Australia – What Do You Reckon?

“It’s Mel-bin,” my formerly-Canadian-now-Australian friend, S, corrected when I kept saying Mel-boorn. “And you watch The Tennis in Australia, not tennis. I play The Golf, and we slip The Shrimp on The Barbie.” Ok, he didn’t say the last one because no one does. They’re called prawns, mostly.

“You’ve really embraced your new country,” I smirk. “Do you say ‘What do you reckon?’ And ‘Woolys’ for Woolworths?”

“You have to call it ‘Woolys,'” S retorted, “That’s what it is called here. But I still say ‘think,’ not ‘reckon’ and never ‘Maccas’ for ‘McDonald’s.'”

Landing in Australia after Southeast Asia was more of a culture shock than going from North America to Hong Kong at the start of the trip. Water is blue again, so are skies, and traffic is well behaved although Aussie cars will run you over instead of patiently winding around you if you are foolish enough to jaywalk. On country number 5 of alternately left-hand/right-hand drive, D and I looked left, right and up before stepping into the road.

We continued our take-a-boat-ride-in-every country with about as much success. In Melbin, we chose the Docklands cruise instead of the Garden route because we’d passed that new trendy area the day before and it looked interesting. We found instead that it was literally a cruise of the working docklands with a commentary along the lines of “that big ship there is from China and has 20,000 shipping containers on it. It comes on Mondays and Fridays.”

Melbin, however, is lovely. It is a pristine, orderly place that has locked up the Most Liveable City in the World for the past 7 years, leaving Vancouver clinging to third spot. It is the Victoria of Australia, a comparison that only works for British Columbians, since Australians would be quick to point out with confusion and rolled eyes that Melbin is in Victoria (state).

To me, Melbin will always be where I met Roger Federer, the Barbie doll Ken-sized Roger on the court while we sat in the stands, that is. We’d tacked on Australia almost solely to see the Australian Open (that’s The Tennis for those like me who don’t follow such things). D is a big fan and the price of attending, other than the exorbitant markup of resale tickets, was teaching me tennis rules. She was patient with my novice questions and swallowed any resentment at my savant-like ability to predict whether a ball was in or out on the challenges. Turns out I’m pretty good at 50-50 calls. But I was hooked after watching the GOAT win the quarters, reading tennis articles and insisting on arranging our sightseeing days to see him win the finals on TV. Now YouTube emails me daily Federer videos in an attempt to lure me down a wormhole.

Sydney is more like Vancouver although with nicer weather. We stepped up our water game with an inexpensive ferry to Manly Beach. I was hoping it referred to a person, but no, it was (re)named after the “manly behaviour” of the indigenous people, whatever that means, witnessed by the British naval officer who founded the penal colony that would become Sydney. I hope he had to do some time himself for that. But the beach was perfect with whitish, powdery sand, water lapping our ankles, and tables to hang out on while our gelato melted faster than we could eat it.

Then came Brisbane and a visit with S, my other reason for the Australia stopover. First was a laughing catch up lunch with S and his lovely wife A, despite a misfire on my order which saw me get 3 thumb-sized tacos as my meal. This might be the time to mention there is (generally) no tipping in Australia – this country choosing instead to pay a minimum wage of over $17. Of course, a server expecting a tip might have made more of an effort to explain the exact dimensions of the taco appetizer. No tipping also comes with surprising surcharges coded to your bill like the 10% PH line item (public holiday surcharge), the 5% WE charge (weekend extortion?) or the automatic extra $10 that gets added to a cab fare even when it hasn’t gone through any tolls.

Brisbane itself is my next favourite place because, water. You might feel the need to point out that Australia is an island and these cities are all pretty much on the coast but the water in Brisbane is a river, called the Brisbane River (as thankfully that naval guy hadn’t arrived “first”).

S lent me his transport card and while he and A went back to work, I deciphered the ferry system, bypassing the free City Hopper tourist ferry and similarly named but completely different cross-river City Ferry to hop on the speedy catamaran called the City Cat. This cat zig zags across and up and down the river fast enough that your hair whips around your face while you are lulled by the deckhand’s rhythm of string a cordon, open the gate, throw a line, pull over the gangway, remove the cordon, let on/off the passengers and then do whole thing in reverse, at each stop every few minutes. Fun enough that even the following conversation between captains on their shift change doesn’t phase you, much:

  • Hey Mick, all right?
  • Yeah, steering goes out every now and then, but all good
  • Good, bye then

Perhaps I was distracted by the best gelato I’ve ever had, a creamy, bitter-sweet combination of 80% dark chocolate topped with a scoop of salted caramel, from the wonderful La Macelleria in Teneriffe.

Almost topping that was dinner at Kotobuki, an izakaya restaurant, that has refined service to an AI degree. When you walk in, you are given an iPad menu that allows you to order without talking to anyone. When you see an item you want, you press it and it’s sent directly to the kitchen, no backsies. Which means you lose track of what you’ve ordered and eat too much. I had just read about the hack that “jackpots” ATMs, i.e. installs a program that causes the ATM to spit out 20s like you’ve won the jackpot. I had visions Lucy or Ethelling it at the end of a sushi conveyor belt trying to catch flying roe in my mouth (see what I did there?). But you don’t have to speak to anyone, ever, and no one comes to check on each bite you take (genius!) although you can request a server through the magic portal if you are lonely. The dishes come fresh in less than a minute and I timed the arrival of the bill (another button) at 10 seconds.

I could go on about Australia:

  • The Great Ocean Road outside of Melbin, where you can see koalas and bright red parrots in the wild when you stop for lunch on the way to the 12 (actually 8) Apostles, limestone stacks rising out of the ocean, striped in shades of tan and sand
  • F18 jets exploding up and out from behind the Sydney Opera House like a bloomin’ flower on Australia Day while crowds wave Australian and Aboriginal flags, and yes, sing Waltzing Matilda periodically
  • Koalas you can cuddle and kangaroos you can pet at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary that S took me to on our epic touring day that also saw us walking around the tops of the three-storey high trees in the Mt Tamborine rain forest on a metal skywalk

As I gazed out at the lit up Story Bridge from the patio of Madame Wu’s on the banks of the Brisbane river that final evening, I turned to S and said, “I think I could live in Australia.” “You reckon?” he responded without thinking.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t that pat, it was probably more like “I’d better leave at 9am tomorrow to catch my flight.” But he did said “reckon” and earlier a “Maccas” had slipped out after all. I can see why Australia has gotten into his blood, eh?

Epilogue

I’ve been back for two weeks and am finishing this in the airspace above the Northwest Territories where I’m headed briefly for work. Thinking back on the trip, it is hard to name one favourite thing. Each country was fun and fascinating in some way and I hope I’ve captured a small piece of that in these posts.

What did I learn?

If you give a guide your What’s App info, he will become a pen pal for life and text you sappy sunrise pictures saying “Good morning, Mary.”

If you book a rooftop fireworks buffet for Australia Day at your hotel for prime viewing in luxury, don’t be surprised if the dinner is on the first floor interior terrace overlooking the lobby, and the rooftop viewing is sardining yourselves with all the other guests, when you’ve booked in to the Holiday Inn.

And finally, my skin colour is called snail-white in Asia, according to the cosmetic ads, and should provide good camouflage up here in the north this week.

Cambodia and Thailand – We Gave It Wat Pho

We stood at a stall in Bangkok’s Chatuchak market, flipping through piles of small fabric pouches with bright stitching and wavering between the cobalt blue with leaf green accents, the orange-pink flowers or the purple-red elephants. Despite being tagged at 100 Thai bahts each (about $4 Cdn) we steeled ourselves to barter. D and I were already licking our wounds after the rookiest of rookie mistakes – leaving the hotel in a cab that hadn’t switched on the meter without first negotiating a price, resulting in double the going fare.

At the stall, we spoke like gangsters, low and crooked-mouthed. “What do you think, 4 for the price of 3?” “Let’s go lower, 280 bahts for 4?” “Yeah, 280, hold firm! Be prepared to walk away.”

D set her shoulders and turned to the seller, “How much for 4?” The woman barely glanced at us and tossed out, “250.” We jumped on it before we talked ourselves into paying more. We are so bad at this.

D and I had decided to travel sans guide in Thailand. Guides had worked well in Vietnam but I’d grown tired of the well-meaning chatterbox we hired in Cambodia. He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and efficient, able to rattle off historical names and dates and always smiling. Having an air conditioned car waiting with a driver proffering ice-cold water and facecloths was worth it alone, given the 34-feels-like-38 degree weather. But he also felt the need to explain every chisel mark of every bas-relief so when he gestured to a long wall showing monkeys fighting demons and said that it was one of eight different panels, we had to awkwardly convert our horrified “oh no’s” into fake-appreciative “ooh’s.”

Guide or no guide, the temples of Cambodia around Siem Reap show distinct personalities despite being just a few kilometres from each other. Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom compares to the Mexican architecture of Tikal or Chichen Itza, pyramidy with stairs up the face. The Banteay Srei temple mixes Hindu and Buddhist elements into intricate, curly designs in red sandstone, and the funeral temple of Pre Rup looks like a series of termite mounds made of brick.

Angkor Wat is the matriarch, an extensive complex with beehive towers surrounded by an immense moat. Walking around in the hot, damp air you feel like you are soaking in the atmosphere through your pores. Your breath catches when you watch the sun slide down behind the gates one day, then silhouette the towers as it rises again way too early the next morning, turning the sky from dark purple to light blue and then to yellow and orange.

But the standout temple was Ta Prohm, taken over by the jungle and left that way, with crumbling stone, giant balsa trees growing from the tops of walls and roots creeping down their faces like melted candle wax.

While I was grateful for the richer understanding that came with using a guide, his fate, and that of his Thai brothers, was sealed when, presumably having run dry of history, he explained how the spiders on the ruins spun webs to catch flies.

Between research and recommendations from friends, we made a loose plan for Thailand. Chatuchak was our first stop. The market has a permanent structure of stalls with walls, glass sliding doors and air conditioning along with Home Depot style signage: home furnishings, wood products and pet accessories. We backed up quickly when we stumbled into the puppy mill aisle and plunged instead into party favours. Out into the sunshine of the rickety weekend market and back in for glassware and the colourful fabric bags where we bought the pouches. We tried to double back at one point and got hopelessly lost in another adjacent market that was strictly local, with stall after stall of dead birds and live aquarium fish.

A visit to the night market near our hotel brought offers to watch women do unspeakable things with ping pong balls. We passed. But on the walk home found a local restaurant with the best panang beef curry I’ve ever had.

Our last day, we set out with confidence. The metered taxi cost a quarter of the previous day’s price and we dispatched the Golden Buddha temple with great efficiency, amusing ourselves by creating our own narrative for the friezes.

We avoided the sketchy tuk tuk driver who wanted to take us to three different places instead of where we’d asked to go and prided ourselves for the deal on the next one, negotiating only a short detour to the cheap ferry so we could continue by boat up the Chao Phraya river, something on our list.

Unfortunately, guides aren’t the only ones adept at hostage tourism and our tuk tuk driver diverted us to a private boat demanding $120 Cdn for a 1 hr tour. This, in a country where a 30 min taxi costs $3. I guess the sucker stamp from the Vietnamese pearl farm was indelible.

Old hands, we out-stubborned them down to $20 per person and eventually made our way to Wat Pho, now in the top five list of sights for this trip so far.

Wat Pho is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a bright gold Buddha, 150 feet long by 49 feet high, stretching out gracefully on his side. Outside, is a wonderland of stupa pillars and buildings with walls and roofs decorated in exquisite multi-coloured mosaics, eaves of gold-sequined dragons and galleries repeating Buddhas infinitely down each hallway.

We wandered in and out, trying to capture every view with each one more spectacular than the last. Living in the moment, with no one yapping at us, and promising ourselves to read all about it. Later.

Siem Reap

Chao Phraya river

Wat Pho Bangkok

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta – Mekong es Sukong

We sat low in a wooden sampan between water coconut trees that crowded in on us as we glided down the narrow, silty canal. Our boatman’s oar dipped in and out of the water, birds chattered like monkeys among the fronds and roosters crowed to each other as if warning those ahead of our intrusion.

I posted a 10-sec video on Instagram and a friend back home likened it to Apocalypse Now. Apt comparison that I was surprised hadn’t occurred to me since a lot of the tourist experience in Vietnam revolves around discussing the War.

The day we spent in the Mekong Delta, though, was a break from war talk as we focused on the life of the coconut farmer and the red tilapia or catfish fisherman. Earlier that morning, before rowing down the canal, we’d driven a few hours south of Ho Chi Minh City to take a half hour motor boat ride on one of the nine river tributaries that meet in the delta.

Fishing nets are strung up onto posts, and little tiki huts along the banks serve as additional traps. Our guide told us they were chicken traps but when I exclaimed, “Chicken traps!” D quietly repeated that the man was “checking. the. traps.”

