Things I learned on my world trip (non-exhaustive list):
- Bulgaria makes the best French fries in the world.
- Missing a bus or train isn’t as big a deal as you think. When traveling, don’t plan ahead.
- Cross-country skiing is super fun.
- Don’t try to climb a mountain alone in April. You might die.
- Sometimes people invite you to sleep on their couch so they can complain about their deep and pervasive unhappiness in life. Most of the time, though, they are just really nice people who want to have a good time and help and get to know others.
- Russian trains are better than other trains in almost every way. Their main disadvantage is the high concentration of drunken men.
- Japan is beautiful but insanely expensive.
- It’s really hard to understand a Chinese man speaking broken Russian.
- Traveling in western Europe makes you soft. All day all you do is drink coffee and beer, and eat ice cream.
- Burgundy wine is made exclusively (only a few exceptions) with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
- Hostels usually suck. Goat Hostel in Budapest was all right, though.
- China is disappointingly lacking in good dessert / pastry / chocolate items, but its fried rice kicks ass.
- I can pretty much speak Bulgarian.
- It’s always better to ask for directions. Always.
- Traveling west to east is completely different from traveling east to west.
- Pub crawls = killer hangovers.
- “Men are people too.” - Ivan from Zagreb.
- How to scythe.
- Don’t fall in the shit grate!!!
- Germany is pretty much the best ever.
It has not even been 2 months since I got back, but it feels like forever.
Border Crossing 2012 Word Association Game
Russia: Oh, Russia
Ukraine: Is this Europe?
Moldova (i.e. Chisinau): Is this Russia?
Romania (i.e. Brasov): Rainy
Hungary (i.e. Budapest): Is this America?
Books I Read on my Trip
The books are listed in chronological order of when I read them. I’ve rated them 1-5 stars here, and the title links will take you to my review of each book on goodreads.com.
I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (****)
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (***)
Requiem pour l’Est by Andrei Makine (*****)
Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History by Rachel Polonsky (***)
The Story of Russia by Robert Van Bergen (**)
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (***)
Мертвые Души (Dead Souls) by Nikolai Gogol (****)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (****)
The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (****)
The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (****)
Russendisko by Wladimir Kaminer (***)
Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac Mccarthy (*****)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (****)
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (19% read)
Du Côté de Chez Swann by Marcel Proust (23% read)
My trip is already more than halfway over, so I figured I should write some sort of update. So far, I have been to Washington State, Japan, China, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. (Map) I’m currently in Brasov, Romania. I have been using the website couchsurfing.org to find people to host me in each city I visit, so I have only rarely paid for a night’s accommodation. This means that not only am I under budget so far, but I’ve also met great people at every stop along the way. I’ve had tons of great experiences, including seeing old friends and new scenery, experiencing tons of different lifestyles, foods, and worldviews, sitting on trains and buses, trying to understand foreign languages, and being really confused by public transportation.
People are always surprised that I am traveling alone (the number one question I’ve gotten, especially in post-communist countries, is “Are you married?” - sometimes from men but more often from middle-aged women), and they say I am very brave. I don’t think traveling like this requires bravery, though. It only requires a willingness to endure some discomfort. Basically you have to want it bad enough. I have never been scared during my trip (okay, maybe a little bit when scrambling up a mountainside alone with 40 lbs on my back). I have had moments of sitting in front of the closed bus station at 5:30 am, not knowing when and where the bus will come, and I have had moments of walking a city, without a map, with my backpack, hoping I’m heading for the center, but I always know that I will get where I’m going eventually.
It was especially fun to go to Russia again. I felt much more comfortable there, culturally, than I was even when I was living in Ukhta. I got to practice Russian a lot and met a much wider range of people than I ever had before - from young couples or young university students and their families while surfing, to older women and drunk (and the occasional sober) guys on trains. The other countries have been good, too, though, and I just took a couple-day hiking trip to break up the monotony of walking around new cities every day (yes, there are important differences from country to country and city to city, but after a point you don’t want to see any more churches or ruins or monuments or fortresses or even outdoor cafes). The hike was a bitch at times due to snow and rain, etc., and it ended up being more expensive than anticipated (bought a backpacking stove and stayed in cabanas rather than my tent), but the views were great, and I did make it up one small mountain (Piatra Mica, 1816m/5958ft).
After a couple more days in Brasov, I’m planning to go to Croatia, and then to Germany for the next month to work on a farm near Freiburg and do some traveling to Berlin and maybe Dresden and some other cities. Then to Switzerland for more hiking and finally to France. I miss you all, but part of me wishes I didn’t have a plane ticket home. I just want to get a job on the internet and travel forever.
