Mostly Mixed Moscow

By: leelefever on September 29, 2006 - 4:34am

It’s quite apparent that the Russians have mixed feelings about Moscow (depending on where you ask) and after a few days there I think we feel the same. It was at once harsh and smooth, rude and friendly, ugly and beautiful.  Overall though, I’d say it was better than I expected.

Of course we had friends in the city that showed us around their neighborhoods and homes, which was a perfect introduction to the city. The warmth of the personal connection with people in Moscow made us feel at home.  However, once we ventured out on our own, other sides of the city appeared


Suddenly I found myself in center of the former Communist stronghold, surrounded by reminders of the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR and Communism.  I saw the Kremlin-adjacent apartments where Stalin’s cronies were arrested and shot.  I ate at places where people once stood in line for bread.  All the things I learned about the Russians and Communism were right there before me and I could feel the power.  In Moscow the grandeur of the buildings are awe-inspiring – monuments to a government that controlled 1/6th of the earth’s surface and had plans for world domination.  This was the place, right under my feet.


And it is beautiful.  Tiananmen has nothing on Red Square. The parks, rivers and thoroughfares are quite delightful, especially on a nice day.  I had no idea that Moscow was covered in parks. The legendary Metro subway system is showing its age, but still maintains a world class level of elegance and efficiency.  The street food is always-on and yummy. The drab and cold Moscow I expected was a distant vision, but some of what I had heard was confirmed.

It is said that Moscow is the “dictator” and St. Petersburg is the “artist” and having visited both, it is obvious why.  Moscow is not a warm and fuzzy sort of place for the visitor.  Customer service is very short and cold, there is no English anywhere and downtown sometimes seems covered in police. The people you encounter appear quite gloomy with very few smiles. Also, there is no affordable lodging in the center of town, forcing travelers 20 minutes outside the city.


One of the important things that travelers must remember in Moscow is to carry copies of their visa and passport with them at all times.  Often police/military will stop foreigners and ask for passports to extort large sums of money.  If an actual passport is handed over, it may cost to get it back.  One of our friends was caught urinating outdoors by a young military officer in an oversized uniform and threatened with the “Gulag” if he didn’t hand over his actual passport instead of copies. Our friend pretended to call his embassy which caused the officer to reduced the penalty to 500 Rubles (USD$20).  They ended up settling at 200 Rubles. To be fair to both sides – public restrooms are impossible to find in Moscow, and the military boys do not get paid one ruble for their two years of mandated service.


On the other side of the coin, the personal experiences we had with random Muscovites were more positive.  While looking at a map on a street corner one night (the “tourist distress call”) a friendly young woman pointed us in the right direction.  It seems that in general, the young people represent a new generation of Muscovites who are more likely to smile, provide great service and welcome foreigners.  I would love to come back to Moscow in 15 years to see how it has changed.  I’m quite sure that it will be less of a dictator.

Video: Trans-Siberian Railway - The Vodka Train

By: leelefever on September 25, 2006 - 9:50am

It is a Trans-Siberian right of passage - drinking vodka with Russians on a train in the middle of Siberia. This video shares a few of the moments I'll never forget and a few that I can't really remember.

Read the story from this night

Too Much Vodka with the Russian Locals

By: leelefever on September 25, 2006 - 6:04am

 Given the opportunity, we will choose to hang out with the locals and in nearly every instance.  The vast majority of the time, it has been a rewarding and interesting experience.  However, on the Trans-Siberian Railway we’ve learned that there are Russian locals that you don’t necessarily want to “experience” for 2 days on a train.

Peer pressure is an issue on the Trans-Siberian train with consistent reminders from other travelers that this is the “vodka train” and you must drink Russian vodka.  This pressure is lost on the Russian locals though as they need no pressure whatsoever to drink on a train.  It is a requirement for them and when mixing with foreign travelers the requirement is shared by all.

