That Time In Russia When No One Scammed Me

“Twenty thousand togrogs.” the Mongolian cabbie said reaching his open palm back over his shoulder without as much as a glance in my direction.

I gaped forward in flabbergasted awe, knowing full well I heard him correctly. His price was comically inflated, almost 300% more than the normal price for the short taxi ride.

“Why so much?” I asked putting as much stern tone into my Mongolian as I could muster.

He finally looked back at me, sizing me up with a stony glare. “Because you’re a foreigner.” he scoffed shaking his empty hand in front of me. “You’re different.”

With one hand on the door handle I slapped down the bill closest to what I thought was a fair price, staring down my dishonest cabbie as I did so, swinging open the door and slamming it behind me, moving quickly away from the car into the Ulaanbaatar night.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Two years of living and moving abroad will teach you that not every national is welcome and open to you exploring their country. Some seek out your bright eyed optimism for a new place and a new culture, they take advantage of your open mind and unfamiliarity with the host country to get into your head and ultimately your wallet.

Hundreds of miles and a summer later, me and a travel companion, Jessica stood staring at a poster in a Beijing hostel. “Watch Out For These Scams” the poster toted. Everything from brazen pickpocketing to elaborate schemes were highlighted. One of the more convoluted being where mock college students approach you inviting you to practice English with them. They take you to a local tea house, rack up an enormous tab, you’re forced to pay the bill, leaving you broke and confused while the would be students and tea house owner cackle in the back room, divvying up your cash.

Later, not five blocks from our hostel we stood alone at a street corner waiting for the crosswalk to blink green.

“Hey there!”

We spun around to meet our greeters. A young Chinese couple had materialized right behind us.

“Where are you guys from?” the hip girl, in her denim skirt and slouched hat asked.

“America.” We both answered slowly.

“That’s cool.” The boy said with a smirk, his tone precise and practiced. He covered this up by burying his hands deep into his cargo short pockets and relaxing his posture. His laid back attitude suggesting he used the slang “cool” all the time.

“We study at university.” the girl chimed in, hoisting her purse up on her shoulder. “We would really like to improve our English.”

The boy nodded in agreement. “If you’re not busy would you come have a conversation with us?” He took his hands from his pockets and pointed across the street. “We could go have a cup of tea and just chat.”

Now it was mine and Jessica’s turn to smirk. AH HA! I wanted to scream, we’re on to you sneaky kids! Instead we politely declined and thankfully removed ourselves from the conversation as the light finally changed. Still, I felt as though I had just thwarted a world class high stakes heist.

Hours later, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street side restaurant. As we dug into our meat and rice Jessica let out a laugh and pointed out the window with a chopstick. “Look!” she said with a chuckle. Sure enough, there was our hip college couple, working a corner, hurriedly following every non-ethnic Chinese person down the sidewalk in hopes of “practicing” their English.

The streets of Beijing, China.
The streets of Beijing, China.

Hundreds of more miles and that same summer me and Jessica stood on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal in the far east of Russia. As we exited the mess hall after a dinner of fish and borsht we were cut off by two youths.

“Excuse me.” A tall dark haired boy said. “My name’s Peter, do you two speak English?”

We both admitted that we did.

“I help at a summer camp on the island. Students come to learn foreign languages.” His smaller brown haired and blue eyed companion just nodded, letting his older friend do the talking.

“Our assignment is to find foreigners to come and speak with us.”

Me and Jessica exchanged skeptical glances.

“If you aren’t busy could you meet with us later and help us practice our English?” He looked at us expectantly, his shorter friend just smiling up and listening.

Put on the spot I stumbled around in my head trying to think of an excuse why we couldn’t comply with the seemingly innocent request. As I struggled to think of a way out I eyed up Peter and his side kick. He brushed his black hair back with his hand, nervously waiting for us to answer. They seemed different. Innocent. Genuine. I glanced sidelong at my companion, pleading with my eyes for a valid excuse. She just shrugged at me.

“I guess we could go to your class.” I answered, defeated.

Peter’s face lit up and his short companion finally broke his silence with a smile, “Thank you very much!”

“Please meet us here at 8 o’clock.” Peter added, then with a wave they both trudged off down the path.

 

Guest House on Olkhon Island
Guest House on Olkhon Island

Between dinner and our 8 o’clock appointment me and Jessica wrestled with actually showing up. Was it all an elaborate ruse? We’d seen and heard of a lot of travel scams, were we about to fall prey to one? It all smelled too familiar, could it be a twist on the trick we averted in China? In the end we remained true to our word and showed up at 8 o’clock in front of the mess hall. Peter was there, nervously combing back his hair with his hand. When he saw us a smile cracked across his lips.

“Thank you for coming.” he said, relaxing his hand from his jet black hair. “Please follow me.”

I looked around. “Where are your students?” I asked warily.

“Hmmm” he put his finger to his lips, considering, choosing words. “We will go to them.” He nodded assuringly, “They are waiting.” He gestured forward with his hand, suggesting we begin walking.

