Note from 2017: Frustration with Blogger caused me to flee to Google Photos’
superior photo-displaying capabilities. Migrating to Jekyll has allowed me to
bring the photos back here to the blog. Which is just as well, since the Google
Well, it only took 6 months, but I’m finally putting up the next installment in
my giant backlog of photos. This time again I’m linking to
an album I made:
Anything in quote marks is from the post “A Bit of a Train
unless it says it’s from my journal. Anything not in quotes is brand new words
fresh from my fingers to your face.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to talk to you about blog redesigning.
I’ve been blogging into this exact same template for over ten years, and I’ve
never had a problem with it—but now that I’m learning web design, I’m thinking
it’s time I changed it up a little. Not sure when, but sometime soon I think
I’ll overhaul this blog and bring it into the current decade. I’m going to come
up with some fun ideas and then see what fun I can have with CSS. I’m thinking
something at least as soothing as this layout, but less full of arbitrary
circles and with much better typography.
This also explains why, if you’re perceptive, you may have noticed I messed up
the layout a little. I was just trying to change fonts, but I didn’t take a
backup of my template first, and it turns out they don’t have this ancient
template available anymore to roll back to before I customized it. So for a
while, you’ll have to live with an off-center column layout and some misaligned
Enjoy the photos!
I boarded the
Trans-Manchurian branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway in Ulaanbaatar, partway
through its journey from Beijing to Irkutsk, and I waved goodbye to
Ulaanbaatar, as it waved goodbye to my train.
And off I rode, northward
to the Russian border. “It’s a pretty nice train, this. Even the ‘hard sleeper’
beds are bedecked with lots of blankets. The dining car is leaving now because
they change at each border and we’re now crossing into Russia, but it was very
fancy and extremely Mongolian. [Journal.]”
“As we got farther north,
more trees began appearing, and we joined up with a river we’ve been following
ever since. Its water absolutely shimmers in the oblique sunlight of these
latitudes, and it looks as clean as the beginning of the world. I spent a long
time staring out the window, waving back to the kids or hikers along the way
who waved hi to the train. There are lots of cows and horses, a lot of them
hanging out in the river. Sometimes we go through rugged rocky hills, but
mostly it’s flat pasture land. [Journal.]”
In the larger towns, we
would go through respectably-sized switchyards. Somewhere on the Mongolian side
of the border, these kids were walking around among the train cars.
“When I woke up, we were
going by Baikal. There it was, blue, stretched out to the horizon, containing a
fifth of the world’s liquid freshwater. Quite the sight. I watched it from
various parts of the train all morning. [Journal.]”
“The scenery today was
different from yesterday’s, a lot. All the houses are rustic-looking wooden
deals. And there was forest: proper, expansive forest, full of birch and pine
and other trees whose names I don’t know. Of course there was also the matter
of Lake Baikal being present the whole day. I won’t soon forget that part of
the view. [Journal.]”
After we got off the train
in Irkutsk, which isn’t on Baikal, an endlessly helpful young woman named Diana
helped me get a marshrutka (van-bus) to the bus station in Listvyanka, about an
hour down the road, which is on the shore. The houses around town are all
shingled in wood painted Siberian blue. This is the color of the countryside
here; every town is this shade and has these homey-looking tumbledown houses.
“There’s a trail under
production (perhaps fated to always be so) called the Great Baikal Trail; the
volunteers who are making it hope to get it to encircle the entire lake. The
first night, I only got to Listvyanka in time to make it just past the
trailhead, to a little grassy clearing nestled in among the yellowing birches
in a valley, with a trickle of water running past the entrance. It was pretty
damn idyllic.” I woke up in the morning and walked through these woods.
For the first half of the
day, the Great Baikal Trail could almost as well have been called the Great
Sorta Near Baikal Trail, but then the woods ahead of me, and the land
underneath them, suddenly gave way, and I was looking down a high escarpment
into the water of Baikal.
The trail switchbacked
exhaustingly down until I reached a beach, where I obligingly set my tent,
prepated a food, and had a rest.
It wasn’t all prepating
food and having a rest, though; I ran into a crowd of “vacationing Russians my
age who gave me lots of food and insisted I swim with them in the frigid waters
of the lake.”
We added mysterious
petroglyphs to the lake shore.
