Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Datong, China- Day 108-110: Dealing with excessive attention

Since arriving at Datong - a north eastern town in China, we have been overwhelmed with the attention that Isaac gets. We thought Turkey was excessive but Datong hits the ball out of the park. T and I are trying our best to politely ask people to stop taking pictures of Isaac. On our last day in Datong we were stalked by a hotel guest who insisted on gifting Isaac 1000 RMB ($146) which eventually led to an intervention by the hotel staff.

The picture above was taken when we went to laundromat to enquire about laundry services. In a few minutes we were surrounded by 12 or 15 locals staring and running after Isaac.

Datong is a coal mining town that ranks as one of the most polluted cities in China. Our main incentive to stop in Datong (enroute to Beijing) was to see the Yungang Grottoes - a collection of shallow caves with over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which are over a 1000 years old. Apparently they closely resemble the Buddha statues that have been destroyed in Iraq.

About a 2 hours drive away is the Hanging Temple built into a steep cliff face near Mount Heng which dates to the 4th century. They were built above groundlevel so as to avoid being washed away in floods common at the time. At first glance the monastery looks precarious but were told that the horizontal beams that support the structure have been inserted deep into the rocks and the vertical beams (that look like they are holding up the temple) are merely decorative.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mongolia to China- Day 107

The 23 hour train ride across Mongolia and into China was interesting for 3 reasons:

1. We were sharing a cabin with a man who was smuggling (or transporting) an entire bike disassembled into 10 different parts and tucked into various corners of our coupe.

2. It took us through the Gobi desert - a dramatic change from the lush valleys that we had seen for the better half of the morning.

3. The border control with China was painless but what had us fascinated was the gauge changing process. The train tracks in Mongolia and China differ, so the train was pulled into a shed, the train carriages were literally pulled apart like Lego pieces and lifted up while the gauges got switched. All of this while the passengers were still in the train!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ulanbator, Mongolia- Day 103-106

We have spent the last 3 nights at a Ger camp in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park about 50 kms from Ulanbator. It is vast, unspoiled and one of those places that you sincerely wish will never change because everything looks perfect just the way it is. We have been kicking back and enjoying the endless green valleys while Isaac amuses himself with the horses and yaks grazing the steppe.

Having been saturated with architecture and culture the past few months, this was exactly the break that I needed.

The Ger is layered with various insulating materials so as to retain heat and has a wood burning fireplace at the center. The tent has a colorful interior - red wood panels and painted folk designs but devoid of any furniture other than beds and a table, which isn't very different from traditional ger homes. Our guess is that Ger tents are circular to minimise resistance to winds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

UlanUde to Ulanbator - Day 102: Border nightmare

The border control between China and Mongolia was a nightmare. We waited for nearly 5 hours at the Russian checkpoint although they did allow us to walk on the platform while our passports were being checked. Isaac wasn't feeling too well and we couldn't make him instant noodles because the hot water samovar (water dispenser) was switched off at the border. He was hungry, cranky and then cried non-stop. He eventually fell asleep but I was so upset with the guilt of not having fed my hungry child.

Then came the Mongolian border control which took another 2 hours while we waited in our stuffy cabins. I was so glad when we were finally got moving.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ulan ude, Russia- Day 101: Buryat Republic

Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic - an autonomous region within the Russian federation. The Buryatis were a shamanistic people before adopting Buddhism and have clung on to their faith despite years of Communist repression. Ulan Ude is home to Ivolginsky Datsan considered the center of Buddhism in Russia. It is also home to to the largest Lenin head :) How's that for megalomania?

We are staying in the apartment of a young Buryati man whose mother took a liking to Isaac.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Irkutsk-Ulan Ude, Day 100 - Hitting the 100 day mark

Hitting the 100 day mark should make us feel celebratory but on the contrary we are so sad that our trip is already half over. We have had so much of fun thus far and Isaac has done surprisingly well with all the travel.

Today we take the last train on our Trans Siberian journey, from Irkutsk to our last stop in Russia - Ulanude. Riding the Trans Siberian has given me a rare insight into the very heart of this country and I am glad that we chose to do this despite how uncomfortable it got at times. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it has changed my life, but Russia as a country has taught me more about myself than I ever knew before.

