Tag Archives: Trans-Siberian Railway

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.

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. 

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.

Moscow – Hi Vaggash, it’s me, Mary

As I walk out into the Arrivals area, I spot my driver holding up my name, and bound up to him with a hearty Hola. Spanish seems to be my foreign language reflex, even when arriving in Moscow.

The driver holds out his hand and says, Vaggash. I’m surprised by the handshake but I obediently seize his hand, pump it, and respond, Mary

He blinks, spreads both hands to mimic how big my luggage might be if I had any and tries again. Vaggash

Oh. I turn to show him my backpack. His eyebrows lift in what I take as grudging approval but I’m still down points with the whole Spanish greeting, unsolicited physical contact and puppy-like enthusiastism, plus thinking his name is Baggage. I do win an involuntary laugh out of him on the long walk to the car when he asks OK? for the third time and I finally remember to say Da, instead of Si.

I’m in Moscow for the start of a Trans-Siberian Railway journey because what else do you do after a cold, snowy winter than vacation in Siberia? 

I joined a tour this time, remembering how challenging it was in Russia 7 years ago trying to buy a train ticket to Catherine the Great’s Palace. Choo-choo got us directions to the train station but once there we were defeated by our inability to act out Catherine the Great and slunk away ticketless.

There are some changes since 2010. The pedestrian underpasses are still the only way to cross busy roads but the subterranean kiosks no longer predominantly sell bras. The metro signs are still all Cyrillic on the platforms but on the train a British recorded voice now helpfully tells you are going the wrong way.

What hasn’t changed is the fun of asking for directions on the street. I learned that “Kremlin” even in my best Russian accent gets me about as far as asking for a glass of wadder (instead of warter) in England. The Kremlin equivalent is apparently Kreemel. I tried to learn Russian for I’m sorry but Google Translate wants me to say what sounds like prostitute and that seems like a bad idea. I’ll stick to Eezveeneetyeh (apology).

So tour it is. It starts tomorrow and after another day in Moscow, we hop the first of many trains to make our way east across six of Russia’s 11 time zones through Mongolia to Beijing. And I already know the Chinese word for baggage — Sing-lee.