Ulan-Ude immediately feels different when we arrive at 5 a.m. on an overnight train. Our cab driver is cheery, talkative and doesn’t drive 100 mph. There are Buddhist statutes, the first religious symbols I’ve seen in Russia that aren’t Orthodox Christian. And the racial makeup is much more Asian that anywhere else we’ve been, save for the giant Lenin head statue in the town square.
But the biggest surprise: Getting a personal tour of Ulan-Ude’s beautiful opera and ballet theater, which recently underwent a meticulous six-year renovation. We even meet a couple performers, including … the prima ballerina! OMG, I MIGHT DIE!
Jan turns to me the first morning we wake up on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He says he has an idea: Let’s spend two extra weeks in Russia.
He’s been researching the region around Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. The train skirts the southern edge of the lake, which thanks to its mountain surroundings holds about the same amount of water as all the Great Lakes combined. It’s also a hiker’s haven and home to the Great Baikal Trail.
So we get off the train early. It’s our first official detour in our year-long journey, and it turns out to be exactly what we need. (Well, save for the unexpected 3-mile walk in the dark with our backpacks, along a highway with no lights or reliable sidewalk, to a guesthouse that rented our room to someone else. We didn’t need that.)
Have you ever seen Birkenstocks fly off someone’s feet like missiles? It’s hilarious. But after digging Jan’s hippie sandals out of the bushes — a solid 15 feet from where he slipped on a hillside staircase — I turn around and gasp. On his arm, where he’d caught his fall, a grotesque blob was rising.
We’d just gotten off a bus in Esso, a tiny mountain town in the center of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. It’s Friday evening, most everything is closed, and we’re now a nine-hour bus ride away — mostly along dirt roads — from the nearest city.
I’m convinced a broken bone (or a mutant mouse) is trying to push out of Jan’s bloodied skin. I panic.
As with most everything on the Kamchatka Peninsula, information was scarce when we looked into taking a bus to Esso, a village surrounded by mountains in the peninsula’s center. The town is near Bystrinsky Nature Park, which we’d been told had good trail markers and was easy to hike without a guide (compared to elsewhere in East Russia, so still not easy).
Guidebooks and blogs only said that a roughly 10-hour bus route existed. So if you’re looking to get to Esso on your own, without spending a fortune on a private tour, you found the right place for information!
Snow-capped volcanoes abruptly rise from a thick evergreen forest as we fly into the Kamchatka Peninsula. Framed by today’s rare sapphire-blue sky, the forest below eventually falls into the Pacific Ocean, save for a few islands in the bay.
I’m awestruck. My camera lay abandoned on the middle seat for several minutes before I suddenly remember to reach for it, fumbling with one hand because my gaze is glued to the window.
Here, in the wilderness of Russia’s eastern edge — nine time zones away from Moscow but only five from Los Angeles — the landscape is rugged and desolate. That adds to allure but also to the travel costs. A budget traveler’s destination this is not, but a mountain lover’s destination it is.
I’ll be blunt. We’re eating our way through Seoul, unable to pass whatever’s being fried or boiled or grilled at the next street vendor. I could lie and say we’re focused on the museums and historical sights of this massive city, and taking in the modern culture (and odd American exports). That’s all happening, but only between meals. And snacks. And meal-snacks.
A lot of that is thanks to the incredibly friendly people who keep pointing us in the right direction. Locals regularly walk right up to us — personal space, they care not! — if we look remotely lost or confused (so, every day). That’s surprising for a city this large, dense and cosmopolitan.
After a whirlwind trip through Japan, we had a choice for our limited time in South Korea: Keep the same pace to zigzag the southern part of the country — including going to an internationally known mud festival — or rest.
We arrived in South Korea via the port city of Busan, thanks to a ferry from Japan. Busan came highly recommended from friends who’d lived in South Korea, and we were in the region during the Boryeong Mud Festival, which Lonely Planet lists as a “must see.” The fest draws close to a million people each July to frolic in giant vats of mud between concerts, raves and other festivities.
And this, my friends, is the difference between traveling in your 20s and … not in your 20s.
Gray-blue sea surrounds us now that Japan has faded off the ship’s stern. We’re alone, walking the windy port-side deck while awaiting the first glimpse of South Korea. A uniformed sailor appears in the windowed passageway above us. His stance — legs wide, hands clasped, eyes locked on us through sunglasses — signals we’re a bit too close to the lifeboats.
We’re about to enter a new country from the sea, which I love, because it offers a slow, anticipatory view of the travels ahead. I’m also fresh off what may have been the best nap of my adult life, lulled to sleep by calm seas and lapping waves, while resting on a sunlight-warmed lounging mat.
Once again, Japan doesn’t disappoint the budget traveler.