Monday, September 6, 2010

A Trans Siberian adventure

This is my story of an adventure that took about 4+ months to plan, that would take us through 2 continents, 3 countries, some 4000 miles of railway lines, 5 time zones, country side and modern cities, local food and exotic cuisines, interesting people and incredible sites, some frustrations but most of all helped me appreciate life and liberty even more over the 16 days. The thick green line on the map was the path we took.

Friday - 8/20 Our Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian is billed as an adventure and I am already thinking about vacation after this. So to start we get a shuttle to JFK from DC, couple of hrs in JFK working and then an Aeroflot flight to Saint Petersburg via Moscow. The service is very efficient with hardly a smile wasted by the flight attendants. Surprisingly for a country suffering from alcoholism as a national epidemic, their national airlines does not encourage alcohol on the journey. Are these signs of a responsible leadership?

Saturday 8/21: St.Petersburg (click for pictures) We land in Moscow on schedule at 8am but without my bag. Aeroflot lost and found are least interested in trying to help us and why not…monopolistic retards. While we work it with one gentlemen who seems to be really looking and eventually finds it still languishing in JFK. He thinks he can have it delivered to the St.Petersburg airport by the evening….not holding my breath. We are about an hour late so Aeroflot gets us on the next connection to Saint Petersburg after making us knock on several doors... incredible customer service if that is what one could call it. That said we have a decent ride in to St. Petersburg. We are met by our guide, Alla, and drive in to the city north of the airport and check in to the hotel. We then walk to the Hermitage (Winter Palace) that is two blocks away. 4 hours of amazing views of the collections and the internal decorations made of gold leave in the Baroque style…I am finally beginning to understand this style. Dinner is a Crepe pickup @ Teremok a local fast food joint. Rather in-expensive food I am told that costs $5/crepe with a Kvas drink made of bread and fermented. It is 8pm in the evening, we are tired, jet lagged and my bag is still missing so I am going to have be a man’s man! Good news though is that Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow says my bags have arrived but wont say when it will get to St. Petersburg. They sure know how to get under your skin.

Sunday 8/22: Peterhof (click for pictures) The day starts with dreary weather….hopes of tourism are dashed, no luggage yet and the pouring rain. However once our guide meets us and we start driving to Peterhof, about 40KM from the city, the weather improves dramatically. In the meantime I see the old Soviet era buildings in the cloudy lights and it certainly conjures up some of the images I have seen of the USSR. We get to Peterhof but no pictures are allowed inside the palace which is a pity given its opulence. Lovely garden that is emblematic of European magnificence, a million pictures of the gardens as the weather continues to hold. Dandelions in the US may be our worst lawn enemy but here in the magnificent gardens of Peterhof, they seem to be the rave. There are more of those than actual grass and when I quizzed our guide about it and who in turn asked the gardener who was tending to the grass, I was given the “What are you talking about look”!. Now given Russia’s endorsement of Dandelions, I am beginning to feel very good about my lawn and will try and get our home owners to sign off on it….lets see how that conversation goes :).Lunch in Peterhof is my 1st real Beef Strogonoff with Russian salad. On the return we stop at the Peter and Paul cathedral, a very unique exterior but rather depressing interior considering it is an active church. Drive back is nice & whoppie as I get word that my bag has arrived, so we make a detour to the Pulkovo airport of Saint Petersburg to pick it up. Our driver is pulled over by the cops but when the driver returns he is not pleased and does not want to talk about it but our guide leaves me with the impression that fines don’t always have receipt issued…hmmmm. We return to the hotel, drop my bag and check to see if I got an empty shell or if my stuff is in there. Then we head out to get a boat ride through the canals of Saint Petersburg. But before that we stroll along the Nevsky Prospekt that is considered main street here and we are strongly advised to keep all valuables really close to the chest as it is full of unsavory sorts out to get you. The boat ride, thought not quite Vienna but fairly close with the lovely architectures and other sights on river Neva and Moskvy. We then have dinner at Lucky Shot a Russian, game restaurant. Interesting menu of bears, deers, wild boars, rabbits and more. Their version of lemon vodka is a jug of regular vodka with lemons in it. We go the conservative road with fish & beer even if it is a celebration of getting my bag back. Now restaurants are expensive in Russia and typically caters to a very select class of its citizen, but there is not an appropriate level of customer service associated to it, then again I may need to reset my customer service expectations. In addition after 48 hours in Russia, I am beginning to see a very monochromatic society. Diversity in Russian is defined not along races but along a variety of the Caucasian ethnic groups like Russians, Tajiks, Georgians, Slavs, Chechens, Siberians, Ukranians and more.We stop at a local grocery store to buy some water on our walk back to the hotel.