Our pilot cut the motor as we approached a lone fisherman anchored in the river, and called out to him in Vietnamese. The guy grinned and pulled a green net bag out of the water, twice the size of the ones our moms used to take shopping. We put down our coconut-water-in-a-coconut drink to congratulate him on his catch of a single squilla, which looks like a spindly lobster or a gargantuan shrimp. After reading up, I’m not entirely sure squilla live in the Mekong, so there’s a good chance I once again misheard the guide, or that fisherman kept one as a pet that he showed off to tourists.

Our destination was a coconut farm and we clambered off the boat onto a springy pile of coconut husks. As we watched, a worker impaled a young green coconut onto a comically large spear sticking straight up from the ground and with a few quick twists, tossed the husk on one pile and the coconut core on the other. That is step one of many in the mostly manual process of this farm. The hairy coconuts go to a group of women who further strip them of fibre and pass them on to stages which might include draining the coconut water or pressing the meat for milk or oil. The fibre gets spun into rope and the husks are used to help grow orchids. The leaves and wood of coconut trees (palm trees are different) are dried and used as fuel. It’s nose to tail coconut tree production.

After the coconut farm, we bumped along a track in the back of an open-framed cattle cart to a local house for fresh mango, pineapple, pomelo and banana, then took the Apocalypse Now canal ride to another house. There, the owner prepared a multi-course lunch of noodle soup, flaky spring rolls, do-it-yourself rice paper rolls with flesh pulled from a whole baked fish, rice and noodle dishes and finished with mini bananas (called bananas here) before returning to the city.

Heading back to Ho Chi Minh City is to leave the peace and hospitality of the Mekong behind and pick up talk of the War. Although I’ve purposely stayed away from discussing it here (our short time as tourists in no way qualifies me to understand its complexities), it was fascinating to hear the varied local perspectives as we moved from north to south. What everyone agreed on, however, is that Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon although the reasons might range from expediency (it is shorter than the official name) to minor political rebellion. Even that is layered: a newspaper headline the day of our Mekong trip was “Thief from Saigon caught by Ho Chi Minh police.”

Mekong Delta

Mekong Boaty MacBoatface

Vietnam: Hanoi to Hue – Monkey Spies and Mamazu

The trade-off with hiring a local guide and driver in Vietnam, as with anywhere else, is that at some point you are taken hostage, driven to a workshop for lacquer paintings or pottery or marble statues and trailed by sales people until you buy something. It is expected and even understandable, yet we were surprised when our guide led us to a young woman in a white lab coat and mask, holding surgical tools and peering through a magnifying glass. We’d landed at a pearl farm.

A petite hostess standing nearby explained that they catch oysters in Ha Long Bay, pry them open and remove a piece of the membrane. The membrane is combined with a white ball-bearing-sized core, she continued demurely, and then shoved into the oyster’s gonad. Sure enough, the oyster surgeon had clamped the shell open with a speculum and was inseminating it using tweezers. D and I nodded along as if we weren’t at all surprised that male oysters are made to give birth to cultured pearls.

The impregnated oysters are then strung on racks and lowered back into the bay where they get follow ups every two years to monitor the growth of the pearl baby.

She explained the quality rating system (lowest B to highest AAA) and led us over to the next station where she pulled out a two-year oyster and extracted the pearl toddler. She held it up, “What do you think?” We answered in Canadian, “Oh, what a lovely pearl, pretty colour, unusual shape” until she tossed it offhand into a beaker and said, “This is the worst, not good for jewelry, we grind it and eat it” and then stamped “suckers” on our foreheads and sent us into the shop.

While mercantile tourism might sometimes be the downside to using a guide, the upside is getting to chat at length with locals and gain even some small insight into life in Vietnam.

In Hanoi and Ha Long in North Vietnam, we talked about the 1000 years of Chinese rule, the 100 years of French occupation and the American War, as it is called here. And while Canadians default to weather (it’s been cold and damp here being rainy season), Vietnamese small talk revolves around traffic. Population of cities is given in people and scooters, so how big is Hanoi? 8 million people and 5 million scooters.

Hanoi itself is a hectic, slightly dingy city with mostly uncontrolled intersections where scooters, cars and pedestrians mix together like cement and wood (the Vietnamese equivalent to oil and water). They slide by each other without sticking. To cross the road, our northern guide advised us to “walk slowly and confidently” with predictability of movement being the key to not getting squished. Our charming guide in Central Vietnam would instead call out, “Sticky rice! Be sticky rice” when it was time to cross.

In the cities, Vietnamese houses are 9 feet wide and 3-4 storeys tall to maximize a family’s storefront access, literally, since every house turns their first floor into a store. It allows the family to make a little additional income. Only the front is decorated, primarily in the French Colonial style with pastel colours, dormer windows and ornately balustraded balconies. The long sides are unrelieved, windowless cement in resignation of the neighbour who will build right up against it. The houses are powered by external cables that tangle into elaborate spider webs netting the city and hooked into boxes mounted on poles on each corner. If power goes out, another cable is added since it would be impossible to isolate the specific faulty line.

The 4-hr drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was a string of house-shops pretty much the entire way so D and I played silent bingo of how many times our guide mentioned the year a highway was constructed (usually after having been bombed by the Americans); what unusual item was being carried on a scooter (live chickens to propane tanks to 3ft bonsai trees); and the location of the monkey spies (the human radar traps police set up in treehouse blinds to hunt speeders).

Hoi An in Central Vietnam is completely different. It’s a small, charming place made up of two ancient towns that Japanese and Chinese traders settled across the river from each other, to become the second last stop on the Silk Road. The old town is filled with tailors and restaurants, and is strung with colourful lanterns that cause you to bump into each other as you walk around with faces lifted at night.

The walking bridge over the river that originally separated the two towns is called the Japanese Bridge and holds a Chinese temple where people pray for a peaceful Mamazu, a dragonlike sea monster with a head in India that causes droughts, a tail in Japan responsible for earthquakes and the body in Vietnam causing floods.

Mamazu is often angry, though, as floods submerge the Old Town once or twice every year. The floodline from this past November was higher than my fingerstips when my arm was extended straight over my head. They are deadly since according to our guide, 75% of Vietnamese can’t swim. She said parents are too busy scratching out a living to teach the kids and with the East Sea (South China Sea on the map) nearby and rivers all around, they keep the kids safe by convincing them there are monsters in the water. A project started where foreigners come to Vietnam to teach swimming lessons to lower the death toll, since on average 10 children drown every day in Vietnam. The name of the project: Monster Swimming.