Olkhon, Russia
Olkhon, Russia

Nervously I fell into step behind Peter, shooting Jessica a guarded look. We moved away from the guest house. Passed the outdoor gazebos and hangouts of the other visiting tourists. We weaved through the tiny wooden housed town of Olkhon. Finally, we funneled between derelict fences that separated the local people’s small yards. Onto a wooden foot path so narrow we were almost walking heel to toe. As Peter moved farther ahead I became more nervous. In the tight space between the fences I felt vulnerable. My imagination went wild, a trap door suddenly opening beneath us, swallowing us into the realm of “Two Missing American Tourists”. An enormous burly Russian man suddenly blocking my path, picking me up and shaking me by the ankles until all my Russian rubles, American check cards, and photo IDs came tumbling from my pockets.

Right when I was about to object to walking further we stepped out of the corridor into open ground. Along the cliff shores of Lake Baikal blankets were laid out upon the wild grass. Children of all ages crowded around the blue cloth, their eyes wide with curiosity as we approached.

The shore of Lake Baikal
The shore of Lake Baikal

As we knelt on the blankets the kids erupted with questions and chatter. “I’m Katya.” A little girl with long blond hair said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Justin.” I introduced myself.

“What’s your favorite animal?” she asked, ruffling her checkered dress with her hands as she spoke.

“Hmmm..” I tapped my lips pretending to consider. “I like penguins.” I answered.

“Penguins!?!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

“Do you like action movies?” A little boy asked. Sitting cross legged in black parachute pants, his clothing rustled as he shifted on the blanket.

Trying to think of a likely movie we’d both seen I nodded. “I like the Lord of the Rings movies.”

His face lit up and he sprang from his sitting position into a crouched squat, his swishing pants announcing the theatrics.

“Precious! My precious!” he growled, holding up an unseen treasure. His Golum impression was startlingly convincing.

As the sun set behind us over the glassy sheen of Lake Baikal and into the eastern mountains of Siberia we talked with the students. Laughing, sharing interests and disinterests, talking about life in America and life in Russia, where we’ve traveled and where we want to travel. As darkness threatened, the children reluctantly said goodbye and crowded around us for a photo. Peter crouched with the camera, lining up the shot and brushing back his hair before snapping the picture.

Sunset, Lake Baikal
Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lesson all this has taught me is to have some faith in people while traveling. Negative experiences with no-do-gooders can drive us into paranoid reclusion. We end up trusting no one and labeling some of the most spectacular corners of our planet unsafe and unwelcoming for the foreign traveler. By no means am I saying to meander about throwing caution to the wind and jaunting across countries care free. Absolutely stay vigilant and be aware of what to look out for.

Traveling is inherently risky, it’s part of what makes it so liberating and fulfilling. Trusting only in yourself or your TripAdvisor approved tour guide could lead you to miss out on some of the most precious and rewarding experiences of exploring the world. Give people a chance to prove that they can be as genuine and hospitable as you want them to be. The small connections you make in this way could end up being the most memorable moments of your whole trip.

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Categories: Russia, Travel Insight, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

How Skype Keeps Travel Alive

 

They were all there. Crowded around the laptop like kids around a campfire. Smiling faces, jostling left and right, trying to be the main focal point of the laptop’s limited camera. Munkhkherlen’s face, then Enkhtor’s, then Chimgee, the librarian’s. The camera spun. Saruul came into view. Smiling she made a clucking sound with her tongue shaking her head. “Oui! You look the same! Your hair is long! Shave your beard!” Whirling color. The camera shifted again. Munkhkherlen leaning in closer than necessary, speaking into the lens. “Justin aa! I had a dream about you. I dreamed you came into the teacher’s room. You were wearing your deel. You surprised us!”

I had been home from Mongolia for over five months but through the miracle of modern technology all those almost forgotten familiar things were back with stunning clarity. The white washed paint chipped walls of the school’s teacher’s room. The cracked window and thin curtains. The very benches I used to sit on everyday. Miss matched patterns and torn upholstery. Through Skype, the online video calling platform I was instantly transported from my New Jersey bedroom back into my former rural village in Mongolia. Ten years ago this would have been impossible.

More often than not the would be traveler uses this technological marvel to bridge the gap between where they are and where they call home. The study abroad student Skype’s home from Europe. The solo trekking backpacker video chats his girlfriend from East Asia. A volunteer in Central Africa laughs with her mom and dog thousands of miles away. We go to Skype to assure those we left behind we’re alive and well. We also us it to remedy homesickness, that inevitable symptom of long term travel.

The advances in modern communication are mind blowing. My small rural village in Mongolia, disconnected from running water or central heating was still able to connect with me instantly through the web. As the internet continues to cast its digital net further and further into the most remote places on Earth why not take advantage? Just like we use Skype to cure homesickness why not use it for the opposite, to cure those pangs of travel nostalgia?

We return back home and get back into our daily lives and old routines. We hark back to those days abroad, dwelling on where we’ve been, who we met and what we’d seen. With the marvel of Skype those places can be as unforgotten and tangible as they were when you left. Miss that home-stay family in South Africa? That flatmate in central London? Those locals that hosted you in Argentina? With programs like Skype, they’re all one click away.

As I stared passed the smiling faces of my former Mongolian coworkers I looked out the window in the small teacher’s room. Outside, the small village of Omnodelger was the same as when I left it. A horse was tethered outside the local market, birds dipped and fluttered through the blue Mongolian sky, the dirt road looked gritty, dusty and brown, the way it did every spring. It curved out of view, leading off to my former yard where my former ger used to rest.

