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Start as you mean to go on

We were standing around drinking near the toilets at the Erlian border station shortly after midnight when Wayne asked what everyone was doing at this time last year. It seemed like a simple question but it took me ages to remember because it felt like so much longer ago and further away.

Last New Year, I went for a curry with Kate and Steve, then we hung out with Fred the greyhound watching the hootenanny and jeering every time anyone but Paolo Nutini came on to play. New Years Day I went home in the morning by way of a coffee at Casa Amiga, then I took my quiet hangover to see The Imitation Game (because Finn Polmar) and went home to bed. This year was so incredibly different it may as well have taken place in another universe.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

The plan ended up being that I would be on the train on New Years Eve. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I booked this before most of my Russian trains because I needed to show my entry to China for the visa, and this was pretty much the only real thing I included on that visa application.

In any case, my plan was to make the best of it, Scotland style, and force a party on whomever may find themselves in my compartment. And when I met Felix and he ended up booking a ticket to join the train from Sainshand (halfway from UB to the border), I was OVERJOYED because I was finally sure I’d have at least one person to celebrate with. Lucky me, I ended up with him plus three more.

The train left UB at 7.15, so after meeting my compartment-mates Galaa (from UB and visiting home, now returning to Beijing to study) and Emma (from the UK, a lawyer who retired early, currently seeing the world), we all promptly went to sleep for a few hours.

I woke up before everyone else because I never sleep and stared out at the vast passing Mongolian landscape for a bit. Emma and Galaa slowly emerged from sleep and I told them to expect Felix at the next stop. Emma mentioned that Wayne, a guy from England she’d met while in UB, was also on the train in another compartment and would probably also join the party later. We stopped in Sainshand and gained our German just about 3pm and the epic, 12-hour, New Year train party began.

We started drinking the beer we’d acquired almost immediately while Felix shared Dinner for One with us. It’s this English short play that was originally aired in the 60s and has somehow become a German New Year tradition to watch. It’s actually hilarious. Apparently the thing to do is drink every time the butler trips over the tiger’s head. So of course we did. And now I have a NEW New Year tradition to add to my repertoire.

We ran out of beer quite quickly (completely underestimated ourselves) so Felix and Emma gathered up the rest of everyone’s Mongolian cash and trekked off the the restaurant car, making it just 5 minutes before they closed it and bought all the beer they could afford. This added to our stash of fizz for midnight and a whole bottle of Mongolian vodka did us well for the remaining hours of 2015 and the first few of 2016.

Chinese tracks are a different gauge from Mongolian, so when you go through the border, not only do you need to clear customs and immigration, you need to wait while the wheels on every carriage of your train get switched. According to the interweb, sometimes they let you off while this happens, sometimes they don’t. It seems to depend on the whims of the conductors. We were hoping they’d let us off so we could have a party somewhere the toilets were not locked, but once we got to the Chinese side and they gave us our passports back, Galaa, who had done the route a few times by now, said that things did not look good for us getting off before they changed the wheels.

So Felix and I sat in the corridor of the carriage with our vodka putting the world to rights to pass the time while we all got shunted back and forth and up and down during the wheel changing. And after about an hour or so of this, we got a small window where they were letting people off the train for the remainder of the border station stop. We threw on our shoes, gathered up the booze, and ran out to the station building where there were mercifully open toilets and even a wee shop upstairs.

This was about 30 minutes before the end of the year, so we readied our fizz and I queued up ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on my phone and the corks popped at midnight on some rubbish, too-sweet fizz when I made my favourite New Year toast (‘Start as you mean to go on’, of course) and there were hugs all around. We rescued Wayne from the train about 15 minutes later so he could rejoin the party, and we goofed off outside for another half an hour before taking the party back on board, watching Dinner for One again, and yammering into the wee hours.

The next morning, we all emerged an hour or two before pulling into Beijing and said our goodbyes. I was fairly certain I’d see Emma, Galaa, and Wayne again though. And Felix was now stuck with me for at least a few days at his own suggestion. So we went off to secure our tickets to Harbin, and ended up eating at McDonald’s in the train station (I know. I KNOW. Not my choice!) because entering China was far too much for our brains to handle unfamiliar food with a hangover, both from the festivities and the being so used to things written in Cyrillic.

We then spent another 8 hours on a bullet train north, by the end of which I think we knew each other better than I know most people after months, or even years. And it’s a good thing we found how incredibly well we got on, because our arrival in Harbin was, I would say, less than smooth.

I am used to organising everything for myself (and everyone else), so when a few days earlier this man I had only met once said, ‘Hey I’ve booked us two beds in a hostel in Harbin, it’s all sorted’ I was like, hey, someone else is doing some sorting out of things FOR me for once! Enjoy the luxury, Kate! And I just trusted that is was all dandy.

Then we got in a taxi and he didn’t have the address in Chinese. After a very confusing (and probably maddening for the driver) 10 minutes, we finally got the driver to call the phone number we had and listed to what seemed like one side of an overlong conversation for the purposes of finding out an address. But then he drove on. And we got to the place (its around 11pm at this point) to find out they’d given up our beds.

This is where the benefits of having a travel buddy became truly apparent, because one of us got to freak out and one of us got to remain calm, and things are just a bit more balanced when those two things don’t have to happen in the same person. I was actually the calm one this time around, but we tended to swap off in that respect over the following two weeks.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

With the help of three girls staying int he hostel who had a bit of English, the receptionist managed to communicate to us they’d found us another place to stay. We just went with it because at that point we had little choice. There are a bunch of hotels and hostel in China that only take guests who are Chinese citizens, and I believe the place we ended up was one of those places. It was… mildly terrifying. I’m sure I was the only woman on the premises. They put us in a room all the way at the back. It dingy and cold and not very comfortable and everything smelled of smoke. There was one very dirty squat toilet for the whole place, and no shower (and ALLLLLL we wanted after being on trains for 48 hours was a friggin’ shower). But the people who worked there were really just trying to be helpful in a bizarre situation for everyone, and there wasn’t much else we could do but go to sleep and solve it in the morning.

