Sunday, February 28, 2010

Four Year Old Birthday Parties 8/27- 9/9

Somehow Brad had distant contacts in Finland so we decided to go there. And in what we learned is the Finnish way, everyone was very hospitable. When we arrived in Helsinki on August 27th things seemed actually Western for the first time. We saw large grocery stores and everyone looked like they shopped at H&M. We took a metro to an urban campsite which was closed when we got there. We set up our tent and slept without sleeping bags that night. It was horribly cold. The following morning we decided not to pay the campsite and jumped in the lake to clean off. We waved at the metro that crossed on a nearby bridge.
It was Friday evening and we meet a friend of a friend of a friend, a woman named Marjo. We took the train with her to her house in the suburb Lahti. Saturday her four year old was having a birthday party. We told her we would be happy to join everyone for this celebration. We brought the small stuffed Tiger that we bought for the four year old and we were eager to see what a Friday night in Lahti would bring. Marjo's husband Sami was at home making dinner when we arrived. They offered us beds in their children's play room and an amazing dinner. Their home was warm and comfortable. After spending a couple weeks with our backpacks on overnight trains and in houses of Russian strangers this house in Lahti felt like coming home. After dinner Marjo and Sami told us we could us the sauna. It is typical to have a sauna in Finnish homes. And after a sauna the tradition is to drink a beer. So after the sauna we sat outside, in towels, drinking a beer and wondering how we were so lucky to meet these amazing people.
The following morning we woke up to a wonderful breakfast and went to the ski museum. We watched people on a ski jump and ate at McDonald's with Sami and his two boys. That afternoon was Verner's fourth birthday party. A couple of kids came over and everyone ate cake. The adults drank coffee and talked about facebook. The birthday party was really nice. There were some small gifts and everyone jumped on the trampoline.

Alex had a cute daughter that was frightened by Brad and me speaking English. But once Alex and I got to talking it was decided that we should go to the bar and sing karaoke. Sami took a nap before we went out. And once we got there I sang ABBA and Britney Spears. Alex sang some amazing opera songs and I had to persuade everyone to leave at 4 a.m. After we ate a pizza I slept through the cab ride back to Sami's. The following morning we had plans to drive to Sami's mothers lakeside cabin. We tried to push through our hangovers and finally got in the car to drive to the town of Kuhominen. We brought a bunch of food that we ate while we looked at the lake and waited for the wood fire sauna to warm up.

lake side cabin

Me and Brad
We sat in the sauna and jumped in the lake. It was cold for late August and beautiful. We drove back to Lahti that evening and spent one more night in the comfortable suburban home with our hosts.

That Monday, the 31st of August began our days of hitchhiking and camping for free in Finland. We were headed north, to a small town near Vaasa, Finland to meet Riika, Brad's original Finland contact. Sami spent his lunch break driving us to the train station that Monday. We said our goodbyes and told each other that we would all meet again. These conversations happen a lot in travels. And sometimes they are genuine, this was one of those times. We made our way to Tejo National Park which was much smaller than expected. I saw a lot of moose tracks and I was convinced that we would be attacked by moose or bear while we slept in the tent. I also realized I left my favorite t-shirt at Marjo and Sami's.
The following day we hitchhiked to Turku. Once again we encountered Finnish hospitality. The man that picked us up cancelled his plans and drove us all the way to our desired destination. On September 3rd we spent the day trying to get to Pori, Finland. First, some 19 year old nursing students picked us up. They had recently gotten their driver's license and did not take us very far. Then a man who fixed air conditioners picked us up. He said he occasionally picks up hitchhikers because he travels a lot for his job and that the hitchhikers are mostly foreigners. He dropped us off in the middle of the countryside. We were eating chocolate when some woman with a lot of eye glasses on her dashboard picked us up and told us she would take us to a better spot to get a ride. Finally, some young people picked us up who were going to Pori. They smoked a lot of cigarettes and talked about Finnish music. It had taken us all day to get 120 km, but it was a fun day. We set our tent up behind the train station and went to a bar that ended up being really cool. There was a jazz band and good beer.
bar in Pori

We arrived at Riika's on Friday, September 4th. When we got there I had a package, it was my favorite t-shirt that Sami had mailed to me. We spent the weekend with Riika, her husband, their baby, and his parents. They took us to a Finnish food festival, we spent more time in the sauna and played frisbee in their backyard.

frying fish


We left Finland after we had eaten far too much and found an incredibly cheap ferry ticket to Stockholm, Sweden. Our time in Sweden was uneventful. One night while we were in a bar I said, "I want to meet more people." Brad was relieved. We decided we would spend our time in Estonia together and split up after that. I was starting to feel a little homesick for Ikeda and had anxiety about returning to my parents house. Brad kept talking about Pennsylvania in the fall and his Pittsburgh friends. But I was happy to have slept in so many nice beds and to have those green knitted socks that were a gift from Riika's mother-in-law.
our room

Friday, February 26, 2010

Creeps' 8/25-8/27

We took an overnight train from Moscow to St.Petersburg. I had arranged to stay with a couchsurfer in St. Petersburg. We thought it would be a nice way to see the city, avoid the inevitable young drunks you get at a hostel and to stay on budget. Our host was Alexander. He thought he had to work the day we arrived. We were relieved to hear this as all we really wanted to do was relax since we had not really slept on the train. We asked if we could set up the bed and when he got a phone call informing him that he did not have to go into work until the afternoon he decided to pull out his bed and take a nap as well. Both beds were in the living room. So at about 10 a.m. we all took a nap.
pull out beds
in Brad's backpack
Brad and I began to call Alexander "Creeps." He continued to live up to this name. That afternoon we bought a tent and decided that couchsurfing sometimes gets weird. Our one full day in St.Petersburg was spent at the Hermitage and then I went to see Swan Lake. We took Alexander to eat at Subway for the first time. And I think he was excited to just walk around the city with some "real-life Americans" (as he referred to us).
The State Hermitage
We tried to do laundry before we left, but we found out that our host did not actually know how to work his washing machine and I think it was broken anyway. We spent a moment wondering how he washes his clothes and then I was more concerned by the fact that all my light colors had taken on weird shades of green and blue.

Cats and Cigarettes at Galina's 8/20- 8/24

While we were in Irkutsk I made reservations at Galina's home stay in Moscow. It was listed as the cheapest place in Moscow and we were enjoying our homestays in Russia, so it was perfect. We arrived early and Galina was sitting in her kitchen with a cigarette in hand. This position looked natural for Galina. Her cats climbed on and off the furniture and we found some beds in her spare bedroom.

Galina showed us how the locks worked and her husband Sergey stood by her silently.
Galina and Sergey

We checked into our rooms the same time as Asmara, an independent French traveler. Asmara was studying Polish which is fairly similar to Russian. She loved maps and was well prepared for Moscow. Brad and I were in luck.

I attempted to enjoy the city our first day there. But, my fever pushed me back in bed. Two older British men were sharing our room as well. I disregarded them as I walked back and forth from the bathroom to throw-up in only a t-shirt. That night Brad came back at 6:30 a.m. I was feeling resentful that I had been in bed with fever dreams. The following day Asmara and I left Galina's with maps and guide books and headed towards the State Tretyakov Gallery and then the Novodevicky Convent. We walked through a cemetery to get to the convent and the sun was out. It was a beautiful day.
Asmara in cemetery
Asmara and I talked about how we would like to have a picnic in a cemetery. We payed a fee to get into the convent which allowed us to enter the various churches and galleries and sit on a bench, enjoying late afternoon sun. Asmara and I talked about religion. Not believing in things and believing in other things. All the religious icons we saw that day were so spectacular. I was glad not everyone was Quaker because then no one would make beautiful iconography like that. We left to get wine for the evening and Asmara told me she "had a really nice day." At that moment it was one of the most lovely things anyone had ever said to me.
wine glass
talking about dessert

The Train 8/17- 8/20

On the 17th of August, at 2:30 a.m. we boarded a train, prepared to live on it for the next four days. It was on the train that my reoccurring nightmare began. I kept dreaming that I had to go back to Japan. That I was not making a one-way journey. I would wake up relieved.
Everything that could have happened on the train happened before 5 p.m. on the first day. Some Russia people offered us their pickled vegetables and potatoes. We drank vodka with them as an old sailor played the accordion. Two women spoke English and translated questions. The English speakers were teachers and we talked about the Russian education system pre and post communism. As we were singing and dancing to the accordion music the Russian police walked through our train car and tried to tell us that our documents were not legitimate. Our new friends asked these corrupt police officers to please "not do international scandal." They left us alone and we went on eating and drinking.
Trans-Siberian Accordion

Getting out to Stretch

Platzcart Travel

Our days consisted of when we were going to get hot water for our cup of noodles. And what block of cheese we would cut to put on the bread. I bought a blanket for $20 one day. These four days of Siberian scenery kept our budget where we hoped it to be. When I got off the train in Moscow I had a fever and wanted to spend the entire day in the shower. That evening when I laid on the bed it felt strange not to gently rock back and forth.

Familiar Soviet 8/12- 8/17

We arrived in Irkutsk, Russia on August 12th. All of a sudden the people looked a little more like me. The architecture was Soviet, reminding me of Prague and it felt familiar. I heard someone ask for "syr" at a store and from my Czech language days I knew they were talking about cheese. Brad and I were out of Asia and it felt good. We left the train station and began to look for a hostel. Our Trans-Siberian guide book had some hostel and homestay suggestions and tips on how to find them. In Russia, backpacking is still a fairly new concept so these budget style accommodations are not well marked. We found the addresses of a few hostels and searched for a buzzer on the building where they were supposed to be, but none of them seemed to actually exist. There was one homestay that was described as having a tall gate and a beware of dog sign. When we got there a beautiful Russian woman came downstairs with a English translator on the phone. She could host us for a night and we were thrilled because her home was intimate, clean, and comfortable.

Irkutsk Hostel

Morning Windows

We had to leave early the next morning because she was having other guests. But she made us a delicious 7 a.m. breakfast.

Irkutsk Hostel Breakfast

While we were in Mongolia we had meet a pair of neurotic British girls that were doing the trip in the opposite direction as we were. We asked them about Lake Baikal and Irkutsk. They told us that they and taken a bus ride to Oklhon island. They described it as a "hippy island" and told us that it was not exactly their "scene." We decided we should go there. Oklhon Island lays in the middle of Lake Baikal and is about a six hour bus ride from Irkutsk. The population on the island is less than 1,500 and not until 2005 did the full island receive electricity.

It was cold and rainy when we got to Oklhon island. The story is that if you put your hand in Lake Baikal one year is added to your life, and if you jump in, twenty five years. We stuck our hands in.

We stayed in another homestay, Nikitas. Once a small homestay it now has 40 beds, making it the largest place to stay on the island. The owner of the house had craved all the amazing woodwork. And his wife offered me a bucket of water so I could clean my muddy boots off.

Olkhon Island Woodwork

One evening, with beers in hand, we found ourselves sitting in the precisely carved chairs across from some Slovenian travelers and their wine. I got out my Eastern Europe Lonely Planet and I learned where Slovenia was and all that it seemed to offer. We told these other travelers that we probably would come there and that they would be hearing from us in a couple months.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Border Crossing 8/11- 8/12

On the morning of August 12th Brad woke me up, letting me know he saw Lake Baikal and it was probably about time to get off the train.

The previous morning we thought we would have our own train cabin on the ride from Ulan Batur to Irkutsk, Russia. We were the only people in our four person cabin as we rode through Mongolia. The windows did not open and the conductors continued to close our cabin door. After we played a few rounds of cards it was obvious that if we stayed perfectly still we would be less hot. And as we laid there I thought it was only fair that I too remove my shirt. In fear that we would suffocate I got out my fan. As I lay on one side of the cabin, Brad in the other, both of us shirtless and me waving a fan, a Mongolian passenger opened the door, visibly annoyed that we were occupying the entire cabin. I put my shirt on and the male and female Mongolian pair brought all their luggage into the cabin.


Our cabin mates did not speak English, but we slowly learned much about them. Upon first glance they seemed to be mother and son. The closer we got to the border the more stuff this pair pulled out, primarily clothes. They began stuffing these clothes into the clothes they were already wearing. The woman was putting socks down her pants. And the boy small pants under his own. We were sharing the cabin with smugglers. As we walked around the train car it was clear that every Mongolian person on the train was a smuggler. The mother and son pair put a leather jacket on our side of the cabin, to make it appear to be ours. As we got closer the duo filled out customs forms. And once that was all finished they could only wait and relax. The boy then put his feet on the woman's lap and she began stroking them. It was then clear that it was not a mother and son pair.
We had been warned about Russian customs officers. But, at this point, I was far more nervous for the smugglers than our legitimate documents. Somehow our cabin mates and the rest of the smugglers on the train were let past border patrol. We then all had to get off the train and wait while train cars were changed before we entered Russia.

Trans-Siberian Express

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pick Pockets 8/4- 8/11

The following morning we ate our last meal at Mr. Lee's, a Chinese fast food restaurant. It was August 4th and our across the globe train journey was beginning. We boarded the train for a thirty hour ride to Mongolia's capital city, Ulan Bator.

Train Photos

Our train ride to Mongolia was beautiful and pleasant. We shared a four person berth with just one other Mongolian woman. She was composed, quiet and sweet. She reminded me of a Japanese woman. She told us that Russia was dangerous and Ulan Batuar was even more so. She was married to a Korean man and they were living in China. She was speaking Korean on the phone to him and English to us. She spoke Mongolian to the train conductor and studied Chinese in college. We ate in the restaurant car separately and drank instant coffee in the berth together. When I finished Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake I gave the book to the Mongolian woman, she read it faster than I.
Restaurant Car

We crossed the border at Erlian China and arrived in Mongolia in the middle of the night. The following morning Brad and I stuck our heads out the window with the other Western tourists and admired the open fields that are rare in the parts of Asia we had traveled.
Trans-Siberian Railway

The train was relaxing. Everyone ate and slept. I read and wrote in my journal while Brad listened to music and put his fleece on as it slowly got cooler. It made Beijing feel even more hot and crowded. I thought about how I never wanted to live in a city. And, as I expected, my fond memories of Ikeda were beginning.
When we got off the train in Ulan Batur my first impression was that it was incredibly shady. It seemed to be where the East and West were colliding. In my experience, people in Asia do not take things that do not belong to them with as much aggression as people do in the West. But, in Ulan Batur people were ready to use scams, weapons, or any other method that could get them the things they wanted. Our hostel had a sign that suggested people do not to go out after midnight. And most establishments warned people about pickpockets. A little after sunset Brad and I were walking back to the hostel as a man attempted to stick his hand in my purse. Brad noticed and he pulled it away without any other care. Moments later a group of kids threw rocks at us.


We quickly took an opportunity to go to Terelj National Park, about 37 kilometers from Ulan Batur, to stay in a yurt with a Mongolian family. When we arrived it was rainy. Everyone was escorted into different yurts. Brad and I were the last two and we got to hang out in the family yurt. When we walked in the teenage kids turned off the television and straightened up the living room. We told them the television was fine. Then we laid down on some blankets and watched American movies that were dubbed in Mongolian.

Yurt Dogs

The inside of the yurt was like living in an elegant tent.
Yurt Sleeping

British Girls in Yurt

When the rain cleared up we went on a short hike and rode horses. That evening we hung out with the cute Mongolian baby who lived in the cluster of yurts we were staying in.


The following morning when a van came to pick up those who wanted to leave, Brad and I made the easy decision to ride back to Ulan Batur.

The rest of our time in Ulan Batur was spent wearing money belts and wondering around the city. We returned to the same French cafe consecutive mornings. It was August 8th and I was sitting in that cafe around noon with Brad. He was studying Cyrillic and I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I wanted to finish that book quickly because it made me feel like a twelve year old as I was reading it. But, it can capture anyones heart. I could not keep my eyes off the pages of the book and Brad told me he was getting Cyrillic. As I sat there in that coffee shop my backpack and everything that matter was in a hostel dorm room and I thought about how I wanted my life to resemble this. Saturdays at noon in a familiar coffee shop with a partner. But, as I write this, in a familiar coffee shop in Pittsburgh across from Brad, I want nothing more than to have a trip to look forward too. On the 11th we got a train to Russia. A Russian visa is not easy to acquire. And we were excited to use ours.