“They left before night,
and I was left alone with a pair of omul fishermen who went out on the lake
once it got dark. Theirs was one of a constellation of lights out on the
surface of the lake. I guess omul fishing is a night thing.”
The next morning I headed
back, but made sure to fill up my water bottle with the most naturally clean
water I would find for a long time.
The Soviets seem to have
taken great pride in designing good-looking train stations. They put Amtrak to
On the several days of a
Trans-Siberian trip, there are many things in the world you will not see, and
there are a certain number of things that you will see a lot of. One is
The trains come associated
with trainside food vendors, selling smoked fish and steaming pirozhki. You’d
think dining in a train car would be grim, but one of these smoked fish will
brighten even the darkest day.
At some of the stations,
we had enough time to get out and look at trains from different angles. This
constituted our entertainment for the day.
Siberia: where the hobos
run the train lines, as they rightfully should. (Actually, “Новотранс” is how
you write “Novotrans” in Cyrillic.)
Aside from trains, though,
we mostly watched birch trees go by.
Lots and lots of birch
sometimes farther away.
Occasionally, a Siberian
blue town flashed by, misty and mythical.
Or humbly real.
What’s to do but get to
know the people in your car? I shared my berth with this couple, Kostya and
Roza, who were going to see their daughter in Kazan, most of the way to Moscow.
I slept on the shelf above Kostya’s head, and he and Roza slept on the ones
they’re sitting on. Across from me slept a religious man named Valery who
discussed theology with the nuns (next photo).
Here are Olga and Tamara,
who were, as far as I could gather, on their way back to their separate
convents in Moscow after a nice trip away. After I tried to eat some mushrooms
that were handed to me by a confident-looking and personable mother-daughter
duo in the woods by Baikal, Olga and Tamara took me under their wing as the
naive grandson they had never gotten to lovingly chide, and gave me food and
Vlad, studying his opening
theory. For the whole Vlad story, you’ll have to go see the original post. He
sharked me out of $7, though he was aiming for $100. Tamara and Olga told me in
no uncertain terms that he was a bad man and I should not go near him ever
But hey, there were always
My train got to Moscow at
an ungodly hour of the morning, so before meeting my CouchSurfing host, I went
to watch the sun rise in Red Square. “Seeing St Basil’s Cathedral was the
culmination of dozens of times I’ve seen it in pictures. Such a colorful,
almost haphazard structure. I loved it. [Journal.]”
Reach for the stars.
“Wow. [Red Square] is
grand in a way I’ve never really seen before. And red, too—I thought maybe they
called it that for communism, but no, it’s physically red. … At this hour, I
had the Square almost to myself. After a while I went around a corner and found
the Alexander Garden. Beautiful, and I saw soldiers raise the flag for the day.
Scattered around were
Russian Orthodox saints and their followers.
The Kremlin. Closed
Thursdays. (It was Thursday.)
The Cathedral of Christ
It has the most ornate
doors I may have ever seen, though il Duomo in Florence certainly gives it a
run for the money.
And entire armies on its
I finally did meet up with
my CouchSurfing host, Alexander, and later that night he took me on a driving
tour around Moscow. As we drove past this university, he explained to me why
the American approach to drinking vodka is all wrong. “You’re not supposed to
enjoy it,” he said. “You drink it to get drunk, so you drink it as fast as you
He also explained that
until somewhat recently, Moscow had no skyscrapers, and then the mayor decided
it needed a few, so they created a skyscraper district. This is all the
skyscrapers in Moscow, and right next door there’s nothing tall at all.
My first day of
hitchhiking, I got a ride from Arkady, who didn’t want me to have to pitch a
tent, and so took me back home with him. “Toropets is a town of 18,000 people
and it’s a century older than Moscow, I learned from Arkady as we drove
through. His building was an unpromising Soviet-style block of
apartment/condos. But when we walked in, it was full of warmth and light and
the smells of a happy family. His wife, Iyulia, and his ferret, Prushcha, came
to greet us, and he urged me to sit down in a comfortable chair in the living
room. We all talked, and soon his ten-year-old son Roman came in and exhausted
his English class learnings by saying, ‘My name is Roman.’ Meanwhile, Iyulia
was making me and Arkady some food, and while I was looking through Roma’s
English textbook with him, Arkady came in and said it was time to eat. A big
bowl of borshch with sour cream, and then a heaping plate of mashed potatoes
with chicken, and pickles and bread on the side.”