Vietnam is a mix of modern and traditional, a small narrow country with 95 million people that fits 30 times into Canada and whose people differ in personality, accent and sometimes language from north to south. It is fiercely independent and incredibly resilient. Mamazu, eat your heart out.

Hong Kong – What a Souprise

It was worth the three flights and missing-luggage scare to discover soup dumplings on our first full day in Hong Kong. Not any old-hat dumplings bobbing in soup but pleated pouches of XiaoLongBao that contain a soupçon, as it were, of ambrosial broth within the wrapper as an extra special soup-rise (see what I did there?).

There is a ritual to eating XiaoLongBao that is detailed on the quick reference instruction card that comes with your order. You transfer the plump packets to a spoon and gingerly bring spoon and dumpling to your bowl. Then you dip them carefully in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar with shredded ginger before poking a hole in the top. You can let the fragrant liquid drain into the spoon, mixing with the soy-vinegar-ginger and taste it delicately, or you can fall on the dumpling like a sucker fish cleaning barnacles off a whale, slurp up the broth and gobble the pork dumpling in one bite. This was how I started a month in Asia-Oceania with my travel pal, D.

It began as a trip to Vietnam but spread out once we looked at a map with Cambodia-is-right-there, and look-how-close-Thailand-is, followed by since-we’re-here-how-about-Australia, capped off with we-have-to-go-through-Hong-Kong-we-might-as-well-stop-over.

We knew we were in for a treat when the actors on the Taiwanese airline videos from Seattle to Taipei to Hong Kong explained the safety instructions gravely in Chinese then broke into interpretive dance when it was time to review them in English.

Two days in Hong Kong is too short but still allows for a good sampling of food. The XiaoLongBao set a high bar that was met by successive meals of braised, charred short ribs; dim sum of har gow, siu mai, and black pepper squid tentacles well worth the 90-min wait; and topped off by a seafood restaurant that ferries you 30 min to an island, feeds you whole snapper, steamed shrimp in garlic sauce and butter-drenched fried lobster all freshly killed and cooked to order before shipping you back to Hong Kong Island.

The city itself isn’t what I expected. Not a slick, shiny metropolis, but a bustling, grittier city with towers stepping on top of each other forming a ring that creeps up and around the island, and spills across the bay into Kowloon. It has cramped alleys with signs that jockey for position up into the sky; crowded markets dedicated to ladies’ wares or flowers or textiles; and big sprawling malls with high end brand names and architecturally spectacular washrooms. The city is shrouded in a mysterious, smoggy glow by day and puts on a light show every night to rival Times Square or Picadilly Circus.

We did what I love best which is walk around the city to get a feel for the life there. Our lovely hosts, childhood friends of D, knew the best places to go including a stop at the (free) exhibit of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority on an upper floor of the second tallest building. We went for the view but got caught up in the Science World-like games including a full-body interactive one about whether Hong Kong should peg its currency to the Chinese renminbi or the US dollar. I played it energetically enough that I caught the eye of the poor woman charged with surveying the few visitors and felt compelled to answer her questions with extreme enthusiasm including whether I would tell others to go visit (“Of course!”). So now I’ve kept my promise. Go see it.

My favourite part of this first leg of our trip, aside from the freshly baked pain au chocolat our hostess made every morning, was riding up the escalators from Central at the waterline to the Mid-Levels where we were staying. There are 21 escalators and inclined moving sidewalks that make up the longest covered outdoor escalator system in the world. Incredible people watching as you glide by crooked streets and busy stalls and glance into peoples’ kitchens.

I feel like I should wrap this up by using the XiaoLongBao as a metaphor for Hong Kong with its flexible wrapping, pleated streets and meaty deliciousness surrounded by the salty Kowloon Bay broth but that is just ridiculous. Maybe instead, I can just say this is the best way to start a new year – Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Savannah – And Then the Plantations Flourished

If it weren’t for trying to blanch me with its 38C/100F humidex and arctic-conditioned restaurants, Savannah could be Utopia. It was founded that way, in fact — the brainchild of a British general who brought 39 families over in 1733 as a grand experiment. The rules were simple: no slavery, no hard liquor and no lawyers. It lasted 22 years.

Savannah today is one of those cities where you can’t help blurting, “This is so beautiful” every few blocks. It’s only two hours by air from Toronto where I was working, so it made an enticing and easy long weekend escape.

The historic centre is a living checkerboard — every few blocks the streets open into wide grassy squares, tree-filled, draped with Spanish moss and centered around a monument or fountain. “Every few blocks” is literal: there are 22 mini-parks within an area just over 2 kms wide by 2 kms long.

Encircling the squares and lining every street in Historic Savannah are homes with intricate wrought iron balconies, black shutters and white verandahs. They are painted not in Easter-egg pastels, but a mix of brighter yellows, teals and blues, or muted greens, creams and greys. Like the fairy tale, homes of wooden siding sit beside others of red or brown brick.

Down by the river is an old warehouse and factory district with the lower level converted into shops and restaurants, touristy but in a cheerful, boardwalk way. Cobblestones slant away from the river up to a retaining wall, with steep, stone staircases liberally marked “use at your own risk” that rise to street level. On the street side of these five-storey buildings, catwalks lead directly into the third storey and overlook arched storerooms where imaginary pirates store rum or other contraband.

In addition to the squares, architecture and river walk, there is more to see in Savannah, including the Wormsloe Plantation with its lush live oak trees that meet in a canopy over the wide, mile-long boulevard. And the Bonaventure Cemetery, famous for the Bird Girl statue used on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, although that was removed to a museum when people insisted on breaking off pieces of its marble base as souvenirs. The same museum houses the iconic bench on which Forrest Gump sat with his box of chocolates, a movie prop that made Chippewa Square more famous than its 21 siblings. Savannah-shot movies and TV shows are incidentally are a big conversation topic with equal pride shown in Underground, Forrest Gump, SpongeBob SquarePants 2.

The only thing that dismayed me, in my first visit to the American South, was the lack of any real acknowledgment of slavery on the tours we took. Guides rarely referred to it other than with the euphemistic phrase, “and then the plantations flourished.” As in, “the trustees gave up on the utopic ideal, and then the cotton plantations flourished.” Or “Noble Jones didn’t believe in slavery, until the laws changed, and then his plantation flourished.” There are, however, countless “Haunted Savannah” and “Ghosts and Graves” tours, including one that takes place by hearse and one that becomes a pub crawl.

