Saturday, April 25, 2015

Olkhon Island

After spending no more than a couple nights each in Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk, I made a longer stop at Lake Baikal. For the last five nights, I’ve been staying at a guesthouse on an island in the deepest lake in the world. Until recently, Olkhon wasn’t much of a travel destination. But with the recent arrival of electricity to the island, it’s become a bit more tourist friendly. Give it another decade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a paved road or two here.

Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal

My 6-hour journey to the island started with a marshrutka ride from Irkutsk. The 14-passenger van was devoid of foreigners, though there was a dog along for the trip. We crossed through barren steppes where the only signs of civilization were the occasional settlements of dilapidated wooden houses, but nothing that would even qualify as a small village. Much of the ride was along bumpy dirt roads—our vehicle’s suspension system left much to be desired, and the ride was about as smooth as if I had opted to make the journey on horseback. In the winter, you can drive across the frozen lake to reach the island, but now the ice is already half-melted. Therefore, we took an air-cushion hovercraft that can travel across both ice and water.

The hovercraft arriving at the island

In the off-season, there’s not much to do on the island. It’s too warm for snow sports, but far too cold (and icy) for swimming. Instead, I’ve spent the last five days exploring the island and meeting other guests. I spent a day hiking through the forest with a woman from South Korea who is riding the Trans-Siberian with her parents, a day walking to the second largest village on the island (population: 200) with a thrice-divorced and mostly insane Russian man who shares the same name as my novel’s hero, and I was adopted by an Argentine family for a few days. Three days of speaking entirely in Spanish did nothing for my Russian, but I’ve now got an invitation to visit them in Santa Rosa de La Pampa that I’m going to have to capitalize on—Argentina isn’t so far from Texas, right?

Siberian spring

As expected, the Siberian wilderness is an entirely different world than the Russian capital. Life moves at a different pace and lacks the conveniences of Moscow. The grocery stores have very little selection (you can’t even find bread), and since you can only buy gas on the mainland, most of the roads are deserted. On the other hand, the residents of Olkhon get to enjoy natural beauty unlike anything you would see in Moscow. There are playgrounds perched on cliffs overlooking the icy surface of Lake Baikal and cow-yak hybrids wandering untethered through a former gulag. While everyone tells me Olkhon is far more interesting in the summer, I loved the abandoned calm of early spring.


Today I return to the mainland, then I’m catching an overnight train to Ulan Ude. Only 73 hours and 22 minutes of train rides left!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Halfway There

On Sunday, after 78 hours and 2 minutes of train rides, I finally made it to Irkutsk. In addition to meaning I’d covered more than half the distance between Moscow and Vladivostok, it also meant that I was only 64 kilometers from the oldest and deepest lake in the world. I have dreamt of visiting Lake Baikal ever since I learned of its existence, so Monday morning found me on the first bus to nearby Listvyanka.

Standing on the very frozen Lake Baikal

There were only a handful of people on the bus, one of whom was also a foreigner. We got to talking before the bus had left the station, and by the time we reached the lake, we had decided to join forces on our day of sightseeing. Incidentally, the sights were pretty limited—Listvyanka consists of a smattering of hotels, bathhouses, and tourist agencies, all of which are closed in the spring. My new Dutch friend and I had coffee and lunch, then headed back to Irkutsk to pass the rest of the day wandering around and swapping travel stories.

He’s spent the last two years traveling around Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and is now taking the train to St. Petersburg so he can fly back to Holland for his father’s 70th birthday. Because we are both the same age, and on the tail end of extended international adventures, we kept coming back to the topic of whether we were ready to “settle down” or if we wanted to prolong our vagabond lifestyles. I (mostly facetiously) predicted that I would settle in Texas, let my passport expire, and start acquiring an abundance of material possessions that would never fit in a backpack. And then I wandered off on a slightly tangential story that took us back to March of 2006...