Monday 8/23: Pushkin (click for pictures) The weather is still nice, sunny and 70. We arrive at Pushkin, a town named after the great Russian poet, about 10am to visit Catherine’s Palace. Catherine II is also known as Catherine the Great and is credited for expanding the Russian empire on the east by annexing Siberia. She is also known to have put down her husband and gone through a stable of “favorites”, that is a quite the way to describe a boy friend!. Thankfully pictures are allowed in this magnificent palace that ironically was not built by Catherine but she only added to it. As we complete our visit, it starts raining, how serendipitous is that. We lunch at Stolle's, a chain of pie restaurants. These pies are mostly savory meat and fish pies, that are generally shaped after what they are stuffing it with. The afternoon is spent visiting the Church of the spilled blood, Paul and Peters fortress and cathedral ending at St. Isaaks cathedral. A very standard St. Petersburg sights for the average tourist. For dinner we go to “Don’t Grieve”, a Georgian restaurant. In Russia nothing is free. When I ordered my shish kabob, I had to order the sauce and side with that and they are priced separately as is bread. The entree’s don’t come with anything….I am just happy they cook it. We head back to the hotel and prepare for the train ride to Moscow. Our hotel folks were very good about storing our luggage and letting us hang out there for a while as I charged my camera, laptop etc. Met a district judge from DC, interesting I think. Our train to Moscow is on time and the 1st class accommodation is pretty good. St.Petersburg is a lovely city and worth a visit.

Tuesday 8/24: Moscow (click for pictures) We arrive in Moscow on the dot at 7.12am…if nothing else, the soviet culture of timeliness has stayed with the Russian Railways. However our breakfast arrived in multiple parts and ended incomplete. We start our tour of the city real early with a drive past the Lubiyanka HQ of the K G B, now FSB. Lovely drive by the Moscow river and our first view of the red walls of the Kremlin, a panoramic view of the city from Sparrow Hills including an arial look of the Lenin stadium that hosted the 1980 Olympics that was boycotted by many number of countries including the US. We stop by at Leo Tolstoy’s home that he moved to from his native Tulane in the late 1880’s to get his children better education in Moscow. We then hop on the underground metro on the circular line at Kievskaya, followed by Arbatskya and finally getting out at the Revolution square metro. There are 30 metro stations out of 170 that were specially decorated by the orders of Stalin. They are incredible with amazing mosaic and statutes adorning the long corridors. Like any large city in the world the metro in Moscow is busy and admittedly so trying to support a population of 18MM, that has grown from 4MM in the mid nineties 4.5 folds to what it is now. Next stop is the Christ our Saviour Cathedral a mid 20th century cathedral, typical Russian Orthodox onion domes with icons in the inside. We then head to the Kremlin….unfortunately the line to view Lenin’s tomb is too long to be bothered with besides there is controversy about if the body is truly Lenin’s since it looks very waxy. I guess I will just visit Madam Tausad’s when they get to Lenin. We enter the famous Red Square…..hmmmmm this is it? Very under-whelming. A little hard to visualize the site of the mighty Russian army marching past the Soviet bosses through this rather small square. But then in all fairness, half the square is blocked with bleachers being put in for some sort of a concert. We head towards the St.Basil’s church, the most recognized icon with its colorful onion domes. The church built in the mid 1400’s by Ivan the Terrible is medieval in its meager internal decorations. Really high steps takes us up and through what seems a maze of paths. Next stop is the Armory and the Diamond Fund inside the Kremlin….never thought I would be inside the Soviet Kremlin, the world sure has changed to a more democratic Russian federation. The Armory is a museum that holds the treasures of the Czars. These include some spectacular jewels (diamonds, rubies, emeralds and more), dresses of Catherine the great, shoes of the rather tall Peter the great, carriages, cutlery, weapons, Faberge eggs and more. We understand that between the many wars and the internal plunder, what is left is a small portion of the true quantities…. I wonder how a country founded in farming, hunting and fishing could afford all this but then again the rich minerals of Siberia should not be belittled. Done with tourism for the day, we check in to our hotel that is next door to the Kremlin and lunch at a local hotspot called Coffee Mania….looked like busy & successful business folks and rich bored home-makers. Short walk back catches us in the rain…no bother considering the weather has been a gift thus far (bright and 70) with all the smoke being history. Dinner is at a Belarusian restaurant up the road from our hotel. Lovely and quaint place with traditional hot pots of meats and vegetables that is downed by a barrel of vodka. I settle for my 1st glass of true Russian vodka called Russian Standard while Saritha has some tongue twister local brew. For some of my friends who find the way I pronounce Vodka funny, I must tell you that “Vodka” has been the only word Russian have understood me saying here!!! So BACK OFF.

