This is all of our travel gear (more or less), packed up and ready to go hiking from Jogjakarta, Indonesia. This is how I like to see everything, accounted for and tidy.
We have stayed in a lot of hostels, hotels, campsites, side-of-the-roads, and air-bnbs. From all that time traveling, we’ve lost hardly a fraction of our gear. The notable exception to this was in Australia where we stayed for a month and violated one of our two main rules. That rule is sprawl. We don’t do it whenever we can avoid it. We’re natural sprawlers, myself more than Natalie, but it’s dangerous when you travel. Everything should be kept in a neat pile or two, or, even better, in the bag. We’ve fared the best when we take out only what we need and then keep it piled on top of the open backpacks. Especially when the room is large and inviting like this one in Vietnam, it can be so easy to let all our stuff sprawl out.
It’s especially important not to spread stuff out when there are lots of nooks and crannies like this huge room we found in Indonesia. Lots of places for things to hide under make it that much easier to lose important pieces of gear. It’s ok to spread out temporarily of course, when we’re working with our gear or packing it ready for a hike, everything comes out, gets checked, and gets put back in. This sort of short operation is ok because things don’t sneak away and get forgotten three days later when its time to move again.
Why is not allowing sprawl so important? Because of our second trick – the sweep. Typically when doing a final check, many people resort to a list. They tick off each item, making sure it’s accounted for. When the list is all checked, everything is safe and packed and they have peace of mind. This works super well for a few pack-ups. I do it when I’m going camping as a matter of course. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for us on the road. We tried it briefly, in Mexico, and found it entirely too cumbersome. Checking off a list makes it hard to pack fast and go, and either we have to take out all our things to check them, or ‘check them out’ as we take them out, then check them back in later. It’s a hassle and we didn’t have the time.
Instead what we do is call a sweep every time we leave somewhere. This means we pack our bags as best we can, and then we go and check in corners, under tables, behind beds, and in the bathroom, for any and all items that have scurried to a back corner. We do a specific check for vital items like passports and some electronics, but outside of those, we don’t tick off by name. Since we made sure not to sprawl out terribly much, the sweep tactic catches the rare items that have escaped and puts them back in the bag. This has worked astoundingly well for us, except when we’ve let ourselves spread our gear all over the place.
The one part of travel this hasn’t worked super well for is trains. We usually are leaving them in a bit of a rush because we don’t know the route, recognize the stops, or understand the language, so our destination comes as a bit of a surprise. Our number one loss location is the overhead rack in trains, followed by the under-seat. We don’t seem to have the same issue in buses or airplanes, but we’ve lost more than one bag full of food, or a shirt, or some other goodie, to the rails. Luckily no catastrophes because we always make sure our main bags are with us, but any additional plastic or paper bags are fair game for the train gods.
This is a break from our regular travel blog to let you know that if you’re here in the U.S. (or your country’s currency is tied in some way to the U.S. dollar), traveling might become a whole lot more expensive. This has to do with events at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days ago and current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin basically not saying he wanted to see a stronger U.S. dollar. What this means is Mnuchin (and Trump’s administration) may back policies that lower the value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies (like the Euro), mostly so things made in the U.S. cost less in other countries and they will buy more. It’s a way of getting other countries to buy more things from the U.S.
Unfortunately, this kind of policy is also going to shaft you as an American traveling abroad. Because while in the big trade picture it means that U.S.-made stuff is cheaper for other countries to buy, it also means your U.S. dollar is going to be worth less when you convert it into Euros, or Swiss Francs, or Canadian Dollars, or Japanese Yen. So for example, if you trade 1 U.S. dollar now for Euros, you would get 0.81 Euros, or 81 Euro cents. When Stoytcho and I started our travels in Europe a couple of months ago, we got 85 Euro cents for 1 U.S. dollar. So now when we exchange currency, we get 4 cents less. That means when we go get a meal for 20 Euros, we’re paying $24.69 instead of $23.80. And this is a small example. Back in 2014, 1 U.S. dollar was worth only 75 Euro cents; if it goes that low again, that 20 Euro meal will be $26.67! That’s almost 3 more dollars (and more than 10%) on top of what we were paying.