Like most, I’m a sucker for old travel photos and journal scribblings. Taking them out and gazing in fondness at the memories they invoke. With Skype it brings on elements that photos and journals can’t provide. Here through my computer screen Omnodelger was a living breathing place. With all my happy chatting coworkers, the hustle and bustle of the town outside and the familiar aura of the teacher’s room, where I had traveled was right here alive in front of me.

Never had hanging up on a call been more difficult.

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A Nomad’s Paradise: Ulaanbaatar

Imagine two worlds.

One of nomadic herdsmen, living in sheep felt gers (yurts), fetching water from wells, going from place to place via horseback.  Another of smartphones, slick cars, six inch high heels, and glass skyscrapers.  Smash these two places together and you get Mongolia’s eclectic capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square
The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square

With its delightfully Soviet translation “Red Hero” Ulaanbaatar has been experiencing a boom in recent years.  Mongolia’s natural resources and precious minerals have been targeted by the developing nations of the world propelling this small corner of central Asia into economic progression.

The city, which serves as the only nexus for getting around the rest of the country has been funneling this newfound cash flow into expansion.  Ulaanbaatar has exploded outwards and upwards.  Crystalline hotels dot the skyline, chic restaurants line the streets, and neon nightclubs illuminate sidewalks.

Ulaanbaatar’s recent prosperity coupled with economic hardship outside of the capital has sent the majority of the country’s populous migrating to the city.  Generations of nomadic herdsmen flock to the capital hoping to cash in on the city’s wealth.  The result is thousands of ger districts that ring the city’s center.  Families living off the grid of the city’s heating and plumbing live as they have for centuries.  Setting up their felt and wooden dwellings within a network of hodgepodge wood fencing they burn fires for warmth, wash clothes by hand, and tend livestock.

Do your lungs a favor and steer clear of Ulaanbaatar during the country’s bitterly cold winter months.  The burning of coal by these thousands of outlying gers for warmth envelopes the city in perpetual smog for over four months a year.  Be prepared to cough up black soot and bumble about through the haze searching for your hand in front of your face.

Sukhbaatar Square
Sukhbaatar Square

In Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s epicenter and government seat you can watch as suit wearing politicians meander about with briefcases in hand and smartphones to their ears.  Watch as they skirt past men sitting by the sidewalk dressed in deels, the Mongolian traditional robed garb, sipping milk tea from bowls and polishing their riding boots.  Just across the street you can see women in skirts and heels, lining up to get into a nightclub, gradually queuing around a women selling meat from the back of her car.

To the western traveler it can be totally justified standing in the middle of this hustle and bustle, scratching your head in wonder of a city that seems unsure of exactly what it wants to be.  For all its grit and glamour Ulaanbaatar continues to define itself as a modern capital, blending the old and the new into a cultural mish-mash worthy of any travelers eye for a far flung destination.

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Ulaanbaatar

 

Categories: Mongolia, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Travel Guide to Inside Your Beer Glass

Crack open a can, break off that bottle cap, and pour a pint of your favorite beer. Before you put it back and down the hatch take a gander at the label. Where is it from?

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On the outskirts of Burlington, Vermont rests the Magic Hat Brewery. From the outside it looks like a mishmash of Steampunk creations. All conical towers, rusty weathervanes, and spindly windmills.

Entering the self proclaimed “Artifactory” the interior of the brewery is awash with bursting colors and zany decorations. Going on the free walking tour you’ll encounter Magic Hat’s unorthodox take on beer brewing. Whimsical signs point your way through the factory as you encounter labeled containers, belts, and machinery. With equipment colorfully labeled, names like “The Uncanny and Monumental Bottlemabob” and “The Stupendous Sticker Licker” gives one the impression that they are touring a business run by Dr. Seuss rather than one of the state’s largest beer distributers. At any turn I expected to encounter an inebriated Willy Wonka-esque character that would guide me the rest of the way.

Filtering out into the brewery’s tasting room you are invited to sample the signature and seasonal brews on tap. With interesting names like “Circus Boy” “Hocus Pocus” and “Wacko” you’re more driven to try the beer out of pure curiosity rather than learning what is actually in the bottle first. Experimenting with ingredients like beets, dandelions, and honey you never know what you’ll get in each glass.

Like the quintessential Vermonter, Magic Hat drives home the clear message that brewing beer is fun and never dull. That laid back, its all good, life’s a garden Vermonter attitude shouts out from every bottle. Whether the latest flavor craze works for you or it doesn’t there is no denying that everyone had a hell of a good time creating it.

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In the heart of Bavaria in downtown Munich, Germany I sat on a bench across from my uncle in the world famous Hofbräuhaus. The long benches and tables filled the hall giving the brew house a sense of communal camaraderie rather than individual private socialization.

The waitress lifted and placed our beers in front of us with a thud. The mugs were massive. Half liter monstrosities of tried and true Bavarian recipes. Robust lagers and refreshing pilsners graced the menu. Each massive glass screaming with that world renown German flavor. I flexed my arm to lift the giant mug and brought the brew to my lips as I observed my surroundings.

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The brewhouse seemed alive with all the boisterous jovial appeal of what one would expect from a south German pub. Coworkers, friends, and families laughing, shouting and raising their glasses, clanking them together in celebration of whatever struck their fancy on that particular day. Behind us a band blasted away on a small stage. The lederhosen clad quintet maintaining a romping tempo with brass instruments and percussion. The red faced tuba player bellowing with laughter between horn blasts as he reached for his own beer, sloshing on a small wooden stool next to him.

