Monday, November 30, 2009

around the world in 79 days

On the last day of living somewhere on the other side of the world, it's hard to know how to feel. Saturday, August 1st, 2009 marked an immense change in my life as my two years in Japan ended once I took that final bus ride to Kansai Airport. What follows are the events that happened after Caitlin and I left our apartments in Japan until almost three months later when we arrived back in our home state of Pennsylvania. With this entry I did not split each country into separate posts as to preserve continuity. And so it beings with plane ride to neighboring China with our sights set on the Trans-Siberian Railway...

China - 8/1 to 8/4

As we boarded the flight bound for Beijing, I knew that our cultural surroundings were about to change drastically. The veil of predictability and order in Japan disappeared in the form of a giant group of people carrying what seemed like completely random things stuffed hastily into large plastic bags. Though soon after this I would become quickly familiar with this scene, it was funny to see the Japanese employees at Kansai try to retain their cool as the China-bound passengers pushed forward toward the checked baggage counter. Actually, breaks in order like this became not only amusing but downright relieving by the end of my time in Japan...a good sign that I should be leaving, I think.

The interesting thing about our flight to Beijing is that it made an unannounced stop in a smaller city (Yantai or Tainjin possibly) where all passengers were told to get off so that we could be exposed to a body temperature calibrator. Caitlin failed the test and was kept separate from the rest of the passengers while I imagined what I would do with my time if she was quarantined for some strange amount of time. Thankfully, however, they determined that her runny nose was not a case of Swine Flu and were back on another flight later on that evening.

Beijing is crazy. If I were to try and imagine a place that is completely the opposite from Japan, there would be no need because that place already exists and it's called Beijing. It's so crazy that I need to go back there some time just to see if the rest of the city is as chaotic as the areas that I experienced. Shirtless men walk around and slap their stomachs as they spit in between sips of beer as the cloud of pollution that engulfs the city adds to the haze of motion that never stops and never calms. On top of this, there is so much culture here that it's worth spending significant amounts of time exploring.

We only had about three days in Beijing but it was enough for this particular visit. Reflecting upon the experiences like finding a seemingly clean restaurant that was open late, staying on a street that seriously looked like a war zone, being the closest that I have ever been to either crashing in a car or making a serious consideration to overtake the driver as to limit his death wish to himself and not his passengers...all of these things will remind me of what an adventurous to start a long journey across the world.

Mongolia - 8/5 to 8/11

Mongolia was quite an experience. I don't know if I could even vaguely compare it to any other place that I have ever been yet almost everything that I read about the country before visiting held true- people still do live in ger communities (sometimes referred to as yurts), Ulaan Bataar (aka "UB") is not the safest place in the world, and, most everyone rides horses in the countryside.

The train ride from Beijing to UB marked the beginning of the Trans-Mongolian leg of the Trans-Siberian railway and I must say that it was a pleasant introduction to a total of six days and nights of trains headed toward Moscow. Most of the people on here were adventurous Westerners, a trend that definitely did not continue on future legs of the journey...

Six days is an awkward amount of time to be in Mongolia because it's too short for a lengthy Gobi Desert tour yet one is left with a lot of free time in UB even if you take a trip for a few days in the countryside. We ended up doing the latter, hopping in a minivan to Gorkhi Terelj National Park where we played frisbee with little kids, rode horses, hiked, observed nomadic life and slept in a ger.

It was a nice experience but a few days was enough so we headed back to UB to see if there were any more tour opportunities of a similar time length. Unfortunately, there were none and we were confined to a hostel for something like four days. I do not used the word 'confined' unintentionally here because there were many signs posted in our hostel warning to stay off the streets after midnight. Actually, weird stuff happens in UB any time of the day. An example would be when a random Mongolian person, while talking on a cell phone, tried to take things out of Caitlin's purse as we walked down Peace Avenue in the middle of the afternoon. I fortunately glanced back and saw him reach for the purse, his face showing no change in emotion and I pushed him away. Worse than this was getting hit by rocks thrown by a gang of homeless children whose faces and pleas for money had become all too familiar by the time that we finally caught the weekly train into Russia.

Nevertheless, Mongolia is a stunningly beautiful country that has amazing mix of influences from the Cyrillic alphabet to the sustained reverence for the great Ghengis Khan. It was a bit of an accomplishment to make it out of there but my memories of this strange, fascinating place were worth the effort.

All of that said, the flexibility of our trip worked to our favor at this point as we decided to head north into the one country that Caitlin had first talked about visiting since we met a few years back...

