Thursday, May 29, 2014


We spent the weekend with my childhood friend, Alex, and his wife Bethany. Alex teaches English at a local community college/school/university, and they have lived there a few years.

China continues to impress me with its booming construction, sheer number of buildings, plentiful parks and green spaces, and tidiness (read: not cleanliness). 

With many mouths to feed, the countryside uses every available space for crops.  There are miles (literally) of enclosed gardens, creating hot houses for specialty items, and tree farms as far as the eye can see. The mayor of Qingdao has a brother in law who is a tree farmer, so tree lined boulevards and alleys are common.  Small armies of gardeners plant, water, and tend flower lined walkways.  Arborists stick IVs into newly planted trees and prune branches.  The streets are cleaner than NYC, with people employed to sweep them by hand 24 hours a day. 

Most buildings have security guards and systems and courtyards share both exercise and playground equipment.

Off to the market we went after breakfast.  We toured the stalls to see the dried squid, the different type of noodles, and a plethora of fresh eggs, vegetables, and fruit.  More window shopping ensued with a gander around stores in a nearby mall.  There we noticed how Chinese express their individuality- their clothing, shoes, and over accessorizing.  Taking cue from Carrie Bradshaw herself, many outfits were so mind numbing-  "how do you stand in front of a closet and put that together and think it is ok to emerge from the house?"  Laughter turned to oohhs and ahhs as we took turns in the fishmonger section of the super market.

First off, super markets are loud, sell everything, and employ a small army of helpers (notice a trend here?).  Second, the way that they sell items is to place bullhorns atop the pile and tape a recorder to it. On a loop and set to high volume, it repeats and echoes above the din of shoppers.   Third, over packaging is the status quo for prepared foods (imagine unwrapping individual cookies once you unwrap the box and enclosed container they are in) and then for live or fresh foods, flies dart around and fish that jump out of tanks onto the floor are picked up and dropped right back in.

On our second day, the pollution rating was 161; but we still drove out to the other side of the bay to see the Yellow Sea and fishing villages with nearby developments of condo and beach side homes.  We walked along the bay in a huge green space littered with intimate gardens, children's playgrounds, and family gathering space near fishermen hauling in small nets or motoring around in rusted boats.

Our time with Alex and Bethany was a peaceful relaxation in the comfort of their home.  But also it was an introduction to the culture in which they have assimilated.  It helped us upon our return to Beijing. An understanding of the bartering, the prices, and the way people live day to day certainly helped us interact with people in the capitol.

Through the Gates

Late at night our train crossed under large gates welcoming us to China. As we pulled into the station, we were all awake, hanging out the open windows on the warm evening. And then we heard the loud speakers. At the perfectly kept and maintained station, with green shrubbery (welcome sight after days of brown dessert) speakers blared the Chinese national anthem, and then Beethoven's 5th, and then Gershwin, and then Mozart.  We all chuckled and then were beckoned back into our cabins for passport control and customs paperwork.

The train then proceeded backwards and into the bays where we changed bogies. Russian and Mongolian tracks are the same gauge, which differs from the rest of the world (think military strategy) so Chinese bound wagons are lifted from their chassis and engineers modify the separation of the train wheels.  The process took nearly 90 minutes for over a dozen cars. Precision was key for the hydraulic lifts, and military officers oversees us as we all hang out the windows snapping photos and video of the process.  And while there, fireworks erupted over the town and main station.

The next morning we awoke in the countryside with farmers squatting over fields, planting and weeding by hand. Their homes further away in an enclave of brick.  Each town/village entrance is marked with a bright gate, similar to the ones we see over Chinatown streets in urban centers in the US.

Townfolk do not decorate. I saw few latterns and few flags, and of the latter those were mainly Chinese pennants.  These pennants marked the few heavy earth moving equipment we saw. The was a large crew rerouting a river for irrigation.  Large gabions and diversions were set ever few hundred yards to pool water into nearby fields. Whereas some of the work was being done by equipment most was at the hands of laborers. For hours as we descended from the mountains into Beijing, we did not see a single piece of farming equipment over the vast fields of spring planting. 

Unlike Mongolia and Siberia, homes are made of brick, surrounded by brick fences and walls. Like Mongolia, street maintenance is not done by a mechanized street sweeper but a couple of men, some brooms, and a trash bin.  Trees line each road in uniform fashion, trees perfectly spaced apart.  Trash and rubble piles dot side roads used by bikes...which flow into the streams.  Large new apartment buildings are topped with solar panels but homes and buildings have water heaters on the roofs with houses extended down.

In our short time through the country side we saw a nuclear plant and several large power plants near rivers and railway coal terminals. Like Mongolia we saw a few wind turbines spinning in the distance.