So we found ourselves in the dining car on the second night of a 48 hour journey from Irkustk to Ekaterineburg.  

Between Slava, the gigantic ex-Russian Army captain with bullet wounds and Victor, the pudgy Belushi-esque ex-Mafia family man, we had our hands full.  While our English friend Paul was busy being pressured by Slava into drinking more vodka than he wanted, I got a dose of vodka with Victor and his fellow Russian friends, who seemed to be complete blockheads.  We drank more, became friends, toasted to health, arm wrestled and looking back I can say that I have never witnessed so many scars on so many people.  I think these guys have had a hard life.

For some reason I accepted Victor’s invitation for me and Sachi to come to his room and drink more vodka. Not only did this end up with me losing a few hours of memory, but it caused Sachi to end up babysitting Victor’s Coke-spewing 4 year old child “Sergei” for over an hour.  She was not happy and I had no idea why.  What I did remember was Victor telling me at some point in the night that the wolf tattoo on his arm was from his 3 year prison term.  Apparently had “only killed one person” while in the Russian mafia.  Had I had my wits about me, I may have escaped at that point, but I didn’t.

The next day I awoke to a hangover, an upset wife and a half-drunk Russian ex-con banging on the door at 9AM with a 2 liter beer in his hand.  We were still friends and he was clearly doing me a favor by bring over the beer.  He started with the old Russian saying “A good friend drinks vodka with you yesterday, a great friend drinks vodka with you today!” as if I might appreciate the classical nature of the moment.   I would have none of it, despite him barging in, pouring a glass, spilling it on the floor and insisting I drink no less than 15 times. Of course Sachi was now noticing that she would now clean up after both father and son in our compartment. I was at a loss for more ways to say “nyet” – nothing seemed to work. Sachi would later say that when he came in she wanted to kick him in the face.  Of course, I was implicit in this frustration.  

Later Victor hooked back up with the Blockheads and they formed a roaming band of drunk-in-the-morning Russian annoyances.  They went from one end of the train to the other, peer-pressuring everyone from the night before to drink with them.  One of them even forced his way into the compartment of understandably shaken American and Canadian girls.  He would later be quite accurately called a stalker.

This band of drunks eventually caused the revelers from the night before to close their doors and hide out for the majority of the morning.  Many, including Sachi and I ignored knocks at our doors.  The foreigners on the train tried to memorize compartment numbers so we could visit one another without keeping a door open.  There was talk of passwords being used.  We were held hostage by the locals.

By about 1pm the drunk Russians had passed out – we could hear Victor snoring through the compartment walls and from that point the foreigners on the train began to appear like refugees after a bombing campaign.  Shaken, annoyed and hungover, we stuck together and decided that drinking with the locals is fun, but sharing 2 days on a train with the same people is another story all together.

 Watch the Video Here.

The Siberian Village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe

By: leelefever on September 24, 2006 - 12:06am

We were greeted in the "Siberian Capital" of Irkutsk by a nice surprise.  Our guide for 3 days was a Siberian named Eleana who looked like she stepped out of an REI catalog, both in slick outdoors clothes and fine model-like looks.  She spoke near-perfect English and had a laid back attitude - a stark contrast to the flag nazis in China.  So far, I love Russia.

The tiny village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe (pop. 700) is two hours from Irkutsk on the shores of the world's oldest and deepest lake, Lake Baikal.  I knew we were going to the right place when, about 45 minutes into the drive, the road turned to dirt and didn't stop until we arrived 1.5 hours later.  We were as remote as we could manage in one of the world's remotest places and assured that we were the only Westerners for miles and miles.

For the first time since visiting small villages in Japan, I felt that we had arrived at a tiny part of the world that exists according to tradition and not the tourist dollar. Bolshoe Goloustnoe is undeniably real and an authentic article of Siberian culture. 