When I woke up, I WiFi’d up and found that there was an Ibis hotel in the city centre that was not exorbitantly priced and insisted we would be staying there for the remainder of at least MY time in Harbin. This was not met with much protest, particularly after throwing my ‘you best believe I am in charge of this decision’ look. So within the hour, we were in a room with a western toilet and a proper hot shower and it was probably the most relieved I’ll ever be to be in a soulless budget European hotel chain in my life.

From then on, things got much better. We had some absolutely incredible food. We hung out with an American couple we met randomly in the street. They were teaching English in China and were on a weekend trip to the city. (And were also Lindy Hoppers!) We walked on the frozen river and took a ride in some tubes pulled by a snowmobile. I discovered a love for hawthorn berries dipped in sugar. We wandered through the magical ice festival in awe despite our fingers and toes being completely numb just about the whole time. And somehow, rather than getting entirely sick of one another, we decided to stick together for the next 10 days until Felix headed back to Germany from Shanghai.

But only after agreeing I would be in charge of hostel booking duties from now on. Of course.

Harbin was probably the most expensive leg of this trip, what with the hotel and the ice festival tickets and the last minute train bookings. I never would have gone if it weren’t for this dude I jumped in a freezing cold lake with convincing me to freeze a little bit more to see some lights in some ice. And despite the massive added expense and the numbing cold and the slightly shady first night of the year, I’m so happy I agreed to give it a go. Because I mean, just look at the pictures!

And, as I wrote in my notebook while this was all happening, what a fucking way to start a year.

Russian trains

Russian trains! One of the main points of this trip, and all in all, pretty nice. Clean, safe, on time, largely comfortable, affordable. What more could you really ask? Most of my trips were just overnight with a few hours on either end, but I had one 48 hour stretch booked as well as one 8-hour daytime trip. For the former, which was my trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, I booked one of the nicest fast trains, the #2 Rossiya that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. And for the latter, Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude – during the day in order to see Lake Baikal in all its glory – I booked my only 3rd class leg since I wouldn’t be doing any overnight sleeping. It turns out 3rd class on that train was even more comfortable than 2nd on the Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar train, so the whole dormitory on wheels thing wasn’t really a problem.

I was actually looking forward to all the various trip lengths and classes for different reasons. But much as I was longing for the experience of 3 days, 2 nights on a single train (mostly in order to read and think forever without option), I have to say now I’ve done it, I can check that off the life list and not do it again.

Sleeping on a train, in itself, is actually pretty nice. You get rocked to sleep and the noises aren’t all that bothersome. It’s the temperature they keep the cars that kept me up. It’s ridiculous but I kept thinking of how impossible I found it to sleep in Africa because of the temperature. In Russia it’s somewhere around -20 to -30 outside but on most of the trains I was on, especially overnight, it can get up to 29C! Way. Too. Hot. The train I took for the Russia/Mongolia border crossing was actually freezing, but it was a super old school train and it seems I’d been spoiled up to that point. No matter though. That was also the first one I met any other English speaking foreign tourists on – LOADS of them – so it was good fun.

So. The heat was the main discomfort issue. But it doesn’t actually matter if you don’t sleep much because you’re also not moving around or using much energy. I didn’t even go to the restaurant car on the 48 hour trip, so I walked only back and forth between the toilets and the samovar at opposite ends of the carriage.

And tea. My god. You think the British like tea. I drank enough tea in 48 hours to keep the British Empire running from roughly 1908 to 1911. I guess this is because Russians love tea and there’s no fresh cold drinking water on the train, so, ENDLESS TEA. I actually had to stay off the tea (and any liquid at all) on the border crossing train because they lock the toilets until all the checks are done and that may well be the most terrifying part of this entire trip for me. No joke. (I survived.)

While drinking all that tea, staring out the window at the opposing temperatures of the beautiful Siberian winter confirmed to me that coming at this time of year was the best decision. I know even the Russians think I’m batty for wanting to be here now instead of summer. I’m sure it’s beautiful in summer, but I also think it probably looks a lot like the Scottish highlands. This kind of winter, however, we definitely don’t get. So why not see something different?

Anyway, as mentioned, One of the main things I was looking forward to was allllll the reading time. And that has been great. I devoured Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (of Born to Run fame), which was pretty much the PERFECT book for this trip. It had adventure and travel and science and all sorts! I loved it, and it has also given me plenty of ideas on how to take better care of myself. And trust my feet more. (Or rather, my balance.)

I also read Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (recommended by Drama Professor Extraordinaire, Jason) which was a great thing for when I couldn’t actually speak to people, because David Greene had the advantage of an interpreter where I did not. So at least I could read people’s stories if I couldn’t get some firsthand. That book also firmed up a lot of the separation I feel from America now though. Particularly when Greene is talking about the connection he feels with a particular Russian couple that has a similar lifestyle to his and his wife’s, the only difference being he and his wife don’t live in a society they see as ‘ill’.

And this is where my ‘REALLY, WHAT?’ flags went up. All through this book, he’s highlighting the problems in Russian society and government, and none of them are minor things. However, there’s an air here and in many other things I’ve read and heard that America (and other Western countries for that matter) is so healthy that they simply don’t have an equivalent problem set. And on that I call complete and utter bullshit. America may not have the SAME problems as Russia, but it has some pretty freakin’ big ones it can’t seem to solve for the life of itself (*ahem* gun control, healthcare, women’s health, ETC), and this is again what makes me feel we’re all more alike than we want to admit.

The other thing that struck me was the bit on Putin’s New York Times op-ed response to Obama’s comments that the US helping by taking military action in Syria is one of the things that makes the US different and exceptional. Putin said, well actually, it’s kind of dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional. And Putin is not a man I’d agree with on most things, but when it comes to countries’ own views of themselves, I think he’s right. Seeing yourself as a great country is all right. Seeing yourself as The Greatest country is not. (And on this, David Greene seems to be thinking in my direction.)

