to Russia with Love

August 29, 2013

We studied Russia when I was in seventh grade. Actually, it was probably the USSR, back then. This was before I became the world traveler that I’ve become, when foreign places were exotic and beyond my imagining. When I knew I was coming to Mongolia last year, the seed was planted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. I can’t even tell you how I knew about the Railway, but it was a promised adventure that called to me: even if nothing were to happen, the journey itself was sure to be amazing. My friend, Lillian, bought me the Handbook and before I’d even left the States I’d read it cover to cover. Well, now that the trip is in the past tense, I’ll do my best to give you a sense of what it was like to go “To Russia with Love” without the chronology that usually bogs me down. Pics are available here!

The Travel Buddy
Too easily taken for granted, the travel buddy is a crucial element to the overall travel experience. A good travel buddy can make a dull trip memorable, just as a bad travel buddy can spoil an otherwise wonderful time. What makes it tricky is that “good travel buddy” means different things to different people. As an example, I like sharing food. While that may not be a prerequisite for traveling with me, it certainly adds to my happiness. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with some great traveling companions and the Russia Travel Buddy falls into that category. Will and I were at the same training site during PST. (Since he was the most committed to language study, and we were neighbors, I occasionally invited myself over to his house so that I could focus, and he welcomed me even though I was probably more of a distraction for him.) We’d both talked about going to Russia, but it was his nudging this spring that made it happen. At one point, about two weeks into it, I suspected that we were both a bit too easygoing in that whatever suggestion was made the other was likely to agree, even though the person making the suggestion wasn’t necessarily deeply committed to Option A… once that tendency was acknowledged, it was easier to offer an Option B. But if the worst thing about your travel companion is that he is too agreeable, at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.

The Plan
Pretty much, the plan was to not have much of a plan, to allow spontaneity, to eat good food and to meet new people. Mission accomplished, but not without some kinks. By buying our tickets only to Moscow, we were continually planning the next leg of our trip—scrambling to find internet, purchase tickets online, then finding the right machine to print e-tickets. We wanted to see Red Square in Moscow, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and Lake Baikal: check, check, and check. The built-in flexibility allowed us to include Gorky Park in Moscow and a day of bike riding around St. Petersburg, both highlights for me! Will and I were also on the same page about couchsurfing (an internet-based, global network that connects travelers to hosts who provide a place to sleep, free of charge). We wanted to couchsurf for a few reasons: it’s an obvious way to save some rubles; not speaking the language, it would be helpful to have locals who could give us some tips; we also wanted to know the real Russia, to have real people in mind when we thought about it afterwards. This paid off ten-fold (see The People, below)!

The Visa, etc.
Internet research on this was a quagmire to wade through! First, you need an Invitation letter. A legit hotel will provide the Invitation letter, but with couchsurfing that wasn’t an option. The weird thing is that you can buy an Invitation letter, using dummy information, calling into question the purpose of it. The Visa is pre-approval to enter the country. When applying for the Visa, in addition to the Invitation letter, you also need to complete a 40-question application that includes colleges that you’ve attended, countries you’ve visited, current and previous two jobs… it was tedious. Finally, within five days of entering the country, you have to Register—basically, officially file that you are there. Again, legit hotels (even some hostels) can Register for you, but going the couchsurfing route, it was on us. I’ll spare you the tiresome details, but if you want more info, just ask.

The Train
I should mention that in the end we didn’t ride the official Trans-Siberian which only leaves once or twice a week. You’d think this would bother me, but my draw to the adventure was traveling by rail for the duration of the journey more so than the type of train. Besides, I’m pretty sure the basics are the same across trains (but the prices varied every time I did a search, so those listed are just to give you an idea).

Spalny vagon—first class—2 berths in a compartment. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we did not consider this option. (As an FYI, the cost was between $500-600 UB-Moscow, $700 Moscow-UB.)