Humidity and haze grew as we headed south, impeding upon our ability to take quality pictures of the mountainous landscape. I found the countryside very pretty and idyllic almost; but, those who know me know I am a mountain girl at heart.  The vast amount of concrete lined channels to direct storm fly down the mountains are flanked by those perfectly planted trees. Perhaps for erosion. Perhaps for beauty.  Perhaps to provide jobs.

Booming Beijing

First thing first. Thank God for the Olympics in 2008.  Most of the signs are in English and announcements at major stations are in English, too.

Sweating profusely in 80+ degree weather (I wore a wool sweater less than a week ago), we made our way from the International terminal to the domestic ticket office to retrieve our train tickets to Qingdao. Yep, you read right. I offloaded my beloved from a train trek across Asia and then stuffed him in the Beijing subway and onto a 6 hour bullet train to Qingdao (site of the 2008 Olympic sailing events).  In my defense, we ate first.

With the help of a Marriott concierge and English signs in the subway we made our way from the central station to the south station to board the train that would travel at an average of 200 kph.  The south station reminded me of Denver airport- vast, lots of stores, and plenty of places to eat. As we sat down at what seemed like a local chain, Mr. Lee's, we ordered our first Chinese meal of the trip that did not include hot water and a cup of noodles.

We logged onto wifi and sent messages to our friends in Qingdao and reached out to family.  It was then that I sent a message to my dad...and it made me quite cathartic about the trek.

You see, I come from a train family. My grandfather was an engineer for Reading railroad. My uncle was a certified train nut, even taking vacations to photograph old rail engines and cars.  My dad and his younger brother are quite close to being nuts but notnquite certifiable yet. Yet.

When living in Germany, our parents toured the region via train, showing my sister and me castles, museums, and festivals; thus giving me a taste for adventure and travel. My Uncle George always pondered how I could look at the same four walls for any given amount of time; and to that I say: for work. To fund trips like this. To travel with a partner who appreciates and is captived and intrigued by the same cultural differences and enthusiastic about living each day to the fullest.  I am so happy we completed this trek and did so on the train.  My heart is so happy that I did it the Cope way (maiden name); but even happier that Josh was by my side. And for that bliss that gave me goosebumps, I shed some tears into my rice, caught Josh off guard with my sniffles, and thanked him for the trip of a lifetime.

Ok. Enough sappy stuff. Onto more about China. I gotta say, I continue to be in awe of this country.  From the tree lined avenues in the country to the average 20-30 cranes in each village, neighboring city to Beijing, this place has precision.  The high speed rail glides along elevated concrete paths and through enormous stations and platforms that make Grand Central seem like a Thomas the Train play set.  The apartment buildings that house people in these satellite towns rival skyscrapers in Chicago.  The bridges are lit underneath for bikes and pedestrians to cross rivers under cars riding topside.

Advertising uses primarily red and yellow coloring: cell phones, energy drinks, etc.  The subways have videos that run in the tunnels as wagons pass from station to station.  The avenues and boulevards are dotted with green spaces and rose gardens (so pretty to smell as we walked to the subway!). It reminds me a lot of Washington, DC. Large city, per se, but well landscaped with adequate space for recreation and beauty. Another nice change from Mongolia: little to no horn honking.

But then you are reminded that this is China. Military are everywhere: street corners, train stations, in cars on the street. With the former standing at attention with eyes darting to and fro.

The UB

Our time in Ulan Bator (Ulan Bataar amd other spellings) was better once we got out of the city and into the country. City streets are crowded and I feel safer crossing an avenue in NYC than I do Peace Boulevard in UB.  We toured the National Museum which houses and impressive collection of traditional dress for both women and men for each nomadic tribe.  The curation was excellent, and I particularly enjoyed the last exhibit on how the former empire shook free from Russian and Chinese rule and became a democratic state. Mongolians gained the ability to travel internationally with passports as late at 1991.

Two other places I wanted to visit were both closed:  a monastery and a winter palace.  The monastery staff were playing soccer for charity and the winter palace was just explanation in English.  Being 0 for 2 sucked but it gave us the opportunity to pound some pavement and see life among the neighborhoods. Seeing Russia sparked memories from my childhood growing up in Germany; and Josh shared the similarities of UB to his time in Korea as a child.

We marveled at the number of cranes dotting the growing skyline.  This city and country are booming with mineral development.  Tall glass towers stand next to old monasteries in stark contrast. 

