this isn’t a photo of us gliding around.  One day….

Here's the view from the treehouse's bathroom.  Not a bad place to ponder life's greatest mysteries...

Here’s the view from the treehouse’s bathroom. Not a bad place to ponder life’s greatest mysteries…

Anna and I had the distinct privilege of sharing our tree house with 7 other avid adventurers hailing from such places as Slovakia, Germany, Australia, and Wyoming.  What a great crew!  We had a blast with this group, both on the trail and just hanging out in the treehouse.  We got the cards out on our second night and played a few rousing games of B.S., as well as a few different renditions of another international favorite.  Out of 9 rounds, Anna earned herself the title of ‘President’ 5 times; maybe she’s discovered what her next job will be!

All of this made for an amazing experience.  But the true highlight of the trip was when we actually saw a gibbon family on the move from our tree house!  Let me set the scene for you.  We’ve already woken up after our first night in the tree house, had a very successful morning of zip line thrills, and eaten lunch.  So, what do all well-behaved adventurers do at this point in the day?  We take a nap!

A few of us with a more patient temperament spend a good while just looking out over the trees for a while in hopes of spotting our elusive primate friends, but we all eventually succumb to the creature comforts of the post-lunch snooze.  All of us except Eagle-Eye-Anna, gibbon spotter extraordinaire.

Anna quietly roused us all from our dreamy state, and we were treated to a good 20-30 minutes of intermittent gibbon spotting!  Sometimes they just hung around, sometimes one would take a flying leap from one tree to another, and sometimes it seemed like a few of them would just horse around with each other.  (Not unlike a bunch of middle schoolers, now that I think about it.)  Here are a few pictures.  You’ll have to zoom in on the dark spots in the trees to really see them.

Momma gibbon with Baby gibbon hanging on.  Zoom in!

Momma Gibbon with Baby Gibbon hanging on. Zoom in!

If you zoom in on this one, you can see the one gibbon who I'm guessing is pondering the existence of the funny-looking pseudo-gibbons in the wooden cage in that tree across the valley...

If you zoom in on this one, you can see the one gibbon who I’m guessing is pondering the existence of the funny-looking pseudo-gibbons in the wooden cage in that tree across the valley…

Year of Fun success!

——————————————–

Any YoF readers out there have requests for a specific topic for a future blog post?  Let us know and we’ll see what we can put together!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Food & Temples: Livin’ the Life in Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang

Life after Singapore has been a fantastic mix of bananas, coconuts, bananas, mangos, bananas, smoothies, banana pancakes, nutella, and other assorted good foods.  Yes, after flying to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, we stayed there for nearly a week (eating good food, of course!), then flew to the equally laid-back town of Luang Prabang, Laos, where we stayed for close to another week.  Can you guess what we did there?

Yep, we ate.  And walked.  That’s the other thing we have been doing a lot of lately: walking around, taking in the sights.

Most recently, we’ve just completed the two day journey of taking the slow boat up the Mekong River to the northern Lao town of Huay Xai.

Here's everybody taking the slow boat up the Mekong.  Hooray, adventure!

Here’s everybody taking the slow boat up the Mekong. Hooray, adventure!

Here our two protagonists are on the Mekong slow boat, valiantly feigning comfort for the camera.

Here our two protagonists are on the Mekong slow boat, valiantly feigning comfort for the camera.

We’ve met many wonderful people from around the globe recently.  What a treat this trip is.  We keep reminding ourselves that there are still many months of adventure in front of us!

Here’s a short glimpse into what we’ll be doing over the next few days, YouTube style (minus the TNT explosion, of course.)

Over and out!  Free high fives to anybody who correctly guesses where we’re headed after Laos!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Team Awesome at 600 Feet: how to visit Singapore in 4 days

Singapore holds a special place in my heart now.  This wasn’t always the case, because, as you probably already know, I grew up in the 90s, so the only way I ever heard about Singapore was when the infamous news story came out about the diplomat’s kid getting caned.  As it turns out, this fine city-state (remember learning about those in 9th grade history class?) isn’t all about Big Brother spying on you around every corner waiting to catch you committing a cane-able offense.  Rather, it’s about Big Fun Uncle openly surveilling you around every corner and watching you have the best time ever with your wonderful hosts/cousins!

Highlights from the Lion City include:

  • the return of my traffic-related sanity,
  • wandering various neighborhoods with Anna’s super cousins who live here,
  • eating tasty food with afore-mentioned cousins/hosts and their husbands,
  • going on the Night Safari, and
  • this list could go on forever, so…..

Here are a few pictures to help you visualize the great times that transpired.

Decorative lanterns strung over the street in preparation for the lunar new year!  Looking deceptively donut-like....

Decorative lanterns strung over the street in preparation for the lunar new year! Looking deceptively donut-like….

Here we see Garrison letting loose and getting into the swing of things at the Night Safari.  Just kidding!  This was the fire-breathing-and-twirling performance that greeted us upon our arrival to the Night Safari.

Here we see Garrison letting loose and getting into the swing of things at the Night Safari. Just kidding! This was the fire-breathing-and-twirling performance that greeted us upon our arrival to the Night Safari.

Gardens By The Bay.  Where you can walk around two cool bio-domes and a grove of supertrees, hoping you have time to come back one day so you can enjoy the exhibits from the inside too.

Gardens By The Bay. Where you can walk around two cool bio-domes and a grove of supertrees, hoping you have time to come back one day so you can enjoy the exhibits from the inside too.

Team Awesome at ~600 ft.  Doesn't happen very often, but when it does, Garrison considers cannonballing into the pool, then also considers the consequences.

Team Awesome at ~600 ft. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, Garrison considers cannonballing into the pool, then considers the consequences.

View of the skyline from Ku Dé Ta on top of the Marina Bay Sands building.  Wow!!!

View of the skyline from Ku Dé Ta on top of the Marina Bay Sands building. Wow!!!

Thanks, Big Fun Uncle!  We have already started daydreaming about our next visit!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments