Some distances and times

Total distance travelled:
39,893 km / 24,788 mi

Total distance travelled on land:
14,117 km / 8,772 mi

Total distance travelled by air:
25,776 km / 16,016 mi

Longest train ride by distance:
Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk – 2287 km / 1,421 mi

Longest train ride by time:
Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk – 32:23 for 2287 km

Slowest train ride:
Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatar, 28:25 for 657 km – 23.12 km/hr / 14.37 mi/hr

Fastest train:
Maglev from Shanghai to airport – 431 km/hr / 268 mi/hr

Fastest long-distance train:
Tokyo to Osaka, 2:30 for 556km – 222.56 km/hr / 138.29 mi/hr

Longest flight:
Osaka to San Francisco – 8673 km / 5,389 mi

Kazan and the art of travel

Ah, being a traveler in my old neck of the woods. I am in San Jose for work, which is the best possible way to spend a week back in the “real world”. I am writing this on the breezy patio at Gordon Biersch in San Jose, enjoying a czech-style pilsner.

Is it wrong that the artfully crumbling brick buildings remind me of that courtyard in Kazan? These are gentrified, with miniature lights and flower pots on the windowsills, with brick and tile neatly laid beneath iron patio chairs. In Kazan, the windows were shattered, the courtyard laid only with dust and dirt, and the chairs a sunburnt plastic.

The courtyard cafe in Kazan

Still, if I am able to hold no other memory dear, it will be that one; walking hesitantly through the dark alley only to emerge into a crumbling concrete eden; dun-drenched, idyllic, unforgettable.

I spend so much time lately pondering what it means to travel. But more than just the act of emotionally and physically experience the world, there’s the other deeper and darker act of dedicating your body and soul, emotionally and physically, to the road.

From Kazan to Kyoto to Krasnoyarsk to Kansas, it’s all intoxicating, it all makes my heart quicken, my breath catch, my blood pulse. Even the lowlights are experiences to savour, as cheesy as that sounds. I don’t for a moment regret spending those few boring hours in Krasnoyarsk, because it gave me that intense thrill of finally escaping for a better destination.

I get it now. I can’t live without this any more than I can give up air.

I may never own a million dollar house on the Elbow river. I may never drive a BMW, even a 3-series. But whatever else life has to teach me, I know I will always hunger for that terrifying and thrilling moment of stepping out the door of the train, the bus, the plane, and into someplace new, someplace unexplored.

Broken Windows and Blue Sky

Things seen along the way

As we’ve moved along over this journey, I’ve taken pictures of things for posting to the blog. Some of them didn’t make it, for one reason or another. But hating to waste good pictures, I thought I’d throw them into a blog posting for all to experience.

The engine of my plane as I fly down to San Francisco:

The engine of my plane as I fly down to San Francisco

Our British Airways 747 to London:

Our British Airways 747 to London

The women who decided to talk us up at the hotel in London (mother and daughter, quite friendly):

The women who decided to talk us up at the hotel in London

Amy and Nick (and me, but I took the picture) sit in a sushi restaurant in St. Petersburg. Russia has surprisingly good sushi for a country that seems to have very few Japanese:

Amy and Nick in a sushi restaurant in St. Petersburg

Siberia doesn’t have a lot of features. It generally looks like either of the following two pictures. Usually more the former than the latter:

Endless stands of birch trees

A small, nameless Siberian village

And periodically, you do see other trains:

Passing a freight train

The forests often get thicker, too:

Endless stands of trees

Another shot of the Museum of Wooden Buildings. Didn’t post this as I took too many pictures there (was unsure of lighting, etc.):

Down Main Street, USSR, er, Russia

This is a far, far better shot of the Mongolian Embassy in Ulan Ude, Russia. I think I chose the other one because it did look better … at least at the time:

Mongolian Embassy in Ulan Ude

Me at the lake in Mongolia. Wouldn’t want to go swimming in that, though. Probably not the “cleanest” of places, with all the waterfowl and horses:

