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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rushin' through Russia
Tran Siberian Railway  (September 20 - 26)  

Day One

We almost missed our train. The ticket lady had explained what the numbers on our ticket meant and for some reason we thought we were supposed to be at Track 4 (when it was really Train 4) so I sat and waited by Track 4 while Don went and picked up a few food items for the trip (it saves money!)  Our train did not show up which seemed odd since we were supposed to be leaving in 15 minutes. No one else was on Track 4 with me. We looked over at the track across from us and there was a train with Chinese writing on it. Could that be it? Don went to the schedule board and sure enough, we needed to board the train on Track 3! We gathered up our belongings and quickly walked to the front of the train tracks and got on our right train, just 5 minutes before it pulled away from the station.  Our home for the next week is “Train 4, Car 7, Cabin VIII, bed 29 and 30. It is a 4 bed cabin and we prayed that we would have good travel mates. The top bunks were unmade, a hopeful sign that no one else was coming. When the steward brought us our sheets we asked if anyone else was coming. He does not speak English and had no clue what we were asking.  All the stewards are Chinese and few speak English. Considering that this train usually is full of tourists from around the world, and most speak English, you would think that English as a second language would be a requirement. We are confident we will get on fine, in spite of our language barrier.  Since we have 4 bunks, we decided to make up the top bunk as our beds and leave the bottom bunk as our day couches. There is a small table at the window between the bottom bunks and the steward brought us a white table cloth that makes it look so nice, with our white curtains. Pretty cozy. It was almost 11 PM when we boarded so we made up our bed: one thick blanket to put over the hard mattress, two white sheets and a heavy wool blanket, and two square pillows. There was an extra mattress pad that I got, and Don took the extra blanket. Perfect. After some talking we fell asleep. Every time the train stopped in the night, I was so afraid we would hear a knock on the door and someone would want one of our bunks, but it never happened. Our prayers were answered!! No roommates!! Note: We really aren’t social snobs but it is so nice to have a room to ourselves to escape to when we are tired of people. I am sure that we would have enjoyed having company IF one had shown up.

Day Two:

I woke up early, as the sun was rising. The clouds looked pretty grey and close to the ground. I watched out the window for a while, appreciating the stands of birch and Aspen trees that went for miles. I went back to sleep and didn’t wake up until the train stopped at 10 AM at some city. I was pretty groggy so I just stayed in bed and Don woke up. Neither one of us were inspired to get up to see what there was to see. As the train moved out of the station, we realized that maybe we should have gotten off to get some water. Don had walked the train the night before and it didn’t seem like there was any dining coach. We were a little concerned that we wouldn’t have enough food for a week and eating nuts and adding hot water to noodle bowls was not our idea of food anyway. Our next door neighbors from Finland went exploring and returned in an hour, letting us know that there WAS a food coach after all. Whew, we will be able to eat real meals!! We spent the day watching the scenery go by, chatting with our Finnish neighbors, and looking for a power source to charge our laptop and camera batteries. We discovered on day two that our electrical outlets in our hallway were only 48 volts and didn’t charge a thing. Don took his laptop to our steward, LeeYung, and he plugged it into his electrical outlet along with two other people’s phones. My camera was completely dead and Don’s was dying, but he had a spare so he was fine.  We waited several hours and I was hoping that when Don got his laptop back, I could plug in my camera battery. He brought back his laptop to the room, and it still read 17%., his laptop had not been charging this whole time. We talked to the other passengers. They were having the same problem finding appropriate electricity to charge their electronic items. Don found a nice guy in 1st class where they have electrical plugs in their rooms and he kindly charged his battery.  Then we discovered that there was a plug in the dining car so we hauled up our computer, two cameras and cords and plugged in to the wall and played cards until the batteries were full! So glad we found a good spot, as long as no one else finds it! Another “Whew!” 

What a great time to go across Russia. Granted, the weather is cold and the skies are cloudy, but the benefit is that the tree leaves are changing colors. The birch trees are yellow, gold and orange while other unknown trees to me are either red or green so the display is beautiful. The land has been pretty flat, with a slight rise when we crossed the Urals and we saw evergreen pines. But most of it has been flat, with lots of marshland and water. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen much wild life, just a few birds and not many of those. Maybe the birds have all gone south for the winter.  I think that the biggest surprise for me has been the condition of the houses in the country. As you look out and see a village, the houses are made of unpainted wood, many of them made out of logs, with only paint around the windows. There is very little decoration if any at all. A few houses are made of bricks, but not many. I saw very few homes that were burning fires and it was a cool day. The houses look like they are ready to collapse and don’t look like they protect their inhabitants well from the harsh winter. Most of the houses have large gardens filled with cabbage and other vegetables but I haven’t seen a single farm and very few sheep and cows. I have seen a few chickens and white geese.  Most of the roads are dirt with one single lane paved highway.  I saw a car parked way out in the woods, its driver cutting down or gathering birch wood and putting it in the trunk of their cars. I think these people live a very hard life.  

When we have stopped at a train station, which is every 3 to 4 hours, we have 20 minutes to get out and walk and purchase goods from vendors. Some of them have meals all wrapped up ready to go. Others have sodas, water and packaged foods. At one stop, vendors were selling knitted shawls from sheep wool that looked real warm. As we had been approaching these cities we stopped in, I noticed what looked like storage lockers lining the tracks. I was told that these lockers were where the city people stored their cars. There is so much car theft that they don’t dare leave them on the streets so they rent out these lockers. I was relieved to hear that people weren’t living in them, as I had suspected.  The cities are quite modern looking from our view from the train.  Lots of high rise apartments, many of them looking like they were from the last decade. It seems that the city people do much better financially than the country folks. 

Day Three:

We woke up to another cloudy day so we both went back to sleep and slept in! What else do we have to do? I got up around 9 and Don woke up after 10. He has caught a cold and is trying to shake it! You know how it is when you let down and relax, all those bugs attack you.  The scenery is pretty much the same, lots of birch trees, bogs and dark house villages. I did see one man with his scythe cutting long grass and tying it together making a stack. No farm machinery in sight. Lots of railroad buildings that are painted turquoise with white or blue trim. 

So, who rides the Trans Siberian Train, other than us? There is a large Finnish group who are going all the way to Beijing, most of them are in 1st class and their tour guides are in 2nd class with us. They are experienced so they were smart enough to bring their own blow up mattresses to sleep on! Our neighbors are also Finnish, retired from their own business and have been travelling this past year to several countries. They wished that they had been able to get first class! They are getting off in Irkutsk to continue on to North Korea. That is brave of them! They told me that they will have two guides with them at all times so that they do not “stray” from the designated tour. Met another couple who are bringing a group from the US, East Coast, to Mongolia to see the group who depend on Eagles to find food for them, which will involve lots of horseback riding and several in this group are ladies in their seventies.  Another couple, a little older than we are, from Sweden, is going to Mongolia to see the wild horses and to stay in a Yurt then on to Japan.  They said that they will see if they can find our camera that we lost in Stockholm and mail it home for us. We told them what bus we thought it was left on. What a miracle that would be if they found it in the Lost and Found!  Jesus is from the Philippines and has seen more of America than I have. He is a retired, talkative, likeable man. Michael is from Amsterdam and you would swear that he is Adam Sandler’s side kick that you see in many of his movies. He is close to 40 years old and travelling alone. Our new neighbor who came on in Irkutsk is from France, lost his engineering job so he is out to travel, for who knows how long. He is young and reads about the country he is visiting (something we really should be doing!) Car 6 is full of the typical young travelers, mostly in their young 20s, just drifting, seeing the world. One French young man we met is an avid journaler and was just writing his way across Asia, with no real plan. He had just spent 4 months in Irkutsk just getting to know the people and writing of his experiences. There are 4 friends from Sweden who are planning to reach Nepal, after a stay in Mongolia, and one of them is planning to run the length of the Himalayas. There were two European girls in their very early 20s who got off in Irkutsk so that they could go see Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. Never even thought those thoughts when I was their age! So you can see that it is a collection of individuals, very different in status and experience but all with a desire to see the world.

Day Four:

Don woke up pretty sick this morning. Every time I woke up in the middle of the night, the lights were and Don was up. I was too tired to ask why but would roll over and cover my head and go back to sleep. This morning I found out why.  He is sick with a bad flu.  We got some tea bags from one of the passengers, bought a lemon at a stand at one of the stops and we are pumping him full of tea and vitamins. Another passenger brought him some cold medicine after Don had a sneezing fit so the whole train is trying to help.

The train door system is pretty interesting. Each car has a number. We are in car number 7. When you board the train, you enter by an outside door from either end. At one end is just a hall, or entry way but at the other end is the coal storage and heater for our car. There is usually a bucket that is either empty or full of black coal that has been brought to the train on a little truck and shoveled into buckets for our trip. In a closet is a stove that has to be fed coal to keep our heat going. It is sporadically fed by one of our stewards. Then you enter through another door that is quite heavy and has a handle.  This opens into another area that has the water that is being heated by the coal fed stove, and a little restroom that I have determined is only used by staff since it is always locked. A little farther down this hall is another door, this time a swinging door with a window, that opens up into our car with the cabins.  Now that I have been on the train for 4 days, I see the importance in all these doors, even though it is very annoying to be opening all these doors from car to car.  This train travels all year round, and if it is chilly now, I can only imagine how cold it gets in winter. With all these doors, the stewards can keep the cars warm with a minimum of shoveling coal. Our car has stayed a very pleasant 65 to 70 degrees since starting the trip. Not a bad temperature at all since it is a chilly 50 or less outside. The skies are still gray and someone said that there was sleet this morning, which I thought I had heard on our window. No chance for sun today. It is a good day for reading books, playing canasta and chatting with the other travelers. I did finish the book “Catch Me if You Can” that was a movie a few years ago, one I really like. The book is much better and was a bit different from the movie, of course.  Now to finish my more serious book by Friedman on “The Next 100 Years”. Or maybe I will just play Spider Solitaire!

