Posts Tagged ‘train’

Day 112: Across the Baltic

August 5th, 2011 2 comments

I spent several hours of last night alone under the stars, on the Baltic Sea. I was accompanied only by the drone of the diesel propulsion engine on the ferry that was taking my train across the water separating Sweden and Germany. I don’t know where all the other 200+ passengers were for the few hours I spent on the top deck, but I was content to be there by myself in the dark.

I was on a train that was more than half-filled with university kids on summer holiday and it was accented by the smell of beer and piss around the train toilets. But for a couple hours, on the top deck of the ferry, I didn’t care. The stars were directing a magical performance with the last rays of the sun, receding city lights, and ship’s orchestra engine… and they were playing a show just for me.

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Revel in your time alone. Remember who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.

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Day 21: Tourist train to Beijing

May 7th, 2011 1 comment

The most obvious difference, to me, between China and Mongolia was the presence of pavement and cement everywhere, even in the countryside. Rail ties were made of cement instead of wood and the hillsides were cemented to keep the earth from falling into the tracks. I’m impressed with the sheer amount of work that has obviously gone into creating this railway through China. At one point, just before entering the city, we passed through more than 40 tunnels that cut through the massive range of mountains west of Beijing.

The train compartment was extremely comfortable (although quite warm) and I shared it with Jan and a fellow backpacker, couchsurfer, and physicist (in a past life, like me) named Vanessa. Vanessa is from France and has been traveling through Russia and is going on to visit the rest of southeast Asia over the next 10 months. The midnight changing of the wagon bogeys (wheels) was a fascinating game, like a wooden block puzzle, that took 4 hours and where each wagon was one-by-one detached from the train and raised with hydraulic jacks while the bogeys were changed by men and women on the ground. No peeing was allowed (bathrooms locked) during this time so you can imagine the race for the toilets once we pulled into the Erlian station for a quick break.

View more Flickr pictures.

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Day 15: Crossing into Mongolia

April 30th, 2011 11 comments

Yesterday was surreal – like something out of those dramas that my housemate used to tell me about. I’m glad I’m not sleeping in an over-turned bus. Read on…

I’m not used to eating breakfast as soon as I get up and I’m definitely not used to the heavy breakfasts that my Ulan Ude hosts like to eat. Even though I would have a long travel day ahead, at 05:30, I couldn’t bring myself to have any of the spaghetti and meat sauce (liver, actually). I had a piece of bread and jam and tea, I think. It was early, I don’t remember well.

06:30 Got on wrong bus at the bus stop in Ulan Ude. Some passenger introduced himself as Edward and said, in English, that I was on a bus going to the mountains and that I probably wanted the next bus going to Ulaan Baator. (No one checked my ticket when I got on the bus and it was much warmer inside than standing on the curb outside so I had gone in the bus.)

07:30 Correct bus for Ulaan Baator departs

08:30 See sprinkles of snow outside

09:00 There is black ice on the road, bus slows

09:30-11:00 Snow storm develops, can’t see much outside the windows. At some point, we stopped at a pee area which is when I realized how much snow there was.

11:13 Pick up 2 new passengers at some stop in the middle of the snow storm. One of them is pretty loud.

11:15-11:30 We’re at the Russia-Mongolia border. Step 1: Russian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport.

11:30-12:05 Step 2: Russian customs – we have to take our bags off the bus into a building where they take them through an x-ray and check our passports again. One of the new passengers (the loud one) passes out slowly. She’s fighting her friend and doesn’t want to leave the line, even as she slumps to the ground. My EMT training kicks in as I help carry her to some chairs. She has a slow but strong pulse and is breathing fine. She is not responsive. People around keep saying epilepsy but I’m sure it’s not. One of the Netherlands backpackers comments that there are 8 people standing around her watching but no one knows what to do. By this point, I’m already standing back as she seems to be in a drug-induced (or possibly diabetic) stupor. Someone has called an ambulance.