On our third day we hired a driver and escaped to Chinnghis Khan Statue.  As we pulled into the nearly empty parking lot for the privately funded monument, we saw the falconers.  I practically skipped over to hold the eagle and pose for the cheesiest tourist photo ever. And then Josh chose to hold the vulture and invited me in for a joint photo under the impressive wing span. We chatted with some Brits on a Shanghai to London drive in classic cars. One was driving an old VW Beetle.  My hat was off the man due to the caliber of the roads on his way home.

We ascended the stairs and toured a private collection in the museum beneath the monument.  We learned how vast was the empire and were impressed by the taxation and rule.  Artifacts from the Silk Road influence and armor and bullets and ornamentation and snuff boxes.

The monument is a vision of an entrepreneur who will develop the nearby land into ger camps and on the south facing parcels create an aemy of 10,000 horsemen, similar to the famed terracotta warriors in China.

Our driver then took us to a cave where communists used to meet and hide and onto Turtle Rock, a spot on natural formation in the middle of a national park.  Afterwards we met a Turkish traveler as we ate lunch at a nearby ger. The hostess was somewhat gracious, as she was paid for the lunch, but she chose to speak to the two drivers the whole time, occasionally refilling our mugs of salty milk tea.  With full bellies after cleaning our plates of traditional mongolian fare we stepped outside for fresh air.  A neighboring ger down the hill was blasting kareoke music.  Dude was rocking out.  Not quite the rustic experience I was expecting.  Power lines ran into the park and provided the gers electricity.  Our hostess had quite a nice refrigerator, laptop, cell phone, and tv....with an outhouse.  Our new Turkish friend recommended we visit a nearby monastery so we hiked up a large hill, spinned the lanterns, and took a peak inside the colorful interior. 

When we boarded the train the next morning we bunked with two French med students who are taking a break from residency to travel for six months. They shared their pictures from seven days in rural mongolia- horse back riding and camel riding in the Gobi and warming up in gers by burning camel patties rolled into pellets. Their best picture was of a baby camel who was abandoned and recently adopted by a ger neighborhood.  Barely a month old, he was as nearly 4.5 feet tall. He was so stinking cute in the pictures. And yes, I totally squealed at the sight of him and then more so when I heard his backstory. 

The beauty of Mongolia is certainly in its countryside, and with only a few days' stopover, we did not have time or funds to seek out those adventures. But consider them on the list.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


We spent five hours at the Russian border and another two on the Mongolian side.  Passport control takes away your passport and only when they return it to you can you get off the train.  Then, you have to be back at a certain time for the:

1. Drug sniffing dog to come through.
2. The customs officials to check your bags
3. The border patrol to inspect your compartment for contraband
4. The police to sweep for whatever.

In all we saw four different departments of each government to cross the border. In comparison, two agents worked the entire train from Finland, armed with passport readers at their hips, they read our customs paperwork, checked visas, scanned passports and inquired about the luggage above our heads- all in less than two minutes per person.  How this took seven hours total on the opposite end is beyond me.  Especially since we were a one car train- kid you not. (We picked up and dropped cars at other station stops on both sides of the border.)

The day was warm and we were the only passenger train. Our engine left us as we sat on the track alone, large freight trains running beside us. We drank beers openly on the platform benches and paid to use the water closets at the station as our toilet was locked while parked.  A couple of people took naps as this Mongolian train is not as comfortable when moving at night- frequent stops for loading and unloading cars and older seats without cushions. 

We walked the tracks and saw an amazing sunset as a rain moved into the mountainous border.  We slowed to cross the border itself and I was able to capture one of the ceremonial mile markers.

Good night and Good bye, Russia

As we prepare to check another country off the list, I reflect on our time in this vast country. A couple observations:

1. Traveling as we are (budget) makes for some long hauls in this enormous country. The train gets boring by day four, esp. with few English speaking passengers.  The buses that run among towns seat 9-12+ people and blast Russian and Mongolian techno music as they tear down highways that have gravel sections and slam on the brakes to yield to cows crossing from one non-fenced pasture to another.

2. Young travelers from other countries are so more well educated in languages than we are. Nearly all of them are trilingual if not more. Their English knowledge includes slang and distinguishes among British and American pronounciations.

3. Everyone smokes.  And many lack polite manners to keep it from children, foreigners, and enclosed areas.

4. The countryside villages are colorful. You can tell which village had a run on a certain paint color. One will have a bunch of blue homes, the next yellow, the following green. But all graveyards have blue marking some of their headstones and tributes.

5. Faithful leave whole cigarettes and coins as they pray at road side monuments in Siberia.

6. You can pick out a gulag from miles away- the large guard towers, the stone walls, the barb wires.

7. Smoked fish. Beer. Borsch. Lamb. Potatoes in every variety. I am in heaven but I am looking forward to a large, crisp salad when we return home.

