Globe Trotting and New Beginnings

Archive for October 2009

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We have been asked many times what the Trans-Siberian express was like and what we did for so many days on the train. This post serves to give a glimpse into the Trans-Siberian experience on Kupe (2nd Class).

Apart from general relaxation, reading, soul searching and world domination planning, here are a few other things to do.

Look outside the window
While traveling across several thousand kilometers on a train, there is a certain satisfaction gained from looking out your window and observing the slow change that unfolds around you with respect to people, cities and landscapes. This activity could arguably take up the entire journey!

View7 Russian Forests

View 11 Fall Colors in Russia

View 11 Lake Baikal

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Sun Settings over a Ger in Mongolia

View7 Sun set over Mongolian Plains

View7 In China

View7 On the way to Beijing

Drink
Samovar (Tea). Vodka. Beer. How can this not be fun?

Drinks - Samovar Samovar, the lifeblood of train travel

Drinks

Drinks 2

Hang out
Get to know your compartment mates. Meet people from other compartments. Practice your Russian. Imbibe Vodka.

Hnaging out Random Redhead 🙂

Random - ShotgunCareful of the little kid walking around with his shotgun

Random Dog Our neighbor for 4 days

Eat
Eat and get ripped off at the Restaurant Cart. Strategize what to buy at the next stop. Figure out what flavor of instant noodles you are in the mood for.

Food Sellers 2 Vendors at a quick stop selling fish to people on the train


Food Sellers

FoodPiroshki and Fish

Food2Smoked Omul fish, from the Baikal and instant noodles.

Fur Sellers If you do not feel like food, maybe some fur?

Play Cards
You will learn many different card games along the way. We learnt “shithead” from some british backpackers, and “NP” from some swedish folks (who are really fun to play the game “Bluff” with, since they never pass, just bluff.)

Cards - Drinks

Cards Playing shithead


Playing Bluff with the swedes

Dance


Preferably to Punjabi music.

Irritate People
At your own Risk.


Annoy your wife, while she is sleeping


Find a random mongolian lady and annoy her


Once sufficiently annoyed, she should try to break your neck.

Get a massage
If you are lucky enough to have a masseuse in your compartment.

Massage

Massage2

Enjoy Border Crossings

Mongolian Border Entering Mongolia. 10 Hours to go through Russian and Mongolian Immigration. What do you do? Refer to above items for more information.

TrainLifted Entering China. At the Mongolia-China border, due to differences in the train track gauge width, the train is lifted, while the passengers are in it, in order to change the gauge. I heard the train tracks have different widths in order to prevent military movement between the two countries.

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Starting City: St. Petersburg, Russia


Ending City: Hong Kong, China


Total Distance travelled overland: 10,751 Kilometres


Total Duration on Trains/Buses: 185.5 Hours


Time to hit the beach!!!!



Overland Journey

During our short visit to Mongolia, we had the chance to visit a few Buddhist monasteries. The one we trekked to in the Terejl National Park had the usual spinning prayer wheels, Mongolian Buddhist architecture and generally serene atmosphere. However, on closer examination, we found some disturbing imagery painted on outer roof of the monastery depicting scenes that I do not associate with Buddhism. Here are a few of these images:

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Our “guide”, who happened to be a Mongolian and a Buddhist, informed us that these are images of the ten different spirits that punished humans for their sins. This could be an example of Buddhism adopting some of the existing Shamanistic ideas while spreading through Mongolia in the 13th century, or could be an interpretation of the concept of Nakara (The buddhist version of Purgatory, which I did not know existed until I saw these images and did some research).


What is a Banya?

A Banya is a traditional Russian steam bath.

I found out about the Banya from the lonely planet book, which mentioned that you can’t say that you’ve really been to Russia unless you’ve visited a Banya. So it was on my list of things to try out in Russia.

On our Trans-Siberian journey, we stopped for a day in Ulan Ude. This city was our last stop in Russia. Ulan-Ude is a border town right next to Mongolia. It is the capital city of the Buryat Republic in Russia.  The name Ulan Ude means the “red Uda” or “red gate”. Uda is the name of the river the city lies on, and red because the city reflects the communist ideology of the Soviet Union to which it belonged. Until 1991 Ulan-Ude was a city closed to foreigners. According to me, Ulan-Ude is the most “Soviet” city we saw in Russia.

