Posts Tagged ‘passport control’

Bottom line: I love Berlin. Or maybe it’s just Europe. Or maybe it’s just not-Russia. Even though spending in the Euro zone is excruciating painful when a simple bottled water at 1,50 EUR really means 2+ American buckeroo’s, I’ve come back to the (more) capitalist system with a new (and happy) acceptance of inflated prices that (more than) cover the little Western concept called “service with a smile.”

AirBerlin gets thumbs up. Offered a complimentary mint with German- and Russian-language print media (LOOK! It’s a free press!) upon boarding (I took the only in-Russian newspaper, marking me, I think, as someone [a Russian] who would be surprised to read about new, non-censored ideas), I took my emergency-row seat. Ahh, leg room. And an empty seat between me and my row-partner.

Unfortuantely, it’s too easy, especially with a significant portion of German blood in your veins (I think I’m more than half German with Austrian), to cheerfully greet someone “Hallo!” and get a paragraph-long answer back, also in German, before it makes sense to give the guileful smile and shrug of the shoulders, “English?” To this (with one exception at the grocery store), I’ve been well taken care of 1) in my language and 2) with a genuine smile. Yeah, definitely not Russia. (more…)

Day 8 (Sat., Oct. 31): Mongolian Tricks and Treats

A sample of a pretty standard Mongolian music video, i.e. what you watch on state busses for hours on end as disco-lights make it all the more exciting, as we had done the day before:

 

I had a nice sleep-in kind of morning our last day in Ulaan Baatar: had breakfast, wrote postcards, gathered up my things. Romany made our game plan for the day and headed out the door around 11.

Winter Palace. We first walked a few kilometers to the south side of the city where the Mongolian kings lived in the wintertime. The multiple temples and all the artwork, artifacts, religious items, tapestries, and so on had been well preserved and made into more of a museum than an actual, living datsan or monastery, as many of the other historic temples in the city.

After a stroll around the snow-powdered grounds in what had become a pretty steady snowfall that lasted the whole day, we got to the building labeled “Part 2.” It was filled with huge fur and gold-threaded coats, diamond- and gem-covered crowns, and other really cool luxury items that filled the palace back in the day. They even had a pair of “musical chairs,” which played music when you sat on them, a gift from Russia’s tsar Nicholas; a display of German taxonomy; a ger made out of leopard skins; and the Mongolian declaration of independence from the early 1900s.

A well-spent $2.50 all-in-all. Walking away, we were patting ourselves on the back for seeing the Mongolian equivalent of, say, the National Smithsonian museums for so cheap, and then we realized that it’s free to get into the Smithsonians. Scam, I tell ya’. . . .

We tried our luck and were happy with the results in an Italian restaurant for lunch on our way back. I got bruschetta (sp?), garlic bread, a meat-sauce pasta dish, and a fairly good glass of red wine for about $11. Not the all-you-can eat bread sticks of the Olive Garden, but still not bad.

Toys! Our next stop was the International Intellectual Museum. Apparently, this Mongolian man has been sitting around for years and years making wooden puzzles based off traditional Mongolian patterns, and putting them in his two-story museum.

So that’s basically what it was. A cool German guy, about our age who was volunteering there for a year, gave us the tour and shared all the fun facts with us. Something like 336 possible solutions to a puzzle (what looks like an unbreakable block of little wood cubes) about the size of your palm. The largest metal chess set in the world (all pieces, tables, etc. puzzles). The smallest San Fran cable car theme chess set in the world. And so on.

If you could solve the famous turtle puzzle in 10 minutes that the founder made, you win $10,000 (US). I didn’t bother trying. He came out and did some magic tricks, and then went back into his little room. Funny little man.

All aboard to Russia. Around 4:30 we started to head back to the hostel/State Department Store area. Romany and I stocked up on souvenirs, groceries for the train, went back to the hostel for our stuff, and went to grab dinner.

