Two Weeks in Bangkok

Our flight into Bangkok was entertaining, for a lack of better words. Scott had arranged for him to have an isle seat, and of course I would be stuck in a middle seat for the duration of the five hour flight. As we neared our seats, hoping nobody would be in the window seat, there was girl in the window seat wearing a long sleeve, ankle length dress that was covered in the brightest floral pattern known to man. As we got situated in our seats, the girl introduced herself and then proceeded to wipe down our entire row's armrests, tray tables, and window with disinfectant wipes. Then the dreaded “airplane talk” commenced. She started out by telling us all about her vacation plans, everything she ever read out of a Thailand guidebook, all about her Russian heritage, and an explanation of her flowery dress and all the others just like it that she had in different colors. When she had finally stopped talking long enough for us to escape by putting our headphones in, she taps me on the shoulder and proceeds by asking if I ever had thoughts of our plane crashing and burning. She even included the sound effects, “mmmnnnnn, swoosh, kaboom”. Then she said she got nervous on flights and maybe she should have taken some mushrooms to calm down. I leaned over and whispered to Scott that we might not want her standing in line next to us as we went through immigration when we landed in Thailand.

Glad to be off the airplane and in Bangkok!

After the plane landed we started gathering our backpacks to get off the plane, when the girl taps me on the shoulder again and asked if she could follow us to the immigration line because she was nervous and wasn't used to traveling abroad. We couldn't be rude and say no, so we said that was fine and got off the plane. We tried to walk fast enough to keep a little distance and made sure we went in a separate line and lost her at the baggage claim.

Having fun t the airport

We spent a few days in Bangkok before we flew up to Chang Mai. We stayed at the Hilton Millennium Hotel using some of the hotel points I had accumulated. The hotel was beautiful, and in a good location for activities on the Chao Praya river.

Millennium Hilton Hotel

Waiting on the hotel dock to cross the river

Rooftop swimming pool at the Millennium

Getting in some pool time after battling the Bangkok heat!

Scott taking the dreaded antimalarial pill

We took the orange line water taxi down the river and got off at the stop nearest to the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho that houses the Relaxing Buddah. We had to walk through a small outdoor food market to get to the street that was bustling with sidewalk peddlers and beeping tuk-tuks. It was alive and very colorful.

Scott on the water taxi

Boats on the Chao Phraya

River taxi dock.

More boats

Food market

Tuk tuks galore

A monk talks on his cell phone while shopping at a street vendor

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

At the a grand Palace

Scott with a palace guard.

We spent almost an entire day at the huge weekend market where we did some souvenir shopping. We took the sky train to the MBK shopping center and the high end Siam Paragon mall. We also took a stroll down Khao San Road and thanked God we were staying in a nice hotel instead of a hostel.

Walking to the market

Walking to the weekend market

At the weekend market.

The mango man

A boy busking at the market

Khao San Road

One night we walked Soi Cowboy, a street infamous for its nightlife containing bars, lady boys and old perverted men. It was a sight to see. We didn't stay too long, but it's one of those things that everyone who goes to Bangkok must see at least once.

Entrance to Soi Cowboy

The Jim Thomson House was also a very cool thing to see. Although, the silk shop that it houses was very expensive.

Silk thread

After our trip to Chang Mai and the flight fiasco in Vietnam and Laos, we decided to return to Bangkok until we could come up with a new plan. This time we opted to stay in a different area of Bangkok to be able to explore more of the city. We checked in to the Hilton Double Tree Suhkumvit. It was actually a fairly new, really nice hotel that had an awesome rooftop pool and gym. The free breakfast was delish, and the hotel was half the price of the Millennium. This would be our home for the next eight days. We were able to really take in the culture of the city, explore more of the markets, and we even got to watch a Muai Thai fight.

Climbing Wat Arun

Wednesday night Muay Thai fight night

Delicious Thai food

The flights to Cambodia were quadrupled in price, so we crossed out that idea and moved up our trip to India, allowing us to add more time in Australia and a couple weeks in New Zealand. We were bummed about missing out on Cambodia, but we know that we will definitely be back and we were super excited to be able to add New Zealand to our itinerary.

 

Vibrant Chang Mai and a Failure in Vietnam

From Tokyo we flew into Bangkok Thailand, but we'll be covering Bangkok in a different post. From Bangkok we flew to Chang Mai, a smaller Northern city in Thailand that's close to the Myanmar border.

