My Trip Around the World

In response to many requests for an account of my voyage around the world the summer of '99, I've summarized the highlights in this travel-log of my adventures from the westernmost tip of Europe in Ireland all the way to Beijing in eastern china. While I adore Eastern and Western Europe, I won't even bother discussing them, as I am aware that the number one question on everyone's mind is inevitably: "Is Siberia as much of a party as we think?" The answer is yes. In fact, with the right attitude, the countries of Russia and Belarus are full of delightful surprises and remarkable characters that make for an amazing adventure in the Soviet motherland.

Russia appears to function on a strictly logic-free system. There is no apparent protocol for accomplishing anything, and your ability of survive amidst the chaos pretty much depends upon how merciful and/or susceptible to bribes the officials you encounter happen to be. The latter is your best bet, as bribery seems to be the only consistent way of getting anything done in Russia. Bribery got me past the Polish border into Belarus, with the help of Sergi, a fellow train passenger. In Poland, it was illegal to purchase a transit Belarussian visa without a through train ticket, and also illegal to purchase a through train ticket without a Belarussian visa. Incidentally, I boarded the train bound for Belarus with a regular ticket, my fingers crossed, and the best idon'tknowanythingbuti'mreallyverysweet expression I could muster. At the border, I threw on a head scarf and kept my head down to keep from laughing as Sergi threw his arm around me and put on an elaborate show, claiming that I was his foreign girlfriend. The next thing I knew, the train chugged into Brest, Belarus, and the border officials handed me back my Russian (not Belarussian) visa, which, by the way, wasn't valid for another 2 days. I spent the following two days in Brest with Sergi--who I'm convinced is the Belarussian Mafia Godfather--and his (equally suspicious) friends (posse). Sergi (picture left) seemed to know everybody in the city, and went back and forth on overnight trains to and from Poland on what he called "special business." These seemingly illegal dealings seem to have worked out well for old Serg, who lives in the lap of Belarussian luxury with his two color TV's and high tech stereo system, contrasted to the locals' $15 a month incomes. Sergi treated me like a queen and in return I didn't ask any questions when he disappeared into dark alleys from time to time to take care of his "special business." I was sad to head east to Minsk before turning north towards St. Petersburg. Minsk was just lovely--a fine specimen of Soviet planning, full of monuments to the revolution and bleak, intimidating buildings--and the next evening I boarded an overnight train to St. Petersburg.

Peter the Great's "Window to the East" was enchanting. I climbed St. Isaac's golden domed cathedral and ate lunch in the garden of the Smolny Institute, from where Trotsky and Lenin orchestrated the 1917 October Revolution, and the Congress of Soviets conferred power on a Bolshevik government led by Lenin. I went to the Hermitage and basked in the sun at Dvortsovaya Ploschad, where peaceful gatherings resulting in Bloody Sunday sparked the 1905 Revolution, and home of the infamous storming of the palace in October 1917. To the left is a picture of an old stencil sign found on Nevesky Prospect. The sign reads: "Comrades! In the event of a bombardment, this side of the street is much safer!"

Next came Moscow, the epicentre of the new Russia: drunks, beggars, Mafia, and glitter in the city where anything can happen. I was taken in by an Austrian girl and her Ukrainian boyfriend who lived in a student flat with a superb view of Stalin's Seven Sisters (seven enormous grotesque buildings likened to the government buildings portrayed in 1984). The Ukrainian gave me a personal tour of the Kremlin (kremlin domes photo right), from where Ivan the Terrible and Stalin maneuvered their terrors, Napoleon watched Moscow burn, Lenin fashioned the dictatorship of the proletariat, and a guard blew a whistle at me for stepping off the sidewalk. I descended into Lenin's florescent lit open-casket tomb, caught a glimpse of the expired little man and his polka-dot tie, and hustled past Stalin's tombstone back into the Red Square, rich with a history of communism and bloodshed. Moscow was a joy to explore, but when August 10th rolled around, I was more than ready to initiate my trans-continental voyage across Siberia and Mongolia into China on the Trans-Mongolian Express.

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad began in the late 19th century to further economic and social development in Siberia, and as an alternative to the year-long trek that eastern migration had used to entail. The Railroad remains the only through road from Moscow to eastern Russia, making it a necessary means of travel, migration, and the ever-popular exile. The 7865-km long Trans-Mongolian route spanning 7 days, 6 nights, and 6 time zones blunted the edges of culture shock as I slowly passed from European Russia through Siberia into a pungent cloud of orientalism.

