Archive for July, 2010

St. Petersberg -> Amsterdam via Berlin

Greetings from almost home: last time the train stopped, I was 1171 km from London!

I took a normal night train to St. Petersberg to make the most of my time. It wasn’t a great night of sleep because the train only took 7 hours or so, but it was enough. Upon arriving, I saw a few "Sapsan" trains on the platform. These are used on the new high speed service between Moscow and St. Petersberg, and they look a lot like the CRH3 "Hexie" trains I took in China! This led me to do a bit of research.. it turns out both trains are made by Siemens and are basically a commercialisation of the German ICE trains. This leaves me even less impressed with Chinese high speed rail. So you buy a few dozen German trains, paint them to look like Japanese trains, and run them short distances from Beijing. OK, you win the sound of one hand clapping. Well, it’s better than Canada, where we have NO intercity electric trains, let alone high speed ones!

St. Petersberg was great – it’s a beautiful city, full of nifty buildings. I also took an afternoon trip to Petrovordets, which is full of… fountains, over 100 of them!

On my last full night in Russia, I discovered a chain of fast food restaurants called Tepemok (pronounced Teremok) that serves meal-sized crêpes! Awesome! I tried to go on my last night.. they had a stand across from the train station, but it closed 10 minutes before I got there :( One of the guys at the hostel wants to introduce it to America but under the name Crazy Ivan’s. So watch for it!

The train to Berlin was weird. I couldn’t figure out who made the carriages but they weren’t Russian. Russian carriages are too wide to be used on German railways, and these were a much different design: narrow compartments with 3 beds in each, stacked above each other. They changed the bogies in Brest (Belarus) and also the couplings! Russian trains have bad couplings that jerk the carriages when the train starts and stops.

So then Berlin… it’s a great city, and one I’ve visited several times. The main thing I did was a bike tour of nearby Potsdam. It’s 50km away, and the tour normally takes the train out and back, but I persuaded them to give me the bike the night before and got up early enough to meet the tour at the station in Potsdam. This made for a long day and I was too tired to head to the hostel bar in the evening, where I was hoping to drink a boot of beer. This is probably a good thing because the boots are 2 litre glasses!

And now onto Amsterdam, my last big stop before home!

In Berlin…

I made it to Berlin after 36h on a train. I don’t remember how far that is from London… under 3000km for sure. More to follow :)

Circus on a train

Russian Railways Career Chooser

2 nights ago, I boarded my train to St-Petersburg when they opened the doors… strange, my carriage was almost empty. Then about 15 minutes before departure, the circus started.

About 20 French people showed up and started boarding. They all had rolling luggage, most of which was too wide to roll down the hallway, but that didn’t stop them from trying! I heard "you’re taking the carpet with you!" more than once!

I was wondering when one of them would intrude in my compartment, since we had an empty berth. After a few minutes, one did: the group leader, accompanied by the provodnitsa. The leader was angrily stating in English that they were a GROUP, and they wanted to sit TOGETHER. The provodnitsa was trying to explain that my compartment already had 3 Russians in it, and one berth was left for a French person. I considered pointing out that I was not, in fact, Russian, but thought the better of it.

Finally the leader realised that maybe blaming the provodnitsa for her mistake wasn’t the correct strategy, and asked me if I would move to another berth so one of the French couples could sleep in the same compartment. (This matters on a 7.5h overnight train journey, most of which you’ll spend asleep?) Whatever, I told her I would (in French of course.)

Then followed the confusing process of figuring out which bed she wanted me to move to. Eventually I gave up and asked the provodnitsa, who shook her head at the French lady and showed me to an empty bed.

After that, the breakfasts had to be redistributed – on this fare, you could pay about $15 extra for a cold boxed breakfast. The French all had, but I hadn’t.

At the end of all this, I was in a compartment with 1 Russian and 1 breakfast. Then the provodnitsa came in with another breakfast, put it on the table right next to my berth, winked at me, and left. I guess it pays to be polite :)

Moskva!

