Wandering the World
I arrived at the train station an hour and a half early this morning because I didn’t want to stress if anything went wrong. That meant that I had to wait in the big open area. I chose a seat, recombobulated all of my luggage that had gotten in disarray after the exray machine and started to sit down. Before I could even get my butt in the chair, this gentleman in his 80 came up to me, pointed at my suitcase and said something in Russian. I explained that I didn’t speak Russian but either he had trouble hearing or he didn’t care. He sat opposite me and told me stories for 45 minutes without stopping. At this point I realized that my inability to speak the language made me the perfect listener. I looked into his kind eyes, mirrored his expressions, nodded encouragement and found that I even understood a couple of things. He was talking about cataracts, some kind of knee problem and some kind of gastrointestinal problem. The rest of it went all over my head but I loved the way his ears were bigger than you see on most people, his eyes were expressive and he used his hands to emphasize his points. I also realized that it wasn’t important if I understood exactly what he was saying, he wanted human connection and so did I. Because I am spending most of my days in silence it was nice to have someone to listen too. I don’t know if he ever understood that I didn’t speak Russian but I do feel like we saw each other’s humanity.
So, now I am on to Moldova, a country I couldn’t have located on a map yesterday. It is according to the internet, the poorest country in Europe and when I checked out the map just now, it has no coast line. It looks as if the Ukraine has the coast that would most naturally belong to Moldova. I wonder how that happened and how it affects relations between the two countries.
While riding peacefully along reading a book, my mind relaxed just enough to allow a non peaceful thought in. This thought was that while I had checked that I didn't need a visa to visit Moldova, I had totally forgotten I had to pass through the Ukraine to get there and I had not checked if I needed a visa for the Ukraine. I scrambled to locate my phone but alas, I had not internet so I couldn't check. The train halted a good distance from the border and Russian immigration officials boarded and looked at our passports. My official was a very large man with a serious expression who looked at me and said VISA! I had a Russian visa so I wasn't really worried about him, it was the Ukrainian official I was worried about. He kept repeating VISA though; I just kept looking at him not understanding what he wanted. In hindsight, maybe he was trying to intimidate me into giving him some money or something but then decided it wasn't worth the trouble of trying to make me understand so with a larger than necessary motion, he slammed the stamp down on my passport and left. I thought that would be it, but then he came back a few minutes later and sat next to me in a chummy kind of way, as if I was some sort of lost child and motioned that I should open my purse so I did. The first thing he found upon opening up zippers were my feminine products. He hastily closed that and abandoned the search. Then he asked to see my backpack again he struck gold with my toiletries right off the bat and zipped everything back up. Apparently all of these things were just too much for him and my suitcase went untouched as he quickly left the cabin.
I thought the Ukrainian officials would come on next but we were still an hour away from the border so I had to sweat it out worrying that I would be detained at the border for lack of a visa. It was Friday night and images of having to sit at the border until offices opened up on Monday morning flashed through my mind. Would they give me food and water I wondered. When the super large Ukrainian immigration official all dressed in khaki filled the doorway I was nervous but I tried to play it cool and handed over my passport quietly. He looked at it briefly, stamped it and walked away, and I was left looking at the entry stamp in relief.
I think the next stop is Kiev. Someone just came by with giant meat sticks, they look tempting but must remember, running out of money and a 2 day fast is not that bad. If only someone would come by with a modestly priced meat pie or something.
Last night before going to bed I checked our progress to Moldova and thought wow we are making really good time. I can’t believe that it will take until 7 tomorrow evening to get to Chisinau. Today I believe it. We have taken a very circuitous route through this small but beautiful country. I am happy that I got to see so much from the window. Some of the things that struck me are that spring has arrived here. Everywhere the ground is covered in green and the trees are flowering. It is beautiful after the stark brownness of Siberia. There is also a lot more life going on along the train tracks here. Instead of endless forest, much of the way has houses nestled close to the tracks and I even saw families having picnics. It is the Easter season and people are out visiting the graves of relatives. Houses continue to have outhouses and now they have wells too.
