the border crossing, read at your own risk

Here is the second of my notebook posts. This one was written on September 26, 2012.  Warning: Concerned parents and friends, this might be one of those stories you don’t want to know about.  It happened, it was probably the result of a stupid decision sometime before, but we made it out OK, so don’t  give me any flack for it! Continue at your own risk.

“On the morning of the 22nd we were still in Listvyanka.  We knew that we had to get to Ulaan Baatar, in Mongolia, by the morning of the 24th, so that we could go on an orientation with the Ger to Ger organization before our scheduled trek into the Gobi on the 25th.

To get there we had heard about several options, all involving a return to Irkutsk.  Listvyanka was so small that the only way into and out of it, for travelers, was via marshrutka to Irkutsk, or via a ferry across the river to the almost as tiny Port Baikal. We felt like the three bears deciding between our next travel step, and hoping there was no big bad wolf lying in wait.

The first option, Option A, involved a thirty-three hour overnight train from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar.  There was no plascarte (third class) option on this train and second class was running a bit above our budget.  Also, the time spent on the train skirting around the western and southern edges of Lake Baikal is one of the prettiest parts of the trip and not to be passed in the dark.  So we nixed option A.

Option B was pretty nice.  For $33.00 you take a seven hour train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, and then for $50.00 you take an 11 hour coach bus from Ulan-Ude to Ulaan Baatar.  The whole bus crosses the border together.  This is the option we decided on.  It was relatively inexpensive, gave us a day trip around the lake, and got us to Ulaan Baatar on time.

Option C was described as the adventurous option.  The “off the beaten path” option. Take the same $33.00 train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude.  From Ulan-Ude, take a marshrutka to the Russian border town Kyakhta (Кяхта).  There, hitch a ride across the border, since walking across is not allowed. The going rate is 100 Rub in a marshrutka, 200 Rub in a taxi, or 250 Rub in a private car.  “It  happens pretty regularly, don’t worry,” we were told.  Once over the border, take another minibus to Mongolia’s closest town; where you’ll pick up the coach bus there for the remaining five hour journey into Ulaan Baatar.  Needless to say, we were not feeling the need to take this risky route just to prove ourselves to the world.  And needless to say, the universe had other ideas.
We started out alright.  We left Listvyanka on the first marshrutka out on the morning of the 22nd.  The night before, we had purchased third class train tickets from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude on the 10:00 am train on the 22nd.  Our minibus arrived in Irkutsk by 9:10 am, and a tram had us at the train station by 9:30 am.  I even had time to mail a few more postcards before we hopped on the train.  And despite the crying babies, dirty diaper, and crusty “4 days in” travelers in plascarte, we really enjoyed the ride- applauding ourselves mightily for deciding to make this leg of the trek during the day.

Skirting the lake, view through a dirty plascarte train window.

We arrived at our hostel around dusk, and even before our packs hit the floor, we asked to buy bus tickets to Ulaan Baatar for the next morning . “Uh Oh” said the girl at the Ulan-Ude Guest House.  “I can try, but they might be sold out by now.”

“Uh oh!” we said.  No one mentioned that possibility.  Of course, the tickets were sold out.  Did we want to get tickets for the day after? “We just couldn’t!” we said “We have to get to the Steppes! Tell us about this other way.” we said, and they did.  We’ll try it, we decided.

So early the next morning we made our way to the bus station to pick up a minibus to the border for 300 Rub (about $10).  It left at 9:00 am, stopped for a bathroom break and to change a flat tire at 11:00 am, and had us to Kyakhta by 12:30.  There, we were swarmed by cabbies offering to take us to the border for 200 Rub.  “Over the border?” we asked.  “No, to the border” they said.

We were getting no where with them when a guy with two suitcases and a Mongolian passport told us he was going to Ulaan Baatar too, and we could follow him.  I’m paraphrasing of course.  What he really did was wave his Mongolian passport at us and point to it.  We could share his taxi for 100 Rub each (traced on his palm with his finger) and he would get us across.  And so we met our mute Mongolian Travel Angel.  We could not have done this without him.  You “adventurous travelers”, take this as a warning.

