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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Russia

I wish we had more time in Russia. After so much trouble getting our visa, it’s too bad we couldn’t see more of the country. But we had family and friends to meet in Italy, so we couldn’t dawdle in this country. Still, we saw several influential cities and some really neat sights. And the train ride through Siberia wasn’t awful either. Here’s what we thought of the largest country in the world.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Seeing the Red Square in Moscow.
  2. Seeing downtown St. Petersburg.
  3. Seeing the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.

Brad:

  1. Riding the Trans-Mongolian Express. Seeing the scenery fly by was a surprisingly fun experience.
  2. The Winter Palace and Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Its size is unfathomable, and there was a huge collection of great paintings and stunningly ornate rooms.
  3. St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is exactly what you think of when you think of Russia. The building is in immaculate condition, and we saw it near sunset when its colors are brightest.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Finding our hostel in St. Petersburg. (They gave us really bad directions.)
  2. All the bureaucratic silliness with our visas and registering. We kept hearing conflicting reports about the visitor registration rules, so we ended up not doing it at all. Luckily, we didn’t have any problems leaving the country.
  3. Spending money so quickly. It’s going to be hard to stay under budget in Europe.

Brad:

  1. Russians were unhelpful and somewhat unfriendly. They weren’t rude, just somewhat cold.
  2. Finding our hostels in St. Petersburg and Moscow were difficult. The directions weren’t written very well, and streets weren’t consistently signed.
  3. Getting a visa for Russia in the first place was a huge pain in the ass. There’s a lot of conflicting information on the Internet and the costs are very high for Americans. We weren’t sure we’d even be granted access to Russia when we entered Mongolia. (Fortunately we were, because we would’ve had to take an expensive flight out of the country.) I’d like to put a plug in for Everbrite’s Russian information site, since her information helped us get into the country.

Best meal?

Nikki: Believe it or not, I’d say it was a dinner we made! Just BBQ chicken and potatoes, but it was really good.

Brad: We grilled up chicken with BBQ marinade and boiled little potatoes in our hostel one evening. It was simple, but delicious.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Whatever I got at a food court in Moscow. It looked like a pizza, but it had a (bad) meat crust.

Brad: The instant noodle dinners on the train got old after a while.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: David from Spain was quite entertaining.

Brad: I’m having a hard time remembering that night, but I think I enjoyed talking with David in St. Petersburg.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: We didn’t have any major disasters!

Brad: The vodka and 2 liters of 9% beer didn’t go over great. I wasn’t feeling very well that night. 

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Soul Kitchen Hostel in St. Petersburg was awesome! Clean, good facilities, convenient location, and great atmosphere. It was one of the best places we’ve stayed.

Brad: The Soul Kitchen in St. Petersburg was really nice.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The hostel in Novgorod. Our room was clean and new, but the rest of the building was decrepit and there wasn’t a kitchen.

Brad: The “hostel” in Novgorod had decent rooms, but it lacked both soul and a kitchen.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Spending a few hours in Gorky Park. It was a really nice park to relax in.

Brad: I enjoyed hanging out in Moscow’s Gorky Park waiting for our night train to depart. There was a fountain show to music, a good hot dog stand, and a crazy-good rollerblader.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: The huge escalators and ancient train cars in the Metro subway system.

Brad: In Novgorod and St. Petersburg, sunset was around 10:45PM, and dusk ended around midnight. It’s very strange looking out the window after 11 at night, the sun’s only setting, and people are still walking through the streets like it’s only 7 at night.

Favorite Soviet arcade machine?

Nikki: The snake game where you have to eat the bunnies, but not the carrots.

Brad: I liked the “Soviet Boi” game. This site has information on how the game works, and you can even play it online!