It’s pronounced Moskva but it’s spelled Mockba. Crazy cyrillic.

I arrived in Nizhny Novgorod early on Saturday afternoon, intending to spend the night here before taking a Sunday night train to Moscow. The city has a strange layout: most things are on the west side of the Oka and Volga rivers, including the train station, most housing and industry, and all of the metro system. The historical and touristy stuff (and some housing and shops) is on the east side. So I had to cross. Lonely Planet advised taking tram 1 or any bus signposted for (somewhere) to get to the central area. Well, tram 1 no longer follows the route specified in LP, and it took me somewhere that wasn’t even on the Lonely Planet map. I went back to the train station and tried to find the bus to (somewhere). I tried to figure out the transit map, which has 3 of most route numbers: tram, bus, and trolleybus. I tried asking people, but nobody knew how to get to (somewhere) or even to the Kremlin. I tried waiting at 3 different bus stops for a bus labeled (somewhere). Nothing.

Then I decided I had no real need to spend another day dealing with this place, and changed my ticket to Moscow to leave Saturday night. I did eventually make it to the Kremlin by staing on tram route 1 until it got to some streets that were on the map, but it wasn’t mind blowing or anything. So back to the train station then onto the train!

I’m now in Moscow, starting my 5th day. I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted but I’m sure I’ll find something fun to do. Then tonight, a night train to St-Petersberg.

Highlights of Moscow have been:

  • St. Basil’s Cathedral is awesome. Photos can’t really do it justice (not that I didn’t try.)
  • The Kremlin is decent too.
  • Red Square, which isn’t actually red.
  • Cat Theatre!!! I wore my Ceiling Cat shirt and made sure He got a good view.
  • An art museum with a really long name that had a Monet room.
  • Just wandering around in general. There are lots of little parks everywhere, neat buildings, and good restaurants. I’ve been using the hostel’s kitchen too though.. this city is expensive if you eat out all the time!

Soviet-era hotels

There are no hostels between Irkutsk and Moscow, so the cheapest place to stay is usually a Soviet-era hotel.Single station radio

The price is anywhere from 600 to 2000 roubles per night ($20 – $70.) For this, you get a small concrete room with a single bed and a sink. There’s a shared toilet on the floor, and a shared shower somewhere in the building. Sometimes you have to pay to use the shower.

When you check in, you’re given a card instead of a key. Each floor has an attendant who will exchange your card for a key. I guess this allows them to keep track of people coming and going.

The best part of the hotel I used in Yekaterinburg was this –>

It’s a radio that only gets one station! There’s a volume control on the side and that’s it. I guess the station used to be State Propaganda Radio or something, but these days it mostly plays English-language pop and dance music… Russians love dance music.

Oh yeah, there are photos – my Russia photos so far are here.

Ya ne gavaryu pa Rooski

I counted yesterday. I had to tell 5 people that I didn’t speak Russian. That’s a typical day for me.

It seems that "point and grunt" communication is a skill, and one that many Russians lack. I guess I’m used to Southeast Asia and China where most people you interact with are part of the tourist industry and therefore know how it’s done. Most of the problems I remember are the times I needed to head to a market "off the beaten track" that usually only saw locals.

Yesterday, I went to the Gulag Museum in Perm, which is the only surviving Soviet-era labour camp (currently being restored as funds allow.) The woman at the ticket window couldn’t manage to sell me a ticket, and had to summon an English-speaking tour guide. Wow, your main job is interacting with tourists, and you can’t point and grunt? At least she figured out on her own that I didn’t gavaryu.

(Currently 746 km from Moscow, 4862 km from London!)

Mongolia trivia

The largest supermarket chain in Mongolia is NOMIN. Kinda appropriate :)

Their shopping bags are sturdier than average. I’m still using mine, and every now and then I see someone on a platform with a NOMIN bag and ask them when they were in Mongolia.