The proliferation of ghost tours speaks to the widespread (at least for tourism’s sake) belief the city is haunted, not by slavery, but by the thousands of people who died of yellow fever and then apparently got paved over to make the beautiful squares. I had hope for a final tour of a beautiful 1820 red brick house, especially when the guide used the term “enslaved people” rather than “slave.” She described where they lived and their role both at the house and in the family business, but lost me when she referred to the white owners as their “sponsors” and “guardians.”

But the fault is certainly in part mine, by what I chose to tour and by not researching more of the other side of the South while I was there. I was distracted with finding the next great seafood restaurant to try, and imagining an alternate genteel life of swinging on my front porch and soaking in the peaceful squares and dreaming of outside air conditioning. I’ll have to go back. In winter.


Beijing – Don’t Climb Every Mountain

When I booked the trip from Moscow to Beijing, I never pictured tobogganing down a metal slide from the top of the Great Wall of China. But neither did I expect the options up to the Wall to be chair lift, cable car, or hour+ trek. Wonderful Rebecca, my guide, immediately dismissed the hike option with, “We don’t need to climb every mountain.” I appreciated the sentiment even though that attitude will get you caught by the Nazis every time. 

I’ve been home a month now, struggling with how to write up Beijing. I’m at a loss when things go too smoothly and I was the ultimate tourist, picking four sights to cover in three days.

What struck me most about my final destination was how big everything feels in China. Tiananmen Square is almost 3 times longer and 7 times wider than Moscow’s Red Square and can hold a million people. Lenin’s squat, marble tomb in Moscow is tucked into the middle of the Kremlin wall — Mao’s tomb in Beijing is a massive white pillared mausoleum that occupies one side of Tiananmen Square.

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City follow the IKEA model of a single mandatory pedestrian flow, past enormous monuments and street peddlers, while a loudspeaker shouts official warnings in Mandarin to shun street vendors, whose main goal is apparently to cheat us and pass off counterfeit money. The tourist tide continues into pedestrian tunnels and up though Arc-de-Triomphe-sized gates, winding by temple after temple: this middle one for the emperor, that side one for his staff or the military that lived on site, and past long dorms for the concubines. Our guide translated that into “girlfriends,” attributing the custom with more charm than was likely the case.

Everything is painted blue, gold, red and green, symbolic of the elements, with gargoyles and yellow halfpipe roof tiles giving the buildings lacy edges. The side gardens are decorated with dragon statues, natural limestone sculptures and crinkly, twisty trees, like bonsai all grown up. And just like that the Forbidden City was behind us and two attractions were checked off.

My new guide for Great Wall Day had chosen “Wonderful” as her English name for its “strength and awesomeness” but changed it to Rebecca five years ago on the advice of an early client who told her Wonderful was “too weird and braggy”.

Rebecca had the driver take us 90 min north of Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, known for smaller crowds, and the chair lift and tobaggon. The Wall itself is a 15′-wide path raised 25′ high and built of grey stones with crenulated walls. It follows the landscape so we walked up and down ramps and stairs that slanted significantly from left to right, taking pictures of the surrounding mountains and trees and distant parts of the Wall. There are 23 watch towers along this section and we climbed them all so I could take endless castle-like pictures with the view framed by arched windows.

As we panted up and down, Rebecca was so easy to talk to that I slipped up and used the word “revolution” without thinking, when asking about how Mao Zedong came to power in the 50s. Rebecca spun around and practically leapt at me, looking at the other tourists in panic. I apologized immediately through the hand I’d automatically clamped over my mouth at her reaction but when no one paid any attention, she relaxed, “Don’t worry. I don’t think anyone here speaks English.” The rest of the walk was silent. And the answer to my question about what it was called when they moved from imperial dynasties to Mao? They say, “And then there was the government.”

My final stop in China was a day trip to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, a 2-hr flight from Beijing. For some reason I’d pictured little chubby red clay trolls, clearly a holdover from some children’s cartoon in my brain. Instead they are row on row of lifelike, lifesized figures in three warehouse pits, wearing uniforms and hairstyles according to their rank and role: infantry, cavalry, acrobat (yes, really), etc. After 2,200 years, they are faded to dusty pinks, greys and tans, some darkened with soot from a long ago fire. They were found in full colour, which faded away in a few months once exposed to air. The estimate is 8,000 of these soldiers exist, buried in battalion formation to protect the first emperor’s tomb. 

The pits are impactful on their own but even more impressive when you realize only one soldier was found intact. The other 7999 were painstaking fixed in a soldier hospital set up at one end of the largest pit. The “hospital” is comically equipped with real hospital beds and Pixar-style lights that curve overhead. And there is a ban on photographs presumably to protect the clay soldiers privacy.

China was a smooth, easy end to a long, challenging-in-the-best-way trip. People have asked if they’d like the Trans-Siberian Railway and my advice is to read up on it first. I’d originally thought it would be like the Orient Express but less murdery. But it is nothing like that. It’s a working train, not a tourist trip.

For the most part you spend consecutive days and nights in the same cabin, with strangers with whom you have no common language. There is no bar car and only occasionally a restaurant car. There is no observation car or plush red velvet seating. You eat cups ‘o noodles and drink cups of black tea. You sit and sleep on the same hard bunk mostly in your clothes while carefully timing toilet access, and staring at the passing view of birch trees broken up by the occasional pine. And I loved every minute.

The view is peaceful and unassuming, absolving you of having to keep your eyes glued to the window for fear of missing out. You are surprised by how interested strangers are in your pictures or the daily details of life in your country (salary, rent, tuition). You become a master at charades but also philosophical when the concept is too hard to get across so you both just smile and fall silent. Eating isn’t a problem because you aren’t doing anything all day. Plus your cabinmates are solicitous and share their food regardless of how little they have.

If you aren’t social, you can keep to yourself and sleep, read or entertain yourself with all the stuff you brought. I had 60 hrs of podcasts, 16 Kindle books, and 6 hrs of downloaded Netflix. On my phone I had the music of Carmina Burana, the Russian national anthem and I tried to find the Hunt for Red October soundtrack to set the right mood. Other than the first day with the narcoleptic model, I didn’t use any of it. I was enjoying how easy and natural it felt to communicate without words.

And most of all, I was fascinated by the depth of history in the countries we traveled through and how much we had in common despite vastly different life experiences and cultures across this big, big world. 


Mongolia – Know When to Hold It

“Accept whatever she gives you,” our guide murmured as the host brought over three mugs. 

The woman to my right panicked, “But I don’t drink t…” 

“Just fake it!”

We didn’t need to worry. It was milk tea, a traditional Mongolian drink of warm milk with a drop of tea – about how my mother used to make it for me when I was a kid. Then came plate after plate of Mongolian snacks: dried yogurt, both hard (tastes like tangy chalk) and soft (like crumbly, tart cheese); sweet, melted-Dali-shaped breadsticks; caramels and tootsie-roll-style chocolates; and some granola thing I never figured out.

