No One Cares About My Awesome Vacation

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Boston, you’re my home.

Returning home after a long trip is bittersweet and, for me, is often accompanied by a mixed bag of emotions. The familiarity of home is comforting after being overwhelmed by so much newness, but it comes with a kind of reverse culture shock.

After weeks of being on the road, my bathroom seems nothing short of luxurious with its beautiful tiles and endless rolls of quilted toilet paper (let’s not forget the paper shortage in Siberia!). I take the longest, most wonderful shower and use every beauty product I own. I blow-dry my hair for the first time in a month and – good god – I’m GORGEOUS!

A sign in the train station promises the train will arrive in 1 minute. Guess what?! It does! It arrives in 1 minute! I’m positively delighted by the modern efficiency of the world around me. From bougie yoga classes to designer salads, I revel in the wonder that is America.

Now what?
But then… something happens. Suddenly, things seem a little too familiar. My Facebook newsfeed is flooded with people holding up paper beards to their faces. Initially perplexed, I soon realize the cultural reference refers to the Red Sox being in the World Series – another event I missed while away. Ugh. The Red Sox. Again. Every year with the Red Sox…. How am I supposed to get excited about this same team every year for the rest of my life?!

And then there’s work… everyone is still talking about the same projects they were talking about when I left. I can physically feel something inside of me change – it’s as if the part of my brain that has been emotionally and intellectually stimulated for the past month is powering down into some kind of energy-saving mode. Cruise control: engage.

Did you have fun?
After any kind of big adventure, I’m always met with lots of enthusiastic inquiries about my travels. My friends, my family, my coworkers – everyone wants to know about my crazy trip to Siberia. Or, at least, they say they want to know about it. As I excitedly babble about the trains, the landscapes, and the current political climates in the countries I’ve visited, I can see their eyes begin to glaze over.

“But… did you have fun?” they ask, confused.

Did you have fun? This question is the close cousin of the aforementioned, “What if something happens?”

I sigh. “Yes. I had fun.” They smile. Discussion over.

Now, of course I had fun! I guess there’s just something disappointing about reducing the host of new perspectives and personalities of the past month to a puny, frivolous word like “fun.” It doesn’t do the journey justice!

It is worth noting, however, that my disappointment is totally typical and my fellow travelers will undoubtedly understand. There is an interesting article in New York Magazine about this very topic called Proof No One Cares About Your Awesome Vacation. It turns out my quest to travel and understand the human experience actually makes me less relatable – at least to all of the Bostonians here rooting for the Red Sox. How bout them apples?

This makes me especially thankful for you, dear Reader. Thank you for allowing me to share my stories and musings with you while on this very special trip. It seems lame to sign off with a quote, but there is a snippet from Mernissi that repeatedly comes to mind in my travels – it suggests that we are drawn to faraway lands to observe foreign ways, so we can get closer to the strangeness within ourselves. Isn’t that an interesting idea?

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The Long Journey Home

Even though our group is beginning to disperse, I still have another full day left in Beijing before my flight home to Boston. One by one our group departs – some leave for their home countries and others continue on their epic journeys through Asia and beyond. Saying goodbye to these people who I have come to know so well is surprisingly sad. Just like a bad breakup, it leaves me feeling like my life has “emptied out.”

Scott and I are hanging out at the Starbucks near our hotel. We could spend the day sightseeing but here they have wifi and recognizable food. Despite the fact that it is October, Harry Connick Jr.’s Christmas hits are playing overhead. I’ve really enjoyed my time with Scott – he’s a fantastic mix of sarcasm and fun, but also thoughtfulness and compassion. He’s the kind of person who will ask, “Are you okay?” and really mean it. In any case, I’m glad for his company – especially while I’m not feeling well.