According to a book we found aimed at teaching English to Mongolians, this is what you might say to a friend you dreamed had died: "You were died by car accident and I was lost it."

The rest of my Mongolia photos are here.

The whole set is here.

Train-related photos

Here are some train-related photos from the trip so far:

Right now I’m in Yekaterinberg.. no longer in Siberia but still in Asia. I accidentally booked my ticket out for a day later than planned, which I’ve decided was nature’s way of telling me to slow down. So I’m spending an extra night here and heading out tomorrow. It just means I won’t make it to Suzdal, but that isn’t a must-see anyway.

Adventures in the land of Manly Men

The main part of my Mongolian adventures was a trip organized by Ger to Ger, travelling with the nomads (and 2 Norwegians I met online) then visiting a few sights by jeep.

June 28, 7:23: Dragon Bus Center, Ulaanbaatar

I don’t see any dragons. Buses, yes. OK. We’re getting on a bus for Rashaant, where we’ll be met by a jeep that will transport us to our first ger (yurt.)

June 28, 14:00: Mr. Byambatogoth’s ger

Our first ger! We’re waiting for camels, and then we’re going to ride around a bit.

When we got here, we were served milk tea and yogurt. The yogurt was made by Mrs. Byambatogoth from milk from their goats. Yum! We played a few traditional games with their 7 year old son, Batgere. These games are played with dried sheeps’ ankle bones.. one was a horse race (Batgere won) and one was somewhat like marbles. Then Batgere found one of the Norwegians’ cell phone, and spent the rest of the time enjoying its much more modern games.

June 28, 20:00

We just finished dinner, which is served late in herder families. The camels were eventually found 3 hills over but they (being camels and therefore stubborn) refused to come back, so we rode horses on our afternoon’s trip. This was a short trip out to an Ovoo, which is a log teepee covered in prayer flags. You worship it by walking around it 3 times, tossing in 3 stones, and making a wish.

On the way back from the Oovo, we helped Mrs. Byambatogoth (who was guiding us) herd the family’s goats into a corral near their gers. It turns out herding goats is really easy. I’m sure she could have done it just as quickly without us :) Then we played volleyball outside, and a 10 year old neighbourhood kid rode up to join us. I also got to try milking a goat.. it turns out I’m not very good at this.

Later in the evening, they kicked the goats out of the corral and brought in all the small sheep. One of them made a run for it, so Batgere chased it down and grabbed it by the wool. It was too heavy for him to lift but since Mongolia is the country of Manly Men, he couldn’t let us help. One of the Norwegians finally found a solution: he told Batgere to carry the sheep behind his neck, which allowed him to take most of its weight without Batgere noticing :)

June 29, 13:00: Mr. Otgonbayr’s ger

We rode to this ger on the last family’s horses. Our bags went by Super Mustang, which is a horse of the iron variety. I rode on the family’s prized saddle, which our guide said was worth over $1000. It was really uncomfortable! Mongolian saddles are made of wood, which makes them uncomfortable at the best of times. This one had some extra silver ornaments that served as pressure points inside my thighs. FAIL.

When we arrived, the Otgonbayr family was busy shearing their sheep. Apparently the wool is worth 50¢ per kilogram. They offered to let me try shearing myself, but the sheep were covered in ticks so I declined.

I’ve been misled all my life into believing that Manly Men smoke Marlboros. It turns out that that’s just a marketing ploy. Real Manly Men smoke cigarettes they’ve rolled themselves out of newspaper!

June 29, 20:30

After the sheep were sheared, Mr. Otgonbayr put together an oxcart and we trundled slowly to some nearby sand dunes. Sitting on the oxcart was a nice break from the Mongolian saddle and the sand dunes were neat. We’re pretty far from the Gobi Desert.. this is what they call the Minigobi: a patch of desert 280km long but only 500m-1000m wide.

