Day 56-58: TSE in Transit

Good Morning Everyone

We boarded the eastern section of the Trans Siberian Express (TSE) the night before, so today is the second of three days on the train from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.

Irkutsk is positioned on the west side of Lake Baikal. As mentioned earlier, Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world. These may be little known or insignificant details to most people, except that it was one of the engineering obstacles in building the TSE. Although much of the construction required laying track along the 5880 miles or so, the section along Lake Baikal required blasting, going through narrow gorges, and swampy terrain. Now there is talk about a joint venture between China and Russia to build a high-speed version of the route.

Until then, I will enjoy what has been produced to date. The views of the eastern route have changed, from five of the six continuous days last year through Siberian birch forests and saggy wooden rooftops to brighter, open grassland sprinkled with wildflowers among pine and birch forests along the Amur River. There are twice as many stops on this eastern leg of the TSE (only about a quarter of the distance from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow). We were pleased to see a more vibrant side of the Russian landscape.

The people have been curious. We have had limited contact with Russians, and the language has definitely been a deterrent. We were finally able to connect with one of the guides at the Irkutsk City Museum by using broken French on both sides. So my five years of French in high school finally paid off, after trying English, German and Chinese in futility.

Virtually no one on the train speaks English, with one exception. We met a gentleman who lived in the Grand Canary Islands in the dining car yesterday. He was Austrian, originally from Innsbruck, and owned and operated a small, up-scale restaurant in the Canaries. He was taking a four-month break (low season in the summer in the Canaries, as most tourists go there in the winter) with his wife and was traveling through Eurasia by train.

In the Eighties, he made twenty films on different cities and countries in the world for an Austrian television series at a clip of one a week. San Francisco was one of the cities, so his eyes sparkled when we told him we came from there.

His current route took him from Vienna to Minsk, then Moscow, then Ulaan Baatar. After spending a week in Mongolia, they were heading in the same direction we were, to Vladivostok. We are finding that the travelers we meet along the way have substantive histories and travel background.

Other than 2-3 staff, this couple has been running a small high quality restaurant for over 30 years. The gentleman and head chef had been trained in a cooking school from the age of 14 to 17. When he turned 18, he left his home to start a successful business and wound up in the Canaries.

Every year, he and his family (the couple has a 17-year-old son) traveled to Africa, South America, and Asia. They loved traveling with their son as he was growing up. Alas, their son has finally decided to do his own thing this year. Although we have yet to meet the wife, the chef indicated that she was very sad about this change. We could certainly commiserate with him over this shift in no longer sharing family travel.

We realized that the depth and breadth of these travelers are fascinating stories. It took an hour-long conversation to get the facts and stats straight. They unfold slowly, with each question leading to another. This couple was planning to continue after Vladivostok to North Korea, take the ferry from Vladivostok to S. Korea, train from Beijing to Hong Kong, then back home. They planned all of their own travel routes and visas. I didn’t feel so crazy about my traveling itinerary after all. I found that it was often topped by other creative travelers.

The older couple on the hour-long minibus to Lake Baikal were another pair of experienced travelers. They lived in Doha as boomerang teachers and were doing the TSE after Mongolia to Moscow. They had lived and taught in Bonn, Germany for three years and loved Germany. They recommended going on safari through Kenya, Tanzania, or Botswana. After a week in Mongolia off-road, it sounded tantalizing and achievable.

The third group of savvy travelers we met during another dining car conversation going from Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk. The young 30-ish fluent English speaker was originally from Mexico, living in Beijing, and owned an adventure travel company. He planned tours for ex-pats and locals living in the Beijing area, and could switch between Iran ski trips to scuba diving on Hainan Island. He was in Mongolia for the first time keeping an eye on a tour group led by a guide from his company.

One of his tour members was an older woman from North Carolina. She was teaching music in Beijing and was hopeful one of her emerging students could become world-famous. Like the rest, this woman was friendly, energetic, and ready to tackle any adventure along the path of travel.

The similarity between all three groups were the fact that they were ex-pats living abroad and eaking out a pretty good life. Whether young or old, these individuals were searching for ways to experience the world in as many ways as possible. I felt strangely at home with them. Being more visual, I find that seeing the world helps me to learn about it much quicker than through books.

Unfortunately, our encounters with the Russians have not been as promising as we hoped. The language barrier is obviously the main obstacle, but we found their demeanor a bit clipped and uninviting. I’m sure that under different circumstances it would be better.

We landed in a four-berth compartment on a wager that last year’s similar booking would get a private compartment without having to pay for it. Wrong. We are sharing the accommodation with a Russian mother and her 12-year-old son, who were a bit beside themselves when we invaded the space at 9pm in the evening.

We are still waiting for them to warm up to us, and to recognize that we are in this together for the next three days. The carriage is full, and despite cheery hellos in Russki and English we are still experiencing downward facing glances. We are now more appreciative of the friendly unassuming Americans, who have everything to share and are aware that they have everything to gain in doing so.

Due to the high density of the population, the Chinese in their inimitable way are also quick to engage despite their rude and crude behavior. They are not afraid to be embarrassed. Imagine Americans going to Mexico in the first generation of travel beyond our borders. Transfer that experience to Chinese traveling to Russia.

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