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I Lose It
I arrive at Beijing International Airport in the wee hours of the morning feeling ill and a little disoriented in general. The airport is quiet and almost immediately I am approached by two Chinese men in suits. They ask which airline I am flying and insist on guiding me to the check-in desk – which I can already see is just a few feet away. It is not uncommon to come across these kinds of “helpers” in my travels. Oftentimes they insist on carrying your bag for a hot second or pointing you in a general direction only to demand a huge tip for their “service.” Even so, I try to be polite – being blonde and carrying a huge trekking pack means I’m kind of asking for it I suppose.

The check-in desks haven’t opened yet and there is a small crowd of people waiting nearby. I thank the men for their assistance, eager to send them on their way. But, as expected, they aren’t going anywhere. They ask for a tip. I politely decline. They ask again. I roll my eyes and refuse. They ask again, more insistently this time, while stepping into my personal space. It is at this point that I do something most unexpected: I HISS at them.

Yes. Hiss. Like, get up in their faces with my teeth bared.

No one is more shocked by this reaction than I am. Immediately I retract and begin to apologize but it’s too late, the Chinese Hustlers are already scurrying away. Mission accomplished, I suppose. In my defense: it is 3:30 in the morning, I’ve been sick for days, and some Chinese Hustlers just tried to intimidate me. It doesn’t change the fact that everyone around me now thinks I’m totally crazy.

I Make A Child Cry
There are only a few other people in the terminal as I make my way to the gate. A man passes me in a bathrobe and slippers and says, “ni hao.” My brain slowly registers that his attire is odd but I can’t be bothered – I forge on to the gate.

I settle into my window seat and am thankful no one is in the seat next to me. Across the aisle a mother is holding her son, a toddler, on her lap. The boy looks at me and I smile. Immediately he shrieks, bursts out crying, and buries his face in his mother’s neck. He whispers something to her that I cannot hear. She looks at me apologetically and says, “Your appearance frightens him.” Oh. Nice. I’m not sure whether this little boy is afraid of my pale complexion or my disheveled appearance. In either case, his outburst is no good for my self esteem. What a little jerk, I think.

The trip home will take 24 hours and since I’m flying East to West, I’m traveling back in time – that means I’ll arrive in Boston at almost the exact time I left Beijing. My brain hurts. I close my eyes and try to sleep.

The Great Wall and Guys From Woburn

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Like you don’t already know…

Get ready, dear Reader, because today we are getting up early to explore one of China’s must-see sights: The Great Wall. The morning air is cool and everyone is quiet as we make the 90 minute bus ride to Mutianyu – perhaps the most in-tact and tourist-friendly section of the Great Wall. Even with all of the sitting we have been doing during our train travels, I still relish this time to daydream and gaze out of the window. Beijing, and the grey clouds that loom over it, fall behind us as we drive further into a greener, more beautiful landscape. Immediately, I begin to relax.

What’s So Great?
Once we arrive, Ashley and I make our way past the vendors in search of the trailhead that will lead us up to the Wall. We do have the option of taking a cable car to the top but it is a beautiful day and I, for one, could certainly use some exercise. The path brings us up some beautiful stone steps and past silent, shady picnic areas. Ashley and I reach the actual Wall and are positively delighted to find that we are the only ones within eyesight. I have always been a morning person for precisely this reason – after all, you can’t deny the appeal of a new day that has yet to be sullied by other humans.

Now that we’re here, let’s set some things straight…. The Great Wall of China isn’t, actually, one wall. It is a network of walls built to protect China’s northern border from invaders – remember our friend Genghis Khan from Mongolia? Yeah, invaders like him. Various Chinese dynasties made contributions to the wall network and the Wall’s earliest segments are said to date as far back as 7th century B.C. – B.C., people! Pretty impressive.

Ashley and I get some nice photos before the crowds descend and we make our way from one watchtower to the next, noting that some parts of the Wall are in better condition than others. Two men stop and ask us, in English, to take their photo. Happy to comply, I say that I am also from the States. “Where abouts?” Boston. The men seem excited and say they are from just outside of Boston – a town called Woburn! I find this both amusing and slightly irksome because, for a good portion of my life, I grew up in a town very close to Woburn called Billerica. Ah, what kismet! Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those towns or the people in them necessarily… but no matter how far I travel, I have a truly uncanny ability to attract Boston-area “bros.” I chat with the men a bit and wish them well on the rest of their trip. It just goes to show that you can walk the entire earth and still find remnants of home!

