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Planes, Trains & Automobiles

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After crossing borders on trains, planes and boats we decided to round it off on a bus.  We booked a 6 hour mini bus ride to take us from St. Petersburg to Helsinki.  As we climbed aboard we were greeted by 6 rows of couples.  We walked to the back and each row in turn chirped “Good morning! How are you?”  As we sat down in the back of the bus we looked forward to meet 12 sets of staring eyes and smiling faces.  “Where do you come from?” the obvious leader inquired.   We replied and, before we could ask in return, 12 voices responded collectively, “We are from Holland!”  They all broke into a synchronized laugh and I tried to block out similarities of their voices to “Gold Member” from Austin Powers.  The group talked non-stop and made the journey zip by as they quizzed us on our trip and simultaneously recommended places not to be missed.

I was a bit nervous coming into the Russian border crossing.  Russian visas supposedly require registration when you enter the country for more than one week.  We were coming up on our third week.  I thought that the rule read you must register if you stay in one Russian city longer than a week.  Every place we stayed or person we asked gave a different response on the rule.  Of course we heard horror stories of people being detained or fined exorbitant sums for not registering.

Being a tight ass I did not want to pay the $50 to get registered.  I talked Nug out of it several times.  As we waited in line Nug reminded me yet again, “I’m going to be pissed if we were supposed to register!”  “We will be fine,” I said trying to assure myself instead of as a response to Nug.  As the border guard waved me up I couldn’t decide what scared me most…being detained, a fine or Nug’s fury.  I wondered what Nug would do to me as the guard reviewed my passport.  Several excruciating minutes later my passport was handed back and I continued through the border.  Later that night as we watched an epic sunset rainbow at the Helsinki port I confidently scoffed at Nug, “I told you we didn’t need to register.”

Helsinki

Told you Nug!

Glad we made it.

 

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5655 km in a Nutshell

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The Russian portion of the Trans-Mongolian Railway covers over 5600km and 5 time zones.  To ride straight through would take nearly a week.  The journey took us through vast stretches of untouched Siberian wilderness where it would sometimes be hours between any signs of human settlement.  After visiting this area of the world I find it difficult to argue that the earth is getting too crowded.  After our longest leg (50 hours) I was glad that we chose to make several stops along the way.  We met some people who made the trip straight through and they had the look and smell of drunken derelicts.  The particularly long stretches of track made us appreciate the little things in life…taking a shower after 50 hours, eating food that is not just made by adding hot water or being able to piss without the ground swaying under our feet became absolute treats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed in 4-berth cabins so we normally had 2 additional roommates.  Everyone would practice their English skills on us and if they could not speak it they would find someone on the train that could in order to translate.  We were repeatedly asked to compare and contrast the U.S. and Russia.  One girl happily told us that she loved American music and followed up with, “Do you like Russian music in America?”  Not being able to recall a single Russian artist I said, “Sometimes, but we love Russian vodka.”

Another cabin mate of ours, Vladimir, was an older gentleman who was on the train for 5 days after a trip to visit his grandkids.  He was amazingly nice yet had body odor that had the same effect on my eyes as a sliced onion.  He shared some beer with me that tasted like a microwaved Colt 45 and insisted on showing us hundreds of pics of his beach holiday where he wore a banana hammock that would have been tiny on Nug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One time after tiring of noodle bowls we broke down and went to the restaurant car.  We were the only ones and the rubbery “chicken” confirmed our suspicions as to why.  I asked the attendant for the “best Russian beer”.  He came back with a Budweiser.  I looked at him skeptically but he was dead serious.  “This is best beer from Russia!” he proudly stated.  He waited while I took a swig.  “How good is that, huh?”  I smiled and gave him the thumbs up.  “Great recco,” I stated.

As we ended our Russian train journey in St. Petersburg I could not believe how much more European the city felt compared to our entrance to the country in the east.  The Russian people we met along the way were so much more helpful and friendly than I had expected especially after our run in with the female Ivan Drago several weeks prior.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

The Unwelcome Visitor

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Several hours west of the Russian border we had an unwelcome visitor…food poisoning.  Apparently the market at the border crossing infused us with something sinister.  Nug and I both succumbed.  Being a bigger glutton I must have eaten more of the tainted vittles because I was hit much harder.