Wednesday 8/25: Sergie Posad (click for pictures) Our day starts rather leisurely with a drive to Sergie Posad, a religious town 70KM away from Moscow on the golden ring. The town was built around the 14th century monastery that St. Sergius founded. The iconic blue onion domes with gold star’s is simply incredible. We spend some time visiting the trinity cathedrals on the monastery grounds after some nickel and dime nonsense…this time they want 100 roubles for me to carry my camera in! The cathedrals are typical to all that we have seen so far in Russia. The one highlight is the entry tower of the complex that has a room used for “exorcism” that was designed by Stroganoff, yup the dish is named after the same family. Lunch at a local touristy dive of the standard fare consisting of Russian Salad, Borsch, Beef Stroganoff (I wonder if I am now exorcised finally) and crepe’s with unprocessed honey. Drive back in to Moscow has us in some traffic, but they sure know how to optimize the shoulder and drive over each other. We get to the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian art. While I did not care for icon’s from the medieval times, the art depicting life in 16-17th century Russia was amazing. I am surprised that Russian artists have not become as famous as the Spanish, French or Italian impressionists!. Next a gander along the famous Old Arbat street that has restaurants and shops followed by some pizza. We then head to the station for our Trans-Siberian train to Irkutsk. The trains here have multiple classes of service, the cattle class with opening seating and up to 8 sleepers in a compartment to 6, 4 and 2/1st class. We decided to go with the two and are greeted by a platinum blond attendant with what I consider a very short skirt and high heels. It appears to have become the style for a large section of Russian women to dress up in such risqué fashion. When I quizzed our guide on that, I was led to understand that since this is a male dominated society, women need to go the extra distance to find and keep their men. In any case our short skirted attendant also is security on the coach (with rumored KGB men on board), the cleaning maid and generally in-charge. The thing that puzzles me the most is that these 1st class coaches are almost 100% occupied by foreigners who can not speak any Russian, yet the wise Russian railways did not think of having a bilingual attendant. So I have no clue what she is saying to me at this time…..”yeah same to you”! Our train departs again on schedule, amazing punctuality of the Russian railways.

Thursday 8/26: Trans Siberian Day 1 (click for pictures) I wake up very relaxed at god knows what time it is and the time zones have changed from Moscow. So I waddle to the ever present samovar for some hot water for my tea. The restaurant carriage is 1 away from ours, so I walk over to see what breakfast was going to be, only to run in to a very large Russian man who looked drunk and a couple of women; mother and daughter I presume. The mother speaks some English while the daughter chatters on in Russian. They don’t serve breakfast, just lunch and dinner. So back to my stash of instant oatmeal and hot water while Saritha eats some bread we picked up in St.Petersburg. So for the rest of the morning it is staring out of the window philosophically at the Russian Tundra and passing villages of babushkas and little dacha’s. Lunch is a very well prepared chicken with potatoes and a ton of dill for garnish. 2 stops today at Perm and Yekaterinberg. I step out to the platform to buy some bread which does not seem to be available but a passing train deposits a bunch of Mongolians vendors who start selling all kinds of wares from bags, shoes, to clothing that is strangely lapped up by the local Russian’s. There is no recession in this little Russian town for sure & these vendors do not like to be pictured as our British neighbor found out the hard way when a vendor almost plucked her camera away…so we are back on the train and surreptitiously clicking away. My 2nd book for the journey is “Genghis Khan and the making of the modern world” (Thanks Yo!) as entertainment aside from playing cards, dominos and chess with my lovely wife. For dinner Saritha heads to the restaurant cart but is unfortunately accosted by a drunk (there are quite a few on the train out side our 1st class accommodations, so some security) and the restaurant manager who is a very large and obscene woman based on the gestures she made to Saritha. After brief exchanges and food ordered, Saritha hustles back to give me a earful for letting her go by herself...we are both surprised that this is the state of Russia and its people, at least some of them. It is a shame and we learn not to leave our carriage after 5pm local time. Oh & the food never arrives….at least we had not paid for me to chase it down and so it was some bread for dinner.

Friday 8/27: Trans Siberian Day 2 on the train is about as leisurely as yesterday, now that we are in Asia having crossed the Ural mountains from Europe overnight into Siberia. As I sip my morning tea and stare out the windows at the great expanse of Siberia, I am surprised that it is not close to what I had expected of Siberia. Instead of the great expanses of nothingness, I am seeing a lot of Birch between little villages of wooden houses with their little vegetable patches and flower gardens. The countryside is quite plain and I feel I could be seeing this anywhere. Food – Considering yesterdays experience with the restaurant carriage, we have decided to boycott it. So when we stop at Omsk for about 15 minutes, I hustle to the platform to buy some instant noodles and bread. The noodles are surprisingly tasty, but the rye bread they make in this country is nothing short of yucky! In the mean time the Mongolian train pulls up as well from yesterday and it is pure pandemonium with the locals wanting to buy all that the Mongols are selling similar to yesterday. In fact I recognize some of the same vendors from yesterday and they look fresh…wow, earning money certainly can help you look different. Our next stop is Barabinsk for about 40 minutes, where based on my noodle experience for lunch, I buy more as well as beer while Saritha goes on a food shopping binge. She looks like she just returned from the local Giants store. We share experiences with our German neighbors who are travelers themselves and one of them quips that Aeroflot’s motto ought to be “no risk, no fun”…how appropriate. As the evening turns in to the night, Siberia looks calm as I nibble on a peanut butter sandwich…never imagined of putting those together and here we are. A late night stop at Novosibirsk which is the capital of western Siberia for 20 minutes gives us more fresh air and an opportunity to stroll before calling it a night.

