Wednesday, September 30, 2015


We expected only to have one day in Moscow, depending on how early we could get there in the morning. But, we got to Vladimir a day ahead of our original plan and discovered that we could get a room above Moscow's “Belorussky” train station, so we took a late-afternoon train from Vladimir. We rode the continuation of our super-duper fast train from Nizhny Novgorod, but this time the ticket agent didn’t give us a choice of classes and we ended up riding “Luxe,” which isn’t as deluxe as you might guess. It was perfectly fine, but we spent the entire two-plus hours watching in amazement the huge queue of people waiting to use the restroom. I guess there must have been a lot of people in our train car, and apparently they’d all had tea at the station. Fortunately, we didn’t need to join that crowd.

View from our window over the train station. Click on it and then go right for more.
Relieved to discover that our hotel was clean and perfectly normal, we asked the charming desk clerk for a recommendation of a restaurant for dinner. We said that we were open to any cuisine, but that we wanted something interesting. She ventured, with great enthusiasm to suggest an American-style diner, a hamburger joint with plenty of chrome and waitresses in 50’s-style uniforms. While this wasn’t what we had in mind, she presented her idea with such enthusiasm that we really couldn’t refuse. She beamed with delight when we said we’d go there.

It was great. Anachronistic, of course, but delightful. I started with a chocolate-banana milkshake and went on to have a perfectly cooked hamburger with southwestern salsa. The burgers came with fries and ketchup. I wouldn’t ordinarily eat any of this stuff, but what the heck: we’re on vacation. Rock-n-roll music played from a fake jukebox. We had a ball.

We left the window open in our room over the train tracks so we could hear the trains coming and going. It seemed like the right thing to do on a railroad vacation, and the open window let out the smoke smell that kept drifting into our room from I-don’t-know-where. Anyway, I liked having the train announcements leak into my dreams.

I don’t really have much to say about Moscow. We only had a day there, so we spent it near Red Square, the Kremlin and the Arbat. The weather turned cold on us, but we walked over 30,000 steps and saw lots of great stuff. I put a few pictures onto my photo site. The only thing about the day that I might call noteworthy was the amount of effort it took us to get inside the Kremlin. We passed numerous places that looked like ticket offices or entrances before we found the right door. Then, after we paid and headed in, a guard sent me back because I had a rucksack. Never mind that it’s smaller than Carrie’s purse and that it was empty at the time. It was a rucksack and I had to check it. The whole procedure took much longer than we expected.

I’m sure that Carrie will have cogent things to say about the touristic aspects of Moscow and I’ll let you know when she does. (Here you go.) But for now, we’re off to see Minsk.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Vladimir and Suzdal

Carrie already said everything I hoped to say about Vladimir. Although I imagined it to be simply a gateway to Suzdal, I too enjoyed Vladimir as a destination unto itself. We enjoyed a very pleasant Sunday morning there before moving on to Suzdal.

Suzdal felt to me something between a living museum and a tourist Mecca. According to the brochure our hotel gave us, there was once some sort of a competition going on between neighborhoods and everybody strove to have an amazing church close to home. Most of those churches remain to this day and many of them are in excellent condition. The town continues to put money and effort into restoring and maintaining the rest of the properties because by now 50% of the residents work directly in the tourist industry.

Even in this shoulder season, it felt to us like tourists outnumbered the locals on the streets, perhaps heavily. We did manage to get off the beaten paths from time to time. For example, today we wandered off to an outlying church undergoing renovation. It was on the town’s periphery and we had no compelling reason to go there. Soon after we arrived, however, we saw some high drama. We watched in horror as some guy ran down the street trying to catch up to his car, which was rolling backwards at an accelerating pace. He overtook the driver’s door as another car came driving up the street in the opposite direction. The runner avoided getting struck by the oncoming car and tried to open the door of his own car. I was afraid he’d be swept up by the open door chasing him downhill, but didn’t have to worry because the door was locked shut. The runner tried to stop his car anyway, by tugging on the door handle, but he ran out of time before his car smashed into a parked car. Carrie discouraged me from taking pictures of this mishap after the fact, but it involved a lot of damage. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that all the other tourists missed this spectacle.

We had a good time in that museum of a town, and now we’re approaching Moscow on another fast train for our last stop in Russia. We bought seats in “luxe” this time, which appears to mean third class. That doesn’t mean we don’t like it. It’s great, though a little crowded. There’s been a big queue at the restroom the whole trip. I’m glad I didn’t need to go. Here comes our station…

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Get me outta here!