Sometimes time and space are just like a giant fast flowing river.  You know just by looking at it that it is to strong for you to swim.  All you can do is focus on where you need to be, jump in, and try to float with your head above water and your feet pointed down stream; praying that the current and the cosmos will get you where you need to go.  This was like that.  When we got into that first cab we jumped into the river.  After that, we were present, but the fact that we made it to Ulaan-Baatar had little to do with us.

In the back of the first cab of our epic border crossing.

Anyway, we took that cab for 100 Rub to the Russian border.  The we got out, put our things in another car that was waiting for people just like us, and waited in line.  After about 20 minutes it was our turn.  We drove to a guard house, and got out with our things. The car was searched and our bags checked.  That done, we waited for the next station.

While waiting, smooth as butter, with confidence and finesse to put the most hardened Baltimore drug dealer to shame, the little old ladies in the car behind us brought over two duffel bags.  Our driver put them in the trunk just as we were putting our own bags back.  calm as anything, as if she smuggles things right under the noses of Russian border patrol every day.  Maybe she does.

When the guards were ready, we drove another 15 feet to the next station, got out again, and presented our passports for inspection.  And you do need at least one registration in a Russian city, even if you never stay longer than one week at each place.  You need at least one, so don’t let your hotels tell you otherwise.

Passing that inspection we drove into no-man’s land.  We had made it half way! We were out of Russia, there was no turning back now.

We passed a dusty barbed wire expanse, and reached the Mongolian border.  Passports? Check.  Drive up, park, into the building, get passports stamped and luggage checked, get back into car and drive through another barren wasteland and out another fence, and viola! You’ve made it to Mongolia.

There were beggars, drunkards, and currency changers thick and slow as zombies in the street. They called in your car window as you slowly drove past, and once you put your window up they tried to open your car doors until you locked those too.  And suddenly, in the midst of all this, our driver pulls over stops, and demands 200 Rub each.  Her job was done. You were in Mongolia.

We pay, get out, and are ushered into another cab by Ghengis, our travel angel.  But before getting in we exchange our remaining Russian Rubbels with a guy who has a fanny pack stuffed with Mongolian Tughriks.  This one is offering a good rate, Ghengis explains.  Transaction complete, we get in the cab and are told to give the driver 3000T each (about $2.00).

Along the way (about an hour drive) Ghengis explains through pantomime, scratch paper, and a calculator that this cabby will take us to one village.  I use the term “village” loosely.  Much like the ghost towns of the American Mid-West, these villages are strips of half a dozen buildings strung in a row with a public latrine on one end.  Anyway, at this village we will pick up another cab, which for 8000T will take us the two hours to the nearest bus stop.  The bus to Ulaan Baatar will be another 8000T.

Communication at it’s finest! This was our scratch pad conversation with Ghengis.

Sure, OK, we nod.  Do we have much choice? Lets just hope there is an ATM at the bus station we whisper to ourselves.  It is about this time that I realize our travel angel is not just signing with us, but with everyone.  He seems to hear alright, but hasn’t said much to anyone.  No wonder he is helping us! Apart from being a kind person, he must sympathize with the difficulty of traveling anywhere without being able to just say what he needs, common language or not!

And thanks to Ghengis, everything did happen just like that.  The 3000T got us…somewhere, the 8000T got us to the bus station, and another 8000T bought us tickets on the 4:00 pm train to Ulaan Baatar (and there was an ATM at the station).

Sandra and I were sitting with our bags in the cafe, after enjoying our first Mongolian meal, when suddenly Ghengis comes running back in, waving animatedly.  His message was clear: hurry! come! NOW!

We grabbed our things and dashed out the door. Our bus was on the move! We ran in front of it, cutting it off at an intersection, and thankfully it stopped long enough for us to throw our bags in the storage area beneath and climb aboard.  The time? 3:37 pm.  Hmmm…buses leave early here? Good to know.