We’re ready to head back to the hotel and are faced with the option of hiking back down to the entrance or taking a toboggan. Obviously, when given the opportunity to take a toboggan down the Great Wall of China, you simply must. You shouldn’t turn down toboggan rides in general, as far as I’m concerned.

Our group is quiet on the ride home as well, too tuckered out from the day’s explorations to chat. My “whatever” stance on China has softened after spending a day outside of Beijing and, though I am certainly ready to relax, I am not in any rush to return to the city.

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Hutongs and Century Eggs
For dinner this evening, a few of us venture into Beijing’s famed hutongs (or alleys). My stomach has been on the fritz since we arrived in China so, while I’ve been subsisting on a few crackers at a time, I am still eager to join everyone for one of our last meals together before we return to our home countries. Shenny, who speaks Chinese, is kind enough to help us order and she suggests some traditional Chinese delicacies. So… right about here I need to confess that I have totally pedestrian taste buds. If a young child won’t eat it, than there is a good chance I will not either. Traveling is a passion of mine, but eating abroad is fraught with untold un-tastiness. Suffice it to say, I’m dining on more white rice.

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Sliced century egg

But back to the delicacies…. One of the items on our table this evening is a Century Egg (sometimes also called a “thousand year egg” or “millennium egg”). From what I gather, chicken or duck eggs are coated in a mixture of clay, salt, and rice husks and left for a few weeks to several months to… “pickle”… I suppose. The result is a brown, green/grey colored egg that smells like ammonia. Often this delicacy is sliced and served as an hors d’oeuvreIt’s more than my stomach can take on a good day so I leave it to my more fearless travelers to enjoy! Yikes.

Beijing and My Brief Bout with Fame

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One of the lions guarding the Forbidden Palace

Today we begin the last stretch of our epic adventure: the two-day train ride to Beijing. We settle into our usual bunks and slip easily into our soothing rhythm of snacking, napping, and reading. These train cars aren’t as nice as the ones we had on the Trans-Siberian and our stern Russian provodnitsas have been replaced by a slight, male Chinese train attendant. While we read quietly, he often pauses at our open cabin door to look us over and giggle. “Is he laughing at us?” Sabrina wonders aloud. We lower our books and attempt a conversation with Chinese Provodnitsa (as we later dub him) but to no avail – he doesn’t speak a word of English. So he giggles. And we giggle. And no one knows what is happening.

Keeping It Real
Outside of our window the Gobi desert rolls by, eventually giving way to misty mountains. To be honest, I’m not especially excited about our time in Beijing. The city has a somewhat lackluster reputation for being industrial and polluted and, for reasons I cannot pinpoint, the Chinese culture has never particularly appealed to me. Much like Russia, I understand the Chinese government is likely not the true voice of the Chinese people. At least, I would hope not given the slew of controversial policies regarding everything ranging from human rights to the environment. Perhaps that makes me sound close-minded, or prejudice, or a bunch of other things… in any case, I’m kinda ‘whatevs’ about this portion of the journey.

“I can’t tell you how it really is I can only tell you what it feels like…”  Eminem plays as our train pulls into the station.

I’m A Celebrity (in China Anyway)
After dropping our bags at the hotel, a few of us head out to explore Tiananmen Square. Beijing is indeed crowded and cloaked in smog, but the trains run efficiently which certainly makes sightseeing easier. As I stand there trying to imagine the student protests of 1989, I notice two elderly Chinese men who are not-so-discreetly gesturing at me. I attempt to turn my attention back to the sights when I realize one of the men is pretending to take a picture of his friend while blatantly pointing the camera at me. I assume they’re just creeps and the ladies and I head to the Forbidden Palace.