Day Five:

Don woke up sicker today than yesterday. Poor guy! But if you have to be sick, what better place than on a train! He has been running a fever and feeling very lousy. The Russian chef gave him fish soup and a shot glass of Vodka with black pepper and told him to drink it. He said it burned his throat all the way down! He sweated out a good lot of those toxins! After Dr. Zhivago’s prescription, he went right back to bed!

Today was an amazingly gorgeous day. The sun was out and the air was closer to 60 than 50 for once. It was more flat land and birch trees then it suddenly changed, the closer we got to the Mongolian border. It started looking like high desert, with rocky mountains. There were some farm land, with crops and the houses, still wood, looked a little sturdier. We passed a large lake that had a small city nearby and a factory with huge smoke stacks. We saw horses and our first livestock and several packs of stray dogs, roaming the tracks near our train. Yes, it does seem different here. Soon we approached the border of Russia and we started the very long process of the border crossing!  We knew that it was written up as a 3 hour stop so we weren’t surprised that it took extra time. However, it ended up being more like 7 hours, so we weren’t prepared for that. First we waited on the Russian side at the last town on the border. We handed them our passports and they disappeared in their offices. We were able to get off the train once everyone had handed in their passport, which was fortunate, since our WC is locked when the train is at the stations. There was one lady selling magazines and snacks so I promptly bought more water, cup of noodles, and dark chocolate (that is one of the essential food groups!) since our Russian dining car was taken off our train and a Mongolian one was supposed to be hooked on tonight, but not open until the morning. And it was only 4 PM or so.  We walked the length of the train station platform, chit chatting with the other passengers. (Don slept on his bunk) The bathroom at the station had a shower that I thought about using then decided it would be more real if I did the whole trip with no shower! Soon the sun went down and it was a bit chilly to be outside and most of us climbed on board and waited and waited and waited. Finally, the Russian officials came out with our passports and went from car to car, handing them back to us. They asked a few questions, asked us to leave our room, climbed up on our beds and checked the luggage storage and left once they were satisfied.  An odd thing that they requested was that we close all our windows on the train and stay in our cabins. Guess they didn’t want us to throw out any contraband!!  Then a man in uniform came through with his German Sheppard, followed by a man in uniform with his Scottish terrier, sniffing out for drugs.  Soon we were going…..and the line to the WC was growing!!  We had only gone another few miles when we saw the lights of the Mongolian border. We arrived at the station and were told to stay in our rooms, and again, close the windows. They checked all the same places as the Russians had checked including checking under our train wheels as we pulled into the station. We had to show our luggage to the Customs officer and she signed us off. The drug dog came through again, but this time the owner smiled. Mongolia is so much more relaxed!  Soon we were getting our new engine and we were on our way. I guess we all passed muster! And it only took a total of 7 hours or so. It was 12:30 AM. No wonder I am tired! Time to sleep!

Day 6:

Mongolia! I never thought that I would one day be taking a train through Mongolia. That is as unreal as being in Africa! It is an amazing country. We slept the first 7 hours of Mongolia, so I don’t know what the first part of it looks like but what I have seen has been like no other country we have been to. The Gobi desert is in Mongolia, but I think it more appropriate to say that what we saw was only the Gobi desert! At first we saw a few hills with birch trees but now we have been going for hours and have only seen high FLAT land, as dry as can be. (I went and washed out some clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them in our room, knowing that they will surely be dry by tomorrow!)  The ground is covered in short dry grass, everywhere, with tuffs of some other brown plant life. I can imagine how beautiful this country is in the spring, with just a little water. For several hours we saw people and their yurts, white round tents coming to a point, with their cattle, and occasionally horses and goats. The Mongolians are nomads by nature, so their yurts are in small groups with some temporary wood fencing and they do not live in towns, but near them. Some of the yurts had cars and their roads were packed sand. There is a paved road following our tracks with a car or truck every several miles.  Most of the towns are very small but their houses are made of durable bricks with colorful tin roofs, so much better than what we saw in Russia. There are no gardens.  But now we have not seen any humans for several hours or any small lakes, as we had seen earlier. We did see a large coal plant so there must be a mine somewhere nearby or it is brought in by train for the people to use. This is just an awesome country, not one I would like to live in, but so interestingly different. I think half of our train population got off here which made me think we should have planned a stop here also. However, I am so pleased with what we have seen.