Years ago, I met a returning MacArthur scholar on an airplane to the USA from Russia. She had spent her time studying in the historic Golden Ring cities near Moscow, and told me that most of all, she enjoyed Nizhny Novgorod. Naturally, I wanted to go there in spite of the city’s lukewarm description in my guidebook. I was not so sure, however, when we arrived this morning. In fact, my first thought was of escape.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t escape because we had already bought our onward tickets, choosing seats on the fast train departing late afternoon. We had to make the best of our seven hours. While Carrie may have preferred a taxi to the town’s kremlin (fortress), I guided her to the bus stop, surprisingly far from the train station. The trip to the bus stop did nothing to dispel our doubts because almost everything in Nizhny Novgorod is crumbling, if not dilapidated. Our bus qualified for “dilapidated,” though it got us where we wanted to go. We started in Gorky Square so we could walk up a pedestrian avenue to the kremlin. We enjoyed a pleasant walk, generally among pretty buildings in mild disrepair. It appeared that the whole street might have received major renovations just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that few funds had been directed to the city since then.

When we reached the kremlin, we bought all-inclusive tickets allowing us to walk around the top of the wall and visit the towers. Each tower held a little museum, but unfortunately, the museums didn’t compare to the museums we’d just visited in Kazan. The first museum amused us because we imagined that the museum guides filled the space with stuff they’d found in their basements and back yards. After a couple of these museums, though, we merely glanced in the next ones, focusing on our walk on the wall.

We didn’t get to walk all the way around the wall because the section along the riverbank was collapsing. It had not yet collapsed, but when we saw it from the outside, we agreed with the decision not to allow people to walk there. Fortuitously, we found an excellent restaurant not far from the wall here, and came back for a delicious lunch with an excellent view.

The best parts of today have been our train rides. So far, each train has been better than all previous trains. Last night we took a sleeper from Kazan to Nizhny Novgorod. Our compartment had an electrical outlet, storage cabinets, excellent beds and linens, and other superior features including gleaming bathrooms. Now we’re in a snazzy train called a Sapsan, rocketing toward Vladimir at 142 km/h. The very attentive staff has taken every opportunity to feed us and give us small non-alcoholic beverages. Everything is grand.

Last picture of the day: Blogging. ~~ From 2015-09 Beijing-to-Minsk

Friday, September 25, 2015

Kazan (Казань) 2

From 2015-09 Beijing-to-Minsk
We spent another day walking around Kazan, concentrating on another part of town. We found lots of incredible European architecture, often dating to Tsar Nicholas just before World War I. I don't want to bury you in pictures, but clicking this picture should take you to the right part of my photo site. (Continue to the right to see more.)

Due to unfortunate timing, it took us three tries to get inside of the mosque. Meanwhile, we walked eastward from the Kremlin and along the riverside. We stopped to look at a church we saw on our map and noticed another building behind it, apparently some sort of a trade union, in stunning Art Nouveau architecture. Of course we had to go see it. And once we finished admiring that, we noticed some amazing apartment buildings up ahead, probably from the same era. By the time we got that far, we decided to continue along the riverside until the end of the riverwalk, below a music school and concert hall in the only ugly building we've seen in this otherwise delightful city.

On our way back, we found ourselves in a bake shop run by a monastery. The sales lady gave us several things to sample and we bought a few more. We enjoyed a leisurely break.

Finally, we arrived at the mosque when they were receiving visitors. We liked the inside almost as much as we liked the outside, and we especially enjoyed the little museum in the basement of the mosque. A historical computer simulation showed what the inside of the kremlin had looked like at various times over the centuries. We thought it looked a lot more interesting without the big square Soviet buildings occupying much of the space now. A lot of good stuff got cleared out to make way for those office buildings.

Now we're waiting to go and board our train for Nizhny Novgorod. More adventures await.

EDIT: For a fuller explanation of what's great about Kazan, see Carrie's post.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kazan (Казань)

We arrived in Kazan yesterday afternoon and immediately fell in love with the place. Physically, it’s beautiful. The city features ornate classical architecture, rich colors, gorgeous vistas, a diverse and friendly populace, delicious food and pretty much everything our hearts might desire. To make it even sweeter, Carrie found a fantastic deal on a couple of hotel rooms at the Nogai hotel. She got such a good deal that we were a little worried, but our rooms are way beyond satisfactory, the staff is nice and the location very convenient.

