After our lovely time in Volgograd, we had to return to Moscow in order to get into Eastern Europe (to Kyiv, Ukraine). If you look at a map (or the map above how bout), you'll notice that it's a sharp backwards turn to go Volgograd-Moscow-Kyiv (it's the part of the map that is like an A) and kind of silly when Volgograd to Kyiv directly would save hours and hours and make a lot more sense. But guess what's happening on that route? CRIMEA. Can't go through there! Ever since the Russian Federation annexed Crimea (in March 2014), pro-Russian protests in the region escalated to armed conflict between the separatist forces and the Ukrainian government. Thousands of people are fighting still and it's very dangerous. Russia is, as uzh, very cagey about everything bad it's doing, and it deny its presence in the region almost as often as it confirms that 'military specialists' are there. Russia is real trouble and we didn't want to reward its terribleness with more tourism money spent there, but we had no choice so back to Moscow we went.
After our long, challenging train journey from Uzbekistan, we arrived in the city of Volgograd, in the southwest of Russia, I mean it's roughly in that blobular section of the biggest most endless landmass that is old country. That's right, after almost three months, after traveling through Mongolia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, we made our way back to Mother Russia. And we were overjoyed to be back in a place where we sort of knew the language, and where we could reunite with the trappings of modernity, and where I could eat at an actual vegan restaurant. But I didn't realize how important a city Volgograd is, in critical and meaningful ways far beyond its current offerings of comfort for my spoiled behind, and I was and remain in awe of its history. I initially wanted to come here just to see the incredible, enormous statue pictured at left (or above if you're on your phone), but there's so, so much more to Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. We had a lovely few days here, learning more than I ever learned in school about World War II, exploring what the city has to offer today, and finding all the vegan food for me to eat.
After our time in Ulaan Baatar, we were eager to get out in the countryside and desert, because everyone said the best part of Mongolia was outside the city. Not hard to believe! Our 7-day trip seemed to cover a good mix of the country, not just lake like some did, not just Gobi desert like most others did. I knew it would be roughing it, but I was okay with that, because I figured it’s still a tourist company and they’ll make sure we at least have our basic needs covered. Also, I went to overnight camp for 9 years, so I’m a champ at roughing it.
Against all odds, Mongolia's capital city is well-nigh a wonderland for vegans. Ulaan Baatar, despite being in a country that literally eats mutton at every meal and in every dish and frowns upon vegetables, has more all-vegan restaurants than London, and some better ones too (or at least some that I would love to have in London...or at least I've been traveling so long that I thought they were better than what we have in London). From Buddhist temple centers to veggie-friendly chains to nearly a dozen outposts of our beloved cult Loving Hut, UB (as everyone calls it) will let you eat extremely well - as long as the restaurants decide to be open when you go.
Once we decided to do the Trans-Mongolian instead of the Trans-Siberian (Mongolia and China instead of just lots more Siberia? not a hard decision), we knew we had to line up our dates so that we landed in Mongolia in time for Naadam, the most important festival and event in the Mongolian calendar (I mean it’s the only festival and event in the Mongolian calendar that I know, so I could be wrong about that but I’m probably right). The three-day festival is like the country’s own Olympics, celebrating the Three Sports of Men, or the Three Sports of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, something like that. In our English language pamphlets handed out in the stadium it says “Three Manly Sports” which is hilarious so let’s say it’s that one. Those three exalted sports are wrestling, archery, and horse-racing. Seems straightforward enough, right? Ha!
Our first stop and only city visited in Mongolia (also the only city in Mongolia, from what I saw of the rest of the country), Ulaan Baatar improved upon the food in the eastern-Asia part of our trip, continued the sad tradition of incredibly polluted air, and worsened the car traffic situation so far. It’s hard to say no to this city since it has so many Loving Huts and even better other vegan restaurants (I know! In Mongolia! So many!), but I think the annoying parts of it outweigh my ability to have good food. Luckily, we were there for Naadam, the national annual festival of the Three Sports of Men, dedicated to Genghis (pronounced Chingis here, and ya know what, I’m gonna call him Chingis because that's the real Mongolian way) Khan. Naadam (for a separate post) was interesting and something big and fun to do. Without it, Ulaan Baatar is a dilapidated city with some temples and monasteries and museums but I quickly got tired of it. Exhausted, really. Maybe because I couldn't breathe.