We thought we’d enjoy a last imitation restaurant, as they are definitely in lesser supply in Irkutsk, so we tried “Texas Restaurant,” a 100% rip-off of I think the Church’s Chicken logo. Bad decision.

After placing our order with our faux-hawked, 20-something waiter, who failed to tell us at the beginning that they had 0% of the Texas-themed items, of which the menu was full, but instead, only had 2 Mongolian dishes available, of which we each ordered one, we waited literally 45 minutes in a basically empty, smoke-filled bar (admittedly, they had the décor right on. . . just not the service) before we finally inquired 1) where my beer was and 2) where our food was, seeing as our train was leaving within the hour and a half remaining before 9:00 p.m.

Finally, the food came about an hour after we got there, luckily it was rather good and filling–I had already been let down from expecting BBQ, beer, and a relaxed walk to the train station when we were done, so had it not been edible, I might have cried.

We speed-walked through Ulaan Baatar one last time in the dark, got to the train station, found that the train was to arrive in 10 minutes, got on once it came, and pulled out of the station, Siberia-bound about a half hour later. Sweet survival. . . .

Days 9-10 (Sun.-Mon., Nov. 1-2): Long ride home

Ze French. Our compartment-mates were a French couple (who spoke really good English). “Yes, so oui queet our jobs [stock brokers] to take zees wourld tour,” they said. “Oui ‘ave been wouanting to do zees for a vary long time.” I think in the French translation, “world tour” means traveling outside the Euro-zone, so their trip from Japan to China, Mongolia, Russia, and Tibet counted.

They actually weren’t even French. He was half Spanish, half Italian, and she was half German, half Moroccan. And they hated the French and were constantly reminding us about how lazy the French are and how they abuse their system, and so on and so forth. So our conversations about politics, education systems, healthcare, etc. were interesting with everyone looking at France from the outside in. Ohhh les français. . . .

It was also fun to eavesdrop on their conversation and realize that I hadn’t forgotten French. I accidentally laughed a few times when they said funny/ironic/snooty things to each other.

The same route, just backwards. Dodging aggressive Mongolian moneychangers, passport control, and customs were no issue. Except that the little thermometer (blue gun looking thing that they point at everyone entering Russia to test for H1N1) said that I should have been dead with how low my temperature was. The Russian woman in gloves and a face mask operating the thing didn’t look baffled.

Naushki was just as unexciting as we left it, so we spent about 30 minutes of our 6 hours there outside, 3 minutes in the bathroom, and the rest of the time doing homework as our French ami’s explored.

We played a game of cards (“Oui just laave to play cartes, but it is too bed, becaause we do not knouuw many games!”) while we had beer (“Oui teenk zat eet is razzer strahnge, how Americains are forbeeden to ‘ave alcohol before zey are 21 years old. I cannot imagine what eet is like to not ‘ave a meal weezzout a glass of wine.”) that they sold on the cart that came through (“Zees is interesting, zat zey ‘ave more alcohol in zees Russian beer!”). Welcome to Russia, Frenchies.

Once we pulled in to Irkutsk early Monday morning, Romany and I sent them on their way to their hostel (we told them it would be easier to to just walk across the bridge rather than try to find the right bus) and then found our marshrutka (van-bus-taxi thing).

Home sweet Irkutsk.

The saga of my trip with Romany to not-Russia, almost-Far-East Asia begins. To sum it up, and in honor of Asia, I’ll even compose a little haiku (with full knowledge that the haiku is, in fact, not a Mongolian poetry form).

Train across the steppe.
UB. Camels. Really far.
Russia seems better.

Publishable almost, right?
. . .

Day 1 (Sat., Oct. 24): Getting abroad from abroad

Packing and leaving. Around noon on Friday a week and a half ago (Oct. 23), I realized the train left about 2 hours before I originally thought, meaning I needed to be at the train station around 9 p.m. So packing and getting ready was slightly more rushed than I had planned. But manageable, seeing how I packed for my whole year in Siberia within the 24 hours before my plane’s departure for Russia.