Just down the street from our hotel we found an Uzbek restaurant, but we ignored it because we were looking for something known only to locals. The folks at the front desk sent us back, saying we should have dinner there. Ooh, this turned out well, indeed. We had a delicious meal in a beautiful environment, served by a funny and highly effective waitress. We liked it so much, we decided to return tonight because we wanted to try one of the dishes they demand a few hours to prepare. We asked them to have one ready at 7 p.m.

So, today we walked some 23,000 steps, touring the Kremlin and taking some walking tours elsewhere from our map. Everywhere we looked, we found stuff we wanted to photograph. We got carried away, of course, but I’ve tried to be a little humble about what I put onto my online photo site. (You’ll have to scroll down past China, Mongolia and Irkutsk to find the Kazan pictures.) The pictures tell most of the story. I can only add something about how much we like this city. We had imagined that Mongolia would be our peak experience on this tour, and it may well be, but Kazan rivals Mongolia for us in terms of overall delight. We're amazed that we don't hear people talking about this place when they name their favorite cities. Carrie and I probably will.

At the end of the day, we returned for our special-order dinner; 2.6 kilograms of meat, sauce and potatoes inside of a beautiful pastry shell. The waitress wanted to sell us 3 kg and told us that 2.5 kg was the minimum. That’s what we shot for. Anyway, we really liked it and we even ate most of it. Nevertheless, we could have shared it easily with a third person. Where were you?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Patriotic fervor

As I write this, I’m on a “signature” train dashing from Irkutsk to Kazan’. The train is gorgeous and everybody in our wagon seems dignified and friendly. Any of them would make good roommates. Our actual roommates are a couple of doctors, parasitologists, on their way to a conference. They keep pretty much to themselves, but they’re certainly courteous, thoughtful and pleasant. They also sleep later than either Carrie or I. I fled the compartment first, overcome by the heat accumulating up there in my upper berth. Carrie ultimately tracked me down to say that the restaurant car, while not officially open, was unlocked and pleasant.

Since then, we’ve been hanging out, off-and-on, in the restaurant car all day. The restaurant crew works for a private company owned by an unspecified oligarch. Being around them so early in the morning, we came to understand their esprit de corps and we’ve gotten to know a few of them by name. So after Carrie went back to the compartment this afternoon, I went over and asked to sit down with one of the kitchen guys and a railway fellow chatting with him.

Presently, my interlocutors found out that I’m American. The railway guy offered his derogatory and racist opinion of President Obama and then the kitchen guy explained why Russia is behaving so aggressively toward America. He said that it’s in the Russian nature to give, and give generously. But, if that same person were to reach out and take something, that Russian guy would chop his hand off immediately. To emphasize the point, he explained Russian strength. He asserted that you could take any American soldier, with his fancy uniform, electronic apparatus attached to his breast and weird gear on his helmet; and if he threatened the nationalism of a drunk Russian villager, the drunk Russian would break the G.I. in half. Russians are that strong, he affirmed.

The more he talked, the more heated he became. I said nothing except to answer or dodge one or two questions. When they asked me if I thought Russia were an aggressor, I answered honestly and openly. I said yes, I think both Russia and America are acting like aggressors and I’d like to see the end of it. My tact didn’t overcome my honesty, and it fired up the guys even more. I got a better opening later, allowing me to address the kitchen worker individually. I pointed out that he and I had white hair and opined that we know better than most people that we weren’t always right in our lives. We may have thought so when we were young, but now we’re not so sure. He nodded in agreement. I continued, explaining that since we know we might be wrong, we also know that we should listen to each other so we can find out where we may be mistaken.

After a while, the train guy asked me why I came over to their table in the first place. I explained to him that I’d been in the restaurant car early this morning and came to understand that the staff might be better understood as a band than as a team of coworkers and I found it pleasant. My companion had left the dining car and I had the choice between returning and hanging out with “my own,” or else going over to talk to somebody with a new point of view. I chose the latter. “Right!,“ Dmitry exclaimed. At this moment, we introduced ourselves to each other and the conversation turned. Now they want to drink vodka with me this evening, so I had to explain how disappointing I am to my Belarusian friends, but I just don’t drink. It’s OK. Vladimir and Dmitri treat me now as a friend, and I’m grateful for their goodwill. We know we’re friends as people, even if in some respects our countries are at loggerheads.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Woods, city, train

Carrie won’t let me fold the tickets. We’re waiting for our fast train from Irkutsk to Kazan’, and this is the first time she’s seen Russian train tickets. (The same as we use in Belarus.) They really are beautiful, hard to counterfeit; much like banknotes. It’s fun traveling with her, as our similarities far outweigh our differences. We’re family, after all.