The noise was deafening, but it was the best kind of noise. The noise of people enjoying life. To me those big gulps of Hofbräuhaus pilsner were just like the German people that surrounded me. Loud, proud, and sure to put a smile on your face.

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Munich, Germany

If you travel out into the Asian Far East to the Pacific coast of China you may happen upon the old colonial city of Qingdao. The colonial influences of Qingdao are present in European architecture and cobblestoned streets. One of the city’s biggest claims to fame is the Tsingtao Brewery which churns out its one and only signature beer: Tsingtao.

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Walking into the halls of the massive brewery I prepared myself for China’s take on the ancient art of beer brewing. Huge chrome vats, shiny cylindrical holding tanks, snaking pipes and polished tubes lined the walls. I quick back stepped out of the way to make room for an employee pushing a squeegee in crisp white overalls. His footsteps echoed through the huge chamber of bare concrete walls and smooth tile.

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From the factory I was led into a rectangle hall. The walls were suddenly lined with framed pictures. Executives and CEO’s shaking hands and accepting rewards. I stood in front of a picture portraying a clean suited Chinese businessman, he cradled a golden star trophy in the crook of one arm while firmly shaking the hand of his counterpart. Both men smiling at the camera mid-shake. The translated plaque read, “Tsingtao brews beer for the glory of the People’s Republic of China.” The entire hall was dedicated to honors such as this. Framed ceremonies and glass cases of plaques, trophies and awards.

Exiting the big hall of credentials I took a seat at the tasting bar. I redeemed my ticket for one free glass of Tsingtao beer and in one fluid motion the bartender snatched up my ticket, poured a beer from the tap, and had it placed down in front of me before I could blink. In stark contrast of the fun tomfoolery of Magic Hat, brewing beer in Tsingtao was a very serious business. As I sipped the accredited brew I thought how like China, Tsingtao was no-nonsense, efficient, and a little bit intimidating. I shot glances around at the hundreds of Chinese redeeming their tickets and scooping up a glass of their national beer. If I didn’t like the taste, I sure wasn’t going to say so.

So I say to you beer enthusiast. You don’t have to be a world traveler to get yourself culture. Right there infused with all those hops, barley, and tasty goodness you’ve got a big ole’ helping of global insight. Every beer comes from somewhere and that somewhere speaks to you directly from your heady glass. So sit right down and pour yourself a pint.

Go ahead, drink up.

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Cheers!
Categories: China, Germany, Travel Insight, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Detained: Travel Misfortunes Make the Best Stories

Zabaykalsk, Russia
Chinese-Russian Border

“We’re going to need you to gather your things and step off the train.”

It was the last thing we wanted to hear.

“You’ll have to come with us.” the Russian border guard added as I hastily began stuffing belongings into my backpack.

Three of them stood at the entrance to our berth. Arms crossed, glaring down the brims of their oversized hats. One officer clutched our passports to his chest. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the little booklet as I slung my pack onto my shoulders. I wondered what it would take for it to be handed back over into my possession.

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As we stepped into the hall one of the guards pushed passed us. Overturning mattresses, flipping open cabinet doors, scanning under the table. Looking for contraband that wasn’t there.

Our translating border guard led us down the hall. As we stepped off the train and onto the platform our carriage’s provinista, no nonsense car manager gave us a shaming look. She whispered something to the border guard as we passed.

“She says you must come retrieve your tickets from her if you aren’t getting back on the train.” I didn’t have time to contemplate this being a good or bad sign. We were ushered forward across the platform. Guards patrolled the border perimeter. Army fatigues, slung rifles, leashed dogs. Me and Jessica exchanged worried glances. They brought us into the border office. A concrete giant of Russian bureaucracy. We moved through metal detectors into a large holding room. “Sit” our translating guard said, with a wave of her arm at a row of chairs. “You will stay here until a decision is made.”

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“Are we really being detained?” Jessica whispered as we slumped into our seats.

“Looks like it.” I answered, I felt helpless.

“We’re so stupid.” said Jessica, voicing what I was thinking. “So damn stupid.”

“There can’t be a worse country to have this happen in.” I added.

In the corner of the room a little brown cocker spaniel whimpered as it pulled on the chain that tethered it to a far chair. We both stared at it and Jessica let out a defeated laugh “Oh God, this is too much.”

It was almost comical. Two Americans and a sad cocker spaniel bound by the same predicament. I turned and sat on the hard plastic chair and put my face in my hands, trying to run through the series of events that had culminated just right to land us in this situation.

It was entirely our fault. Having booked our tickets in advance while living in developing Mongolia we had only one option; to pick them up in Beijing months later. We didn’t discover until then that we were taking the longer Trans Manchurian route up into Russia instead of back through Mongolia as we had anticipated. This was a giant red flag that we failed to notice until it was too late.

About an hour before we were escorted off the train, we had arrived at the Russian-Chinese border. Before exiting China border guards assessed each passenger’s passport and cleared them to leave the country. In the early morning a banging on our compartment’s door startled me awake and sent me jumping down from my top bunk. A Chinese guard took our passports and eyed each page over carefully.