Most people in Ulan Ude do not look Russian at all! They have a lot of asian features (since it is a border town) and they are much smaller compared to the big-built Russians we saw in St.  Petersburg and Moscow. The people are friendly and, in contrast to Moscow, you see some smiling faces while walking around. Ulan Ude was the most traditional Russian experience we had.

In Ulan Ude, we couchsurfed with a couple, Vladimir and Marina. They lived in a typical Russian home with the Banya and toilet outside the home and a small yard where they grew their own vegetables.

They picked us up from the train station and we walked to their place (about 20-25 minutes). Once we got there, we freshened up and hung out at home for some time. Marina made us Blin (russian pancakes – paper thin pancakes in comparison to the american ones). We had some chai (funny enough, hot tea in Russia is also called chai, it doesn’t have milk though), beer and Blin at home with Vladimir, Marina and some of their friends. The chai was made in true russian fashion – a big teapot of strong tea made with tea leaves, you pour a small quantity in tea cup and then pour hot water to dilute it.

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Marina making Blin for us

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Chilling

Later we went out to explore the town. This border town had a lot of remnants from the Soviet times. A big giant Lenin statue in the middle of the city and a lot of Soviet flags around. We went into a Soviet-era restaurant which had all the Soviet times newspapers clippings and books etc. In addition to the Soviet time buildings we saw a WWII memorial square with a real military tank!

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In front of the Lenin Statue

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The Ulan Ude gang 🙂

After our grand city tour, we got groceries for dinner and went home. The evening started off with all of us chilling with chai and beer and then, the boys continued drinking beer while girls cooked dinner (I’m not sure how in every culture it always end up with girls cooking and boys chilling?!?!). We had a typical russian meal with meat and potatoes – Chicken, mashed potatoes and bread.

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Yummy Dinner!

We relaxed for sometime after our big meal and then Marina invited me to the Banya. We took our towels/clothes and walked to the wooden cabin. The main element of the Banya is the Parilka (steam room). Here, rocks are heated by a furnace. When you are ready you pour cold water infused with certain essence oils (we tried avocado and grapefruit) using a long-handled ladle. This emits a scent in the burst of steam that comes as soon as you pour the cold water on the heated rocks. You just sit and enjoy the steam and release all the toxins from your body. After doing this a couple of times and feeling completely relaxed you take a shower. Traditionally after sitting in the steam for a while Russians usually jump into cold water but neither me or Marina enjoy cold water so we just ended it with a nice hot shower. 🙂

After the Banya, Marina gave me a glass of currant juice which is supposed to be very good for you after going to the Banya. It was awesome!  After the relaxing Banya we called it a night.

Trying the Banya is something I definitely recommend when visiting Russia. It was a very unique and fun experience and I would totally do it again.

According to a Russian travel website “The Red Arrow is probably Russia’s most famous train. In Soviet times, it carried the Communist Party elite between Moscow and what was then Leningrad. It is still one of the most popular trains between the two cities. The train even has its own theme song that plays as it departs from the station.”

We decided to take this infamous train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It is a overnight train, and takes about 8 hours to complete the journey (Famous, comfortable, but definitely not fast!). Being my birthday, we decided to travel in the first class compartment. Here are are pictures from this trip:
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Train Number 1 @ 23:55

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“Red Arrow”

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With The “Provodnitsa”

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Equipped with TV, but everything in Russian, even Hollywood movies

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Travel pack includes Red flip flips and headphones

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Equipped with Water and a box of random food. Hot breakfast in the morning was better, but I guess after taking less fancy trains even this snack pack is a luxury.

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Upgraded light and temperature controls. The temperature control feature was not available on the 2nd class cabins of the trans siberian trains.

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Volume Control and Unknown button.

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Fancy Train Corridor

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All Red Arrow-ed up, and ready to go!

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Shoe Shine Tissue, didn’t really help the hiking shoes.

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One Free Drink, hmm what should we get?

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Ahh, the perfect combination!

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Wagon set to a comfortable temperature…

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Ritu is all set.

IMG_1221and so am I! To St. Petersburg…