Travel is the most interesting hobby there is. You see things that are not in your own country. Tonight was one of those extraordinary experiences. We have been traveling on the European, Russian train gauge rails and now we have to change to the Chinese rail gauge. To do that, our train gets raised and new wheels are put on. The whole process takes about three hours. Since it is at the border, it works out great for the border patrol. They came in and take our passports and customs sheets and disappear to their offices. Our train pulled into a very large building and disconnected half of the train, then had to do the process over again for the back half on a different track.  The cars were separated from each other. Then each car was lifted by 4 hydraulic lifts very slowly. We didn’t know we were being lifted until you would hear the car creaking. Since we had to stay in our cars while they did our passports, we were able to watch and film the whole process. Once our cars were all lifted, an engine goes under the cars and pushes the disconnected wheels out from under them and leaves the Chinese gauge wheels in its place. The pins are put into the new wheels and the car is lowered and we are all hooked up again and ready to roll. An amazing process!

Day 7:

Last day. I start gathering up all of our things into neat piles getting ready for our 2 PM departure. I am going to miss this train. It has been our home for 6 nights and that is the longest we have been in one place since leaving Rashawna’s house. I don’t think I will miss the bathroom that much. It will be nice to have a bathroom with a shower, and one that we don’t have to share with 20 other people.  We have spent every minute of the last 6 days in either our 7’ x 6’ room other than when we walked the halls or went for our one meal a day that we spent in the dining car. There is no common car like an observation car or a snack car where people can play games or just chat.  All the visiting is done from our room or in the hallway. So this cabin has been our little place and I am quite attached to it!

Today is such a grey day that I am not feeling like photographing the views from our window. The country side is dotted with a city here and there but all in all it is very rural, with occasional old structures, houses of adobe bricks and remnants of high walls surrounding villages that are of mud. There is a lot of debris and rubble in the towns with buildings falling apart and new construction going up.  Everyone seems very busy, working on building roads, apartments or rerouting a wash. It’s nice to see so much ambition.  I see farmers out harvesting their crops with donkeys or cows pulling the cart of fresh crop. It is fall so that fields are brown and it must look wonderful in the spring (or even a sunny day!) We are not so far from the Gobi desert so the dirt is very sandy, with large washes that are now dry. We are back to seeing trees. When we were in the hills, there were pine trees and now in the valley there are large evergreen trees. The bushes are changing from green to yellow to red and add color to the landscape. Hope the sun peaks through to give us some good photos.

We climbed up into some very cool mountains. We went through tunnel after tunnel and would be surprised by a lake or a little village tucked in between high rising rocky ridges and mountains. There were a few fishermen out in their boats, trying their hand at fresh fish for dinner. The water was so calm on the lakes that if it hadn’t been so smoggy, you could have seen a bird reflected in the water.  One village had a huge factory with a tall smoke stack, blasting smoke out into the air. These poor people have to deal with so much smog! And they are out in the country! I was anxious to see how Beijing was going to be like. And to our surprise, it was clearer than the countryside. First we went through high mountains and now we were passing by high rises. The buildings were so modern and clean and so different from anything we have seen. China is very different from Russia and even more so from Mongolia. We tagged along with Jesus from the train and got a room at his hotel. We are in the old section and he is on the 15th floor of the new section. I am so glad to be on the 3rd floor, though his view, if the smog lifts, will be great! Glad to have a good hotel at a great price. China is so much more affordable than Europe! HALELUJAH!

3:26 pm edt 

Rushin' to Russia

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to be in Russia, that forbidden country for so many years to us Americans.  The vibe here is a little strange so we don’t feel completely relaxed like we did in Europe. Our tentacles are out again. We had a great train ride from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, the city I most wanted to see. I hadn’t arranged a hotel, since we decided that afternoon to catch the evening train arriving around 11:30 PM. I had looked on line for hotels and knew that they were a little expensive and located one that sounded pretty good. The taxi cab driver found the hotel after much searching and it was full! So we let the taxi driver drive us to a hotel he knew that was reasonably priced. The price wasn’t bad, but it was not a 3 star hotel in my world!  The girls at the desk were very apologetic that they had to give us a 3 person room since all the others were sold out. We took the lift to the 3rd floor and entered the hallway. It was covered with a carpet that was once red, now threadbare and buckling from years of use. We were not surprised then to see our room. It opened up into an entryway, with 4 doors.  One room had a twin bed in it; the other one had two twin beds, an arm chair, and one old TV. The wall paper was peeling in two of the corners and the drapes looked like they were pre-WWII.  At least the carpeting was relatively new, commercial office type. The bathroom was the worst. There was no tile around the base of the bathtub that was held up with 4 metal pipes. The caulking was brown on the edges and the tub was just not inviting at all. The shower was rigged up to the sink faucet, so you would turn on the sink faucet and close a valve so it would go through the shower head. I think I will pass! We crawled under the covers, between the 100 count rough cotton sheets and slept. Don had a rough night, waking up, unable to go back to sleep, chasing mosquitoes.  When we woke up the next morning, his sheets were off the bed, twisted around him. Flat sheets for a bottom sheet don’t always work well.  He told me he had woken up and watched Russian TV for a while. Instead of dubbing it, they just speak over the English, so he could catch the first two words before they spoke Russian over it. It sounded really confusing to me.  I knew that we had slept in a little, but when I looked at my clock on the computer, went forward 10 hours, I thought it was only 8:30 so I got dressed and went for breakfast on the 5th floor. I asked the hostess, who spoke little English, about breakfast and she said “No more, finished”. I looked for a clock, so confused and saw that it was 10:30! How did I lose 2 hours! Another free breakfast lost.