The flight to Chang Mai was enjoyable as we got upgraded to first class. We also were entertained that the flight attendant kept insisting that Scott looked familiar and thought he was from the movie the Hangover.

Flight path from Bangkok to Chang Mai

When we landed in Chang Mai we got checked into our hotel and then walked a few blocks down the road to check out the night market. The streets were alive with all types of vendors selling food and other things.

Our hotel in Chang Mai

Colorful products at the night market

A woman trying to sell us bracelets

A kid getting a fish pedicure.

The next morning we were picked up for a cooking class. There were four of us taking the class, us and another couple. We hopped in the back of a little truck that toted us to a local produce market where we got a tour with our chef. We learned all about the local fruits and veggies and the different ingredients that are essential to the flavors of Thailand.

Scott in our ride to the market.

We all got cute shopping baskets to take to the market

Fresh produce at the market

Our chef teaching us about ingredients

The smaller, the hotter!

The market street

After the market tour, we headed over to the home of our chef where we spent the rest of the afternoon whipping up the most delicious Thai food we've ever had. We each made a total of six dishes. To say the least, we were stuffed when we left. The chef was amazing and even gave us signed copies of his recipe book. We definitely recommend this cooking class.

Dining area where final products were enjoyed.

Scott was ready to cook in his strawberry apron.

Our cooking group was awesome!

The master chef!

Making some Pad Thai

Fried bananas and ice cream.

Mango rice

On our way back to the hotel after a whole day of cooking

The following day in Chang Mai was definitely an interesting one. We had arranged for a private driver to take us around. First, we stopped off at an elephant camp, where we got to play with some elephants and watch them bathe in the river. It was so amazing to be so close to the magnificent creatures. However, if we were to do it over, we would have rather gone to the elephant sanctuary where the animals are treated less like circus animals.

Playing with the elephants

Scott getting hugs

Bath time fun!

After the elephant camp we drove out to a hill tribe refugee camp. It is a camp that is set up by the Thai government that houses Bermese tribal refugees that have escaped persecution from Myanmar. The people are allowed to live in huts like the ones they would live in in their normal setting. They are also taught essential survival skills such as farming, and children are allowed to go to school where they learn in their own tribal language. Spending time at this camp was very humbling and eye-opening to the genocide that occurs. While we were there, we were able to help out a very special little girl named Maria. Maria and her mother, along with most of the other women in the camp spend a lot of time hand weaving fabrics used to make their clothes and other items from the fabric. This was definitely a highlight of our time in Thailand.

The landscape was beautiful surrounding the camp

Refugee housing

Some of the colorful crafts made by the women of the hill tribes

A little girl named Maria

Maria and her mother

A girl wearing traditional neck rings showing me how she weaves

Some young girls wanted their picture with me

Some children at the camp showing us their school work

The small school house

A woman excited to show us how to crush rice

Two women doing dishes

After the refugee camp we stopped off at an orchid and butterfly sanctuary. It was a nice way to end the day.

The following morning we hopped on a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. Initially, we had planned on flying to Luang Prabong, Laos, however the day before we were going to fly into Laos, there was a plane crash in Laos on the exact airline/plane we were supposed to fly on. Unfortunately, it was very tragic, with zero survivors. After the crash, we decided to pass on Laos and fly straight into Vietnam.

When we got to Hanoi, we didn't exactly recieve the friendliest welcome. We were hassled by immigration while trying to get our visas, and they made it very clear that they were not happy with the American tourists coming into Vietnam.

Once we stepped out of the airport, the streets were complete chaos! There were so many motorbikes driving all over the roads in all different directions. Our minds were blown by the number of scooters and motos that almost were run off the road. This would basically be the case for our entire time in Hanoi.

One of the less crowded streets

With the exception of the staff at our hotel, we were always recieved with unfriendly glares and it was nearly impossible to walk anywhere outside without almost being creamed by a motorbike.

This woman glared at us as we passed by, so I took her picture:)

View from our hotel room

After our not so great experience in Hanoi, we had planned on flying down to Ho Chi Minh. But as our bad luck streek would see to it, a huge tropical storm clobbered central Vietnam causing hundreds of cancelled flights. We figured a flight to the South part of Vietnam shouldn't be affected…wrong! Due to all of the cancelled flights from the storm all of the flights throughout Vietnam were either sold out, or the prices had skyrocketed.

Souvenirs

So, back to Bangkok it is! We headed back into Thailand where we were greeted with the familiar smile, and we were very grateful to be back.

 

 

Konnichiwa From Japan!

We flew out of Hong Kong headed for Tokyo. We arrived around 2:00 PM and were quickly through customs with our bags. We took the express train to Nippori Station and then the subway to Shinjuku. The express train was very nice and clean, and we were thoroughly impressed at the way all of the seats were rotated to face forward.

Thank God for luggage carts!

Clean train

It was about a fifteen minute walk from Shinjuku Station to the hotel. We opted to stay at the Hilton Tokyo, which wasn't our favorite hotel, but we couldn't complain since it was a comfortable place to stay. We decided to stay close to the hotel on the first night since we were exhausted from the flight. We wandered around a bit and had some great sushi at a little restaurant across the street that was recommended to us by the concierge. One of the first things we noticed when we got to Japan was the respect and politeness of the people. It was also one of the cleanest places we'd been to on our entire trip.

The sushi chefs

Enjoying some Japanese beer

Sporting the robes in our hotel room

On our second day in Tokyo, we decided to do something a little out of the ordinary for most, but something awesome for us! Since we had already made the effort to see Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Hong Kong, there was no way we could be in Tokyo without going to the only Disney park in the world that we had yet to see. So we strapped on our Disney shirts, like the Disney dorks we are, and headed out to face the crowds!

Scott stoked for another Disney day

Having just been at the park in Hong Kong, it was fun comparing the differences between the parks. Out of all of the Disney parks we've been to, one thing is for sure, the Japanese take the prize for wearing the most crazy Disney hats. There were hats everywhere! We are also happy to report that there were no fish balls and we were super excited to find churros! They even had pumpkin churros since it was the beginning of Halloween month at the park.

So many hats

The Mr. Potato Head was the best

We were excited to see cowboy boots for sale inside Disneyland

Disney chopsticks

We opted not to get soaked on Splash Mountain

The next day turned out to be one of the most fun days we had in Tokyo. After breakfast we decided to hop on the metro and head down to the Takeshita Dori, which is filled with fun, crazy shops featuring all kinds of cosplay outfits and Scott's new favorite shop, Candy A-Go-Go. He hadn''t been able to find any gummy candies for a while, so he was in heaven with the selection they had.

Got some money to spend

From Takeshita Dori we walked further down to a cool hipsterish neighborhood in Harajuku that was filled with lots of thrift shops featuring American brands. We also stumbled upon a little chic restaurant that was the best meal we ate in Japan.

Such a fun funky area

Me showing Scotty how it's done with chopsticks

Scott waiting for his noodles to cool off

After our late lunch, we headed to the Tokyo Dome. The first night when we got to the hotel, with the help of Ken (the awesome guy at the concierge), Scott was able to score us some tickets behind home plate for the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Yakult Swallows. We purposely got to the dome early so we could check out all of the team shops and buy some hats for the game. Unfortunately, we had to go back and fourth between three different shops to find the hat that Scotty wanted (he's rather particular about his hats).

We grabbed a couple hot dogs on the way to our seats. The game was slow starting out, but turned out to be really exciting at the end, with the Giants taking the win! The crowds were very reserved compared to MLB games in the states, and they also had designated chants for each player. We chanted along, pretending to know what we were saying, even though we had absolutely no clue.

We got some new hats

Beer girls dishing out suds from pony keg backpacks

The following day we spent checking out the chic Roppongi Hills area, with lots of fancy shops and restaurants. We had a sushi lunch at a conveyor belt sushi place. It was delicious!

The sky was so blue and the clouds were moving so fast

Ladies planting flowers

All you can drink green tea

In the evening we wandered the vibrant streets of Shibuya. When the sun went down the buildings and signs lit up like a smaller version of Times Square.

We found a store with all New Mexico stuff

On our last day in Tokyo, we tried to get out early and down to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We didn't get to see much of the action, but we still walked around a bit, and also checked out all of the little sushi shops featuring fresh fish from that morning.

After the market we went to the Yoyogi Park, which was beautiful. We walked to the Meiji Shrine that's in the park. When we got there, a traditional Japanese wedding was just finishing. It was really neat to see the procession. We also wrote on a prayer tablet that we hung with all of the others.

Washing up on the way to the shrine

Japanese wedding

Painted saki barrels in the park

Our prayer tablet

We headed to the airport soon after our visit to the park. We loved Japan and wished we had more time to spend there. We will definitely be going back at some point, but until then Sayonara!

Maybe we'll return in 2020...or sooner

 

Movin’ On Up: Shanghai and Hong Kong

We arrived in Shanghai by train early in the morning. Shanghai was already looking like a much nicer city than Beijing or Xi'an.

