Tales from the Trans-Siberian (Krasnoyarsk->Moscow)

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Oil cars at sunset along the Trans-Siberian.

Springing for Splany Wagon

We’re bound from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian, a trip of 2.5 days. We’ve got a little bit in the budget to spare, so we’re springing for splany wagon instead of kupe, so we’ve got a cabin all to ourselves this time. It’s uh, definitely a step up:

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The ticket also includes one meal. Yeah, one. For 62 hours on a train. But don’t worry, now versed in the ways of Russian train travel, we’ve come prepared. We visited a grocery store just before leaving our hostel and used the kitchen to boil potatoes and eggs. We also bought vegetables, cheese, and lukanka for salads and sandwiches, fruit, and a lot of chocolate. Bring it on, Trans-Siberian!

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Yes, those are eight chocolate bars. The best chocolate you can get in Russia (in our experience) is Alpen Gold (common, yellow wrapper) or Kazakhstan (rare, bright blue wrapper)

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Stoytcho finds a home for the bananas where they won’t be squished.

The great unbearable silence

AUGHHHHH. Death by starvation is unlikely in our cabin, but death by boredom sets in fast. The excitement over our Splanywagon cabin lasts for a few hours as we find places for things and settle in for the long ride. The silence follows. We read books, write blog posts, read more books, and organize photos. When we’re done with that, we stare out the window. Though we now pass more towns and cities, the landscape continues to be endless.

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The undeniable boon and bane of Splanywagon is its privacy. With only two in a cabin, you never have to interact with anyone you don’t know, save for the traincar attendant. With my interest in reading and writing exhausted in half a day, I find myself walking the corridor outside our door restlessly, pausing to look out the window. I rarely see anyone and the few people I do see give a half smile and nod before diving back into their cabins. They don’t want to talk.

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So there are no chance meetings, no funny stories here in Splanywagon. There is only the countryside and your mind to keep you occupied. And beyond that, there is the great unbearable silence.

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The anatomy of a stop

As we head westward, we encounter more towns and cities and find the train stopping often. While most stops only last a couple of minutes, the train will stop for anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour at certain major cities. These are the long stops everyone is waiting for.

There are two types of long stop, the short-long and the long-long, and the stop type determines what everyone will do. The short-long is hurried and frantic, as everyone rushes out of the traincar to walk around, buy snacks from kiosks on the platform, and chat frenetically. In the plazcart section, the additional goal seems to be huffing as many cigarettes as possible in five minutes. People try not to stray too far from their traincar and the attendants keep a wary eye out for anyone wandering off.

The long-long is somewhat more relaxed, though it depends on who you are. Most people take the chance to slow their pace of walking and conversation, and the frantic cigarette huffing is replaced with a slower burn. We’re free to wander around the platform, which from end to end can be more than a half a mile long. And we can stare out between the fence at the city we’ve stopped at, watch its people carry on with business in the square outside the station.

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People from our train enjoy a long stop.

Then there are the long-long runners. These are the people who take the opportunity of a long stop to actually go do something in the city. It’s usually a run to the grocery store or liquor shop (though alcohol is not allowed on the train), and you can spot them because as you’re getting off the train, they’re already running through the doors into the station. They’re gone for fifteen or twenty minutes, probably visiting a store in the main square, and return about five minutes before the train departs laden with grocery bags. I have no idea whether how they get through the security and ticket check in that time.

Mailcar

How does mail go between east and west Russia? Well, apparently one of the options is by train. These guys were unloading mail from a traincar at one of our stops, just bags and bags of letters:

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I can’t explain my joy at seeing this, although it may partly stem from the total lack of new things to see or do in the last 48 hours. But the Mailcar is just so cute. It’s labeled as the ‘Почтовый вагон’ or ‘postal car’ and they’ve got a tiny tractor out hauling little carts with packages and bags of letters and everything. I love it.

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Seriously though look at this setup with the tiny tractor and mailcarts. Is it not the best?

A change of scenery

In the last 15 hours of our trip there is a marked change in scenery. We’re no longer in Siberia, with its open plains and pine forests and emptiness. Instead, the scenery outside looks more European, frequent villages and cities separated by small patches of countryside. We’re encountering the ‘дача’, the ‘dacha’ or ‘country home’, something common throughout Eastern Europe. The dacha is the original farm or homestead of a family, kept even when everyone in the family has moved to the city. In the warmer months, it serves as a weekend getaway. It’s also a place to grow some fruit and vegetables, saving some money on the more expensive city produce.