Five hours later we re-emerged from the bus in the Dragon Center bus stop at Ulaan Baatar.  Ghengis, loyal to the end, shared a cab with us to ensure we made it to our hostel safely.  Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, with smog so thick it burned my eyes and the back of my throat, I was reminded again how much I despise cities- especially developing Asian cities.  Anyway, another hour of traffic and 21,000 T later and Sandra and I were saying goodbye to Ghengis, the Amazing Mute Mongolian Travel Angel (the trip back to the bus station in the morning only cost 7000T, so you can see how expensive slow moving traffic can be).

Like I said, Sandra and I are good, but we aren’t that good.  Without Ghengis, I don’t think we could have made it past the taxis, the border guards, the beggars and money changers, and all the cabs and buses we took that day.  We jumped in the river and washed up on shore this time, thanks to the travel gods, the cosmos, and human kindness.

I owe karma big time.

Сайн яваарай! (Safe travels!),

Aeri

last days in russia

This post is about Lake Baikal and Listvyanka. The lake had so many faces, it changed every time we looked at it. Here it is at dusk.

The next three posts will follow each other quite quickly because they’ve already been written.  I am home already, safe, sound, and (now) healthy.  The end of the trip was a whirlwind of laughs, adventures, and limited internet.  So I picked up a notebook along the way, and wrote these final posts on pen and paper like a real nomad.  Or like something really cool that doesn’t have internet or a computer.  A vintage journalist.  A royal scribe.  Anyway…I hope you enjoy my stories- epic, embarrassing, and foolhardy as they are.

This first entry is from September 25, 2012

“I know I am getting behind on these posts, with infrequent internet and little down time.  I have been too busy making stories, to write them down!  Right now I am sitting on a bus on the way to сансар (Sansar), Mongolia to begin a nomadic cultural immersion experience.  I am writing in a notebook I picked up yesterday to do just this- write and document my experiences and maybe help communicate with the locals over the next four days.  but on the way I’ll try to catch you back up to speed as well.

So.  When I last posted we were still on The Train.  We arrived in Irkutsk at 3:00 am local time, and paid a cabbie $10 to take us where we could have gone for 50 cents each had we arrived at a decent time of day (as in, when the trams were still running).  We slept for a few hours, showered (horray!), and then went exploring in Irkutsk.  I don’t have much to say about that.  The only reason I would recommend stopping in Irkutsk is so you can take a marshrutka (a Russian minibus) to Listvyanka.  Which is exactly what we did that afternoon after enjoying a cup of coffee at the Lenin St. Coffeeshop- a delightful rip off of another well loved coffee brand.

Wherever did they get the inspiration for their logo? I love that a disrespect for intellectual property so often goes hand in hand with a communist philosophy.

For 100 Rub (about $3.30) the marshrutka will take you on the one hour journey to the village on the shores of Lake Baikal.  They depart several times a day from this farmers market style shopping area. Basically whenever the marshrutka is full, it leaves.

Lake Baikal was seriously amazing.  I wish we could have spent more time there.  The lake’s waters are beautiful, cold, and crystal clear.  They say it is clean enough to drink, and if you swim out too far you’ll get vertigo from staring through the clear waters into the depths, with visibility over 40 meters down.  There are hiking trails winding around the lake, including the Great Baikal Trail, which is still under construction, but will one day allow hikers to walk completely around the lake.   Our day hike meandered through a birch tree forest, allowing us to see, smell, and feel the trees we had watch whiz by for days on the train.  On our hike we met a four-footed travel angel in the form of Vicktor the Amazing Puppy- a young Great Pyrenees we found, or rather were found by, on the trail.  He joined us for our walk, alternately scouting ahead and herding us from behind.

The Great Baikal Trail, a delightful jaunt through birch and cedar forests through which you can catch glimpses of the shining lake below.

We lodged in the Baikal Eco Hostel, a beautiful place that smelled of wood and crist autumn days.  The beds were comfortable, handmade singles (no bunks!), and the fellow travelers were friendly and genuine- other serious travelers lured to this out of the way spot by its promise of beauty and tranquility.

