May 04, 2007

Reality Check

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Having arrived on Europe's doorstep, I've been dwelling on the last great obstacle between here and home; The Altantic Ocean. In my perfect world I'd waltz into the South of Spain, board a modern sailing yacht and beeline for the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The reality of this type of sailing journey would take a slightly different form:

It'd require that I wait until the right season to make the crossing. Most yachts cross the Atlantic (East to West) in late October or early November. The reality is that if I wait until Autumn in Europe, I'll bankrupt myself.

Even if I lasted in Europe until then it'd be unlikely that I'd find one making the crossing directly to the U.S.A. Most yacht's veer South after exiting the Mediterranean. They usually dip close to the Equator before heading back North to the Caribbean. This route is much longer, but takes advantage of the warm weather and favourable trade winds. The North Atlantic would mean cold weather and constant headwinds.

My other option, the one that I'll be choosing, is to book passage on an Ocean Liner making the crossing. (The freighter ships that take passengers are all booked full for this summer.) This represents the quick and dirty way for me to complete the trip. It will cost more money than a flight, but will save me thousands in the long run as I won't be idly spending Euro's in Europe.

Of Course the only Ocean Liner that makes regular crossings of the Atlantic Ocean is the legendary RMS Queen Mary 2. It sails from South Hampton, England to New York City. I have a cabin on the June 3rd sailing.

I'm coming home. I'll be returning to New York City from the East after setting off Westward almost 80-weeks before. Around the world without flying.

The QM2 is a luxury Ocean Liner, it follows the same route and is in fact owned by the same company that ran the Titanic. Though it isn't as expensive as you might imagine I'm paying the inflated (nearly double) single occupancy rate. So if I you're not too weird, I'm happy to take along a cabin mate. It would halve the price for me. Even if I do make the crossing alone, it'll represent a significant savings when compared to the prospect of completing the journey by yacht.

Oh yes, St. Petersburg and Moscow are fantastic. This post would be far too long if I got into it. Come and see for yourself.

*No recent photos up yet but Emily, a recent travelling companion, has some of her/my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Have a look here.

April 28, 2007

The Trans-Siberian Railway

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - My journey across Asia has been travelled, amlost exclusively by train. With a few major detours - Korea, Japan and then back down to Shanghai - I've essentially ridden, by rail, from Ho Chi Minh City in the South of Vietnam to Moscow; and I plan to continue via train deeper into Europe. I doubt there is a longer train journey one can take anywhere in the world.

This last leg along the famed Trans-Siberian railway has, however been the longest. Eighty hours after pulling out of Irkutsk we rolled into central Moscow.

I've been here in Moscow for more nearly 3-days already and have been lazy about posting here. It's just that there are a million better things to do in Moscow than hunt for Internet Cafes, which are shockingly rare.

April 23, 2007

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

IMG_3255IRKUSTK, RUSSIA - Growing up on the Great Lakes one gets a lot of propaganda regarding how big, and how great they are. 'Tis true, they are some of the biggest lakes in the world. However the banana shaped Lake Baikal holds more water in it that all 5 of the great lakes combined. More than 1.6km deep it actually holds 1/5th of the worlds supply of unfrozen fresh water. Surrounded my mountains and cliffs, and in the middle of Siberia it is a pristine natural playground with abundant and unique wildlife - including it's own species of freshwater seal - and crystal clear water with visibility of up to 40m. I would love to be back here sometime other than spring time, as the winter ice roads are closed yet the ice isn't quite off the lake yet.

Other than the lake, I've been blown away by Irkutsk and the Russians in general. Their cold demeanor is really quite easy to crack and we've met nothing but friendly and curious people. With nightclubs that go off every night of the week and fashionable people everywhere, Irkustk is much more cosmopolitan than I'd ever expected from a Siberian town. Perhaps it's just the incredible spring weather we've been having, but I'll leave Irkutsk with a overwhelmingly positive impression.

Next up: Moscow. We've booked our train tickets direct for Moscow. At 4:30 today I'll be boarding the Trans-Siberian railway and won't be disembarking 80hours, and five time zones later. This time we'll be riding 3rd class. I'm not sure what to expect, but it should be an adventure. I know at least 4 other travellers who'll be on this train so at least I'll have some back up and somebody to talk to.

April 21, 2007

Adventures in Siberia

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA - Within 30 seconds of boarding the train in Ulaanbaatar, I was at it again. For the second time in 3-days I was fighting for my valuables.

I should have been a very quick grab and run for him. I'd just dropped all my luggag on my berth on the train and had cleared out to let the others organize their things. I wandered a metre or two down the hall, gazed out the window for a moment, then turned back to my cabin. There I was, standing directly behind a short and fat-ish man with a perfect view of his arm elbow deep in my day bag. I watched for a few more seconds, just to be sure he wasn't digging through my stuff by accident.

Then it was on. I'm not sure what proper protocol is, but I grabbed him with both hands and shook him free of my luggage. It worked well. In the end he got away and only really fought back when I tried to drag him out of the train. Ultimately abandoned that strategy and let him go as I'm not really good at violence and it would have meant me leaving my luggage unattended.

The whole ordeal sort of made me a hero on the train as people retold the story and pointed in my direction in every language but English. Before long, I was being force fed bread, colbasa and other strange meats along with tea by nearly everyone who could get near me. They shared their shower shoes with me and suggested I carry a 'fanny-pack' to protect my stuff (both part of the standard Russian train uniform).

It wasn't long before I was deeply involved with a cheap clothing smuggling ring. In my role as accomplice I stuffed a bunch of tacky jeans into my own luggage for the border crossing. I know, it seems like a terrible idea - it probably was. But I had no real choice after spending the day eating and drinking in a cramped cabin with an Uzbek trader, a Buryat Russian, and Mongol business man. We were all in on it.

In a fit of classic Russian bureaucracy it took 10 hours to cross the border. In that time the Russian soldiers and border guards searched and hassled my travelling merchant friends endlessly while leaving me alone. Once on the Russian side, I returned the contraband jeans and we all shared another pile of sandwiches.

After travelling through the semi-independent Buryatic Republic by night, I've arrived in the biggest town and regional centre of Siberia: Irkustk. There doesn't seem to be much going on as there are only two of us in our Hostel but the snow is mostly melted and I'm in Siberia! Time to explore a little...