Statistics for Russia

  • Days in the country: 10
  • Places we stayed: 3
  • Rainy days: 1
  • Blog posts: 3
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 4
  • Photos taken: 610
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 167, 27% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 3
  • Hours traveling overland: 112
  • Overnights on trains: 5
  • Distance covered on train: 6,649km (4,132mi)
  • UNO wins: Brad 44, Nikki 35
  • Best Tetris score: 50,698 (113 lines)*
  • Hours of daylight in St. Petersburg: 20
  • Time zone changes: 6

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 15
  • Days on the road: 325
  • Places we stayed: 138
  • Rainy days: 57
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 33
  • Photos taken: 13,701
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,313, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 27
  • Hours traveling overland: 763
  • Overnight buses, trains, ferries, and planes: 21
  • Time zone changes: 16

* Tetris & Dr. Mario on ZSNES

Novgorod and St. Petersburg

We took an overnight train (just one night–it seemed so short!) to the historical city of Novgorod. During the medieval times, it was an important capital and the source of the distinctive Russian architecture and art. Today its kremlin is in good shape and the area is listed as a World Heritage Site. Since we didn’t have enough time to stop in Irktusk or Vladimir, I was glad we could at least see something outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Novgorod has about ??the same population as Madison, so it was very relaxed and peaceful.

Next we went to our final destination in Russia: St. Petersburg. I didn’t know this before I saw it, but all of St. Petersburg is gorgeous. In fact, the entire city center is a World Heritage Site because of its architectural and historical significance. It was built in less than twenty years under the rule of Peter the Great and is known as the “Venice of the North” because of its numerous canals and bridges. (Although it seems like almost every city we go to is known as either “the Venice of ___” or “the Paris of ___.”) And, of course, when you throw in the revolutions that took place there as well, you can see that it’s a very interesting and important place.

This was also the furthest north we’ve ever been. St. Petersburg’s latitude is nearly 60 degrees north, about the same as Seward, Alaska. In the summer, the days there are really long. It was difficult for us to keep track of time, because at 11:00 PM it was still light outside. Probably because of this, the city seemed very busy and crowded at all hours of the day. I heard somewhere that during the “White Nights” in June, they don’t even have to turn the streetlights on.

During our visit, we saw the Peter and Paul Cathedral, Peter and Paul Fortress (where many political prisoners, including Dostoevsky and Trotsky,??were held), Kazan Cathedral,??Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated), and the Winter Palace. Inside the Winter Palace is the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Its collection spans from prehistoric times all the way up to the early 20th century. We spent an entire day wandering around and we didn’t even see everything on display.

Even though St. Petersburg is known as the beer capital of Russia, we tried some Russian vodka there. It doesn’t taste any different than other vodkas, but they say it has to be stored in the freezer and served ice cold. Everyone drinks out of shot glasses, and before you drink someone gives a toast. After you drink, you have to eat a small, salted pickle. These seem to be very strict rules. There’s a Russian joke that a man from Finland goes to visit Russia. When he comes home, his friends ask him how it was. He answers, “It was fine, but the Russians talk and eat too much.”

I can’t believe we were never planning on coming to Russia, because I loved it! All the hassle and expense of getting our visas was definitely worth it. Pretty much everything about Russia was interesting to me. It’s too bad that we could only spend about two weeks in the world’s largest country, but we couldn’t linger because we had to meet up with my family in Italy!

Moscow

Our first night in Moscow, we went out for a walk and ended up wandering right into the Red Square. I was more or less overcome with glee and couldn’t stop giggling the entire time. Actually seeing the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and St. Basil’s in real life was just incredible. St. Basil’s was actually much smaller than I thought it would be, but it looks like something in Disneyland. We visited Lenin, but we couldn’t tell if it was actually his body or not. This was the first Communist leader we saw, as we didn’t call upon Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao.

The next day we visited the Armory in the Kremlin. I was actually more impressed with the architecture of the building than the collection of artifacts. The best part was the diamond collection, which includes the royal collection, unique historical??jewelry, and huge hunks of uncut diamond, gold, and platinum nuggets. Some of my favorite pieces included a tiara with a thirteen carat pink diamond; a brooch in the shape of a rose??bouquet??made of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds; and the Grand Imperial Crown itself. The crown was made in 1762 and is made of 5,000 diamonds, 75 pearls, and a 398 carat spinel. Needless to say, it was the most sparkly headpiece I’ve ever seen. Brad didn’t visit the diamond collection, because it costs about $15 extra, but I thought it was well worth it.