I don’t have a whole lot of personal commentary on Putin. Some of the Russians I met dislike him. Some of them felt he pulled the country out of a few dark holes despite not necessarily agreeing with everything he does. He’s a politician, and politicians aren’t perfect. But even the ones you disagree with are capable of sense. In any case, things could always be better no matter where you live. Just because American problems don’t match Russian ones doesn’t mean the US is somehow better or more extraordinary. And Russia is not the horrendous, scary place that some people would like to think. People are lovely here! Things work! Bears are not roaming the streets! It’s just not the same as the Established Western Democracy you’re used to.

ANYWAY. I unfortunately did not get to discuss most of this with any Russians on any trains, because of what I think the hardest part of being on the trains for so long was – the language barrier. I didn’t run into other English-speaking traveling adventurer types on the  trains until my train that took me out of Russia. Most people I encountered didn’t speak much or any English. This is obviously totally fine and I don’t expect anyone to be speaking my language, but it does cut any conversational potential quite short.

It’s very nice to try to find out who people are and where they’re traveling to, but it’s pretty hard to go much further than that. And that’s what got to me in the end. I’m cool with being quiet when I’m by myself for long periods of time, but to be among people who are having great conversations and unable to join in just feels extra isolating. I was so happy to meet people in the hostels in Irkutsk and in Listvyanka that spoke English I probably talked way more than I normally do. Hopefully I didn’t drive them totally nuts. On balance though, I’m glad I didn’t have a trip full of only English-speaking travelers, because that would be fairly bland in terms of a foreign experience.

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

22 Hours of Ups and Downs in Yekaterinburg

After a full day of reading and drinking tea and looking out the windows of a train with only one other person in my compartment who spoke no English and kept the TV on all day despite only watching it about 15% of the time, I pulled in to Yekaterinburg for a whirlwind stopover before my 3-day-2-night train to Irkutsk.

Ksenia was my host for the night. I’d met her for about 5 minutes in Edinburgh when she was Couchsurfing with a friend of a friend who was helping deliver a couch to Eva’s new flat. She found out I was going to be in Yekaterinburg and insisted I stay with her, so I found her on Couchsurfing a few weeks later and locked it in. She’s only been speaking English for 2 months, so there was a language barrier, but we got by just fine on enthusiasm alone.

She and some of her friends met me at the train and took me to dinner, where I had borscht and pelmeni, traditional Russian stuff, and delicious! She and I then went to this Mexican themed bar called Agave to have a beer. The place was enormous but mostly empty. About 5 dudes sitting at the bar, one or two people at tables, and us.

Ksenia knew one of the comedian guys working there, Alex, who came over to say hello. Alex was very clean cut and was wearing a wooden bowtie. His sidekick, whose name I didn’t catch, was a bit scruffier and was wearing a green baseball hat with red antlers that said ‘Oh Deer’ or something like that. He sort of reminded me of Frank from 30 Rock.

When Alex discovered I was from Scotland, he later worked it into their act, quizzing the whole bar (well, all 10 or so of them) on all the Scottish things he could think of. The colour of the flag, whisky, kilts, the usual. And between comedy sets, the dynamic duo were replaced by a pair of scantily-clad men dancing on the bar to bad techno, trading off with a pair of scantily-clad women doing the same. I guess this would have been slightly less bizarre had there been some actual people in the bar, but the staff and the performers outnumbered the customers by at least double.

Blue for Scotland

Blue for Scotland

During this dancing one of the bartenders who had been reeling off names of single malts during the quiz with nods of encouragement from me sent me a bright blue cocktail as a gift. It was sweet and had a massive orange garnish. Not my usual thing but since he went to the pains of matching it to the Scottish flag, I gracefully accepted.

After the bar I was up til 2am sorting things on the WiFi, as ever. Then up early when I got ANOTHER amazing breakfast, this time pancakes filled with lots of lovely things. Went to drop my bag off with Ksenia at her work so I could walk around for a few hours unencumbered before my train. It was clear and sunny but absolutely freezing with lots of snow and ice on the ground. It’s the first day I’ve really felt very, very cold. It’s a wonder I never slipped badly enough to fall on my face too. I’m sure it’s going to happen at least once before I’m out of snow zone. I just hope it’s not when I’m wearing a full backpack.

I was roughly following the red line walking tour, which is literally a red line they’ve painted on the ground in a circular route around the city centre, going past all the main things you’d want to see. This is an incredible idea, and I was actually pretty surprised it wasn’t completely obscured by the snow and ice packed onto most of the ground. It’s so nice to have something to orient you without having to look at a map constantly. And I managed to see most of the major sights this way.

I kept having to duck into shopping centres and cafes to warm up, and I happened to stumble on this wee coffee shop called Papa Carlo. I walked in and asked if they spoke English, and one of the girls sitting at the counter said yes, we do! She was an English teacher, also called Kate, and she taught classes at the shop, including to the people who worked there. Timor was sitting with her and I asked him if they did stuff like Aeropress and Chemex and he was like, you’re our perfect customer!

I told him about my friends Steve and Kate’s shop, Machina Espresso, back in Edinburgh, and we chatted about coffee and stuff for a while. He made me a Moscow-roasted coffee two different ways as part of his preparation for a barista competition, and wondered how I’d found them (sheer luck) because not many people in town ‘get’ what they do yet. I was there for an hour or so and they refused to let me pay. Instead they made me promise to take pictures in Machina with their cards. Hopefully I can send them some stuff from Edinburgh because all my little Scottish gifts were in my big bag. And I’ve been telling everyone I meet headed west to check them out when in Yekaterinburg.

Hooray for lovely people and lovely coffee!

Hooray for lovely people and lovely coffee!

It was such a fantastic thing to happen, and I’m glad it did because without it the day would’ve been far less balanced. I walked around a little bit more and did some grocery shopping for the long train trip ahead before going to collect my bag and getting the metro to the train station. Then stress time started.