The town on the South Eastern shores of Lake Baikal sits on two main streets surrounded by single story dark-wooden homes with gardens and livestock sharing a slice of property. In fact, the livestock are not bound by fences except the fences to keep them out of personal gardens.  As Eleana explained, the cows roam free and return home occasionally for feeding time.

The homes themselves are remarkably similar, with dark wood and ubiquitous, but unique window dressings called Siberian Lace.  The Siberians believe in spirits who are able to enter homes through windows and the windows are designed to prevent the spirits from entering. The windows are colorful works of art that beg for photos and appear too good to be true.  If they were plucked from this Siberian location and appeared in a city, you could imagine flag-bearing tour groups ooohing and aaahing at the traditional designs. Yet, here they are surrounded by gardens, livestock and splashed mud. These windows are an example of the reality of travel that I long to experience. 


Another Siberian experience is the use of a “banya” or sauna.  The tradition works like this… The banya is prepared by building a fire in a furnace-like compartment of a small wooden structure. The fire heats water that is used for bathing and the “sweat room” where you sit naked and relax.  I have decidedly mix reactions to the sweat room. I don’t like heat and I already sweated enough for 5 years in Asia, so I didn’t feel the need to sweat, or suffocate for that matter.  The thermometer in the sweat room read 85 degrees Celsius, which is 185 degrees Fahrenheit.  Is that possible?  Could it really be that hot?  It seemed that way as the air I inhaled would burn my lips as it entered my mouth.  My mind raced a couple of times as I had the fleeting feeling that I wasn’t getting enough air, nearly causing me to rush out of the room.  The most enjoyable part of my first banya experience was the exit when the air was luxuriously cool and full in my lungs.  To really enjoy a banya, I think you need to have been really cold, as Siberian fisherman surely are.

Bolshoe Goloustnoe, more than any other village we’ve visited on the whole trip, seemed to take us back in time. Here are a few examples.

  • The toilets are located outdoors and over a deep pit in the earth near the garden. When it fills up, they cover it and dig another hole.  Yes, despite pulling fresh, clean water from an aquifer that is associated with the lake, the homes in the village do not have running water.
  • Only a few weeks ago mobile phone service arrived in the village.  Prior to that, the only phone in the village existed in the Post Office and even it was often in disrepair.
  • The village does not have Internet access.
  • The villagers are very curious about foreigners, described as a look at someone from another world.
  • Few vehicles exist in the village and some of the old-timers have never left the village in their lives.
  • Many of the farmers in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are subsistence farmers, growing food to eat rather than sell.
  • The village lacks tourist infrastructure – no restaurants or souvenir shops.


I didn’t realize it until we arrived, but Siberia has a history similar to that of the Western US.  Just as the Europeans migrated westward across the US and through Native American land, the Russians moved eastward across Russia and through Buryat land. The Buryats are the indigenous people of Siberia, descended from the Mongols (more info here).  Eleana described the Buryats as being nearly completely integrated into the Russian culture or "russified", with their being very little discrimination. We saw evidence of this in the village as nearly every group of people was made up of white and Buryat individuals (see photo below).  I asked about the Russian migration and told her about the sad history of the American frontier when Native Americans were exploited and killed for their land.  She described the Russian experience much differently with the explorers making friends and working closely with the Buryats. She described the expansion in terms of it being a win-win. Curious, I asked about many of the modern problems of Native Americans such as alcoholism, lack of job opportunities and poverty and it sounded like the Buryats were experiencing the same problems.   While I’m sure the eastward expansion in Russia could have been much more friendly that that of the American West, I can’t help but wonder if this story of mutual beneficence is more convenient than it is factual. Perhaps my time in China has taught me that a Communist government has the power to mold historical perspectives into a form that is more easily digested by the people and the international community.  Could it be that Eleana’s perspective has been subject to the creativity of government historians of yesteryear?  Judging from myriad examples of European expansions into native lands, I somehow doubt the win-win perspective of the story.  Maybe I’m just cynical.

