Monthly Archives: April 2017

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. 

Trans-Siberian Railway – Moscow to Ekaterinburg – Flooring the Laundry

My cabin mate on this first 25hr train from Moscow to Ekaterinburg is a Russian model-type dressed in a fur-lined jacket, black shirt and stylish jeans, who travels with two designer shopping bags but no luggage.

She doesn’t speak English and neither do the train attendants so when a young uniformed man shows up in our open doorway and starts an official spiel, I try to hand him my passport and train ticket. He waves them away, embarrassed. He glances to the model for help but she shrugs. He peeks at me and tries his spiel again looking down at the floor and over to the wall to avoid my blank incomprehension. He’s determined to get through it and I feel bad so I throw out random words to guess what he is after. This creates more confusion but then I remember my verbal translation app and his face lights up as I grab my phone. He comes closer, clears his throat and pivots at the waist to speak into my palm….pinwheel of death. He thinks a moment and signals me to try again. This time it works.

“The cost of our service is the reason food let us anew,” he says. Apparently this app translates in riddles. I latch on to the key word and say, “Food?” as I act out eating soup. He lets out a relieved sigh and even the stony-faced model cracks a smile. The app gains confidence and tells me I have the choice of kebab with rice or turkey with buckwheat baked potatoes and vegetables, before losing the thread. Kebab it is.

He returns an hour later, his own phone app in hand, “Can I help the flooring of the laundry?” I regret my “uh, ok” when he disappears for a few minutes and returns in a lab coat.

He makes the bench up into a bed with a thin, lumpy, futon-like mattress which he wraps in a crisp white sheet, and finishes off the narrow duvet by turning the cover inside out and putting it on like it’s come fresh out of the dryer. 

The model is too tired of life by 5:30pm and with door open, lights on, and people walking by, she unselfconsciously slips off her jeans and slithers thong-first under her duvet. I look down at the floor and over to the wall.

The train movement feels like a combination of a five-year old kicking my seat and never-ending air turbulence. But it’s funny how what scares people on a plane works so well on a train. Even the low murmur of voices from the cabin next door is soothing because I can’t understand the language even if I could make out the words. I am annoyed by them banging on the wall between us until I realize that it is the coach doors closing and I’m suddenly fine with it. Makes me think I should adopt a train attitude to all life’s irritations.

The cabin has two facing red vinyl booths with a small faux-granite table between them. Each bench could seat four adults, shoulder to shoulder, which gives ample room for the model to stretch out on the opposite bunk. She floored her own laundry. 

The curtains in the window frame the flashing view of snow and birch trees. Those, as the two main ingredients occasionally livened with pine or fir, combine and transform as the train moves on. Sometimes we’re hemmed in by birches that form a thin barrier between the tracks and wide fields broken up by farms or industrial buildings. Sometimes we are skiing through dunes, massive undulating waves of snow. The skies change from grey to bright blue to blizzard-white within an hour or two and every once in a while the view opens up to a still lake or a winding river as we go over a bridge.

The train doesn’t smell of anything as we are hermetically sealed in, although I gather that may change after 24 hrs. 

The train attendant has bonded with me. He comes by frequently to try some English but scurries away if I answer with more than one word. His latest visit is an offer to bring me more tea, which comes in a thin glass with an ornate silver or pewter base and handle. He remembers from an earlier time that I take one sugar. I mention lemon to make conversation (this is what passes for conversation when you are desperate) but that scares him and he takes off. 

On his next visit he asks if I’m from Canada. Once we get past yes, we’re both at a loss as to what to say. I make a trite comment that Canada is far away but he is perplexed. So I shape my hands into a plane taking off and make a whooshing sound. He mimics both gravely then says “Dohn unnerstand,” and runs away. 

This is how I spend the train ride while the model sleeps. This and reading and writing these posts and gazing at the birch and snow and binge-listening the full season of a twisty-turny podcast. And as much as I appreciate my undemanding Russian model trainmate, I begin to wonder if she is real. In the 12 hrs we’ve been on the train, she hasn’t spoken or eaten or drunk anything or used the washroom. But then I hear it, she’s human after all. She snores.

Moscow – More than ballet and rockets

I can’t afford to have this become a thing but I had dinner at another of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, this one coming in at #18 – White Rabbit in Moscow. I blame Netflix.

White Rabbit is highlighted on an episode of Chef’s Table, a popular series that covers a different restaurant each show. The premise of this restaurant is that Chef Vladimir – inspired by a 17th century cookbook – modernizes traditional Russian food to reconnect people with their culinary roots. 