I am beginning to get very thirsty. I have rubles, yen and euros but I don’t have leu. It strikes me how arbitrary things like money are. I am on the same train I bought juice on yesterday but today because we have crossed several borders, I can’t buy anything anymore. When I do get to eat and drink again I am going to savor it. I am surprised by how not hungry I am. It has been almost 48 hours since I last ate and really I am not feeling it much at all. I think it is all a mindset. When I got on this train I knew I was not going to eat much and because it is not in front of me I am not having to resist it. This makes me wonder if the pain of being hungry I usually feel is sometimes not so much a physical feeling in the gut but rather a mental exhaustion of not being able to resist what is available any longer.
I have also almost finished my last book today (Why Buddhism is True). Luckily this book was about meditation so maybe instead of filling my head with more books for the rest of the trip I can practice meditation. It certainly sounds like it can lead to a happier more fulfilled life if one actually practices it. I would love to get rid of the rollercoaster of negative feelings and wants.
Moldova itself wasn’t so great. It was rather hard to find anything to eat and I had to walk long distances for everything making my leg throb. I did manage to get a taxi without being ripped off this time though because when the first driver said he would take me to my airbandb for 16 Euro, I just said no and went outside. They then said they would do it for 100 Liu so I said 50 because that was all I had taken out of the ATM machine. I had no idea how much it was but when I checked it was like 3 dollars which is about right for the length of the ride and the fact that the driver got kind of lost. I was a bit confused as to why none of their map programs seemed to show them where the actual address was and all of the drivers spent a bit of time just trying to locate the address on the map. My phone brought it right up, no problem.
Upon arrival at the airbandb, Tatiana and her lovely husband greeted me warmly and asked if I was hungry. Not having eaten for 2 days I said yes and she found some vegetables for me to eat. About halfway through her husband (who spoke no English) came out and asked if I would like to try some of his homemade wine. He grew the grapes himself and it was absolutely delicious. I still have the rest of the bottle to give to Kerem and believe me, it is hard not to drink it. Then off to bed. The house was a cute 1 bedroom that was very nicely decorated. I had trouble sleeping because the dogs kept barking so I was a bit tired the next day. I did however find the train station on foot, I bought a ticket and I found a small bookstore to get something to read. It felt good to get all of that accomplished.
Arriving in Moscow I had absolutely no expectations, I hadn’t researched anything, I hadn’t read any novels taking place in Moscow and it had never really occurred to me to come here. In my experience, this is the ideal way to arrive at a place because I can’t possibly be disappointed. I am open to anything, and everything is interesting. Some of my worst travel experiences have been to places that I obsessed over before going. If I have spent years thinking about a place, it can not help but disappoint because every experience that is not over the top, is lacking in my mind. Moscow however, was a delight.
My train pulled up in the morning, too early to actually check into my AirBandB but I decided to take a taxi there anyway in the off chance I could get in. I probably could have walked since I purposely chose a place close to the train station but I still wasn’t sure of my injured foot and I had a suitcase, a bag, my purse and a camera bag so I decided to splurge (at that point I didn’t know how much of a splurge it was going to be).
Upon emerging from the train after 8 days, I was confronted by a bunch of taxi drivers offering their services, wanting to get to my lodging quickly I took one of them up on his offer. We tromped across the rough, pitted parking lot to his car and I got in. He spoke a bit of English and we chatted a little. Upon arrival, 5 minutes later (the apartment really was very close), he charged me 20 Euro! This was more than twice what I had been charged to go over an hour in Vladivostok and was waaaaaaay more that it should have been. I said no, and he locked the door so I couldn’t get out. He then proceeded to say Ma,am in a demanding way so I retorted with Sir and we did that for quite a while.
Until finally he got tired of this exchange. The price should have been just a few Euro but unfortunately my lowest bill at that point was a 10 and there was no way he was giving me change so he took the 10 unlocked the door and let me out.