After a lunch of smoked Omul, a fish found only in Lake Baikal, we wandered through an open air market.  There I learned how mineral rich the Baikal region is.  The stalls were filled with amazing pieces of stone jewlery of every color and size.  Especially interesting were the vibrant purple and green agates and blue lapis lazuli mined around the lake itself.

Listvyanka is the third place I found on this trip to which I would gladly return for a longer stay to think, write, and soak up the nature’s energy.  It was the only place where I felt I truly got to experience Russia; not just the Russians, with their complex history and brusque disinterest in helping a traveler, but Russia the place that takes up 1/5 of the world’s landmass, and is so mysterious and unknown to so many.

All too soon, we had to rush back to Irkutsk to catch the train that would begin our journey to Mongolia.  But that adventure is certainly a story unto itself, and must wait for another day.  It is a good one though- so check back soon!

We made it this far! At Lake Baikal, Listvyanka, Russia

Cheers!

~Aeri

choo-choo!!

Waiting for the train at one of Moscow’s many stations, with two Finish sisters making the same trek.

“Are you girls sporty?” Asked an old Russian Grandma at the Moscow train station, looking at our bulging backpacks.  Or rather, that is what Sandra later told me she asked.  “Yes, I guess so” replied Sandra.

“Well, then you shouldn’t be smoking.” the Grandma joked, referring to one of the two Finish girls we had recently met.  They too were going to be taking our train to Irkutsk, though they had opted  to ride in the cheapest class, Plackscarta whereas we had decided to splurge on 2nd/Kupe class.  “Have a good trip, and be safe, girls.” concluded the Grandma.  Then she went one way and we went the other, to platform number 1 where our train would be arriving shortly.

And so began the ACTUAL Great Railway Adventure.  The reason for this trip, or rather, the excuse.  The train ride itself would take only three days out of the thirty-two I had allotted for the trip.  The cities before and the Mongolian camping trips after would make up the bulk of the journey, but this promise, to ride the train across Siberia was the impetus behind it all.

So board the train we did, wagon 12, room 6, bunks 22 and 24 (both top bunks, which I came to find would be a blessing).  We would be spending 80+ hours on the train, sharing this room with our two lower bunk mates: an older music professor on his way to a music conference in Ulan-Ude, where he would give a talk on a paper he had written on Russian Folk Music; and a younger man on his way to work, prospecting oil in the vast uninhabited expanse of Siberia.  He would ride this train most of it’s length, then take a small plane to a river where he would board a boat to carry him an hour or so up stream to his final destination.

Home Sweet Home

To be honest, I am really enjoying this forced relaxation, this mobile captivity.  We are over half way into our journey by now and what I thought would be cabin fever is actually contentment.  There has  been a lot of sleeping.  Long nights of quiet, dark, rocking sleep; and short naps after meals and between sessions of reading, writing, daydreaming, and talking to our roommates.  Oh and long views of the passing countryside! And I have to say, I am very glad we decided to go with Kupe Class.  The reports from the Finnish girls confirmed our suspicions: people packed 6 to a room with no privacy, space, or fresh air.  Our moods would be quite different by this time had we opted on 3rd class.  Some things are worth the extra dough.

There is a grandpa a few cars down who has taken a liking to us. We met him walking on a platform during a longer stop.  He is on vacation, returning home now after having watched his daughter’s apartment in the city while she traveled in Europe.  Today he bought tomatoes, piroshkis, and a strange smoked fish from the grandmas on the platform, a lunch feast full of “things to try” while traveling the railway.  The fish was a bit much, but like always the potato and cabbage filled piroshkis were amazing.  There is something about deep fried dough wrapped stuff that is good in every culture.  Dumplings, pirogue, piroshkis, boutza, ravioli…call it what you will, they’re yummy and you know it!

