Remember those pesky details I mentioned in the last post? Well, it seems that details spawn faster than the Easter bunny’s slutty cousins in the spring. Cause boy oh boy is it going to be a crazy summer for me. Wanna hear all the details so far?
Well you better, cause I want to tell you! If you don’t I guess you could just stop reading. Go away!
Still here? Awesome.
Right now I am in Waxahachie, Texas. I got here about a week and a half ago after a hastily, though skillfully, completed pack down in Arizona. Here, I quickly moved into the super wonderful booth I am renting for the season and prepared for opening weekend of Scarborough Faire. I do love the booth. I’m rather proud of it, honestly. The clothing racks are curvy branches and really give the shop an organic flow. And I put them up myself. With a power drill! The skirts look colorful and wonderful hanging on them. Roxanne and I have had a great time playing fairy, and I have every confidence that she will be awesome when I have to drive away and leave her in charge of things.
So when am I driving away and leaving her in charge of things? In two days. Aah!!
On Sunday afternoon I will climb back in to Shelly the Sportvan, who is currently full of everything I’ll need to set up a booth at the Virginia Renaissance Festival and all of the things I hopefully will not need when I return to Scarborough at the end of this mad adventure.
After I climb into Shelly and turn her on I will proceed to drive from Waxahachie, TX to Denton, MD- approximately 1500 miles and/or 22 hours of straight driving. I will need to do that drive within 48 hours in order to catch a flight to Italy from Dulles Airport by 11:00 pm Tuesday night. I am hoping to do it in about 30 hours, leaving me “plenty” of time to catch up on necessary things like renewing my business license and/or sleeping.
So I climb on the airplane and delight in the ability to sleep, or read, or do anything other than pay attention to where I am going. Ten hours and fifteen minutes later I land in Istanbul, Turkey where I will probably try to go explore the city for a bit if they will let me out of the airport. I have a heinous 24 hour lay over after all. I am certainly not spending all that time staring at other bleary-eyed travelers near Gate B30 of the Ataturk International Airport.
Anyway. So flight to Turkey. Mini Turkish Adventure. Short flight from Istanbul to Rome. Hopefully manageable navigation of customs, etc. Catch commuter train from Airport to Termini Station. Catch 10:30 pm train from Rome to Cefalu, Sicily. Enjoy train ride down Italian coast and Train ON A FERRY ride across the bit of water separating Sicily and Italy. Get to Cefalu. Get picked up by family in Cefalu. Yay family!
Operation: Crazy Family in Sicily Adventure begins. Yippie!
Operation: Crazy Family in Sicily Adventure ends. Boo!
Return to Annapolis again via heinous Istanbul layover. Return the evening of May 1st. Sleep, or something.
May 2nd I drive out to the Virginia Faire Site near Lake Anna and meet up with Team Wonder-Fairy to set up our booth.
After that it starts to slow down. I just have a wedding on the west coast to catch, and to get back to Scarborough for the end of the faire. And then get back to Virginia. Somehow. Even though I’m probably leaving Shelly with the Wonder-Fairies to use as a safe and dry storage spot. And then there are some more shows and festivals along the east coast I might do. Or maybe I’ll be running out to help in Colorado. Or maybe back to Italy with my sister.
I’ll be somewhere on the planet. That’s good enough for me!
Bring it on summer! I have caffeine and glitter! I’m not afraid of you!
Wish me luck and stay tuned for updates, mishaps, adventures, and mushrooms! Mushrooms? Sure, why not?
I make a great traveler. I make a terrible vacationer. If this is what planning a trip feels like for most people, than I don’t blame them for not traveling very often. I had no idea. Honestly.
This April my mother (blessed saint that she is) is taking her husband, Jeff, and my Grandma, Anna, to San Ambrosio, Italy, to visit our Sicilian Family. (On a side note there seem to be an excessive amount of commas in that sentence but I can’t seem to ditch any of them.)