Kupe—second class—4 berths in a compartment. This was our intro to the trip. In the end, it afforded us the best sleep and a chance at privacy. Although our car’s broken air conditioning made for an uncomfortable first two days, our fellow traveler got off on the second day and we didn’t get any others. We rode for a full 4 days, passing the time reading, playing Yahtzee, enjoying the scenery, eating, and sleeping. We chatted with a Mongolian man who shared some food and insisted we take the “How financially savvy are you?” quiz in his magazine (in Mongolian). We took turns getting off at the stops that were long enough for walking around the station, sometimes beyond. We traveled over 6000 km (nearly 4000 miles) for about $200. As we say in Boston, “that’s a bahgain.”

Platzkartny—third class—one car, ~50 berths, no doors: it’s like a hostel on rails. We chose this option for the Moscow-St. Petersburg leg. It’s possible to make that trip in under 4 hours, but we thought the 9-hour, overnight train would give us more time for sightseeing. Well, there are people who are pros at this—beds made, in their jammies, fast asleep before the train left the station—but for us, it was an unkind introduction to Platzkartny. We purchased the tickets the night before. We paid $85 to unknowingly get, what the guidebook warned us to “avoid at all costs,” the absolute worst berths on the train, along the corridor, next to the bathroom. Neither of us could pinpoint why we’d slept so poorly; likely it was a combination of location (and resulting foot traffic), limited sleep time by the time we’d gotten around to it, and the fact that the lights never completely went out (presumably a safety feature). Fortunately, we weren’t too resentful of this and we gave it another chance, from Moscow-Irkutsk. We still had the side bunks, but this time they weren’t the worst seats in the house. Still not great sleep, and maybe by this point, the novelty had worn off and the train was merely transportation. That was a 3-day journey for about $250.

Seat only—after our miserable night’s sleep on the way to St. Petes, we knowingly took a chance with the seat-only option from St. Petes-Moscow, another overnight train. We reasoned that since we were just connecting to another train, with a berth, for a 3-day journey, what did it matter if we didn’t sleep since we’d get plenty of sleep on the new train. As you can imagine, we were actually quite surprised, and relieved, to find plush reclining chairs! Subsequently, we were a bit chagrinned upon finding out that we were in the wrong car… off to Common Class, where 2 would-be-berths-in-a-compartment-used-as-seating-for-6-people awaited us. Without any partition between people, it could have been a long night of having someone fall asleep on your shoulder or in your lap. Thankfully, there were only two others (rather than 4!) and they’d perched themselves at the table by the window (which we’d surely have done if we’d arrived first). This left half of the bench to attempt to curl up on, which seemed a lot more promising than it turned out to be. Somewhere in the night I thought, since I wasn’t sleeping, that I’d use the restroom. I must have fallen asleep at some point because the door was closed and I didn’t remember that happening. Well, despite my attempts at opening it quietly, I’d disturbed the heavens… a man, with his eye mask pushed up on his forehead, appeared from above—he’d been sleeping in the overhead luggage compartment! Fortunately, he understood English and climbed down to help un-stick the door. This was, of course, after I’d yelped at the sight of him. The cost of this story was about $50.

Each car has an attendant, the Provodnitsa. She was in charge of checking our tickets, distributing the bed linens, keeping an eye on who entered the train at station stops, etc. The kupe train was carpeted and the hall and compartments were vacuumed every night. The uncarpeted Platzkartny car was swept and mopped every night. There is a bathroom at each end of the car. We weren’t supposed to use the one near the Provodnitsa in the kupe, but it wasn’t a problem in the Platzkartny (with twice the people, I should hope not). There aren’t any showers onboard, but there is a drainage hole in the bathroom floor if you want to wash up using the sink. I’m a seasoned Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia; baby wipes will suffice. The toilets themselves flush onto the tracks. For this reason, they are unusable (i.e., locked) while in the stations and for some amount of time before and after.