Saturday 8/28: : Trans Siberian Day 3
This is last day on the Tran-Siberian leg of the journey as we break it tomorrow early in Irkutsk on the banks of Lake Baikal. The 1st big stop is at Krasnoyarsk about 11am for about 20 minutes. More walking and stretching on the platform while buying more food. The time has changed but the Russian railways on the stations and in the train only show Moscow time and we have to do conversion. One explanation I got was to help ensure meeting their perfect arrival/departures without confusion due to time zone…some logic but I am not buying it completely. I think it has to do with Moscow's control over the entire country similar to China where the entire country is on 1 time zone despite being large enough to have at least 3. The other thing I found fascinating is that Russia does not have an interstate highway system like we would know in the US or Europe. Again considering the rather poor majority of the population does not have the means to buy cars to drive them across the country, it does make sense not needing highways. But the other school of thought is to build them and people will come….I have to think that this is another reason why Russia continues to slip despite being a member of BRIC. Between limited infrastructure outside of Moscow and the general attitude of the people, i.e pure lack of entrepreneurship, I have to fear for the future of this beautiful country. Well that aside, a stop at Ilanskaya gives another chance to stroll the platform, watch all this wonderful local food, but we hesitate to indulge, but not our new German friends who will try anything….brave people. I also find a carriage attached at the very end of train that looks different and so I investigate to find that it is going to Pyongyang in North Korea. There are a few North Koreans hanging around looking miserable and I was tempted to ask them if they want to go with me instead. I am led to understand Russia and China are the only 2 countries North Koreans can venture out to and that the railway lines to Russia and China were built by Kim Jong as he is afraid of flying. This excitement done, its an early night as we are scheduled to arrive real early in Irkutsk tomorrow.

Sunday 8/29: Irkutsk (click for pictures) 6.16am to the dot and on schedule our train pulls in to Irkutsk. This is the end of our Tran-Siberian adventure. I loved it thoroughly and despite my best efforts to articulate it here, it has not done justice to what we felt over the last 4 nights and 3 days. A must for most everyone who enjoys getting out and about. Tanya is our guide/driver here and is on the platform to greet us. We are surprised to find she speaks very little English but does let us know that our interpreter will join us in a couple of hours, so it is of to a very long breakfast. Tanya goes to school here, works very hard and is very pleasant….so we let her take a nap after breakfast while we wait for her partner Katya to arrive. Another young lady going to school, equally pleasant and welcoming. So with our new friends we take in the sights of Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. There are the usual bevy of cathedrals with colorful onion domes, a few monuments of past heros/villans (depends if they were in the Soviet times or not) and the lovely river Angara that is supposed to be the only one that is fed by lake Baikal. We attend mass at a couple of the cathedrals since it is Sunday morning. Unlike other masses I have attended in the past, the Russian orthodox churches do not have pews for the worshippers, but have to stand for the entire 3 hours. We lasted a few minutes but it was fascinating to hear the prayers and the priestly attires. It is quite cold this morning, about 50 and Tanya does not have a coat. So we drive to her house to allow her to pick it up while giving us a fascinating insight in to the true local life. We then drive to an open air Taltsy museum that has wooden houses, churches etc from different ethnicities for display. I attempt a new career of stilt walking and may have some potential. Next stop lake Baikal. But before dipping a toe in it, it is lunch that is 3 courses of fishes (smoked, soup and fried) from lake Baikal and quite tasty. Lake Baikal is a huge lake, some of its special attributes is that it is the deepest fresh water lake in the world and holds 20% of the worlds fresh water reserve. The weather is beautiful, bright sun, not a cloud, pleasant breeze and if you are not jealous yet a perfect 68F. The water surface looks like a gazillion diamonds shining, the mountains around the lake want you to forget everything and just stay….& we almost do. Mid evening we return to Irkutsk and check in to our hotel that seems to be in the middle of all action. As our guides depart, we tip them as has been the routine these last couple of days and they are overwhelmed by the gesture today….it figures, they don’t work with American tourists here in Irkutsk but mostly Europeans ;~). We decide we did not want to dine out so we stop at the super market across from our hotel on Karl Marx street. Every Russian city has a Marx, Lenin and Gagarin street in it. TV has nothing in English, even BBC is voiced over in Russian. The Russian news are totally focused on Putin or are forced to. Apparently he is now the chief marketing officer for Lada, their local car as the link will take you to a video. He gets in to one, drives it from Vladivostok on the east coast to somewhere in the south and they cover the drive to show his being in touch with the common man while peddling the car that even locals admit is nothing but junk. Then he is of on to a speedboat doing some fishing and deep see diving to be with the fisherman folks before which he was flying a plane to douse the fires south of Moscow….this guy is a veritable James Bond!.....match that President Obama, never mind the real stuff.