Just as I walked up to the station, everyone started coming the opposite direction and the police were clearing everyone away from the station and the entrance. I had no idea what they were saying and I was early enough not to panic yet, so I just kind of followed the crowd, randomly asking people if they spoke any English (no one did). Everyone was going to the outdoor entrance to the tracks and just crossing over the tracks to the platforms that way, but I had no idea where I was supposed to be and still no clue what was happening. And it was COLD. And my bag isn’t super heavy, but it’s not nice to wear for an hour in the cold, which is what I ended up doing.

I kept asking people if they could explain to me, but while everyone was very nice, most people didn’t have enough English to really help. One woman finally said ‘bomb’. So I assume there was a bomb threat or a suspicious package. I still don’t really KNOW. And it was getting closer to my train time, so I was getting more worried about what the hell to do, and colder. But I just kept having to tell myself to calm down and just take the next logical step.

I fished out my online ticket confirmation and found a group of police officers. None of them spoke English either, but I showed them the paper indicating I needed to know where to go. One of the women motioned for me to follow her and we walked towards the station and back while she spoke to someone on the phone. By the time she’d worked it out, they opened the station back up so I was able to go look at the board 10 minutes before my train arrived.

This all made me incredibly happy I didn’t store my bag at the station during the day because I may not have been able to get it back in time to board. And it was also a good move to get groceries earlier in the day or I’d have ended up on a 48 hour train ride with no food. All in all, it wasn’t a disaster of an experience but the language barrier and the cold can really make a confusing situation so much more intimidating and tiring.

I collapsed in a bit of a discombobulated heap when I made it into the train. This was also the only train when I’d requested a female only compartment, which was really nice after having shared with a lot of old dudes who didn’t seem to want to communicate in any way. And there was a girl in my compartment who spoke a little bit of English which was a fantastic relief after the kerfuffle in the station.

I do wish I’d had more time in Yekaterinburg because I got the impression it was a pretty awesome city, but I was incredibly happy to get on that train. However, I was probably just as happy to get off of it 48 hours later. More on which next time.

The train at last.

The train at last.

No fixed… anything

I’m nearly at the end of my first full week of traveling, and it’s been pretty full of… traveling. The obvious never fails to astonish me.

It was always going to be about the moving around parts as much as the seeing places parts, but this first week was mostly a means of getting to Russia without flying. I’m really happy I didn’t opt for solid travel straight through, but even with the break days, it’s been a somewhat unexpected challenge adapting to a constantly changing schedule and environment.

I’m currently on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku (where I’ll catch a train to Helsinki and get in late tonight). I’d booked a space in a shared 4-berth inner cabin – the cheapest you can get – and I imagine it’s because of the time of year or something, but: AIN’T NOBODY HERE BUT ME.

When I boarded and no one else showed up in the cabin, I went to the info desk to check if I had it to myself and nearly did a (tired) little dance when they confirmed I’d have sweet, sweet personal space at my disposal for the next 12 hours. It’s a small space for 4 people to share, but not as small as a train cabin, and quite big for one person. And what it lacks in windows, it makes up for in a surprisingly good shower and a TV that I’ve tuned to the mast camera channel so I can see when it’s worth going to look out a window (and listen to the cheesy music they’ve got playing over the view).

I got zero sleep last night in the hostel in Stockholm – which was actually a great hostel, I’m just horrible at sleep, more on which later. But I’ve already taken the cabin-to-myself opportunity to have a nap, and I may even have another later. Luxury! I’ve also had a long hot shower and a reorganisation of my packing.

I’ve brought a bunch of food with me, which is good because everything is stupid expensive. I had a very tiny coffee in the cafeteria when I boarded and I may treat myself to a beer in a bit, but I’m trying pretty hard to keep the food spending down. This is one of the things that comes to the fore when constantly traveling on a a groceries-not-restaurants budget and not a lot of space. I am ALWAYS thinking about food.

I mean, ok, that’s not actually much different from the normal state of Kate affairs, but now I’m just thinking about what I can buy that’s cheap and portable and perhaps most importantly, healthy. It’s pretty easy to eat a lot of crap, and I know myself enough to know that if I eat that kind of crap for even a few days I’ll feel horrendous.

I’ve done pretty well so far, but doing pretty well has nonetheless consisted of a lot of cheese and rye sandwiches. And fruit. And chocolate. My stomach is going, ‘WHERE IS ALL THAT HEALTHY SHIT YOU USUALLY GIVE ME?’ I’ve put in as many vegetables as possible, but they’re not always as easily portable. I was feeling a bit greens-starved yesterday so when I found someone had left a whole bag of kale in the free/leftover food fridge in the hostel kitchen, I flash-fried it all in garlic and butter for dinner. A dude from California who insisted I have one of his beers (nice!) gave me some stick for this, but I’m ok being the kind of food nerd who gets excited about someone’s leftover kale.

On the sleep front, I’ve found the hostel thing pretty tiring in general. I’m really looking forward to the couchsurfing parts of my trip because of that. I even think I might find it easier to sleep on the trains than in hostels. We’ll see. I’m so rubbish at getting to sleep in unfamiliar places in general, and it’s nice that I never really have anything like work to worry about the next day, but being tired when you can’t go home and take a nap really does bring a day down, no matter where you are. And if I’m tired enough, I actually just start feeling sick. Hopefully by the end of this trip I’ll have trained myself to be able to sleep absolutely anywhere at the drop of a hat, but right now I’m still the same as ever.