Chillin' at the lake

Amy catches up on journal- and postcard-writing:

Writing in the ger

We caught a sunset at Hustai National Park. This was before I nearly froze to death:

Sunset at Hustai National Park

A line of rail car bogies sit to one side in the bogie-changing shed in Erlian, China:

Bogies waiting for a new train

Most of you are probably wondering what the toilets in the trains looked like. Here’s an example of the “western” toilets. Never did take one of the squat ones, sadly…

Trail toilet

On the road, especially for this length of time, you periodically have to do laundry. Normally, not an issue. But this is what it looks like after washing out all the sand from Mongolia:

Down Main Street, USSR, er, Russia

We hit a great little restaurant in Beijing for lunch one day, and were served a pot of tea. Make with chrysanthemums. Not exactly normal, but quite tasty:

Chrysanthemum tea

Don’t ask me what kind of store this is. With a name like that, who really cares, anyway?

Valued Squirrel

This is the view from our hotel in Shanghai. As you can see, it was quite hazy there. The humidity was murder:

View from our hotel in Shanghai

It rained a lot in Xian on our first day there. Nice, but wet:

Bell Tower in the rain

Who doesn’t want to go to a Yummy Restaurant?

Yummy Restaurant

We walked around part of Xian’s walls one night. They looked pretty nice:

Valued Squirrel

Our last meal in Xian was at a strange hotpot restaurant, where we had to get someone to translate the freaking menu for us because we couldn’t read it at all. It was pretty tasty, though:

Valued Squirrel

We made a mistake of going to the “Entertainers”, a trio who perform in the lounge of the same name at the Hyatt in Xian. They forever butchered many of my favourite songs…

Be afraid ... very afraid

I meant to post about this. I mean, really, who names their water: “WAHAHA?”


At least you can’t miss the sign to get you to Kowloon (Hong Kong):

Get on the train!

Chinglish isn’t escapable, even at the Chinese/Hong Kong SAR border crossing:

No Flowing Back

One of these is the actual border between China and Hong Kong SAR. I have no idea where the heck it is, as it’s no longer marked:

Somewhere around the Hong Kong border

Somewhere around the Hong Kong border

Somewhere around the Hong Kong border

Somewhere around the Hong Kong border

Rogue vendors are so bad in some areas that private property owners try to keep them out with signs like these:

No Hawking

Ferry traffic!

Boat traffic in Hong Kong Harbour

Our hotel in Kowloon was next to the Avenue of Stars, sort of like the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I found a few names I know:

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Avenue of Stars in Kowloon

Jackie Chan apparently heavily sponsors California Fitness. He’s probably an owner.

Jackie Chan plugs Hollywood Fitness

Inside our favourite dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong:

Mmmm... dim sum

We had this at a sushi restaurant in Chiba. We thought it was some weird pickled eel. It was eggplant:

It was still tasty

Crossing Russia in 18 hours

This morning we took the Shanghai Maglev train from Pudong to the International airport. This thing goes up to 431 km/hour and takes only 7 minutes to make the trip. I took some video out the window, so hopefully it turns out.

However, this got me thinking. If we had one of these between Calgary and Edmonton, it would be about a 40 minute trip, more or less.

And if one ran between Moscow and Beijing, well, you could do the entire trip non-stop in about 18 hours.


Crossing the Russia – Mongolia border by train

We knew this was going to be rough. We knew this was going to be long. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be, but it was still long.

We took Train 364 (formerly 264) from Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar. (The train itself runs Irkutsk to UB.) As we would find out, the whole train doesn’t go to Mongolia — only the cars that contain passengers going to Mongolia. We found this out when we got to the Naushki station, on the Russian/Mongilian border.

The Russians started shunting our car around. I think this was mostly to kill time. Why else would they continually back up, go forward, back up, go forward, and so forth for about an hour? Incidentally, Russian cars (as Amy and I decided) are not built for the harsh conditions of operation in Russia. They’re built to withstand the abuse from the engineers. I thought they were going to shake the whole car apart!