12:10 We’re back on the bus with our bags put back underneath in the luggage compartment and we cross the border. The new passengers are back on the bus too. I guess the loud one regained consciousness. Some man (passenger) hands me his phone and tells me (in Mongolian) to talk to the person on the other end. It turns out this is my Mongolian couchsurf host’s, Meg’s, dad! How interesting. He is taking this bus to visit his grand-daughter (Meg’s daughter) who has been ill for days.

12:15 Step 3: Mongolian female border officer enters bus and checks each passport

12:20 Step 4: A Mongolian male soldier enters bus and hands out immigration forms to be filled out for Mongolia

12:22-13:00 Step 5: Mongolian customs and immigration – we have to take our bags off the bus again and through Mongolian customs. I realize that most Mongolians don’t form queues so I hold my spot better and stop letting people cut. It’s like being in my grade school lunch line again. I’m sent away by the customs official to fill out some form I can’t read only to go back to find he’s been replaced by someone else. Meg’s father and the bus driver helped me fill out the form and now it’s stamped and in my passport. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it.

13:10 Our bags are back in the luggage compartment and we’re back on the bus. Three men enter the bus holding wads of cash. My seatmate explains that they’re exchanging Tugriks (Mongolian currency). I get some. I’m told by some Mongolians around me that it is a good deal (they also exchange money).

13:20 We’re back off the bus (again). This time it’s lunch break. The storm is pretty fierce by this point so I’m happy not being on the road. The restaurant is called “A HOT TAN Restaurant” or something like that. I eat a light lunch of salad olivieh (like potato salad) and pick out the meat. We’re informed there is a 2 hour delay because the roads are closed. I take the opportunity to talk more to some people from the bus who speak a little English (or are willing to try speaking with me). I find out that Tsyrma, a Buryat living in Ulan Ude has to catch a plan to Tokyo early the next morning to go home (her husband is Japanese). I walk around and ask the bus driver, who is talking to Meg’s father, how much longer and he motions 4 fingers in the air. I think Tsyrma is going to flip. I talk in length with another lady, Syren-Dulma, who speaks Buryat, Russian, French, and English. She studied language in school and is an English teach in a small Buryat village in the Tunka Valley. I start interviewing her about what she likes about her Buryat hometown but we get cut off because we’re told the bus is leaving.

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17:22 We’re back on the bus but without the 2 late-entry passengers. I saw them enter the restaurant but had lost track of them during our stay there. There were some people who were drinking and playing cards in the restaurant and they insist on taking over the back row of the bus. I move down 2 rows. I have a better window seat now. I see lots of birds outside. I think I’ve seen more birds on this road trip than in all my road trips ever, combined. I also see cattle, camels, and horsemen.

18:20 We crawling through the snow and we get stuck. The bus driver puts on his gloves, hat, and boots and gets the shovel. Meg’s father and another 2 men on the bus also go outside.

18:41 We’re finally clear of that patch after almost slipping into the ditch off the side of the road (if I could see the road). We clap for the driver and his helpers.

19:59 We’re traveling at about 10km/hr I think. At least it’s warm. We get stuck again. There are other cars also stuck. Lots of people are outside pushing cars around in the ice. Our helpers on the bus help everyone else because if they don’t move, we don’t move.

20:09 We’re unstuck and moving

20:29 We’re stuck. A couple of the women have also gone out to help. There are only 2 shovels. I hope the bus doesn’t slide into anyone standing outside as it grinds over ice.

21:26 We’re unstuck but moving very slowly. It’s getting dark and there is a line of cars stopped ahead.

21:49 I think we’re going to spend the night on the bus. Tsyrma has managed to get a hold of some airline information and finds that her flight is also delayed. She is biting her nails. One of the passengers takes his luggage off the bus and jumps into a car that has stopped for him on the road. I have no idea who anyone is.

22:01 We’re stuck for the 3rd time and the boys and Meg’s father are out shoveling. Actually, he is directing and they’re shoveling. He’s got that big boss air about him and he’s taking care of business.

