Giant Backlog of Photos II: Trans-Siberian Railway to Zombie Berlin

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 link died.

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: here. Anything in quote marks is from the post “A Bit of a Train Ride”, 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 background dots.

Enjoy the photos!

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 absolute shame.

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 trains.

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 trees.

Sometimes closer, 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 tea.

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 again.

But hey, there were always birches.

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. [Journal.]”

Scattered around were Russian Orthodox saints and their followers.

The Kremlin. Closed Thursdays. (It was Thursday.)

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

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 ledges!

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 can.”

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 traffic jam.

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 for real.

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 industrial equipment.

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 even imagined.

Lederhosen everywhere.

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 gotta eat.

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 Isar.

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 is inside.

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.

File under: Year of Adventure, photos · Places: Russia, Czechia, Germany, Poland


Anonymous

History

Loved looking at all those wonderful pictures. I am still amazed that you did all those things.

Hope you are not frozen by now, with all the winter. Grandpa and I just returned from a cruise from San Diego to Ft. Lauderdale through the Panama Canal. We were plenty warm there. Ha. And now we are back in winter for real. Grandma

Reply

Chuck

History

Aha, so that's where all my comments went! Glad you liked them. Also, I suppose you both already know you're sissies for running off to the tropics. You gotta tough it out like real Amurricans!

Reply

Anonymous

History

Hahahaha. Those Hawaiians aren't real Amurricans? Or Floridians? Or Puerto Ricans? Maybe it should be that we need to tough it out like Minnesotans. Ha. Or former Iowans. Really, it was nice to get away to the tropics, but in truth, I love the cold weather and beautiful snow. It's refreshing. I wouldn't want to live in a climate that doesn't have a real winter, that's for sure.

After all, what's a good homemade pot of soup good for in the middle of hot weather?

Reply

Anonymous

History

Gee, I was thinking of inviting you to come along with us next year but I see now that would be a waste of time and good weather. I mean 77 to 86 would go unwanted. Thus Grandma and I will go again somewhere, next year, alone. I was thinking Fiji, a place you obviously would not like. However, next time I go to the Arctic in January, I will give you a call. Don't wait up for it, All is well here. - 20 last night in Hamilton. More snow predicted tonight and tomorrow. We will survive. Grampa

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