I’m just about ready to settle down into another nap actually, after said lunch.  Sandra is down below chattering happily in Russian with our “roomates”.  She is certainly getting the practice and language refresher she was hoping for.

Hopefully the second half of our trek will pass as pleasantly as the first has.
______________________________________________________

I’ve relocated! I took a walk through the train to find the food car, and discovered it wasn’t a far walk at all. It was one car down, and so having passed through several sets of doors and an extremely shaky car joint, I now find myself at a little table with a red table cloth and an extremely overpriced cup of black coffee.

The rest of my cabin is napping after an exciting class in electrical engineering earlier today.  The musical professor’s extension cord stopped working, so the oil prospector said he could fix it.  Which he did.  After taking the thing nearly completely apart and re-wiring it.  Luckily ever ready Swiss Sandra just happened to have a Swiss Army Knife and black electrical tape on hand. My favorite comment so far came from the prospector, after going farther and farther up the line looking for the problem with the cord.  He told the professor that “he shouldn’t have gotten this cheap Chinese plug.  He should have gotten an old Soviet one.  They are big and ugly and old but they are robust and work forever.” Now, I don’t know if that is opinion or fact, but it was funny enough to hear while he slowly hacked away at the plastic plug.  Whatever his opinion, I really can’t complain- I wouldn’t have charged the laptop and been able to type right now if not for his ingenuity and Sandra’s over-prepared packing!

It’s not too much longer now, before this train journey is at an end.  Before it does, I’ll leave you with something a little more practical than my silly anecdotes: a packing list for your own Ttrans-Siberian train trip.

You’ll certainly want to bring:

1. comfortable, soft, loose fitting clothes
2. small change for buying things from the grandma’s at the platform stops
3. fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and other relatively non-perishable foods
4. cup of noodles soups (there is unlimited hot water in each car. You’ll use this to drink, cook, and wash fruit and flatware.  Don’t use the water in the bathrooms for anything!!)
5. a cup or bowl, spoon, knife
6. napkins/tissues
7. babywipes
8. slippers or sandals/flip-flops
9. hand sanitizer/hand lotion
10. a good book and a pack of cards
11. a light (the lights in your rooms are turned on only after dusk, and it can get quite dim in there in the afternoon, especially on a cloudy day)
12. snacks to share with your cabin mates
13. tea (rather than try to stock up on enough bottled water to last the journey, just bring along a box of teas and enjoy the hot water on board)

Coming ’round the bend! A view of the train and countryside through my dirty window pane.

Choo-Choo-CHEERS!

 

~Aeri

moscWOW

I am sitting in the top bunk of room six on wagon 12 in a train hurtling 5,000 miles across Siberia. We left Moscow 26 hours ago, after a brief three night/two day stay. And I do mean brief. It was not nearly enough time to see everything that there is to be seen in Moscow. We tackled the Kremlin and Cathedrals, hit a few of the more beautiful and opulent metro stops, and browsed an open air market. But we barely got to see Bolshoi Theatre, let alone watch a ballet with Russia’s infamous dancers, and though we made it out on a Friday night with a quartet of German boys from our hostel, we didn’t quite find the Russian night life we were looking for.

Here’s how it went down. After arriving by train from St. Petersburg we did the usual- find our hostel and go out to get something to eat and get a lay of the land. The next morning we took a free walking tour with said German boys, and tackled all those touristic spots: the candy cathedrals, Lenin’s Mausoleum, GUM- the state department store. After the tour we had some lunch at another soviet cafeteria style restaurant. I really liked that style because you could see everything, and pick what you want. You can try lots of new things and keep it in whatever budget you want. My favorite dish was recommended to me by Sandra, a fish and beat salad which sounds awful but is actually pretty delicious. After lunch we wandered through a souvenirs and crafts market and I picked up two vintage Russian shawls which I’m pretty happy about. Don’t forget to haggle at these kinds of places! On the way out we passed stalls with fresh honey and sweets and I couldn’t resist getting some rose flavored Turkish Delight. Much cheaper than what I found in Turkey, by the way, and made fresh with honey. I guess in Turkey it’s infamy drives up the price. By the time we were done shopping we were ready for a rest so we headed back to the hostel to nap before gong out that night.