8. Siberian villages lack municipal trash pick up. As such the major corners amd the fields near the train tracks are the dumping grounds for plastic bottles, large containers, and other assorted man made goods.

9. Despite some of the letters of the Russian alphabet looking like our's, they are not pronounced the same. Pectopah, which looks perfectly phonetic in our language is actually "Restoron" meaning Restaurant.

10. Fashion in St. Petersburg is big. Women and men wear only skinny jeans. Women are waifs with long straight hair and their perfect city coats are topped with colorful scraves that are at minimum one full yard of fabric. They tower over crowds in 4 inch stilettos on cobblestone roads and uneven brick sidewalks- with ease. Nowhere can you see cleavage. It's all about the thin legs and booty.  As you move east the fashion wanes a bit and practical walkers in Irkutsk pair their skinny leggings with flats more so than stilettos.

11. Despite all the movies depicting large Russian men, we saw few. Most are skinny little guys. Josh certainly towered over the crowds.

12. All toilet paper is disposed of in bins and not in the toilet. Makes for some smelly water closets but keeps the toilets from clogging up a centuries-old sewer system.

13. East meets west in Irkutsk. Some cars have steering wheels on the left and some on the right.  The food selections have more asian influence and themes.  Faces of different ethnicities are found among the crowds.

14. Mongolian bound trains assign all foreigners to the same car(s). Locals are grouped together in other cars.

15. Cars park along the streets and on wide sidewalks in St. Petersburg.  Cars hop the curb at intersections and drive among pedestrians to an angular parking spot, nose to nose with the parallel park jobs on the street. Common occurrence.  Keep an eye out when walking and looking up at architecture.

16. How to take a train shower 201.  The toilets have a small hole in the floor that looks directly at the track (think air flow). On top of this is a rubber mat, like the ones used in fish houses. Hang clothes on hook and splash water from sink basin (running water as the sink does not plug) onto your goose bumps. Soap up hands, wash the parts that count, shiver as you splash more water for a rinse cycle. If brazen enough to handle it, air dry because if you share a compartment, this is the only time your skin can breathe and not be clothed.  Attempt to wash hair.  Attempt again to cut three days of grease with cold water. Laugh. Give up.  Shower done.

17. Russian train cars loaded with coal and lumber head east and south, and passenger trains sometimes yield to these commerce vehicles to the Asian markets.

18. Four people unload train freight, such as mail and deliveries, onto wagons with no bars. A small tractor then pulls the wagon(s) down the platform while the staff walks alongside with their hands holding the freight in place.

19. Russian beer is typically less than 5 percent. No wonder they drink vodka. And most Russians advise drinking Finnish vodka which is higher quality and more expensive.

20. Four days in Finland costs almost as much as thirteen days in Russia. Thankfully exchange rates continue to work in our favor as we head east.

21. Shopping among small businesses is like playing plinko. All items are enclosed in display cases or on shelving behind the counters - think jewelry store. If your Russian is poor, you point or attempt to pronounce what you want as they reach and touch four different items before getting to the one you desire. 

22. All platforms have ice cream. It became a small tradition to get off the train at longer stops and walk the length of the train holding hands while enjoying our selections, which cost 30-60 RUB. Cheap date and wonderfully appetizing after four days of cabbage soup.

Climbing wall in Siberia

After coming short on the excursions on Olkhon, I was eager to trek along the Great Baikal Trail near Listavankya.  There was no ferry service yet, which would have taken us directly there; alas, we spent another six hours (plus) to Irkutsk with a transfer to the little port town of Listavankya on the southern shores of the Lake.

We booked the eco hostel, at the recommendation of Lonely Planet and affirmation from another American who had stayed there prior to our meeting her on Olkhon. The hostel boasts yoga on the sundeck and a climbing wall. Both were welcome extras for two sore people about to get on a train for Mongolia.

So the yoga sundeck was not quiet a yogi paradise and six holds in a space of a doorframe is not what I would call a climbing wall; but, the staff and guests were friendly and the lodging was clean.  A Norwegian guest had hiked earlier that day and harvested some onion-garlic like greenery that you can eat raw or put in salads. We shared beer, wine, and vodka that evening and toured the small lake side destination town the next day. Geared toward day tourists from Irkutsk we found most signs in Russia. We devoured some awesome street food at the market including meat filled pastry pockets cooked on the inside of a large vestibule that looked like an urn.  The spring fires from farm fields blocked our view. We had seen some of it the day before when we came in, luckily. The greenery and turquoiss water we welcome sights after the brown country side of Olkhon.

We took the state bus back to the Paris of Siberia and loaded up on more vodka and goods before catching the sunset as we walked to the train station for our Mongolian bound ride.