Sarah, Ashley, and I are approaching the the palace gates when a young woman taps me on the shoulder. She says something in Chinese (that I don’t understand) and gestures to her camera and then to me. Ah, of course! I don’t mind taking a photo of her. I move to take the camera from her and she smiles and waves me off. She gestures to her boyfriend – it seems she wants ME in the photo with him. So I pose with her boyfriend and so does Ashley. This happens a few more times throughout the day and we soon realize our blonde locks are the cause of our popularity. It is surprising to me that our hair would be such a sensation in a modern city like Beijing, but mostly I just wish I was more photo-ready!

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Access Denied
We spend some time strolling through the palace but I am distracted and put off by the crowds. As we make our way back to the hotel, we pass popular retail and fast food chains that can also be found in the States. Beijing isn’t quite as dirty as some other cities I have visited (Kathmandu, yikes!), but I find it difficult to get a real sense of the city’s vibe amidst the pollution and bustle. Maybe that IS the vibe? While enjoying some down time before our group dinner, I am unable to access my email account. My attempts to log into Facebook or peruse the New York Times are also blocked – oh right, I’m in China.

I remember reading once that even reincarnation is forbidden in China without government permission. Reincarnation! Though such litigation sounds ridiculous to us Westerners, it actually affords the People’s Republic of China (PRC) an important power: the ability to choose the next Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Maybe you are wondering, dear Reader, why atheist China would care to authorize such an appointment? China has occupied the Himalayan country of Tibet since 1949 and having an important leader like the Dalai Lama under its control would allow the PRC to more easily assert its influence in this occupied region. There are many debates about whether the quality of life in Tibet has improved or declined since its occupation – and certainly, I cannot do either argument justice in one blog. On the whole though, I’d say I’m one of those “Free Tibet” hippies.

In lighter news, our group heads to dinner to enjoy some traditional Peking Duck. My stomach has been a bit “off” today and nothing seems appetizing. I nibble on some white rice and chat excitedly with our group about tomorrow’s big trip to the Great Wall!

Moseying in Mongolia

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View from the Great Khan

We left off just after dinnertime in the ger camp in Mongolia…. The ladies and I are preparing for bed after a satisfying day of hiking, horseback riding, and a cozy viewing of Breaking Bad in our yurt.

Ambushed by Anxiety
As we go about our bedtime rituals I feel the slow, quiet creep of anxiety washing over me. Though I’m not an anxious person in general, Anxiety and I have certainly tangoed before – and I can sense his cat-like approach. Like an unwelcome houseguest he arrives unannounced, often at the most inconvenient times (like say, now), and gives no sign of when he might depart.  As I try to arrange myself comfortably among the blankets, I remember my inevitable return to my “real life” back in Boston and feel uneasy. Normally, I would suffer in silence but this time I surprise myself by doing something decidedly un-Malia-like: I talk about my feelings.

“Do you guys ever….. get nervous about… you know… going back home?” I venture timidly. Sabrina stops rummaging through her toiletries and looks thoughtful. Sarah stops folding her clothes for a moment. Then, much to my relief, there is a chorus of agreement.

Maybe it is here, dear Reader, that you begin to wonder what, exactly, is so terrible about my life back in Boston. Nothing, really – in fact, it’s pretty cushy. The only thing I can offer by way of an explanation is that, much like many people fear the unknown, my fellow travelers and I occasionally fear the certainties in our lives – #moreofthesame. For tonight, we console ourselves with thoughts of tomorrow’s adventures.

Archery and Open Air
Each summer the Great Nadaam (or “games”) takes place in Ulaan Baatar. During this celebration, Mongolians compete in three traditional sports: archery, Mongolian wrestling, and horse racing. After breakfast at camp we try our hand at some archery. The bow and arrow have been around since time immemorial and were used by Mongolians as weapons, hunting equipment, and for sport. As for me, the last time I tried archery was in high school gym class and… it shows.

On our way back to UB our group makes some pit stops to search for yaks and check out the Genghis Khan statue. The stainless steel statue depicts the Great Khan on horseback and is the largest equestrian statue in the world (or so I read). It is certainly impressive and offers gorgeous views of the surrounding steppes. The sheer beauty of wide, open space on this trip has been one of my favorite things.