We’d finished lunch a few minutes before arriving but dutifully ate a bit of everything, smiling and bowing slightly in that awkward Western tourist way, at the 73-yr-old nomadic woman sitting across from us. Encouraged, she got up and brought one more mug for us to pass around: fermented mare’s milk.

Picture milk mixed with vinegar and some Worcestershire and you are nowhere near close to the taste. I didn’t mind it, perhaps because I’d been expecting something more startling after my fellow tourist, who sipped it first, lost control of his poker face. His wife helpfully pointed out afterwards that our mini guidebook recommended tourists not drink it as, made by hanging milk in a cow’s stomach outside the yurt for days and stirring until fermented, it can have a similar effect as Mexican water on tourist-soft stomachs. The mini guidebook obviously thought we were sissies. We were not. 

We were, in fact, sleeping in a Mongolian ger (rhymes with lair) that night, or at least the tourist version. This nomadic lady, Namjilma, was to show us how it was really done.

Nam’s ger (yurt) looked similar to ours. Or as similar as a lived-in studio apartment to a sterile hotel room. Gers follow the same rough layout: a round room, about 20′ in diameter with the walls rising from 5′ at the edges to an 8′ high cone in the centre. Her floors were covered in carpets; ours were laminate wood, warped into waves by the intense heat from the central wood-burning oven. The oven’s chimney disappeared through the roof where the decorated, wooden roof slats stopped short to make a hole.

The walls aren’t actually circular, but paneled: eight in her case. They are insulated with three layers of sheep’s-wool felt in the winter and one in the summer. All that is wrapped in an ashy-white tarp and cinched with horsehair bands until it looks like a squat Michelin Man.

Speaking of squats, that was the toilet of choice in our ger camp (and presumably Nam’s home). I say choice, but only because the lovely Western facilities, in a pristine building right beside the outhouse squat toilets, was tauntingly locked tight. I hinted to our young, diminutive, sweetheart of a guide that I was squat-challenged, hoping she’d convince the camp to open them up, but she heartlessly said, “Well, you can hold it till tomorrow when we get to the hotel.” Maybe the guidebook was right, sissy-wise. I got over it.

We perched against the wall on Nam’s guest bed like three alert squirrels. As with all gers, the woman’s bed is on the right as you enter (east), the man’s on the left (west) and the guest’s in the middle against a back wall. Privacy isn’t paramount. Nam owned intricately painted cabinet-like furniture; we had simple, wooden twinsize beds like the childhood one my mother just gave away, complete with its psychedelic Mary sticker still prominently stuck to the headboard. 

The rest of the ger was taken up with a small sink and standalone water tank, a table, a shrine to Buddha, a power pole with outlets and overhead light, a fridge and tv showing alarming Russian soap operas, a 4′ high wooden door, and a long rope hanging down from the ceiling. The rope is meant to anchor the ger to a weight in the event of a windstorm tumbling your home like a YouTube bouncy castle escaping a child’s birthday party. Not a reassuring thought that night going to sleep as the wind did its best to strip us of our Michelin Man outer layer. 

Sleeping was easy after all. The crackling wood fire beat out the sound of the wind and glowed red through the edges of the cast iron oven’s small door. The narrow bed was feather-soft compared to the granite bunk and pillow from the previous two nights on the train. The oven ate up wood with a voracious appetite so the staff brought a space heater around 10pm and returned at midnight and 6am to dump in full bags of coal (the real stuff: as shiny and hard and black as obsidian) to ensure we were toasty. Co-ed quarters or not, I was sweating and slept on top of the covers in a thin t-shirt and rolled-up shorts. It was even money on whether the Australians would wake the next morning to find me naked and roasted crispy on my bed with an apple in my mouth.

The 15-ger camp was perpetually quiet except for the footsteps tramping between the outhouse and the dining ger – and the gloating shouts when I hit the target with my bow and arrow before my male roomie did. The landscape was rich browns: close-cut dried grass ringed by rocky outcrops and piecey, pointy mountains. The camp’s greeting book had entry after entry describing the experience as calm and peaceful.

These tourist ger camps are used by Mongolians in the winter and tourists in the spring and summer, generally not mixing the two, as our guide said the Mongolians “like to party” and will stay up all night in boisterous fun that usually “results in broken furniture” and a ger “full of empty bottles.”

The gers and everything in them are designed to be taken apart and packed so that the nomads can move between their summer and winter places every six months. That’s what Nam still does, tucking her two gers and scant possessions into her truck with the help of her 16 grandkids, and moving a few kilometres away to where the grass hasn’t yet been razed by her cows, goats, sheep and yaks.

The more we chatted with Nam through our guide, the more we were ashamed of our assumptions. While the lifestyle seemed poor and somewhat primitive, Nam was a retired high school teacher of Mongolian language and literature. Widowed a few years ago, she and her husband had put all eight kids through university where they’d become doctors, lawyers and engineers. It turns out they could pay for a year of university by slaughtering a cow ($700-1,000).

That one day in the camp, visiting Nam and grilling our guide Annie, prepared me well for the final two-day train leg from Ulaan Baator into Beijing. I was sharing with a Mongolian couple just a few years older than me. Once the ice was broken, our cabin became the party room for the boss and his wife (my couple) and three workmates in the next cabin, going to a festival in China for the weekend. I had the engineers, accountant and electrician of some company as company, none of whom spoke English. Despite my fears of “broken furniture” and “empty bottles” the room was more of a social club where we gathered and gestured and laughed, sitting up on bunks and miming info about life in each other’s country.

I was urged to accept more food, this time in the recognizable form of Choco-Pies, what we call Wagon Wheels in North America or a Joe Louis in Canada (two round palm-sized chocolate cakes joined by marshmallow or icing and covered in chocolate.) As the other members of the team warmed to me, I was tested; one guy brought in a thermos daring me to drink it. It was thankfully milk tea, not fermented mare’s milk, so I was a hit when I downed it and smacked my lips. They laughed when my own poker face slipped as the wife, Baikal (like the lake), poured her tea over what looked to be large chunks of pickled fish and drank it out of a mason jar. The accountant came in periodically, cleared his throat and announced something like, “I will be your guide” or “I am moving to Vancouver” in English, sending him and the rest of the group into knee-slapping laughter. Baikal would stand up, lower her voice and imitate him, teasing him for spending hours next door practicing the English phrase before getting the nerve to try it on me.