“Do you know your Russian visas are not good until tomorrow?” Jessica and I looked at each other, wide eyed. “Your Chinese visas are also expired.” she shut both of the passports. “You cannot stay in China.” With that she handed them back to us and shut the door moving on swiftly to the next compartment.

The red flags were waving clear in front of our faces now. Our misjudgment of which train route we would ultimately be on had screwed up the whole timetable of our visas. Instead of the day spent traveling through Mongolia we were now arriving early in Russia and leaving China too late. Our blunder was beyond fixing. As the train crawled across the border our fate would soon be left to be decided by the Russians.

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“Come with me please.” I was stirred from my thoughts by the guard standing over me.

I stood up and followed her into a small office. An officer sat at a cluttered desk looking down, not gazing up from his task as I entered. I took the seat across from him and soon noticed he was thumbing furiously through my passport. Finally he looked up and eyed me sternly. He began firing off questions in Russian. The translating guard positioned herself at a post next to his desk listening intently. Why were you in China? Why are you coming to Russia? What do your parents do for a living? What is this organization? He stabbed a finger down onto the cover of my passport which displayed a United States Peace Corps sticker. I answered all the questions as confidently as I could under his scrutiny. Have you ever been in the military? Why not? He scoffed at my answer. How do you feel about the United States foreign policy? What don’t you like about it?

I was becoming more and more uncomfortable by his prying questioning. I answered as simply and cleanly as I could, careful not to take an aggressive stance. Finally he either became satisfied or bored with my answers and waved his hand towards the door, signaling me to leave.

I was escorted back out into the holding room and made to sit back down. Before I could say a word to Jessica she was told to follow the guard into the same interrogation room. She shot me a nervous look as she passed. It’s fine I told myself, we have nothing to hide. The worst they could do is hold us here until our visas are good or deport us and make us go home.

Finally after what seemed an eternity Jessica came out. She was followed shortly after by a tall woman in a smart uniform. She whispered to our translator and began rustling through a stack of papers before producing our passports. She smiled down at us.

“You have been given permission to enter the Russian Federation.”

Our nervous laughter and joyous relief must have been infectious. Our translator smiled and let out a small laugh when she saw our swift change in mood. The tall uniformed woman smiled and handed us our passports with an approving nod. I could of hugged all of them, even the surly interrogator. Our misfortune and mistakes had left us with nothing but an excellent story to tell.

If only we could have taken the cocker spaniel.

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Zabaykalsk station. We were held in the middle building with the pink roof. In the far left background the tall gate monument marks the border between Russia and China.

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How Couchsurfing Restored My Faith In Humanity

Warsaw, Poland

Somewhere between the bus station and nine blocks past the highway overpass we realized we were completely and utterly lost. Stopping at a street corner we squinted sidelong down the road. A church bell tolled in the distance. Above our heads the brush stroke clouds slid across the sky. A women walking her pug skirted around us to move across the street. She shot us an irritated glance as she went. The pug staring at us over its shoulder. Its little feet pitter pattering on the pavement as it waddled next to her.

“Well now what?” Jessica asked with mild exasperation.

“Well this way can’t be right.” I answered, looking straight ahead then craning my neck back the way we came.

“I say we head back to the bus stop and try again.”

Jessica followed my gaze backwards before nodding in agreement.

We trudged back the way we had come. Bumbling about through Poland’s capital in an attempt to find the apartment of our one night host. We had just shy of twenty four hours in Poland and it was our first stint with Couchsurfing, the online meet and greet site for world tripping backpackers. Marta, our Polish host opened her apartment to us, leaving us with her address and enthusiastic greetings telling us to come over as soon as we arrived. Now we trudged about looking for the familiar landmarks and street names Marta described.

“I can’t believe you’re eating that.” Jessica said in disgust as I unwrapped a tuna sandwich leftover from the flight.

“Want some?” I laughed, lifting the sandwich and offering her a bite. Sesame seeds tumbled, Jessica recoiled.

“Just keep walking.” she said, “I think we’re close now.”

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We stopped and took in the surroundings. Pinpointing streets and buildings.   As I looked around, I gazed down at the sidewalk. My feet stood upon a blue arrow, sketched into the cement in chalk. That’s weird I thought, scuffing the arrow with the sole of my shoe, smearing blue against the gray cement.

“Its this way, I think.” Jessica said, turning off the sidewalk and into an apartment complex.

As we walked along I notice we passed over another blue arrow, and then another. They seemed to be pointing in the exact direction we were moving. Eventually we were brought to the front door of a ground level apartment building.

When the door swung open we were met with an exceptionally cheery Marta.

“Come in, come in!” she exclaimed, “Don’t worry about your shoes.”

She ushered us upstairs and unveiled a tray of cookies.

“I made you guys some cookies!” she explained offering us plates. “They’re no-bake!”

Her smile was infectious. I liked her almost instantly.

“Did you see my map?” she asked, looking at us expectantly.

Me and Jessica exchanged puzzled glances. Marta, sensing our confusion added, “I drew directions on the sidewalk from the bus stop for you guys.” her eyes darted back and forth between us looking for a reaction. “I used blue chalk.”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, the blue arrows immediately coming to mind.

Over the next several hours Marta took us on a jam packed walking tour of Warsaw. Explaining she had work early the next morning she wanted us to get in as much as we could with the limited time we were there. We strolled through the streets as the sun set. Skirting through the cobblestones of Castle Square in the Old Town and peering out over the Vistula River. She brought us to her favorite hot spots and local bars.