The People
This part will be the most difficult for me to capture with words because it is the most personal. The expectation of couchsurfing is that a surfer will be given a place to sleep. That’s it. And by that measure, our hosts were exceptional. A hot shower after a 4-day train ride; use of a washing machine after 2 weeks of traveling; a home-cooked dinner after countless pre-packaged “meals” on the road, our hosts really put themselves in our place and identified what we must want most and offered it up gladly. They also saw us as tourists in their communities and knew what we would want to see and helped make it happen, often as tour guide. The trust that came with the keys to the apartment or allowing us near their small children shouldn’t feel undeserved, since Will and I are trustworthy people, and yet, I still marvel at their wholehearted welcome of us.

Prior to going on this trip, I was led to believe that Russians would be difficult, even intentionally so. Yet, our hosts’ hospitality was amplified by the woman who, speaking no English, literally walked us to our train platform, which I suspected was not at all where she was going. In two different cities, when we were seen reading our maps, people asked if they could help direct us.

I left Russia feeling I knew it better than I know places I’ve been to more than once or have spent more time. I left Russia looking forward to my next visit.


July 22, 2013

I just returned from a 4-day stay with my host family. Though nearly a full year had passed since we said our farewells, at no point was I nervous about our reunion. I was eager to talk to them and see if they understood me, as a way to gauge my improvement in the language. I was looking forward to the quiet times between conversation, just being silent in the kitchen but not feeling awkward about it. I was longing for the greenery and the roaming sheep and goats of Orkhon that redefine free-range. I was not disappointed.

We readily fell into our old routines. They gave me my old room with the bed while they all slept on the floor in the big room. My mom cooked nearly all the meals and I took over the washing up after. They asked about my apartment, my job, my aimag, and my visit with my American Mom in December. I showed them pictures and told stories… they laughed about me wearing the Mongolian boots underneath the pink dress, so I know they understood. Mom showed me the new garden and I asked what crops she was growing and she told me: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and beets. I told them about my upcoming train trip to Russia with Will (whom they know from PST), and that we will stay with “internet friends” which is how I explained couchsurfing to them. My Dad showed me pictures from his time in Moscow and “Leningrad” in about 1985 and I told him I was surprised that they were black-and-white photos.

On my last day, my Mom had cooked my favorite meal and we went to the river. We spread out a picnic blanket and had potato huushuur and sang songs. My Dad had called a friend and spoke enthusiastically: I understood “Boston” and “shar ohun” which translates to “yellow daughter” and I just laughed about that and slugged him on the shoulder.

It was only in hindsight that I thought about the fact that they are no longer obligated to cook for me, or give me a place to stay, or be patient with my minimal (still) Mongolian-language skills; that the Peace Corps contract that we’d signed was what brought us together, but that bond we have is genuine and endures.

I’ll spend a few more days with them after the Russia trip, sharing all the stories from the next three weeks, before I head back to site and begin the next nearly full-year without seeing them.

The Others

June 2, 2013

There will inevitably come a time when someone is telling me what a great thing I did serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia and I’ll be a little dismissive of how exceptional it was. I can assure you, this won’t be Love-being-modest or self-deprecating. Here’s what will be going on: my life here has become my life. It isn’t that much different from my life back home, except for in the most obvious ways. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I’ve read the Peace Corps informational email that I’d subscribed to during the application process, my mind went to that place of “oh, someday, I’m gonna do that” before I remembered: I am doing that.

The other piece of this reality check is that there are other non-PCVs/non-Mongolians living in or traveling through Govi-Altai, and I should remind you that Govi-Altai isn’t on the way to anywhere. These encounters have left an impression on me and are as much a part of my experience living in Mongolia, in a way that meeting foreigners in America never was. They’ll be what I’m thinking of when I respond that what I did in Mongolia “wasn’t that big a deal.”