This morning we debated our options, to take a boat ride or take a hike. The day started out cold enough that the hike sounded like a good idea. Besides, it was easy because we chose our hotel specifically because it’s near a trailhead to the Great Baikal Trail. By the time we got back down, we felt confident that we’d made a good choice. We didn’t get any lake views at all until we reached our intended turnaround time, but the forest there is gorgeous so we didn’t lack for things to look at and exclaim over.

The forest included a mix primarily of birch and pine trees, with ferns and an unknown big-leafed plant dominating the undergrowth. The birch trees displayed their fall colors and the pines, of course, remained green. Below, the ferns had browned and the big-leafed plants mostly retained their green, with occasional red leaves for variety.

Carrie struggled with the humidity, even on this autumnal day. Our hike mostly ran up a steep hill, and she tried not to sweat. Her glasses fogged up first, and ultimately she gave up, took off her glasses, and accepted some sweat in the interests of fast progress. When we reached the top of the hill, we got views of the lake, but we couldn’t quite make out where the lake ended and the horizon began. Still, we felt like we’d reached a good turnaround place and we needed to get back anyway.

By the time we returned to our inn, the day had turned fine. And to Carrie’s delight, the innkeeper let her take a shower even though the maid had already finished straightening out all the empty rooms. I gave the innkeeper an unneeded fleece jacket, which she accepted enthusiastically. I thought she might offer it to a guest in need later on, but it’s clear that she likes it too much to give away. It has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on it, so it’s unique here.

It’s been a great day. After our hike, we had lunch at a super-friendly little restaurant and made friends with another taxi driver on our way back to Irkutsk. He gave me a couple of historic coins, and I promised to send him a $2 bill I set aside in Minsk to give away one day to the right person. This guy has been dreaming of seeing a $2 bill since he heard of them from a client years ago.

Here in Irkutsk, we walked around for a while and visited a regional museum. Now we’re just waiting. I paid a dollar to the station manager to charge my phone for an hour. That’s not long enough, but I’m not willing to pay for more. I’ll be offline for a couple of days unless there’s an outlet on our train. See you then!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Change of plans

We (Carrie) had an insight that we might be able to find a train directly to Kazan if we ask the right person. I tried really hard last night and couldn’t find anything, but we thought that we had enough attractive stuff ahead of us that we could skip Perm if we found a good enough route to Kazan. Apparently I spelled Kazan the wrong way when I did my search, because the lady at the train station found a super-fast train directly there. We asked lots of questions because suddenly we were going to travel a lot faster than we expected and we were afraid that there might be some other Kazan or maybe that funny-sounding station on our tickets referred to something else altogether. Nope, we’re really getting to Kazan in less than three days. This pleases us because it means we can spend more time in other places where we originally skimped.

Fresh from our victory, we set out to find the marshrutka from the train station to the bus station. I also wanted an ATM, but that’s another story and I’m loathe to tell it. (I should have used the ATM at the train station even though it wouldn’t give me as much money as I wanted.) Anyway, a taxi driver named Alexander told us where to wait for the marshrutka. He also asked our nationality and paused when he learned that we were Americans. Then he said that we’re all people, he has no animosity toward ordinary people, and maybe we’d be better off letting him take us all the way to Listvyanka. It was a beautiful ride and we’re glad we saved the time.

We took a long walk along the shore of Lake Baikal, stopping for lunch and finding an ATM farther on. Much farther on, actually. We walked over 20,000 steps, according to Carrie’s FitBit. Mostly, we walked on pavement, and my legs are tired. They can relax on the train beginning tomorrow night. As we returned to the hotel, we found a little market just past our intersection. They had plenty of fish; plus fruits, vegetables, amber jewelry and souvenirs. Originally, we intended to hike a bit of the Great Baikal Trail tomorrow, but after today’s extended walk we probably won’t go very far, saving a few more minutes to explore the market. I love open-air markets. And, we want to save some time to see more of Irkutsk before our train leaves. Irkutsk offers many interesting things to see and do.

Friday, September 18, 2015

From Mongolia to Siberia

You know we liked Mongolia. It was hard to leave, but we had other places to go and a train journey to begin.

We rode a Chinese train (Train number 3) from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I’m told that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all, so I won’t say much about the train. The best thing about it was that we got a whole compartment to ourselves and could reposition ourselves as often as we wanted in order to enjoy the best views. We did enjoy the views, beginning with Mongolia and ending with Lake Baikal. It’s already autumn up here in Siberia and the birch trees are beginning to turn yellow and red and pretty.