Not every travel destination will have this problem, and we can break countries down into three categories: developing nations like Vietnam or Colombia, countries that tie their currency to the U.S. dollar like Ecuador and China, and developed nations like Canada and most Western Europe. In the case of developing nations, the cost of travel is likely to rise but will probably remain fairly affordable because it was so cheap to begin with, so if you’ve got that backpacking tour of Southeast Asia planned, you’re probably fine. Likewise for countries who tie their currency to the U.S. dollar*, their currency will just change with the U.S. dollar and prices should stay about the same–barring any kind of crazy trade war fallout. But the developed nations like Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Norway will be way more expensive to visit because they already had comparable prices for things to begin with AND your U.S. dollar will be worth less when converted into the local currency. That $500 USD you planned for 5 days in a hotel could become $550 a few months from now.
In summary, if you’re planning to travel from the U.S., brace for the chance that your money might be worth less. Be prepared and save up some extra.
And on the upside, if you’ve been dreaming of a U.S. vacation, visiting here won’t be as painfully expensive. You’re welcome!
* While I won’t distinguish how countries do this, there are a couple of ways – Ecuador and Panama simply use the U.S. dollar as their primary currency. China does much more complicated stuff to control the price of the yuan against the U.S. dollar, but the outcome is that the yuan generally follows the dollar in short to medium lengths of time.
Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.
We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.
This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.
Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it.” I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.
I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.
There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.
Every week a new city stretches before us. We’ve spent a few weeks in some (Sydney..) and a few days in other (Panama, Riga..) but on average we spend about 3-5 days in any given city. That’s not a great deal of time to see everything, but we’ve worked out our system pretty well, and we’d like to share what works for us.
Pick a few must-see destinations. We know we’re not going to see everything. Letting go of the feeling that we must see it all is the key to enjoying what we do see. We usually explore the area around the hostel the first night, and for the remaining days we mark down 2-4 areas we’d like to visit around the city, usually concentrated around busy market-type areas, attractions, and food. We mark down our must-sees if we have any. In most cases we try to set aside a day or two for outdoorsy adventures, like a hike nearby. How do we pick where to go? High concentrations of things to do, and recommendations online or from hostels. Traveling has changed with the advent of the internet, and there’s no reason to not take advantage of collective knowledge.
Walk, walk all day long. We find we get the most out of a city when we walk as much as we can. We arrive in an area of interest and spend anywhere from a few hours to a whole day just wandering around. If we’ve planned super well, our areas of interest are connected or very near to each other and we can usually metro out to the farthest point and spend the day walking back. If we’ve chosen parts of the city that are pretty far apart, we definitely try to take the metro between them. Otherwise, walking. It’s great. Plus, it keeps us nice and somewhat trim so we can eat all the local food with a little less guilt!
Wake up early. This one is not my favorite, but it works. Getting out the hostel at 8 am and getting out at 10pm are vastly different experiences. We’ve, unfortunately for my late-sleeping self, found that as early as possible is best. In hot cities it’s going to be cool, in popular areas it’ll be less crowded. It works out pretty well with walking most of the time as well – by the time we’re flagging it’s either breakfast or lunch depending on when we left. Despite the early wake up, I’m left feeling way more satisfied at the end of an early day than a late one. We just accomplish so much more.
Poke around in vibrant areas. We normally pick where we want to go based on the density of interesting things. If a spot has a few cafes, several landmarks, a market, and some event for the day, that’s a jackpot. Not only will there be all those advertised things, but there will also be at least a handful of unannounced delights. This picture of a joyous Natalie holding a hedgehog came about because I said “Hey, that guy’s selling comic books” – which led us into a urban art space full of activities in St.Petersburg. For food, if you haven’t picked a place already, follow your nose.
Bring snacks. We always have snacks on hand. Hunger has been the #1 source of discontent on our travels – it makes everything else worse, and is so readily cured. It’s not that there won’t be food – there’s almost always food somewhere nearby. But often there’s no food right where we are, or we happen to have wandered into a district way beyond our budget, or we don’t feel like bread and fried meat again. The snacks are a life saver. It’s 100% better if they’re local snacks, foods native to the country we’re in or picked up to-go from a local shop.
Take water. This one is pretty self explanatory, but paradoxically more important in the developed world than in other areas. When there’s no clean running water, vendors sell bottles of water everywhere for very cheap, so it’s ok to buy as you go. In places where there’s clean water in every house bottled water is very expensive, and very often there are fewer water fountains than is healthy for an all-day walking tour.