Welcome to Moscow! I wasn’t really that upset though because these things do happen while traveling, it is not the first time a cab driver has ripped me off and it won’t be the last.
I got ahold of my host and she was able to let me in an hour later, I cooled my heels at the little parkette across the street and read a book. The first thing I noticed after getting in, was the amazing huge bath tub. After 10 days of not being able to bathe, I spent the whole morning in the bath tub soaping up and rinsing off, it was heaven.
Happily clean, I headed out to explore the city. I decided that I didn’t want to take any transportation other than my own 2 feet that first day and since one of those feet was not working quite properly yet, I explored the neighborhood and found a big park just around the corner. Easter season was in full swing in Russia and spring was beginning to show its face just a little. Almost everything was still brown but the snow had melted and people were in high spirits.
The next day I had one goal, to get train tickets for the next leg of my journey, Moscow to Chisinau, Moldova. I gave myself the whole day because, not knowing what I was doing, where I was going or any of the language, the probability of messing up was high. I had to get to the central train station on the other side of the city. I had Google maps and I found the subway station, figured out how to get a ticket and arrived at the platform where I encountered my first challenge, which side of the platform was going in the correct direction? All of the signs were in Cyrillic. Cyrillic is a bit of a tease, it is not as foreign looking as Japanese and some of the letters are the same as the Roman alphabet but they are pronounced differently. This meant I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying any more than I could in Japan but unlike in Japan, where they usually had Roman letter translations next to the Japanese, in Russia, you are on your own. I ended up walking up to random people, showing them my google maps directions and having them bundle me onto whatever train I was supposed to get on. Happily everyone was nice and got me on the right trains even thought we couldn’t communicate beyond that.
It was on the subway that I encountered my first happy surprise, the subway itself is a destination. Every station was unique and spectacular. There were vaulted ceilings, stunning architecture, murals, mosaics and sculptures. I couldn’t wait to arrive at the next stop to see what it had to offer. My favorite was the Revolution Square stop where every pillar had a more than life sized statue of a soldier somewhere around it brandishing a gun. It was as if there was a fierce battle going on in the station but it had been frozen and the rest of the world was just going about its business not even glancing up at it. The war among us was unacknowledged.
I saw the wall of the Kremlin
and St. Basil's Cathedral
Easter was in full swing and the eggs were ripe on the trees.
Moscow street performer
The next day was my last day and I absolutely couldn’t put off shopping any longer as people were expecting gifts so I checked out where was the best place to buy handicrafts and found an interesting looking market that was way far away. After my previous successful forays on the public transportation system I felt ready. This time it was much more challenging because not only did I have to go on the metro, I also had to figure out the bus system and change busses several times. After much marching back and forth in confusion, I managed to find the correct busses and got off at the correct stop only to walk in the wrong direction for about 45 minutes.
The directions said something about the market being in a park and I was in a park, covered in trees with a little amusement park along the way. It was beautiful and peaceful but I saw absolutely no sign of any market. Finally I gave up and retraced my steps back to the bus stop and went the other way. There it stood, like an amusement park, crazy in its exuberance. I began to wander the stalls filled with nesting dolls, felted slippers and leather goods. At first I wanted to buy everything but then the familiar shopping paralysis started to set in, there were too many things, I didn’t know what to buy. I was tempted to turn right around and march out but I needed gifts so I took a little detour through the used book stores and that calmed me a bit. There is something about books that makes me feel centered and happy, especially dusty leaning stacks of books.
