Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trans-Siberian Railway: The Adventure Begins.


“I Hear That Train a’comin….”

“…a’comin ‘round the bend….”

Well, Dear and Faithful Readers, it’s back on the train for me for yet another spectacular adventure. I’ve been waiting years to tackle this one and my time has finally come. It was time to check off one of the last major items on my Bucket List. My initial researches over the years did not turn up answers to the questions I had about this trip, so I kept putting it off. Finally, to make a long story even longer, I found a travel agency in Budapest that offered exactly what I was looking for, so I snapped it up and made my reservations in December 2016 for the journey in June 2017.

FIRST CONSIDERATIONS

Yes, it’s one of my final Life’s Desire items: a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR), Moscow to Irkutsk, with stops at Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and ending up at Lake Baikal. I started my paperwork early and in January printed out the Russian Visa Request form; I’d fill it out and take it back to the travel agent in April 2017, to start the next round of paperwork for my visa. As I worked on the form, I noted that one of the items was to “List all of the countries you visited in the past ten years, with dates of visit.” It took me an hour or two, but I finally compiled my list and printed it out; it was two pages long – 48 countries. Wait till the Russian visa authorities get a load of that!

I also mentioned the trip to a Canadian friend of mine living in Budapest with his Taiwanese Diplomatic partner; she couldn’t take the time to go on the trip, but he was eager and signed up in January. I’d be traveling with a companion, one of the few times. And then one day I was in our local English-language bookstore and chanced to mention the trip to the Hungarian owner of the store, another old acquaintance of mine (his store used to carry one of my books), and he also signed up for the trip. I should get a finder’s fee!

The package deal arranged by the travel agency included the agency getting my visa, flights from Budapest to Moscow and back from Irkutsk, the 12-day train trip, six hotel nights along the way and a full-time guide with the group. I thought the price was a real bargain: only around $1500 US for all that. Such a deal! In short, everything except food and drinks. Of course, since it’s a Hungarian tour agency, the local tours and all instructions will be in Hungarian. There will be a maximum of 25 group members, but with my Hungarian friend coming along, I would be set if I needed anything translated. Actually, all I really needed to be able to understand was what time to be back at the train and where our hotels were; everything else we could figure out on our own with the aid of guide books.

So, after winter and early-spring long weekend trips to Palermo, Sicily (Italy) and Tbilisi, Georgia (the country in Eastern Europe), in mid-April 2017 I hastened back down to the travel agency and turned in all my paperwork, including my passport. I was told it would take about 10 days to two weeks to get my visa, after which all should be in order and I could start packing for the journey. I was READY!

So --- why the Trans-Siberian Railway? Well, several reasons:

1. It is, after all, THE famous Trans-Siberian railway route, which crosses Russia and Siberia, meanwhile stopping at many of the most beautiful and important cities along the way. Initially, I thought about going all the way to Vladivostok, but decided Irkutsk was far enough. Anyway, the route from Moscow's Kazansky Station spans two continents, 16 major rivers, six federal states and almost a hundred cities. Total distance from Moscow to Irkutsk is 5200 kilometers, or 3300 miles. Even today the bridges across the Amur, Yenisei and Ob rivers are unique – they are the largest river bridges on the Asian continent. In total there are 485 bridges. It is the backbone of the Russian rail network and the connection between the Asian and European railway networks. It's the most travelled railway in the world, as much of Russia's oil is transported along it. There are a lot of trains on this route; between Moscow and Irkutsk we could expect to meet another train about every 10 minutes.

2. The route itself is a UNESCO world heritage site. In addition, the trip includes a final stop at Lake Baikal, Asia's largest freshwater lake, with its crystal-clear waters. It is one of the world's oldest and deepest lakes and is surrounded by magnificent mountains.

3. The package tour I’d be taking is specially tailored for people who particularly enjoy adventurous travels, i.e., mingling with locals and indigenous people of every stripe, and also immersing oneself in the local ambiance. Plus, this trip had been on my Bucket List for many years, and it was time at long last to take the plunge.


PRE-TRIP PREPARATION

This trip wouldn’t be like any of my other long-term travels. For one, I would be on a train most of the time; I’d have six nights on the train, alternating with six nights in local hotels. For another, I’d be traveling with people I know, something I rarely did. Also, I’d be a member of a tour group, subject to local tours and schedules which might not fit my personal wants and needs. So, there were obvious (and not so obvious) things I needed to do to get ready.