Siberia feels different. Different from Mongolia, of course, and different from Belarus and even different from what I remember of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. We see many Asian faces here, and people have been unusually forthcoming in offering us help finding our way and doing various things. We like it, and plan to spend an extra day in Irkutsk because we want to see more of it and we can give up one of our nights in Perm. We have to take an inconvenient train to make the schedule work, however, because tickets are nearly sold out on the train I hoped to take. It’s OK. We’re having a good time.

More photos here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ending the trek with a flourish

We certainly did enjoy the monastery I mentioned in my last real post. If Carrie says much about it, I’ll link to her blog here. As for myself, I’ll just summarize by saying that a kind monk gave us a very thorough tour and explained the religious significance of the fixtures. It was a beautiful and interesting tour, but here I want to dwell on the hospitality we have enjoyed in Mongolia.

We spent our last night on the road as guests in another ger, this time in a little settlement with ten or twelve gers and a permanent bathroom with two toilets, two showers and four sinks. When we arrived, our host family invited us into their adjacent ger to enjoy fresh Mongolian pocket breads with lamb “sweetmeats” inside. (Kidneys, I think.) Our hosts made sure we were comfortable, increasing the water pressure when they saw us in the bathroom, covering our ger for the night when it got cold, and otherwise making us feel welcome and cared for.

Meg continued in her own way to care for us; for example, with delicious and extravagant dishes at every meal. On the day we went to the temple, she even took us out to lunch and ordered a sampling of traditional dishes from a menu we couldn’t have even read.

I don’t know why we doubted, then, when Meg announced that we’d look for some nomads when the weather turned chilly as we approached our intended picnic site on the shore of Ogii Lake. I would have been happy enough eating in the van where we parked overlooking the lake, but instead we barreled down a bumpy dirt track and across unmarked steppe to find nomads who hadn’t yet moved away from the area. We lit upon a family preparing to move. They had already loaded most of their stuff onto trucks, but they still had a ger standing and Meg went to introduce herself. Carrie and I were timid about getting out of the van, not wanting to force ourselves upon unprepared or unwilling hosts.

The family, however, took us in like long-lost relatives. They sat us down in their ger and presented us with salty milk tea and a plate heaped with sweet crispy shapes made from dried cheese. I’ve never had anything like those cheese snacks, and I enjoyed snacking on them as Meg prepared lunch for everybody. The nomads dug out a huge pot from the stuff they’d packed onto their truck and Meg made a vegetable-beef stew, noodles and mashed potatoes. We took photos and pantomimed gestures of goodwill at each other. Carrie and I had a great time. I was sorry I’d already run out of Belarusian souvenirs. I had not imagined we’d experience anything like this.

I delighted in the landscape and the views during our ride back to Ulaanbaatari just as much as I’d relished them on the way out of the city. But this time, it felt different. Meg, Temuulen and Ogi had become dear to us, and we rode with family. Temuulen lay across the back seat, resting on Meg and me, trying to teach me to speak Mongolian. Ogi grinned into the mirror. Carrie chatted with Meg about Mongolia and about life.

We’re spending our last few hours in Ulaanbaatar now, updating our blogs. Carrie and I haven’t spoken much yet today, but we agree on one thing: We want to return to Mongolia.

From 2015-09 Beijing-to-Minsk

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My night of wreckage

There will be no pictures for this blog post because most of the action took place under cover of darkness. I am surprised that everybody is being so nice to me after what happened.

It all started when we went to bed in our ger, or Mongolian tent. We’re spending the night in a little ger community, and we have three beds. Our guide and her daughter took one bed, and Carrie and I took the other two. Our driver slept in his van. Everybody in our ger went to bed around 11:00, some reading later than others. Certainly, however, everybody was asleep when my phone rang around midnight. It didn’t just ring, either. Somehow the volume rested on maximum, so the phone fairly bellowed.

I snaked out of my sleeping bag and lurched over to the phone, which finally responded to my second or third attempt to answer Alla’s call. She’d been confused about how recently she’d missed my call and thought it would be OK to call me at midnight. I mangled the Russian language in my attempt to explain that she’d awoken an entire village and then I went off to the community restroom, which has flush toilets.

When I came back, I silenced my phone and went back to bed, wondering whether I’d remembered to latch the door but deciding not to thrash around anymore because the door squeaked and I hoped to notice if an intruder intruded. Some hours later, the door indeed squeaked and I could see that it wasn’t fully closed. Uh-oh. I couldn’t see inside our ger and I didn’t want to be a jerk and shine my flashlight on the other beds so I decided to go to the restroom again and I’d worry only if I didn’t encounter one of us there.