Dear little laptop diary,
I didn’t think I’d need to write to you on this train. It was supposed to be barely 9 hours, just a get on-go-to-sleep-get off-in-Mongolia one, as we left Ulan-Ude. But Real Russia, the company that booked most of our Russian train tickets (we didn’t want to risk missing our preferred dates and routes if we did it ourselves) made a mistake with our agenda, and told us our train was at 8:47pm tonight, when it was really at 3:47pm today. (Someone I bet added five hours to get Moscow time (which all trains in the country run on) instead of subtracting. Idiots.) So instead of getting another day to explore Ulan-Ude as we wanted, we rushed around to check out, see a final museum, and walk in the heat to the train station. It was a soul-crushing walk for me, as I have more weight in my pack than ever (stupid good vegan nonperishable food finds I keep finding and buying and then needing to pack!). Well that part was just spine and neck crushing. The soul-crushing part is how nervous I am about the Mongolia border crossing. It can take well over 4 hours, with the train stopped and bathrooms locked. I can’t go for more than 2, and I can’t do anything about it especially in a room with two strangers, so I’m just dehydrated and super g-d nervous. I told myself that as soon as we got on the train, it would be okay, I would sit, and use the bathroom, and make my bed, and relax and read as I learned from our previous trains.
We left Irkutsk after our time on Olkhon Island at about 9pm and got on a baby-sized sleeper train (we are such pros now!) - we literally got on about 9pm ish on Thursday, went to sleep (I mean pretended to), and disembarked at 6:30am. I didn't even have time to write a diary entry! Just waited to take my contacts out (using bottled water of course; I like having the gift of sight too much to use train juice) before getting maybe an hour of sleep. Our roommates were two Chinese women (female roommates are so much better...and rarer) who didn't speak any other language, so Z showed off with the two phrases he learned in Mandarin to prepare for this trip - "Do you speak English?" and "I speak a little Chinese." It was so funny and they loved it. I didn't love that the window in this cabin didn't even open. Remember when I complained about old Russian lady closing the window? THIS ONE DIDN'T EVEN PHYSICALLY OPEN. ughhhh it was so gross and stuffy. Thank god it was short. At 6am, the attendants shouted for everyone to wake up - we were almost at Ulan-Ude, which is our last stop in Russia! Well, until we return from the southwest on our eastward Silk Road journey in September, but that's years away and not part of our Trans-Siberian adventure! Trans-Mongolian, whatevs. So really, Ulan-Ude marked the end of this first part of our journey! Already! It's going so fast. To mark this auspicious occasion, we surely would do something very special once we dropped our bags at the hotel.
After three weeks of exhausting, nonstop activity in our big summer travels, we planned for four days of just pure relaxation in a presumed idyllic spot, Olkhon Island on the famed Lake Baikal, a tiny fishing village that is hard to reach and so we simultaneously assumed two incongruous thoughts: 1) that we would be two of very very few visitors (pretty true) but 2) that even so the island and village would be equipped to deal with visitors (hahah no). Can't have it both ways. Really, parts of the island, like the lake itself and the cliffs and rocky terrain along the northern parts of the island, are beautiful, but getting there and for the most part being there is too stressful to allow for any relaxation, or, honestly, to allow me to recommend a trip here.
After the three days of train of the last post, during which I went just a little batty (silly spoiled me judging the Russian trains so harshly so the universe decided to teach me a lesson because I had NO idea what was coming with the Chinese trains), we landed in Irkutsk. We were truly in the heart of Siberia now, spending one day in Irkutsk before bussing up to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, promised to be an idyllic, beautiful site and the time we get to relax. Lol.