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Cheerfully-panted dachas with gardens.

On the morning of our arrival, we awaken at 4 am and catch the sunrise over the misty countryside. In an hour, the last of the green fields disappear and dense buildings spring up in their place. This is the edge of Moscow.

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Sunrise

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Passing a station on the way into Moscow.

Our train edges in to Moscow’s Kazanskaia Station at 5:38 and we stumble off with our belongings. I have a hostel booked for us, but they’re not going to let us check in at stupid o’clock in the morning. “10 AM”, the attendant at the hostel says, “We can have a room for you then.” We drop our heavier bags and wander out into the 7 AM world, devoid of all but a few people and a handful of cars. We’re unsure of what to do until we spy a familiar landmark in the distance.

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Hey, is that…?

It turns out absurdly early in the morning is a great time to visit St. Basil’s Cathedral. Our only company is a cluster of policemen directing traffic and a handful of construction workers working on the nearby bridge. I am not a morning person, so this experience is possible only because we’ve been gaining hours as we head west. But the morning sun, the open space, and empty streets of Moscow feel good.

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St Basil’s Cathedral and the Red Square, 7 AM. And yes, that is a guy getting a ticket/talking to by a police officer in the bottom right corner.

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Stolby Nature Reserve: Animals!

One of the coolest things about Stolby was the abundant wildlife; there were so many different insects, birds, mammals found along the trails. Here’s what we found on our hikes in July:

Wolves

The purple trail takes you pretty far into the reserve, so it’s not surprising that’s where we saw wolves, a six-pack to be exact (no, really, not kidding and yes, pun intended). There’s no picture here because a) I wasn’t fast enough and b) I took me a few seconds to realize the dog-like creatures in front of us were wolves. We simply rounded a bend in the trail and suddenly there appeared to be five german shepards 20 feet in front of us. My first thought was “who left their dogs out hereeeooh MY GOD THESE AREN’T DOGS.” because as I scanned left, I noticed a massive black animal at the front of their pack. They paused, sniffed the air, and then they loped off into the bushes. Stoytcho apparently spent the three seconds ouf our encounter desperately searching for a nearby stick, so yay, survival skills.

Chipmunks

There are tons of Siberian chipmunks (Eutamias sibiricus) along the paved trail into the park because people feed them. I can’t comment on the ecological stability of this, but can say that the Russians know how to feed their animals. Everyone brings sunflower or other seeds for them, and any attempts to give them bread are met with strange looks. So at least the chipmunks won’t get diabetes. If you bring your own packet of seeds, you can get the chipmunks to eat out of your hand.

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Squirrels

Strangely, squirrels are much rarer than the chipmunks. We encountered this red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) along the paved trail into the park. It was pretty skiddish, though it feasted on the same sunflower seed bounty that its chipmunk cousins loved.

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Birds

We’re not well versed in birds, though we did recognize when we stumbled too close to a hawk or eagle nest and the thing just wouldn’t shut up. If you visit Stolby, though, the most common bird you’ll see is the great tit (Parus major). It’s a pretty yellow and gray bird that also partakes in the bounty of seeds visitors bring. If it’s early summer, you might also see a fun show of adolescent birds demanding to be fed by their parents, despite the fact that they can already fly.

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Snakes

We saw a snake! Tally one to our sightings of snakes on the trip so far (this number is around a woeful 3 or 4). This one was crossing the paved path on the way into the park. My tentative guess on the species would be Elaphe dione, the Steppe ratsnake, according to a nature guide of animals in Transbaikalia.

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Biting Bugs

It’s summer and the biting bugs are definitely abundant. Besides mosquitoes, two things to watch out for are horseflies and ticks. The horseflies have bites that hurt like hell, while the ticks here can transmit some kind of encephelitis. Yay.

We found two ticks in four days of hikes, so they’re pretty common. The first was on Stoytcho’s clothing while hiking the (blue?) loop trail to all of the climbing rocks. The second was on me. We climbed part of Manskaya Stenka on the purple trail and on the way back down, while clinging to tree roots I felt a tickle on my belly. I freed one hand and pulled my shirt up to find a tick crawling its way across my stomach. Fighting the frantic urge to flail, I kept one hand on the tree root and used the other to flick it off and FAR away.

So yeah, watch out for ticks.