22:09 They’re getting good at this because we’re unstuck

22:19 The bus driver pulls off into a town, which I later find out is Darkan. We’ve traveled around 385 km (240 miles) in about 14 hours. We’re only about half-way to Ulaan Baator. All roads to Ulaan Baator are closed and there is state emergency. There is one train leaving for Ulaan Baator just after midnight which is to arrive at 06:10 in the morning in Ulaan Baator. The bus driver takes us to the train station and waits with our luggage while we all get tickets. He’s still in good spirits, amazingly. Meg’s father takes charge and groups 8 of us together, assigning people to watch over the bags while he and another woman fight to keep their spot in the throngs of people crowding around the 2 ticket counters. It has to be more than luck that my couchsurf host’s father was on this bus and making sure I got a seat and a way to Meg’s house.

23:31 We’re on the train, all split up into whatever seats were available. Though I’m not sure it matters because in my little compartment area there were 12.5 people (one child) in a 4-bunk compartment. There were people sleeping in the top luggage shelves all over the place. Meg’s father comes around and checks on me.

00:00ish The train departs Darkhan. I close my eyes, sitting up, and hum a mantra (thanks LR).

06:11 The train arrives in Ulaan Baator

06:30 Meg has sent a driver to pick me up. Meg’s father is going to go eat and probably stay with another family member. The driver gives me the keys to Meg’s apartment and shows me where things are. Meg is still in the hospital with her daughter. What an amazing host to take such good care of me when I haven’t even met her. I’m hopeful for the rest of this Mongolia trip.

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Day 11: Carriage 18, bunk 18, Inna, Valentina, Ilya, and a whole lot of army boys

April 28th, 2011 7 comments

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The train ride from Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude was a completely different experience than being on the OKEAH line from Vladivostok. There were a lot more people – completely full, actually. And there were a lot of soldiers, the sight of which made me nervous at first. The soldiers, army boys (kids, really) took over the carriage for the first day and half of the trip. I never had the desire to leave the carriage to walk to other parts of the train, not for the safety of my things but simply because I was right in the middle of everything I wanted to experience.

There was plenty of eating, drinking, and gavareeting. There was actually always food and drink on most tables and constant stream of people going to and from the hot water contraption at the front of the carriage – getting hot water for tea (black and green), instant mashed potatoes, or ramen noodles. That seemed to be the staple diet in the carriage. Oh, and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Of course, not everyone drank. I happened to share the compartment with two other women who didn’t drink and one guy who drank a bottle of vodka each day but only after trying to share it with us or others who stopped by. Russians always eat when drinking. You take a drink, eat a little, and repeat until the bottle is finished. I tried a sip of two different vodkas, of which the first was quite smooth and the second could have made excellent antiseptic.

The bunkmates across the aisle were a different story. The two women appeared to be of Buryat descent, which looks more Mongolian and far eastern than Caucasian, but spoke Russian, of course. They didn’t really talk to the four of us across the aisle but really seemed to enjoy sharing their drinks, food, cigarettes, and company with the army boys. Their party started as soon as the train left Khabarovsk station, around 15:30 and lasted until 20:00, at which point one of the women passed out snoring on the lower bunk. Then the party restarted around midnight and went to 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. It started again with less intensity the next day around 3 o’clock until their alcohol ran out at 21:00. Thankfully, the provodnitsa (female carriage attendant) controlled the consumption of alcohol after everyone’s personal supplies ran out, by keeping the supply locked in her compartment and only selling it in measured (but steady) amounts. Regardless, there was always someone walking around with a liter-sized bottle of beer… and tea.

I didn’t understand the timing of when the toilets at either end of the carriage were open. I got that you shouldn’t use them when the trains were stopped because they dump out directly onto the tracks (yes, all you clean, eco-peeps, you got that right). At other times I waited uselessly for a toilet to be unlocked for more than 30 minutes.

At some train stops, the provodnitsa let people off the train for 10 minutes or so to smoke, stretch their legs and buy snacks, food, cigarettes, and alcohol from station vendors. Some times babushka (grandmothers) sold home-made dumplings and potatoes on that platform.