Pack the Pack
I’m going to be doing this A LOT over the next 5 months.
Step 1: Compress sleeping bag and put into bottom of pack.
Step 2: Cinch down bag with rain gear on top.
Step 3: Use sleeping pad to create a barrel in main part of pack, then fill with a garbage bag. (This will keep the insides dry if I get rained on.)
Step 4: Start stuffing as tightly as possible, leaving no space unstuffed. Begin with items I’ll use least, such as my tent.
Step 5: I know I’ve done a good job if I can secure the strap over the top.
Step 6: Secure the brain and stuff sweater in.
Step 7: Pack the front compartment.
Step 8: Tent poles in the side pocket, and we’re all packed!
This beauty weighs 41 lbs and is all ready to go. I’ll be getting a plastic bag from the airlines to keep it safe while flying. I leave tomorrow, and still the only thing I’m nervous about is money! Money, money, money…
The Packing List
If you ever want to take a five and a half month trip through extremes of weather with only the pack on your back, there are quite a few blogs out there to help you. Every trip is different though, so you have to think about what is important for you to be comfortable while traveling. I’m going less minimalist than many other backpacker bloggers. This is partially because they often rely on buying things while abroad, which can be a good idea if you want to dress to blend in with the natives and just because you will inevitably forget something and have to buy it anyway. However, I don’t have enough money to plan on buying things I already own. The only way that my packing style will cost me extra money is in shipping my winter coat home. I figure that’s worth it - I have a really nice, big coat that kept me warm through the winter in Ukhta. It was pretty expensive and I expect to use it in cold weather for years to come. Thus, I much prefer to bring it and send it home than to go through the stress of trying to buy a good quality coat that doesn’t cost too much in Russia, which I would then have to sell or give away in the spring. In any case, it’s good to look at other people’s lists when planning a trip, if only for those small life-saver items that you might not think of on your own. So here’s mine:
Clothing (for a variety of activities including urban sight-seeing, mountain hiking, Siberian winter, European summer, wine tastings, and farm work in wet spring)
hiking pants, jeans, UnderArmour leggings, sleep shorts
turtleneck, 2 t-shirts, base upper layer, wool sweater
1 dress (can be worn alone in summer or over turtleneck and jeans in winter)
socks and underwear (with an extra plastic bag for the dirty ones!), 1 regular bra and 1 sports bra, leg warmers
hiking boots, Keen slip-on walking shoes (also good for trains), flip flops (for showers)
rain pants, rain shell, small puffy down jacket (this is great because it provides about the same warmth as a fleece but packs way smaller and also provides a bit of wind-breaking ability), winter coat
2 winter hats (one with earflaps for Siberia), winter gloves + liner gloves, scarf
The essentials: toothbrush and toothpaste, Dr. Bronner’s soap
Travel size shampoo (2), zit cream, nail clippers (I can’t live without these), q-tips, hair ties, SPF 15 chapstick (2), tiny bottle sunscreen for face, travel hairbrush, MSR pack towel, floss, deodorant
One exception to my rule: I will be buying baby wipes in Russia. Lifesaver when you’re going many days without showering.
Kindle, iPod, camera, Blackberry with WiFi and international SIM card, audio recorder (With an iPhone or similar modern technology this could all be condensed…)
chargers for all, extra memory card, international adapter/converter
(The mints aren’t really mints - that’s my sewing kit.)
notebook with essential info pasted in (time zones, embassy phone numbers, bank phone numbers, basic schedule), pens, wallet and passport, envelope with copies of all important documents (visas, passport, bank cards…)
Guide to Transsiberian, copies of relevant pages from other guidebooks (in a ziploc bag to guard against water)
(I got the Moscow public transport booklet when I studied abroad there in 2007. It’s a bit out of date now, but still great for detail of all the little streets in the city.)
0-degree F sleeping bag, sleeping pad
tent with footprint, rainfly, poles, and stakes
first aid kit with common medicines, wound closure kit, bandaids, cough drops, iodine caplets, etc.
rope, duct tape (wrapped around water bottles), small sewing kit and tent repair kit, tinder for fire-starting, hand sanitizer (also helps with fires)
water bottles (2), 2L water bladder
pocket knife, mini-leatherman tool, lighters, matches, rope, compass, headlamp
camp pot (inside: spoon and ziplocs containing sweet and savory spice mixes), mug for tea
Other random good things to have
Some food including trail mix, protein bars, and candy (to share on trains)
Sunglasses, bandannas for various uses, earplugs for noisy train/hostel companions
Deck of cards
Business cards, Pictures/postcards of Indianapolis to give to people I meet
This is all of it, minus the sleeping bag/pad, food, and winter coat.