We departed on a rainy Tuesday evening and I celebrated the event with my two roommates--Peter from New York and a Japanese fellow from Hiroshima--and my first (but certainly not last) bottle of vodka. As the trip continued, I would begin to realize that the train all but ran on vodka; vodka was the common juice flowing through every passenger's veins. Vodka was the universal means of bribery, celebration, and passage into delirium as the journey became more bizarre and more surreal. Any friendly game or conversation could turn intoxicating as the passengers learned to put their vodka where their mouths were, both figuratively and literally. Unfortunately, one extra bottle of vodka meant one more trip to the dreaded bathroom. With 36 people per toilet, each bathroom run threatened permanent damage to any sense of smell. The trauma of each noisome trip could only be soothed by more alcohol.

Then again, little more could be expected from a group of strangers sealed in a vaguely claustrophobic carriage for seven days with nothing persistent but hunger and bodily functions. With the constant fear of boredom lurking over each passenger's head, most everyone was content in making the whole trip into a nonstop rolling party. Vladimir from Siberia did magic card tricks and taught the Westerners elaborate card games, making up the rules as he went along and becoming terribly frustrated when we didn't catch on. I taught four Poles to play Hearts, and accosted any chess player I could get my paws on. Brian, an Australian Austin Powers Look(and Talk and Act)-Alike, could drink anyone who wasn't Russian under the table, including the permanently plastered Michael from Pasedena who worked as a National Geographic photographer, but couldn't shut up about his old job making movies in Hollywood. A roaring Parisian family supplied endless rounds of caviar and "champagnska," cheap Russian champagne, and we took every opportunity to celebrate.

The first opportunity arose on the afternoon of the first full day, when the train crossed the Ural Mountains that separate Western Russia from Siberia. Three hours and four champagnskas later, the train chugged past the white obelisk marking the boundary between Europe and Asia, and the celebrating recommenced. That night, we had a 20-minute stop in Yekaterinburg, hometown of Boris Yeltsin and where the Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed after the 1917 Revolution. The next day, we stopped in Omsk, the city of Dostoevsky's exile, and Novosiberisk, Siberia's biggest city.

The coach stopped about three times a day, for 10-45 minutes. All station stops were delightful respites for sunshine and fresh air, and passengers would anxiously hop off the train for a good stretch and some desperately needed exercise. There was rarely enough time to leave the station, so we'd run up and down the station platforms, people-watching and stocking up on bottled water and toilet paper. The platforms were lined with squatting babushkas offering fresh produce (typically tomatoes, apples, and raspberries), homemade bread and sweet rolls, warm potatoes, cheese pancakes, and various bizarre meats. Daring customers purchased dried out smoked trout, resembling fish jerky, and tasting like salt with a dash of fish flavor (photo right). When the stops were over, the train conductors would point to their watches and we would happily board back onto the train with our arms full of fresh goodies to be savored over long talks and beautiful scenery.

The babushkas' treats were a welcome break from dining-car food, which served chicken as the default dish, regardless of what we ordered. I asked for fish; I got chicken. Brian asked for ham and eggs; he got chicken. Peter asked for cheese; he got chicken. Suspiciously, the price of chicken increased the further west we traveled, and eventually we decided to stick to babushka products and ramen. Each car had a bottomless supply of hot water, and I lived off yummy tea and miso soup, when my Japanese roommate was feeling generous.

The hot water jugs were replenished by our "provodniks." These attendants worked two per carriage, taking general care of the car and accepting bribes from the highest bidders. The provodniks from the neighboring carriage were obsessed with the Titanic soundtrack, so the voice of Celine Dion carried us from Europe through the depths of the Siberian taiga. Our provodniks were undoubtedly the most corrupt, as our carriage contained the craziest passengers of the train. The Chinese fellow next door suspiciously locked his door upon entering and exiting his compartment for the first few days. But the twelve puppies he was smuggling could not be ignored once the yelping started, and he eventually allowed us to play with them and paid the providniks to keep quiet. The business-minded Mongolian woman two doors down would carry off dozens of neon Western backpacks at every stop, anxiously trying to unload them onto the inexperienced Siberian consumers. A Mongolian gymnast with a thin moustache got on the train one evening and completed my cabin by taking the fourth bed. Every morning, he all but back-flipped off the top bunk and skipped off to see the Mongolian entrepreneur and her friend (photo left of nutty roomies).