Russia - 8/12 to 8/28

Getting into Russia is not easy and pretty much everyone in the world needs a visa to go there. My personal experience of acquiring a Russian visa is not one that I would like to repeat (having to send my passport from Japan to America and then back to Japan, only to have it lost in the mail for 10 days though finally arriving two days before a trip to Indonesia...) though it was much more difficult because I was living abroad. All I can say is that I will never again put my trust in post office in my hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, though, strangely enough, a similar thing happened in Japan when applying for our Chinese visas right before taking this trip.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that fully independent traveling through Russia is not something that is encouraged by the powers-that-be. It's very common here to do group tours and stay in expensive hotels and the authorities tolerate it because although outside influence is not very welcome you are at least kept within view while handing over a large chunk of your rubles. We decided to not go through a tour agency in order to see the country from a real perspective (also because we could not afford to stay in the expensive hotels). This decision proved to be one that let us into a world that most Americans have no clue about: the curious, passionate, and enigmatic Russian people.

One of the positive things about the dominance of these high end hotels is that a market on the opposite end has opened up as many middle-class Russians have opened up their apartments to budget travelers like ourselves. Of the two and a half weeks that we spent in the country, we never once stayed in a hotel or hostel but had dinners, chatted, and enjoyed beers (and, yes, a lot of vodka) with everyday people.

First, though, the train ride ride was something to talk about. This second leg of three Trans-Siberian trains traveled from Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia to Irkutsk, Siberian Russia and was a uniquely strange purgatory between nomadic central Asia and the European descendants of eastern Siberia. Our train car happened to be without air conditioning or a restaurant car so we were stuck enjoying our spicy ramen out of styrofoam containers while watching the barren Mongolian steppe slowly fade into dense Siberian woodlands.

I remember it being so hot and unventilated in our train compartment on this day that we had decided to lie down in our underwear just to get through it. Right as we had just settled into this routine, the door suddenly flung open and we were faced with two local Mongolians who seemed to be our new cabin mates, looking less than thrilled to discover that we were occupying the same space for the evening. They ended up spending most of their efforts hiding the things that they were smuggling across the border which included baby socks, leather jackets, and sparkly purses. The tension was broken up a bit as the Mongolian woman stuffed various goods down her pants in order to hide them from the Russian border guards. Her laughter was of amusement while ours occurred because Caitlin and I knew that things could not possibly get much weirder.

After spending six or seven hours waiting at the Mongolian/Russian border, we were on our way to Irkutsk in Siberian Russia. The weather was beautiful and it had cooled down significantly now that we had gone further north, allowing us to feel a bit more relaxed as we pulled into the station. However, we were now in a completely different culture that could not possibly be more different from where we had lived for the last two years. As the train slowly snaked through the Siberian woods, we observed small towns made up entirely of beautiful small, wooden houses that would define the architecture of this frontier-like part of the country.

After a night at an amazingly hospitable woman's apartment in Irkutsk (we discovered her place after politely knocking on her fence), we had decided to make take a six hour bus ride to Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake and source of 1/5 of our planet's fresh water. The two days on Olkhon Island (located in the middle of the lake) were amazing for a lot of reasons- we got to stay on a farm, eat some good Russian food, and meet some Slovenian travelers that come into play later in this story. Lake Baikal was definitely one of the most far-removed placed that we had visited on our entire trip.

The next and final leg of our Tran-Siberian Railway was the 9,000km (6,000 mile) trek from Siberia (Irkutsk) to European Russia (Moscow). This route is a non-stop journey, four days and four nights in duration, a fitting experience that holds the title of the World's Longest Train Ride. We rode third class the entire way and it averaged out to $120 each to travel what ends up being about twice the length of the United States from coast to coast. I might say that this might be the most "cultural" thing that I have ever done, and I think that the pictures may speak for themselves in order to back this statement up.

After a LOT of quality time with local Russians (vodka and all), we had finally stepped foot in Europe's largest city. Moscow is a sprawling and dynamic place where classic architecture abounds while the English language is virtually nowhere to be seen (I'm not complaining, just observing). If we weren't able to read Cyrillic letters, there would have been no way to match up the street names written in our English guide with those that were faced with while in Russia. But, this was a lot easier to make sense of than a lot of the signs that I had to decipher while living in Japan. Anyway, Moscow is a wonderful place that I want to visit again sometime in the future. We found the cheapest place in town to stay which was with a couple named Galina and Sergei's apartment (see a video of her place here) that averaged out to 300 rubles ($10) per night.