For a week in Mongolia, a really warm set of clothes, and a few spare pairs of boxers, socks, and t-shirts were basically it. Plus a small stack of books that were barely opened. But who didn’t see that one coming. After getting back from the central Irkutsk market where I got a pair of cotton Nike-knock-off gloves for the trip, I got everything packed in my backpacking pack, which I’ve found to have been a great choice over a suitcase.

Evgenii Evgenievich (who’s taken over the household duties in my host mom’s absence visiting family across the country) boiled some eggs for me and packed some bread and cheese and fruit, plus the tea with candy. He insisted I take the same 6-fl.-oz.-ish container of sugar that he had taken on his train trip. I told him that I don’t have sugar with my tea and couldn’t think of any reason why I’d need a cup of sugar in Mongolia. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, walked out of the room, and then returned with the container refilled in his outstretched hand with an incomprehensible smile on his face.

I took the sugar with me, but that doesn’t mean he was right. When I returned this morning, it was completely full, minus the spoonful Romany used last night on the train. I guess I took his sugar cup sightseeing.

The taxi to the train station cost 30 rubles less than the taxi I took there on the way to Buryatia. I was intentionally trying to be less tourist/American and more brash/Russian than the last time, and I think it paid off. A whole $1.10. But considering that’s about a 15% over-charge/savings due to my Americanness/Russianness, I’m still pretty happy about it.

The Foreigner Car. Train tickets for foreigners in Russia cost significantly more than tickets for citizens. Bureaucratic markup, I supposed. But. When we got onto our train car with plush seats (i.e. smelly and seedy old train mattress pads not necessary to add beneath complimentary sheet set) and a flat-screen TV (granted, only with 3 channels of static and 1 channel of blue screen), we were less upset about the markup.

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What’s more, we didn’t hear much Russian at all on the car, since as they had put all the over-charged foreigners into the nice car: some English, a Scot, some Chinese. Plus us 2 Americans.

Our compartment-mates were two Canadians from British Columbia, grade-school best buds Kyle and Kelly, who were traveling from Sweden, through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, and India on their way to Thailand. Conversation over tea introducing ourselves and comparing our two-month impressions of Russia with their two-day impressions went on until about midnight, and then went to bed, rocked to sleep by the motion of the Ulan-Ude-bound train.

Day on/off the train. We, the four young 20-somethings with nothing to do on a train for another 24 hours, slept in until about 11:00. After waking up, we discovered we were the caboose of a five-car train, consisting of the over-priced foreigner kupe (4-person compartment) car, and four packed-to-the-brim-with-Russians platskart (6-people to an open, nook-like area) cars. The landscape was great, especially passing Goose Lake.

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After another few hours of eating and talking, we pulled in to Naushki, the town on the Russian side of the border. The first great anomaly of the trip was the fact that the train was stopped there, not doing very much for 6 hours. They rearranged the cars, added some, etc. But other than that, we never figured out the reason for the extremely long stop.

So we got off the train to explore Naushki. Pretty dull, but we managed to fill a few of the hours at least. Walk through the park. See the small WWII monument. See the crumbling moose/horse statues. Climb to top of town hill. Stand at top of (windy) town hill for 20 minutes, wondering where Mongolia starts and taking pictures. . . .

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Descend town hill. Walk down typical Russian village street. Take pictures of typical, but pretty painted Russian doors and windows. Realize village street is typical, thus a dead end. Go down another street. Find a pack of staring, growling dogs. Avoid said pack of dogs. Walk past closed stores. Go into market. Buy last Russian cookies. Leave market. Pay 8 rubles to use surprisingly clean station toilets. Get back on train because you’ve “done Naushki.”

We filled out our border-crossing paperwork as we started up, and then went at a stop-and-go pace from about 7 to 9 as different passport and customs officials of both Russia and Mongolia got on and off the train, muttering requests in half-English, half-native language. Then the money changers/hawkers got on the train to rip us off and scare us that we wouldn’t be able to change money easily in Mongolia. So we changed a little bit, just to be sure. Again, another made-for-foreigner rip-off.