The door of our ger community was tied shut. Huh. Nobody could have just gone to the toilet through that gate. I looked around, peed on the fence and returned to bed, locking the door. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard a tugging on our door. I looked. A flashlight went on, lighting up the crack between the door and frame. More tugging. I slithered out of bed again, and found Carrie outside, trying patiently to solve her problem.

In the morning, I went out to the bathroom and took a shower. Carrie came in as I shaved. Presently she called to me from the other side of a door, asking for toilet paper. I went to get some, but couldn’t find any inside the ger. I tried to get some from the van instead, but Ogi had locked the door. He woke up saw me at the window, rolled over and fell off the seat in a tangle of blankets. Still half asleep, he then proceeded to fall over the back seat in his efforts to fish some TP from the cargo area. This completed my night’s work, since he’d probably been too far from the ger to benefit from my previous efforts.

I’ll try to be less destructive in the coming days.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nomadic days

Carrie and I are bouncing across Mongolia in a very rugged Russian minivan whose design probably hasn’t changed since Soviet times. Ogi, our driver, has added a second fuel tank, some Buddhist religious devices and a lot of cigarette-lighter sockets for the convenience of passengers with the right adapters. I got out my computer because we’re now on a paved road, but that doesn’t make it smooth. Yesterday we spent many hours on dirt roads in the Hustai National Park. We saw some small wild horses, the ancestors of today’s horses, and we visited a field of stone monuments left by the Turks who occupied Mongolia before the time of Genghis Khan.

These interesting details were the things of guidebooks but we experienced much more. Fragrances, for example. We walked on aromatic herbs that perfumed the air as we traveled, and we slept in a ger breathing the aroma of the horse-milk yogurt brewing at the foot of my bed. We picnicked in a sunny field with mountains ahead of us, cashmere goats and Turkish relics to one side and tree-dappled foothills to the other. Many people brightened our day: Meg, the guide; her precocious and enthusiastic five-year-old daughter Termulin; Ogi the driver and even the most-amazing Altaa, who owns the ger and maintains a Buddhist temple originally built by her ancestors, destroyed by the Soviets and restored by her mother.

We hiked up this morning to visit the ruins of many other Buddhist temples in the hills behind the ger where we slept. Persecution drove Buddhists farther and farther into the hills, and when they got driven out their temples began to decay. Near one temple, we found a bush particularly filled with the delicious little red berries we started sampling yesterday. We feasted on them until Meg reminded us that we still had places to go and things to see. That’s why I’m writing in the car. I don’t expect to have much down time, and I’ll want to be on my feet in this beautiful land as much as possible once we stop.

The last time we stopped, Meg gave us camel rides. I’d heard stories about camels being cantankerous creatures, but ours cooperated nicely. They got down onto their knees so we could mount, and then stood up gracefully to walk. We sat on blankets between the humps, cushioned by the camels’ thick and rich fur. I wove the fingers of my left hand into the oily wool on my camel’s front hump, and rested my other hand on the smoother hairs of her flank.

Now we’re approaching a monastery. A young monk in red robes runs towards us on the road. It’s time to get out.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Coming to grips with Mongolia

Mongolia, so far, hasn’t been such an easy trip as China. Things started out easily enough, as we left Beijing on the Mongolian airline, MIAT. Regular readers will remember that due to a change in train schedule, our train journey had to start with this plane ride. Anyway, everybody was very easy-going, and they didn’t hassle anybody about bringing lots of luggage onto the plane, they let me use my computer onboard though their announcement forbade it, and we got the impression that everything is grand at least until something goes wrong.

We landed early, and probably got outside the airport sooner than our driver expected. We told our innkeeper we'd land at 1:00 and, in fact, we walked outside the airport at about 1:00. A number of drivers and friends waited for their passengers but nobody waited for us. Taxi drivers hovered around hoping we’d turn to them for rescue. Knowing we were a little early, we waited until everybody had left. The only remaining driver wasn’t waiting for us, but she offered to help us reach the owner of our guesthouse. We tried too, throwing all possible resources into reaching this elusive woman, but to no avail. Finally we accepted the offer of one of the persistent taxi guys, who took us to the city.

For some reason Carrie had really wanted to stay at this place, and I acceded. Her reasons included price (super-duper) and accessibility to the guide and driver who will be with us for the coming days. My reticence related to the Spartan nature of the place, where we’d share a bedroom with a few strangers. As Carrie predicted, the strangers were nice. Nevertheless, altogether too many strangers shared one bathroom, one small common area, and very different schedules. Fortunately, I had earplugs and eyeshades, but I was relieved when Carrie said she’d enjoy staying somewhere else.