The hotel switched our rooms so that we didn’t have to pay for three beds and we greatly appreciated it!  We packed up our bags that morning and left them in their storage before we left for the day.  Our goal was to get train tickets for Moscow for Sunday and then do some site seeing. Just getting the tickets was quite the ordeal. We had a map of the city with the subway and our destination circled by the hotel staff. It seemed so easy until we got in the subway. Our map was written in English and the Metro stations were all in Russian so we had no clue where to get off.  We would ask people to help us and they would either ignore us or put their hands up in the air. No one would help because they don’t know how to speak to us.  In Russia they do not speak English!  The young people are learning it, but not many of them either. We got off at what we thought was the right station, and promptly headed off in the opposite direction of the station. We asked a young man who did speak English and he directed us to what he thought was the station we wanted and we ended up at the wrong station. We back tracked and ran into Dostoyevsky’s Museum, one of his many houses that he rented while alive. Don was delighted. An author of many books, one of them being “Crime and Punishment” that I had heard of. It is so interesting learning about famous people and their lives. OK, back to finding the train station…..this time we are going the right direction. We stopped at Russian Famous Coffee Shop for some desert to give us strength – Don had Bilberry Crepes and I had the best Chocolate Cheesecake! Unfortunately, I left my new book I had bought, “The Help”, on the seat and when I returned it was gone. I had bought it because Rashawna said she was reading it and enjoying it, so I thought it would be fun to read it with her. I was just getting into the story when I left it behind! GRRR!!  We found the station this time and after standing in line for 10 minutes, it was finally our turn. We asked for tickets to Moscow, and she pointed us to window 12 and wouldn’t serve us ( she didn’t speak English). OK, fair enough. However, the number 12 line was taking forever. One thing we discovered is that Russians line up, at an angle, following the counter instead of standing at a right angle, so what we thought was a line, was not to window 12. Once we discovered our error, we had to start over at the back of the line!  We finally got to the window and she checked our passports and wrote up our tickets (which are very pretty, with a gold circle on them) and then asked for 200 Rubles for insurance. We told her we didn’t want any, since we already have insurance and we refused to pay for it. She became rather annoyed with us for not buying insurance and handed us our tickets, without the insurance, never looking up. 

Now to go do some site seeing. I had remembered seeing a photo of a church in St. Petersburg that was gorgeous and I insisted that we find it. Don was certain that I was mixing up Moscow’s church in the Red Square with St. Petersburg, but I kept insisting. To get to the center of the city, where all the important building are, we needed to take the Metro again. We had bought enough tokens for several trips, but the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to take it. It was too confusing and frustrating, and frankly, subways freak me out. I thought the Metro in Prague was deep in the ground, but St. Petersburg’s takes the prize. It must be 7 floors deep. When you step onto the escalator to take you down, you CAN NOT see the bottom, it is that far!  I should have timed our descent, but I was too busy talking myself out of freaking out, that I didn’t think about it. And it is kind of weird that everyone is going down this escalator, no one talking, everyone looking stoned face ahead, like they are little robots. The whole scene was creepy so I asked Don if we could just walk. It actually wasn’t that far and we got to walk down the famous Nevsky Prospect. When we came to the river, we could see the beautiful church I had seen in the photos, just a short distance away. Don was shocked and I was so pleased that I knew something he didn’t (it is so rare!). It started to drizzle. I was not deterred. Don stopped for some coffee in a covered shop and I kept walking to photograph this beautiful church in the style of the Russian Orthodox.  Soon the sun came out again, and Don and I decided to take the tour they were offering. We were so glad. This church is an amazing work of art. The entire inside is covered in mosaics, the walls and the ceiling. Every wall has a unique design, or a mosaic depicting Christ’s life. There is so much gold in the domes and the Iconostasis. We spent over an hour looking at all the details, amazed at the beauty and skill put into this church. The church had been built in the 1880s to honor the emperor who had been assassinated. It took 24 years to construct the church and yet, by WWII it had already been used as an armory, a vegetable storage and storage for a theaters props, that burned and damaged the church further. In the 60s the state decided to save it from destruction and started the restoration. It took over 27 years to bring it back to its original beauty and it was well worth it. What a beautiful treasure it is! It was our favorite thing in St. Petersburg, in all of Russia so far.