After the border madness, we settled down for an evening of word games (in English–woo!) with the Canadians. Then a little Mongolian girl came in and entertained us with her drawings and pointing at the silly foreigners who had no idea what she was saying. She got a real big kick out of the last part. Her mother took her away for bedtime when she saw her daughter dragging a bemused and only half willing American (me) down the car. Bedtime for us wasn’t too far away, either.

350.org October 24 happened to be the International Day of Action against global climate change. Basically, people around the world did crazy things involving the number 350, which is the number of parts-per-million of CO2 that has been exceeded and is contributing to global warming. It’s a grass-roots awareness type of thing, so what we ended up doing was at least in the spirit, if not as over-the-top as other actions.

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Romany and I had created an account on the site to say we’d participate by doing an action at the border. We didn’t have any ideas that we were really psyched to carry out, so we ended up talking with the occupants of The Foreigner Car about it, making a few signs, trying to convince a few Russians to pose with the signs, 100% predictably failing to do so (but hey, had to try for the record), and then just taking pictures of ourselves (Canadian compartment-mates included) holding the signs around various not-automobile modes of transportation for the rest of the trip.

Lessons learned on Day 1:

  1. Canadians are great.
  2. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for more than 2 hours.
  3. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for less than 6 hours if traveling across the border by train.
  4. Win the provodnitsa (train-car manager woman) over early by getting tea and using your endearing Russian grammar of a 5 year old as much as possible.
  5. Once you cross the border into Mongolia, you realize: you’re in Mongolia, as in, “Mongolia.”

I think that I understand why Russian literature tends to be so lengthy: if I were to try to enumerate and explain everything that’s happened to me from moment one on the ground in Moscow to moment 3498523049857 sitting here in “my” room at “my” apartment here in Irkutsk typing a blog to post the next time I happen to be around an internet connection, I could probably fill two tomes the size of War and Peace. Though, my version would be a lot less of the “peace” side, and though I can’t describe it as “war,” it wouldn’t be too far from it.

In light of that fact, I present. . .

My Top Ten from Moscow
10. Waiting 2 hours in the passport control mob, the first of an almost infinite number of situations where there’s usually a line or some sense of order in the US.
9. Having my first convo with a real Russian with my taxi driver about the city and gas prices, among other topics.
8. Getting my first internet access to the Western hemisphere, and consequently to the loved ones back home.
7. Seeing familiar faces, that is, Sophie’s and Ashley’s, walk into the lobby of the hotel (in a huge tourist complex built for the 1980 Olympics, complete with a kremlin-looking gypsy market).
6. Placing my first orders for things like Rum-Servis, breakfast at a pastry stand, my metro ticket, and so on.
5. Putting on my non-smiling Russian face for the first time in the context of pushing my way through the Moscow metro.
4. Hiding my smiling American face for the first time when I more or less stumbled upon the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil’s Cathedral for the first time and realized I was actually there.
3. Walking around Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park of Culture and Rest (yes, I’m doing literal translations for purposes of humor) and finding a “Vestern Park” complete with huge pictures of plains indians with tomahawks and a roller coaster.
2. Getting (not literally) b**** slapped with typical Russian ignorance of strangers for the first time (don’t worry, it’s not rude here, so I’m all good) by the lady changing my money at the hotel who was wearing an Arizona tourist shirt. Well IIIII thought it was cool. Guess not. . .
1. Having drinks and lively conversation with old friends, with soon-to-be American student friends, and with new, Russian, middle-aged friends at various bars and on-the-street locations around the hotel complex on what we promised would be our one and only stupid-American-tourist night.

So that was that. After orientation at the hotel and saying our goodbyes to our fellow MiddKids studying in Moscow and Yaroslavl, we hung around the hotel til 8, when we took a 2-hour ride to the Sheremetovo airport to catch our red-eye to Siberia. Hey. It beats 6 days on the train, right? (Stay tuned for the winter break travellog for that. . . .)