Believe it or not, this all fits in my REI Venus 70L bag. (Well, minus a few things I’ll be carrying on - but once I arrive I’ll be able to rearrange, strap some things to the outside of the pack, and fit more inside.) I’m a big fan of my pack, by the way. I got it a little less than a year ago and have used it on several trips. I love the color and style, the placement of zippers and compartments, and most importantly, it fits me well and is super comfortable.
Soon to come will be the final packing and weighing. Expect drama!
I’ve declared my trip effectively planned now because if I look at one more page of one more guidebook, I will scream. I just want to start going and figure it out. It seems there is always more to do, though. Recently, I bought a Eurail Global Pass after doing lots of research and calculations, visiting the national railway sites of Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and more countries, reading conflicting information, and rerouting to visit Bulgaria before Romania so that I don’t have to travel through Serbia to get to Croatia. (The Global Pass is not valid in Serbia.) All in all, I think I made the cheapest choice, but I can’t be sure. Also, it turns out I may be taking the very train I previously tried to catch in Iasi that doesn’t actually pass through Iasi. It will be a long two-and-a-half-day ride from Kiev to Sofia, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
I’ve also been e-mailing farms. I have one German farm potentially interested in hosting me and have written to two Bulgarian farms to which I have connections. One has replied offering to host me for a couple days as a guest, not a worker, which is wonderful, but I hope the other farm replies as well so that I can spend a week there. I haven’t heard from them yet. I didn’t join WOOF for these connections. To find farms in Germany I just did a google search and ended up finding some farms in the area I wanted offering country holidays for people who want to pay to stay on a farm. I e-mailed them anyway asking about work exchange, and one replied and said they don’t do that, but you should try this other farm. So I did, and voila. My German is pretty rusty, but that’s exactly why I’m pumped to spend a month on a farm there.
Tonight is Brendan’s birthday at Chatham Tap. Thank god.
Border Crossing 2012 Overview
In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s 2012 now. And 2012, for me, means movement. My trip, newly renamed Border Crossing 2012, begins in a little over two weeks. Here’s how it will go.
The last half of January will be spent in Seattle and Japan, visiting friends and meeting the first member of the new generation of my world! None of my close friends, siblings, or cousins have procreated…until now, and since the baby will be in Japan, I get to be the first to meet it!
In February, I’ll continue by ferry to China with another friend, who lives in Guangxi province. I’ll check out her area and Shanghai, Beijing, and Harbin, then move on mid-month to Russia. I’m going to spend a month there, traversing the country by train. This will be an exciting time. Everyone knows I love snow and Russian trains, but my month will also include the holiday Maslenitsa and the highly-charged presidential election! Also, I’ve never been to non-European Russia before and can’t wait to see the Far East and Lake Baikal.
From there, in mid-March, I enter post-communist Europe: Ukraine (which I missed on my last trip due to the black hole that is Iasi), Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. I plan to do some farming in Bulgaria and some hiking and camping in Romania and Croatia.
By May I’ll be back in the Western world, farming and exploring for a month in Germany. In June, I’ll head to the Jura trail in Switzerland for a week-long through hike, then to Beaune, France to meet my dad, who is coming to explore Burgundy wines with me. After a few days there and a few in Paris, it will be time to fly home again.
After budgeting for all my transportation, it’s looking like I’ll have about $30/day for food, lodging, and extras throughout my trip. Not bad, but it will definitely be essential to get free lodging and cheap food where possible to compensate for those times when I can’t avoid splurging. Staying within this budget will obviously be much easier in certain countries (China, Russia, eastern Europe) than others (Japan, the US, western Europe).
Finally, I did a dry run on packing yesterday and found that I have too much stuff. It’s close, but I can’t close my backpack in its current state, so it’s time to make some tough decisions. I’ll post my packing list once I finalize it for general scrutiny.
Happy 2012, everyone! Don’t forget to do harder this year.
Travel goals, big and small (a work in progress)
Find the cheapest possible food and accommodations in order to stay within my budget.
Don’t spend the whole trip worrying about money.
Buy delicious tea in Japan and China to drink on subsequent Russian train rides.
Make friends on Russian trains and learn the secrets of village/small-town life in Siberian winters.
Cross-country ski on Lake Baikal.
Take good notes so that I can write up my adventures later.
Practice all three of my foreign languages and learn bits of new languages.
See a play at the Moscow Arts Theater.
Go ice skating outdoors.
Check Asia off the “continents visited” list.
Work on at least two farms and learn new skills and perspectives while doing so.
Do two long-distance, multi-day hikes. Summit a peak or two in the process.