First of all, RESEARCH! Gotta plan ahead and see what was coming down the road at me. I checked out several online travel sites, like Wikipedia Voyage, Lonely Planet and some blogs written by other travelers to find out what to expect, tips on what to pack, possible security concerns, etc. Got a lot of good ideas and information and, naturally, tended to overpack and over-worry about things. Of course, the reality was somewhat different from the advice from others.

Some of the security concerns were pickpockets in the cities, strangers at bars offering drugged drinks to travelers, train compartments entered at night after spraying knockout gas through keyholes (!), Gypsies (especially children, taught to swarm travelers and reach into clothing for money, etc), and nasty little bugs (real bugs) that could easily lay a traveler low with strange and exotic diseases.

(NB: I have no idea where these people and books got this information, but the Russia I traveled had none of these dangers, really, none at all. So much for overactive security concerns.)

Next, I’d have to prepare for a long train journey. I would spend every other night, about six nights in total, on the train, where there was no shower, so I’d miss showering every day, as we clean Americans are used to. Therefore, beginning early May (about a month before our departure date), I started taking my showers every other day, to get my body and mind ready for the every-other-day breaks in my hygiene routine while on the train. On my non-shower days I used the handi-wipes I’d be using on the train; a novel experience.

To prepare for socializing with the Russians I expected to meet on the train and in the cities where we would stop, also starting in early May I began to drink a pint of vodka every day. I had to be in shape for all that great socializing to come and to uphold the party superiority of Americans. In addition, since my access to good food would be limited while on the train, I began preparing myself by eating trail mix, power bars and lots of pierogis every other day or so.

I also began practicing my Survival Russian again, so as not to appear just a tourist. Knowing how to say ‘Na Zdorovye’ (Cheers!) was a Must; I practiced every day in front of a mirror. Also, ordering at least four beers at a time would be required in various pubs in which I planned to stop (‘chitteree pivo, pazhalsta’). And, of course, asking for my all-time favorite Russian beer snack, grenkiye, would also be helpful. Counting to ten would be a plus (adin, dva, ---- syest). I figured this time I could pass on knowing how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

Each month when my pension checks arrived I bought Russian rubles to take with me. I wasn’t sure how frequently I’d be able to find an ATM, or if my debit and credit cards would even work in the wilds of Siberia, so just in case, I’d be prepared. Besides, there were supposed to be lots of local food vendors on the platforms when the trains stopped at the various cities and towns along the route, and I’d want to buy some hot local food to try, the purchase of which was, naturally, cash (rubles) only.

Long before we were to leave for Moscow to begin our adventure, I started stocking up on trip accessories. I picked up a small portable chess set (for those long Siberian nights on the train), some playing cards (I could teach the Russians how to play Poker or Old Maid), small bars of soap and a roll of toilet paper (just in case – one never knows). I also found some inexpensive souvenirs of Hungary for the locals I’d meet: fridge magnets and shot glasses inscribed with ‘Budapest.’ A water bottle and easy-to-clean mug for tea and other easy-to-make meals along the way, such as ramen; every carriage has a 24-hour samovar with free hot water (!), so it is advisable to have one’s own food along to avoid spending too much money in the dining car or on the snack trolleys (if they even exist).

PACKING

I could, of course, follow the advice in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and take only a towel. Such a minimalist approach would, however, leave me woefully deficient in all the things I had to have – really, just had to have! – so I’d approach my task the old-fashioned way. I would lay out everything I wanted to take or thought I’d need, then cut it in half. Piece of pie.

First and foremost would come my train clothes, which was actually the easy part. Roomy and comfortable clothing would be needed for all the time we spent on the train. I had just the things: an old pair of sweat pants and my University of Hong Kong sweat shirt. By the end of the journey they’d probably stand up by themselves, but they’d serve their purpose admirably. A pair of flip-flops would suffice while ambling around the train and visiting the bathrooms in the middle of the night.

I planned on taking a medium-sized backpack along with one medium-sized suitcase, which would suffice for everything else: Cargo pants, soft hiking shoes, socks, a few long- and short-sleeved shirts, travel vest, light jacket and sweater, et voila! Easy as cake.

About a week before our departure date, we were advised to attend a meeting at the travel agency, the better to get more details on our trip. I presumed we’d find out about specific schedules and times, local tours, meet our guide and the other group members and get to ask questions we had stored up. We also received a pre-meeting email containing critical information, such as:

“Customers can carry 1 piece of luggage (max 23 kg. = 50.71 pounds) and 1 hand luggage (max 10 kg. = 22.05 pounds) for free. We would like to ask our customers to take as light luggage as they can, because at the railway stations the luggage must be carried by the passengers.