At this time Caitlin was fighting off a sickness from four days on the train while I got to experience a Friday night of clubbing in the city after meeting up with my bother's friend and born-and-raised Muscovite, Andrey. That particular night ended after I had lost track of Andrey (among other things) and fell asleep outside of the Metro station while waiting for it to open at 5:30am.

The remaining time in Moscow was spent with our French roommate at Galina and Sergei's place. She had spent a year living/studying in Poland so a lot of the language skills that she had learned were transferable to Russian which helped us out as we were attempting to buy train tickets to St. Petersburg. Being French, our companion was naturally an extremely hospitable friend to Caitlin and myself as she actually served us some apple compote made from some leftover food that we had from the big train ride (we had to take food for the entire four days with us on the train). As well as working towards her PhD in political science (and speaking five languages fluently at age 23), you well might run into her at the Eiffel Tower where she works as a tour guide.

So, we did eventually make it to St. Petersburg, knowing that we only had a few days before our strict 30 day tourists visas were to expire. Caitlin had arranged a place to stay with a Couchsurfing host so after yet another sleepless train ride, I borrowed (and paid) a policeman to use his phone to call our potential host for the next few days. Soon after this, we met up with Alexander, a 22 year old recent graduate and newcomer to St. Petersburg. We got to see the unparalleled Hermitage Museum of art and culture, teach Alexander how to add tomato sauce to pasta noodles (he still wants me to send him this ingenious recipe), and watch weird music videos from the early 90s on Russian TV.

On the downside, Alexander ruined some of our clothes due to his lack of knowledge of his half-broken washing machine and he then creeped us out by hanging out alone in a dark room in his apartment while drinking beer and staring out the window. I do know for sure that he was happy to both practice his English with Caitlin and me and bragged over the phone about having "real, live Americans" in his presence. Our two days with Alexander were well spent but by the end had duly earned the infamous nickname of "Creeps".

And that was Russia. Our two and a half weeks here were some of the most interesting and memorable of our long journey back home. However, by this time we were ready for a break from the often esoteric Soviet atmosphere. Thankfully for us, the next place that decided to go would be more like home than any of the 13 countries that we passed through over these three months.

Finland - 8/29 to 9/6

Finland has a nickname for itself- "Little America." I'm not sure how many Americans are aware of this title, but Finnish people take a lot of pride in having many of the comforts of my own country exist in theirs as well. For example, you can spend hours upon hours lost in a Kärkkäinen the same way you would in a super Walmart. They even have their own completely unique version of Finnish baseball...a very confusing thing to watch on TV if you are used to the "standard" rules seen in most other parts of the world.

Crossing the Russo-Finnish border provided quite a culture shock for both of us. Often outdated communist-era buildings were now replaced with ultra-modern Scandinavian designs that instantly made us feel more at home, possibly due to resemblance to things that we used to see in Japan. The bureaucracy that seemed to tie up most things in Russia had now disappeared and though the language was baffling, seeing roman characters once again reminded us that we were now not so far from home.

After a freezing night of camping with our newly acquired tent in Helsinki, we met up with some friends of friends who were willing to take us to their house in the suburbs of Lahti for the weekend. Little did we know that Sami and Marjo would be the nicest and most trusting people we could have ever imagined as we ended up attending their son's Verner's birthday party, seeing the biggest ski jump that I've ever seen, and experiencing true sauna culture.

Suburban Finland did seem a lot like suburban America. However, the emphasis on winter activities (even in the summer) was something that sets Finland apart from the things that I grew up around. In fact, after riding the train back from Helsinki with Marjo, the first thing that we did was spend time in their sauna. Afterward, they were very excited to hear if we liked it (and of course we did) and offered us a beer as we sat in our towels in their back yard. It seemed like not long ago that we were sharing a cramped train berth with Mongolian smugglers so taking all of this into account we were pretty happy travelers at this point.

The skiing museum was also a source of great pride for the people of Lahti and we were amazed to see people actually go down a full sized ski jump in the middle of summer...

After a wild night of karaoke in downtown Lahti, we headed to a lake in the central part of the country where Sami let us use a wood fired sauna near his family's cabin. We spent that afternoon alternating between heating ourselves up and then jumping in the freezing water to cool down.