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Other (more fun) bugs

There are a plethora of bugs in Stolby that don’t bite and can be downright lovely. You’ll encounter a lot of beetles on your hikes, with the largest and most common being black-colored scarabs that shimmer iridescent blue in the sunlight:

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Then there are a variety of ants, including the near-universal golden carpenter ant and ‘farmer’ ants that tend to their flocks of aphids:

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I had no idea what these insects were–they’re probably some kind of nymph and not the mature adult–but they would cluster together on railings along the trail. When disturbed, they would shiver and scatter in unison:

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Here’s a cute little ladybug sporting reverse colors:

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And lastly, snaaaaails!

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Stolby Nature Resere: Plants

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Siberia in summer contradicts every imagined image conjured up by the word. Devoid of ice and snow, the summer Siberian landscape clothes herself in emerald hues dotted with flecks of whites, reds, purples, and pinks from flowers and berries. Here are some of the beautiful summer plants we encountered on our hikes in Stolby:

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A cluster of Campanula flower.

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An unknown flower; though the flower cluster reminds me of a clover, the leaves are totally different. The flowers are long and thin, so they’re not slipperwort. They’re also not the correct shape to be foxglove or monkshood.

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A cluster of monkshood/Wolf’s Bane (Aconitum) flowers.

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Another unknown flower, although from the shape it could be a wild orchid.

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Two small Campanula or Adenophora flowers, after a rain.

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A lone dew-dipped cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) hangs from its stem.

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The autumn colors of this plant pop against the background of green summer foliage.

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Small, ever dainty forget-me-nots (Myosotis imitata).

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A bee pollinates elderberry flowers (Sambucus sp.)

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A small, bell-shaped flower, perhaps another Campanula.

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A rather stunning flower, though unknown. Maybe a type of carnation or Dianthus sp.?

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A blueberry (Vaccinium)peeks out from the bush.

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Flowers of Bupleurum longiradiatum, small perennial shrub whose cousin Bupleurum longifolium is popularly known as an ornamental.

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A yellow jewelweed/touch-me-not/balsam (Impatiens noli-tangere) flower.

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These dewspun leaves illustrate how jewelweed got its name.

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A small flower, possibly Geum aleppicum (Yellow Avens).

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A wild thistle (Synurus deltoides) with flowers in bloom.

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The unopened puffballs of wild thistle flowers (Synurus deltoides).

Stolby Nature Reserve: Fungi

Stolby Nature Reserve in the summer plays host to hundreds, if not thousands of fungi species. Here are some of the gorgeous specimins we saw during our camping and hiking in mid-July. Identified *tentatively* wherever possible.

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Saprophytic white mushrooms with reddish-brown spores growing  on a tree stump.

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A pair of tiny Russula sp. caps. Russula is notorious for being a genus vaguely-defined species.

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An Amanita sp. I would venture, based on the prominent volva and cap shape.

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A scaly/hairy golden mushroom that reminds me of plums and custard (Tricholomopsis rutilans), but without the purple coloring.

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The underside of some saprophytic mushrooms, probably a Pleurotus sp. (oyster mushroom).

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The top side of the same saprophytic mushroom cluster.

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Lycoperdon sp., though it does not appear to have the same properties of most puffballs (a central hole that emits a puff). Perhaps Lycoperdon saccatum?

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A cluster of Coprinellus sp. growing on a log. I’d guess Coprinellus disseminatus.

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A close up of the same Coprinellus cluster.

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A polypore fungi, maybe a young Fomitopsis sp., with guttation droplets on its surface.

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A small cap mushroom with a tiny cricketlike fly on the stem.

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An Artomyces sp. found on a log. The North American species is Artomyces pyxidatus, which looks highly similar to this, so this could either introduced sor a highly-similar native.

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A gilled mushroom hiding along the trail. You can see the lack of pigment on the right that results from shading by the leaf above it.

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The underside of the same mushroom, showing continuous gills down onto the stem.

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Crowded space – a plant shoot and fairy cap grow side-by-side.

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Another small fairy cap growing among moss.

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A bolete or slippery jack (from the porous underside). We found them this way, so it looks like someone else was doing a bit of mushroom ID.

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Another Coprinellus sp., maybe Coprinellus micaceus.

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Small gilled mushrooms growing from a log.

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Another mushroom, this time with gills that end abruptly on the stem (adnate gills).

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A cute little mushroom cluster illuminated by the sunset.

I’d lichen more…

Okay, so technically not just fungi, but lichens do consist of at least one fungal species! Here are two bonus shots of the local lichen for you.