“The accommodation is for 4 persons in each compartment. These are regular trains, not tourist specials, and they are used by local residents as well. Please take care of your valuables and luggage. Close the cabin door for night and don’t leave it unguarded. Don’t forget your personal documents and money to take everywhere (passport as well). Please note: there’s no safe on the train. On the train you can find only toilet with only handwashing abilities. Can be useful to take: toilet paper, small towel etc.
The railway company supplies sheet and blanket for every customer during the nights.
Two possibilities for meals: Use the dining car if it’s attached to the train, or self-service as our tour guide always warn the customers at the last available shop/market to buy food and drink. Don’t forget to take cutlery. At the hotels we ensure breakfast.

“In Moscow traffic jams are usual things, so the program beginnings can change.

“Russia’s official currency is the Ruble (RUB). Credit cards are mostly accepted. You can take RUB from bank automats. You can change your EUR or USD to RUB at the hotels, exchange offices (airport, streets).

“In some of the Russian churches and cathedrals men must wear long trousers, women must wear head scarves, long trousers or skirt and must cover their shoulders.

“Useful items: sport shoes, warm clothes and windcheater, sometimes raincoat. On the train for sleeping, comfortable clothing recommended.

“Tap water is not suitable for drinking, but you can buy bottled water nearly everywhere. Health care in Russia is like in Europe. (Oooo, that’s not good!). At restaurants the TIP is 5-10%.

“We wish you a nice trip,
1000 Út Travel Agency”


PRE-DEPARTURE MEETING

Many of the final total of 21people in our group gathered at the travel agency at 6 PM on June 1 for our pre-trip briefing. Naturally, it was all in Hungarian, of which I understood about 12 words, but our Travel Rep, Gergő, kindly took notes for us of the most important items. Turned out the presentation was just generally about where we’d be going, tips on what to pack, train protocol, changing money, day tours, etc. Really, not much we didn’t already know. We also met our tour guide, Zita, a Hungarian woman of substance, being quite a bit wider than she was tall. But she was a real sweetheart and helped us out immeasurably during the trip; she also spoke Russian and English, and was obviously well-versed in handling tour groups, which was all we really cared about anyway.

The following day, Gergő also sent us non-Hungarian speakers the entire detailed itinerary, including flight information, train arrival times, hotel names, etc. So now we have pretty much everything we need in the way of information about our trip. Just a few final days of packing and re-arranging and taking some stuff out of my suitcase and putting more stuff in and charging my electronics and it’s almost, just about, nearly, pretty close to a GO!

And Finally: DER TAG!


Days 1and 2: Thursday, June 8 and Friday, June 9. Moscow.

Members of the tour group staggered into Liszt Ferenc Aiport just outside of Budapest separately and in small bands. We all seemed to be present as of 11:00 AM in Terminal 2A. Our guide, Zita Bakos, a large, friendly Hungarian woman, was waiting with all of our documents (plane tickets, passports – I hadn’t seen mine in a couple of months! - visas, etc.) on the Departure level. We were instructed previously that we were each allowed one suitcase with a maximum weight of 23 kilograms per person, and with a width and length adding up to a maximum of 158 centimeters. We were also allowed one carry-on piece of hand luggage, weighing no more than 10 kg and with a width and length adding up to a maximum of 115 cm. Whew!

Check-in went smoothly and we left Budapest close to our scheduled departure time of 12:55 PM on Aeroflot Airlines, an old-time Russian carrier, whose planes seem to specialize in very narrow and uncomfortable seats. We arrived in Moscow around 4:25 PM, with no stopovers en route. Before deplaning, we were each given a Registration Data Sheet, to be filled in by the hotels and collected when we left Russia.

Upon clearing Passport Control, we were herded onto a local bus for our transfer to the Hotel Izmailovo Delta for one night. Delta is one of several hotels in this complex – yep, you guessed it – the other hotels are named Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Dean and I were booked to share a room on the 28th floor. The complex is next to the Izmailovo Kremlin, an amazing example of Disneyland Architecture in Moscow, which I hoped to visit the following day. Due to the Moscow traffic congestion, it took us nearly two hours to get to our hotel from Sheremetyevo airport. We were allowed 45 minutes to clean up and then our guide Zita gathered her flock together for the 20-minute metro ride to Red Square. I’d forgotten how beautiful many of the Moscow metro stations are, virtually art galleries in their own right. It was nice to make their acquaintance again.
And, of course, Red Square at night must be seen to be believed. BTW, as noted in a previous blog in 2004, Red Square is so named due to the color of the bricks used in the buildings, not because of its Communist leanings. Anyway, all lit up at night, it is a truly beautiful sight. The city was preparing for the upcoming festivities on Russia Day, June 12, and lights were strung and music was played and there was a general air of excitement in the air. St. Basil’s church was brightly lighted and glowed in the square. We walked the area for some time, taking night pictures and oohing and aahing every few feet. An excellent start.