Shopping round two was more successful and I was able to find a set of nesting Ataturk dolls for my father in law, a stone necklace with a kitten painted on it for my daughter and several other small things that would fit in my already overstuffed luggage. I even got into a great conversation with one of the venders about growing up in the 80’s him in the Soviet Union and me in Russia. I ended up buying a hat from one guy and his friend, a guy around my age started joking with me and wanted me to look at his stuff. I went over, he had a great sense of humor and we started talking politics because a lot of his dolls were political figures. I ended up buying an Ataturk set and a Harry Potter set. Usually once you buy something, the vendor looses interest but not this guy. He kept ignoring his other customers because we were having so much fun talking. Finally after talking for like a half an hour, I asked him his name and he tested me. He said his father was a super communist so what was his name? I ventured Lenin and he got a big smile on his face and said yes, Lenin’s first name. It was so nice to talk to him! He said he liked talking to me because my smile was real, not fake like most Americans. This struck me as interesting because I had been thinking so much about smiling in Russia. It also made me think about how we perceive things like smiles. I could see why he thinks most Americans have fake smiles but I would put it a different way. I wouldn’t say those smiles are fake but rather they are “social smiles”. By this I mean that while they don’t show happiness necessarily, and in this way are fake, they signal to the other person that we are open and can be approached without fear. Those smiles, given to strangers don’t show emotional state so much as availability. His interpretation of American smiles were that they make us untrustworthy, exactly the opposite of what is intended. This jived perfectly with my initial interpretation of the lack of smiles, that people didn’t like me.
Moscow left me wanting more, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city!
There are several types of ice cream Americans are familiar with: regular standard ice cream like what we would get at 31 flavors, soft serve pumped out of a machine, usually vanilla, chocolate or swirl, and if we are feeling exotic, gelato from Italy.
None of those are anything like Turkish Ice Cream (dondurma in Turkish). How different can it be you ask? Well, Turkish Ice Cream is chewy for starters. It includes two special ingredients called mastic, a resin from a tree that is a bit like gum, and sahlep flour made from orchid root. It globs together and stretches in ways you have never seen before. Venders are able to lift out a whole tub of the stuff on a stick and catch it before it stretches all the way down to the hot pavement. They play with their customers giving and taking, swirling and ducking, not unlike a cat plays with a mouse.
Crowds gather around laughing and clapping, the sale is an event, a street performance, complete with costumes. If you haven't tried Turkish ice cream yet, I recommend you come on over and join the fun!
For this particular ice cream my daughter and I headed for Istklal Caddesi, just up from Taxim Square. We were going to get the ice cream before watching a movie but discovered that the movie (Spiderman) was about to start so we put it off until after. After graciously agreeing to be my model for this post, she also grudgingly shared the ice cream with me as we headed home. We decided that it was delicious and hit the spot!
OK, so last week I finished off with myself getting on a midnight train out of Vladivostok, Russia after a day of not finding a shower and being assured that I would be able to shower on the train. This proved to be not possible as the train I got on did not, in fact, have a shower. So, the story continues...
Day 1 on the Train
On the positive side I have a whole package of wet wipes and so far I have a cabin for 4 all to myself. I am sure this is going to change because we were told the train was all booked up. Every time the train stops, which is frequently, I attempt to shift my stuff around to accommodate other people but so far I am alone. This is good since I can’t find the dohickey that goes in my headphones to connect them to my phone so I can listen to podcasts.
Another good thing is that the outlet is right outside my cabin so I can keep an eye on my stuff while it is charging. So far, aside from the no shower thing, I am super happy!
Continuing adventures of day one on the train. I got my two cabin mates today. They arrived with a bang! First a young man poked his head in and threw a duffle bag on the top bunk opposite me. He was followed by a couple drinking wine straight from the box and spilling it all over the floor. She started to come at me in Russian obviously indicating that I should move from my bottom bunk and give it to them. I started to protest but the man waved her away and said no. I then used the translator to tell her that my leg was broken and that was why I was on the train so she grabbed my ankle and my hand and did some kind of prayer over my foot taking the injury out. My leg still hurts but it was a sweet gesture. Then they spilled a bunch more wine on the carpet while I quickly scrambled to get all of my stuff off the spilling range. They then left to throw the dripping box and bag away and she never came back. I was a bit worried to see that my two new roomies were both men. Curses, why can’t I be a man, then I wouldn’t have to lay here worried that I will be attacked in my sleep.