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A free piece of lichen, perhaps fallen from a nearby tree. I can’t tell if this is multiple different lichens, or one that takes a variety of shapes.

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A whole wall of lichen for you!

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 2

View part 1 here.

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The Other Trans-Siberian

During one stop, we disembark to stretch our legs and find a sleek, forest-green train waiting across from ours. Emblazoned on the side is the seal of the People’s Republic of China, and beneath that in three languages it reads “Beijing – Ulaan-Baatar – Moskva”. The people spilling off of it are mostly white, dressed in shorts or jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps, all armed with cameras and cell phones. A flurry of camera shutters captures tourist selfies with their train, our train, and each other. This is the one of the Trans-Siberian “experience” trains that people take from Beijing in China all the way to Moscow in Western Russia. It takes nine days. Nine days on a train.

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How Do You Say

In Russia, I am functionally mute, voiceless because I am wordless. I rely on Stoytcho to translate into Bulgarian-Russian, hear a response in which might understand one English-like word (like ‘politicheskii’), and then rely on Stoytcho to translate the rest. It wears him out quickly, so our conversations with Russian cabinmates, Nikolaj and Ivan, are brief bursts followed by long silences. And in those silences I can ask a question that I’ll always understand the answer to: как сказать это?”

Our older cabinmate, Ivan, has two young daughters and knows this game well. I point to something and say “как сказать это?” He smiles and returns an answer. When I point to the sugar cubes, he returns “сахар”. When I point to the pillow, he says “подушка”. When I point to an apple on the table, he gives me “яблоко.” My pinhole view into the Russian world grows question by question, word by word. Ivan is infinitely patient.

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Goodbye/Hello

In our conversations, Ivan speaks glowingly of his wife and daughters. He’s been away repairing electrical pole wires around eastern Siberia for six months, and now he’s finally headed home. This train is the second-to-last part of his trip; at the next station, he’ll board another train to carry him through the last part of his journey home.

Ivan disembarks in the early hours of the morning, while Stoytcho and I are still huddled in our bunks. His rustling wakes me up, and I squint over at his bunk to find him packing things away. Seeing me awake, Ivan smiles and holds an apple up to me. “яблока?” I ask. “Da,” he says, followed by words I don’t understand and a gesture to take it. He points to other food left on the table, packets of noodles and fruit. “What about you?” I ask him, pointing between him and the food. Ivan responds with some more words I don’t understand, and Stoytcho below me translates. “He says he has better stuff at home, this is for us.” “Ah, спасибо,” I smile. “пожалуйста”, Ivan replies. Then he’s gone. I drift back to sleep and am only vaguely aware of the click of the door as someone else comes in to take Ivan’s bunk.

In the morning we have a new cabinmate. He’s quieter and more reserved than Ivan, but he’s curious enough about us to engage in idle chat. We find out that he’s a Lieutenant in the Russian Army, but little else—he’s vague on his destination, his work, and his life. When he asks what we’re doing here, we explain the trip around the world. “Natasha just finished her PhD in Biology,” Stoytcho tells him. “Ah, I majored in Biology at university,” the Lieutenant replies with a smile. “Has he found it useful in his work?” I ask Stoytcho, who translates the question on. The Lieutenant replies with a laugh, “Not really with my job. But it helps when I’m hunting.”

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Drunken Russian Men

The battery of my phone is running low, so I plug it into one of the few outlets in the hallway outside our cabin and sit down next to it. There’s nothing but darkness out the window, so I pull out a fabric flower-making kit I got in Japan to while the time away. I sew and watch the occasional light streak by in the darkness and listen to the chatter and laughter from the cabins. Eventually, the traincar slows to a stop and the speakers overhead announce the station name. In response, cabin doors open and people spill out into the hallway to get out into the night air.

Two gigantic men, more than thrice my size, stumble boisterously out of their cabin and notice me sewing. One waves and I wave back with a “Здравствуйте.” “Ah, you speak Russian?” he turns and walks toward me excitedly. I pinch my two fingers together and squint in a universal “a little” sign. “Where from?” he asks. “США” I reply, and try to explain our trip. “один лет…нет, один год…мир,” I say and make a circle in the air to indicate going around the world. They don’t get it, and sway as they stand in front of me trying to make sense of the situation. Stoytcho steps out a moment later and after an exchange in broken Russian, the guys invite us out for a smoke and stumble toward the exit. They’re clearly drunk, and the last thing we want to do is make two drunken Russian men angry.