All of this falls under the self-care umbrella, and one of my main goals for this whole trip is to be better at that in general. If I can achieve it while moving around strange places, surely I’ll be able to keep it up in a home setting. But one of the biggest lessons I’m constantly learning is that I really don’t HAVE to do anything. I can do or not do whatever I want and whatever makes me feel ok. And I realise that sounds stupidly obvious, but when you’re going to all these cool places, even ones you’ve already been to before, I find there’s this weird pressure to Go See And Do All The Things You Can. And that is mostly self-pressure, but it’s there, and it takes a while to be like, actually, while I love the hell out of Stockholm and I’m excited to be back, all I feel like doing is finding a suitable pastry provider, wandering around for a few hours fairly aimlessly, then sitting in the hostel in my pajamas, drinking a few local craft beers, reading, and doing some life admin. This may be a holiday, but it’s a long one, and holiday mode now just means taking care of myself in whatever way I decide to that day.

So the break days between full-on transportation days were a totally good call. I’ve already had my share of delays and rushing around. I love sitting on the trains (for the most part) but the business of getting yourself on and off them and between transport and accommodation is pretty draining. I had a 2.5 hour layover in Brussels on Sunday and I didn’t get my act together enough to go find a place to have a nice Belgian beer. And I was slightly hungover from all the prosecco I drank the night before at Seema’s anyway, so I gave the booze a miss completely and bought some fancy chocolate instead. And it was good I treated myself when I had the chance because my third train of the day had been cancelled so I ended up on a not-as-nice train that was like sitting in a strip-lit office for 4.5 hours (WHY DO THEY MAKE IT SO BRIGHT). I distracted myself by watching Dear Mr Watterson on my computer, but I was ready to be off of trains altogether.

Monday was the first day I was really excited about specifically, because it was the TRAIN ON A BOAT day. Ever since I read about it on Seat 61 I couldn’t wait to see the business of getting an ICE train on a ferry. It’s one of two places in Europe that this happens, and it’s just freakin’ cool. In fact, it’s probably the thing that sealed the deal on me choosing the Scandinavian route to Russia. So that was awesome and we had brilliant weather for the journey too.

On that train I also had my first Meet Interesting People From All Of The Places conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He was a political scientist from Afghanistan who I think was some kind of diplomat. He’d traveled quite a lot and even lived in India for 12 years, but this was his first time in the West. He’d been in Copenhagen for a panel on something and then went down to Hamburg to visit a friend at the university and was on his way back to the airport to fly home. I didn’t get his name, which I feel a bit ridiculous about, but I guess when you’ve been talking to someone for a few hours and neither of you ever bothered to ask, it just never happens.

Anyway, he had all sorts of things to talk about. He was completely thrown off by the sun coming up so late and going down so early so I told him about how that’s all even more drastic in Scotland. He showed me loads of gorgeous pictures of Afghanistan and his family on his phone, which made me realise I really need to load a few more of Scotland onto mine to show, because there aren’t enough.

He had a picture of Kabul in the 60s. Everyone was wearing bellbottoms and it seriously could have been like a US college campus the way everyone was dressed so casually. He talked about how everything is completely different now with women wearing headscarfs and people being more formal and closed off in public. He seemed pretty bummed out about it, and I wish I’d asked him more about that but I’ve not quite hit my asking-strangers-deep-questions-about-their-cultures stride yet.

We talked a lot about languages too, and he told me how hard it had been to learn English because it was outlawed during the Taliban regime, so he’d go to this woman’s house with a bunch of other kids and they’d learn it in secret. Imagine learning a language you’re not allowed to speak. How freaking hard that would be!

If everyone I end up chatting to is even half as interesting as that guy, this trip is going to be pretty amazing.

That train was late getting into Copenhagen. My seatmate was worried he’d miss his flight out and I was convinced I wasn’t going to make the connection to the Stockholm train because it was originally 15 minutes in between and we got in as it should have been leaving. I wasn’t too fussed about getting rebooked on a later train if it meant I’d get myself a proper Danish cinnamon roll, but as we pulled in to the station, they announced that the Stockholm train would be waiting for us, so hurry to track 6 where it was. Except it WASN’T, it was at 7, so I went up and down a lot of stairs very quickly and jumped on the Swedish train just as the doors were closing. I don’t think anyone’s ever spent less time in Copenhagen. But I made it. And that train was then half an hour late into Stockholm so I really never would have made the University Lindy Hop Monday social I’d wanted to go to. Instead, I went grocery shopping and chilled out in the lovely City Backpackers hostel common room, planning my first day without the need for setting an alarm.

Today will be my last full day of transportation for a while, which is nice. I have a day in Helsinki tomorrow and then a high speed train to St Petersburg on Friday, where I’ll be seeing the ballet that night. I’ve never seen any ballet and now I get to see it in Russia. Hooray!

Booking the Red Arrow

I just booked a Russian train on the Russian railways website without any help from an agency! It was actually… pretty easy.

I went all out (not really, just second class, but it feels like all out because you’ll see) and booked the Red ArrowКра́сная стрела́ or Krasnya Strelapossibly the most historic train in Russia. It’s the overnight train between St Petersburg and Moscow, and it’s been running nearly uninterrupted since 1931.

Nerd time: It’s train number is 001A. For the first train I take within Russia, I may as well start at the beginning, right?

AND. AND. AND. It just gets cooler because apparently they play ‘The Hymn to the Great City’ as the train leaves the station at 23.55. How fucking GRAND is that? It gets a sendoff EVERY NIGHT.

Plus, look at where I’ll be sleeping:

And to top it ALL OFF, you even get breakfast. You know how I love breakfast. I got to choose based on dietary requirements. There were pictures!

I fail to see how any of this won’t be incredibly exciting even though I’m supposed to be asleep most of the time. (Let’s be honest, I probably won’t sleep much.)

I had originally planned on booking everything through Real Russia, who are SUPERHEROES by the way. They have the most amazing customer service ever, including near-instant chat support for whenever I had another slightly panicked question about Russian or Chinese visa applications. I’d have been lost without them. Plus their booking engine has the option to view all the Russian timetables in local time rather than just Moscow time, which makes things much easier on the brain.