The rest of our nearly two weeks in Finland were spent hitchhiking (from Turku to Pori),

camping (in abandoned campgrounds),

and staying with more incredibly nice people (near the city of Vaasa).

We left the country feeling revived and ready for Eastern Europe.

Sweden - 9/7 to 9/9

We only went to Sweden because it ended up being cheaper to take a boat there before heading to Estonia and the European mainland. By this time we were ready to get out of Scandinavia, mostly because of the insultingly high prices for transportation and accommodation. We did our best to avoid these costs, only paying for a room one night out of the twelve days that we were there. But, when you step onto the Stockholm subway and are forced to pay five Euros for riding for it two stops, you want to get out of Scandinavia.

At the least, the boat ride was nice.

And we had finally come across at grocery stores, for the first time in our trip, MEXICAN FOOD. This was big.

Estonia - 9/10 to 9/16

By the time we got to Estonia, Caitlin and I knew that we needed a break from each other. After seven weeks of making every single decision together we were welcoming some alone time for a few weeks. However, we stuck it out in Estonia and hung out for another week before splitting up. Being in a country that we both really liked made us feel upbeat about our upcoming alone time.

The capital city of Tallinn is an awesome scene straight out of Europe's past. Though we saw a lot of the 'old town' areas of Eastern Europe, this was my first and probably favorite of them all.

The next adventure was the island of Saaremaa. Here, I consumed what might have been the best beer that I've ever had in my life- a 10% bottle of Saaremaa Ale that I had with popcorn while watching the movie First Kid with acclaimed comedian Sinbad. Strangely enough, I would share a flight to Milwaukee with Sinbad a mere two months after this very memorable evening.

Now that we had spent some of the more pleasant time had on the trip together, we were now ready for a much needed two weeks of traveling separately.

Latvia - 9/17 and 9/18

After Estonia, Caitlin's plan was to bus straight to Warsaw while mine included hanging back and seeing the other two Baltic States: Latvia and Lithuania. My experiences in these two countries were short (about two days each) but I was just happy to concentrate on reading, cooking for myself, and taking pictures.

Riga, Latvia was a nice stopover. I watched the owner of my hostel get drunk while entertaining a young female friend of his, highlighting some very interesting cultural differences in work etiquette. I also found a modern photography exhibit which I really loved and that alone made my memories of Latvia positive ones.

(One more thing to note while I was in Latvia was that we chose a flight home during this time. Our departure date would be October 16, 2009 out of Rome, Italy so we now had a concrete date and city to work around, although we both knew that we had many options for our route to get to our final destination.)

Lithuania - 9/19 and 9/20

I will remember Lithuania as the country where I read a good chunk of Crime and Punishment. I was, however, very impressed with the city of Vilnius and its enormous old town neighborhood.

Poland - 9/21 to 9/27

Poland. I love Poland. My great-grandparents came from here so I felt a particularly strong attachment to my experience. The most homesick that I ever became during the trip was when I ate pierogies and had a good beer after a weekend of hiking...that must say something about my attachment to Poland.

I spent some time in Warsaw just wrapping up Dostoevsky's mind games before checking out the post-WWII resurrections of the city. I found a good vegan restaurant and just enjoyed the wide open plazas before plotting my next move to Krakow.

The vibe in the city was a really interesting one, incorporating both the old and the new.

In Krakow, I met a woman who insisted that I take her picture by some good lighting after giving me a tour of the area. She told me that she was rich because she married a wealthy man but had too much free time oh her hands. I couldn't offer any practical advice for that problem but nevertheless enjoyed the chat.

The best part of Poland was without a doubt the small mountain town of Zakopane. Nestled at the base of the Tatra Mountains, Zakopane is as much a destination for Polish nationals as it is with vacationing foreigners. These were the first mountains that I encountered in Europe so I was excited to get out and hike that weekend.

My final thought on Poland has to be the food. Eating the real thing after growing up on the frozen variety of pierogis validated my love for this food. Thumbs up on pretty much everything that I consumed here, but the pierogis were definitely number one on my list.

Fried cheese came in second...

and the beer, third.

Czech Republic - 9/28 to 10/3

Prague has a special place in Caitlin's heart because she studied abroad there in 2005 and over the years in Japan I had heard a lot about how much she wanted to go back to visit her host family of mother and daughter pair Jitka and Kristyna (whose family had now expanded to husband Peter and newest addition Karolina). They had also heard a lot about me so we were all looking forward to the meeting. Prague also marked the end of the 'alone time' portion of the trip as Caitlin and I met up after two weeks of separate travels.