As an old train hand, I’d learned that they lock the washroom from 30min before to 30min after a major station stop as the toilet flushes onto the tracks. I set my alarm for 45min before the Mongolian-Chinese border as not only would it take hours for each side (two different stops) to scan our passports and rifle through our cabins but also to change the train wheels to the smaller Chinese gauge. The countries don’t want to make it too easy for train loads of their neighbours to roll in whenever they want in wartime.

Baikal and Och-tung (I avoided saying his name because my closest guess sounded like I was swearing in German) called me into the corridor to watch the train split onto four parallel tracks and then decouple each car. Giant orange jacks, two at the head and two at the tail of each car, levered it up so that the new wheels, looking like small gunless tanks, could roll underneath, whacking the old wheels out of the way like curling stones. Then the car was lowered down and a tiny Chinese woman would crawl underneath and screw something in.

One passenger who hadn’t anticipated the pee moratorium was suffering. Her husband asked the attendant if his wife could use the washroom, not understanding that she would in effect be peeing on the Chinese wheel quality control inspector’s head. The whole process between border paperwork, inspections and wheel changes takes five hours so around midnight, when the passenger couldn’t stand it anymore, she sent her husband back out again. And then you do what you gotta do – in this case, pee Niagaratically into a metal bucket, while the rest of the carriage ignores the echoing sound and avoids each others eyes. Poor woman. I bet next time she’ll set her alarm like I did. 

During the wheel-change process most of us had drifted back to our bunks and were reading or sleeping when the train was put back together. The recoupling was violent enough that my iPad flew out of my hand, cover flying one way, iPad the other but both thankfully dropping to the carpet instead of braining Baikal as she tried to sleep in the bunk next to mine. 

The entire Mongolian experience was a delight. It would be even more beautiful in the summer when the ground turns into tall grass and fields of flowers. But that didn’t matter to us as, despite visiting temples and museums and memorials in the countryside and Ulaan Baator, the most memorable part was connecting with the people: Nam, our nomadic host; or Moog, the English-practicing accountant; or Annie, our charming and surprisingly firm guide. But especially Baikal and Och-tung who taught me that the box of Choco-Pies I gave Nam at the end of the nomad family visit was a surprisingly appropriate gift. And as proud as I was of my newly acquired squatting technique, I was prouder still that I knew when to hold it so as not to have to pee in a metal bucket.

Siberia and Lake Baikal – Sleeping Land

I’m sitting just inside the doorway, feet propped on the windowsill. The glass door is open to cool down the unseasonably hot room. The hotel chair foiled my attempts to shove it onto the balcony, so I’m six feet from the balcony edge, which is 500m from the shore of Lake Baikal, which is the deepest lake in the world. It’s also the largest freshwater lake by volume (topping the combined total of North America’s Great Lakes), the oldest lake (25 million years old) and one of the world’s clearest (I miss Jeopardy). You’d think with all that deepensity it would be round but it is as long and narrow as a red hot chili pepper. The food, I mean.

The buzz of a lawn mower makes me glance up since the ground is a mix of snow and mud in this area. A motorized something is moving quickly from left to right across the frozen lake. The vehicle looks like a snowmobile from this distance but as I track its progress, it continues straight onto and over a fully thawed section of the lake. It’s a hovercraft.

We’re in Listvyanka, a tiny tourist outpost on the shore of this massive lake. Before leaving us briefly unsupervised, our guide cautioned that the test of safe ice thickness on the lake was to check if there were cars on it. We dismissed the idea of any intra-lakal stroll that relies on a thickness test performed by tourists. Just as we passed on trekking through the woods when he said to search our bodies for ticks post-hike. They come mean over here, he told us, causing paralysis and other awfulness containing words like hemorrhagic and encephalitic. And so I’m sitting just inside my room, gazing in silence at what must be the largest outdoor skating rink in the world.

While my trainmate was doing her 8000km trek from Western Ukraine to Vladivostok in one unbroken run, we’ve been getting off every couple of days to sleep in a real bed, shower and take in some towns along the way.

The “tour” is only three of us. The Aussie couple with me are lovely. Warm, friendly, easy-going and have an incredible aptitude for turning the stern-faced train attendants into smiling, laughing marshmallows. It takes me an extra day or two to get the same women to even crack a smile. I asked the Aussies their trick: they bribe the attendants with packets of flavoured hot chocolate or cigarettes, but I suspect it is as much their engaging manner. 

A guide and driver meet us at each stop and shepherd us around the sights for a day or two before returning us to the train for the next leg. We break in a new driver-guide pair each time as no one accompanies us on the trains. It’s stress-free travel, without the cruise-like insulation from the places we are visiting.

In Moscow, we saw the Kremlin and metros and cathedrals and memorials to the Great Patriotic War (WWII) with Galina – who also reminded me Russians believe that foreigners who smile for no reason are insane. She wasn’t making the point to me specifically, I don’t think, just mentioning it in passing.

Ekaterinburg was more death-focused with Evgenys I and II, as we called our guide-driver combo. We walked around an open-air military collection of helicopters and planes and tanks and cannons belonging to the director of the adjoining industrial plant, an oligarch who is forgiven his oligarchiness since he employs a large workforce and donates to every local program and cause.

We stood silent at the memorial to Stalin’s repression – the site of the mass grave of 18,000 local people killed during the purges of the 1930s and uncovered during the construction of the new highway. Stalin implemented an execution quota system that meant when the town fell short of dissidents, they rounded up the intellectuals and people of religion and added them to the lists.

And we looked solemnly at the photos of the obliterated, stained wall against which Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot then finished off by bayonet when the bullets ricocheted off jewels sewn into the ladies’ dresses for safe-keeping. 

Irkutsk lightened up with Mark and Alexei. They took us along a river walk to listen to a church-bell-ringing virtuoso, into a cathedral that included a fresco of Bolsheviks shooting the Tsar and family (now canonized), and past the beginning of a pro-government demonstration to counter the rash of anti-government protests that swept Russia a few weeks ago. 

And that brings us to Listvyanka and the hovercraft.

Unlike Ekaterinburg, where a van drove us across the train station’s parking lot to our hotel, Mark dispenses with Alexei and walks us up to the ski hill for a panoramic lookout then down into the town – a 9 km trek and 125 fitbit floors of elevation.

Mark leads us through the market with stalls of giant-eyed seal plush toys, Mongolian slippers, Baikal gemstones and pungent smoked omul, a whitefish cousin of the salmon.

“I can help you buy something,” Mark says.

“I’m good,” I say, “Will we have time for the hovercraft?”