I did book a few things through them, as well as getting my Russian visa support document. (I’d have done both my visas fully through them if I’d been in London, but more on that in a future ALL ABOUT THE VISAS post.) But after reading a few blogs about booking yourself and Seat 61’s guide to the English version of rzd.ru (the Russian Railways website), I decided I could spend a bit of extra time in exchange for saving some money.

AND ALSO feeling like a boss for working out the whole timetables and some-things-still-in-Cyrillic thing.

I mean, I’m going to have to do it when I’m there so why not start now! Plus I really like Cyrillic – it’s nice to look at. The only word I can yet recognise – because I’ve seen it a BILLION times now – is ‘вокзал’ (which is ‘railway station’) but, you know, it’s a process.

The English on rzd.ru isn’t perfect, and all the image-based ads and stuff are still in Russian, but as long as you do the whole check and double-sense-check your timings and have Google Translate open for the odd thing or two, it’s absolutely doable. (Thank you, Google Translate, you are and will remain throughout the next few months, my hero.)

They don’t seem to email you your e-tickets like most rail systems, but they’re all stored in your account and it says that you can download them to your phone to show if you don’t want to print them. I’m going to print anyway to be safe, but it’s nice to know I guess. And I think some of the trains I’m looking at don’t have electronic tickets, so it will be nice to get a real live Russian train ticket to save.

As for credit cards, I did have a slight hitch there, which wasn’t a surprise after what I’d read online. It declined my built-for-international-use Llloyds Avios MasterCard (twice), but it accepted my RBS Visa Debit. Slightly annoying as I’ll probably get an international charge for that whereas I wouldn’t have on the credit card, but whatever. I just keep waiting for the fraud team to call, because surely it’s not every day someone buys a Russian rail ticket online. I’ve gotten calls for way more normal things. Lloyds does fraud control by text (which is actually pretty great) but I didn’t even get one of those after being declined twice. Who knows how they decide this stuff?

It definitely would have been much more straightforward getting Real Russia to do this work for me, and I’d HIGHLY recommend them if you can’t be arsed. They’re not THAT much more expensive, and they are utterly fantastic. Plus I’m still double checking my timings with their local-time-d version of the railway timetables.

Anyway, I’ve got a few more trains to book and I’m currently trying to see if I can cut out Yekaterinburg as an overnight stop. It’s hard to pick a stop to lose, but if I don’t, I’ll just be running around like crazy not really seeing much. Also, I REALLY want to spend a good chunk of time on the train. Enforced chillaxing. So I don’t want to only be doing overnight stints without any full days on the train reading and staring out windows and sharing vodka and snacks with Russians.

One of my favourites

Corner Seat

Suspended in a moving night
The face in the reflected train
Looks at first sight as self-assured
As your own face– But look again:

Windows between you and the world
Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;
Then why does your reflection seem
So lonely in the moving night?

-Louis MacNeice

I’m not super big on poetry, especially for an English major, but I have always loved this.

US May 2015

I didn’t do a lot of writing about this trip while I was on it, because I was SO TIRED the whole time. You’d think I’d learn by now that I shouldn’t try to cram so much into a short trip because of the burnout it causes, but it’s really hard to do that when I go to the US because there are so many people I never get to see and I just want to see as many of them as I possibly can when I get the small chances I do.

I had grand plans to do a lot of travel planning for the big trip, a lot of writing (blog related and not), and a lot of reading, particularly on my two 6 hour train trips, but I spent most of those hours listening to music, dozing, and staring into space thinking about stuff because I couldn’t handle much else at the time. And that’s ok. But it does mean I have a lot of writing down of those thoughts to be getting on with.

Here’s all the awesome stuff I did that tired me out so much:

A day of wandering around Georgetown with Liam and Bobby. A ridiculous brownie at Baked and Wired. Happy Hour Mexican food and a mojito. A brilliant, brilliant Ben Folds and yMusic gig at the Lincoln Theatre.

Driving out of the middle of DC in a rental car, fairly terrified and mostly lost the entire time. Steak for lunch at Kelsey’s house, watching the chickens and talking about life. Dinner with most of her family (who are pretty much my second family) in downtown Frederick. Sharing the couch with Miss Betty.

Buying lots of random stuff in Target while I waited for the rest of the wedding party to arrive in York. Sampling the hotel pool experience. A rehearsal dinner while flanked by some kind of optometrists’ party in one ballroom and a high school prom in another (high entertainment value). The nicest hotel beds. An amazing wedding on a gorgeous day.

Driving back into DC again, terrified and lost again, this time with added Hellish Nation’s Capital Traffic and nearly hitting a pedestrian. Lunch at ShopHouse to recover (very good). A 6 hour train ride on which I did very little aside from think too much.

A dark beer called Duck Rabbit (how could I resist THAT NAME) with Josh. Breakfast with Rachel and their two awesome kids. A trip to the Raleigh farmers’ market. Really good salsa (god I miss really good salsa). Fast food, North Carolina style. Sitting in on a high school creative writing magazine meeting, which was so great and so bizarre and so the same as I remember it. Real North Carolina barbecue including hush puppies, which are one of my favourite things. Wyatt Cenac at a local comedy club (very funny, recommended). Lunch and local beers in Fuquay-Varina. And a super chilled out night of dinner, chat and whisky.

Another 6 hour train ride, not bad considering it was right after a pretty awful day for Amtrak. Again, didn’t do much but doze and think. A mojito sorbet while killing time waiting for happy hour with all the DC Washington College Dramalumni at the District ChopHouse. More beer than I should have drank, which is easy when it’s only $3.50 a pint. A Trader Joe’s dinner back at Liam and Bobby’s while watching a whole lot of Daily Show.

Lunch with my parents at Farmers Fishers Bakers and a walk along the river on a lovely day before my long trip home.

It was a lot, but it was worth the exhaustion. I’m lucky I got to see so many people in such a short space of time.