June 29 - July 2
Dear little baby laptop diary,
I titled this post after one of the most random Broadway plays I’ve ever seen, “Three Days of Rain”, with Julia Roberts making her lackluster debut, Paul Rudd just being our universal boyfriend, and a not-very-famous Bradley Cooper, whom I knew from Alias and was super excited about. Who knew that in a few short years he would be the biggest star of the bunch! Anyway, it was a kind of boring show, and that’s all I remember, which is a shame because I am currently on a train with two days and two nights left to go, and I would like to be thinking about a play instead. How is it going so far, you ask? Let’s just say if I didn’t want to talk so much about Broadway whenever I had the chance, this post would have simply been called Three Days of Pain.
After the 24 hours on the train that you read about in the previous post, we had crossed the Europe-Asia border and landed in Yekaterinburg, capital of the Urals. The Urals are the mountains that effectively make up the border between the continents, though it’s rough considering it’s all still Russia and kind of nebulous. But it counts! We’re officially in Asia! That means, we’ve crossed into Asia by air (when we flew to Thailand and Cambodia, which I promise I will finally write about after this trip...so...November?), by water (when we took a ferry in Istanbul to the Asian side of the city (which I promise I will finally write about after this trip and after I write about Thailand...so...December?), and now we’ve crossed into Asia by land. So fun! I was so ready to get off that train that my expectations for what kind of city to expect were super low, and I didn’t care. So I was surprised by how much I liked Yekaterinburg, at what a nice place it seemed like, with beautiful vistas and open spaces, good food, and a nice vibe. But, of course, it could just be because of the hotel.
June 28-29, 2017
Middle of Russia
Dear Little Laptop Diary,
Well. The St. Petersburg-Moscow sleeper really spoiled me and set my expectations too high. Hell, 2003-era New Jersey Transit set my expectations too high. Our first superlong train, the 24 hour sleeper from Vladimir to Yekaterinburg, was a bit dismal. The cabin was fine, it really was, and we had a very nice older Russian lady in with us who helped us make our beds when we proved completely incompetent on that front (the mattress pad doesn’t go IN the duvet-cover looking thing, YOU do! Or nothing does! Still unclear!). But that first sleeper to Moscow was oh so special. They gave us slippers for crying out loud! Our beds were made for us! They were comfy! There were no slippers to be found on this one. And thank the lord I brought flip flops, because the toilets were the most disgusting I have seen since our non-sleeper train throughout the countryside of Bosnia. At least on that train I didn’t have to take my contacts out. On this one I did. It was horrific. The floor was wet and coated in sludge, the soap dispenser was dry, and the toilets were reminiscent of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor ones. I should have remembered Amtrak the first time I had to use the sink, because I wasted 10 minutes trying to get it to work by turning the spigots as you do normally before I finally asked a Russian lady to help. It was the kind of sink you had to push up with your palm to get a trickle of water out. My god. On the Moscow sleeper I accidentally brushed my teeth with the train water; I wasn’t thinking because it was all so clean and nice. We were definitely using bottled water for this one.
After Moscow, we began the part of our trip touring what Republicans would probably refer to as the ‘real Russia’ even though all parts of a country are real. A short high-speed train to Vladimir began our visit to Russia’s Golden Ring, small towns that used to be hugely important cities shaping Russia’s early history. And I mean early - Vladimir was founded in the elevensies by Prince Vladimir Monochromatic (something like that) of Kiev as a fortress town just because he was like ahh I need a fortress to protect my eastern lands and I’m all one color this is terriburrrr. Oh it was Monomakh. Anyway Vladdy was satisfied with his namebrand town as a fortress but his grandson Andrei could never be satisfied (and he also isn’t heeere how many Broadway references in one sentence can we do) so Andrei stormed Kiev and stole all the master craftsmen away and forced them to Vladimir to make it the new happening place. It became the Russian capital for a bit and had even more people than London at that time. London was so bum. The city’s population boomed as it became a political center and then a religious center, but then its population disappeared by the 1400s. Not like ah they were taken by aliens, just it shrank back to near nothingness because of Moscow being close and having the good opera and ballet and stuff. Today it is an industrial center with actually a completely vegan little cafe that does amazing wraps, a much more stable population, and lots of Medieval sites, mostly cathedrals, as most of the sites in this land are.