The unapologetic bizarreness of the carriage kept things interesting, and throughout the seven-day train ride, I didn't get bored once. Each day overlapped the next and between reading Russian history and guide books, looking at maps, and watching the dramatic changes from tundra to taiga to steppe to desert, the trip went by all too quickly. The ambiance was like being bed-ridden for a week in a cloud smelling of stale champagnska, smoked fish, and dogs, with each drowsy day broken into many smaller ones by dreams and delirium.

The surrealism of the train was enhanced by the fact that with potentially seven time zones to choose from, no one on the train ever had any idea what time it was. The train ran on Moscow time, but operated on local time, whatever that meant. The dining car was open from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. local time, making it a constant guessing game. Some people were on Moscow time, some on Beijing time, and one guy just set his watch forward 10 minutes every four hours, but that was a method of his own devising. To complicate matters, Russia, Mongolia, and China switch to daylight savings at different points during the summer, so time at the borders was anyone's guess. For some reason China has only one time zone, so Beijing time is a lot earlier than eastern Siberian to its north. At one point, the time zones started going backwards, but by then our body clocks had already quit in disgust.

The timeless nature of the ride was liberating, and each lived according to his or her body clock regardless of everything outside, sleeping when tired, eating when hungry. The sole source of synchronization occurred in Irkutsk, for everyone wanted to be awake to see the "Paris of Siberia." Everyone set his or her alarm clock to see the colorful, lively--for Siberia, mind you--city, which was the final destination for a few dozen passengers. The train then continued east for 200 km of the most striking scenery yet along the shore of Lake Baikal, the "Pearl of Siberia." The enormous body of fresh water is bigger than Belgium, and by far the deepest lake in the world (over a mile to the bottom!). Baikal contains one fifth of the world's fresh water and doubles as the world's largest ice skating rink during the winter. After a stunning stretch of mountains and glittering water, we reached Slyudyanka, a mining town on the edge of the lake. With a short 15-minute stop, there was just enough time to sprint down to the shore and dip in a hand. The most daring of us strapped on our most precious belongings and decided to make a run for it. Legend has it that dipping your hand in Lake Baikal (photo right) adds one year to your life (which seems appropriate, since finding your way around Moscow is said to take a year off... I figure I'm even now) so we all splashed around and then sprinted back to the station before the train left without us.

Three hundred kilometers later, the train reached the Trans-Mongolian junction, and branched off the main line (that continues east to Vladivostok), heading southeast towards Mongolia. With only 250 km until the border, the train became a madhouse, as every passenger frantically cleaned up any evidence of corruption that lingered in his or her quarters. The providniks scrubbed the windows vigorously and the puppy man raced up and down the hallway, spraying lemon scent lyscol in a vain attempt to cover up the dog smell. The backpack lady scurried around, shoving her backpacks into several large suitcases and attempting to bribe travelers--including myself--to carry cigarettes across the border for her. Incidentally, the puppies from next door were nowhere to be seen. In their places were half a dozen yelping duffel bags that rolled around by themselves.

The terror of the lawless passengers climaxed as we rolled into Sukhe Bator, a Mongolian border town. The stiff border officials detected only the mischief of the puppy owner, but the train was delayed two hours while he filled out papers. Meanwhile, the Russian dining car was detached and a Mongolian dining car was hitched onto our train. The Mongolian dining car offered more than just chicken, notably the local Mongolian alcohol. The substance tasted like fermented yak's milk, which in the end it turned out to be. The Mongolian dining car also came with a flaming Mongolian waiter who got so drunk that he forgot to serve us and later forgot to charge us. I spent my day in Mongolia in the dining car playing chess with Mongolians (photo right)--who, evidently, are very keen players--and gazing outside at the camels in the "uncrossable" Gobi desert. Unfortunately, by that point I hadn't bathed in 5 days (and even my bandana was losing its knack), so the intense desert heat made me feel as if I was swimming in a pool of my own sweat. Eventually, I just passed out on my bed and let myself bake into delirium.

I awoke when the train screeched to a jerky halt in the middle of the vapid desert. Apparently, a cow--not just any cow, the ONLY sign of life we had seen for hours--had strolled across the train tracks at the exact moment our train was approaching. The dumbfounded creature froze, and the train was forced to make an emergency stop to avoid hitting the beast. The cow escaped unscathed--except that his horns appeared to be pointed the wrong way--but the train was stalled for a good hour in the lifeless terrain.