I was also incredibly homesick on this trip considering how short it was. I feel more like a foreigner than ever when I’m in the US, and I was probably realising that’s going to be standard now. I’m ok with that – I love the UK – I guess I just didn’t expect it to hit me so hard. I was VERY happy to see Edinburgh when I got back (and my fantastic friends who I spent the rest of the day with at the Summerhall FestiveALE – a lovely way to force myself to stay awake and fight the jet lag).

Cost

I was under budget again (£1500), which hooray! But as usual with trips to the US, I didn’t have to pay for much accommodation, and lots of people bought me food and drinks and things, so most of the cost was transportation.

Trip total: £1334.47

That’s an average of £121.32 per day.

£899.75 on transport. SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS of transport. This was Planes, trains and automobiles for real.

£144.77 on food. And I finally got my airport sushi in Dulles on the way home.

£36.28 on entertainment. Ben Folds!

£72.56 on accommodation. Two nights in a shared hotel room in York PA. Pool view. John Oliver on HBO. Beds to die for.

£55.05 on gifts. Stuff for people I was staying with. Chocolate and whisky mostly.

£65.49 on drinks. At least half of this was for other people. I drank relatively little on this trip.

£60.57 on miscellaneous. A bunch of random stuff at Target and a bunch of cold and heartburn related medicine. FUN.

Posts

In which I realise there IS such a thing as too much research

Another reason to be excited about DC

Delayed (again)

Weddings!

In the headphones

Nico

Ray Charles

Lucy Schwartz

On the Kindle

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman

Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake… by Andrea Gillies

In-flight films

Shaun the Sheep Movie (SO MUCH FUN)

Wild (more on which later)

On your own

I was talking recently to someone I work with about the Trans-Siberian and how it’s the seed my solo trip is growing out of.

He said, ‘I have a friend who did it once but I don’t see the point.’

To which I asked, ‘of doing the Trans-Siberian or doing it on your own?’

And he said, ‘both.’

Then I tried to explain myself, but I’m not sure it made much difference.

I totally get that sitting on a train staring at a frozen landscape for the better part of a week is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I like trains. But what’s more I like seeing the planet, because it’s pretty amazing. I’ll be more than entertained watching the Siberian wilderness chug by because who gets to do that every day?

Plus, being confined to a space where I can do little more than read, write, eat, and talk to people is like a creative mission. It’s like life editing – putting constraints on a situation forces you to get much better things out the other end. And with what I imagine will be zero mobile or data reception plus low hope of recharging any kind of electrical devices, I’ll be left to what I’ve got in my head and on paper. Which is precisely what I want.

So, not for everyone, but that’s the appeal to me.

As for the doing it on my own bit – that’s trickier. Ten years ago when I was like ‘YES, this Trans-Siberian Railway? THIS I MUST DO.’ I wasn’t thinking, ‘This I must do. ALONE.’ No. Never. In fact, nearly none of the traveling I want to do is conceived as something I want to do by myself. It’s more a matter of I don’t have much choice.

Everyone’s got partners and babies and careers and commitments and other priorities, especially the older I get. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone else to drop their life in favour of accompanying me on a trip of my own mad design. If I had some fantastic boyfriend who magically had the same travel wishlist as I did (applications open, *ahem*) or a friend whose holiday allowances and budget and circumstances aligned perfectly with my own, hell yes I’d be going on this trip WITH THEM. But these things are a tall order.

I could wait another ten years to find a plus one, or I can just get on with it.

When I got home the night of this particular conversation, as if the universe knew I needed more writing fodder, a link to this article popped up in my Facebook feed: IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Traveled The World Alone And It Sucked

I think it’s totally important to have this point of view available online, that you can go do something like take a massive trip alone and decide you kind of hate it and that’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to love everything you try, and a solo trip around the world is difficult stuff. But she put all this crazy pressure on herself and her trip. I’m going to be brave because I feel like I HAVE to. I’m going to find my own artsy subculture clique and become the next Kerouac (which, ugh, why does everyone want to be THAT ASSHAT, but whatever).

No one lives in a novel or a movie. Meeting people takes time. Coming out of your shell takes adjustment and work. More of this for some than others, but it doesn’t just HAPPEN. I don’t remember being particularly scared before I went backpacking when I was 20. I think knowing less about the world meant I didn’t think about all the crap I think about now. But it was hard and lonely at some points, and I didn’t really hit my stride with the being alone and figuring out how to talk to other people thing until about 2 weeks in when my trip was nearly over. I had a lot of nights in, reading alone in bed or in the hostel bar.

But I also didn’t have the expectation that I was going to waltz into Europe and make all the friends and have all the stories to tell. If you’re not doing that shit in your normal life, like hell you’re going to suddenly do it in multiple foreign environments where you have to spend a lot of energy on basic things you barely give a second thought to at home.

So. Less pressure on yourself helps. And perhaps being good at being alone to begin with before you go do it in the big bad world.

This trip is going to be a lot like the rest of my life, just condensed and sometimes slightly more confusing. It takes me a pretty long time to adjust to new situations. But in the confines of an existence focused on travel, that timeline will shrink a little. I will force myself to make awkward and uncomfortable steps a little earlier than I normally would because what the hell else are you gonna do when you’re sitting in a train compartment across from a Russian lady who’s gonna be your roomie for the next 2 nights?

I’ll get used to it. Sometimes I’ll be restless with loneliness and that will suck just as much as when it happens at home. Other times I’ll meet some awesome new person who is bizarrely easy to talk to and it will rock just as much as when it happens at home.

It’s not for everyone. But maybe you can see the point.

Choosing the route to Russia

Right this way.
(I can’t find a proper attribution for this image but I wish I could because I looooove it.)

You wouldn’t think choosing a route through Europe would be such a palaver, but oddly enough, the very start of this trip is the thing I’ve been having real trouble deciding on.

I’m currently stacking up a list of places and things I want to include in Russia, Mongolia and China – and there’s PLENTY to stack up. And once I get to southeast Asia I’m just going to kind of thaw out from nearly 2 months in the frozen Northern hemisphere and go wherever my whims take me (which will be mostly amazing beaches interspersed with epic wanders around cities whilst stuffing myself with amazing street food). But getting to St Petersburg is one of those things I realised today that I need to stop overexamining all my options for and just buy into one. I think I’ve finally bullied myself into doing it (with a little encouragement from Kristina to be fair).