We took a cab to the hotel to drop off our bags. We figured since it was so early in the morning our room would not be ready. However, when we got to the hotel, not only was our room ready, but breakfast had been arranged for us in our room. It was fabulous and the Waldorf was beautiful! Our room overlooked the Bund with a perfect view of the Pearl Tower and all of the other high rise buildings on the other side of the river.

Our beautiful room at the Waldorf Shanghai

Breakfast when we arrived

Shanghai was a big city, but easy to get around by taxi, and the taxis were very cheap.

Random squatting lady

The first night we walked the main pedestrian shopping street Nanjing, which was very crowded and alive with the upcoming China Day celebrations. We also got some great pictures of the skyline at night.

Nanjing Street

Motorbikes everywhere

We also had arranged to do a cooking class while in Shanghai. There were four of us in the class, including us, a girl from Germany, and a girl from France. We had a blast. We first got a tour of a local market, which was a little smelly, to learn about the ingredients we'd be using in the class. After the market we headed to a small apartment nearby where the class would be taught. We made three different recipes (sweet and sour pork, Kung pao chicken, and spicy beef) which all turned out delicious. The only downside was the chef didn't speak any English so all questions and answers had to be interpreted, and the cooking area was rather small for four people.

Chicken feet...yum

Sweet and sour pork finished product

We also took in an acrobatic show, which was a little hokey, but still very impressive.

Going to the acrobat show

The streets of Shanghai were packed on China Day which made getting around a little more difficult, but we still managed to make it to an antique market, Xintiandi Area with lots of shops and restaurants, and squeezed our way through the over crowded Yu Yuan Garden and Bazar.

The Care Bear stare!

Two little boys playing in the street at the antique market

A woman selling flags for China Day

Battling the China Day crowds

The busy street near our hotel on China Day

One afternoon we went across the other side of the river by the underground sightseeing tunnel, which was super hokey, but fun. We wandered around two of the very large shopping malls where we stumbled across a Morton's Steakhouse where we had half price Martinis and free steak sandwiches for happy hour. It was an excellent break from all of the Chinese food we had been eating.

Nothing like a martini and steak sandwich

After four days in Shanghai, we packed up and headed to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was much more comfortable for us in the fact that most people spoke English and it was much cleaner. We checked into the Conrad, dropped off our bags and hopped on the next boat to Macau to check out the casinos for the evening. The boat ride was about an hour each way, which wasn't too bad on the way there, but the water was really choppy on the way back (which didn't go too well with my motion sick tendencies).

We decided to go to the Venetian since we had heard it was supposed to be bigger and better than the one in Vegas. We also went to a couple other casinos close by. Scotty hit up some of the black jack tables, but we weren't very lucky. It was worth the trip just to see the lights at night.

Somebody sitting in front of us smelled really bad

The next morning I woke up feeling under the weather, and being the hypochondriac I am (I blame Google and Web MD), I was sure I must have caught the bird flu. Scott was sure I didn't have the bird flu, it turns out I'm still alive so I'm assuming he was right. We spent an entire day in the hotel room since I felt so bad.

After some sleep and some cold medicine, I was feeling much better by that evening so we decided to check out the one place that I was definitely willing to crawl out of bed for…Disneyland Hong Kong! They sell night passes that get you into the park from 6pm on for half the price of a regular ticket. We had a blast at the park, minus the fish balls that were sold on every corner. We'd prefer churros and corn dogs, which were nowhere to be found.

The next day we wandered around the city and through a couple markets on the Kowloon side. The city was great and we would definitely come back. Even though we didn't get to do much in Hong Kong, it was nice to have some downtime and recharge from the previous weeks of going nonstop.

The beard is getting long

 

Peking Into Chinese Culture

When we got to Beijing we were so happy to be off the train and ready to start our Asian adventure. We walked out of the train station got some cash and got in the taxi line. While waiting in line for a taxi, one thing became very apparent to us. Chinese like to spit…a lot…wherever they are! One other thing also became very apparent, people love taking pictures of Scott. Apparently they don't see a whole lot of red heads. Several times people asked to take a picture of or with him and many times we caught people trying to discretely take his picture.