I was attempting to shoot a video but had to stop because T was giving Isaac a little nightcap before bedtime :)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lake Baikal, Russia - Day 97 - 99

We were woken up by our wagon attendant to see the most surreal sight outside our train window - soft mist covered fields with a floating purple haze hanging over it.

After pulling up at Irkutsk station, we had an eventful time getting to Listvyanka - a little fishing village on Lake Baikal. Isaac got a bit of motion sickness and threw up over me and himself while we were in a public bus which left him cranky and uncomfortable for the rest of the ride.

Lake Baikal is the most voluminous lake in the world, is home to over 1000 species of plants and animals and is a UNESCO World heritage site. Even if the facts mean little to me, I was immediately smitten by the serenity of the lake. The waters are crystal clear and the lake's waters gently lap up on pebble covered beaches.

There is surprisingly little tourist traffic given it is high-season but there are lots of locals going about their daily routine which consists of fishing, selling fish and eating fish. But not just any fish. Omul is a white salmon like fish that can only be found here and has spurred overfishing to the point that it is now an endangered species.
We are staying at a guesthouse on a street lined with traditional Siberian homes and its a real treat to witness the slow pace of everyday life - grazing cattle, men drawing water from the wells and firewood being hauled into homes.

A video of Isaac throwing pebbles which lasted for over an hour.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Krasnoyarsk-Irkutsk - Day 96: Rossiya No. 2

About 8 different trains into the Trans-Siberian and we have figured that the trains with the lower numbers (e.g 1 or 2) are the more modern ones and the larger the train's number the more rickety and drab they get. Shortly after realising this pearl of wisdom which had eluded us thus far, we read it in black and white in our guidebook. I do wish we had figured this out earlier, although T argues that the older trains are a more authentic Trans Siberian experience.

Krasnoyarsk, Russia- Day 96

Krasnoyarsk is city of 900,000 people in the center of Siberia and was a major center of the Stalin Gulag system housing several labor camps. Krasnoyarsk was closed to foreigners during the time of the Soviet Union and our host - Alex says he sees a tourist only about 4 times every year. Most tourists do not stop in cities like Krasnoyarsk simply because it lacks any cultural or architectural uniqueness.Nevertheless we spent a beautiful afternoon riding a cable car to the top of a ski mountain to take in the breathtaking views of the city.

Alex, Lydia and their lovely kids were our hosts for two nights and Isaac was so glad to have the company of children and toys for a change.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Novosibirsk, Russia - Day 92: Railway Museum

Novosibirsk as a city owes its very existence to the Trans-Siberian rail network. It's first settlement was due to the construction of a bridge for the rail line. We explored the small but impressively curated railway museum where we were the only visitors that day. Isaac loved the little scaled down train models and T is a train enthusiast - so I had both boys happily occupied.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Omsk-Russia, Day 90: Look how far we have come!

Before boarding our train from Omsk to Novosibirsk, we saw this map at the train station. It shows Russia's extensive rail network but also just how far we have come from Moscow (2716 kms) and the 3180kms we have before we get to Mongolia.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Omsk, Russia- Day 89: Olga's Russia

Olga - our hostess in Omsk is an English professor at the Law faculty who has lived in Omsk all her life. As we sat at her small kitchen table late into the night, she explained the challenges of everyday life in Communists Russia and narrated stories of her personal losses and tragedies. As someone who was born in 1940's, she has witnessed the hardship of not only her parents and grandparents but also the lack of choices in present day Russia for her grandchildren. After the fall of Communism, she says the country has merely changed hands to another set of thugs and made little material difference to regular folks.

Her grandfather was branded an enemy of the state and executed shortly after the 1918 revolution. In the years that followed Olga recollects seeing her parents and grandmother live in a cramped apartment with little to eat and few job opportunities to earn a living wage other than at state owned factories with deplorable working conditions. Her mother was a pediatrician but even that didn't ensure a decent life. A few years back she lost her husband to cancer and her daughter to a car accident, yet she shows an amazing appetite for life and is full of questions about America and the countries that we have visited.

Like any grandmother she dotted on Isaac and insisted on making us elaborate meals even though it wasn't included in our lodging arrangement with the Home Stay association through which we found Olga.

Omsk is a pretty enough town and is known for having the most number of Lenin statues that any other city in Russia. The highlight was being invited by the church caretaker of Omsk Cathedral to view the city from the bell tower and to see the golden onion domes up close.