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“I love this pub!” she exclaimed with a smile as we sat down at a table.

“It’s so hip.” she added with a smooth bobbing of her head. “They have lots of games you can play with your friends.” she reached for the shelf behind her pulling a board game from the stack. “This one’s my favorite.” she added pulling off the lid.

As she cheerfully explained the rules, a band struck up a very Polish rendition of “Superstitious”. Sitting in a bar I’d never been to, in a city I’d never visited, drinking a beer I’d never tasted, playing a game I’d never heard of with a person I just met I knew that out of the entire cross continental journey me and Jessica had just taken this night and these last twenty four hours would be the most memorable.

As we got back to Marta’s apartment late that night she made us sandwiches and sent us to bed. Explaining she would be leaving early for work and that a friend would be by to see us off. Drifting off to sleep I thought that there was nothing more heartwarming than witnessing the kindness of a complete stranger. Couchsurfing for the first time was a big risk. Putting your faith and trust into someone you’ve never met. If we had opted to stay in a hostel or hotel we may have never met Marta, the connections we made and the short experience we shared may have never happened. Marta made the risk worth taking again and again.  There was solace in considering that the world was full of people like Marta, kind, friendly, and eager to help in exchange for nothing but a human connection.

As we packed and had our coffee the next morning we said goodbye to Marta’s friend and left her a thank you note. Exiting her apartment we both stopped in our tracks as we both noticed the chalk writing in the pavement.

There is nothing more heartwarming than witnessing the kindness of a complete stranger.

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Why My Passport Never Leaves My Table

My nightstand is a lonely place. There isn’t much there. A simple alarm clock that blinks by miscalculated minutes. A small box to hold my watch and wallet at the end of the day. Atop the tiny box, out in the open, rests my passport. To lift the box lid, I must pick up my passport, withdraw or deposit contents into the box, shut the lid, and then place the passport back where it was. It has been this way for months.

Not long ago, as I was finishing a conversation with my mother, she turned to leave my room. As she walked out she spied my nightstand.

“Why don’t you put your passport away?”

The comment was meant to be harmless, but as her footsteps echoed down the steps I found myself sitting and staring at the little blue book. Why hadn’t I put the passport away? My room was not at want for drawers or shelves. Why did it sit out next to my bed as if on deck to be swept up at any second to catch some trans-hemisphere flight? Why burden myself with the tedious motions of repositioning the little book every time I used the small bedside box?

The answer was obvious.

To put my passport away. To stash it away in some drawer for safe keeping would mean the journey was over. The adventure at an end. Exploration and discovery had reached a finite conclusion.

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“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.” -Paul Theroux

There are a thousand and one cliches that describe wanderlust and its incurable symptoms, but instead of striving to understand it I take solace in knowing I’m not the only one. There is a world full of wanderlusters just like me.

We’re a different breed. We aren’t tourists. We don’t go just for the exotic notch on our belts. We travel for the journey that gets us there, even though we never actually arrive. We tramp about every damn town, city, mountain and desert on this planet for the precious ounce of personal growth they deliver. We discover more about the world, about humanity and about ourselves in those fleeting moments. Tangible times when we gaze out at panoramas that catch our breathes and interactions with the people we pass that steal our humility and make us smile at the beauty of the human race. We do what it takes to grab these moments. We’ll do anything. We sleep in crowded rooms. We sleep on floors if we have to. We hitchhike. We get lost. We’ve been beaten up and stolen from. We get lonely. We get frustrated. It’s not a vacation. It’s our way of life.

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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

Nothing scares me more than the monotony. The thought that I’ll surrender to the expectations of my own culture.

I’m at a time in my life where I’m suffocated on all sides by new marriages, planned pregnancies, and new home ownership. I have to catch myself when the thoughts inevitably creep into my head. Is there something wrong with me? Am I immature? Maybe I should be doing all this, too?

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“Every man can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure.” – Irving Wallace

I think about falling into step. Swimming in bills, drowning in debt, turning off that simple alarm clock every morning to drag myself to my secure nine to five job. I’d do this day in and day out, crashing into that tired bed every night to watch those miscalculated minutes keep ticking away. Then expect my future wife and children to do the same? Is that the American dream? It isn’t mine.

That life. Those problems, aren’t for me. My mind is glued to problems that are beautifully simplistic. Will my backpack hold up? Are my boots worn out? Which direction should I go next? I never want to stop exploring. I never want to stop learning and growing, discovering new things in new places about new people. New experiences that make me proud to be me and be a part of all the things I’m lucky enough to see and do.

This is what I want to live for.

I want to be ready to go at a moments notice.

So until that unavoidable move into my pocket, it will stay on my nightstand.

Yes, my passport will stay right where it is.

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“You go away for a long time and return a different person–you never come all the way back.” Paul Theroux
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Ode to the Train: Why You Should Travel By Rail

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Out the window lightening sizzled across the Asian sky. Lamps along the tracks sent long shadows dancing against the railcar as we accelerated away from Beijing. The clacking of the wheels sang verses with the thunder, the mid summer storm seemingly matching the rhythm of the train’s engine.