Prague feels like a very creative place, which makes sense as exists within various crossroads of cultural influences. I have other friends that have lived here and can see why it's such a popular destination. I feel like we got out a good amount during our week here but also feel like we spent an equal amount of time hanging out with Jitka, Kristyna and the rest of the crew.

After this, we hopped on a train, opened a Kozel (our favorite beer of the trip) and set off for Austria.

Austria - 10/3 to 10/4

The only positive thing that I can say about Austria is that I know that I never want to go back to Salzburg. I also made a salad out of the contents in my food bag that added up to something really worth mentioning. Seriously, it was a very good salad.

Slovenia - 10/5 to 10/11

Though it's difficult to make comparisons like this, I might say that Slovenia is my favorite country in Europe. The funny thing is that we only visited here because we had befriended Gasper and Klavdija, two very hospitable Slovenes that we'd met while in Siberia a few months back. Back then I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn't quite place their country on a map if I had to. However, after going there, it would be one of the first place that I'd want to return to in Europe.

Though Slovenia is not a big place we felt lucky to be staying with what turned out to be two well known theater people. Gasper was most recently the host of the children's karaoke television show Umkovizija (look for him in the background at 0:15) and was currently performing in the play 'Revizor' by Nikolai Gogol while Klavdija is a costume designer for various theater productions. After a long night out with Gasper in the lively capital of Ljubljana, we watched him give a spirited performance in front of a packed house that evening.

Gasper and Klavdija were eager to show us the hot spots in the city during the few days that we had there. Fortunately for us, Slovenian culture places just as much emphasis on nature as it does any man made attraction so we soon found ourselves exploring ravines, dried up lakes, and receiving lessons in which wild tree branches are good to smoke (a Slovenian tradition).

The Julian Alps were another natural highlight. After seeing the famous castle at Lake Bled, we decided to venture a bit more off the tourist track to Bohinj (which also has a nice lake) in order to get one final stretch of hiking in before our impending return back to the States in about a week and a half. There were only a few tourists in Bohinj so we felt like we had the mountains all to ourselves. We even had a local dog follow us on our hike for the day. When trying to return him to his owner at the end of the hike, we were told not to worry because he was known for latching onto hikers just for the exercise.

It's a little known fact that pizza and wine are considered better in Slovenia than in Italy by locals who most likely had the chance to compare the two since Italy shares Slovenia's western boundary. I would encourage anyone who is interested to also take part in this culinary exploration.

As our time in Slovenia came to a close, we were well rested after a few days at Klavdija's house in the countryside (including some homemade pumpkin soup), Gasper and Klavdija drove us to the coastal town of Piran where I had some delicious polenta and some of Caitlin's feta stuffed grilled squid. Not cutting into our enjoyment of this final evening, we then rushed to the train station where we caught our train to Venice with less than a minute to spare. An amazing end to some time very well spent in our new favorite country.

Italy - 10/12 to 10/16

For me, being in Italy again was the final reward after months of traveling though unknown territory. Our main concern here was to spend a lot of the money that we painstakingly saved up in other places on some good Italian food and wine. So, that's exactly what we did while spending some time in Rome.

I was also lucky enough to visit Celano, the town where my ancestors are from. Five minutes after getting off of the train, I knew I was in the right place.

We didn't plan on spending the night there, but were persuaded by the friendly locals to do so. Seeing this small, traditional community made me happy to be mingling with people that are most likely my distant relatives.

After this it was back to New York, then back to Pittsburgh. The first bit of culture shock was on the airplane as we found a SkyMall magazine and looked at the edition titled "Tastes of America" with amazingly oversized roast beef and chipped ham sandwiches on the cover. It made both of us laugh so hard that we almost cried.

And just like that, we were back in Pittsburgh where not much has changed in the past few years. In fact, we arrived the terminal right in the middle of a Steelers game so a lot of the normal airport operations ceased so that people could watch it. And, once again, I knew that I would have to find my own way in a culture that, in ways, seemed even harder to relate to than before I was stranger to it. That challenge remains to this day as I have thoroughout these two years redefined my priorities, my self, and my surroundings.

I could only hope that at some other point in my life would I be able to learn as much as I have in through these 79 days and 13 countries. But, if anything, I know now more than ever that knowledge and experience have no limit so I'm not counting it out.

eh? nan de?

naruto-shi, tokushima-ken, Japan
teaching my native tongue on the world famous island of shikoku, japan.