We spend our last few hours in Mongolia traipsing around the city, buying last minute trinkets and dodging oncoming traffic. The drivers in UB are the most aggressive I have seen absolutely anywhere! I notice there seem to be no regulations about whether the steering wheel is on the left- or right-hand side of the car.

After several perilous street crossings, Ashley and I stop by the post office to send out some postcards. I think back to the first day we spent together in St. Petersburg and am amazed at how close we have become. You learn a lot about a person over several cups of coffee and an inquiry about their postcard recipients. We send off our mail – knowing too well that we will arrive home before our postcards do! – and head back to the hotel to pack up. Next stop: Beijing!

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The Country of Blue Skies

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Our yurts at the ger camp just outside of Ulaan Baator.

Unlike Siberia, most people I spoke with about my trip had no preconceived notions of Mongolia. Landlocked between Russia and China, it is a fascinating country that keeps a relatively low profile. The capital city, Ulaan Baatar, is home to almost 50% of Mongolia’s population while the remaining percentage lives in traditional nomadic ger camps outside of the city. No doubt George R.R. Martin was inspired by this nomadic culture – famous for fierce leaders and fast horses – when he created the Dothraki society for his Game of Thrones series.

The Elusive Nature of Inner Peace
Despite the fact that it is surrounded by nearly untouched natural beauty, UB is surprisingly modern. Concrete skyscrapers serve as reminders of a not-so-distant Communist past while recognizable retail shops remind me of any city back in the States. Our group ventures out into the frosty air to explore some Buddhist temples. I vaguely remember reading that during the communist years Stalin destroyed an overwhelming number of monasteries and killed over 10,000 lamas – certainly one way to jack up your karma.

Buddhist monasteries, more than any other places of worship, are my favorite. I love the chanting, the colors, the prayer flags and prayer wheels. Today however, I just can’t get into it. It’s bitterly cold and though it is totally “un-Buddhist” of me, I find myself fixating on earthly discomforts (no feeling in my feet!) and failing to cultivate my own sense of inner peace. I know, I’m disappointed in me too. What I am excited about though is our overnight trip to the ger camp….

Where The Men At?
The ger camp is a two hour bus ride outside of UB and our group is happily taking in the scenery, sharing snacks, and listening to our local guide, Nemo, describe life in Mongolia. One matter that strikes me in particular is the low supply and high demand for…. men. Yeah. Men.

As Nemo describes the plight of the nomadic, single, Mongolian mom I reluctantly begin to ponder the latest global dilemma: where the men at? A belabored topic of discussion at home in Boston, the man shortage is becoming less of a single girl anxiety and more of an actual, well, fact. In Russia the average life expectancy for a man is 60 years old – a shocking statistic largely attributed to widespread alcoholism. I think of the (presumably widowed) babushkas on the train platforms and the gorgeous young women dressed to impress in Irkutsk despite the frigid weather. I feel sad. While I was in Nepal with Habitat for Humanity it was the women who built the homes alongside our team. The men were (supposedly) working in other countries while the men who were present seemed too busy playing cards to do much else.

My knowledge of microeconomics is extremely limited but I do know when supply and demand are out of whack, no good can come of it. I consider the implications of “the end of men” until finally, I concede, I am unable to provide any real solution. Especially not while on vacation.

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Yurted Up!
Upon arrival to the ger camp we settle into our yurts (similar to the train there are four of us to each yurt), have some lunch, and head out for a hike. Parts of the landscape are covered by a light dusting of snow but the sun overhead makes for perfect weather. As we reach the top of the ridge, Nemo – who has a vodka bottle in a holster on his hip – leads us in a toast. I always enjoy hiking with a group because it is interesting to see people couple up in quiet conversation with each other. Inevitably, the pairs change as individuals catch up or fall back into new conversations depending upon their pace, the terrain, or perhaps the topic at hand. The idea that so many unique personalities can connect, even briefly, during their travels inspires me and causes me to miss some individuals who have been a part of my lifelong journey for a season or so.