In my first week or so in Govi-Altai, I saw two men in the post office. As they were clearly not Mongolian, and I was clearly not Mongolian, we struck up a conversation. The Romanians explained to me that they were participants of the Mongol Rally, a driving adventure from the UK to UB, Mongolia. So: they pay a fee to participate, make all the arrangements themselves, drive 8-10 thousand miles, crossing maybe a dozen countries. They arrive in three to four weeks, the cars are auctioned off for charity, and then they fly home. Even thinking about it now, I am still astounded.

Last fall, I went to the hospital to meet some Americans who were visiting Govi-Altai. In their words, they were a “volunteer, non-denominational, Christian organization,” that provides screenings of children to identify heart defects. In phase II, a pediatric cardiac surgery team is brought in to treat the young patients and continue to improve the Mongolian cardiac-care system, which the MD-blogger writes is “about thirty to fifty years behind pediatric cardiac surgical care in the U.S.” There is some amount of proselytizing during all this, of course, but, as I understand it, the screenings and surgeries (even those that can’t be done here and require travel to the US) are at no cost to the patients.

In late fall/early winter last year, a young Swiss woman named Daria came through Govi-Altai. She had previously lived in Mongolia for 6 months working on a camel farm, doing camel research. Those of us in town took her to karaoke, and, though she didn’t sing, she chipped in for the room.

For all these chance encounters, there are some reliable ones too. In Govi-Altai, there are 2 European women (from the Netherlands and Switzerland) who’ve twenty years here between them and speak impressive Mongolian. There’s an Australian woman and an American couple who live here 6 months of the year. Though they are here as missionaries on behalf of JCS (Joint Christian Services), some have day jobs in the community, including working with disabled children or teaching handicrafts at the felt workshop so local women can have a sustainable means of support. I don’t see them regularly, but as the collective foreigners, there is a definite sense that we can turn to one another. The Iowans gave me a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with chicken in lieu of turkey) when all my site mates were out of town during my favorite holiday. I’ve spent the past two weeks cat-sitting for the Swiss woman; it would have been a most unwelcome request of her Mongolian neighbor. As compensation, I receive much love and affection from Mimosa, the purr-monster, and full use of the apartment amenities, most notably the fully automatic washing machine.

The latest person to roll through Govi-Altai left this morning, on his bicycle. By the time he got to me, he had put 1,000 km behind him. Maxime, a Frenchman, living and working in Germany, is still at the beginning of a solo bike-trek from UB, through China, a few of the ‘stans, ending his journey in Iran. It was by PCV word-of-mouth that he found me here and his impressive undertaking was so momentous that I needed to help him in any way I could: use of my rice-cooker, a share in my load of laundry, a safe place to store his bike, a bed for the night (an especially easy offer since I was staying at the cat house). I was even able to give him an English-speaking contact for his next soum. From my perspective, my contribution to Maxime’s trip was so small, but the way he thanked me, you’d think I was some bicycle-trip savior.

For better or worse, my whole life my mom has been “taking in strays,” which I guess isn’t a nice way to refer to people who need help, but doing so is an effective way to teach your kids about helping others in need. So long as you can identify their need.

This weekend marks my one year anniversary in Mongolia! To all my peeps, and especially my new friend Maxime, may the wind always be at your back.

To trust or not to trust?

February 17, 2013

This blog is an example of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal, for Volunteers to give Americans a better understanding of the cultures we serve. This depends on me and I don’t update as regularly as I or some of you would like. But it’s the Second Goal—giving our host country a better understanding of Americans—that happens every day. Some of this is deliberate, as when a holiday coincides with an English club and provides the vocabulary of the lesson. But more often than not, the Second Goal is inferred from our reactions to some chance encounter. That is, our unintentional, unscripted, unfiltered, honest response to all that we take in.

There are certain aspects of what I think of as American culture that I don’t want to share with the Mongolians. This occurred to me this week following a knock on my window. When I pulled back the shade to see who it could be—it was 8pm and long since dark—there stood a family I didn’t know, the mom waving papers. So, I opened my door and led them in, without locking the door behind us, to see what it was they wanted from me from within the warmth of my apartment.