Rest. Resting is absolutely vital and for me at least, transit does not count. I need real, solid, head on pillow time to be at my best. It’s not just for keeping up a good mood, it’s also for avoiding the sick. Traveling across so many different areas and interacting with so many people is a great way to encounter lots of different germs. Less sleep means more sick, means less seeing cool stuff.
One of the best things about traveling is going to new places, seeing new things, eating new food, and meeting new people. Newness at its purest form – a landscape and culture a bit, a lot, or completely different from home. This is exciting and your synapses are firing at full speed, making memories and slowing time down as every new thing comes along. Enjoying it takes some doing though. It certainly wasn’t as amazing as advertised on travel blogs, and I went through a deal of personal change before really getting the most out of it.
It comes down to two factors. The first is simple and in my mind required : getting used to the consequences of traveling. On the road, where the language is hard to understand and the maps are unfamiliar, there’s an extra level of perceived danger or discomfort with every negative event. Is the sky pouring buckets? It’s worse now because all of your worldly belongings, including the clothes you have to sleep in on the bus tonight, are going to get soaked. Has the last bus home already left? It’s scarier (or so it feels) because there’s no taxi to take you home, your friend can’t come by to pick you up, and there’s no bus schedule anywhere. (Side-note : there usually is a taxi but it’s often very expensive, hard to contact, and harder to communicate with.)
I think many people have experience dealing with this added layer of uncertainty and anxiety. I certainly did not, and it took a long while on the road to learn to relax. Eventually I had to relax, for my own sake and for Natalie’s, but it took effort and experience. Missing the bus a few times taught me that it’s ok – there will be another way onward tomorrow, or we can always sleep where we are. Getting soaked (a particular peeve of mine) got much less frustrating the third time around. Practicing being positive and reacting less negatively changed my outlook on uncertainty and mishap entirely.
The second factor I think is more nuanced. It’s an appreciation of novelty. Where getting accustomed to discomfort brings the experience up from miserable to normal, learning to appreciate the new around you opens up the whole enjoyment of traveling. It took some time to embrace the experience of going somewhere far and unknown and hard to get to, just like learning to enjoy bitter beer or coffee.
People are in general hard-wired to seek out novelty. Unfortunately, with modern life’s focus on routine and (often) drudgery, it’s easy to lose the taste for new experiences. Luckily, it does come back. And once it does, it becomes addicting in the best way possible. Arriving in a new city becomes less scary and more an opportunity to seek out things you haven’t seen before. Far flung adventures loom less and invoke more excited anticipation. Everything about travel comes with less resistance, because now you’re calm enough to focus on the good things. It took me personally well into Russia to fully open up, but every step along the way was easier and more rewarding than the last.
When you travel, especially off the beaten track, you’re going to get stares from the locals. Those stares can be uncomfortable, especially if you come from the U.S. or a closely-related culture where staring is considered rude. Why are they staring at you? Is it something I did? Why don’t they stop?
Staring etiquette varies from region to region and over time. For example, the Japanese rarely stare because it’s considered rude, preferring to steal glances of you through a long side-eye when you’re not looking. In contrast there’s neighboring China, where sometimes people will not only stare but also point at you, and it’s not considered rude. Because the world is increasingly cosmopolitan, staring seems to be considered rude in more places and I think it now happens less. Back in 2004, my mom got lots of stares from locals in Shanghai because she is white. Fast forward to present day, where she gets hardly a glance.
But in many places off the standard travel itineraries, be prepared for some stares or uncomfortably long glances. For those of you who aren’t used to this, here’s a primer for you on why the locals are staring at you and what to expect.
First, are they smiling? Then it’s probably…
Overwhelmingly if you’re getting stares and smiles, it’s a good thing. People are probably fascinated by you because you look and dress differently, you’re new, you’re interesting!
Especially in highly-isolated and rural places, you may be the only foreigner passing through they’ve ever seen. This was the case for us in Indonesia, where people frequently stopped to greet us and ask for a selfie, even if they spoke only broken English or no English at all. Because Stoytcho is tall (6’4”) and white, he was a magnet for every middle-school tour group at every temple, so we’re in about a dozen class pictures.