Boris - the caretaker said that I was the first Indian he has ever met. Since Moscow I have been a bit of a novelty; perhaps because Indians are not common in these parts or perhaps because I don't look anything like the Indian movie stars from the 70's and 80's that they are familiar with :)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Yekaterinburg-Omsk, Day 88

We had 2 old women as coupe mates on the overnight train between Yekaterinburg to Omsk. Both of them looked and behaved like they were mentally disturbed and T who normally says only the nicest things admitted that they were "Borderline scary" :)

Of course, Isaac never has a dearth of friends to play with. We have discovered that Trans Siberian trains are filled with boisterous kids. Russian mothers are completely comfortable traveling with a portable kiddie potty which they place outside the car/wagon toilet when their kid wants to 'Go'. While I admire this kind of determination I don't think I could cope with all the cleaning that follows after the 'job' is done. Changing diapers seems so much more easier in comparison.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yekaterinburg- Russia, Day 86-87 : Hitting a wall

If there has been a low point so far, this has to be it. The apartment in Yekaterinburg was filthy and depressing. The bathroom didn't have a sink, the kitchen stove wasn't working and the fridge had mouldy stuff growing in it. We tried to spend most of the day outside and came back at 10:30pm to find the front door was jammed. By the time we had Isaac fed, showered and in bed, I was mentally and physically exhausted and ready to ask T to buy a ticket to get us out of Russia.

In many ways I feel like I have a "hit a wall" - a marathon terminology used to describe the onset of fatigue and the inability to run any further. In large part it has to do with how strenuous it has been to pack and board a train every second day and the dodgy accommodations that make me squirm. I am hoping that I can get past these'comfort'issues and enjoy Russia with all its eccentricities.

Yekaterinburg's most historic site is the the massive Byzantine-style Church of the Blood which now dominates the Romanov execution site. It baffles me that the entire family has now been elevated to the status of saints with altars and expensive icons erected for each member of the family. Apparently the canonisation has been the subject of much debate - one side arguing that their deaths had nothing to do with their religious beliefs while the other side saying they met their deaths with Christian humility.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Kazan-Yekaterinburg - Day 85: Crossing over to Asia

This leg of the Trans Siberian journey cuts through the Ural mountains and puts us officially in Asia.

Yeketerinburg is situated on the border of Europe and Asia (on the Asian side) and is infamous as the sight for the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. Rumours have it that after the cold war, Soviet nuclear arms were moved to Yeketerinbug as the Ural mountains formed a natural buffer in the event of an explosion.

In the cabin next to ours, we met little Amir and his mom who were headed to Yeketerinburg to undergo the first of 3 surgeries to repair his cleft lip. Understandably, Amir's mom was very nervous about the surgery. It's in moments like this that I wish I could speak more Russian and tell her that children are stronger than we give them credit for.

A video of our private'luxe'cabin -

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Kazan, Russia - Day 83-84: Republic of Tartarstan

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation that has it's own President, constitution and national flag. It's unclear to me how much of real 'autonomy' they have, but it seems in some judicial and executive respects they govern themselves while being delimited at a federal level.

I came to Kazan expecting it to be a 'one lane town' and was surprised to see a city with a modern waterfront dotted wit high-rise buildings, and a Kremlin which is a UNESCO World heritage site. Other parts of the old town are crumbling from neglect and entire swatches of the main street is filled with building debris.

Kazan has more in common with Central Asia than Russia due in large part to immigrant influx from former Russian regions such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Sunni Islam is the state religion and many of the mosques destroyed during Communist rule have been restored.

A not so happy Isaac with the Uzbek staff of the restaurant 'Staroe Mesto', where we had Tatar salads and dumplings, then a conversation about how much these guys would love to go to New York and open a restaurant.

And a video of the beautiful Kul-Sharif mosque in Kazan named after the Imam who died defending the city from Ivan the Terrible.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moscow to Kazan - Day 83 : First Trans-Siberian train

Moscow to Kazan was the first of 7 trains we will be hopping on and off as we cross the length of Russia. The train that we rode from St.Petersburg to Russia does not count because the main Trans-Siberian route starts in Moscow and terminates in Vladivostok.

This was a "firm" train called "firmenny", which means that they are more comfortable (and more expensive). I was pleasantly surprised to find the train was absolutely spotless and thoroughly modern.

A video clip from the train which features Ivan - a little boy who Isaac became fast friends with.

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