One of Scott's many fans

We got into a cab and showed the cab driver our hotel address in Chinese that the hotel had sent us. The cab driver didn't speak a lick of English and our Mandarin consists of three words. So we hoped he knew where he was going. We knew the hotel was only supposed to be a short drive so when we'd been in the cab for over twenty minutes we knew it wasn't right. Scott pulled out his Google Maps on his phone and sure enough we were headed in the wrong direction. He tried to show the cab driver the directions on the phone and after several u-turns and failed attempts at communicating we signaled to the driver to let us off at the nearest hotel we saw. Luckily the bell boy spoke enough English to point us in the right direction, so we walked a few blocks carrying all our stuff and finally made it to the Hilton Wangfujing.

The hotel was really nice! I'm sure we stood out like sore thumbs having just come off the seven day train ride, but the staff treated us like royalty nonetheless. We even got upgraded to a large suite and had delicious chocolates and baked treats waiting for us when we got to our room. We took the most glorious showers of our lives!

That evening we decided to go out and explore the night markets that happened to be right near our hotel. The snack street was bustling with locals and tourist loading up on a wide range of snacks including fried star fish on a stick, tarantulas and scorpions on a stick, and you guessed it…animal testicles! We also wandered down to another little night market close by, but didn't stay long as the smell there was unbearable and we also saw a few people rummaging and eating out of the dumpsters. It was a little scary and very sad.

The next day we spent most of the day visiting the Summer Palace and gardens. We walked for hours and still didn't get to see the whole thing, but it was still a really fun day.

Old man telling fortunes

We climbed so many stairs

The following day was a our three year wedding anniversary so we planned out a full day of sight seeing and a nice dinner. We booked a guided tour that included Tianeman Square, the Forbidden City, a jade and silk factory, and the Great Wall. Our tour guide's name was Shine and he was great! We had three other people that were on the tour with us and it was quite comical. There was an older couple from Slovak Republic and a man from Saudi Arabia. While At the Forbidden City, Shine was explaining to us how the emperors had many wives and concubines, the Saudi guy on our tour commented that he was only allowed to have four wives! Scott thought this was hysterical.

Our awesome tour guide, Shine

Tiananmen Square

Forbidden City

Scott carrying the tour guides flag

We took turns carrying Shine's flag

Standing in front of the love tree on our three year wedding anniversary

At the silk factory

Silk worms

Women stretching silk threads

Man carving jade

The Great Wall

What does this even mean?

That night we had reservations for a Peking duck restaurant that a friend recommended, Da Dong. The ducks were roasted in a huge oven where we could watch and then carved right at our table. It was delicious!

Showing off my purchase from the silk factory

Spicy shrimp appetizer

After dinner snack

The next morning we headed to the zoo to see the giant pandas before we had to go to the train station. We weren't that impressed with the conditions that the animals were kept in, but it was still neat to see the animals.

We headed to the extremely crowded train station to catch an overnight train to Xi'an. The train station was chaotic. People were sprawled out everywhere, some with no shirts or shoes. We boarded the train reluctantly as our last train experience wasn't exactly the best. To our surprise, this train was actually pretty comfortable and a thousand times cleaner than the last…and we had our own toilet.

Bought some Chinese beer for the ride

Also bought some of these things. Verdict?

Not so good:(

When we got to Xi'an in the morning we took a cab to the hotel to drop off our bags and headed straight out on another day tour. We opted to do a private tour with a guide this time. We went out to see the amazing tarracotta soldiers. We were amazed at how every soldier had a different face and were also surprised to find out that the soldiers were actually colorfully painted, but the colors quickly faded away once they were unearthed.

After the soldiers, we headed to the city wall where we walked along the wall for a while.

Our last stop was at the Musslim street. The street was lined with food vendors and lots of people buying things. We also had another odd/disgusting experience. Since we had gotten to China we had noticed a few toddlers that had splits in the back of their pants. At first we thought maybe they had torn them squatting down or something and we just laughed it off. Then we realized none of these kids had diapers underneath. So we figured maybe this made taking a kid to the restroom easier when they neede to go…well our guess was close, but not quite the right answer. While walking down Musslim street we saw another split pants kid walking on the sidewalk with her mom. Then all of a sudden the mother squats down scooping up the kid from under the knees and the child began to use the restroom right on the sidewalk…right next to all of the food vendors! We kept walking in shock, wondering if maybe parents were required to clean up after their children similar to some laws in the states require dog owners to clean up when their dog does his business on the sidewalk. Well our question was answered when we had to walk back that direction when we were leaving and the pile still remained right where they left it! This would not be the last split pants kid we would see doing this either.

The next day we would be heading to Shanghai. Overall, we had a blast in Beijing and really enjoyed seeing the tarracotta soldiers in Xi'an, but ultimately preferred Beijing over Xi'an. We felt that a day and a half in Xi'an was definitely enough time.