Monday 8/30: Irkutsk
Today is a free day as in nothing is scheduled till 10pm in the evening when we catch our 1st leg of the Trans-Mongolian train to Ulaanbataar (UB as the locals say). So we wake up real late trying to recover from the 4 day train journey. After breakfast and late check out about 1ish we venture out in to the streets of Irkutsk. It appears relaxedly busy, typical young Russians in high heels and bad suits, workers fixing pavements, lots of designer label stores mixed with restaurants and other stores on Marx st. and Lenin st. We find a bench and just soak in the sun and people infront of Lenin’s statue. There are no souvenir stores around to browse or much of anything, so we continue to wander and find a German restaurant for a meal which lasts for 2 hours, not so much for the Kraut cuisine but for the relaxed service where my beer took 20 mins to arrive. Since we were not in a hurry but plainly killing time it did not matter. We stop at an electronics store so I can load up on empty discs. There is no clarity on what is supposed to be declared vs. not and it changes based on who is running the border on the day. So to avoid losing all my pictures/stuff on my laptop I burn it on CD’s. so if Ivan the Immigrations or Customs officer thinks I can not take my laptop with me, he can have it without me stressing out over lost content. Time fly’s by as our ride to the station arrives on time drives us. On the way Tanya stops at the famous Irkutsk bread factory and buy’s us bread as gesture of goodwill…very touching. She then lets me listen to Russian blues and I must say they sound a lot better compared to our blues that talk about trucks, dogs, heart breaks and run away women, well then again who knows what they are singing in Russian….must be the same with vodka. On to the train then to find the surprise of our lives. This leg of the trans Mongolian does not have 1st class, so they have converted a 2nd class coupe in to 1st class by having only Saritha and I in there. Not acceptable considering the money they charged…but then I hear the last time some one complained in Russia, they were never heard from again, so we bite our tongues and shut our door and hope the morning brings some cheer as we chug away from Irkutsk.

Tuesday 8/31: Trans Siberian (click for pictures) Today we leave Russia and I have mixed feelings about this country and its people. St.Petersburg was elitist, Moscow was rich and seemingly powerful, Irkutsk warm and friendly. The east monochromatic and unfriendly, the south and west friendly and a lot more diverse. I continue to ponder this as I take in the passing Siberian country side that is clearly poor but in a strange way cosy. As we come closer to the border, I hear jets flying above us but don’t see them. Ours being the last coach allows me to get a 180 degree view from the back and I go searching for the MiGs and finally sight a couple and photograph one landing….wondering if I am now certified to be a spy as I photograph a moving radar on the other side. We arrive at Naushki the border town that will process us out of the country about 1.30pm local. They tell us that we are free to roam around until 4pm when the processing starts and oh by the way toilets are closed and that we need to use the one on the platform. The temperature is about 85, with a nice cool breeze, but since the train is standing under the sun it starts to get very uncomfortable about now. Also as we wait, many Mongolians start making there way on to the train and occupying space with a lot of luggage. I had heard of this and the associated smuggling, but to be watching it was another thing. The Mongols get in here with their stuff, get processed and then hop off at Sukhbataar, the 1st stop in Mongolia after immigration there. In any case after 3 hours of wait when our coach is shunted of to be by itself, reasons for which no one seems to be able to explain except that it is Russian process several stern looking immigration people come on board. The attendants distribute customs forms. Immigration has always been a routine exercise from my perspective in all my travels. But on this I was a little anxious primarily because of the lack of information, e.g. Some say no carrying Rubles out of the country, another says no more than 3K and so on. Immigration officer 1 stops by, checks our passport about 4.45pm and initials the departure card that we filled when we entered the country. After another 10 minutes a lady Immigration officer 2 with a guard appear and wants our passports which we give her. She reviews and hands it to the guard who puts it in his attaché and marches on. Once all the passports have been collected they leave our train and head to their office which we can see from our windows. About 6 pm, we see that the chimney from the immigration office has smoke spewing out and our Polish neighbor thinks they may be burning our passports….nice thoughts bubba! Few minutes later the customs people come on board, stopping at each coupe and reviewing the forms, stamping them and filing it away. When he gets to ours, he reviews the form, gives us a sneer, does not stamp it but still pockets it in his attaché…some how he is not convinced that we have nothing to declare. A couple of minutes later a skinny Russian soldier and a smelly dog are sent to our coupe to check, as expected the dog did not smell any contraband except to stink up our coupe. Immigration officer 2 comes by and starts to return passports followed by her burly guard who looks in all the coupe’s and bangs for hollow spaces on the coach to ensure nothing is hidden I assume. Phew! That was one of the most inefficient and stressful border crossings in my life I tell myself as we leave the station towards Mongolia about 6.30pm local, 5 hours to process about 50 people, ridiculous. A 5-10 minute ride gets us in to what I think is a no-man land between the borders, followed by a 2 min stop at a Welcome to Mongolia station, where friendly Mongolian guards smile and wave at us…what a novel concept. We arrive at Sukhbataar at about 7pm local and this is where the Mongols will process us in. A friendly immigration officer with a smile comes on board and starts reviewing & collecting passports, followed by the customs officer who stamps our forms and returns them. Our Spanish neighbor has a problem with her passport, apparently the back of the passport has come out and the Mongols are not going to let her in. Some back and forth and they decide it was ok, strange considering that she did not have issues with Russians 30 minutes ago. In any case, by 8pm all our passports are processed and returned. The Mongolian hitch hikers are gone, peace has descended upon us. About 9pm we start out for the final 300KM to UB scheduled to arrive at 6am tomorrow morning.