Pre-food poisoning happiness

On my way to the bathroom for the 2nd time I was horrified to find the door locked.  Trains on the Trans-Siberian system lock the bathroom doors 15 minutes before and after any stops to stymie stowaways.  I scrambled to find a bag and violently wretched into it as we entered a station.  People on the platform looked mortified and a male train attendant laced me in Russian as I cringed demoralized in a corner.  He had happened to catch me smack dab in the middle of my previous performance and was none too happy that time either.  The female Ivan Drago grabbed my arm.  “Zyou mus see za doctor here at zhe station!”  My attempts to resist were futile.  I found myself in a dingy, faded all white room with a bright white light that flickered on and off constantly.  I was poked and prodded and had my temperature taken…38.5 Celsius…crap that’s 101 Fahrenheit  I thought.  The questions came fast and furious in Russian and were translated clumsily by the attendant.  “Howz meeny times zyou make za voh-mit?  Where zyou come from?  Whaz zyou eat?  How zlong zyou sick?  Howz meeny times zyou make za toilet? (accompanied by a sign of squatting and imitating an explosion from her backside which would have had me in hysterics if I had not been so scared)

The male train attendant and several nurses began to argue loudly and point at me.  “What’s happening?!” Nug interjected.  The female Ivan Drago pointed at me, “Zyou mee-ust stay here and go to zhee emergency room!”  I started to argue and was beat down with “Zyou will znot argue weeth zhis!”  The doctor made 4 or 5 phone calls and 2 uniformed army officers entered the room.  “Whaz zee problem?” they growled.  At this point all 6 of them argued heatedly and took turns pointing at me.  “I’m okay,” I lied, “It was from a sandwich I had earlier.  I have to keep going to Irkutsk.”  The doctor started shoving numerous pills at me and ordering me to take them.  “NO, allergic,” I said as I pushed them away.  “Zyou have no choice.  Must take is good for you.  Zyou no take zhen we mee-ust give zyou zhe shot.”  One of the army goons flashed his gold teeth and used his finger to simulate a shot in his neck.  I was sick again and held as best as I could while lying that I had to pee.  I barely closed the door behind me.  Heated arguing commenced as I disposed of my stomach contents as quietly as I could.  I am normally an exaggerated, theatrical  vomiter so this was a major accomplishment.

As I returned to the argument I could see that Nug was working magic and was somehow turning the tide.  We swore that I was getting better and took a stand that we would not stay in this tiny backwater town.  The burly guys finally left and I had to sign some paperwork saying that I refused to go to the emergency room at my own peril.  In Irkutsk I would not be allowed off the train until another doctor inspected me to insure that I was not a carrier monkey of some Mongolian bird flu.  The night ride to Irkutsk was miserable.  I was in the bathroom every 30 minutes for the next 6 hours but eventually it subsided.  We pulled into the station, I passed the medical exam and before I knew it we were on the shores of beautiful Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake.  Only then did I finally sigh with relief.

Lake Baikal sunset

The Female Ivan Drago

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The train ride from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk, Russia is about 30 hours.  Unfortunately 10+ of those hours are wasted on border crossings.  We were rustled out of bed at 630am as we approached the Mongolian border.  The Mongolian officials searched the train, our bags, and our persons while mean mugging and inspecting our passports.  Then the train rolled several hundred yards down the track so the Russian border guards could do the same.  The entire charade was repeated yet this time German shepherds and armed military personnel joined in on the fun.  There was a lot of angry sounding yelling and instructions over the train’s loudspeakers.

Waiting game

It will drive you to the drink

We were imprisoned in our train berth for the 1st 4 hours and endured the process with a slightly older Aussie couple.  Despite numerous attempts at communication with others on board it became obvious that we were the only English speakers on the train (imagine that in a non-English speaking country).  We had no idea when the train was scheduled to depart or what was going on.  Our train carriage attendant was the stereotypical Russian woman.  She looked like a female Ivan Drago with short red hair, a deep voice and a stern, stoic face that looked as if it had never smiled.  We watched her dress down several passengers in Russian until each retreated like a tortoise into its shell.  She used her limited English to dominate the Australian woman in our cabin to the point that the Aussie hid under the covers for 3 hours.  While the kangaroo was hiding and Nug was sleeping (thank God or the Cold War would have restarted) this Russian gem came to our room with a basket of garbage packaged food.  “Wood zu like?!”  The Aussie guy and I looked up from our respective books and declined.  She stayed put, “Zah…  mah-bay…zyou don’t… oon-derstand….PICK ONE!”  It sounded like a threat.  We repeated that we were good.  She exploded, “Zhis eeez ree-diculous!  Zyou don’t buy… eez very BAD for zmee!”   I tried to use my big kid voice when I repeated, “No, we don’t want…”  There was silence as she glared at us and we all waited to see who would fold first.  “Zhis is unbelievable!  ZAmericans and ZAustralians hab no money is VERY bad,” she screamed and slammed the door as she stormed out.  Dave looked at me and we burst out laughing.  “If she was nice I would have bought the whole bloody lot,” he said, before continuing, “Either way I think we are the 1st ones here to win a battle with her.”  Several hours later we started our 5000+ km journey towards Moscow.

At the border

We need to check your bags