We pass a large, submarine-shaped structure built of what looks like unseaworthy aluminum siding. “Do you want to visit the nerpanarium?” he says.

As much as an arium devoted to nerpas sounds intriguing, “No thanks,” I pass, “Hovercraft?” glancing hopefully to the lake.

People are doing things you don’t associate with lake fun: building ice fortresses, riding ATVs, driving a car, and cutting human-sized holes in the ice so a scuba man can pull the cigarette out of his mouth, put on his mask and drop into the depths to dive under an ice cap one- to three-feet thick. Besides, nerpa is Russian for seal and a seal aquarium in a shanty fake submarine is depressing. 

I think Mark is getting fed up with us but he doesn’t seem to grasp how cool a hovercraft is. We finally convince him we can manage on our own and walk onto the ice. The warning he gave us earlier was unnecessary as he clarified that the ice at this point can hold 10 tonnes of weight.

The hovercraft is a cross between those swamp boats in the Florida Everglades or Louisiana bayous, the ones with the big fans on the back, and a large rubber raft. We climb on the pontoon and bend in half to step into the cabin. The hovercraft starts up, buzzing and vibrating, and fishtails its way onto the ice. And then we are speeding along, slipping a bit to one side, barely brushing the ice.

The hovercraft edges closer and closer to the line where thick lake ice meets the mouth of the unfrozen river. Then it’s ice-water-ice in quick succession to make us gasp. We stop and the driver, who has been texting the whole way, signals us to step out onto the solid surface to our left, away from the river’s edge.

Lake Baikal might be long and thin on a map but looking across its 40km span to the crumpled blue-white mountain range in the distance it seems round enough. And immense. 

Siberia means “sleeping land” and away from the tourist activities and market sellers and tour guides cramming facts into our heads I can feel it – a silence as thick as the ice beneath my feet. Ice covering the oldest, largest, deepest, clearest lake in the world. Ice on which I jump up and down with an insane foreigner’s grin on my face.

Trans-Siberian Railway – Ekaterinburg to Irkutsk – It’s not the culture

Taking the Trans-Siberian is like being in jail. But in a good way. Because you are on a train.

Each train car has a long corridor that runs the length of the carriage with cabins opening up like cells along one side. Glancing in, people sprawl out on narrow bunks, reading or sleeping or playing cards on the little table. They look up at you unsmiling as you pass on to your assigned bunk.

As the new kid, you step into your cabin with clean clothes and shiny hair and hope for an unintimidating roommate. The woman in the top bunk of cabin 9 doesn’t stir when you walk in. You’ve heard tell of models riding trains but this one is older, has short hair and is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, with one leg stretched out and propped on the ceiling.

The four bunks of the blue and grey cabin are arranged two up, two down with a shoe-width three-rung ladder that pulls out from the wall for the top bunkers. You dump your day bag on the bottom, number 21, and quickly stow your luggage – a fat duffel or skinny suitcase – in the small open space under the bunk. The other half is taken up by a storage bin for your pillow and pallet, that you get to by raising the bench.

Your roomie has stored her bag in an upper crawl space over the door that is built out into the ceiling of the corridor. But she has also made herself at home with a mini-grocery of food on the central table: six eggs, a loaf of rye, a bottle of water, and some of those wafer cookies that taste like paper that your mom used to hand out at Halloween. 

The sliding cell door is open, but the light is blocked by the female Russian attendant in full warden-style uniform. All the attendants are women on this and most trains. The idea of the male attendant is thought to be a myth. She tosses a set of sheet, pillow case, towel and cover on the bunk and moves on. Underneath those you find another pack with paper slippers, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste thinner than your pinkie. 

An hour later, another attendant comes by and you grab your translation app. But she barks “Chicken? Meat?” at you and waits, tapping her foot. When you say “chicken?,” she responds with “Fore!” You say yes to everything, and keep silent when your bunkie gets her lunch at 2pm and you have to wait till 4pm.

Lunch is a TV dinner: short-grain white rice, 1oz of meat called chicken, a splash of sauce, and a stale bun that you eat anyway as this is your one free meal per trip, whether a 25hr leg as previously, or the 72hr stint you are in for now.

There is one shared toilet stall per 36-bunk carriage, seat- and lidless until you realize they are simply securely fastened in the up position. You wrestle them free with some difficulty, resulting in the need for a band aid and some desperate decontamination hand washing, plus a tube of Polysporin on standby. The toilet paper is industrial-grey one-ply. The water unpotable and cold. Your typical train bathroom.

The trip continues into the evening. Quiet, apart from the incoming-bomb sound just before a train rushes by in the opposite direction. Lights go out early and everyone settles in. The thick metal door clangs shut. The rocking is stronger than normal but sleep comes quickly if not deeply. Another person has joined your cabin during the afternoon and she gets woken up by the attendant in the middle of the night, then vanishes. 

But in the morning, everything changes. 

—–

For one thing, I’ve joined a gang. My stoic roommate thaws with two new arrivals that show up mid-morning and we all introduce ourselves. Lyra and Natasha are smiley, with an impressive determination to chat even though we can’t understand each other. Natasha is missing an eye (literally) which you don’t notice at first since her hair covers that side of her face.

Maria comes down from the top bunk and the three of them pull out container after Ziploc bag after carton of food that they urge me to eat. We have a picnic, huddled hip to hip around our little table where they feed me tea, cheese, meat and cucumber sandwiches on dense black bread, and show me the technique of the hand salad – dry sprigs of arugula and cilantro that we munch like goats. They adamantly refuse my contribution of the box of chocolates my guide bought me on my birthday before I got on the train. I am the guest and not allowed to contribute. Besides, they have lots of chocolate that they press on me whenever I stop eating. We have a great confusing chat but I gather Natasha and Lyra are mother and daughter-in-law from Kazakhstan. Maria is from the Ukraine. They have various kids of indeterminate age and sex.

Now there is English-speaking in the corridors as other travelers from London, Australia, Minnesota and Denmark appear to get some air. A little Russian kid runs up and down squeaking and beeping like a reversing truck. He trips and falls flat on his face in front of our cabin repeatedly so we stop looking up. 

I make my way to the dining car with my sole tour mates, an amiable Australian retired couple in their 60s. We trade funny travel stories seated on space-age vinyl seats while we study the 25-page menu with all the usual comic translation errors. Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You plays on a loop.

Back in my room, Natasha asks me a question about why I travel. I say, though translation, that I like to experience the different cultures. She smiles and says, “No, Mary, not the culture, it’s the people.” Lyra and Maria nod. I smile back at her. Maybe it’s not like jail after all.