The Moscow subway system is a Soviet marvel and a tourist attraction in itself, so we spent a whole afternoon riding around and looking at different stations. Many of them have stately granite pillars and mosaics of Communist propaganda. They’re also very deep underground, so we rode up some of the longest escalators I’ve ever seen. The??escalators??move pretty quickly, but it still takes several minutes before you reach the top. The trains themselves are ancient and incredibly loud. However, Russia seems to run by the motto, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the trains do still work perfectly fine.

One of our final excursions was a trip out to the Museum of Soviet??Arcade??Machines. They have over twenty arcade machines that still work. I think they all involved either hunting, warfare, or sports. They were pretty simple and cheesy, but we had a great time.

Overall, I really liked Moscow and I wish we could have spent more time there. Russians have a bed reputation with travelers, but I didn’t think people were especially rude. It does feel weird to not be in Asia anymore. Now we actually fit in and people keep talking to us in Russian and expecting us to understand what they’re saying. Sometimes it’s nice to blend in, but sometimes it’s nice when everyone just assumes you have no idea what’s going on.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway

It might seem strange, but I was really looking forward to our five day train ride through Russia ever since that dinner with Ben in Ipoh. (We never did make it to Taiwan, though.) The idea of going by rail through Siberia and crossing from the East to the West appealed to my romantic, nostalgic imagination of what travel should be. Plus I’ve really grown fond of trains during this trip. They really are the best mode of transportation. And, more than anything else, it just felt right. Brad and I were very excited about Africa, but it never fit into our plans very well. I can’t believe we had been planning on covering all of Asia and Africa overland in six months. In retrospect, it was the most absurd idea we’ve ever had. I don’t even think it’s possible. At dinner that night in Malaysia, it just clicked in my brain that the Trans-Mongolian was perfect. Africa will be another trip.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Siberia surprised me. Actually, it reminded me of northern Wisconsin. Most of it was forest, with many birch and pine trees. There were also many purple wildflowers in bloom all over the place. We went along the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest lake and a World Heritage Site. It holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. I was also surprised by how many people we saw in Siberia. Maybe it was because we were coming from Mongolia, but it seemed like there were people everywhere. There were even a couple of huge cities with busy highways and skyscrapers out there.

The train itself was modern and nice. I’d say it wasn’t quite as nice as the train we took from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, though. At the beginning of our trip, we had two Mongolians as cabinmates. They didn’t speak much English, but I’m assuming it was a grandmother with her teenage grandson. At one point, the boy took out his grandma’s passport to show us that she had gone to America. We asked where in America and she answered, “Washington! Washington!” with a huge smile. As Brad mentioned in his country recap, they shared their delicious dumplings with us when the customs agents wouldn’t let them take homemade food across the border.

The grandma and grandson disembarked on the second day and we never got new cabinmates. It was nice to have our own cabin, of course, but I also would have liked to meet new people. The train was mostly empty, actually, so there wasn’t a whole lot of socializing in general. We spent our time reading, talking, looking out the window, eating, listening to music, watching movies, and playing Uno, SimCity and Tetris. I enjoyed the train ride overall, but a shower would have been nice. We were looking pretty swampy by the time we arrived in Moscow.

I’m glad we took the train. We weren’t exactly like??freight-hopping??hobos??or the
Boxcar Children, but it was still old-fashioned enough to satisfy my sentimental side.??If you’re thinking about taking it, here are Brad’s tips and things to bring: More »

Country Recap: Mongolia

It’s difficult to grasp just how empty the Mongolian countryside is until you’ve been there. The country covers an area more than twice the size of Texas, but the population covering that area (excluding the 40% living in Ulaanbaatar) is only the population of Milwaukee. Most of that empty land is flat steppe, rolling, rocky hills, and barren desert. This truly is the land of the eternal blue sky, since it seemingly stretches forever.

Yet this was the center of the largest empire in human history. It stretched from Vietnam to Baghdad, Korea to the edge of Western Europe. Little evidence of this mighty empire remains–even in the old capital city,–due to Soviet destruction and a lack of permanent buildings to begin with. Mongolian people largely still live the same way they have for thousands of years. Nomadic pastoralism in portable gers is still the way of life for most. It reminds me of what I think the Wild West in the early 1800′s would have been like, right down to the dusty, run-down villages in the middle of nowhere.

