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.)
It’s 12:25 in the afternoon. I’ve forgotten what day it is, Wednesday perhaps. Two days ago, in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, beside the monumented remains of Engine 3306, a restored Soviet-era steam engine built by Americans during World War II, we boarded Russian Railways Trans-Siberian Train 001 at 7:10 in the evening.
Since then, we’ve been lumbering westward toward Moscow through the Siberian Taiga on the Trans-Siberian Rail. Our destination is Sludyanka on the southwestern tip of Lake Baikal, just one station shy of Irkutsk. We’ll arrive tomorrow in the early afternoon. But this is the Trans-Siberian Rail. The saying that it’s about the journey and not the destination is more apt here than just about anywhere.
Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, sits about 100 miles from the northeastern corner of North Korea. It is seven time zones from both Moscow and Los Angeles. The general response from most people — Russians included — when we told them we were planning on spending a couple of days here was a mixture of blank stares, the question “Why?” or simply “That’s far …”
Our primary reason was to board the Trans-Siberian Railway at it’s far eastern terminal and roll west. But as we researched our trip, we found more and more reasons to spend some time in the city called “Master of the East.”
Вперёд! Стоп! Левый табань! Правый вперёд! Стоп! Вперёд! Навались! Навались! Навались!
Our “captain” barked those words at us as we rafted the Bystraya (translation: quick) River down the middle of the Kamchatka peninsula. For most of the day, those are the only words we heard.
And, let me tell you, when the captain yelled “Вперёд Навались!” we pulled our oars hard as the current pushed us toward a huge, jagged volcanic rock jutting menacingly out of the frigid whitewater spray.
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.
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.
Imagine a Las Vegas casino meeting Pokemon on steroids in an IMAX theater. Then crowds of people, seemingly oblivious to the aural abuse, quietly weaving around each other and occasionally stopping to look at frying, fragrant seafood. Or maybe a purse or socks.
This goes on for blocks, in all directions, in one of the open-air street markets in Osaka, a port city of nearly 2 million people on Japan’s Pacific coast. But then, suddenly, a tourist’s reprieve.