The Trans-Siberian

This song was *huge* while I was travelling, and this is way before it got huge in the US. If you haven’t heard Gangnam Style, you are painfully missing out. This may very well be the most popular song in all of human history already. Even the North Koreans made a spoof of this.

Wow. Getting this blog up turned out to be far more difficult than I ever would have imagined possible. I had started to work on this blog while I was still in Mongolia, but totally forgot that the internet is completely screwed up in China so there was no chance of working on it there. Then I get back and it’s been non-stop trying to get everything together to leave for Australia. I definitely underestimated the difficulties in adjusting my travel pack (after lessons learned in China) and actually determining my essentials for moving to another country (which fit conveniently into one large 130L duffel bag). After all that though, I’m finally getting this out.

I was surprised before I left how many people were really interested in this particular trip. But after a few days on the train, it started to make sense to me. A lot of the world is nothing too unfamiliar. We’re exposed to a lot of Europe, anywhere that speaks English, the latin world, and Japan to some extent. This makes Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Communist world the only areas that for the most part we’re really unexposed to. And I must admit, even I was shocked with the things I came across during this trip. We simply have very little, if any, media coming from those parts of the world. Further, we used to be, and in some sense still are, in a war against Communism. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, Russia and China were our main points of concern. From all that, I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising that so many people wanted to see pictures and hear about this trip. So, this post has tons and tons of pictures, more than I would usually put up. I hope you guys like them.

Also, I traveled with Vodkatrain and G-Adventures for this trip. For anyone thinking about doing a trip like this themselves, I highly recommend G-Adventures, but I absolutely do not recommend using Vodkatrain in any way, shape, or form. Besides being generally disorganized and sending us guides that were barely out of primary school, the time when we needed help the most was on the trains, which is specifically where there is no one to help you through Vodkatrain. Our cart attendant during the 4 day train trip to Siberia was an extremely unpleasant, rude woman. She would constantly yell at us and twice she unlocked the bathroom door while someone was inside so that she could yell at them more. Having a guide here would have been most helpful. Another odd issue is that their typical group size is 3-5 people. That’s a really small tour. They were completely overwhelmed by our group of 15. Further, the guides’ time management skills were terrible, and many things were occurring that just didn’t quite make sense. Once again, use another company, don’t use Vodkatrain!!!

Ok, moving on. So I arrived in St. Petersburg, and after having been in Moscow, I was completely surprised by how different things were. Moscow is grey and uninviting. St. Petersburg was brightly colored and people actually smile sometimes. I tried to refrain from commenting on Russia before in my last post, but everyone there seems very stone faced and completely unamused. But after living for 70 years under Communism, where anyone could turn you in to the police and you would disappear into some prison camp for merely expressing your opinion, I don’t really blame them. I would be stone faced around strangers too. It’s also extremely rough traveling in Russia. No one outside St. Petersburg speaks any English at all, and they’re so unused to dealing with foreigners that they won’t make even the most basic attempt at communication with you. Beyond just the people, there’s a constant slight sense of danger everywhere but St. Petersburg. Almost like… if you stop paying attention to your surroundings, someone is going to do something to you. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but it just really feels like you have to watch yourself all the time there. And as for the sights, nearly everything was created and restored by the Communist government, which shows. Everything feels slightly boring and looks like it’s there solely to support the state. And if you want hot food, forget about it. The food there is almost always cold and bland. None of any of this is too bad, and it’s certainly interesting to experience, but after only a few days, you start to feel tired of being there, and after my 2 weeks (3.5 weeks with the previous Moscow trip included), I was done and ready to get out, probably to never return.

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The big fort in St. Petersburg, probably the most iconic thing in the city, that was never used in anger.

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And the big church in the fort, almost ever Czar from Russia’s history is laid to rest in here.

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One of the prisoner cells in the fort. This is actually nicer than some of the hostels I’ve stayed in.

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I know a few people that could probably use one of these….

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And here is where they used to take people out to be executed.

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An old nuclear missile (ICBM) launcher, and some fun climbable military hardware.

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The bear that licked me =p He’s a circus bear.

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St Paul’s.

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This is the Church of the Spilled Blood, based off the onion domes from the famous St. Basil’s in Red Square, Moscow. The name comes from the fact that one of the Czars was murdered on the exact spot highlighted in the last picture. Also, you can again see the Orthodox style of covering every square inch of wall with religious motifs.

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Next to a toilet in St. Petersburg. I didn’t realize this needed to be clarified.

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Anyone wanna go to the Torn Off Balls bar? Sounds like a classy joint.

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Self explanatory.

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This is a palace just outside of St. Petersburg called the Peterhof. The palace is mainly just another palace, though the gardens are nice, but the main reason for my visit here was the fountains. This is actually one of the old world’s engineering marvels, most of it having been built in the 1700’s. The fountains are powered by a system of tubes running nearly 2 miles down a giant hill and then offshoots from the pipe send water to different fountains. The amazing thing is how even and consistent all of these fountains are, because there are NO MOVING PARTS in this whole system. The entire thing is based off pressure and gravity. Amazing.

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And the internal guts underneath the fountains.

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Royal opulence.

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Rasputin died right here, just in front of the door.

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Where the Czars used to live, the Winter Palace. This is where the communist revolution took place during WWI, courtesy of the following canon going off as a signal for the Communist revolutionaries to storm the imperial palace.
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Feelings toward Communism.