My bunkmates were two women, Inna and Valentina (Vila) and one man, Ilya. Inna spoke a little English, enough to fully engage me and translate for the others. She is a director of something or other for the railway. She and Vila are also students. Vila understood more than she let on. Ilya spoke enough English to get his point across, along with the help of his phone’s Russian-English translator when there was reception and the phone still had charge. Ilya is a deep-sea diver, working at a hydroelectric dam on the Amur River. Inna was so creative in her choice of topics and things to ask me about. She wanted to know the English words for everything so the four of us spent hours trying to communicate. It was hard to follow her train of thought because I never knew when she was asking for more detail about something or when she had moved on to a different subject. She wanted to know the names of different flowers, animals, and terrains. This is not the kind of Russian you can learn from a quick study guide. At one point, I had out a map of the world and Ilya was showing us that his father had traveled to India while in the military. Inna tried for more than 20 minutes to ask me the English word for “slon”. She grabbed her nose and made the motion of pulling it forward. She drew big semicircles around the sides of her head. She hunched her shoulders and stomped around. I was clueless in this game of charades. Finally, she grabbed her grey sweater and pointed to it saying, “color!” and stretched her nose again, and put her hands behind each ear and flapped them. I finally realized she was motioning an ELEPHANT. It was hilarious and for the next day or so any time any of us would make those motions or say “elephant” or “son”, we’d break up laughing.

American pop culture was fascinating to them and they spent hours quiaaing me about what movies or songs or ators or writers I like. As some of you know, I fail miserably in pop culture trivia, even in English so I don’t know why they kept trying. What an odd American they must think I am.

Ilya gave me homework – 6 Russian authors to read. I have to email him when I’m done reading them. He loved to talk about the pine and birch trees. And Christmas presents. I’ve learned the words for all of those.

Half the army boys left on the 2nd day of the trip, at Chita, along with two of my bunkmates. The dynamic changed, became subdued. New passengers filled up the bunks but only stayed for a few stops. Everyone was in their own thoughts. Ilya and I spoke a few more times but the new bunkmates below didn’t speak and we each, eventually, went upstairs to our bunks to read. I listened to mantras and started incorporating the train track rhythm into it.

Spring came more quickly as we travelled west. I was glad to get off the train at Ulan-Ude.

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Day 10: Khabarovsk, Easter, and snow

April 28th, 2011 5 comments

It started snowing as we entered the Khabarovsk train station. It was before 08:00 and my next train to wouldn’t be leaving until 15:13 so I was excited about spending several hours looking around this town. Ingrid had given me a tour itinerary that would take me to many historical and architectural points of interest as well as to a restaurant that she liked for it’s Bohemian atmosphere. She showed me the baggage check area in the train station and how to find and use the bus to/from the train station. She also gave me her phone number in case I needed any help. She would be going to spend the day with her family as it was Easter Sunday, after all.

Ingrid’s thoughts on Khabarovsk:

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Surprisingly, I wasn’t cold in the snow (thanks to REI for waterproof clothing and to my Keen waterproof boots) but I soon learned that wind can be grating. The wind urged me not to stop for longer than the time it takes to snap a picture or two and the wind directed the direction I chose to walk, just so I would have it at my back and not blowing snow into my face. As with all things, this was meant to be, unbeknownst to me, because I was heading toward the Amur River and the beginning of Easter Sunday mass at a small cathedral by the river. Easter is “Paskha” in Russian and the greeting is not “Happy Easter” but the the equivalent of “Christ has risen”.

Although the Harley Davidson Saloon seemed to be open for business as a couple of work-dressed women left the establishment before 09:00 (*wink* *wink*), I couldn’t find anything else that would open earlier than 10:00. I had not planned on going in to a church or attending a mass but I eventually decided that I didn’t want to get sick and it would be best if I stopped standing around in the snow.