At the end of our hike Nemo has arranged for us to ride horses back to camp. My dream of galloping across Mongolia, my hair in the wind like a Khaleesi-for-a-day (another GOT reference), was quickly dashed shortly after I mounted the slowest horse ever. Though I’m a little disappointed, I figure our painfully slow plod will give me even more time to soak in the scenery.

A full moon is rising as we make our way back to camp and I’m looking forward to a warm dinner, a fire, and another episode of Breaking Bad.

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Somewhere Between Here And There

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The Selenga – I think!

Our group is back on the rails again but this time we are traveling the Trans-Mongolian railway from Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital. We easily slip back into our train routine, quickly arranging our personal affects in our usual bunks and adjusting the window’s curtain to allow for optimal viewing. Our snacks are arranged neatly on the table and Bright Eyes is already playing from the ipod.

Cause what is simple in the moonlight, by the morning never is… What’s so simple in the moonlight, now is so complicated…

As we roll along the landscape opens up revealing mountains and a river running along the horizon – the Selenga maybe? We should arrive at the official border crossing shortly but even so, Russia feels decidedly behind me while Mongolia is still out of reach.

The many things I didn’t see while I was in Russia run through my mind: the community of nomadic reindeer herders, the wild beauty of Kamchatka, the drunken forests – entire forests populated by trees tilted every which way because the permafrost beneath them is melting. Nor did I have the chance to experience Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on earth, which endures temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit (inconceivable!).

Somewhere Between Here And There
It is an interesting sensation being between two places and never has one of my trips been so much about the “getting there” as this one. To my surprise, I’m finding our seemingly endless hours on the train, the actual travel, to be most enjoyable – it offers the opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been and to contemplate what is to come. Plus, there are snacks and friends involved.

Though painfully obvious, I can’t help but consider the parallel to one’s own life journey. Being in a suspended state, neither here nor there, is one that many of us find uncomfortable. So often we despair during our moments of transition while remaining fixated on our “destinations” – the next job, the next love, the elusive and amorphous “next phase” – only to find these events offer little in the way of contentment or security. At best, no sooner do I rejoice in a milestone than I think, “Okay…… Now what?”

Outside of the window this veritable no-man’s land is alive with color – the cool blue and greys of Russia give way to a more golden glow as we approach the border town. I wonder how many passengers are sleeping through this portion of our sojourn probably assuming the arrival in Mongolia is the real event. I make a mental note to surrender to the here and now more often – a note to actually enjoy the oft overlooked “spaces in between.”

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Over the Borderline
We reach the Mongolian border and are stopped for several hours as our passports and cabins are inspected for…. I’m not sure what – the searches prove to be rather half-hearted and no one bothers to collect our customs forms. With a few hours to kill, our group wanders through the border town which consists of some old wooden houses, the train station, and what seems to be a Russian memorial to soldiers who passed away during “The Great Patriotic War” (WWII). We step out of the cold and into a small store where I pick out a honey cake to share during our Breaking Bad viewing “scheduled” for later that evening at “our place.” Tonight is a double feature which means we’ll be watching not one but two episodes! Exciting, I know.

After a restful night’s sleep on the train I awake to the sound of OCD Provodnitsa banging on our cabin door, a not-so-subtle hint to prepare for our arrival to Ulaan Baatar. While I’m still fumbling to get the contacts into my eyes she pulls open the door, barks something in Russian, and tugs at the sheets on my bunk. Yeah, yeah. I know she has clean up to do but we’re still in our bunks, lady! Suddenly I realize this is our last train ride with our Russian provodnitsas and, because I know some small part of me will miss their constant disapproval, I hurry to get her my bedsheets.

Finally dressed and packed up, I make my way into the hall. The clock at the end of the carriage says it’s around 6AM and the weather outside is -12 degrees Celsius. For all of my travels I’m ashamed to say I still can’t quite convert Celsius to Fahrenheit with much accuracy, but I do know, without a doubt, that -12 degrees is not enough degrees by either scale. Suddenly the idea of exploring UB, the world’s coldest capital city, is slightly less appealing.