It didn’t take long to understand—the printed email promising lottery winnings scream “scam!” to anyone old enough to remember AOL or young enough to not remember a time before “google it” was a way of life. We weren’t always internet savvy, though—it’s a skill we learned through trial and error—so even if we don’t remember it, it’s easy to understand the vulnerability of people who have little reason to doubt combined with the desire of wanting to believe in a sudden windfall of fortune, wherever they happen to live.

While this was playing out, I was experiencing a sort of PCV-déjà vu. Soon after arriving at site, a fellow M23 experienced this exact scene and wrote about it in his own blog. (When I reread it, the parallels between our experiences in Mongolia are pretty striking.) What I remembered that night is that he found our Peace Corps-provided dictionary lacked the word “scam” so, without bothering to look, I attempted other ways to convey that message. The Mongolian word for “lie” seemed to get it across. My mind racing, I also said, in English, “not true” which the older daughter understood and translated. The mom’s hope vanishing, she looked for reason. “Яагаад (yaa-ghaad)” she asked, maybe rhetorically. I’d recently learned the word ашиглах (ah-shig-lakh), which means to exploit or take advantage of and is somewhat easy to remember, assuming you can remember that ашиг (ah-shig) means profit. But I didn’t think of it in English, so it remains one of many missed speaking opportunities.

The first thing I take from this encounter , and this goes back to what I wrote previously about how strange it is to me that I represent America 24/7—because people are always watching—is that I didn’t know them, but they knew me. At least, they knew that I am an American and that therefore I speak the English of the email, and they knew where I live. I don’t know where they live. Are they my neighbors from across the street who might have watched me putter around my room, unbeknownst to me? Or did they seek me out from across town? Will I see them again? Or will this be the one time our paths cross? I’d like to think I’ll see them again, that we can learn from each other. But as of now, they’ve had this one ten-minute period in which to form their opinion of me, and America, by extension.

That brings me to the second thing I take from this encounter, and the thing I don’t want to share with the Mongolians about American culture: that crime in America is so hyped that we are a nation ever en guard, suspicious of everyone’s ulterior motives, waiting for the proof that we were right not to trust people from the start. It has become a place where the idea of opening your door to a stranger is akin to a hen inviting a fox into her coop. Between our 24-hour media’s “if it bleeds it leads” mindset, and Hollywood’s sensationalized “inspired by true events” stories, we’ve been duped into thinking that shark attacks are likely and twelve-year old boys must follow mom into the women’s room, rather than use the men’s room by themselves.

This preemptive mistrust baffles me. It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet, many of those who wax nostalgic about their carefree youth will repost a negative story with lightning speed or perpetuate a rumor without fact-checking first, keeping everyone on edge indefinitely.

As much as I resisted this thinking at home, our stranger-danger mentality still followed me to Mongolia and I even asked my site-mates whether it was okay to tutor a student in my apartment without getting permission from the mom or even knowing who the mom is. “What are the rules,” I wanted to know. Apparently, as far as interpersonal relationships go, the rule here is trust and not in the you-have-to-earn-it sense.

Suffice it to say that I feel very safe here, in Mongolia in general, and in my aimag in particular, to the point that when this unknown mom and her two unknown daughters were standing around my table looking at this email and my unlocked external door was opened, followed by my unlocked internal door, and this unknown man who was the unknown woman’s husband entered my home, I am proud to say that my instinct was not fear. And as it was the end of Tsagaan Sar—the lunar new year, a major holiday here—the man and I went through the ritual, which involved me placing my outstretched arms beneath his outstretched arms (since he is my elder) and each of us leaning in, nearly touching, first the right cheek, then the left cheek, with a sniff and the traditional greeting. He then passed me his snuff bottle with his right hand, I accepted with my right hand, and raised it to my nose and sniffed each side of the closed bottle.

And I lived to tell about it. The line between naiveté and trust just shifted.