On the way to the train station

 

 

The Trans-Siberian Adventure!

We made our way to the Moscow train station in the early evening just as the sun was going down. Big clouds were looming over us as they had been for the last few days. We made our way into a smoke filled diner (the only place to sit near our train track) just seconds before the biggest downpour we'd seen yet began. The crowd at the train station seemed to be a little bit of a seedier crowd, and not an English speaker in sight. We started to get a little nervous wondering what our fellow train passengers might be like on the seven day journey.

On our way to the train station with all our stuff in tote

After sitting for a few minutes, we realized that we forgot to stop by an ATM to get cash for the trip. We figured we might not have an opportunity at any of the stops to find an ATM and it was highly unlikely the babushkas would be excepting Visa. So I waited in the diner while Scott ran out in the rain to go find an ATM. While waiting for Scott to come back, I was awkwardly stared at by two old Russian men drinking beer, watched a belligerently drunk guy almost fall over trying to find a table to sit at, and watched a young fellow eat two entire cans of some sort of weird meat out of a can that he'd pulled out of his backpack. What did we get ourselves into?

Scott finally made it back after what felt like an eternity. The rain stopped just a few minutes before our train arrived. We decided to head outside to wait by the track just to make sure we wouldn't miss the train. We looked around and realized that sure enough, there were lots of English speakers and a few other backpackers waiting outside by the track. We figured out that most of the people in the diner had been waiting for a different train. We were a little relieved. As we stood there waiting with our overstuffed packs, day bags, and two huge tote bags full of bottled water, ramen noodles, and other snacks, we looked over and saw a young couple that looked like they were toting the exact same stuff. We introduced ourselves as we all walked towards our train cars. It turns out our new friends Rachelle and Blair were from Canada, and had a similar travel route planned out for Asia after the train ride.

The train we were on turned out to be Chinese train #4, which we were a little disappointed about since we had read so much on other travel blogs about the Russian trains. Having a Chinese train also meant that we had Chinese male attendants instead of the providnitsas (Russian women attendants). However, when we boarded the train our carriage attendant was really nice and brought us the sheets for our beds right away.

We are sad to report that the accommodations on this train were much, much worse than the very comfortable sleeper train we had taken from St, Petersburg to Moscow. The walls in our compartment were covered with a faux wood paneling strait out of a seventies horror film. The barely there seat cushions (which would also be our beds for the next six nights) had tattered seat covers. But it gets much worse! The private bathroom we were promised with our “first class” ticket was nothing more than a sink (that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since it was installed) with a retractable sprayer. The water that came out of the sprayer was suspicious looking and frigid. There was a drain on the floor which more than likely drained straight onto the train tracks. We also had to share our washroom with another cabin. But far worse than the non-existent mattresses and failure of a shower, was the fact that we were in the last compartment on our carriage…next to the one toilet that would be shared with our entire car! Not to mention that when you flush the toilet you can literally see the waste falling onto the train track! We would definitely not recommend living near a train track in Russia. Also, the train was B.Y.O.T.P. We had read on some blogs that this was the case, so luckily we had stocked up ahead of time. The smell wafting from the tiolet combined with burning coal and second hand cigarette smoke from the chain smoking German guy two compartments down was almost unbearable.

The train cars being loaded up with new coal

After a couple days on the train we decided to try showering by filling up our tea kettle with boiling water from the samovar. After letting it cool enough to not scald ourselves, we poured it over our heads, washing our hair and essential body parts. However this was also a not so fun experience since we had to let the water cool off between rinses. I'm not so sure all of the shampoo was washed out of my hair, but at least it smelled good.

So it wasn't the Orient Express, but we luckily had a fan that we could turn on to minimize the toxic smells and it was nonetheless another adventure.

On a new adventure

We spent the next few days watching the scenes outside our compartment window change drastically from mostly burch trees to little wooden shack villages, from shack villages to a mountainous region, to beautiful Lake Baikal, from a beautiful lake to more little shacks.

We would hop off the train when it made stops to stretch our legs and sometimes buy snacks. Sometimes the train only stopped for five minutes in what seemed to be ghost towns and sometimes it stopped for half an hour in villages where the tracks were bustling with Russian women selling home cooked goodies (a.k.a. Babushkas). Scott bought some snacks from the babushkas, but I was hesitant to try the home made meat filled pies since we had heard rumors that they could possibly be filled with unknown animal meat products of animals we consider “man's best friend”.