We didn’t expect it, but Bolshoe Goloustnoe and Lake Baikal was one of our favorite places on the trip so far.  Like Japan, the village seemed too real, too authentic to be true.  It didn’t get any more real than our homestay host, Tamara, mother of 6 and lifelong resident.  Could you imagine a more Siberan looking host?

Video: Incredible Lake Baikal, Russia

By: leelefever on September 23, 2006 - 5:10am

To look at Lake Baikal doesn't do it justice - it is just a big lake in a beautiful and peaceful setting. Only by learning a little about it can you appreciate what a special place on the Earth it really is. You can learn more via Wikipedia too.

Music: Yo La Tengo - You Can Have It All

Trans-Siberian Railway: Ulan Bataar to the Russian Border

By: leelefever on September 23, 2006 - 4:31am

I boarded the train in Ulan Battar with what I figured were blisters on my behind from hours of riding Mongolian horses on the steppe.  The horses and saddle were a bit too small for a western butt like mine. Sachi, the lucky, found that a couple of layers of skin had been worn away.  This is not a good way to start a two day train ride.

From the moment we stepped on the train, we were focused on the upcoming border ordeal with Russia, famous for its 11 hour wait.  The waiting around was not so bad except that the bathrooms on the train are locked for a majority of the time.  Of course, this is because the toilet dumps directly onto the tracks below, potentially making the already sketchy border area a sewer as well.  Our goal was bladder management, but just in case, we are holding a couple of plastic bottles in reserve.

We knew we were supposed to arrive at the border at 4AM so we both got up at 3:30AM to do what we could in the last minutes of the unlocked toilet.  The train arrived, the toilets were locked and we were left alone for 4 hours until 8AM, when the wait began for the border guards to arrive and take our passports for processing. 

For the entire train journey to this point, we operated only in the moment - by necessity.  There was no train itinerary and the attendants only communicated in very basic terms.  So we sat and waited and looked for our fellow passengers to appear on the platform - a sure sign that we can leave the train for a brief moment.  Other than that we just asked "Can we get off?" and then try to figure out if the answer was a “yes” or "no”. Our fellow Western travelers were in a similar predicament.

The border crossing into Russia was done with little fanfare.  However, someone presented himself soon after the border that was a bit startling for us.  For the first time in 8 months, a government representative had blonde hair and blue eyes.  Over a few minutes it was clear that the border with Mongolia seems to represent the most genetically distinct border we've crossed.  Within about two kilometers the people became, very, very Russian.  From what we'd seen thus far, the Russians are quite beautiful people with bright eyes, distinct features and slim physiques. 

Just before stopping at customs an Asian women entered our berth and hung a jacket on a hook and walked away as if we would be happy to carry the jacket with us through customs. Sachi promptly hung it outside where she collected it quickly.  Shaaah, as if.

 Counting the 4am arrival at the Mongolian border and 2 hours of free time on the Russian side, the ordeal did take about 11 hours and no plastic bottles were needed.  However, I will never forget an event just before departure that almost made me mess my pants.  A group of 5 of us left the train station to visit a shop about 500 yards from the station and we left with over an hour before our 3PM departure time.  Our quest was successful and we came back to the station with vodka bottles in hand - but something important was missing.  Our train was not sight.  We rushed up to the platform and looked around as if it might be camouflaged somehow - but no train was on track number 2.  Soon after we also realized that all five of us lacked any necessary means to catch another train.  We had all left for the store without a passport, train ticket, extra money or credit cards.  For a fleeting moment, our world and prospects for recovery seemed quite bleak and I wondered how I would be reunited with Sachi, clearly on her way into Siberia without me.  Then, to our surprise we saw a train approaching from the opposite direction and soon after a woman we recognized.  Was this our train?  Looking in the window, I met eyes with Sachi on the train, smiling and shaking her head.  She, along with the other passengers in our car were also surprised and briefly concerned when the train suddenly departed.  As it turns out, it only left the station briefly to change tracks and there was much relief.  Never again will I leave a train without extra money, a passport and ticket.