The Otgonbayrs have a bicycle, so I took it out for a ride. Wide open pastures, occasionally dotted by a few gers.. nothing too surprising there :)

June 30, 13:00: Mr. Idertsogt’s ger

In the morning, we rode to Mr. Idertsogt’s ger on the Otgonbayr’s horses. These were nice horses with great Russian saddles, which are made of leather.. but the ride wasn’t too comfortable for me since I had to carry my backpack, heavy enough to be uncomfortable.

As we were leaving the Otgonbayrs, a truck pulled in (to ask directions) with the parts for a ger on the back. I found out that 2 experienced people can assemble a ger in about 30 minutes. Last time I saw one built was at Burning Man, where it took about 40 people 2 hours and 2 attempts! Herder families move their gers 2-4 times a year, usually less than 10km each time.

June 30, 16:00

We had a good ride in the afternoon. Russian saddle + no backpack + good horse = win. I’m starting to see why someone would choose to ride horses for fun :)

We rode out to Swan Lake and saw some distant swans, then rode to another part of the Minigobi. Our guide didn’t speak any English but we communicated by drawing pictures on the sand! He also wrestled one of the Norwegians. I’m not sure who won.

June 30, 21:30

The rest of my afternoon was fairly eventful.. we played soccer with a couple of local kids in the family sheep corral, then the kids left to herd in the sheep (bareback.) Before dinner, I went out to climb a nearby rock formation, accompanied by one of the family dogs. In past evenings I’ve been worried about missing dinner (Mongolians refuse to even guess when meals will be ready or events in general will happen) but I realized that it doesn’t matter.. Manly Men are prone to disappearing for hours to herd animals or whatever, and the women are used to that. Dinner will be kept warm until they get back. And it was :)

July 1

Happy birthday Mom :)

Last night, I went outside to pee in the middle of the night. As well as "so many stars", there were "so many sheep!" Our ger was surrounded on all 4 sides!

This morning, more shearing.. it was the Idertsogts’ day for it. This time, I helped out. It turns out I’m not very good at the actual shearing, but I’m very good at catching sheep and tying them up to be sheared.

July 1, 19:00: tourist camp near Karakorum

After the sheep were sheared, we went for another horse ride with our excellent guide (described to us as Mr. Idertsogt’s brother.. wouldn’t that make him Mr. Idertsogt as well?) to a local monument. Then we convinced him to go furthur, to the next rock outcropping, and we climbed it.

After lunch, we were picked up by the Ger to Ger van, which drove us to Karakorum, which I believe is Mongolian for "not much left." This was the capital of Mongolia in the 13th century, but there’s essentially nothing from that period remaining except for the temple walls. These now house a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which was built on the site in 1585. Still, this was nice to see, especially considering it had English signs and explanations, so I got to learn what many of the things I was used to seeing in these temples actually were.

Surrounding Karakorum is a rundown industrial city. We drove out of that and into a "tourist camp", which is like a hotel but with gers instead of rooms. They had hot showers, which was nice (nomadic gers don’t even have running water – Manly Men bathe in the river, or not at all.)

Oh yeah, Manly Men (and women) don’t wear seatbelts. I spent about ½h of our first long van trip digging out the clicker for my seatbelt from under the seat cover, which had been installed without regard for seatbelts. Also about an hour into the drive, the road got really rough and our guide’s unfastened seatbelt was bouncing around and bothering her… so she pulled it over her lap and held it there for about 20 minutes!

After dinner at the tourist camp, the Norwegians did some archery, thus completing the "3 Manly Sports", which are horseracing, wrestling, and archery. They weren’t very good at it.. I didn’t even try, because I already know I’m not good at archery :)

July 2: Tsinhir Hot Springs

This morning we drove to another tourist camp in the remote Tsinhir Valley. We made it in time for lunch, followed by a soak in the hot springs. These aren’t as nice as a Japanese onsen but are way nicer than the hot springs we stopped at in Tibet, which nobody wanted to use (even our Tibetan guide said they were too dirty!)