We finally ended up, alone, completely separate from the rest of the train:

All alone, sitting out in the open

As we would also decide later, this was because our car was the only one going to Mongolia. The other cars were part of the train that terminated at Naushki, and would return to Irkutsk with new passengers.

And so began our wait. And wait we did. It would be a few hours before we saw anyone official-like board our train. At first, it was just someone to check our passports and make sure they were in order. That was a quick check. It was easily two more hours past that before the real officials came out. (When they did, soliders closed down the platform — you couldn’t go out there until you were supposed to be out there.) While we waited, we amused ourselves by watching a pile driver:

How do these things work, anyway?

Yes, we were that bored.

With the final forms filled out (the exit customs form) and our passports, stamped, we resumed our waiting.

Six hours after we got there, we finally left, a single car towed by a lonely diesel locomotive out to Sukhbaatar, 21 kilometres inside the Mongolian border.

The station at Sukhbaatar

To wait some more.

After a couple of hours, the Mongolians started to let us in. This involved three forms (entry/exit form, health form, and customs form). After the health form was signed, we got scammed into US$10 health insurance. I’ve heard this is bogus, but we were too tired to care at that point. In between the official stamping of passports, we received a barrage of people who wanted to exchange our rubles for togrogs — which we’d already done in Naushki. They kept at is, the same people asking many times, despite us saying (more and more loudly every time) that we have none!

Finally, passports stamped (using their hands as the table for stamping, despite one being in the cabin), we finally left Sukhbaatar for Ulaan Baatar.

Total crossing time: 10 hours. Ish.

Luckily, mostly done during the day. The other way, I gather it’s mostly at night. Ugh!

More Russian train stuff

Okay, quick update…

So CWR doesn’t exist coast-to-coast. After we left Ekaterinburg, we went to jointed rail. CWR exists in patches along the line, but the most of it is the ol’ clickety-clack variety.

Lots more freight trains, too.

Russian engines are huge, but have the wimpiest horns you ever heard! Sounds like those little steam whistles on old-fashioned popcorn makers.

Fun with border crossings, part one

On May 19, we boarded train 264 from Ulan Ude in Russia to Ulaan Baatar.

Train 264

We had read that the border crossing would be an intolerable 10 hour process, typically performed in the middle of the night. To my surprise and delight (if one can be delighted at sitting on a rail car for 10 hours without moving), we cleared Naushki in only 6 hours and made it to Sukhbaatar with a decent amount of daylight.

The station house at Sukhbaatar

As Geoff already posted, sitting in the car could be painful at times… for him. I was perfectly cool, comfortable, and able to knit. So I did. I knit about half of a shawl. And it kept me pretty darn happy. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the mild weather and the train windows that actually opened! You think I’m joking, but we’ve had some fairly uncomfortable train journeys that could have been vastly improved with a bit of a breeze.

Da svidanya Rossiya

Well, we’ve reached the end of our time here in Russia. Tomorrow morning, early, we’re off to Mongolia. And a 10+ hour border-crossing, so we’re told. It’s simultaneously a horror story and a quest of patience, so it seems.

After we arrived last night, literally 10 minutes into being in our new hotel room, the phone rang. It was “Helga from St. Petersburg”. Being more than just a little out of it, I assumed Helga was our tour operator, and was arranging our tour for tomorrow. She said she would be in the hotel, and we could meet her in the “cafeteria” (more like a bar with food). This was great since she had our train tickets to Ulaan Baatar, and would give us the details for our tour to the Datsun — the Buddhist template near Ulan Ude.

We walked into the cafe (as it’s referred to) about 20 minutes later only to find, much to our deep surprise, Helga — the woman we’d met in St. Petersburg whom we’d tried very desperately to avoid. (Helga had originally asked for all the details of our trip so she could tag along with us, not wanting to do the trip alone. We weren’t particularly happy about that, since we’d spent so much time and effort planning to this as a duo — not a trio.) This was not the surprise I’d wanted.