We certainly were never planning to stay (or even visit) Mongolia for over three weeks. But we had to get our Russian visa somewhere, and Mongolia was the only place issuing them to Americans outside America. Originally we weren’t thrilled to spend so long here, but looking back, the Mongolian countryside was a unique experience that we enjoyed. Now, as we ride the Trans-Mongolian railway almost 6,000 kilometers over five days, we’ll recap our last country fully in Asia.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Climbing the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert.
  2. Seeing the Badlands-type landscape at Tsagaan Suvarga.
  3. Watching the Naadam in the small town.

Brad:

  1. Climbing the sand dunes in the Gobi. It was hard work getting to the top, but the view was great. Barrelling down it was also fun.
  2. The Orkhom Waterfall area. The scenery was stunning, and I really enjoyed the horseback riding.
  3. Seeing a small town’s Naadam festival.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. The city of Ulaanbaatar.
  2. Sitting in the van for eight hours a day.
  3. Biting flies and insects out in the country.

Brad:

  1. Driving times. Getting around in the countryside is slow and bumpy.
  2. Ulaanbaatar. There isn’t much to do there, and it has a run-down feel. The traffic was terrible as well.
  3. The milk, cheese, and yogurt were difficult to eat. They were really sour.

Best meal?

Nikki: Nobody comes to Mongolia for the food. My favorite meal was the cheeseburger and fries at the Granview Restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.

Brad: While we were leaving Mongolia, the customs agents wouldn’t let our cabinmates, a Mongolian grandma and her grandson, take their homemade food with them. They had a container of giant steaming dumplings filled with meatballs. The grandma kept ordering us to “Eat! Eat!” even when we started to get full, and I kept eating them because they were so delicious!

Worst meal?

Nikki: The coleslaw at the hot spring.

Brad: The milk-based products in the countryside. The “goatsicle,” bricks of hard yogurt, milk tea, and airag were very sour and a little gritty. I wasn’t a fan. The actual food in the Mongolian countryside wasn’t awful, though usually nothing to write home about.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Jeltse because she was so sweet and friendly. She would fit right in back in Wisconsin!

Brad: Johan and Jeltse were great company on the Gobi trip.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: It wasn’t really a disaster, but being stuck in Ulaanbaatar for six days sure was boring.

Brad: Amazingly, the trips to the countryside went smoothly! Nobody got sick and no vehicle breakdowns.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The ger with Bata’s family in the middle of nowhere.

Brad: At the ger camp near the waterfall on the Gobi trip. The beds were comfortable, we had a nice fire going, and the landscape around the camp was very nice.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: Dalanzadgad town on the Gobi trip. We got to take a shower, but besides that, there really wasn’t anything nice about it. The dogs in the town barked all night.

Brad: Ulaanbaatar. The guesthouse was small and crowded, and the city didn’t help either.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Climbing up the volcano at White Lake.

Brad: The day we left Mongolia was the beginning of Naadam in Ulaanbaatar. (People thought we were weird for leaving Mongolia when the biggest tourist attraction of the year was only beginning.) We went to the square and saw a big military parade the morning before our train left. It was the most interesting thing we saw in Ulaanbaatar.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: The other backpackers here. Mongolia seems to attract a very weird crowd. I’ve never seen such a collection of goony people all in one place–and I was a band nerd for eleven years!

Brad: Fellow travelers. Mongolia must attract weird people, or really bring out the Weird in them. There were so many weird or unreasonable requests and socially awkward people that sometimes we had to get out of the common area to save our sanity.

Statistics for Mongolia

  • Days in the country: 24
  • Places we stayed: 12, 11 gers
  • Rainy days: 5
  • Blog posts: 4
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
  • Photos taken: 566
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 212, 37% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 1
  • Hours traveling overland: 95
  • Hours on horse and camel: 4
  • Days without a shower: 9

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 14
  • Days on the road: 314
  • Places we stayed: 135
  • Rainy days: 56
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 29
  • Photos taken: 13,091
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,146, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 24
  • Hours traveling overland: 651