Train stop itinerary

Getting off to stretch our legs

Scott coming back with snacks

We trekked across the length of the train to check out the Russian dining car. The dining car was small, and like the rest of the train, looked like it had seen better days…including the old, limping man running the car. The food was actually pretty terrible, but it was nice to escape the confines of our room for a while and chat with other travelers. We met an older English couple while we were in the dining car that were a blast to talk to. The guy named Ian had been drug on the train by his eager to travel wife (who had ended up getting food poisoning). It was blatantly obvious that the guy was miserable, but his whittiness and sense of humor was the perfect combination for his pessimistic attitude toward their adventure.

Food from the Russian dining car

Eggs served to us floating in a pond of grease

Because of the few dining options in the dining car, our diet for the rest of the week mainly consisted of ramen noodles, hot tea, and whatever kind of cookies we could buy at the stops. We were so sick of ramen by the end of the trip!

Drinking more tea

We spent a lot of time on the train playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, and catching up on our favorite tv episodes we had downloaded to our iPads before we left Moscow. Having iPads and an electrical outlet to charge them was the only thing maintaining our sanity when there was nothing to look at outside our window. Come to find out, our friends from Canada's electrical outlet didn't work the entire train causing them not to be able to use their iPad. They had just assumed the whole train was in the same circumstance so they didn't mention it to us until the last day. Had we known we would have offered for them to use our outlet to charge up.

How I felt by day two of the train ride

At the end of the second day on the train, Scott came down with a cold, which was a total bummer. He had a stuffy nose, cough and felt just plain crumby. It was probably the most uncomfortable circumstance to be in when you don't feel good. But on a positive note, at least it wasn't food poisoning or a stomach bug!

Our first long stop was when we arrived at the Mongolian border. The train stopped for a few hours to allow immigration and customs checks to occur. Russian immigration agents came onto the train, they gathered everyone in our cars passports and got back off the train. We were required to stay on the train until they came back with our passports a couple hours later. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be sitting on a train in the middle of nowhere Russia with our passports out of our hands for that long. When they finally brought back our passports, the customs agents boarded and did a one by one cabin search. It was a tedious process, but thank God for word puzzles (we must have finished at least thirty by the end of the trip). Once the process of leaving Russia was complete, the train moved for about twenty minutes and stopped for the whole process to be repeated by the Mongolian border agents.

When we woke up the second morning of being in Mongolia, the scenery outside had completely changed once again. We had entered the Gobi Dessert. Off in the distance we could see the little white tent like structures (ger) that some Mongolians call home. We also saw some livestock, and even a few camels.

Along with the scenery change outside the train we also had a nice change of scenery on the train as well. When we crossed into Mongolia our train left behind the horrible Russian dining car and picked up a Mongolian dining car. This time the dining car was attached to our end of the train which was nice not having to trek through a billion moving train doors to get to. The car was much more interesting to look at, and the one meal we ate there was actually pretty good.

Inside the Mongolian dining car

It didn't take too long to get through Mongolia before we were at the Chinese border. This required another really long stop. Once again agents took passports and rooms were searched. However the process to cross into China is even longer due to the fact that Russian and Mongolian railroads require a different size wheel than any other country. So, one by one the individual train cars were jacked up and the bogies were swapped out. We stayed on the train while this process took place. It was actually kind of fun to watch out the window.

Changing out the bogies

Once we got into China the dining car changed again to a Chinese dining car. We were all given vouchers for free lunch for the last morning of the train ride. As you can imagine, the dining car was packed. Luckily we got seated at the same table as the English couple that we had met in the Russian dining car. The free meal consisted of some sticky rice, some slimy vegetables, and some sort of really squishy meatball. Not so good, but it at least served as some entertainment to watch Ian's reaction to the food.

Pulling into Beijing

Not too long after our last meal (if you could call it that) we arrived at our trains final destination, Beijing.

Finally made it to Beijing

The trek across Siberia was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The scenes we saw outside the windows were at times amazing and at other times depressing. However, if we were to do this ride again we would probably do it a little differently. We would definitely arrange our schedule to be on the Rossiya train #1 (a much nicer train) from Moscow to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal), where we would spend a couple days and then board the Baikal train #10 to Ulan Bator. From there to Beijing is only a one day train ride, so any train would probably be ok for that period of time.