The church was packed so I just stood in the back. I learned quickly that women kept their hair covered, with hats or scarves, and everyone prostrated and signed the cross (in reverse direction from Catholic traditions) three times while bowing their head when both entering and leaving the church and also at different times in the mass. I stood there in the back awkwardly for a long while and just listened to (and recorded) the beautiful singing.

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After it got too warm and steamy for me in the church, I headed up the Amur River bank to some museums. Even in the light snow, there were others strolling and jogging. After an hour of strolling through the regional museum, I started walking toward the area where Ingrid had suggested I eat, looking for the Pizza Town Cafe. I can’t say that I was lost but I certainly couldn’t find the place, even after trying to ask several people who were walking the busy street or waiting for buses. I had already learned in Vladivostok, however, that someone may not know what is right around the corner from them so I kept asking different people and walking. Signs were mostly in Russian so I got plenty of practice reading the Cyrillic alphabet as well. I also saw Darth Vader’s fighter pilot parked by yet another war memorial. Eventually, I found myself back at the main plaza (Lenin Square) and just caught the bus back to the train station where I picked up some bakery items to eat from a next door supermarket.

Cathedral bells rang constantly all over town:

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Day 9: The Trans-Siberian railway’s endpoint, my starting point

April 28th, 2011 1 comment

My introduction to the Trans-Siberian trains was, in hindsight, a gentle immersion into life aboard a train with strangers, each going their own destinations but spending a few hours or days together. We get to see each other in intimate, beautiful, raw, crude, and ugly situations – each of choosing whether to detach, engage, or just watch; each of us making the most (or least) of the time as it passes. On my couchsurf host, Liz’s, suggestion, I had decided to buy tickets for the platskartny carriage, which can be considered the 3rd class wagon with the least amount of privacy and the most opportunities to meet others. I’m glad I chose the upper bunk in these carriages as it gave me an easy spot to escape to when I just wanted to lay down (not enough head-room to sit up) and enjoy the vantage point.

There are 2 lower bunks and 2 upper bunks and a shared table. Baggage can be stored below the lower bunks or way above the higher bunks. Across the aisle is another set of bunks, 1 lower and 1 upper, with a similar storage shelf way above the upper bunk. This layout seems to be the same for all platskartny carriages in the train lines, though, as I learned later, the comfort and cleanliness varies depending on how old the train line is. The OKEAH (Ocean) train line from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk was extremely clean, comfortable, and quiet. On this trip, it was just Ingrid, Hameed, and me in our compartment and a couple other people two compartments away from where there was a faint smell of alcohol wafting down. Ingrid was from Khabarovsk but going to the university in Vladivostok and studying fashion design. Hameed disappeared overnight but while he was there, he explained with the help of Ingrid, that he was a Russian Kurd, studying oil engineering at the university in Vladivostok. Hameed wanted to “gavareet” in English but was very reluctant to try. He even called his previous English teacher on his cell phone and had her speak to me. Oddly enough, he just wanted me to speak with her and not have her translate anything he may have wanted to say. I tried different ways to get him to talk or act or draw but in the end I just asked him what kind of music he likes and he played some popular kurdish and turkish music artists for me on his phone. He also played a Tajikistani belly dancer video for me.

Ingrid and I spoke in some length, with the aid of her adept sketches, about where I’m from, where I’ve been, where she’s been, and wants to go. Her perspective on the world is so different and fascinating than mine. She was very interested in colors and feelings of cities I’ve been. Try communicating feelings in different languages! She was very interested in the interior design of my home in Los Angeles. I even made a very poor attempt at drawing her my dream house interior. [Note: improve sketching abilities] Even though Ingrid claimed not to speak English well, she was smart, resourceful, and surprisingly well-versed in English literature. She recited part of an Edgar Allan Poe poem for me that even I didn’t know. Ingrid, if you read this, continue to think beyond your physical and geographical boundaries – I’ll look forward to meeting you again.

As the train drew further from Vladivostok, Ingrid pointed out the window with excitement – the sun was setting and sealing with it my warm introduction to Russia and fantastic memories of Vladivostok.

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