That evening we got back to the hotel, almost wishing that we had found a different hotel, dreading what the new room would look like. To our pleasant surprise, it was nicer than the room the night before. This one had twin beds and a couch and chair. However, after sitting on the couch for a few minutes, I started smelling a horrible urine smell. Never mind, I don’t need to sit on the couch after all and crawled into bed instead. The room looked better superficially anyway!

The next day we took our bags and called a cab to take us to the train station so we could store our luggage. We looked for quite a while before we found the train storage downstairs and there was a long line. We waited for a while and finally Don got curious why it was taking so long to put our luggage in lockers. He was informed that there were no more lockers left so these people were waiting in line until one came open. The man he spoke to had been waiting for one hour already. We would be there all day! We decided to go to a restaurant and eat while we figured out plan B. We stepped into the William Bass pub near the station. It was a great lunch and I asked the manager if they had somewhere to store our luggage and he said “Sure.” We were so delighted!! We left our bags and walked back up Nevsky Prospect to the Hop On Hop Off bus. We rode for two hours around St Petersburg while the recorded tour gave us lots of information. We saw the Winter Palace, the beautiful palaces that these Empresses demanded of their people, the river, and so on. St Petersburg has some beautiful buildings, painted in pastel yellow, pink and blue, unusual colors for majestic buildings.

By the time the sun set, we were ready to catch the overnight train to Moscow. Even though we paid for a 4 person berth, we had no other people join us so we were glad! We fell asleep to the clickity clack of the train wheels.

2:34 pm edt 

Sweden (September 14)

I can not believe that I am on the 11th floor of a cruise ship looking down onto hundreds of islands that we are quietly passing, just a few feet away. There are over 3000 islands in the waters outside of Stockholm and we are on our way to Helsinki, Finland, quietly floating by these beautiful islands. Let me tell you the whole story of how we got here.

Copenhagen! We only had a few hours to catch our train to Sweden so we did our usual Hop On Hop Off Bus ride, our standard solution to seeing a city in 4 hours. We saw the Little Mermaid and took a photo of us holding the hometown newspaper to send them.  We walked the block of Tivoli and heard the kids screaming as they rode the rides. I snapped photos of the places that I remembered through the decorated iron fence. We had been here as a family in 1969 and had walked around the park, not having enough money for us to go on all the rides. Nevertheless, I do remember being here and it was very cool to be here again. However, I was starting to feel a cold that had been threatening to attack me, so we rested a bit, stopping at a Hard Rock Café and eating some potato skins and drinking hot tea. We calculated how long we had before the trains arrival  and left knowing we had just enough time to get our luggage out of storage and make it to the train with a half hour to spare. We went downstairs to the lockers and Don started going through his 7 pant pockets and 3 coat pockets. He couldn’t find the key to the locker! We begged the employee to open our locker, PLEASE!  He wrote up the necessary paperwork, checked our passports to our names and all the while I am trying to be patient.  When he was satisfied, he finally opened up the locker. What a relief! It was pretty quick and not very complicated and it cost us only 10 Euros!  We looked at our ticket. Our train was on track 26. Track 26? Where is that? All the platform numbers are less than the number 12, so where is Platform 26? We see the sign, “Platform 26, 15 minute walk”. No!  Suddenly, we don’t have that much time after all.  We start walking very quickly, following the “Platform 26” signs. Run downstairs. Now up stairs and over several train tracks. The sign pointed down another set of stairs but we would have to fight our way through a 4:45 PM crowd of disembarking commuters.  That won’t work so we took the elevator and quickly walked to the end of the platform, and stood panting under the “Platform 26” sign.  We made it, and with 5 minutes to spare!  I don’t like cutting it that close but the rush did make me much warmer now!