And after that… nothing. There’s nothing to do in Tsinhir. I hiked to the source of the hot spring and up a few hills, then it started to rain. I’d already finished my book, but I found a clone of Guitar Hero on my phone.. not that great :(

July 3: The long trip back to UB

We set out reasonably early from Tsinhir and drove for a couple of hours… then the van broke.

Our guide was able to phone the regional coordinator, who promised to send a car from Rashaant (2-3 hours away) to rescue us. Meanwhile our driver took the engine apart (Manly Men do that) and located the broken piece (a lever that ran between the camshaft and one of the engine valves.) We all walked down to the nearest ger to hang out but after an hour or two, that got boring. To make a very long story short, after almost 7 hours of waiting, a truck showed up with 2 mechanics, the regional coordinator, some food (finally!), and some parts. They spent the next hour fixing the van and we drove out.

By the time we reached Rashaant, it was dark and there were no more buses back to UB, so we had to spend the night there. Rashaant is even less interesting than Tsinhir, and really not a nice place in general. UB is surrounded by suburbs of fenced off yards with gers and rundown bulidings.. but in Rashaant, that’s all there is!

July 4: UB, finally

In the late morning, we took the first bus to UB, arriving mid-afternoon.. only 18 or so hours behind schedule. Luckily I had just enough time to do laundry, shower, and buy groceries before my train to Irkutsk.

So… well… mixed feelings about Ger to Ger. The first part of the adventure was fun, but the last few days were quite boring, with not enough to do at all. Also, I’m really unimpressed with yesterday. Why did the coordinator spend her time finding mechanics and van parts rather than sending another vehicle to pick us up and worrying about the van later? Good thing my train didn’t leave until today…

Another train, another timezone

Train from Krasnoyarsk to Novosibirsk, 3379km to Moscow, 7495km to London

Every overnight train I’ve taken since Beijing has involved another time change. This one is no exception, changing from Krasnoyarsk time (Moscow +4) to Novosibirsk time (Moscow +3.) You get to thinking in terms of offsets from Moscow time on the Trans-Siberian since all long distance trains run on Moscow time. My train left at 18:15 (really 22:15) and gets in at 6:20 (really 9:20.) Confused yet?

Krasnoyarsk is a nice, laid back city.. a good place to spend a day and a half off the train. I saw the sights of the city, including the church on the 10 rouble note and the regional museum. The museum was OK, not great, mostly because general museums aren’t really my thing. This one is supposedly one of the nicer ones so I figured I’d check it out.

Yesterday I hiked to Stolbi National Park. A stolb is a granite rock outcropping jutting up out of the woods for inscrutible geological reasons. I took a bus to the park then hiked around to a few stolbi, climbed one, and ate lunch at the top. Great hiking! People also go rock climbing on the stolbi.. not much of that today though, since it rained heavily last night and was threatening to rain all day.

This is my first platskart (3rd class) trip.. it’s been sold out or nonexistant on every train I’ve taken so far. Hopefully it will be my last though – I did not get a good night’s sleep. Like "hard sleeper" in China, platskart squeezes about 60 berths into one carriage, but it does it in a different way. Rather than stacking the berths 3-high, there are 4 berths on one side of a hallway (perpendicular to the direction of travel) and 2 on the other (lateral.) The problem is that the berths are too short. I had to either dangle my feet off the edge of my berth (where people walking down the hall can bump into them) or sleep curled up (which my legs didn’t appreciate at all after a day of hiking.) It was still much better than the sleeper bus Robin and I took from Hekou to Kunming a couple of months ago, but I’m sticking to kupe (2nd class compartment) from now on. Kupe tickets are easier to get anyway.

So now I’m stopping for the day in Novosibirsk, mostly to see a railway museum (the good kind of museum) then onto Yekaterinberg.

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