Since Helga had some of the information we needed, we opted to talk with her until she left for her homestay, some distance from the Hotel Geser. Why did she have all this information? She ran into the tour guide we were using, and had signed up for the same tour to the Datsun.

The trip out today was quite nice, actually. Ulan Ude is in a steppe valley, which is wide, expansive, and fairly flat. It’s dominated more by dacha (small cottages). Otherwise, short grasses and free-roaming animals (cows, goats, horses) which are “owned” by the local buryat inhabitants. The region we’re in is named for them: Buryatia. They’re an offshoot of Mongolian society, who’ve decided not to be nomadic and settle permanently.

The result of the Mongolian influence in this area brings the Buddhism, which is what we’d planned to see today. Ivolginsky Datsun dates back only to 1947, when Stalin (of all people!) allowed limited religious practices for recognized minorities, such as the buryats.

On the 30 km drive out to the Datsun, our guide Ilyena (I believe that was her name) attempted to explain the history of Ulan Ude, the general environment around us, and the basics of Buddhism. All of which Helga continually interrupted with questions — some decent, but mostly inane. And annoying, since Ilyena was continually put off her speech, and found it difficult to continue. Thankfully, Amy and I have a good understanding of Buddhism, and had read much about the area through our guidebooks.

The Datsun itself is quite interesting. Because it was built only a little over a half century ago (and even then, the main temple burned down just before it initially was to open), most of the buildings are reminiscent of Soviet construction: big and stolid. Yet there is still a blending with Buddhist stylings, with all the statuary and stupas one would expect to find. Though here, they’re made of concrete and not wood or stone. The insides of the temples, though still Buddhist, borrow concepts from Russian churches (such as windows and high ceilings), a result of Russian influences on the Buryats when they tried to settle in the area.

There were few other tourists there than ourselves, so we had a fairly easy time getting around. Although Ivolginsky Datsun is the centre for Russian buddhism, it’s not heavily visited at all times. There are strong ties here with both Mongolia (which is a very powerful buddhist centre, so I’ve learned) and, of course, Tibet.

On the way back, we got to ask Ilyena a few questions. Well, to be most specific, Amy and I got to ask a few questions — Helga wouldn’t let up. To the point where she was outright challenging Ilyena about the differences between hardships under Soviet rule versus Helga’s post-war upbringing in the late 1940s – early 1950s. It was enough for me to bite my tongue — hard — and not suggest that Helga put a cork in it. It’s enough to ask questions, but an entirely different thing to disrespect your hosts by suggesting their troubles in life are trivial.

We finally ditched Helga, and picked up our train tickets for tomorrow, and went off to explore the rest of Ulan Ude. Admittedly, there isn’t much else to see in this city, save for two museums that aren’t easy to get to. Across the road from our end-point was a nice opera theatre that looked almost like it had been plucked out from Spain. Next door to that was the Mongolian Embassy.

Mongolian Embassy in Ulan Ude and the opera house

Down the road (to the south) was the GUM department store and market — of which there wasn’t much. However, there were delectable blinni — which are crepe-like panckages filled with (in our case) cheese and ham. The pedestrian mall took us down to a recently-renovated church, before we walked back towards our hotel, and the world’s largest Lenin head.

Big dead Lenin and head and I

Why is the world’s largest Lenin head in Ulan Ude? Got me. I can see it from this computer. It’s HUGE. It’s at least two storeys tall. The body, if there were one, would tower over Ulan Ude. Vlad-zilla!

We’re preparing for tomorrow’s trip. Not just with supplies (food and water), but also mentally. Mongolians like to smuggle things across the border, and we need to be prepared for the possibility that they might try to muscle their way into our compartment — which we bought all the seats in to prevent us getting caught with smugglers.