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Outside, the smoke from the two guys’ cigarettes drifts through the open air, mingling with the smoke from dozens of cigarettes. People cluster together, sucking in the smoky air and chatting. Most are balanced, but some people are sloppy drunk despite a ban on bringing alcohol onto the train. This includes our two hosts, who offer us cigarettes that we politely decline and tell us how wonderful our trip is, how wonderful we came to visit, and how wonderful we have each other. We smile and nod but are unsure of what to say. Stoytcho once showed me a video of a drunken Russian man punching an unsuspecting newscaster in the head and I can’t help fearing that as an eventual scenario, though I feel ashamed about believing stereotypes. These guys just want to have a good time.

We’re eventually saved by my lack of a jacket and break free of conversation with the two men to return to our cabin. The Lieutenant, laying in his bunk, glances up as we open the door and we nod to him as we walk in. In an instant, he bolts up, looks out the door in both directions, and pulls it shut. He then sits down, and staring Stoytcho straight in the eyes he whispers in a low, hurried tone. I know none of the words he is saying but know the chill creeping up my spine. The Lieutenant glances at me for a second and concludes his sentence with a sharp, cruel twist of his hand in midair between us. “What…did he say? Did I do something wrong?” I ask Stoytcho after the Lieutenant has returned to his bunk. Stoytcho turns to me and sighs, “No. But he said we should stay away from those two guys because they’re really drunk. And Russian guys, when they’re drunk, they can turn on you just like that.” He ends the sentence with the same sharp, cruel twist of his hand in the air.

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Destination

I sleep fitfully that night. Every time I’m awakened by the train jolting, I’m momentarily afraid that we’ve missed our stop. This is irrational, because fifteen minutes before our stop the train attendant comes by to bang his fists on our cabin door and shout, “Krasnoyarsk!” I’m not sure if this is standard, or we’re getting the tourist treatment.

The Lieutenant is no longer with us in the cabin, disembarked at some station in the night without a trace or whisper. But Nikolaj remains with us, and as we pull into Krasnoyarsk Station he comes out for a cigarette and to say goodbye. We wish each other safe journeys and depart. I wonder whether what standard Russian conduct is on the Trans-Siberian; do these trips lead to exchanges of contact information, new friendships, or even love? Or is a shared journey on the Trans-Siberian an ephemeral phenomenon, a distinctly-partitioned act in the play of human life where characters that are strangers meet, speak, and share space for a brief duration before departing again as strangers?

We get lost in the station for several minutes trying to find a nonexistent information booth and a wifi signal. When we finally stumble out into the sunlight, a twenty-foot high mural greets us with the same face we left behind in Ulan-Ude’s central square. He is the constant, ever-present companion in Russia: Lenin.

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Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

Hiking Baikal Day 3: Back to Ulan-Ude

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It’s our last day on Baikal, and we’re determined to make the most of it. We hunt for agate on the shore and explore a small stream feeding into the lake. Small fish dart in the stream shallows, bees buzz between flowers, and the grass ripples in the wind. Everything is green and alive with the hum of summer.

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Don’t worry, I found a spider for you.


On the way to town for lunch, we pass a group of guys. One is in a tracksuit and holding a selfie stick, while the other two strip down to their underwear and dash into the water with shouts and howls. They manage to stay in the water and swim for a few minutes before they return to land. Because the water temperature hovers at a bone-chilling 50F even now, it’s an inspiring if not unsurprisingly short display.

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Watching the guys jump around in the water.

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Oh yeah, we also got a selfie with them.


We make our way to the bus stop and city center to find our favorite cafeteria of the past 24 hours, a tiny hole-in-the-wall kitchen run by a pair of local ladies. One of them greets us cheerfully, takes our order, and in a few minutes comes by with Russian staples of milk tea, pickled carrot salad, and stewed beef and onions over grietchka (buckwheat). There’s also a special today—fried dough balls filled with ground beef.

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We eat slowly, watching music videos on the cafeteria’s television while people bustle in and out around us. Stoytcho makes some small talk with the woman at the counter, and when she finds out we speak English she asks for the words for several foods they have. She says she’s been trying to learn English but there’s not much on TV and she doesn’t have access to the internet. We translate the cafeteria’s menu for her on a piece of paper as a gift for her to practice, and to make ordering easier for any future English-speaking visitors.

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Our translated menu, with English, Russian pronounciations of English words, and the Russian.