It was exhilarating and elating. As we chugged through the urban sprawl and out towards the mountainous region north of Beijing the anticipation of the journey ahead was reaching a crescendo. I was embarking on a journey over 6,000 miles in length. The three week trip in its entirety would take me from Beijing, China and up through the reaches of Manchuria. From there I would pass through the steppe of Inner Mongolia into the taiga of Siberia, all the way to the western Russian capital, Moscow. All of it overland, by rail.

I sat with my head pressed against the glass, rainy streaks scooting down the window in crystal trails. I was already falling under the spell of the ebb and flow of the railway car. That gentle rock and sway of inertia and momentum lulled me into taking in the outside panorama. Over the weeks that followed, railway travel would climb to my most preferred mode of transport.

Irkutsk Railway Station
Irkutsk Railway Station

Somewhere between Chita and Ulan Ude in far eastern Russia a young man with long black hair and hazel complexion poked his head into my open compartment. Spying my guitar case on the berth over my head he smirked, “Do you play?”

“Of course.” I answered, following his gaze to my small travel guitar.

“Come on over.” he gestured towards the hall with a wave of his hand.

“We’re one door away.”

Ducking into the compartment next to mine, with guitar in tow I was met by the sight of five young men crowded around a slew of instrument cases, taking up much of their berth’s little space.

“We’re in a band.” Sergei, the man with the long black hair explained.

“Play us something.” he added, clearing off space for me to sit down.

As I noodled away on the neck of my little guitar, Sergei and his bandmates began producing instruments and playing along with me. The man across from me passed up a guitar to the man on the bunk over him who immediately began strumming away rhythm. The man on the bottom bunk pulled two drum sticks from his bag and began thumping a beat into the corner of the mattress he was sitting on. Meanwhile Sergei, began singing along to our improvised tune. Producing sound from deep within his throat he sang in the traditional style of the people of Buryatia, the region we were currently chugging through. The resulting sound was hypnotic. Low guttural words mixed with interchanging whistles and shrills. They nodded and laughed as each of us added our own personal flare to the growing song. Slowly the train came to a rocking halt.

“Thats our stop.” Sergei said, as the band quickly gathered up their instruments.

“We have a concert tonight in Ulan Ude!” he said with excitement.

They shook my hand as they each passed out the door.

Four person berth
Four person berth

Encounters like this are only possible when traveling by train, far from the anxiety inducing time warp of air travel. Travel by plane is a nauseating bore. All of us disinterested with our fellow passengers. Diddling away on inflight touch screen pads or near comatose from dramamine and noise canceling headphones, we keep to ourselves whilst defying space and time. Travel by air is borderline teleportation. Departing and arriving without witnessing anything in between. High in the plane’s ascent looking out the window is usually only met with the same unchanging view of white fluff. Not so while traveling in the comfort of a train car. You traverse biomes; scaling mountains, charging over steppe, snaking through cities, and plunging through forests.

Manchuria
Manchuria

Late in the evening, halfway to Irkutsk I was delving into a paperback I had picked up in Beijing. On the benches sat a Russian family. A mother and her two daughters were working to prepare a small dinner. The mother gingerly laid down a white and red checkered handkerchief over the small table. She laid out slices of bread then proceeded to cut up a cucumber. The daughters pulled from a shopping bag little baggies of candy and jerky. Arranging the cucumber slices on a small dish the mother beckoned her daughters to eat.

Suddenly both girls were pressed against the glass window pointing out excitedly towards the setting sun. As our train burst out of the thick Siberian forest an expansive view opened up. The blue waters of Lake Baikal shimmered in the late evening sun as far as my eyes could decipher. The crystal shores expanded out and beyond to beaches rimmed with the untouched wilderness of the Siberian wild. I put my book down and joined them in gaping in awe. The train skirted the side of lake, the calm water so enticingly close I felt as I could leap from the train right into its chilly embrace.

The mother, too now had stopped and was taking in the view. She held out a bag of candy, offering I take one. I picked out a candy, thanking her. Smiling, she turned back to the window.

“Baikal.” she explained pointing out at the endless lake.

While every plane ride is identical, each traveler by train has a unique experience. One with the potential to enrich their travel with meaningful interaction and humbling scenery. Trains are not just a means of transportation. A vehicle for travel. They are part of the places they run through. They’re extensions of the country and its landscape. Moving by rail gives a person the most to gain with the smallest amount of anxiety and risk.

We should cease traveling by trains, and start traveling for trains.

Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal
Categories: Travel Insight | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Goodbye Mongolia, Goodbye Peace Corps

Khentii, Mongolia
Khentii, Mongolia

“Justin We, love you.”

I read the engraving through teary eyes. The words, misplaced comma and all was too much to handle. Lowering the silver bowl from my face I looked around me. A gigantic carpet spread out on the green grass. The sun beat down over the steppe. The peaks of the Khentii mountains on the horizon at all sides of me. Crowded around the blanket adorned with a vat of meat, bowls of candy, and arranged bottles of vodka sat Omnodelger. My co-workers, my friends, my neighbors.
They were all there.
For me.