I got a few rides,
including one in a semi to the Latvian border, where my ride added his truck to
the end of a four-mile-long line of trucks, and I got a friendly ride with the
border patrol to the customs station, where I must have been the first
pedestrian they’d seen in weeks, but they treated me as completely ordinary.
My memories of Latvia are
about as blurry as this picture. I remember green fields being worked by women
in dresses and men in flat caps. It felt like it had never left the 1800s.
Though this was a fun
After a marathon ride with
one trucker all the way from Latvia through Lithuania and halfway down Poland,
I landed in Kraków, met my CouchSurfing host Nina, and started exploring Europe
In time, I would stop
being so amazed by every grand structure and square, but Europe was still fresh
and Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral had plenty of power to amaze me with its gold and
copper roofs and perfect sculptures.
But Nina was not just the
“go see monuments” type. No, she was also the “let’s have an adventure” type,
and so at 5:00 am, we climbed to the top of king Krak’s hill to watch the sun
rise. (King Krak is said to be the one who founded Kraków, and his hill is a
giant burial mound for him. This hasn’t been scientifically tested, because
they don’t want to disturb the mound. I’m happy to take it on faith.)
And shortly afterward,
while it was still misty, we walked a little ways away to a big quarry where we
weren’t supposed to go, and went anyhow.
Spot me among the
By a park trail there was
this unexplained monument, which says “Elvis Presley Avenue”.
I bade Nina goodbye and
hitched to Münich in time for Oktoberfest, which was more orgiastic than I had
It’s a festival,
bacchanale, and amusement park all in one.
And of course there are
the famous beer tents. “Tent” here is loosely defined to include buildings the
size of warehouses. This one is the “Himmel des Bayern”—“Heaven of Bavaria”.
A new old friend with whom
I discovered Gemütlichkeit.
Even living statues have
All in all, it wasn’t so
bad, especially shining from a distance.
And in the nights, I’d
retire to my peaceful, stealthy campsite in the little woods near the River
I went to the Czech
Republic: “Got a ride with an incredibly pleasant guy named Tomáš who sounds
like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber when he talks in English, and has the body
language to match. Found out that the place I was planning on sleeping [in
Prague] was no longer available to me, whereupon Tomáš promptly offered his
house. Went to a bar with Tomáš’s friends, and arranged to go fishing with some
of them the next day, and climbing the day after that.”
“Fished and caught the
only fish of the day, a pike. We weren’t particularly dedicated about fishing;
beer was more the order of the day. Got up the next morning and went with one
of Tomáš’s friends named Martin to a natural climbing wall in Roviště, on the
Vltava (=Moldau) River, and became absolutely exhilarated by the process of
climbing. I must do this again. Stayed in a dorm with one of Martin’s friends,
and explored the enormous, abandoned Strahov Stadium.”
(Still at Roviště.) A view
that could inspire anyone to climb rocks.
After that vivid
introduction to the Czech Republic, even the great Old Town of Prague seemed a
little pale, though it did have its special moments, like this one in the
courtyard outside the Kafka museum.
From there I went on to
Berlin, where I mostly stayed in a weird commune full of burnouts, built in an
old Secret Police compound, but did manage to get to the city and see the
sights, like the Reichstag.
What a bizarre building it
Berlin was a little
peculiar, but in a way I liked.
And at night they were
having a spectacular festival of lights.
Most of the people I
explored Berlin with were from the commune, like Eric the moronic drunk
American, Ovi the Romanian (still wearing his mask from the music video we
helped film overnight the night before), and Vic Anselmo, a rock star.
Finally I got my big
break: I got to be an extra in a zombie film that would never get out of
post-production. We filmed in an abandoned hospital and I got paid in pizza—one
step away from fortune and fame, stagelights and Learjets.
Makeup was applied on site
in trashed hospital storage and delivery rooms.
But the best part was that
when they weren’t filming, I got free rein of the hospital, and I could climb
wherever and whatever the hell I felt like. A paradise!
Some of the abandoned
rooms were more ominous than others, thanks to being part of the movie set.
Here I would later be imaginarily handcuffed to a gurney.
This was unnecessary. But
then, I was hungry.