I was studying abroad in Santiago, and was forced to meet up with a man my parents had met on a train in Peru in the 1970s. Despite my protests, my mother dug through her old travel journals, unearthed a 30-year-old address, and sent a postcard off to Chile. It reached the man’s parents, who forwarded it to Eduardo, who emailed my mother to say that he and his family would love to take me to dinner.

With strict instructions to “please be charming,” I begrudgingly set off to make small talk in a language I spoke anything but charmingly. Despite my misgivings, it was fun to meet Eduardo’s family and hear his account of meeting a young, American couple backpacking wherever their whims took them. I showed him a more recent photo of my parents, and he seemed a little surprised by how much older they’d become. “Your dad’s hair wasn’t as gray when I met him!”

I recounted the same story to the Dutchman over our second lunch of the day. I told him that even though neither of us can really imagine being “settled,” my parents probably never did either when they were staying in fleabag South American hotels that gave the option of paying by the hour. Like them, we will soon be far grayer adults who once took trains in far away lands and struck up conversations with strangers. But I promised that when I had a brood of little Texans, I would send one of them halfway around the world to meet him and his family for dinner.

“I would love that!” he said.

So that’s sorted. I think that means I’m halfway to adulthood—or maybe just halfway to becoming my mother. In the words of my mom (when she’s in a “cursing in Tagalog” kind of mood), puñeta.

Baikal from Olkhon Island, where I am staying until Sunday

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Strangers on a Train

My stay in Novosibirsk was brief—one day was long enough to ascertain that Siberia’s largest city is also its least attractive. So after a performance of “The Queen of Spades” at the Novosibirsk Opera, I changed into my “train outfit” (which I am going to burn at the end of this trip, or maybe even next week), and dashed off to catch an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk.

My planned route (I’m at the fourth star on the map)

I found my way to my compartment, where a woman was fast asleep in one of the lower beds and a guy was eating instant noodles in one of the upper beds.

“Hello,” he said, his English completely devoid of any Russian accent.

It was the first time I’d heard anything but Russian on the train, so it took me a second to fight off the automatic zdravstvuyte. Once I found the proper English greeting, I learned that my new compartment mate was a Dutchman named Robin.* He was taking the train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia, and had already been on the train for two days straight. Like me, he had yet to cross paths with any other foreigners, but since he didn’t speak any Russian he was especially grateful for some English-speaking company. We began chatting, and it soon came out that he was something of a beer aficionado who hopes to open his own microbrewery someday. I asked him what he thought of Russian beer, but he still hadn’t tried it.

“What?! Let’s go buy beers in the dining car,” I suggested.

He looked at me in surprise. “You mean you can leave the car?” 

As I led him from one railway coach to the next, I felt like I was going to more or less blow his mind when I introduced him to the wonders of the dining car (although he was already fairly blown away by the novelty of leaving Car 5). But when I tried the door, it was locked. It seemed that the dining car had closed at midnight and we were too late. I tried to see if a porter would sell me some beer, but they just shook their heads disdainfully and reminded me that they don’t peddle pivo.

Incidentally, there was beer in my compartment on the prior train ride

We returned to our compartment in defeat, where we found our remaining travel mate blinking herself awake. This was Lyubov, a recently retired schoolteacher of Tatar origin who lives in Khanty-Mansiysk (an oil boom town to the north). She had just come from Omsk, where she’d been visiting her daughter and frequenting cat shows, and was now going to Krasnoyarsk to visit her sister for two weeks. The three of us stayed up chatting in a mix of Russian and English, and shared Dutch candy care of Robin and Kazakh chocolate care of Lyubov. I, uselessly, had nothing American to contribute since I destroyed the Cadbury mini-eggs I brought back from LA long before my trip started.

Before I left Moscow I had worried I might get lonely traveling solo for a month, but I am finding that there are plenty of strangers who are eager to open up to a random foreigner. There was Tatiana, who was so friendly that she even kissed the cranky porters on the cheek; Roman, a military officer who asked such interesting and in-depth questions about American culture and politics that I felt bad about my linguistically inadequate answers; and Artem, a mid-20s engineer who wants to leave Russia and was disappointed that I didn’t share his intense dislike of the Motherland. I guess Dima was right when he said before I left, “Russians don’t need therapists—we’ll tell anyone who will listen about our problems.”