The first few hours I was a bit standoffish. Then I decided I should probably try to connect with them better in spite of the language barrier. Both of my mates are farmers a younger one and an older one and by older I mean three years younger than I am which is just crazy. When did I become the older one? Actually I am really glad that I am not 16 right about now because I would be even more scared of being attacked in my sleep than I already am. The younger one speaks a bit of English while the older one does not. They spent the afternoon drinking 3 more boxes of wine while I read my Game of Thrones book and tried to listen to a podcast. Finally I gave up because the older guy just kept putting his hands all over my injured leg. It seems to fascinate him and he really really wants to talk to me. We reached a compromise in which he stopped touching my leg and I listen attentively to him and reply in whatever language I feel like, none of which he understands and I can’t understand a word of what he is saying but we laugh and gesture a lot. This seems to make him happy. Right now he is not happy with me because I am typing this and the younger guy has gone to sleep. This leaves him with nothing to do as he doesn’t like reading or writing and declined my invitation to watch a movie. He keeps laying down and then popping back up in the hopes that while he was laying down I suddenly became fluent in Russian. Sadly I have not.
I really hope he goes to sleep soon but I have my doubts. I think I will have one more go at watching a movie.
OK, so I find it disconcerting to have someone watch me while I am trying to watch a movie so I invited him to watch again then he watched for a while tried to grab my ass. I slapped his hand away and then he finally went to sleep. I guess that is what he was waiting around for, a clear signal that I am not interested.
Day 2 on the Train
The second day on the train has dawned and I am happy to say I am safe and sound. My bunkmate went out for another beer, I finished my movie and went to sleep. When I woke up they were both sleeping but soon woke and had some tea. They seem to have produced a tea cup out of no where, I wonder if they are available. I will have to check it out.
Seeking some alone time, I am now in the dining car. It is nice and I am the only person here at the moment. I asked about a shower again but got the same answer but she was helpful in that she suggested I pour water over my head in the bathroom. I am not sure where to get a whole bucket full of water but I will try.
The landscape continues to be brown and bare but there is more snow on the ground today. I am told we should reach Lake Baikal in 2 days time. Meanwhile, more books, podcasts and writing. I have to charge up this computer though. I wish there was a charge here in the dining car but there isn’t.
Well, we reached the lake but it was the middle of the night so I didn’t get to see it.
I was finally unable to stand it anymore and I washed my hair under the tap in the sink, now I feel a bit better but my body is beginning to get a bit ripe in spite of the wet wipe “showers” I am taking.
After taking a couple of days break I start writing again apparently on day 5
After 4 days, my cabin mates have all left. They were really kind and found me a tea cup which is proving my salvation. They also liberally shared their soviet cookie biscuits with me but refused to take any of the things I offered them. I think they were traveling for work. For me it was a lesson in trust as I am not used to sleeping in a cabin with men I don’t know and it left me feeling vulnerable the first 2 nights. The first night one of them was very drunk but the next day he was sober and he refused to look me in the eye. It was a bit unsettling but the younger one was super nice and always tried to put me at ease. By the third night I trusted them and slept much better.
Oh, I forgot to mention that on the second day they were there my younger bunkmate got pulled out by the police who were staying in a cabin at the end of the car and held for over an hour. When I expressed concern the older one assured me that it was normal. They brought him back, had him sign a paper in a bunch of places and that was that. I still don’t know why he was singled out.
And there ends my writing on the train. I spent 8 days in my little cabin. I read voraciously, slept whenever I felt like it and had lots and lots of time to just sit and think. Sometimes my thoughts were good and hopeful, other times I would worry and obsess about things in my life that bother me. my mind would circle around and around sore spots trying to find solutions or justifications for things that have no solutions or justifications. By the time I got off the train my mind and body were ready for movement. I was excited to be in Moscow!