On our way to that somewhere else, we passed a super-fancy hotel. I asked Carrie to indulge me while I went to talk to the people at the desk. I told them we were on our way to check in elsewhere, but if they had a room or rooms to offer us on a last-minute basis, we’d be pleased to consider their offer. We ended up getting two humongous and gorgeous rooms at a bargain price. I’m very pleased.

Elsewhere in Ulaanbaatar, we’ve walked to and fro, checking out the City’s public spaces, monuments and streets. In addition, we’ve sampled Mongolian food, eaten delicious European-style food, and spent lots of time at the Choijin Lama Museum, which houses a lot of truly incredible Tibetan-Buddhist art. Finally, we visited an amusement park that wasn't as green as it looked on the map but it had a pretty exciting roller-coaster. I thought I'd ride this monster more than once, but it whipped my head around enough the first time that I decided to give my neck a rest. I think most of the other patrons feel the same way, because it's the first large roller-coaster I've ever seen without a waiting line.

Our tour of remote areas begins tomorrow. Our guide asked me to remind her what she promised us, and then she said she’d make sure we got it. I still worry a little bit about this laid-back Mongolian style. I’ll let you know when we get back how it worked out.

Choijin Lama Museum -- From 2015-09 Beijing-to-Minsk

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Gold medalist

Carrie and I went to hike the Great Wall at Mutianyu. She'd been there before and had in mind a long hike. We also wanted to slide down on mountain sleds, which ended up converting our long hike into a super-long hike, but the views were so amazing that it felt entirely worthwhile. It rained here yesterday and this morning, which cleared the air and revealed the beautiful mountain scenery surrounding this part of the wall. We started a little bit slowly, as our guide encouraged us to take more photos than we might otherwise. Then we shifted into overdrive and hiked so fast that poor jetlagged Carrie sent me off ahead. I made it almost to the place where the wall disappears into the undergrowth.

At one point I got passed by a Taiwanese tour guide, whose clients shouted something in Chinese as she shot by. I repeated it, and she said that it means "Go!," so I continued repeating my new word as we charged ahead. Finally she slowed down too, and I went up the steepest part alone, meeting a local woman selling souvenirs at the top. The souvenir lady wanted to take a picture with my camera, and she offered me a gold medal to wear for the photo. How could I resist? After she took several photos, in which I generally look extremely tired, she offered to sell me the medal. Since it was not gold, I did not jump at her original offer. Following Carrie's guidance, I negotiated an 80% discount and wore the medal for the rest of my time on the wall. As far as I can remember, it's my first medal ever, and I had a good time goofing with the tourists who teased me about it.

I kept the medal around my neck for a heroic ride down the hillside on the mountain sled. Although I waited a long time after the rider ahead of me, long after the starter set me free, I still caught up with slow riders partway down. Nevertheless, I got to go pretty fast several times. and would have been glad to go up and do it again. We didin't have time for that, though, because we wanted to get to the Lama temple before it closed and Carrie and I both needed banking services

After our banking adventure, which Carrie promises to write about, we went to the Lama Temple. This is a really beautiful place too, for entirely different reasons. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from inside. Each building delighted me in it's own way, and our route took us from the simply beautiful to the simply dazzling. We ended in a multi-story building with an enormous standing Buddha made from a single gigantic tree. Christina explained that the tree came from far away and that it had taken years to get it to the temple. I can't even imagine moving it today. It would require one of those jumbo BelAz mining trucks, a huge crane and wide roads.

Regretfully, we said goodbye to our guide at the end of the afternoon. She had been an entertaining companion for three days, a good sport and well organized. She sent us off with a bag of fragrant roasted chestnuts by which to remember her. Carrie and I plunged ahead with a long walk to a fancy shopping street so I could buy a gift for Alla. This took a long time because we decided to walk one or two subway stops to reach this shopping area and it turns out that Beijing subway stops aren't always very near to each other. I had to buy a peach along the way to keep me going until we finally got to sit down for dinner in a delightful little restaurant near our hotel. Nobody at the restaurant appeared to know a word of English, and somehow they didn't even understand Carrie's pointing to the tea section of the menu. They had several kinds of tea, and unable to choose one, she tried to indicate that anything from that section of the menu would be fine. The waitress brought her a bottle of water.