*Hi, Robin! Hope you made it safely to Listvyanka and finally got to enjoy that shower!

Bridge over the Yenisei River (Krasnoyarsk)

Obligatory Lenin shot (Krasnoyarsk)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ekaterinburg → Novosibirsk

Sometime before leaving Ekaterinburg, I made the unfortunate discovery that I had inadvertently booked platzkart tickets for two legs of my journey. While I’m sure third-class is fine, an open carriage with 54 beds is not ideal for someone worried about losing their laptop and who would be in a world of pain if she were to be separated from her passport (in a Catch-22 Joseph Heller would approve of, I wouldn’t be able to leave the country without my Russian visa, but I also wouldn’t be able to get a new one without leaving Russia).

The train ticket offices always have long lines and you can never tell which line will move quickly or which one will get bogged down with a foreigner trying to make an exchange, so I got myself to the vokzal two hours before my train was scheduled to depart. After 30 minutes of waiting, I explained my mistake to the woman at the ticket office. She listened patiently, then went through the very tedious process of changing my tickets. An additional 40 minutes and 5300 rubles later, I had corrected my mistake and was ready to roll. But with 50 minutes until departure, I decided to stop by a produkti and a Subway for railway victuals.

By the time I made my way over to train № 044 bound for Khabarovsk, there were only 20 minutes until departure and I was fully ready to throw off my backpack and tuck into my Subway sandwich. But the train attendant wasn’t as eager to make that happen.

Devoshka, your ticket doesn’t match the name on your passport. I can’t let you on this train.”

I looked at her in horror, hoping I’d misunderstood; it was way too late to get a new ticket if she were correct. She pointed at my ticket, indicating where it had been issued for Джесика (the equivalent of “Jesica” instead of “Jessica”).

“But it’s a different alphabet. It doesn’t matter how you spell my name in Cyrillic! Look at all my visas. They make up a new spelling every time. Caroline is written as Керолин, Каролин, and Кэролайн—all in one passport!”

She nodded with faux compassion. “But we’re talking about your first name. And it’s always spelled with two S’s.”

She flipped through my collection of visas to prove her point, not batting an eye as my Russian migration card caught the wind and blew under the train. My panic briefly shifted focus. Abandoning the one vs. two “S” debate, I dove under the train (30 lb. backpack and all) to retrieve that small, but important square of paper. “I can’t exit the country without this,” I explained to the attendant, with a rare burst of grammatical accuracy.

The train attendant was unmoved. “Then you should probably be more careful with it.”

I decided to ignore that comment and focus on the larger issue at hand. “Can I please get on this train?”

She sighed and called over her supervisor and another train attendant. After much back and forth, the trio finally concluded that it was unlikely I had stolen the ticket from an unwitting “Jesica” who just so happened to share the same unhyphenated double last name and passport number as me. Which means I am safely in Novosibirsk!

Are we sensing a theme here?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Exploring Ekaterinburg

Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Ekaterinburg was known as Sverdlovsk. It was named after a Communist party leader who was thought to have ordered the assassination of the Romanovs, because apparently that is the kind of exemplary behavior that got you a city named in your honor in  Soviet Russia. In addition to being the place where the last Tsar of Russia was shot, Ekaterinburg is the hometown of the first Russian president, that ineffable alcoholic Boris Yeltsin. For those two reasons alone, I figured Ekaterinburg was worth a stop on my Trans-Siberian tour.

An aerial view of Ekaterinburg
Although I have a tendency to plan trips down to the minutest of details, I didn’t do a lot of planning before arriving in Ekaterinburg. Instead, I decided to leave that to a total stranger—a local Ekaterinburger (pretty sure that’s not the technical term) who found me on Couchsurfing. She had offered to drive me to the border of Europe and Asia, and since I don’t love the marshrutka and she didn’t have the look of a serial killer, I decided to go for it.