Midnight at The Candy Cathedral, or whatever you call it

The German guys wanted to go to some bars and check out the Russian social scene since it was their last night in Russia. Sandra and I agreed that we couldn’t go without one vodka filled evening in the city, so we decided to go out with them. The night-life was a bit of a joke though. First we found ourselves in the posh Red October district. Though Porsches, BMW’s, Ferraris, and the like filled the streets; and their designer bedecked owners filled the bars, I just couldn’t take it seriously. I think the fact that the posh overpriced bar we went into had Adventure Time (a silly show for stoners that airs on Cartoon Network) playing silently on the walls while futuristic techno music filled the air, really ruined the illusion for me. This, I explained to the Germans, is a show my friends and I watch in my living room while we drink cheap beer and eat delivery pizza. This is not a show to drink $7 vodka shots to (for perspective- a fifth of decent glass bottle vodka costs about $5 here).

After asking the bartender for directions to a different bar district- Kitai Gorod- we made our way there. Along the way we walked past many of the sights from the morning’s tour: the Kremlin, whose stars now glowed a bright red, and the candy cathedrals. The next bar we went into sounded promising from the street, with music pouring out the front door. But when we got inside I was again only amused. The bar was having a “Rock of Ages” night and the DJ was playing old American rock. Russian kids danced to the YMCA without knowing when to do the cheerleader letters, and shimmied to Green Day’s old school government bashing lyrics without batting an eye.

Prost!

Well, we’re here now, we said. So we had some beers and had some fun. The next morning we valiantly tried to wash away our hangovers with a heavy breakfast of piroshkis and coffee so that we could fit as much into our last day as we could. We went inside the Kremlin, visited the old Soviet buildings (ironically, the grounds are now an amusement park and flea market), toured some of the grand metro stops, and tagged along on one more tour- this time with a communist era theme.

I’ve mentioned the metro stops twice now, and they really deserve it. Though they were built as a means of showcasing soviet architectural grandeur, I really like the thought of putting that much effort into something that people can use and see every day. Some were just as full of marble, chandeliers, and mosaics as a royal palace. And just like the palaces- photography was strictly forbidden! I managed to snipe one or two photos, but the real  grandeur you’ll just have to go see for yourself!  I think it is worth adding to my list of 1001 things you really should see.

“Industry”, one of Moscow’s many Metro Mosaics

There are still 55 hours or so of train travel ahead of us before we reach Irkutsk, the Capital of the Siberia. Only time will tell how this adventure will turn out. Will it be a welcome rest in the middle of an intense month long trip, or will Sandra and I go stir crazy after staring at nothing but open taiga, trees and each other for three days straight?

 

See you on the other side of the world,

 

~Aeri

 

Aeri Rose? No! фея Роуз!!

Sometimes travel surprises you. In Estonia I wasn’t expecting much more than a lay over between calm Helsinki and crazy St. Petersburg. In Russia I was expecting a break from the Baltic’s high prices, and the chaos and confusion of illiteracy when faced with a foreign alphabet. In both cases, I was dead wrong.

Tallinn was the most delightful city I’ve visited in a long time. I want to repeat everything wonderful I had to say about the adorable sea fortress island in Helsinki. Historic Old Town Tallinn has the well preserved, clean, cared-for quaintness that any tourist hot spot should have, while still maintaining it’s life and authenticity. Sure, the main tourist squares have young kids in costumes hawking sweet nuts and post cards in front of a Medieval Times-esque restaurant, playing the kitschy “Preserved Medieval Village” card. But just off the main square, less than a block away in some cases, are delightful and unique cafes, restaurants, and modern art galleries that care for the historic exteriors of the buildings while not being bound by the time period.