We were still trying to make sense of the cow when we arrived at Ulan Bator, the capitol of Mongolia. The backpacks and their owner got off at this lively station, and the long stopover allowed for a little exploring. But soon we were heading east again, watching a brilliant sunset over the desert as we made our way towards China. The same pandemonium of border crossing returned at the Chinese border, only this time the puppies were relocated to our bathroom. This forced us to share a bathroom with the next carriage and its 36 members, which threatened to be unbearable. As it turned out however, some delinquent of that carriage illegally smoked cigarettes in the bathroom every few hours, transforming the vile stench into a barely tolerable, repugnant, smoky odor.

The most interesting part of crossing into China was the changing of the Bogies (the support wheels of the train). Apparently the Soviets had feared an attack by rail, so they used a wider gauge of track than their neighbors did. I stayed on the train as it entered the large shed for adjustment, and observed the odd operation. Then, after taking my first ride on a Chinese rickshaw, we began the final stretch of our journey into the People's Republic of China.

The changes between the desert wasteland of Mongolia and the lush scenery of China became more and more dramatic the further we rode. The train conveniently stopped to let the brakes cool right next to the Great Wall, so we all hopped out and took pictures. Three hours later we chugged into the chaotic Beijing railway station and sadly but excitedly gathered our belongings and said our goodbyes to our beloved train. My first night in Beijing was spent with my friends from the train in a rundown hotel in the Beijing ghetto. The fascinating neighborhood was full of naked children running around, old men with their shirts off playing mah jong and chinese chess, and old women squatting on the front steps fanning themselves. At midnight, when the families finally retired to sleep, they would lay down on the pavement where they had been squatting and nod off. It was like an enormous slumber party. the entire neighborhood lay fast asleep on their porches in the warm summer's night air. The rickshaw drivers lay sleeping in their rickshaws and those who were too far from home just lay down at the nearest bus-stop or park bench.

By 9am the following morning, the city was alive with chaos. Traffic laws and stoplights were taken as mere suggestions, and the entire city pulsated with vibrant inhabitants and energetic chinese tourists. Street vendors took over the sidewalks and pedestrians pushed and shoved their way through the crowded streets. Cheesy chinese pop music echoed from the store fronts and rickshaw drivers beckoned you from their vehicles to ride with them. By the afternoon, the city began to sag with the heat, and the delicious smells of roasted duck, sizzling chicken, and other chinese specialties penetrated the afternoon air. Northern china specializes in noodles, and the restaurants in Beijing offered elaborate varieties of chow mein and innovative dumplings. The city paused briefly to enjoy a quick meal, and then fell quickly back into the rythym of screaming entrepreneurs and hazardous driving.

The most interesting part of being in beijing were the staring chinese tourists who were unaccustomed to seeing caucasians anywhere but in the movies. While the locals were undoubtedly used to foreign tourists, the tourists from other chinese states were dumbfounded. At the Buddhist Lama temple (home of the largest statue of Buddha in the world), I was admiring an altar when I caught a flash in the side of my eye. I turned quickly to find a young boy being photographed by his mother. He was posing next to me as if I was a statue. The two were extremely embarrassed when I realized what they were doing, but I was rather amused, so I threw my arm around the child and smiled for the camera. In five seconds there formed a line of six children waiting to be photographed with me. Apparently, they had been waiting cautiously to do as the other young boy had done, and were thrilled at my tolerance. Enthusiastic mothers pushed their blushing young children into line and bowed graciously after taking the photo. Young couples stood on each side of me as their friends took their picture, and occasionally an entire family would approach me with the proposition. I felt like a celebrity.

On the second day, I was taken in by a Chinese woman and her niece. The woman spoke very little english, but her niece's english was sufficient to facilitate many confusing but extremely interesting conversations. The woman took me to try the famous Peking duck, and the niece gave me a personal tour of the Forbidden City and Tianneman Square. I slept at the woman's house, and at night we would sip tea in silence and have hilarious charades conversations. The niece was--like the Russians--happy to talk about her experiences living in a Communist country, and I was thrilled to discuss that subject as well as Chinese popular opinion of America. The woman, the niece, and I cooked meals together and went on an excersion to the Summer Palace (photo left). On my last night in China, the woman introduced me to her next door neighbor, an extremely religious Tibetan Buddhist woman. She welcomed me in, speaking only Chinese, and told me her history while the niece translated. Then she sang a prayer for me and showed me how to perform a ritual. We lit candles and meditated before the altar. I left the next morning on a plane to California.

Click here for some more pictures of China , courtesy of my good friend Luky.
back to main page