Trans-Siberian: Beijing to Ulan Bataar

By: leelefever on September 22, 2006 - 6:30am

Leaving Beijing was a momentous occasion – we were beginning one of the world’s great overland journeys – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Our first impression of our train compartment was one of amusement.  Two couches facing one another, a small table, a window and lots of metal clips, hinges, handles, ladders and switches that did not appear at the time to have any utility. What made us laugh was the decoration – I would call it Russian Grandmother style.  Darkish floral print that was perhaps dark with age and usage with gold satin frill.  The curtains matched the beds and the diagonal tablecloth really tied the room together nicely. Ugly but certainly sufficient for the 1.5 day journey.

It wasn’t long before we realized that we were on the way out of China. The attendant brought hot water and tea and when we said "shay shay" (thank you in Chinese) and she said forcefully  "No shay shay! Mongolian! Bajarlalaa!"  OK, we get it bajarlalaa is “thank you” in Mongolian.  Later we learned that “shay shay” means to urinate in Mongolian – probably not something you want to say when someone brings you tea in any country.

After the first 12 hours, we went to the dining car and returned to walk through a train filled with a dusty fog.  It had a sweet smell, not like fire, but a bit like freshly cut wood.  You could feel the air on your eyes and it your nose and it settled near the floor.  The air was crunchy.  At dusk we looked out of the window across the hall through a dust covered window.  Through the dust spattered glass, we could see sand - the very beginnings of the Gobi Desert which had crept into the train while we ate.  Mongolia was not far then.

Border crossings are a bitch.  Since the toilet flushes directly onto the tracks, the toilets on the train are locked during the border crossing into Mongolia - a 6 hour ordeal.  We were encouraged to stay on the train for the first three hours and then get off once we cross into Mongolia, around midnight.  We abstained from liquids for a few hours in anticipation of the wait.  Meanwhile, Gobi dust continues to collect in our noses and eyes.

In some strange turn of railroad evolution it came to be that railroads were connected that didn't match in width. Such is the case with the Trans-Siberian train which must be refitted with new wheels or "bogeys" before heading into Mongolia.  We had a choice - stand outside in the cold for 2-3 hours or stay on board while the train car gets hydraulically jacked-up as new wheels are put on.  We stayed on board and got the unexpected treat of seeing the whole process on the train next door.  As I write, our train car is being lowered onto the new bogeys that will carry us into Mongolia.

12:30am: After crossing the Mongolian border, the train pulled up to Zamyn Uud, where we expected to get out and use the bathroom.  Instead, the border guards boarded the train, took our passports and left.  Soon after, amidst yelling and running down the halls, the train left the station without our passports.  After leaving it then stopped and then rolled very slowly toward the station once more before going back two more times.  Like everything else, no explanation is given. Later we received our passports and all was well.

8:12 Sunday, September 10 Mongolia

We awoke with the anticipation of a school kid on a snow day - what would we find when we opened the curtain for the first time?  It turned out to be a scene of absolute nothingness - more nothing than we had ever seen anywhere.  We looked out over an ocean of pure sand - the middle of the Gobi Desert.  I've never been more excited and more interested to see nothing in my life.  This sand could swallow you whole.

Soon after waking we rattled into a small stop at the edge of the desert called Choyr, where eager Mongolian kids greeted us selling stones of quartz and amethyst.  I expected to be mobbed when I stepped of the train, but they were polite and not tenacious on a level that I expected.  I suppose Asia changed my expectations.  One little boy on a bike told me his name and said that he is fine before scurrying off. Maybe he had reached the end of his conversational English.   I wondered to myself about these kids - how long has their family been in Choyr? Were they previously nomads?  What do they know about America? What do they want to be when they grow up?

