Tuesday, September 02, 2008

ABC's of Russia Travel: A Summary

I have 15 minutes to write a quick blog while sitting in an internet cafe in the middle of Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia and want to sum up our three-week trip across Russia. Right, that's pretty impossible. So here's what I'm gonna do...

A is for the All-Mighty Dollar. The US buckaroo. Greenbacks. Or as the Russian like to say "Bucksov". No matter how down-in-the-dumps Americans are feeling about their economy, let me just remind you that the US dollar still holds rank when it comes to currency exchange in Russia (or anywhere else I've traveled to for that matter). I'm always amazed at how much sway one can hold when flashing a little bit of American greenery. Not that we've really had to thus far, but it's always close at hand in case a 'fee' needs to be paid or a form signed...

B is for Borsch-sometimes with beets, other times just cabbage, always fatty and NEVER without loads of sour cream.

C is for Cool People: Backpacking, train-hopping, drink-swigging Europeans who befriended "The Canadians" on each leg of the journey; warm, hospitable, GENEROUS locals who gave us beds to sleep in and meals to eat all the way across the largest nation on earth; the North American expats living in Russia or the odd Canadian/US traveler who decided to hop the pond and then another continent just like us and who understood that life just isn't as good without peanut butter.

D is for Debit Card. Which I stupidly left in an ATM in Moscow before the trip had barely begun. I've never done anything so dumb on a trip and was pretty peeved at myself. We've been making do by using my Visa to pay for train tickets and then Alison pays me back in Rubles, now Togrogs (in Mongolia).

E is for Excrement. You got it. No blog of mine can be left without tales from the toilet. I never talk about the Life & Times of My Bowels at home because it's really not a major event in my day to day affairs, but on the road clinging to that fine balance between constipation and the runs has been very high on our list of priorities. What we eat, the water we drink, etc. etc. all determines how the digestive system functions and we try to maintain this mantra: What goes in, MUST MUST MUST come out.

F is for Flags. I really wanted to purchase a couple Soviet flags while in Russian and never found one. Quite disappointed, but what can you do. Go back again I guess..which I'm sure I will.

G is for Gulags. Or at least one...one of the few remaining gulags semi-preserved and utterly desolate in nature. I visited Perm 36 with an American girl who hired a car to drive us two hours out into the middle of the foothills of the Urals (don't worry it was through a travel agency, not some random dude off the street) in order to visit this aging forced labour camp. Pretty depressing and slightly creepy seeing as how we were the only visitors. *Shudder*

H is for Homesickness. Got to talk to my family and Will for the first time while wrapping up our last few days in Russia and was overwhelmed with love for them and with gratefulness for their support, encouragement, financial assistance, and emails. What did long-distance travelers do without the INTERNET. Columbus, Lewis & Clark, John Franklin...good grief. I'm glad that as a 21st century wannabee 'explorer' I have the comfort of calling home. To quote Martha Stewart, "It's a Good Thing". (I have NO idea why that popped into my head).

I is for Inflation. No matter how well prepared I thought I was for this trip, I was not expecting prices in Russia to be over double what the guidebooks' most recent editions proclaimed. Inflation due to rising oil prices etc. etc. jacked up train fares to the point where Alison and I couldn't afford the first class, two-person berths we were counting on. So we settled for traveling in the Kupe class with the possibility of bunking with two other strangers. Fortunately we had our berth to ourselves on the first and last trips, and shared our berth with a lovely Russian couple on our 3-day jaunt from Perm-Irkutsk.

J is for Yours Truly. I am a grubby traveler. Next to Alison I'm a walking germfest and all because she cleans her feet and face at night, flosses religiously, and paints her toenails. I need to make perfectly clear that she's NOT a priss (and that's not because she's sitting beside me and will eventually read this) but she does these things because she likes the feeling of being clean. Me, I take great pride in ticking off how many days it's been since a shower and how black my feet are before climbing into my sleeping bag. To me it's kinda like camping and the more grubby I am the more rugged a traveler I appear to be/feel. But who am I kidding, the moment I get wind of a hot shower coming my way I am all about conditioning these locks and pulling out the mascara.