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As my goodbye present, my last hurrah and final send off my school had put together a special countryside barbeque just for me. Complete with all the games, gusto and cooked goat that can be expected from any Mongolian occasion. I stood at the front of the blanket with my school’s director as I was presented with my gifts. One by one people took turns at the microphone thanking me and recounting specific memories we shared together. Finally when it was my turn to speak I was so overcome with gratitude and emotion I found myself at a loss for words, much less Mongolian ones. I beckoned to Saruul, standing by my side gently rocking her newborn baby in her arms. She translated as best she could. I blubbered and thanked them from the bottom of my heart. For opening up their homes, their school and their whole town to me. For teaching me more about myself and the world than they realized. For giving me the opportunity to share my story, my knowledge, myself with them. The day ended in revelry. The goat consumed. The vodka flowed. The people I’ve come to know and love for two years gathered around me. I’ve never felt so special.

Two days later

I sat in my ger. Gutted, for all but the bed and table. The same solitary pieces that had existed in it when I first entered it two years ago. Unable to transport every aspect of my Mongolian life with me back home I had donated much of my things to my Mongolian friends and neighbors. They eagerly took everything offered. Even the lightbulb was stripped from its socket. As the sun set, shadows danced across the lattice of my home. My backpack and guitar at my feet, any minute my ride would arrive and whisk me away from Omnodelger. It was hard imagining that I wouldn’t be coming back, that there was the possibility it would only remain in memory. As insurance to myself that I”d return I buried a time capsule. Secretly digging a hole in the corner of Dawkraa and Tuya’s hashaa and burying away a tiny container full of small keepsakes of my time here.

Northwest corner.
Four paces from post.
I won’t forget.

Headlights danced on the street. Tires skidding on dirt. Two quick horn blasts. I picked up my bag and guitar with a sigh. The moment I never really prepared myself for had finally arrived. No words can describe the mix of emotion that stirred in me. Looking past the reality and sadness of goodbye I focused on the excitement ahead. I was leaving Mongolia, a place that had become familiar, a place I had grown to love. But I was embarking on a new adventure, a new chapter of excitement, experience and growth. My journey back to the States would be no easy hop, skip, and jump across the globe. No time warped plane ride.  It would be the trip of a lifetime. To get back west I opted to travel overland from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia, a journey of over 6,000 miles. I would board and ride one of the longest railways in the world, from end to end.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad awaited.

My ger
Баяртай гэр.  Goodbye home.  
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5 Tips to Visiting Dead Communists

The notorious communist leaders, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin have been famously put on display to the public since their deaths in 1976 and 1924 respectively.  You may think you can wander into these memorials all willy-nilly but here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Go early.

All told the actual viewing of both Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin takes less than five minutes. Guards keep the lines moving at a steady pace and the volume of visitors means that pace is quick. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your whole day in the massive lines that inevitably form. I’m sure both communist leaders would be flattered by your dedication, but just don’t.

Mao’s Mausoleum is open from 8:00am to 12:00pm from Tuesday to Sunday. Its closed on “special occasions” so try to do a walk by of the mausoleum prior to your initial visit to see when those occasions actually are.  Tiananmen Square can only be accessed via underground tunnels to the north, south, east, and west.  Each of these also contains a security checkpoint.

Lenin’s Mausoleum is open from 10:00am to 1:00pm. It is closed on Mondays and Fridays. The line forms a short distance away on the western side of the State Historical Museum.

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Tiananmen Square from the north tunnel entrance. Mao’s Mausoleum is in the far background.

2. Dress appropriately

You don’t need to be done up in funeral digs, but leave your Chaco sandals and cut off jean shorts in your suitcase. Generally speaking you could get by with any pants/shirt combo. At Mao’s Mausoleum there is a dress code of no open toed shoes or the seemingly Asian fashion of wearing only a vest as a top. At both locations it is expected that you remove your hat upon entering the memorials.

Lenin's Mausoleum

Lenin’s Mausoleum

3. Pack light….or not at all.

As no bags are allowed in either memorial I found it best to make my visits between going to and from the hostel I stayed at. At both mausoleums you can stow your bag in onsite lockers, but that’s an extra line to stand in and extra money to spend. Items prohibited in the memorials include: handbags, backpack, any form of recording or picture taking device, food and drink.

Mao’s Mausoleum has onsite lockers located in a room just to left of the metal detectors. A guard will help you deposit belongings there.

Lenin’s Mausoleum has locker space on the western side of the State Historical Museum. Employees there will take your luggage and present you with a numbered card for pickup after viewing the memorial. Lines for pickup form to the left, lines for drop off to the right. Don’t get confused like I did.

State Historical Museum.  The line for Lenin's Mausoleum is to the far left.

State Historical Museum. The line for Lenin’s Mausoleum is to the far left.

4. Be respectful

This one kind of goes without saying but I can see how people’s political leanings or historical knowledge can make someone come out with their opinions of the two controversial leaders. Leave all that stuff at the door. Watching the reaction of locals is a great way to get cultural insight on where you are. Take this opportunity to take it all in and save those thoughts for the communal hostel kitchen.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

5. Get there while you can!

While Mao’s interment seems to be permanent for the time being the fate of Lenin’s remains seems more turbulent. There has been talk within the Russian government of finally burying Lenin’s body in St. Petersburg as he had requested. Recent polls taken have revealed that the majority of Russians favor the mausoleum being dismantled and Lenin being buried. Having the opportunity to see the world famous Bolshevik may soon become a thing of the past.

 

Check out my detailed experiences at both Lenin’s Mausoleum here, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong here.

 

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