Wednesday 9/1: Ulaanbatar (click for pictures) Bright and early we are ready to conquer UB. Our train rambles in on schedule and our guide is at the station to meet us. 1st stop is the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park about 60 minutes north east of UB. Our guide is another university student and the guide is a former wrestler who now is a star driver in the Gobi desert. Breakfast in the Ger camp followed by some archery, I must admit I did well to have my arrows get close to the target. We then head to a family living in a Ger, who welcomes us with their cookies, yogurt, butter and dried curd. I imagine the palate for these foods has to be natural for neither Saritha nor I liked it very much. After thanking our hosts we get on to horses to head to a meditation monastery about 2-3 miles away. Amateur riders with little meat on their rears should not be riding horses for more than 5 minutes, never mind the 75 odd minutes it took us. I am sure tomorrow will be a sore butt day. Accompanying us was a precocious tribal kid who had the most pleasing smile and kept humming away and entertained Saritha along the way. I can not finish this piece without mentioning that our Mongolian horses (shorter and set for marathons vs. sprints) were stinky and between them and the cattle here, are most definitely the biggest causes of methane/global warming. The monastery was very calming and we got a taste of Buddhist rituals here. After lunch we visit the Chinngis Khan’s statue. This 250 ton iron giant is 40 meters high and is presumed to be the largest statue in the world of a man riding a horse. The Khan looks majestic and I am pleased again to see that he is slowly being given the right recognition. Our drive back in to UB is uneventful by local standards but I am stressed as the drivers dart in out of incoming traffic as a already narrow 2 lane road has become a 4 lane track. The traffic in UB is very bad as there are more cars than the roads are built to handle and exasperated by the rude Asian driver. We arrive at the Gandan Monastery about 3pm. This is the seat of the head of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia, the Bogd Khan. However the Bogd lives in Tibet now as the Chinese recognize him. That said the monastery does display the picture of both the Dalai Lama and Bogd giving me the impression that the Chinese cannot wedge a difference between the Buddhists. The monastery has a huge standing Buddha, some 100 meters I am told and is busy with believers rotating the prayer wheels. When I changed money to Rubles in Russia, I felt rich, now in Mongolia I feel like a prince ($1 = 1300 tögrög). We check in to our hotel and prepare for a concert by the Mongolian cultural society. This 1 hour program again pleasantly surprises me with Mongolian music and dance. They have something called throat singing and it is incredible and I have attached a video. Dinner is at bd’s a popular tourist Mongolian grill and it is along the lines of what we get in the US, nothing exotic I am afraid. A quick stop at Sukhbataar square, the central square of UB before nights out as we have an early train to catch tomorrow to Beijing.