In some cases, people are staring and smiling because they’re happy to see you, a tourist/visitor/traveler because you’re a herald of positive economic outcomes. We found this to be the case in Medellin Colombia, where we’d catch people staring at us, strike up a conversation with them, and find them thanking us for coming to their country. Things were really bad in Medellin (linkout) only a couple decades ago, so for people of Medellin, tourists are a big deal. That will probably change as more visitors come to the city, but for now, they stare and smile because you’re a sign of how much better life is now.
Lastly, sometimes people stare and smile because you’ve done something silly but harmless, like mispronounce a word. This will happen a lot if you’re trying to learn some of the local language. You’ll often hear this accompanied by a stifled giggle and someone may try to correct you. But that’s life and in no situation has a language mistake this ever been held against us.
Now, if people are staring at you and frowning, it may be…
Every culture has its own maze of written and unwritten rules and social norms and superstitions that are impossible to understand and difficult to remember for foreigners. So if someone is staring at you and frowning, you’ve probably done something wrong.
The good news is that while breaking cultural rules and norms is usually bad with varying degrees of seriousness, as a foreigner you’ll generally get a free pass. The only two exceptions to that free pass are: modesty-related and religion-related customs. Modesty-related customs are often dress codes or interpersonal interactions, like how much skin you can bare in public or how much romantic public affection is acceptable. Religion-related customs can vary, but usually relate to the aforementioned modesty, cleanliness, or separation of the sexes. Breaking these often makes a lot of people uncomfortable, or makes a lot of work for someone (i.e. they have to re-purify some sacred area thanks to your transgression). Hence, the frowns you’re getting.
Some great examples include those stares that young woman in the tank top is getting while she wanders around in Indonesia, or that guy who didn’t wash his hands and feet when coming into the temple. In my case, I committed a terrible fashion faux pas: wearing boots in the summer. I got an average of three scowls a day for that, apparently because it’s weird and just not done. It was so bad that Stoytcho’s aunt (linkout) concocted a white lie to get me to wear a pair of her shoes when we went out for ice cream because she didn’t want to be seen with me in boots. The solution? I switched to flip flops.
It can be hard to avoid breaking the customs of another culture while traveling, but this is where a bit of research in advance can help a lot. Before traveling, type in “taboo” and where you’re going to see if there are things you should avoid doing or wearing. These can vary in validity, so it also helps to consult a friend, acquaintance, or a travel forum.
There’s another reason people could be staring at you without a smile, though. That’s…
Because you’re strange, you’re weird, or you’re confusing. They’re staring at you because they’re trying to place you in some kind of context and having trouble. It’s not you, it’s them.
For better or worse, a lot of our judgements do stem from a person’s appearance. A white-person dressed in cargo zip-offs, a hat, and sunblock? Probably a tourist, has some money. Black woman, dressed nicely? A rich tourist or a model. A latino-looking guy in grungy clothes, carrying wares? Likely a local street vendor. That Asian-looking granny sitting on a park bench in rumpled clothes? Reasonable to assume she’s a resident octogenarian. We feel comfortable when we can place people into some kind of context and make assumptions about how we can interact with them. And when we can’t do that, we get confused and sometimes we stare.
As someone who’s ethnically ambiguous, this happens to me a lot. I look just enough like the local people almost everywhere we get stares, especially when I’m not with Stoytcho (who obviously looks like a foreigner). In South America, people would stare at me because I didn’t look totally white but I was an English-speaking tourist. In Japan, the ambiguity almost got me into trouble (linkout). And in Russia, the locals stared because I looked like a local Buryat girl dressed in weird tourist clothes. I got stuck in between the boxes of local and tourist, and it messed with people enough that they’d inadvertently stare at me for that extra second or two.
If you’re prone to receiving this kind of stare, the best way to deal with it is to smile and not take offense. It’s hard because when people stare at you, trying to figure out who or what you are, they don’t usually look friendly. They may even be frowning, although it’s an unconscious frown caused by their confusion. But if you make eye contact with them and smile, they usually realize they’ve been staring and avert their eyes or they’ll smile back. You may not fit neatly into their mental world, but that matters less once they realize you’re friendly.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.
We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.
After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.
One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.
We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.
Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?