Our group makes our way to the hotel and I steel myself for a long, cold day of exploring.

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.

By the Shores of Lake Baikal…

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A boat on Lake Baikal.

Four days and five time zones later we arrive in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Much to my surprise I’m a little ambivalent about disembarking the train. As I step out into the cold and onto the platform, I’m acutely aware of the people, the noise, the enormity of the world around me. Luckily, we’re bypassing the bustle of Irkutsk today and getting right on a bus and heading about two hours out of the city to the small town of Listvyanka.

It is early morning and our group is quiet as the bus travels along a narrow road surrounded by dense birch forests on either side. I imagine Baba Yaga – a witch from Old Russian folklore – could be living in those deep, mysterious woods in her famed hut that moves on chicken legs.

Taking the Plunge
Undeniably the biggest draw of Listvyanka is Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Although barely noticeable on a map, Lake Baikal is enormous – more of a sea than a lake – and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. It is also home to several indigenous species including the world’s only freshwater seal, the nerpa seal (this isn’t particularly relevant to this blog, I just love seals).

A few of us stroll through the open air market which is mostly full of trinkets and dried omul (Baikal’s signature fish), but the real excitement today is about who is getting in the lake. Jumping into Lake Baikal is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Its healing waters are said to be a kind of fountain of youth and I suppose my inner romantic wants to believe the act would be somehow baptismal. After all, am I really going to travel thousands of miles in part to see an allegedly mystical lake and not get in it? No. That would be stupid.

As we approach the shore in the already freezing weather and start to strip down to our bathing suits I begin to rethink what qualifies as “stupid.” Even so, I always keep my promises to myself (it’s one of my favorite things about me) so into the lake I must go. Scott, Sabrina, and I wade into the water, take a quick dunk, and hurry back to shore where we frantically begin to pile our layers of clothing back on. I think of great literary figures who transcend the mental constraints of their old life after a water immersion – Fahrenheit 451’s Montag, The Awakening’s Edna… the list is endless. So far the only thing I know with any stunning clarity is that I’m effing COLD. Armed with this not-so-profound knowledge I hightail it back to our lodging and figure if I’m no more enlightened than when I jumped into the lake, I’m still ahead of most people I know and that’s good enough for me! Maybe my “new life” will start when I warm up…

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I Get Spanked
In Listvyanka we have a homestay with a gentleman named Nikolai (yes, another one!) and his wife. After our almost-arctic plunge we make our way back to the house. Nikolai does not speak much English but he is extremely friendly and animated so we usually get the gist of what he’s trying to convey. His home is, in short, heaven – impeccably decorated, warm and cozy, and has a shower (something I haven’t seen in almost five days)!

Before dinner Nikolai is treating us to a quintessential Russian experience: a banya. Through a series of exaggerated gestures Nikolai – clad in a wool felt sauna hat and light colored speedo – explains the process. Our group begins by squeezing into the sauna and one by one people step out to escape the heat. With just Scott and I left, Nikolai begins phase two which involves me lying on my stomach on the sauna bench while he hits me with birch branches. After a moment or two he asks if “it’s good” and I say, “da” (yes). A menacing laugh escapes his lips and immediately after I feel a big THWACK as the birch branch hits my bum. The beating continues for a few minutes.

Let me tell you, nothing will make you evaluate your choices in life like lying face down wearing a sauna hat and a bikini while a small Russian man in a speedo spanks you with tree branches. Why did this trip seem so necessary to my human experience? Why couldn’t I just buy property or have a baby like everyone else?

My thoughts are interrupted as Nikolai hurries Scott and I out of the sauna and instructs us to jump into the pool on the porch (the careful reader will note this is my second icy plunge of the day). Afterwards, we sit outside in our bathing suits on a nearby bench admiring the surrounding forest – Sabrina’s earlier comment rings in my head, “It’s like a Bob Ross painting! Look at all those happy trees!”