Here’s what I was trying to chose from:

Via Belarus

Pros: No problems with getting trains all the way through. Also the most direct way.
Cons: You need a transit visa just to pass THROUGH Belarus on the train. That’s £42. And if you want to stick around and look at some stuff, you need a tourist visa (£90) and an approved hotel booking. MEH.

I’d SO much rather go a less-direct route and spend that visa money on seeing another city. So I never really loved the idea of this route.

Via the Baltic states

Pros: Get to see Lithuania, Latvia, and possibly Estonia. Avoids Belarus visa malarkey.
Cons: There aren’t trains running all the way through because of all sorts of rail work. And now the direct overnight train from Vilnius to St Petersburg is being discontinued.

This was originally my preferred route. It takes a bit longer, but I was keen to see Riga, Vilnius and Talinn. And any smaller places in between that some of the coach replacement services would have dropped me in. But then that train to St Petersburg got scrapped, which makes this a kind of nightmarish route to choose in terms of planning and saving any kind of time or money. And it would be a whole lot of buses. Which also: Meh.

Via Scandinavia

Pros: I LOVE SCANDINAVIA. This would take me through Helsinki as well, which would mean I’d probably get to see Carolina and Johanna again which would be awesome! Trains most of the way, plus one ferry. Avoids Belarus.
Cons: A bit pricier. And I’ve been to most of the places I’d be hitting already. And not strictly doing the whole way there on a train.

The thing that bothers me about this route is the fact that I’m giving up the Taking The Train All The Way thing. I know that would have been the case with the Baltic states, but it somehow seemed more legit because the buses were only necessary as the rail route was in a state of being worked on. So. I’ve just been trying to decide how important the train thing is to me. For months now.

Via Ukraine

Pros: Avoids Belarus. All on trains. Get to see Kiev.
Cons: Ehhh. I’m not sure going through Ukraine in the current political climate is the best plan.

I’d love to see a bit of Ukraine, and the gov.uk advice on Kiev isn’t as scary as the advice on Crimea and some other areas (‘leave now’). But I’d also be crossing the Ukraine/Russia border, which: inadvisable, it seems.

 

That being said, Russia itself is not exactly in the rosiest light at the moment. I’m not super worried about this, nor does the UK government seem to be, in terms of general travel advice for the majority of the country anyway. But it’s been an underlying concern throughout my planning. (More on this in a later post, for sure.) Hopefully things get better rather than worse. I imagine they’ll do a lot of staying the same though.

It’s been looking for a while like Scandinavia is the answer. I should just suck it up over the ferry thing. I’d be going all the way to Stockholm by train, then getting a quick boat to Finland, and back on the train from there.

I’ve taken part of this trip before. When I was backpacking I did Copenhagen to Stockholm and then Stockholm back to Hamburg on the train. They accidentally put me in first class on the Copenhagen to Stockholm leg, and on the way back I remember meeting loads of lovely people on the train. It’s not a bad decision.

Plus: Denmark, Sweden and Finland in winter (or anytime)? SWOON.

So that’s that. DECISION. BOOM.

Fit for travel

Spending the better part of 3 months sitting on trains isn’t the best way to keep up one’s fitness. Particularly when one of the things you’re looking forward to is sampling all the local snacks you possibly can. And when you do get off the train, at least for the first month and a half, you will be in very, VERY cold places not very conducive to full days of walking around free of any cares of becoming an ice cube.

This is actually something I’ve thought a lot about. I’m not an unhealthy slob (she says as she sits in bed with her laptop having just scoffed half a giant chocolate Easter egg and a whole bowl of popcorn whilst watching a film of questionable quality on Netflix) but I don’t exactly have any kind of regimented approach to exercise. I walk everywhere, including to and from work every day, and I’ve been doing a ton of dancing which is definitely a workout, but I still get pretty worn out from that. I’ve been trying to figure out what else I can do to feel less like a wreck after a hardcore week.

Because surely being in the best shape possible will also help make life less painful when I’m riding around on horseback in the middle of the ass-freezing cold Mongolian winter. Right?

I’ve never been a very big runner, but two years ago I read that Born to Run book and decided I COULD TOTALLY DO IT. So I trained myself to get to 5k and that’s pretty much the ceiling of my distance ability. It’s enough for me. But I stopped running with any regularity once I’d reached my finish-a-proper-5k-race-in-under-30-minutes goal. Not for any particular reason – I think I was just bored of it.

PROOF I DID IT. Also I really love my running shoes.

PROOF I DID IT. Also I really love my running shoes.

Yesterday morning though, with the weather finally warming up and the last few bits of a week of rubbish to clear from my head, I went for my first run in about a year. And it went WAY BETTER than I imagined it would, so clearly all the dancing has had an effect. (Also I have a BANGIN’ running playlist which I credit for nearly every bit of my motivation.) I did about 3.5k, but I did it more or less without stopping and without feeling like complete and utter death. This after being sure I’d only make it to about 1k before my brain went ‘noooooooooo’. It felt pretty awesome.

So I’m going to add regular runs to the plan from here on out. I’m sore as all hell today from being out of practice, but hopefully that will fade. I’m also apparently going to be bagging my first few munros next weekend, weather permitting, on a wee Sunday hillwalking adventure.

Unfortunately I don’t think train attendants would look too kindly on me running back and forth down the length of the train rocking out to AC/DC. (That seems like something that would happen in a Wes Anderson film. Except maybe not with AC/DC.) So I don’t really know how I’m going to keep my activity level up in the confines of a train, but if I can at least go into it in the best condition, maybe I won’t feel like a complete sloth when I’m lounging about reading War and Peace, eating whatever the Russians would replace popcorn with and watching Siberia roll by.