At last, I stayed up too late trying to finish this blog post before we would fly out to Montolia. I managed to re-establish a VPN connection to gain access to my Google sites and upload pictures, but didn't succeed in finishing my text before the kind people at the HuLu Hotel closed the lobby at midnight. We really liked the hotel. The rooms are outstanding, given the price; and the staff's kindness, knowledge and effectiveness exceeded all expectations. From the moment May acted as my advocate when the Chinese Embassy called from Minsk to the moment we said goodbye, all of the staff members took lavishly good care of us.

With any luck, I'll be able to upload this post once we reach Mongolia. I'm as excited about what's coming up as I am about what we saw and did yesterday.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

First day in China

​​I'm sitting in a little neighborhood restaurant in a hutong (alley) in Beijing. As far as I can tell, I'm the only one in the room who speaks English, and I'm having a great time. I ordered the fish stew because the picture looked good. Unfortunately, the menu gave no indication of size, and I think I got about four liters of soup. I could have invited the whole restaurant over to my table, but they already had food too.

I've had fun all day long, starting with taking the metro downtown from the airport. That was a lot easier than I feared.

My guide met me right away and took me to JingShan park to overlook the Forbidden City. Then we walked over to Beihai park, with the city's largest lake and a landmark white pagoda. I enjoyed the floral beauty of both parks, as well as the historical things they contain. (See photos!) Later, after eating too much for lunch, we enjoyed an amazing acrobatic show in the ChaoYang theatre. Finally, we came to TianAn'men Square to enjoy the flag lowering ceremory. It was a full day, almost entirely on foot, and I saw and learned a lot.

She's got more planned for tomorrow. Oh boy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Flying out of Warsaw

​The in-flight entertainment system cycles through maps of our intended route, which looks extremely familiar. We're flying, in eight hours, over the route Carrie and I will re-track in the opposite direction. Minsk, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Ulaanbaatar, Beijing. It's all there.

My seat-mate, Katerina, has only flown once before, so she asks me questions about what's normal. Is it always so hot inside an airplane before you take off? Can we watch movies on these screens? She won't let me take her picture, because I threatened that she'd show up on my blog and she didn't put on her make-up. She's pretty anyway, and like so many of the Katerinas and Katherines in my life, she's outgoing and friendly. She's off to spend a year at a university in Tianjin, studying Chinese language and literature. We hope nothing else will blow up while she's there. (But it turns out that her name is Karolina.)

This is a first for me, too; my first flight on a 787 Dreamliner. I like it, for the comfortable cabin, quiet engines, and a very smooth and quiet takeoff. I'll miss most of it though. I'm planning to sleep.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ready to launch

Over a year ago, my cousin Carrie Sheaffer announced on Facebook that she wanted to take a train trip across Siberia and she hoped to find fellow travelers. I’d wanted to do it too, but Alla understood it to be a crazy idea so my desire only simmered until I snatched Carrie’s invitation.

Honestly, I’m not a very good trip planner. Somehow, I’ve never needed to do it, but Carrie convinced me by example that I should get a clue about what I’d like to see. Actually, she scared me because if I didn’t participate in the planning, I’d be a guest on a trip she planned and I wasn’t sure our tastes would converge. It seemed more attractive to do some work toward an adventure we might call “our” trip. When we had a pretty good plan in place, I read some research suggesting that most travelers enjoy the anticipation of a trip as much as they enjoy the trip itself, and it made me realize how much fun I’ve already had reading guidebooks, scouring websites and talking to people in faraway places.

Planning with my cousin has also assured me that our tastes run in very similar directions, that we both feel flexible, and that we see the world in pretty much the same way as each other.

Flexibility came into play earlier than we expected, as the Mongolian train company changed their schedule after we bought our tickets to Beijing. We spent a couple of days trying to figure out how we could salvage our all-train itinerary when there weren’t any trains. I hoped to find some combination of commuter trains that would get us from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, but we concluded that no such thing exists. We did find a couple of blog stories about getting across the border where a Chinese sleeper bus comes not-close-enough to the Mongolian train system and you have to talk somebody into taking you across a no-man’s-land in a Jeep. I like adventures, but those stories fell well outside of my comfort range, and Carrie was kind enough to agree.

So we’re cheating. We have to fly from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, though Carrie had a hard time accepting it and I have twinges of regret too. In childhood we chanted, “Cheaters never prosper,” but I hope it won’t apply in this case. It’ll give us an extra day in Ulaanbaatar, and we’ll see more stuff there. I think it’ll be OK.

But first, I have to vacuum up as much Chinese culture as I can over three days in Beijing, where Carrie will come to meet me at the end of the week. I leave tomorrow.