 The run into Ulan Baatar was grassy rolling steppe - no vegetation over a foot high and gers that dotted the horizon along with their sheep, horses and cows.  Disturbing the landscape on the train side were barbed-wire fences and electrical poles which are well used by White Tailed Eagles - certainly the most entertaining wildlife in view. The scrubby steppe is surely home to bite sized rodents that teased the eagles from their perches.  It was not at all odd to see an eagle swoop down and attack just outside the window. It's nice to know this desolate place is feeding something so effectively.

Signs of Ulan Baatar slowly start to appeared from the window in the form of Gers that seem to be moving closer and closer together.  A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home – basically a round tent made of white felt or canvas. Most have no electricity or running water.  Outside of the city you noticed gers as a white dot on the horizon, surrounded by livestock.  It seemed that in the outskirts of Ulan Baatar, the nomads are inching their way towards stationary city life by planting their gers in more permanent positions around the city.  In fact we would see them in downtown too.

The most immediate and striking aspect of Ulan Baatar was the women, many of whom were quite beautiful and dressed in the most up-to-date western fashions. I didn’t expect this in Ulan Baatar.  The city itself is not beautiful and I described it at the time as appearing to be part refugee camp, part abandoned construction site and part modern city.  It had all the conveniences that anyone would need – Internet cafes, supermarkets, movie theaters, restaurants, etc.  The city has a reputation for lawlessness and aggressive pickpockets, but we saw no evidence of them.

Within an hour or so we boarded a mini-van and departed the city for Elstei Ger Camp, about 50 kms outside the city.  Within about 30 minutes we reached the steppe – the land of absolutely endless rolling hills of grass.  This is where we would spend the next two days.

Here are a couple of my favorite photos from our stay here...



This video is about our stay at the camp…

Video: Two Nights on the Mongolian Steppe

By: leelefever on September 21, 2006 - 5:41am

Being out there in the middle of miles of rolling grass covered hills in Mongolia, there is little to do but ride horses- small but tough Mongolian horses.

Lots more coming soon- the connections have been few and far between... I just uploaded a load of pictures of Mongolia to Flickr as well.

The Trans-Siberian Has Begun

By: leelefever on September 15, 2006 - 8:41pm

The train trip has exceeded our expectations in a big way. The train itself is OK, but Mongolia and Siberia have been highlights of the whole trip, except for my saddle sores. Unfortunately though, it's a bit harder to upload all the pictures, videos, etc. Once we get into the big cities like Moscow we'll be sharing a lot more. Here is quick video to get started...

In couple of hours we board a train from Irkutsk to Ekaterinberg, Russia which will take about 48 hours.

Leaving China for Mongolia

By: leelefever on September 8, 2006 - 6:48am

We are  about to begin the first legs of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first stop: Ulan Baatarr, Mongolia, where we will spend two nights at a Ger Camp (I'm not really sure either).  We are both so very excited - this trip marks the end of Asia and the beginning of perhaps the most anticipated journey of the year. Woo hoo!  Here's the plan:

  • September 9th: Depart Beijing, China
  • September 10th:  Ulanbaatar, Mongolia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 14th:  Irkutsk, Russia (Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 18th: Ekaterinburg, Russia (Urals) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 21st:  Moscow, Russia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 24th:  St. Petersburg (3 nights)
  • September 27th:  Helsinki, Finland

Of course, this also marks the end of China, which has been amazing in so many ways - mostly unexpected. There is something I'd like to share about China before I go (with more coming later).  

Tomorrow (September 9th) is the 30th anniversary of Chairman Mao's death and today on CNN International (one of two English stations) there was a segment on Mao.  Two different sections of the segment were blacked out and we can only guess that the government was involved.  There was a specific woman that spoke in the segment and whenever she came on the screen, it went black.  This appeared to be blatant media censorship right before our very eyes.

I doubt I will ever be able to reconcile the contrasts that appear in China.  It seems to be going at light speed into the future and stumbling backward at the same time. Amazing.

Syndicate content