Thursday 9/2: Trans Mongolian Day 1 (click for pictures) We catch an 7.15am train direct to Beijing. The 1st class accommodation on this train is exactly what we had paid for and seen on pictures in our research including semi-private restroom to be shared with 1 neighbor.…very nice. By about 10.30ish we are beginning to flirt with the great Gobi desert, it is nothing I expected but by the afternoon it is certainly looking like I had seen pictures of it. I see wild horses and bacterian camels in the distance and chat with our Australian neighbors. The restaurant cart is very nice and it appears everybody thinks so and the lines are long. Our reservation is not until 3pm and so it is more desert reflection for me and Saritha snoozes trying to recover from a nasty cold I seem to have given her. About 7pm in the evening we arrive at Zamin-Uud, the border town of Mongolia for our processing out of the country. Our restrooms are locked about 6.30pm and this is important since they don’t open it until 1am, more about this below. Again very efficient, immigration officers enter, review and take our passports away for processing and stamping. However we are jailed on the train till they are done. 90 minutes hence we are chugging out towards China. We arrive in Erlian, China at 9pm. The station is lined with guards, police and other officials while belting some sort of communist music, the kind that requires you to march, quite unnerving. Once the train stops, the officials are quickly on board to check passports, customs looks at luggage and then we are in lock down for a few minutes. The Russian and Mongolian rails are 4.11ft wide while in China they are 4.8ft wide. So the train then starts heading to where they will replace the carriage wheels to the lower guage. Each of the carriages are separated and lifted up pneumatically, the old wheels are rolled out and swapped by new ones as this video nicely shows. It appears very systematic the way they go about doing this and takes about 90 minutes to complete. While we are all watching this excitedly, the air is cut as there is no power to the carriages, toilets are closed and generally it is not very human…we joked about this being Chinese torture. As the carriages are lifted down with the new wheels, the immigration officers come on board and return the passports. About 12am, 3 hours since we first arrived to Erlian, the train pulls up at the platform with new wheels for a nearly 60 minute stop. Many of us drop to the platform to stretch and potentially find toilets considering we did not have the facilities for over 6 hours. While I was impressed with the immigration and wheel change processes, what I do not understand is how do they get away by not allowing passengers access to facilities for over 6 hours. What would happen if people had situations that did not allow for this….totally unacceptable and ridiculous. Then again we all know China’s human rights record, so not much to whine about it here about lack of facilities. Another exciting day over, it is time to rest up for tomorrow.

Friday 9/3: Trans Mongolian Day 2 & Beijing (click for pictures) The train seems to be running late this morning by about 30minutes. The Chinese country side seems to be very organized and clean. People are out and about doing their thing, however it appears a lot of people seem to use the country side for toilets as well. The farms and orchards looked very nourishing, but the overall haze over the country side and eventually Beijing seemed to indicate a lot of pollution. I also saw many giant chimney’s that were certainly adding to global warming. At Datong, I got on to the platform and wandered around a bit and got my first taste of Chinese chaos….people everywhere, jostling and shoving. Back on the train I kept an eagle eye for the great wall as I had read that about the 90mile mark to Beijing we get our first view. As I waited, my neighbor explained that there are 2 ways to get to Beijing, one with the view and one without. We were on the one without….I want my money back! As we rumbled in to Beijing I was surprise by the size of things, the roads, building, railway station etc, they all seem to even dwarf things in the US. Beijing west railway station is new and huge which looked more like an airport than railway station as we buzzed by. We arrive in to Beijing 1 hour late and are met by our guide and driver who then whisk us to the Heavenly Temple. The weather is warm but comfortable, a perpetual haze is on, but we are told it is not pollution. I beg to differ. Beijing city is based on symmetry with the 5 elements of nature and Ying & Yang, so it is built on a north-south axis with symmetry on both sides. The temple is my first experience of Chinese royal culture and realize the more I see the more similar they get. The temple complex is quite large and despite the large Chinese population working its way through here, it is clean. After we check in to our hotel in the Dongcheng district, 3 blocks from Tia An Men square, we go around to explore the street food, souvenirs, etc. We feel strangely comfortable here despite the language barrier and largely non diverse population set up. After wandering for over 90 minutes in search of decent dim sum we end up in one of the mall basements. The dim sum and dumplings in this Chamate bistro is good as is the really cold beer. China I must admit in its limited dose has been overwhelming and we need to rest for the night. Here is a country that seems to be getting ready to rule the world, but I may have some doubts. More tomorrow!