My eating in Moscow started off dire but ended up in strong contention for my favorite food of the trip, thanks (and no thanks) to a wildly uneven list. Due to some HappyCow reviewers whom I no longer trust, I decided my first stop would be at Prime Cafe because they had juices, salads, and wraps. Sure they did, but it ended up being 100% a copy of Pret a Manger. And the old-style Pret, not the newfangled wave of super vegan-friendliness that Pret’s doing in London now. First of all, it was so hard to find because it wasn’t actually called Prime Cafe on HappyCow; it was just listed as its address, which Google maps didn’t want to find. When we finally found the address and saw it was a Prime Cafe, we realized we had seen this chain all over the city and for no good reason had been heading to this not-super-close location. We learned that night that there was one 10 yards from our hostel.
I honestly still don't know how I feel about Moscow. We spent four days there, and saw all the things we wanted to see in four days, and I just feel like I don't have a handle on the city. There's a lot going on and every area feels like a different city or even country. The center is really fancy, with every high fashion design house and jewelry company represented on polished streets. But 10 minutes outside the center, and by the train stations, it looks like how we'd imagine Russia at the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's all very incongruous, and not being able to grasp the correct mood of the city made me feel uneasy. Although, it could just be because of the P.O.S. hostel we stayed at!
There's so much more to talk about from St. Petersburg! Russia fun is only just beginning! We had a jam-packed less-than-a-week in the 'bourg, seeing everything on our must list and most of the stuff on our maybe list. We really enjoyed our time and would happily return one day, maybe for a more leisurely visit, maybe to do all the clubbing we missed out on ("well I wouldn't say I've been *missing* it"). I covered all the main highlights in the previous post, but there's still so much cool stuff we saw. I want to share the last of the museuming we did in Peterbourg, a few random things worth commenting on (at least from my perspective), and our day at the Russian version of Versailles.
I knew St. Petersburg would be the easiest place of the summer for me to find vegan food, but I didn't know it would be so good too! I made a HappyCow list a mile long before we left, but I barely scratched the surface of it because most regular restaurants had something I could eat. Being so close to western Europe means the vegan thing is starting to catch on, and there are a few restaurants that have gone all in with menus labelled with vegan options! For the most part though, you have to just figure out with your brain what dishes could be vegan, but there are lots of options. When all else fails, there's Teremok, and there's pickles, and there's hleb (bread, the most important word to learn).
Greetings from Cankt Peterbourg! I wish I could access the Russian keyboard on this little netbook but I can't/don't feel like it. We're having a great time in St. Petersburg, which in English adds the 's' after Peter but in the Russian there's no 's'! Fun! With! Languages! Before this trip, my only exposure to this quite charming city was the song from "Anastasia" that starts: "St. Petersburg is gloomy! St. Petersburg is bleak! My underwear got frozen standing here all week!" But it's better than that. Well that is a very low bar but St. Petersburg is very nice. Though it has been raining hard a lot which is gloomy, and yes it is cold but like, for the summer, not for the earth, and definitely not cold enough to freeze undies. The city is a very interesting mix of old and new school while still seeming totally European. We are surely easing in slowly to the onslaught of Soviet towns we will be seeing later, because right now it still feels like we're in Europe.
I'm writing this from the train to St. Petersburg! Just like Anatole! Except he was probably writing love letters (written really by his sister ewwww) to married or betrothed women, his faaave. Okay that's enough of The Great Comet (just kidding I already listened to the whole album once today and it's like 11am). We just pulled out of Helsinki (so it won't get preggggnannnnt) and there's wifi on this business so here I am! We really didn't have much time at all in Helsinki, Finland, but it was a charming place that had vegan milkshakes so I would happily return once we are in a position to think about future travel.
Yay it’s time for our big news! This summer (and some of the fall!), we are taking the incredible sabbatical trip that we’ve been talking about for so long. For years now, we’ve been planning this adventure (well, Husband has), and this summer – THIS FRIDAY! – we finally get to start it. You might have guessed by now that that epic google maps screenshot at the top of the page is a map of our route. Here it is again: