Being a gear in today’s civilization thwarts much of what makes us human and rapes our soul of any adventure and freedom. Now that I am back in Canada, I look back fondly at the time when I had no address and commitment to do anything – my journey through Eurasia. For a short time I was free and carried myself on impulse guided desires, with time being my only restriction. Being able to feed my mind constantly with new exotic experiences throughout the journey was more gratifying and stimulating than I would have ever imagined. For most of us who have had a lifestyle of directed living normalized, it will be very difficult to appreciate the beauty of uncertainty and effort that backpacking gives you. Read on and below you will find my personal accounts of a journey through China, Mongolia, and Russia that inspired the former sentences and myself to look at life a little differently.
Previously I taught English for a year in Tokyo, but I decided it would be worthwhile to experience more of Asia before I would return to Europe. Korea was the obvious choice as it payed English teachers the highest wages in all of Asia and a free apartment was usually included with the job. My choice to work in Korea gave me six months of great memories and experiences that still resonate through me to this day. After finishing teaching in Seoul, it was time for me to return to school as I was only allowed to miss two years in between years of school. At the time I was studying in Poznan, Poland, so naturally I looked at what a plane ticket would cost from Seoul to Warsaw – it was $900 for a one way ticket. That price was a bit to steep for me considering that I had other more economic options. With some time left and only $2,000 saved, I pondered the option of train travel through Eurasia as a means of getting home. Not solely because of the high cost of a return plane ticket, but also due to the inspiration I received from a coworker in Seoul and my own family. A teacher that I worked with in Seoul kept on mentioning the ger camps in Mongolia in the same way a child describes Disney Land. My mother like my Seoul coworker always reminisced about Mongolia almost in the same way, and I myself wanted to visit China again and see Russia and Mongolia for the very first time. After all, I had the time and I had the youth to complete an 8,000 kilometer trip on land that would probably be a once in a lifetime experience.
As I obviously could not travel through North Korea, I decided to take a ferry to China before beginning my planned train voyage. Before hand I had to acquire a few visas, as it turns out that a trip across Eurasia is not a simple task of simply buying train and bus tickets. Mongolian and Chinese visa’s were easily attainable, but there was a premium to be payed if you wanted them right away. The Russian visa was another story, as you needed a sponsor to invite you. Luckily for me the internet was around back in 2002 and I was able to buy ($30) an invitation online. This is where planning ahead could have saved me a lot of money, as the Russian visa was $140 because of my failure to provide advanced notice to the embassy; this was my biggest expense of the trip. Thanks to the visas, I got to see some nice parts of Seoul that I have never visited previously during my stay, as the embassy’s were in some premium out of the way locations. After I completed all of the formalities associated with attaining these visas, I mailed all of my non-essential items so that I would only have a small lightweight backpack that would not slow me down during the trip and headed towards Incheon harbor to catch my ferry. To my dismay upon arrival at the harbor I realized that I missed my ferry to Qingdao. It only travels every second day and for some reason the internet failed to yield that important fact. My previous online research showed that taking a ferry to Qingdao would prove to be the most interesting destination. The city of thirteen million had beautiful beaches and a variety of attractions that made it an interesting stop, but now I had no option but to travel blindly to a city that I have never even heard of – Weihai. Of course, not seeing all of the attractions in Qingdao was a bit of disappointment, but in retrospect every little glitch made my trip more interesting. I now looked back at Korea for the last time and boarded the ferry full of manic excitement.
As I got on the ferry I then realized that my two years of working and traveling in Asia are coming to an end. This affirmation made me appreciate my return journey that much more. Once on the ferry I noticed that it was relatively empty considering that I was traveling to a country of 1.3 billion people; there were no more than 10 other tourists on board. I struck up a conversation with a Korean who was permanently residing in China to find out what lies ahead. According to the Korean expat, China is a nation that is made up of 55 different different races, with the Huns being a one billion strong majority. In Western China you will even find blue eyed individuals, which is rather surprising as that eye color mutation can originally be traced to Northern Greece. After the conversation ended I went up on deck and watched the ferry leave the harbor and pass the countless fishing boats that surrounded the coast. When night night fell I tried to go down to my bunk to catch some sleep, but I was faced with a horrible pounding vibration which made sleep almost impossible. Once again I went upon deck, but this time directly to the top, and watched the ferry cut through the mist until morning. Sounds boring, but it was my first ferry ride ever. After ten hours of that terrible pulsating vibration that was even felt and heard up on deck, I was finally happy to see Weihai. Weihai surprisingly looked like a typical Spanish city from a distance, with all of the buildings being white with red tiled roofs that were shadowed by an arid looking topography that enhanced my Andalusian delusion.
Once on land, it only took a second to get through the Chinese customs office and I was off to do some urban hiking before heading to Beijing. In actuality Weihai went above my expectations in terms of size and atmosphere. The city probably doesn’t have one building over five stories, nor does it have any other characteristic signs of a Chinese metropolis. What it does have is a tranquil small town feel and look to it, all 650,000 people of it. As I was walking away from the ferry port I saw another tourist my age who was probably the only foreigner there with no place to go like me. He spoke very little English and I spoke a little Korean, which meant one will basically just follow the other. For me this was one of the best parts about backpacking alone: meeting new people and doing anything you want without worrying about your companions mood and interests that could conflict with your own. I lead us to the first restaurant that I could find on the first road leading out of the ferry port. The Chinese restaurant owners did not speak a word of English so we simply pointed at a random item on the menu. In about 15 minutes a heeping plate was brought to me with items that I have never seen before in my life. To this day I still don’t know what I ate that day, all I know is that the items came from the ocean. I really cannot say that the lunch tasted good, but it was definitely the most original meal that I have ever eaten.
After the meal we continued down the main road which ran along the coast while looking for something to do. Looking for an activity in the world’s oldest civilization that was insular to our own is not hard, as everything intrigues you because of the exotic contrast it provides. Walking into a simple shop can take fifteen minutes of your time thanks to the novelty of every shelf product. A temple in the distance caught our eyes and became our new destination. Along the way we were offered 5 different cab rides, but refused them all as every block that we passed had its’ own quality that was worth absorbing and noting. Upon reaching the temple we started to explore the temple grounds which were reminiscent of a miniature Forbidden City. There was a large central pavilion that overlooked the entire grounds which we could not enter, but the inner yard was more interesting anyways. There was a river running through the center which appeared out of the ground on one side and disappeared into the ground on the other side. In the river there were statues of what I presumed to be goddesses, but then again why would a Buddhist temple have statues of goddesses. As I looked at the temple’s defense towers at each corner I now remembered reading about the warrior roots of Buddhist monks. On my way out, I picked up a pamphlet which showed a hill top lake which was obviously had to be the next item on the itinerary. We slowly ascended up the hill during which time I almost lost my hiking partner due to exhaustion. The lake was nowhere to be found, but there was a reservoir that overlooked Weihai at the bottom on the other side that would have to do. This was no ordinary reservoir. It was surrounded by a decorated stone fence and it had a pagoda in each corner which gave a tourist like me more motivation to explore. After returning to Weihai, it was time to go and catch a bus/train to Beijing. Recollecting my thoughts that day I could not help feel like a kid that was exploring the forest behind his house.
I now needed to take a bus to a city that had a train connection with Beijing – Yantai. I only stayed about an hour in Yantai, but I did get a glimpse of the newly built skyline that dominated the city. Maybe I should have stayed for a longer time, but there was nothing apparent that justified a stopover. After only a few of hours on the train I had arrived in Beijing in the late evening. This was actually my second time in Beijing, and the city was just as impressive as the first time that I saw it. I walked along a long boulevard that had monolithic skyscrapers on each side with a surprising large amount of space between each building and the road. Even at 21:00 Beijing felt more alive than any other city that I have ever been to. The streets were brought to a standstill with traffic jams and people filled the almost every single square meter of space – overpopulation never looked this good. What struck me here the most is the fact that you could buy Peking duck anywhere. The ducks were packed in cellophane and were sold almost anywhere: from convenience stores to toy stores. Before finding a place to rest for the night, I returned to the train station and inquired about a train to Ulan Bator. After 10 minutes of pointing on the map, the ticket agent still did not understand where I wanted to go to and I now felt she was ready to slap me. Luckily for me, a nice middle-aged professional woman with perfect English overheard my shouts of frustration and translated for me. The problem was that there is no direct train to Ulan Bator from Beijing, I first would have to travel to Jining by train, then take a bus from Jining to Erenhot and then finally take a train to Ulan Bator.
After my short ordeal with the ticket agent I purchased my ticket and went down the street to get a late evening meal in a tiny restaurant that was overflowing with people. In retrospect, when you usually travel to a foreign country the native cuisine usually tastes better in comparison to what you would get back home, but this wasn’t the case with Chinese food. Although, this revelation isn’t to surprising as Chinese food already tastes great here in Canada. What was different were the giant portions that dwarfed Canadian portions and the large circular tables that were shared by restaurant patrons. After enjoying a peanut topped mystery dish I began my search for a place to stay for the night. I found a hotel that only charged thirty dollars per night right in the center of town beside the train station. When I woke up the next day I passed by a small kiosk which was frying up breakfast sweet bread that made waking up at seven tolerable. Before going to the train station I decided to explore some of the buildings surrounding the train station. By chance the Sony Center was next door which displayed upcoming technologies. Right behind the Sony Center there was a hutang (old house), which to me reflected the dichotomy of modern China today. As I was returning to the train station I could not help but notice an Irish pub, which was strangely out of place and the only sign of any Western influence. This early morning site seeing stretched out my time a bit too much, causing me to be late for my train. This time around the ticket agent spoke English and I was able to get a ticket for a train going to Jining in 40 minutes. If you are wondering, I didn’t spend much time in Beijing because of the fact that I already have been there once.
Unfortunately for me there were no seats left on the train, but I had a nice backpack that also functioned as a seat. The first couple hours of the train ride slowly took you out of the Han valley while providing views that made you feel all religious inside. At one of the many stops I saw a lot of people getting out of the train to buy some dumplings from a bicycle vendor, I followed and experienced the best tasting dumplings in the world. Next to me was sitting a Chinese military officer who by chance spoke English, and offered to help me find a place once I have arrived in Jining. The conversation with him was the standard one that you have with the local people when you are visiting a country. When you meet new people abroad you tend to compliment their country, and when you meet tourists you tend to give out trivial facts about your country. I raved about Beijing, and he educated me about Northern China. When I arrived in Jining I exited the train station to find an empty city center and a dark foggy night. The officer directed me to a hotel which was only three dollars per night that felt just as good as a typical Canadian motel. I was glad to pay what a local would pay for the hotel, as most other hotels in China have special tourist rates. Morning came and as I passed the buildings in Jining I was reminded of a typical Polish village which is mostly made from cement and stucco buildings. Unfortunately my bus for Erenhot was leaving very early in the morning, so I had little time to explore Jining. The bus ride was an experience in itself thanks to the Chinese spoof of the Adams Family that was showed during the trip. Not understanding one word did not spoil this movie, as the parallels drawn between the Adams Family and the slapstick comedy kept me laughing throughout the film. Almost immediately after leaving Jining we entered the Gobi desert which reminded me once again of Southern Spain. I still remember the washroom break midway which made one feel like they just arrived on a Spanish beach. Searing sun, sand and a cool wind rejuvenated me, making me think: what would life be without contrasts? We got back on the bus and this time we were treated to a gangster thriller, and before I knew it I was in Erenhot – my favorite Chinese stop.
Erenhot was a little city that was more like an island being guided by mysterious forces. The people living there were mostly Mongolians who seemed to be the friendliest people on Earth at the moment. Now picture a 1 kilometer by a 1 kilometer square that is completely surrounded by sand. The blocks are filled with modern buildings and the streets are filled with dozens of rickshaw drivers with not a single person in site. As I was walking away from the bus in search of a place to eat I was confronted by at least 10 rickshaw drivers and the friendly greeting of hello. The irony here is that this city is too small to even justify a rickshaw, let alone a car, of which there were plenty of. While most of China had already opened its markets since the 70′s, Erenhot I felt was still governed by centralized economy and hence the imbalances that I have found. Mind you, this city was beautiful and modern, but it lacked the people and an economy to sustain it in a self-sufficient way. There was even a bath house where I took a shower and relaxed in a whirlpool; I actually don’t know of any here in Calgary. I walked down every single street in one hour and I knew it was time to buy a ticket to Ulan Bator. When I arrived at the train station I was shocked to find out that all the tickets have been bought out for weeks to come. In a state of hopelessness I pondered returning to Beijing and flying out of China back to Poland. I wasn’t ready to give up yet, so I started looking for alternate ways of getting myself across the border. The natural people to ask were the paradoxical taxi drivers. A portly man in his 50′s offered to get me across the border “illegally” for $80, but then what would I do in the middle of the Gobi desert? And what would the Mongolian customs officer say on my way out when an entry stamp could not be found? I can’t remember what the technical reason was, but you could not just walk across the border from China to Mongolia. Faced with the option of a hopeless return to Beijing and the risky option of being dropped of in the middle of the desert, I decided to regroup my thoughts and see what answers the internet could give me. I found a tiny internet cafe which was filled with teenagers playing Counterstrike and to my avail, Google had failed me for the very first time ever in my life. Turning back at this moment was still to haste of an action, so I decided to stay one more night to see what tomorrow could bring me. The next morning I was ready to try again at the train station, but I first decided to get my “travel beard” shaved. This was a painful mistake. The barber shaved me without any shaving cream while using a pair of scissors and some water; I had a facial rash for a few months after that. The horrendously painful shave made me angry and motivated to find a way to Ulan Bator. I once again tried at the ticket counter to get a ticket for Ulan Bator, but failed quixotically. This time I was ready to really give up. Then out of nowhere a man appeared with just enough English to sell me a ticket for only a 25% mark-up. I was back, and leaving for Ulan Bator in 2 hours!
I went down to the train platforms with the biggest feeling of accomplishment, which was really undeserving as I owed the next half of my trip to the ticket scalper. I put my backpack down, and to my surprise I saw other tourists for the first time in Erenhot. There was a middle-aged German who took a year off from work just to backpack throughout China; his stories inspired a future adventure like his for myself. I got on the train shortly after this conversation, and found myself sharing a cabin with a very friendly Mongolian shop owner that described Mongolia to me in far greater detail than any other website that I have previously visited. Where else are you going to find about the fact that Mongolia has two Boeing 757′s and four Lincoln Navigators? After some time the train moved about a hundred meters to have its’ wheels changed to accommodate for the larger train tracks in Mongolia and Russia. You see, Russia and its formerly allied states built a train infrastructure that could not be used by a foreign power in case of an invasion. With two hours to spare, me and my new Mongolian friend left the train to get some beer. We crossed a grass covered square that had a statue in the center of it to get to the bar which was directly across from the train and square. I now realize as I’m writing this how important that man must have been, as the locals of this small city have honored him with a statue and grass in the middle of the desert. Upon arriving at a basement bar, I was stricken by a beautiful Mongolian girl that was bar tending there. Her eyes glowed with innocence, her hair was thick, long and black, her lips begged to be kissed, her skin begged to be caressed and her smile was meant to be painted. I am sure that if the Mongolian monarchy was still in power, she would be the princess. I came out of that bar with a childish crush that left me wondering how me and her would spend our lives together, and why I didn’t take her contact information.
The train soon left there after, but once again after only two minute the train had stopped at the border due to the usual customs formalities. Two young husky female customs agents entered our cabin to check our passports, one Chinese and one Mongolian. They were intimidating just because of the fact that I have never seen a woman in full camouflage. Once all of the formalities were completed a border guard raised a red flag permitting the train to leave. Looking back at China now, it is no surprise to me that it will become the number one backpacking country by 2014, it really is a magnificent country with a countless number of sites to visit. As we left I was waiting the whole time for the train to accelerate to a respectable speed, but it did not seam to want to travel more than 50 kilometers per hour. The reason for this was the fact that the train risked derailment if it were to go any faster due to the aging train tracks; signs along the way showed that Japan was funding the soon to be upgraded tracks. Looking out the window provided me a scene of a baron land with sparse bushes laid out throughout it. After three quarters of the journey the terrain began to get hilly, and in the distant valley you could start to see the the capital that is set on the highest elevation in the world – Ulan Bator.
Upon arriving in Ulan Bator the first thing that I did was buy a train ticket to Moscow, I didn’t want any problems like the ones I had in Erenhot. There were three trains to choose from, all of which shared the same Trans-Siberian line: Russian, Chinese and Mongolian. The Mongolian line was the cheapest – $110, and entailed four days of travel with a 122 stops. Having bought my ticket successfully, I would now need to eat. I stopped at the first restaurant that I could find while walking down the main street leading away from the train station. I was served a pseudo-Canadian breakfast which consisted of: French fries, hot dogs, an egg, coleslaw and two scoops of rice with ketchup nipples on it. Once I stepped out of the restaurant I could see that the streets of Ulan Bator were almost identical to that of any Eastern European city and this resemblance made me wonder how this city would have looked like if Mongolia was not occupied Russia for so many years. I now went to an internet cafe in search of a place to stay, and found a hostel in the city center for fourteen dollars per night. Upon my arrival at the Hostel everyone was watching Austin Powers in the main lounge, but by now I was too tired to even sit and watch one of my favorite comedies.The hostel was filled with a wide variety of people ranging from Japanese to Kiwi guests, and to add to the multiculturalism the owners of the hostel were Korean. I retired to my squeaky bunk and immediately fell asleep.
The next day I woke up and registered myself for a one day ger camp excursion. When buying tickets for the excursion I had the option to spend the night at one of the camps, but to me that would have added very little to the experience. The sky in Ulan Bator was as clear as the sky in Calgary, but taking things into perspective that comes with any city located on a high elevation. My hike that day took me down the main street, eventually I hit a winding road which went up a hill to reach a huge open market. Mongolians are big on mutton, and most of the dishes sold at the market were mutton based. I tried a pita filled with mutton, it convinced me that sheep are best used for wool and not food. I continued to walk through the main market pathway that was lined with a wide variety of shops and exited towards the Gandan monastery. Buddhism in Mongolia is a sign of the previous cultural imperialization brought about by the Chinese, as originally the Mongolians practiced Tengerism. None the less, this was a rarity in Mongolia as the Soviets persecuted and destroyed all signs of Buddhist culture; ironically the Chinese are now doing the same in Tibet. The monastery had many pavilions, and one large pavilion housed the world’s largest wooden statue of Buddha. It was an impressive site, but I could not take a picture as there was a shady man there requesting $20 for each photograph. I began to proceed down the hill away from the monastery towards the city center until by chance I found the Zanabazar museum. The historical artifacts in this museum were of great significance, as they included dinosaur specimens and artifacts from the world’s largest contiguous empire ever – the Mongol empire. After finishing my museum tour, my hike now continued in the opposite direction leading me towards a large monument that overlooked the entire city. Before the monument stood the Winter Palace, which was assimilated into my day’s itinerary. Here the last king of Mongolia reigned from 1911-1924 – Bogd Khan. Inside there was a museum which displayed Khan’s possessions and gifts from foreign monarchies. This for me was a trivial museum visit as I despise any form of elitism, with monarchies being the worst kind. I was glad to see that Khan’s days of power were short lived and filled with turmoil. Now I was once again off to see the monument that I originally sought to visit in the beginning. Upon reaching it I found out that this was the Zaisan memorial built by the Mongolians to commemorate Russian soldiers killed during World War II, which was depicted with a mural of Russian soldiers in an epic battle scene on the inside of the monument. Looking down from it, I was treated by a panoramic view of the entire capital. A crystal clear river was flowing at the foot of the memorial which in thanks the capital owes its’ existence to. Surrounding the city skyline was a beautiful mountain range which wrapped around the city. After seeing so much i one day I returned to the hostel at dusk by foot in thanks to the cities relatively small size.
The next morning I was up and ready at seven to visit the ger camp and the excitement that day relinquished my need for any coffee. We were picked up by a Russian van that must have been produced in the 50′s, it added flavor to this safari adventure and later we were joined by other such vans. Inside the van were two beautiful Swedish girls, who provided me with an adolescent anxiety in such a way that only beautiful woman could provide. The girls were eighteen and had taken on an adventure by themselves that most men would steer away from out of the shear uncertainty and ruggedness. We drove to Telerj national park which was located about an hour from Ulan Bator and got the little first meeting chit chat out of the way which allowed us to become bonded adventurers, uniting us to take on the hinterland. Our convoy arrived at mid-day, the sky was clear and we were surrounded by a uniquely picturesque mountain range. An older man dressed in traditional Mongolian clothing approached us and introduced himself to us as our tour guide. He lead us into a ger which was more colorful than an Ikea store and sat us around a table containing traditional food. Our tour guide explained to us how the horse is a major source of food for the people here, stressing that horses in Mongolia are different from the ones we are used to – they have shorter legs and larger torsos. The horse provides milk, meat and a mode of transportation that is necessary for these nomadic people. All of the dishes on our table were made out of horse milk: kefir, cheese and cream. Everyone was just sampling a bit of the food, but I really liked these dishes and gorged myself on the cream especially. If you want to imagine how the food tasted that day, picture a milder form of goat cheese. With our bellies full, we were lead outside and shown how the actual horse milk and cheese is made – a clothe sack is all that is needed. The sack strains the horse milk producing kefir at the bottom and cheese and cream in the sack. Our tour guide now lead us to a group of horses that we were going to soon ride – a first for me.
I examined my horse carefully, making sure that we liked each other and that he wasn’t crazy. A good pat on the back let him know that I’m his friend, a jump on the saddle, and I was now riding. Getting on a horse for the first time is like getting on a carnival ride. You have no control, it feels dangerous, but it’s fun and exhilarating. Luckily for me the horse simply followed the other horses, and when ever I would need the horse to speed up, I would simply say “choo”. Looking at other people riding horses makes you think they are just sitting and having a relaxing time. That assumption is incorrect. You have to be an athlete to ride a horse, which I was not, and have a back made out of iron, which I do not. When the horse would gallop, my legs could not keep up with his pace causing his back to pound my spine. None the less, the scenery was spectacular and the experience of horse riding appealed to my unknown masochistic tendencies and distracted me from the pain. Mid journey we were greeted by a man of at least 70 years of age on horseback that smiled and said hello, making me feel more like an average Mongol just riding along. We passed a camp of a Dutch farmer who abandoned his previous life to become a nomad on the Terelj planes. A part of me really admired this man and his contempt of modern civilization. Of course, this experience could not be perfect, my stomach was acting up. I now had to let the others pass as the Terelj dairy products wreaked havoc on my bowels. I lost the battle and had to stop in the middle of no where to relieve my self with no cover; you could say that this was somewhat liberating in a perverse way. To catch up to the rest of the pack I had to put my horse in turbo mode with the accepted loss of some vertebrae. Three hours later we were back at camp, happy to be off those devil bread creatures. It was now time to immortalize our day at Telerj with a group photograph that captured an experience that was surprisingly unforgettable.
I returned to the hostel completely exhausted with just enough energy to pack for tomorrow’s departure. The first thing that woke me up the next morning was not my alarm clock, but my bowels. As I left the toilet the owner of the hostel was grinning, and told me about the “cleansing”. For people who have never had horse milk, they have never had any chance to develop immunity against the bacteria in the milk. I tried to shrug off the “cleansing”, but I felt as I just have experienced the “beating”. I packed up, said my good-bye’s and headed out. Some the people in the hostel told me about a large market which was next to the train station and how it had really cheap North Face jackets. I am really glad that someone told about this market, as it was as surreal as it was bizarre. At the entrance there were woman with clothe covered faces holding giant cell phones used to peddle air time. There were cages with ducks and chickens strewn along the pathways, foods and drinks that one has never seen before, and enough merchandise to fit ten Wal-Mart stores. After some wondering I found the North Face jacket vendor, but to my dismay all of the jackets looked like they were made in the 80′s. Before going on the four day train journey I stocked up on some instant noodles and pop at a supermarket along the way. I then arrived at the train station and sat on some crates on the side of the tracks, and soon I was joined by other tourists heading in the same direction. We shared our experiences and automatically became friends. This is something that can only happen so easily when one travels, as all judgments, prejudices, and inhibitions are eliminated by the camaraderie of backpacking. By now the train has become my favorite mode of travel. When you take the train you don’t feel the same anxiety as you do at an airport. There is no security check, no baggage check-in and no herding of the passengers through different timely checkpoints – you simply get on the train.
We all boarded and parted our ways on the train and I was lucky enough to find out that I got a cabin with a Belgian couple and a Russian archaeologist who all spoke English. I got the top bunk on the left side, the Belgians got the bottom bunks and the Russian got the top bunk on the right side. Russians are probably the most hospitable people on Earth, and this Russian man was a reflection of this national virtue. He offered bacon and Vodka to all of us, and created an atmosphere that one would experience at a bar with all of your close friends. The Russian even provided me with a possible cure for my sick stomach that I refused out of the fact that just the site of it made me feel more sick, vodka with pepper. His friends would soon visit our cabin and a good time suddenly turned into a party. The Belgian couple was down to Earth, and great to talk with about everything. They were the same age as me, and the girl was more charming than a young beautiful girl who blushes at your presence. You could actually tell that they all were very good people because they didn’t say anything about the gas I was producing thanks to the “cleansing”; at this point I thought that my illness should be called the “gassing”. I still remember looking down at their faces, and seeing the disgust and feeling of undeserving punishment. I really didn’t feel guilty, as I was sick and most of the “gassing” took place when I was sleeping. The Russian was quite clever and during the “gassing” part of the trip he escaped to his friend’s cabin, the Belgians had no such option.
My illness caused me to sleep throughout the majority of the journey, but a few experiences would stand out. Many of the stops along the way had people selling goods to the travelers on the train. The Irkutsk stop was known for its’ smoked omul fish which can only be found in Lake Baikal – Earth’s deepest (1200 meters) fresh water lake. The fish came wrapped in a newspaper and tasted similar to smoked trout, but better. I really regretted that I could not stop for more than a day here in Irkutsk, as there was some nostalgia associated with this city. My great grandfather had lived for a few years in Irkutsk and helped survey the entire Trans-Siberian railway. Other stops also had people selling food to the travelers, but no food along the way came close to the awesome taste of the smoked omul fish. Once we started stopping in small towns I realized that our train doubled as a mobile shopping mall. At each small stop it would seem as if the whole town would come out to greet the Mongolian train vendors who sold items such as chandeliers, leather jackets, toys and anything else that one can imagine. What I did not expect during this journey is a fist fight between the Russian in our cabin and a random Mongolian who came into our cabin to start the scuffle. The Russian told me that the Mongolians are still a bit bitter about their years of Soviet occupation and how it’s even dangerous for them to walk on Mongolian streets by themselves.
The journey in itself was rather monotonous after a while, with the stops providing most of the interesting aspects. Eventually the Ural mountains appeared, containing valleys that were covered with colorful wooden houses. As we approached Moscow we discussed about what we should do upon our arrival, but I was now thinking of removing Moscow from my itinerary due to my illness. The buildings suddenly kept on getting bigger and then we entered a web of train tracks that lead to a grand Moscow train station. I joined a group of other backpackers that were riding with me in the train in search of a hostel that began with a taxi drive to a fully booked hostel. At this point I really wanted to explore Moscow, but I was still feeling miserable and not ready to jump any more hurdles. I now made a decision that I regret to this day, I turned back without giving myself time to get better and bought a ticket ($80) for Warsaw. I left the capital city of a country that has contributed so much to the world’s heritage without exploring one street or museum. To leave for Poland I had to go to a different train station, Moscow has nine. The architecture of my departing station was that of a time where money and practicality didn’t matter, but of a time where decadence and opulence dictated the facade. While walking through the station, an elderly Russian pulled me off to the side and showed me his leg prosthesis that he received during World War II, most likely he thought I was German. I moved along and bought a train ticket to Warsaw for a train that was leaving in three hours.
The last leg of my journey was the most pleasant one. I had a cabin all to myself with a very comfortable bed that allowed me to sleep for most of the trip back home. When the train conductor came to check my ticket he noticed that I was sick and offered me some charcoal. I took it in hope of experiencing the placebo effect, while still knowing it will not do anything for my bacterial infection. We stopped in Belarus to once again to have our train wheels changed. This time the wheels were changed in a much quicker time thanks to a warehouse complex filled with dozens of workers. This stop also had locals trying to sell food to the travelers, but instead of old ladies that appeared in the previous stops, I had a beautiful brunette who had a figure of a model come and sell me pirogies. The train departed and soon we crossed the Polish border while completing all of the customs formalities while the train was still moving. The first city that we crossed in Poland was Terespol, and almost immediately there after I was disembarking in Warsaw. My family was waiting for me, and had a hard time recognizing me because of my beard. My 8,000 kilometer trip was now over, leaving me with this anxiety one gets when returning from a trip knowing that he will begin his old monotonous life.
You find love when you least expect it, likewise for great travel. This trip was life changing for me as it realigned my priorities in life. Before I wanted to get ahead in life as much as I could, and now I just want to experience as much as I can. Not only that, along the way in such a short time I have met countless individuals that have inspired me to do things I would have never thought of doing before. In ten those days I have learned more than the knowledge contained in ten books could have provided me. In addition, going on a trip like this liberated my soul, giving it all the freedom that it yearned. Just look at how our lives are these days. Everything is planned for us, and we are guided through these plans until our death with almost no active deviation. From now on I refuse to use my vacation time on package tour holidays, I will only buy a ticket to a place that I want to visit and use the inspirations that I receive from other travelers, the locals and my own personal whims to dictate my journey.