K is for Khazakstan. We keep bumping into immigrants from the 'stans'. Khazaks, Uzbekis, Tajikistanis, (really not sure HOW to label them all correctly) the whole lot of them are wildly fascinating to me and this trip has increased my desire to one day visit all the 'Stans'. "Here a stan, there a stan, everywhere a stan, stan..."

L is for Lenin. He's everywhere...kinda like Elvis, but not. Streets are still named after him, statues commemorating his ideals grace squares across the nation. Even here in Mongolia there's a bird-pooed-on version of the bald man himself standing in the middle of the city centre. And of course back in Red Square he's embalmed in wax and chemicals. Just bury the man by his mum already. (It was his dying wish...to be buried next to his mother in St. Pete.)

M is for Men. Russian Men. They really love Alison...and she could tolerate their advances because she could speak the language and flash a nasty full-on Russian "Don't you dare mess with me" look. For those of you who know Alison, you know what I'm talkin' about. I on the other hand have no such safety net, so I try to look pretty-stone cold, pull out my poker face, and regularly flash my two travel engagement rings...one worn on my left hand (North American) and one worn on my right (Russian). I've been waiting YEARS to be able to wear an engagement/wedding ring while on the road....THANK YOU WILL!!! Even better will be the day when I get to travel with my husband...now that's the ultimate deterent!

N is for Natasha, my friend April French's old roommate in Irkutsk, capital of Siberia. She was so much fun to hang out with, lavished us with hospitality, and bent over backwards just to make sure we were able to do the things we needed/wanted to while in our last Russian city on the itinerary.

O is for Odour: Fish, body odour, vodka, and cigarette smoke. Stand in a crowded hallway with a few dozen strangers for a few days and let this aromatic combination overwhelm the senses.

P is for Photography. I've been able to do church photography and portrait work in a few different places and that's been a huge blessing for others as well as myself. My eyes have been really opened to the need for more creative/technical/media tools and teaching within the Russian church community.

Q is for Quiet Time. I swear falling asleep to the sway of a rumbling train and the breeze of the pine-studded Siberian wilderness is the way to go. A little like stepping off a boat after a few days, the sway and rythmic chug-chchugg are still with me and I miss falling asleep to the lullaby of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

R is for Russian--as in the language. Which Alison has been masterfully translating for me. Really, she's quite good and we've had a lot of fun with her eavesdropping in on Russian conversations and then surprising them with her fluent Russian.

S is for Siberia. Prettier than you'd think and featuring Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake containing 1/5th of the world unfrozen fresh water. Remote, stunning, and vaguely similar in looks to the Pacific Northwest--not Siberia, just the lake.

T is for Toilets. Train toilets. I love them, think they're somewhat humourous, and enjoy the challenge of trying to pee while squatting above a swaying metal toilet that opens up onto the tracks. I'm weird, I know, it's the honest truth.

U is for Ulaan Bataar...our current destination and the last stop on our Trans-Siberian train route. What a difference from Moscow!

V is for Vodka! Alison and I bought cool shot glasses with Soviet symbols emblazoned on the glass along with a small bottle of the ubiquitous Russian drink and toasted our 10-hour border crossing from Russia to Mongolia with shots at 1 am in our cozy little train compartment.

W is for Weddings. I got to photograph a full-on Russian Christian wedding....woooweee was that a cultural experience or what. There are very few words to describe, so I'll just make you wait until you can view the pics for yourselves!

X is for XXX which is actually for the amount of bras we've seen through shirts, black thongs we've seen under tight white pants, and curves we've seen spilling over or falling out from under various clothing choices. And that's just regarding the ladies' apparel... Lotsa giggles and sneaky photos.... lol...

Y is for You ask a Question. I've got Y and M to go and I'm feeling lazy. Period.

Z is for Red Tape. Because I used up the 'R' and it's really essential that I include this, because there's no getting around it and it's provided us with both frustration and humour. And really how the heck was I gonna incorporate a zebra into this posting.

So, that took longer than 15 minutes but if you made it to 'Z' I'm pretty sure you're glad I took the time.

Come visit again with more tales from Mongolia...Alison and I are heading out tomorrow on a 3-day trek into the countryside for some horseback riding, hiking, a two-night stay in a traditional ger (or yurt) with a nomadic family. Pretty excited! Reminds me of my trip out into the Sahara with mom!

All right...that's all folks!!!