We made it back to the hotel around midnight, still not having had any dinner (this would be a recurring scene on many nights, due to hurried tours and rushing from hotel to train to bus). Canadian Dean and Hungarian Tony and I hit the hotel’s 24-hour restaurant for some beer and snacks, then decided dinner was in order. Beer, a shot of vodka (had to start our trip properly!) and, for me, the kofte bowl of meat and veggies; it was hot and tasty and wonderful. The hotel obviously knew how to cater to travelers, judging by the many other tour groups in evidence. We got to bed around 1:30 in the morning. An auspicious beginning.


“De TRAIN, BOSS, De TRAIN!”
I was up early the morning of Friday, June 9. Performed my daily ablutions then walked around the Izmailovo Kremlin next door to the hotel, an amazing construction that looked surprisingly like Disneyland. It was a beautiful Moscow morning, cool and sunny. I had my photo taken outside the Kremlin with a local Russian girl dressed in period costume, then met Dean for breakfast. Afterwards, we had time for Dean to check out the local Kremlin also, then a touch after 10 AM we checked out of the hotel and boarded our bus for the day tour of Moscow.

We saw the Novodevichy Convent (from across the small lake, as visitors were not admitted when we were there) and the Lomonosov University, checked out the view of New Moscow, then headed for Red Square again and a tour of the real Kremlin, the one from which all of Russia is governed. Mr. Putin was away at the time, so we didn’t get to say Hi and ask him to sign our programs, but the tour went off well nevertheless. It was certainly not what I expected. I thought the Kremlin, behind those red walls, would be like the buildings and architecture on Red Square, but such wasn’t the case. There were a lot of large, imposing buildings, some modern and some from the 19th Century, and there were also a lot of churches. Really. Must have been six or seven churches inside the Kremlin. I never expected that and after streaming through a few of them, decided once I’d seen one church I’d seen most of them, so generally passed on future wanders through many of the churches on our tour (and there really were a lot!).
We saw the giant cannon that had never been fired and the 200-ton bell that had cracked in a fire and had a large piece broken out of it. We visited the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and finally exited the Kremlin late in the afternoon. Our final stop was to be at Old Arbat street, where I had shopped in 2004 and which had changed dramatically since then; now it should be called New Arbat street. So we had a brief chance for some shopping and then headed for the Kazansky Station around 8 PM and the first leg of our Trans-Siberian Railway journey.

Well, sort of. Read on.

When we found our track, we then learned that our carriage, Number 10, was waaay down at the end of the train, about a quarter of a mile walk or so – at least it felt like that, dragging my suitcase and with a full backpack on my back. Anyway, we got to our car and had our tickets and passports scrutinized by our Provodnitsa (female Carriage Attendant). I hefted my suitcase up onto the train and turned the corner into our carriage to look for our compartment.

First impressions: DAMN, but it was hot in that car! All the windows were closed to keep out fresh air and sweat immediately broke out all over my chubby little body. Jeez, where’s the air conditioner? Where’s the fan?

Second impression: Hmm, in order to impress us and to have us experience what it must have been like to ride the Russian rails in the 19th Century, the Russian Railway people had kindly resurrected one of the original Trans-Siberian Railway cars from around 1886. OK, it was clean, but it was old! Tiny compartments – OK, I knew they would be small, but, as in so many cases, the reality far exceeded the expectations. Four “bunks” in each compartment, narrow padded benches. Mattresses and pillows were rolled up and stored on the upper bunks for later use during the night. The bottom benches lifted up to reveal storage compartments underneath for suitcases. The only way to enter the compartment was to turn and go in sideways. Oh, and I forgot to mention: there was a middle-aged Russian woman sitting in our compartment.
I gave her my best memorized Russian: Dobry Den (good day). Vy govorite po-angliski? (Do you speak English?). Her response: Nyet. Apparently, she was to be our compartment-mate for the next night’s travel, including sleep time. This should be fun.

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