I slept most of the 5 hour trip. My cold was giving me hot flashes then chills. Great! Now that I have bragged to my mom that we haven’t had a cold since we left, I get a cold! Never brag!! After a nap, I woke up and challenged Don to more Canasta. I had some amazing hands….poor Don, no matter how well he plays, I have been getting such good hands, he can’t beat me. It is nice to be winning for a change. We arrived in Stockholm, both of us tired and feeling weak and ready for a nice warm bed. The wind had brought in some rain so we wanted to find a hotel soon. We walked out of the train terminal and we met by taxi cab drivers. We looked at the hotels nearby, and remembering our experience in Copenhagen, we decided to take a taxi out of the center of town to get a better price on a room. The drivers, all of Arab descent, laughed at us, insisting that they couldn’t take us to a hotel unless we had an address. They started yelling at us, yelling obscenities about America. What a shock! And it was in Stockholm of all places! We found a “nicer” taxi cab driver that offered to take us to the outskirts of town to an Ibis Hotel he knew of. So, 70 Euros ($100) later for the cab ride, and 270 Euros ( close to $400) for the only hotel with available rooms, we had a place to stay. I am so glad that I was too tired to care! What a ridiculous price for a night’s stay! We didn’t have a good impression of Stockholm and we had only been there for 1 hour! We arrived in Stockholm around 10 PM Tuesday night.  It wasn’t the best time to arrive, but we wanted some time in Copenhagen so took the 5 PM train, which put us in Stockholm by 10.

Our hotel was located on the campus of Stockholm University. Did you know that Swedish and Danish students must be fluent in English by second grade. Amazing!  And nice for us. We had a room on the 11th floor and when I went for breakfast, I had to take the elevator to the 3rd floor, use my room key to exit into a long hallway. I remember her telling me that breakfast was free at the Zeninsky restaurant. I came to the end of the hallway to find another door that I needed to open with my card key again. It opened up into a mall and to the right was Zeninsky’s. They were just putting away the food. It had taken me 10 minutes to find this restaurant! However, they got me a smoothie, orange juice, a coffee and a sandwich. They were all delicious and I was glad that  they were so nice to give me food after hours. I got the same for Don, even though he said he wasn’t hungry yet, and headed up to the room. I was not going to get to Helsinki and have the same thing happen to us there that did here. I went on line and looked at several places to stay. The one I wanted was full but there were several close to the docks. There was not a single hotel for under 150 Euros! Another expensive place to visit. Then I worked on getting the boat passage. There are two companies that book ferries on line. I found two companies that carried passengers from Stockholm to Helsinki. Of course, as I was booking the lower priced cabin, the last two remaining rooms were sold. So, I requested and paid for what I thought was the next step up, a deluxe suite. It did say that it was a special brochure price and though it was double the price of a C cabin, I paid the price gladly. It was still cheaper than our present hotel room!

So this blog is being written as I am propped up on our queen size bed, double pillows behind my head, snuggled in a feather douvet, looking out our full wall of glass doors and windows, sipping on sparkling water from our stocked fridge, watching the many of the 3000 islands pass by. Oh, maybe I will go out on our balcony and sit and watch the sun set.  Or sit on our couch and watch TV from Sweden and Finland.  This is the way to travel!  I now love Sweden and their promotions!

2:06 pm edt 

Berlin to Copenhagen (September 13)

Today is the last day of our 2 Month Eurail Pass. What a friend it has been! Today is my mother’s 80th Birthday.  That is a milestone birthday! I would have flown from California to Washington to help her celebrate!  Flying from Berlin would have been possible, but I think we will celebrate when we get back!

Berlin is one big city. I don’t know what the population is, or how many miles it is across, but we had 4 hours to see Berlin, and we did our best! Four hours to see a major European city is a ridiculous proposition but that is all the time we had. We went to a “Tourist Store” and bought a map of the city. Don found one that was all about the Berlin Wall, the only thing we really wanted to see. We asked what underground to use to get to the wall and the shopkeeper told us to take Green line S2 and get off at Ostbahnhof.  We took the train, got off at the right stop and asked a shop keeper once we got above ground. (A side note: I don’t think that I will ever get used to going into the subways. It is so weird to be 1, 2, 3 and even four layers under the earth, knowing that not only are there trains above me, but there are also busses, houses, and maybe even a 20 story buildings above me. That is just too freaky!  Another side note: We went down our declared longest escalator in Europe to reach a subway train. It had to have been 5 floors of escalator, all on one stairway. That was in Prague!)  Back to the story…..The shopkeeper pointed us down the road “and turn right and you will run into it”. We ran into a wall, and Don was thrilled and I kept on insisting that this couldn’t have been the wall. It was too short. I had seen the wall in ‘69 when I was about 13 and it didn’t look this short. Well, it was the wall… I was just a bit shorter back then and a little easier to impress! This part of the wall was a memorial, painted by different muralists, giving their voice to freedom. The map looked like that there was more pieces of the wall standing so we tried following the map and got completely confused and lost. Having only 4 hours of restless sleep the night before did not help us one bit! Eventually, between both Don and I we were able to get us to Check Point Charlie, the American sector that was the border between East and West Berlin. We even got a stamp in our passport for our crossing the border. We wished that we had had more time, as usual, but we were so grateful to have had time to see The Wall.