In one scene the chef’s staff, or maybe family, milks a mystery animal that the camera pans out to reveal a moose. In another, Chef Vladimir himself bottle feeds a mooselet that jumps around him playfully. So when he gets to a recipe in his ancient cookbook that calls for moose lips, his voiceover expressed shock. Cut to the next scene where Vlad cheerfully impales a plate of mouse snouts from his sous chef and breaks them down in gruesome detail while I watch, cringing on my couch. What would you do if someone served you moose lips? My answer apparently is eat them stuffed in a baked black dumpling with a morel mushroom sauce.

The staff at White Rabbit was confused that I was eating alone. The hostess tried to make sense of the situation: Was I waiting for someone? Maybe your friends are here? They are coming later, perhaps? Forcing me to simplify my explanation each time from, I’m visiting Moscow alone to, no, just me alone, to, no, no friends, alone alone alone. 

Seated at a four-top, it took a similar round to convince the server to take to my order instead of waiting for the rest of the party, and another for me to order the tasting menu as, waiter pointing regretfully to the empty chairs, everyone at the table must order it. I explained that technically everyone at the table was ordering it since I WAS EATING ALONE. He conceded graciously.

The room itself is on the 16th floor and looks out through a Wonderland-esque semi-circle window like half a clock, three stories high. It was raining snow which gave the feeling of dining in a cloud. The looming Stalinist skyscraper, one of the Seven Sisters housing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made it feel a tiny bit sinister.

The tasting menu started with a large bottle of firewater. I was nervous I’d be asked to down it but instead the waiter produced an eye dropper and dripped it onto my palms. He told me to rub my hands together until they ignited, then to take in the odor… of baking bread. It was a test of what the liquor could be used for. Or was used for. I wasn’t completely clear on the concept.

Each course, and there were 15, came with specific details like that on the key ingredient’s historical significance or the traditional cooking method – although at such a rate that I couldn’t always catch the gist. My poached pear and caviar came with a honey mead liqueur that had to do with babies being buried in the backyard till they were 17. I don’t think I fully understood.

It was followed by a chestnut honey meringue with pieces of duck liver terrine over top. Delicate, umami finger food. Each dish followed the pattern of careful placement, story and instructions on how to eat it.

The parade of dishes over the next two hours came rapid fire, one landing soon after I’d taken the last preceding bite:

  • Gouda cheese mousse: airy
  • Swan livers with toasted marshmallow: melt in your mouth
  • Birch bread and herring milt with carved birch knife: result of olden time bad quality flour mixed with tree (?) to improve it
  • Sour shchi (cabbage, cucumber and gel) with king crab on a cracker: my first sighting of the single Russian letter “shch” pronounced like “freSH CHeese”
  • Sea urchin and white chocolate mousse in a baked onion skin: I’m losing track of the different tastes now
  • Crab, carrots and egg yolk in Wednesday salt (“Do you know this?” he says. “I’ve heard of Tuesday salt,” I say, thinking back to the Chef’s Table episode. “Oh yes, that’s right,” he says, inwardly cursing Netflix for showing him up)
  • Moose lips and tongue dumplings in a morel mushroom sauce: yes, I did it. Gamey.
  • Cod, sour malt and sour spelt: I can’t eat any more
  • Medlar fruit sorbet: now mushing my food around to make it look like I’m eating
  • Beef ribs cooked in kvass: cutting it up into small pieces to hide it under the green vegetable hair and onion spaghetti so it looks like I’m still eating it, while fake-sipping a full glass of kvass as I admitted I didn’t know what it was
  • Black bread, boiled milk and garlic sea water: dessert, this is almost done, still with me? 
  • Willow herb and honey, with tea: delicious

And finally, five ceramic noses presented on a wooden box. Yes, that’s right. Ceramic holds scent like human skin, I’m told. The waiter held up each ceramic nose to my nose, Groucho Marx-style, and I took a whiff: gingerbread, black bread, marijuana, something and something. Then he doused my wrist with a little spray bottle of perfume I got to keep as a gift.

I don’t believe the White Rabbit name is inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but it isn’t a bad comparison. It was surreal but still enjoyable: the waiter friendly, the food inventive, and the overall experience a little quirky. On Chef’s Table, the chef’s business partner says they want people to know Russia isn’t just ballet and rockets. It isn’t. But more importantly, it isn’t just dumplings and cabbage.