I feel happy too. Happy in this small, silly moment thousands of miles from home.

Slutty American Girls (And Other Thoughts On America)

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Views of Siberia from the train.

You’re probably anxious to get to Irkutsk and the charming lake town of Listvyanka, dear Reader, but I assure you there is more excitement to be had on the train. A Trans-Siberian trek is very much about the journey rather than the destination so let’s sit back and enjoy some more down time…

The girls and I are sitting quietly on the bottom bunks and I can’t seem to focus on my book, my thoughts and gaze are drawn to the landscape beyond our cabin window. Wide open fields are interrupted by upstarts of small villages – some of them full of quaint, charming Russian homes and gardens while others are overwhelmed with large, dilapidated tenements from the Communist era.

Some of the tenements look deserted until I notice the occasional potted plant in a broken window or laundry on a line. This isn’t uncommon in Siberia where many communities are simply dying as younger generations forsake their homes in search of work in the cities. Perhaps it’s just my western mindset, but I find it surprising that these buildings are not torn down, not repurposed, not memorialized in any way – they are abandoned with a shrug of the shoulders, left behind for the siren song of work and a future elsewhere.

I glance at my cabin mates and wonder where their thoughts have wandered.

“And the heart is hard to translate, It has a language of its own…” Florence + the Machine plays in the background. “It talks in tongues and quiet sighs, And prayers and proclamations…”

Making an International Impression
Olga wanders into our cabin to chat and, as it so often does when women are together, the conversation turns to men. She says something about how women often cry after “going with” a guy and the flip American in me retorts, “If you cry he’s definitely doing something wro-“…I cut myself off abruptly realizing I’m not in Boston anymore – this might be a thoughtful cross-cultural conversation about two souls becoming one. I stop fiddling with my backpack and sit next to her, my active listening fully engaged.

“Russian girls, they go out for drinks and then they go with some guy and say ‘oh hee hee! This is fun!’ but then, the next day, the girls cryyyy! Russian girls try to be like American girls but they can’t. Because they are Russian.”
I laugh. “Well, I have news for you: American girls can’t be American girls. Mostly they pretend to have fun.”
Olga eyes me carefully for a moment.
“I don’t understand,“ she muses aloud. “People who do this, they are empty inside and are only trying to make themselves feel better.”
I don’t disagree but I tread carefully in conversations like these, not knowing my new friend’s background and what (or who) we are actually talking about.
After a moment I say, “I think you should only… go with… people who make you feel loved and safe. And never let anyone else tell you how to have fun.”
Olga seems to approve of this response.

For the remainder of the trip we tease her about calling us slutty American girls. I mean, technically she didn’t – but she so did! There you have it ladies, in case you were wondering, the world thinks we’re a bunch of free-loving sluts.

All kidding aside, it is interesting to hear other countries’ impressions of the United States. The “frisky American girls” theory is one I have heard in my travels before, but I have also heard we think we are above international law. I have heard we are a greedy society, boastful and too proud, young and eager to make our presence known. I have listened as people who have never been to the United States rave about it being the best country in the world – which always makes me feel a little bit sad. Sometimes someone will ask a question about the U.S. and I feel the pressure of speaking on behalf of my entire country (even for those uber-conservative square states in the middle).

I pause for a minute thinking about the illusion of fun perpetuated by these abstract Slutty American Girls. I wonder if perhaps there isn’t also a Great Gatsby-esque quality to our grand American dream as well. How accessible is this dream to the average American? Where are we excelling? And where do we need to improve?

These are big questions for a girl on vacation and I decide to make some tea. As I approach the samovar I see OCD Provodnitsa is blocking the hallway as she folds laundry. I make a huge point of rolling my eyes and acting annoyed – not because I actually mind waiting for her to move, I just want to feel in on the haughty, grumpy joke. She looks at me stone-faced and lets out a long, slow sigh. I’ve managed to disappoint her again.

Brace yourself, dear Reader. Next time we actually get somewhere… the beautiful Lake Baikal!

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