We would also recommend the following items to anyone planning on making the journey:

  • Toilet paper and wipies
  • Paper towels
  • iPads
  • Playing cards
  • Dry shampoo
  • Bath towel
  • Mugs to make noodles and tea in
  • Travel cutlery and a Swiss Army knife
  • Lots of food that either requires no preparation or just add hot water
  • A first aid kit including cold medicine
  • Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes
  • Lots of bottled water

 

A Cyrillic Experience: Russia!

Looking out the window of the plane as we flew into St. Petersburg, the buildings somewhat resembled Legos. Block like structures all similar in color creating a monochromatic feel against the backdrop of the gray sky. There we were…in Russia.

Landing in St. Petersburg

Even though Russia no longer considers itself a communist state, the impression that its communist past has left on not only the architecture but also its people is still very evident.

Remnants of the G20 Summit

We spent four days in St. Petersburg and four days in Moscow before embarking on our week long rail journey across Siberia.

Our hotel had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport in St. Petersburg, which we very grateful that we wouldn't be braving a Russian bus or Cyrillic laden metro toting all of our bags. We stayed at the Rennaisance Hotel which was in a great location and had a very stern yet helpful staff. I initially interpreted their sternness as not being very friendly. Scott assured me that they were indeed friendly and that the sternness was just part of the culture. It turns out he was right. Most of the people we met while in Russia turned out to be very friendly.

Cheers to our first night in Russia

Anyhow, we spent most of our time in St.Petersburg exploring on foot. We walked a huge length of Nevsky Prospect, the main drag containing lots of shops and restaurants.

We were so excited to find a Starbucks!

Inside of a fancy shop on Nevsky

We spent almost an entire day walking through the Hermitage museum. We took a walking tour of the city and made some new friends Vanessa and Ellena. We also walked by the Church on Spilt Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and even through a small market.

In front of the Hermitage Museum

Inside the Hermitage

Scott resting while listening to an audio guide

If your coin lands on this rabbit post it means good luck

At the Fortress

Random balloons floating into the sky

Some sort of military band was playing near our hotel

We also experienced some of the local cuisine including beef stroganoff, borsch, and piroshkis. Borsch was not exactly our cup of tea, but the stroganoff and piroshkis were delicious!

A cozy little restaurant we found near our hotel

A selection of sweet and savory piroshkis

At the end of our time in St. Petersburg we boarded an overnight train to Moscow. Our train compartment was extremely comfortable (we were hoping this would be similar to the train we'd be on for six nights…you'll have to read our next blog to find out).

The crowded train station

Map of the Russian railway system

At the train station waiting to board to Moscow

When we arrived at the train station in Moscow, we planned on walking to our hotel hoping we wouldn't get lost. However, when we got off the train we could see our hotel towering over all of the other buildings. We would be staying at the Hilton Leningradskia which was one of the seven sky scrapers that was built under the rule of Stalin.

The view of our hotel from the train station

The Hilton at night

The view from our room

We spent our first day wandering around taking in the sights of the Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, and the Gum which is a huge shopping mall with a historical background. It used to be the store where people would stand in line for hours to buy all government produced goods during the communist days. Now it houses mainly high end designer stores.

Inside the GUM

It was interesting seeing the extremely different Russian viewpoint on international affairs

The next day we spent the entire day doing a walking tour of the city, a tour of the Kremlin, and a tour of the Moscow metro.

Mosaics of past communist dictators even reside in the metro

Everyone pets this dog statue in the metro for good luck!

Scott loving hoodie weather

Entrance bridge to the Kremlin

It was very clear that they had no English brochures at the Kremlin

Picture with Paul our tour guide

Another day of overcast skies

Could possibly be the best purchases on our journey yet!

Scott captured me wearing my new hat while relaxing in my bath robe

The next two days in Moscow were cold and rainy. We still managed to do another tour all about the communist history. Our guide was awesome and really nice. After the tour she even took us to a local restaurant that was delicious.

The day before we left on the Trans-Siberian we ventured out to a really cool grocery store to stock up on snacks for our train ride. The grocery store had guilded ceilings and even a painted portrait of the store founder hanging on the wall. The store was actually reasonably priced considering how fancy it appears to be.

That evening we attended a ballet. The ballet was amazing, however Scott claims that it was the soft music that lulled him to sleep.

Bundled up to head to the ballet

After the ballet we took some pictures of the Red Square, which is beautiful all lit up at night.

On our last morning in Moscow we walked the length of Old Arbott Street and had lunch at a My My (pronounced moo moo), which is an old fashioned Soviet cafe.

That night we headed to the train station to board the train that would end in a completely different world…China.

Waiting to board the Trans-Siberian train