The blog is back!
We’ve been bad posters, largely on account of not having anything terribly exciting to talk about, followed by a stretch that had just way too much excitement. All day adventure, every day, and no time or energy at the end of the night to write about it. It’s a crying shame, too. You’d probably like to hear about it. When we left Cyprus we made the quick flight to Athens. It was beautiful, soaring over the Aegean and all the islands.
Athens was a great city. Yes, there are riots and protests but we avoided those. Due to a mix-up, we had two apartments, one on top of the other, with a rooftop as well. Views of the Parthenon, it was brilliant. The night life in Athens was much better than expected, and the people were friendly, contrary to what is sometimes written. There’s a metro, so no worries about the traffic, which also has a bad reputation. We found nothing to complain about and would gladly go back.
From there, we went to Israel for an intensive crash course in just about everything – the many types of Judaism, Middle Eastern politics at ground level, falafels, desert life, beach life, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Lots of places that we went to made the news for something or other either just before we got there or just after we left.
After Israel, we went to St. Petersburg, with its jaw-dropping architecture and impressive beer scene. We drank with Per Forsgren and his family, discovered Brasserie Metropole (a truly awesome brewpub) and in general had a lovely, easy introduction to Russia.
And this is where the story begins.
The Trans-Siberian is rightfully one of the world’s most famous journeys. I’ve dreamed about it for a long time and experienced elements of it in 2004 when I traveled from Warsaw to Bangkok. I went to Russia’s Volga cities, Central Asia and Western China. That trip was unconventional; this is a more traditional journey. It is most properly known as the Trans-Mongolian but that is a mere technicality, mostly for hard-core train buffs and epic journey geeks. For all practical purposes, this was the Trans-Siberian.
Despite planning well in advance, we actually had very little time to prepare. We had trouble with the new Russian visa rules, and by the time we got our visas we only had a week or so to honestly get ready for this thing. Most people undertaking a journey like this would prepare for months. We basically spent a day in Moscow getting our act together – food for the train, a Russian railways guide to follow along with all the stops, and to make last-second arrangements that would hopefully ensure that we could avoid sleeping in any deserted train stations along the way.
Stress was high when we got on board for the first leg – a hearty welcome ride of 28 hours that would take us from Kazan Station in Moscow to Ekaterinburg, the main city of the Ural Mountain region. Not quite Siberia at that point, but technically Asia, by a few kilometres anyway. It was hot and sweaty in Moscow that day, and the train was worse by far. Sitting at the station, broiling in the hot sun waiting for departure, it was more of a banya than a train car. Sweat was pouring off of us like Victoria Falls. We were loaded down, too, and badly. We have our bags – with four seasons of clothes and all we need to survive – plus all the food and water we could manage. We looked ridiculous, of that I have no doubt. But we can’t drink the water on the train and we’d heard nothing good about the meal cars. So we took no chances. Russian trains do have samovars, so we had a bunch of instant noodles – they weigh nothing but they take up a lot of space and that makes it looks worse than it is. Water, on the other hand, is just plain heavy.
After our death march to the station and then onto the banya-car, the wagon lurched underneath of us and our journey commenced. It was a proud moment. The train was not the official Trans-Sib, the No. 8, but was one of many that cross the country. This one was going to Tinda – somewhere in the Russian Far East – but I can’t imagine too many people on board were going that far. We rolled slowly through the Moscow suburbs and finally into open countryside. In European Russia, it looks mostly like fields and birch trees. The view is not actually that exciting, but that’s part of the fun. The sun sets very slowly in Russia during summer, and at that latitude it barely sets at all before it begins to rise again.
The journey was under way. 7855 kilometres. 135 hours on the train. 5 stops along the way. See you in Beijing.