Either way, the next time you hear from us, we’ll be in another country.

Ulan Ude, Buryatia

Well, we are here for our last non-mobile night in Russia in Ulan Ude, the capital of Russian Buryatia. We arrived last night after a too-long 7 hour daytime scenic train ride, exhausted and happy to be in a room with beds and a hot shower.

This morning, we met up with our guide from Baikal Naran Tour to head to Involgsk Datsan, the center of russian Buddhism near Ulan Ude. The Datsan (monastery/temple) was beautiful and very peaceful, and I unfortunately only took film and 35mm photos there, nothing on digital to post. I’ve been inside various Buddhist temples in Japan and Thailand and North America, but the Russian flavour was quite different, with high ceilings, quilts on the ceiling, and skylights. It was beautiful and well worth the time and effort in getting there.

After our tour ended, around 1, we walked around the downtown core of Ulan Ude. A city of almost 500,000 now, 380,000 in 2001 when our guidebook was published, Ulan Ude is large and spread out, but the downtown core is fairly compact and easy to walk.

We stopped for quite a bit at this spectacular opera and ballet theater. It reminded me more of something to be seen in Spain or Austria than in Siberia.

The main theater in Ulan Ude

Walking up Ulitsa Lenina, we strolled along another pedestrian mall and through the central market (disappointing compared to Kazan) to this church which sparkled in the afternoon sunlight.

Main Church in Ulan Ude

And of course, no tour of Ulan Ude would be complete without a visit to Russia’s largest “Head of Lenin”, dominating the central square.

Largest Lenin Head

We’ve been particularly blessed with weather. While yesterday, on the train, was dreary and rainy, today was beautifully mild and sunny.

Hot enough for sunglasses

After this quick post, we head back to the hotel to get our food and packing sorted for tomorrow’s VERY EARLY train. Leaving just before 1am Moscow time, 6am local time, it’s earlier than we’re used to on this trip. But at least we should have hot showers in the morning!

This train, I am particularly nervous about. We’ve booked the entire 4 bunk compartment, but we’ve also heard some stories from other travellers about mongolian traders trying to take over every available space in every compartment, whether or not they actually are staying in that compartment. We’re hoping to just keep the door locked and secured and hope it’s more calm than that. OK, to be honest, we’ve only heard of one traveller with this problem, a lady from Wales we met in the hotel today. Our Aussie acquaintences in Irkutsk never mentioned this problem. So, here’s hoping! Either way, I will be very glad when our guide meets us in Ulan Baatar.

The last Russian stop

We’re in Ulan Ude now, having arrived a bit later last night than scheduled. (Mind you, it took a half hour to walk from the train to the hotel.)

It’s a nice little city of about a half million … and no birch trees!!! Finally.

We’ll be here until early tomorrow morning, when we leave for Mongolia. I’m not particularly looking forward to such an early morning, I’ll tell you.

Slept mostly on the train, which was about the only way to pass through the pain. It’s a six and a half hour trip from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, a distance of no more than 300 km (straight-line, that is). The train needs to take a few bendy twists going through the mountains, pass through a couple of tunnels, and then plods along at an agonizingly slow 50 km/h (estimated). I think we topped out at a few places around 80.

The eastern shore of Lake Baikal was frozen — ice as far as you could see. The exact opposite of what we’d seen in Listvyanka two days ago. It looks like it’s thawing quickly, though, so it shouldn’t be long before the clear waters show through.

Two of our housemates in Irkutsk (a pair of Aussies) told us two things: 1) that we’d love Mongolia (something we’d both strongly suspected), and 2) China would wear us down fast. It’s chaotic, the toilets are disaster areas (that actually scares us), the “queues” aren’t, and pretty much everything we’d wanted to see is buried under scaffolding. It seems everyone is upgrading this year.

We’re just waiting for our tour to start today — we actually got a guide for here — and will be back later with more. Stay tuned…