This afternoon, Ksenia met me outside my hotel and took me on a walking tour of her city. We meandered down a riverside promenade, which took us past street art that ranged from a Beatles memorial to a giant keyboard made of stones. Both were equally confusing, but Ksenia explained that you were meant to make a wish on the keyboard by spelling out something you desire. As an example, she used the Latin alphabet to type out L-O-V-E, then jumped on the “Return” key. I thought about my wish for a moment, then hopped amongst the following Cyrillic letters: Р-О-М-А-Н, or “novel” in English. Yes, my latest strategy for finishing my novel is enlisting the help of a Wishing Keyboard. Incidentally, “roman” also means “love affair” and is a man’s name, so here’s hoping I get the full trifecta.

We’ll see how that “roman” works out...
A mural dedicated to a Soviet singer who died in 1990

We continued through historical Ekaterinburg and up to the Church on the Blood. A recent addition to the city, it replaced the merchant’s home where the Romanov family was shot and now serves as a memorial. Today it was filled with women selling Easter cakes (kulich), so I bought one for Ksenia and me to share in a nearby park (Orthodox Easter is tomorrow). Our last stop of the day was the marker along the Europe-Asia border. For this, Ksenia enlisted the help of Valery, a friend of hers with a car who apparently had nothing better to do today than chauffeur us out of town for a photo op. Clearly everyone’s fears that I would die on the Trans-Siberian were well-founded—these tricky Russians are trying to kill me with kindness.

Church on the Blood

Asia - Europe

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Train Ride Begins

On Wednesday, I ran into the director of my college overseas studies program. I first met him back in 2005 when I was a junior in college, arriving in Moscow after six weeks in St. Petersburg. He picked me up from the Leningradsky Railway Station after my first ride on a Russian train. At the time, my Russian was so non-existent that it took me multiple tries (and a good Samaritan with great English) before I could purchase my train ticket. At the insistence of my mother, I opted for the high-speed day train rather than the overnight train. I didn’t get robbed or roofied, but I did get yelled at by another passenger when I was too slow exiting with my mountains of luggage.

Ten years later and I am embarking on yet another solo train ride—albeit with less luggage and a far better grasp of Russian (and Russian rudeness). Even though Moscow is more than weird enough to keep me entertained until time immemorial, I decided to venture out on a month-long journey across the vast expanse of the Motherland. Moscow and Vladivostok are 9,259 kilometers apart, and it takes a train 143 hours and 20 minutes to cover that distance. Any Russian will aptly point out that it’s not only faster but cheaper to fly across the country, so why would anyone subject themselves to nearly a week aboard a train?

The № 002 «Россия» from Moscow to Vladivostok

As a Westerner with romantic notions of the Russian heartland and train travel, I actually am curious to see the mountains, lakes, taiga, and steppe that lie between the capital and the Pacific Ocean. I want to cross the Ural Mountains into Asia, explore the Siberian wilderness, swim in the deepest lake in the world, and visit Nanai villages on the border of China. And, of course, I’m hoping to cross paths with some crazy Russian characters along the way.

Endless Russian birch forests from the window

My first leg of the trip, from Moscow to Ekaterinburg, was mostly uneventful. I shared a compartment with an older couple and their grandson, all of whom were completely uninterested in speaking with me. After I introduced myself to them, they just asked, “How far are you going?” They seemed disappointed to discover that I would be in their compartment for the duration of their journey, also to Ekaterinburg. Despite my attempts at conversation, they gave brief answers and asked no questions of me. So even after 25 hours in close quarters, all I can tell you about Larissa, Sergei, and Kirill is that they were returning from a sanatorium in the Caucuses, and 5-year-old Kirill can watch classic Soviet films for a day straight. I’m hoping my next train (a 22-hour ride to Novosibirsk) will be more exciting. If not, I’m bringing a liter of vodka and heading back to the third class cars—you know it’s got to get wild up in there.

No Russian city is complete without Lenin!

A sidestreet in Ekaterinburg