I wandered through galleries filled with surrealist paintings and fantasy landscapes. I dined at incredibly Eco-conscious and delicious neo-Indian restaurants. And I made the most fantastic discovery in the form of a little court yard off of a side street. The courtyard itself looked like the scene out of a Wonderland Tea party, with little tables, and chairs, vintage couches, and beautiful pillows. Vines grew along the buildings and across power lines. Surrounding the court yard was a cafe, a chocolatarie, a hotel, and a few shops selling hand crafted goods like wooden jewelery, sheepskin shoes, and metalsmith fixtures. I took a break on a pink couch with blue pillows and enjoyed an incredible hot chocolate while taking in the energy.

Such a delightful little court yard

Though I only had one day in Tallinn, perhaps it was for the best, because the wide variety of high quality hand made goods available really tapped into my wallet. I would wager a bet that Tallinn as a whole will end up being that “thing that sucked me in” on this trip. I left with a much heavier bag, laden with wooden and amber jewelery, wool cloaks, furry accessories, and more.
When I left I took the bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, a journey that takes between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the back up at the border crossing. There, all passengers must give up their passports for inspection, collect their things, walk through passport control and meet the bus on the other side. I made it through without a hitch, and arrived in St. Petersburg a few hours ahead of my friend Sandra, who was meeting me there later that day.

Once Sandra arrived we went out for a dusky walk around town, to catch some of the sights and find some dinner. Be prepared to spend a lot on food in Russia’s big cities. Meals were averaging at least $10 (300 RUB) each in low quality Russian chain restaurants, and even there could easily climb to $20 if drinks or desserts are included.

I felt overwhelmed by the foreign alphabet at first, seeing words that just looked like gibberish with no discernible clues for translation. But by the end of the second day I had a decent grasp of the alphabet and could slowly and laboriously sound out words, many of which were very similar to English. Suddenly the Cyrillic alphabet was little more than a puzzle to work out.  I think my favorite are the ones that actually ARE English words, just respelled using the alternate alphabet.

One of my favorites…both sides say the same thing!

The next day was full of sight-seeing. We started at the Hermitage, then visited some churches and cathedrals, and ended up at a train station to buy our tickets to Moscow. In Russian tourist sites, be prepared to buy two tickets: one to get in, and one to take pictures. Though if you if you don’t plan on taking a lot of blatant pictures, it seems you can slip in a few subterfuge shots easily enough.

It seems you can hit most of the main sights in St. Petersburg in a day, so on Wednesday we headed out into the suburbs to visit Catherine’s Park and Palace. More castles, more opulence, more well tended gardens, and amazing wooden floors. If you have the time and the leisure, the park is a nice place to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy around the lake or on a bench after taking in the palace and the Amber Room. The Amber Room is, as it sounds, a room whose walls are made all of amber. It is certainly incredible. What is even more incredible is that this is the second amber room. The first one was disassembled and hidden, and then lost, during the German invasions in WWII. This one was restored between 1987 and 2003 by Germany to improve German-Russian relations.

The dress that Catherine was wearing when painted! That’s COOL!!!

That night we took a canal cruise, to see St. Petersburg by water and appreciate the well-lit grandiose buildings. It was a very pleasant little hour long tour. Now I am sitting on a fast train, hurtling it’s way towards Moscow. We have only two days and lots to see there before we again find ourselves on the train, treking eastwards on a daunting three days journey to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, our last stop in Russia.

всегда приключение

~ фея

a taste of things to come

In just a few short weeks I will be embarking on my next great adventure: The Transsiberian Rail Road!! I’ve planned to fly into Helsinki, Finland on September 4th and make my way to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia by October 4th. The theme of this next adventure series will be planning on the fly, since I seem to be quite the scatterbrain this time around. I don’t even know where I’m staying in Helsinki yet! And since the best thing to do in Russia is buy the train tickets from each station, none of those stops have been planned out yet either!

Before I leave I’ll spend a post or two talking about the things I do know- things like getting Visas, and doing quick checks of train schedules. But once that plane takes flight, your guess will be as good as mine. Where WILL I end up next?

Stay tuned!

~Aeri