They all really hoped I could come along. I really hoped I could too. At first I thought I couldn’t. April is a busy month for me, because I am a vendor at the Scarborough Renaissance Festival. Last year I ran the tent by myself and barely had a helper to take a pee break, let alone an epic international family adventure. But through a clever and convenient series of events it seems I actually WILL have the opportunity to go with them. I have a great employee whom I am fully confident in leaving alone for extended pee breaks, and even for epic international family adventures. And I have a booth. With real walls and a real roof under which my awesome employee can work with ease.
So with excitement and a slight feeling that I was somehow playing hooky, I visited my trusty travel site, Kayak.com, and began searching through options.
My initial instinct was to drive up from Texas to Maryland and fly from Dulles International Airport. Mostly because I was going to be vending at a Renaissance Festival in Virginia in May and it was a good excuse to drive the tent and some stock up early. It also seemed to work out because flights from D.C. to Rome were the cheapest I’d seen (around $850). But then I really started to think about the details. “Details”, I am learning, are a traveler’s worst nightmare. The more needy, clingy, bossy “details” you have to entertain, the more stressful and less pleasant travel seems to become.
First there was the details of timing. My flights weren’t on the exact same days as the rest of my family’s because I needed to leave time for the drive north and I wanted to try to be away from the festival in Texas for as few weekends as possible. But once I factored in flight time, lay overs, and extra time spent taking the train from Rome to Cefalu (the nearest train stop to my Sicilian Family’s tiny village of San Ambrosio), I realized that I would only really have 5 days in Sicily at the same time as my family.
Back to the drawing board.
It was right about this time that I realized how many more details were secretly latched onto my first “traveling as a business professional trying to fit in a little family vacation time” trip. Like tiny leeches you don’t notice at first, suddenly these details had gorged themselves on my stress and grown to massive pulsing blood thirsty little buggers.
There were departure times to consider. If I flew from Dallas instead of D.C. I could cut out the drive north and depart a few days earlier…but then who could take me to the airport?
There were arrival times to consider. If I flew directly into Palermo instead of Rome I could cut out the extra time on the train up and down the Italian coast. But it was still a two hour drive/train ride to Cefalu where my Sicilian Family could pick me up in the car. But that meant an arrival time that allowed time to take a bus to the train station and catch a train…that arrived at a reasonable time for a “young girl” traveling alone to arrive. Similarly, all flights home from Palermo seemed to leave at 6:00 am, which would require taking the train into the city the night before. I felt a headache beginning to throb just thinking about trying to convince my Sicilian Family to let me spend a night in The Big Scary City all alone.
Let me catch you up to speed. In 2006 (2007 maybe?) I visited San Ambrosio by myself. And when I left, my Uncle Sarro somehow got a hold of my mom’s work number and called her to find out why she hadn’t called yet to tell them I had arrived at home safely. She hadn’t called yet because I was still in the air! They miscounted the time difference and literally expected me to arrive home before I was physically capable of doing so. I can only imagine how much they worried (needlessly of course, but worry and guilt are an Italian’s greatest talents) while I traveled that time, and how much more they would worry with every step that kept me alone and in transit this time. Explain to them that I had traversed continents alone with nothing but a backpack and, well, a backpack? No. NOPE. Not even going to go near that with a 10 foot pole wrapped in rosaries.
Convincing them to “let me” fly in and out of Rome instead of Palermo and take the train in and out of Cefalu was a fight I was leaving to my mother. (Did I mention she was a saint?)
What blood thirsty details am I leaving out? Train time tables, hotel and hostel reservations probably, my awesome employee and her sufficient stock of inventory, oh right and price. Flying DC to Rome was coming in at $850 or so, where as flying Dallas to Palermo was coming in at around $1400. And that wasn’t even for a great flight that kicked all those other nagging details to the curb.
ARGH! Is this how hard it is to plan a trip for a vacationer? I like the trips when all I need to know are sort of kind of the days I have free, a starting point, and and ending point. I now truly appreciate the family that has gotten used to me coming and going, and at this point just hopes for a list of addresses and a copy of my passport. I will never snicker at those I consider homebodies when they admit they’d rather just stay home and relax when they have holiday time off from work. If THIS is the gauntlet they have to fight through just to get on the plane than I really don’t blame them.
I still don’t know what flight I’ll end up on. I know I have to book something soon. I’d just like to throw a tantrum a little longer first.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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)