Saturday 9/4: Great Wall (click for pictures) Today is the big day, we are going to see the Great Wall of China or as the locals call it Wanli Changcheng. Our wall is at Badaling, about 30miles north of Beijing and even though it is Saturday, the traffic is quite heavy. Chinese highways rival those here in the US and may even be better, however the locals have yet to learn how to drive, e.g. 2 cars stop on the right fast lane to exchange drinking water and the traffic goes around them. Even our driver is amused by it. We decide to push out the great wall to after lunch to avoid the other tourists and take in the Ming Tombs. The tomb complex is huge, some 800 acres I am told with 13 generations of the Ming dynasty buried here. This is sounding eerily similar to the valley of kings in Egypt where the pharaohs are buried, away from the acropolis or the city of the living. The views are stunning but again like yesterday the haze dampens the site a little. Next we head to a jade carving place where they show us the whole life cycle of design, carving, polishing and then yes sales! Jade is expensive and while they show us different qualities, I still think they are all expensive. We head out to lunch which is in a complex that requires us to first see how they make copper based vases and paintings. This is called Cloisonné and is very intricate and intense handmade art. Again expensive and I am beginning to wonder where all that inexpensive Chinese stuff is. Lunch tastes like fare from my local Chinese take away, not impressed. Our guide though gets local food and explains that what we got was “special” for the western tourists. Oh well, lets go look at the Changcheng shall we. The great wall turns out to be very impressive and meets our expectations. It is also very quiet, almost like they cleared out everybody just for Saritha and I. We spend an hour on the wall, climbing a portion of this wall at Badaling. While its is built over the northern mountains as a barrier to the Mongols, what it really is, is a super highway to transport people and supplies during wars and peace. It is along the silk route, though traders where not allowed to use it. In fact a parallel wall was constructed to provide security to the silk route traders. Interestingly the wall dates to BC times and subsequent dynasties including the Mongols who ruled China as the Yuan dynasty added to it. Collaboration of the ancient and medieval times is reflected in this great construction. The Chinese have done an excellent job preserving, at least the part of the wall I see. Apparently there are other pieces of crumbling walls as I was exploring the prospect of walking the 1.8K miles, but it is blocked to hikers. Also there are sections of the wall that are lost, buried etc as well. What a creation, amazing. We drive back in to the city but before we end for the day our guide insists that she take us to a silk place where again they walk us through the life cycle of the silk worm to the finished product and then hard sell us in to buying quilts, covers and more. We skillfully deflect only to end up in a tea place to taste teas and buy some authentic Chinese tea’s. Tourism over the last decade has very clearly evolved in to less sight seeing and more shopping. I know some of my friends are very happy with this trend but personally it is an annoyance. The lady at the silk place guaranteed that the quilt will last for many 100 years…but I wont, so why buy? Tonight being the last day of our holiday requires us to finish with a bang. So we go try the food market on Wangfujing street that has over 100 vendors and is very tasty. Then polish of a meal of Sichuan cuisine but it is not as spicy as I was led to believe. Previous experiences required frozen toilet paper and a 911 call, but this was very mild. Apparently Beijing does not like spicy! Then we hang out on the WangFuJing pedestrian street watching people and drinking beer and tea. Very peaceful. Beijing seems like it is preparing to take over the world and appears to be showing that there is a dull and dreary communism like Russia and a dynamic one like here in China. I had a list of reasons why China would not succeed long term, but seeing what I am seeing and experiencing what I have, I have to grudgingly admit that China is all set to rule economically and eventually politically, no denying that. Question is how do we in the US adapt and learn from China so we don’t lose out on many of our leadership positions.

Sunday 9/5 Forbidden City (click for pictures) Last day of our adventure is a trip to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We enter the Forbidden city from the north entrance which at this 9am hour is considered less crowded. The weather is still hazy but significantly warm today at about 90 and so we brace for the next couple of hours. The Forbidden City envelopes the imperial palace. The 1st section in the imperial palace is the living area of the emperor and empress of the Ming dynasty that built this in the 15th century. It is peppered with stone decorations and Cyprus trees. We follow this in to the concubine complex. Chinese concubines unlike other cultures where actually wives of the emperor and some could actually become empress as history has shown. We then wander the maze of courtyards and corridors to the palace of mental cultivation that the emperor used to work. More walk to the main building that is the throne room. This huge courtyard has more people than I have seen in a long long time. Now I believe China is the most populous country for sure. More pictures and we begin to exit the imperial city in to the forbidden city which is almost 1km long north to south. We exit out to the famous Tiananmen square. The south wall of the Forbidden city has the much recognized portrait of Mao Zedong. The square is probably the largest I have seen that includes a memorial to martyrs and the tomb of Mao. It apparently is closed in the evenings and other times when the local population has the propensity to congregate. On the west is the Great Hall of the People which is similar to our capital hill where representatives come together to debate and make laws. Only difference, the Chinese move things forward while we are gridlocked in to inaction. Before lunch considering our incessant sniffling and coughing, our guide suggests we should explore Chinese medicine and so takes us to a local clinic. There we meet a local doctor whose diagnosis is based on a 3 finger read of the pulse, look at the tongue and the face. Once done, he prescribes medicine and sits in front of us with a receipt pad to take orders for the medicines. We don’t buy in to this but it was an interesting experience and may have potential given it has lasted for centuries and is focused on prevention than cure. Lunch is at a local restaurant called the Beijing house of noodles or some version of that. It is local as we are the only foreigners and there is chaos and lot of yelling/screaming going on. Food that is ordered is nothing like I have seen or tasted. In fact there was a yellow napkin type item that Saritha thought was a napkin and was about to blow her nose in it but was saved at the last minute by our guide. This was actually a wrap that we ought to be filling in with meat. Well we could not stop laughing at our ignorance. Last item on our list is a trip through the Hutong neighborhood, which is amongst the oldest of Beijing by rickshaw. We stop at a local household who are gracious to allow us in to their home and chat with us, very fascinating. We drive to the airport about 15 miles out. I am floored by the airport, it is gargantuan, clean and very modern. Yes it was built for the Olympics and certainly gives the appearance of splendor. All of a sudden I don’t feel so good about our very own Dulles International. Our plane is on schedule and is a direct Beijing – Dulles International, 13 hour flight that goes real fast.

As I land and the immigration officer stamps our passport and says welcome home, I reflect very briefly on this adventure, that we completed safely, had a good time, feel more educated and certainly had the time of our lives. Try it out.