There are only a couple of hours before our bus leaves, but there’s something we have yet to do. After watching those guys go running into the water, it seems like a shame for us to leave without swimming in Baikal. Granted, neither of us brought swimsuits (our hosts back in Ulan-Ude warned us it would be too cold until August) and Stoytcho is a bit sick, but when else will we get this chance? We decide to go back to the shore and give it a shot, one at a time so the other person can watch the stuff.

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Some random cows that wander around Goryachinsk.

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Normal people interacting with Baikal in a normal fashion–not swimming.

I go first, stripping down to my undergarments. The wind feels cold on my skin as I face the water and pick my way gingerly over the rocky shore. The first splash of water touches my feet and I suck in air. But keep going, I tell myself. The water becomes ankle deep, then knee deep, and finally deep enough that I can throw myself in and submerge in the icy water. When I come up, I’m hyperventilating and trembling. It’s cold. I swim around to keep myself warm, and after a minute I no longer feel cold. Only a slight tingling feeling remains and I feel like I could stay in, but I see Stoytcho waiting on the shore for his turn. Facing the wind chill onshore is another shock, but after drying off I feel fantastic. Stoytcho and I switch off, and he wades into the water to swim around for a few minutes.

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Not pictured: how cold I felt.

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Stoytcho takes his turn swimming in Baikal.

We have so much fun that we make our bus with only a few minutes to spare and clamber in last. This bus takes us back down the coast through Gremyachinsk and turns inland. A few people get off here and there, but most of us are headed to Ulan-Ude. The sun sinks lower over the pine forests and plains rushing by, casting the sunset-orange glow over everything.

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The stops become more frequent as we reach town, and people disembark at the Buddhist temple at the city’s edge and a few of the city’s suburbs. A woman sitting in front of us catches my eye and smiles. She’s familiar but I can’t place from where. When she stands up to disembark, she walks back to us and hands me a handful of candies in shiny wrappers. Then she scampers off the bus. I grin and wave at her, and she smiles back and I remember—she’s a shopkeeper from Goryachinsk. We wandered into her general store and Stoytcho asked for directions to the bus stop. She must have seen my bewilderment as I stared at all the candy, uncertain of what anything was. Now thanks to her kindness, we can find out.

Hiking Baikal, Day 2

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Our second day of hiking Baikal’s eastern shore begins with moonset, followed by sunrise. We decamp and hike north to Turka, a shoreside town where we get breakfast and ask about a bus to Ust-Barguzin so we can get hike Svatoy Nos. We’re directed to a bus stop outside the town’s grocery store and wait for a bus that never arrives, so we decide to walk on to Goryachinsk, through pine and birch forest, sunny fields, and stony shoreline. Around midday we set up the tent in the shade of a tree and nap to the sound of lapping water on the rocks. It feels strange to see so much water but smell no salt, feel no ocean spray, hear no cries of gulls.

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It’s already late afternoon when we finally reach Goryachinsk and discover that we won’t be going to Ust-Barguzin—we had to catch that bus back in Ulan-Ude. All the buses that stop here in Goryachinsk go elsewhere, mostly back to Ulan-Ude. Someone suggests that we could try waving a bus down or hitchhiking up there, but we’re tired. We’ll just have to try for Svatoy Nos the next time. And for now, at least we have the hot spring of Goryachinsk to soothe our aching feet after 33 km of hiking in two days. The water is so hot that it burns our feet, so we make small pools at the edge of the hot stream to trap the water. It’s the perfect temperature after a few minutes of cooling.

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As the sun sets, we return to the shore of Baikal to continue northward to find a place to pitch the tent. Stoytcho feels tired and achy, the first symptoms I had of my flu the previous week, so we’ll return to Ulan-Ude on the bus tomorrow. We find a small copse of trees a couple kilometers north of Goryachinsk to pitch the tent and watch the sun set, illuminating the undersides of clouds with pinks and reds as it sinks beneath the horizon. We watch the chilling wind blow across the lake as we shelter in our sleeping bags and tent, huddled between the trees.

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Buryat Dance Festival “Ekhor Night”

IMG_8602 Want to experience Ekhor Night and learn to dance Yohor for yourself? The 2018 festival will be July 14-15 at the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum.

Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route. IMG_7842

The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.

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A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.

IMG_7895 As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets. IMG_7850

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After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.

IMG_8372 IMG_8446 The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. IMG_8482 Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. IMG_8565 IMG_8523 We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle. IMG_8613

Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.

Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.