Our train for Copenhagen left at 1 PM. Not only was it a very nice train (Spain has had the best trains in Europe so far) but we were in 1st class that was more like business 1st class. It was great. Nice way to finish our Eurail experience. The coolest part about this trip to Copenhagen is that we rode on the train that crosses the channel from Germany to Denmark on a ferry. Yes, you read me right. The train track connected directly on to the ferry’s train tracks and the train just pulled into the ferry and away the ferry goes. It is a 45 minute ride across the channel, just enough time to catch dinner before re-boarding the train. It wish we could have photographed the whole process from the bridge above while the train was rolling on the ship.

We arrived in Copenhagen around 8 pm. We thought about getting a train to go as far as we could on our last 4 hours, but we gave in to our exhaustion.  Don walked across the street to see what the prices were for a room in the several hotels near the train station. $400, $300! We asked a cab driver to take us out of the center of the city to a reasonably priced hotel. He very kindly drove us to one he knew of and it was just $150 a night. Evidently, Copenhagen is heavily taxed so it is passed on to the customer and it really jacks up the price of a good night’s sleep. Our room is not much larger than the smallest room we rented (in Galway, Ireland). However, here we can sit on the toilet and close the door at the same time so it is much better.  It is so very cleverly made. The bathroom is basically a shower. I turn on the sink water, get it to the temperature that is comfortable then turn another knob and the warm water is now flowing out of the showerhead in the middle of the room. So efficient, as long as it was a shower that you wanted. You clean your bathroom as you shower!

I don’t see us making it to our final destination, Helsinki, tonight…..guess the next train rides are on our dime.

1:36 pm edt 

Prague to Warsaw

We caught our 10 AM train to Warsaw from the main station in Prague. This is something we were both looking forward to. Neither one of us had been to Poland so we were pretty excited to see it. We had left the Czech Republic behind, promising ourselves we would return. We watched the green countryside zoom past our window on the train.  We didn’t even realize that we had left Czech until we noticed that the crew was different.  Our attendant was a young woman in her twenties, cute, with her blond hair pulled up in a pony tail, under a cute wedge shaped hat. She wore a light gray/blue suit with dark blue piping. She looked so professional! She had the sweetest demeanor about her that we invited her to come visit us in CA when she graduates from college in two years with her engineering degree.  The countryside still looked relatively the same, with tree covered hills, streams meandering through fields of corn and sunflowers. A trail followed our train for miles and we would see people on bikes or couples walking with their hiking poles. I envied that they were taking a day off, riding bikes, talking to friends. It all seemed so normal, not a thing like my life at the moment. Silly that I should envy someone who is just doing the daily things of life.  I am the one doing the once in a lifetime experience. Travel does teach you what you value.

The farm houses out in the country did look a little more shabby, lacking in new paint that we saw in Czech.  I have been reading Friedman’s book called “The Next 100 Years” and he claims that Poland will be one of the big world powers. I wouldn’t have guessed it but what do I know. The city of Warsaw was old, yet not decorative, but it also had modern buildings. There was a huge high rise with a red SHARP on the side. It was evening, with the sun just going down. We stepped out of the train terminal and both had to take a breath. There in front of us was the most wonderful, huge, old building. I snapped a photo of it. Within the hour, the sun had disappeared and a blue light flooded the building. Another photo again! We had just 3 hours before our overnight train left the Czech border enroute to Berlin, so we found the Marriot across the street and had a meal and relaxed. I didn’t stray from the hotel far to get more photos since it was dark. I didn’t get a real good safe feeling, though it probably would have been fine.

Our train arrived at 10:55 PM and we found our cabin. We had been told that all they had available was a cabin for 6 so we were all set to share with strangers. As it turned out, there were only two middle age women who had the bottom bunks so Don and I took the next set of bunks up. They wanted the window open, since there was no air/conditioning, which was great at 11 PM but as the night progressed, I pulled the blanket up over my head. It is good that I had put on long pants earlier in the day and long sleeve shirt, in preparation for having to sleep in my clothes. I never got cold, but I was a bit cool.  We all fell asleep fairly quickly and the 5:00 AM warning knock on our door came way too early! I never get a good night’s sleep on a boat or a train, so I was pretty tired. We had to change trains at the border, so we switched tracks and continued on a new train headed for Berlin. It was one of those commuter trains so it wasn’t the most comfortable.  Don found a bench seat that he could sprawl out on and sleep. I fell asleep sitting up, no problem. However, about 20 minutes into the trip, three police officers from Germany came through checking everyone’s passport. I had mine in my hand and they noticed that it was an American passport and didn’t even ask for it. However, Don was in another car asleep and they woke him up, asking for his passport. He admitted that being awoken by the police in a foreign country is not the best way to wake up!

1:18 pm edt 

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Mimi Lamp


It all started here, a little gallery in Idyllwild, no better place on earth. Or so I think.  My husband Don and I are on our way around the world this year. Watch my website for new drawings, sketches, watercolor washes of places we visit.

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