Mentioning the Unmentionable

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Remnants of the Communist Era in Irkutsk.

After a wonderful stay at Nikolai’s we make our way back to Irkutsk, a city that was once dubbed “the Paris of Siberia.” I’ve been to Paris twice and, though I cannot speak to Irkutsk’s vibe during the turn of the last century, I am of the mindset that only Paris is Paris. This place is cold, grey and has several beady-eyed statues of Lenin and some communist propaganda lying around. I briefly wonder how Russians feel about their tumultuous journey from communism to capitalism but mostly I’m disinterested and travel weary. It happens.

This brings me to my next point…. Travel is only truly glamorous in retrospect. In reality, it’s a bit of a grind and so often it is easier to read about an adventure than to actually embark on one. Yes, dear Reader, that was a shot at you – a person who is probably reading this from the comfort of your very own home or office. You may even be enjoying this blog while sipping a cup of free-trade coffee and heck, I bet you even showered this morning too! Here’s a snapshot of several tribulations one may encounter on the road…

Lost in Translation
Consider the language barrier – arguably one of the most popular reasons people are wary of flying too far from home. Initially, being oblivious to the chatter around me is a welcome reprieve. Condescending comments? Don’t hear them. Complications? Unaware of them. News? Not unless it’s headlining in my world.

Eventually though, there’s no denying the fact that I’m completely incapable of articulating my needs or identifying the needs of others. What was once blissful ignorance or at least bemusement – hey, I thought I bought yogurt but it’s cottage cheese instead, ha ha! – has become legitimately frustrating. I now possess a profound understanding of toddler temper tantrums. Wah. No one understands me.

On one occasion I desperately needed to purchase feminine hygiene products and, failing to know the appropriate term, was not getting the message across to the woman cashier. While she kept offering me instant mashed potatoes, I contemplated how I might make a helpful gesture that wouldn’t be misconstrued as lewd and offensive. Coming up with nothing, I resorted to shoving my entire upper body through her kiosk window until I could reach what I needed. Yes! Behold: victory in the form of lady products. Having made a small scene and alarmed a few people behind me in line, I felt the need to diffuse the tension. “Good news, everyone! I’m not pregnant!” I joke uneasily. My remark was met with deafening silence and a few quizzical looks… maybe because it was a bad joke, maybe because no one in line spoke English. Humbled, I returned to the train.

Mentioning the Unmentionable
One of the biggest “adventures” you’ll encounter while adventure traveling is going to the bathroom. Quite frankly, you just never know what sort of fresh new hell you’re about to enter. Before my trip to Nepal a few years ago a friend sent me a diagram illustrating how to use an Eastern toilet – no doubt he was hoping to make me squirm. Well, the joke was on him because I actually found that diagram to be quite informative! The bathroom situation remained a frequent topic of conversation throughout our trip and it wasn’t unusual for someone to return from the loo to questions like, “How did it go?” “What’s the situation?” “Is there toilet paper?” “Should I just wait?”

As we made our way to the ger camp in Mongolia our guide mentioned something called a Long Drop. Eager to experience all that Mongolia had to offer I imagined a Long Drop to be some kind of semi-extreme sport we were going to try… perhaps something akin to spelunking or an activity that would require us to be tied off. As it turns out, a long drop is simply the name for the outhouse – a wooden shack with a hole in the floor and well, a long drop beneath that. The name itself conjures some vivid images.

It’s just before bedtime and as I’m about to enter the long drop I notice a wooden toggle on the outside of the door. It strikes me as odd that there would be a lock on the outside but I figure it might serve to keep the door from getting caught in the breeze and banging around on windy days. Without a second thought I go about my business and as I try to push the door open to exit I realize: it’s stuck. Like, really stuck. The wooden toggle must have fallen down.

I contemplate my options. I wait patiently for a few moments hoping someone will come by. Nothing. I hear a muffled sound outside and call out, “hello?” A low moan responds, pauses, and shuffles away. Probably a sheep. I wait a few more minutes… I’m beginning to get cold and the cruel possibility of freezing to death in a Mongolian long drop a few yards from my toasty yurt (tent) is starting to set in. I give the door another shove. Nothing. I consider getting a running start, jumping over the hole in the floor and throwing myself against the door to break free. I 15decide against this in the event the door proves sturdier than I expect and I ricochet off of it and down into the long drop. Finally! I think I hear a person and start calling out – much louder this time. After some confusion and hesitation a Mongolian woman finally unlocks the door, completely mystified by the blonde girl who managed to lock herself in the long drop. I mutter my thanks and scurry back to the yurt where I immediately share the latest bathroom drama with the girls.

Even in the most exotic of places there are times when a warm cup of coffee with a good friend is simply more compelling than the potentially treacherous world outside. Today in Irkutsk we’ve decided to play it safe in the Lenin Street Coffee shop before gearing up for another two nights on the train.

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