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Apparently this is a column for lovers to proclaim their love is forever (hence all the heart shaped locks). They lock up the lock and throw the key into the river signifying that nothing can undo their love. Interestingly Russia has a *really* high divorce rate.

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One of the strangest sweets I’ve ever eaten. Was a really, really dense marshmallow with pistachio dust and coconut flakes.

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More invading Western capitalism. Seriously, where are the Russian places?!?!

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Ever heard of Tamiflu? It cures colds really quickly, but the US government won’t let any doctor prescribe it unless they issue to someone. However, in Russia it’s over the counter. Worked my cold off super fast. Not a clue why things are the way they are.

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I managed to get my Napoleonic canon’s this time! Only because so many other people were taking pictures too. Note the dirty look I’m getting in the first one.

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Misc Moscow pics. Mostly skipping Moscow this time since I had so many pictures before.

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Every one of those crosses came off of a dead Nazi.

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These pics are primarily what we saw out the windows for 4 days straight. Nothing too crazy. Lots and lots of forests and farms.

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Common sights during 4 days on the train.

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Some pics from my fellow traveler Simon, who got way more (and better) train pics than I did.

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I laughed, but I doubt the Russian’s get the joke.

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Artsy.

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The glorious Lenin.

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It’s not obvious what’s happening in this picture. This is a Russian solution to a broken pipe. Dig up the ground around it, find the hole, put plywood over it and weight it down with rocks. It stills leaks, but not as bad as before, right? What’s the problem? <innocent face>

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Lake Baikal from our hotel.

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There’s buildings all over Russia that look like they’ve been bombed out. I think they just didn’t finish building them… but it’s weird.

After Lake Baikal, we took a 36 hour train to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The border crossing was long and boring; think lots of sitting around for hours, but it was sooooooo nice getting there. The moment we crossed the border, suddenly everyone was smiling and friendly, the food was hot, and there were actually places to buy souvenirs. It was night and day different from being in Russia. However, what I did find surprising is that the Mongolians drive like crap. Seriously, it’s the worst road system and driving habits I’ve ever witnessed in person. Being in a bus there was scary as all hell. And even the best roads had holes all over them that made them look like the surface of the moon.

Did I like Monglia? Hell yeah. Would I recommend someone else to go? Eh…. It’s so far out of the way, and still very third worldy, and with such a low population (and thereby lack of things to see), that the nice people and pretty decent food and culture don’t offset the detractors enough. Either way, super happy I went.

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The main government building in Mongolia, with Genghis Khan and his sons at the front.

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The main buddhist temple in Mongolia. The buildings themselves weren’t overly picturesque, but they have tons of pigeons.

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Also, they have a giant Buddha, and they’re going to make a MORE giant Buddha in the future, but so far they have only the feet.

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I felt really bad for these vultures and eagles tied up on the side of the road for tourists.

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A Mongolian Shamanistic rock cairn. You’re supposed to walk around it three times and throw three more rocks on it in order to pray to it.

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Turtle rock and the view from up there in the crack.
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Some landscapes. It’s really, really dry in Mongolia, and really hot in the sun, and freezing in the shade. Takes a bit to get used to.

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I think this was an offering to someone who died.

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Our ger (traditional tent) camp, and ger interior.

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Hanging out at the ger camp in traditional clothing.

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Notice anything slightly odd in those two photos? If you don’t, this could very well be the last sidewalk you ever see in your short life. Yeah, those are OPEN MANHOLES. WTF?!?! Safety is not a priority over there…. clearly. (Special props to the angry bird manhole.)

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Uneven steps? Sure, why not. No one might trip on that (like me).

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However, at a conversion rate of 1300 Togrogs to 1 US dollar, you do get to be a millionaire.

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Uh…. I’ll try not to? I’m not sure if this is in regard to the toilet, sink, shower, or sexual habits. Hrm.

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This is the Mongolian version of a shopping cart.

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Not things I expected to see in Mongolia. By the way, the capital city is tiny. Like I walked from one end to the other in about 45 minutes. So for them to have a Beatles statue… they must *really* like the Beatles.

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I tried yak butter tea while I was in Mongolia. It’s decent, but super greasy, and note the chunks.

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Our Trans-Mongolian train.

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And my typical view of Tracey.

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And the barren Mongolian landscape.

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So then we get to the border of China, and they proceed to elaborately change the bogies (the wheels on the train carts). Russian and China use two slightly different distances, about 5 inches off (12cm or so), between their two rails on the train tracks, so they lift up the trains and change wheels out to axles of a different width. This is cool and all, but none of us could figure out why they didn’t just do the obvious and have everyone switch trains…… Either way, this was originally done for military reasons, so that if a war broke out, which it almost did due to vastly differing opinions in how communism should work between Russia and China, trains wouldn’t just be able to cross into the other country and go wherever they wanted.

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The landscape changed quite dramatically the moment we crossed into China.

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And it only took about 4 hours in Beijing for Tracey to go into full-on tourist mode lol.

So I head off to Australia this Thursday. I should get my China blog out before then (and that one will shock and surprise most of you), but after that I may go dark for a bit. Since I’m trying to find work in Australia, there may not be much interesting travel stuff to talk about, but whenever I leave, I’ll be starting again. Depending on how things go, I may be going straight through south east Asia on my way out of Australia, so lots of new stuff there. Catch you guys soon!

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