I woke up in Mongolia. I wonder how many people in the world can say that?
I left Shanghai via the bullet train that averages 300kph. It took me five hours to get there. Leaving Shanghai was difficult, but I know it’s not the end. I fall in love too quick, that’s my problem. I’ve said it before – the ephemeral leaves lace marks on my skin. I fall in love with impermanence. Grasping at the past and unwise enough to carry forgotten dreams from age to age*. I am getting better. I am. I still lust at what is gone, what maybe never was. My coming days fill me with a similar sort of yearning. Endless possibility. A different city every week. I’ve got midnights in Paris and dawn in Berlin and dusk in Hvar in not too far horizons. I was excited about Beijing – everyone had told me great things. I arrived to dissapointment. The people were ruder. The streets felt sterilized and grey, like the sky. There were no street hawkers, no cobbled ancient Hutongs – everything had been rebuilt in the last few decades. It looked like a big grey town purpose built for tourism.
I wandered till I had found something. Tianenmen Square was at the end of my road. Thousands of Chinese tourists were taking their obligitory tourist photographs, smiling next to the enormous portrait of Mao Zedong. Snow – our guide for Beijing, later told us that Tianenmen means – Peace, Heaven, Gate. As a chilld, seeing the iconographic photograph of the nameless student holding two breifcases in front of a row of tanks in Tianenmen Square felt distant. He was older, in a time long ago, in a place across the seas. Today I was here, his age, I understood a little more his position perhaps. This part of history has essentially been wiped from the Chinese history books. The Wikipedia page for the protests from China, reads as though the students were protesting the signing the Treaty of Versailles, and were simply savagely beaten for their efforts. Even today, no-one knows how many died, some estimate in the hundreds, others say thousands. A very vast majority have no clue about the massacre, and visit the Gate of Peace and Heaven as one of Beijing’s beautiful tourist attractions.
I strolled the forbidden city, amazed only by the sheer number of tourists could fit into such a place. I wandered around the city that afternoon feeling nothing of note, except thirst. Beijing as a city has inspired absolutely nothing in me, which is rare. I sat in the Hostel and smoked cigarettes alone until someone approached me for a conversation, like the ice queen that I am. A large, unfortunate looking boy of 20 struck up a conversation with me. He was in China for 3 months for Dragonboat World Championships. He looked like Peter Griffin with more acne. Immediately conversation turned to how many nightclubs he frequented in Shanghai. We found some common ground for love of the city, but of course, every aside from me was returned with one even bigger and better from him; mostly related to all the hot birds he banged. I was relatively nonplussed, but thankful when two others joined our table. Both were studying East Asian Studies at University and their insights into China put it into perspective a little for me. During the cultural revolution, Mao sent the teenage Red Guards to destroy everything – decorative eaves were seen as beugeoise, books were burnt and destroyed, anything of beauty or cultural significance was seen as a unecessary to the Cultural Revolution and destroyed. When tourism was opened up in the 80s peolpe came to China and there was nothing to see, word spread and China went on a move to rebuild. All the temples and many of the “ancient sites” have plaques that herald their rebuilding in recent decades.
The Great Wall is suffering a similar fate. We went in a group with the hostel, to a part of the Wall that was largely untouristed. Half of it was currently undergoing rebuilding by some obviously well intentioned fool. Instead of using existing bricks and restoring the crumbling wall, they were being rebuild with brand new stones, no resemblance to the old. They were black and looked like cheap driveway pavers. It seems a very Chinese thing to believe that new is always better. Of course the shiny new pavestones will make a better wall than the ancient hand made wonder of the world that has existed for centuries. The Wall was deceptively steep – it was about 41 degrees Celsius and dry. Two of the girls in the group took an instant disliking to me, one decided to ream me out in front of everyone because I made an offhand comment about it being weird that an American dude we met walked up and down the same part of the wall repeatedly for 4 hours. The other tried to make me look like a fool because I asked her where she got menthol cigarettes from in China. The small aggressive one stormed ahead saying she was going to punch me or something equally as dramatic, and the tall menthol smoker stood beside me for about 30 minutes telling me about how she went to Glastonbury when she was four and met Nelson Mandela and that her sisters middle name was Ghandi, so she was a giant amazing hippie. (I couldn’t make this shit up) I endured her conversation for a while, just pleased that the tiny one wasn’t trying to punch me, it was honestly way too hot for any of that carry on. Moonbeam repeatedly tried to inform the group of the facts that she knew, which were relatively common knowledge, as though she was a great teacher and the authority on everything. She also tried to argue with me that it took four hours by boat to get from Australia to Koh Phangan, because she met someone at the Full Moon party who told her so. Her presence was exhausting. I was shattered by the time I had to go meet up with my Vodkatrain group to start the mammoth journey on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
It’s strange, how quickly these two months have gone. The Trans-Mongolian seemed like such a distant concept. A punctuation. The “drawing of a line” (as it was put in the Cultural Revolution) between Asia and Europe. The crescendo in my personal pilgrimage was suddenly at my feet. Being in Beijing by a certain date was the pull that kept me going, kept me leaving places and people. It felt like a magnetic pull that I simultaneously resented and feared and desired all at once. It signalled the end of Asia but at the same time the beginning of Europe, in the middle was the great vast unknown.
Give me land, lots of land and the sunny skies above, don’t fence me in, let me ride in the wide open spaces that I love, don’t fence me in!
I bowled into the lobby of a relatively fancy hotel (although my fancy is another mans veritable shithole) like the usual hurricane of bags and hair that I am. All my fears about the group being freaks were allayed almost immediately. There were two pretty Swiss girls around my age, and a slightly older Aussie couple from Sydney, my room mate was a 20 year old boy from the Goldcoast. Nothing of real importance happened the next day and a half in Beijing (can you feel my obvious contempt?) except expensive food was consumed. I did have Matcha icecream from a teahouse that has been in existence since 1887; it was everything I dreamed it would be.
Armed with supplies, we headed to the main Beijing train station to board the train to Mongolia. The attempt to get INTO the train station epitomised everything I hated about China. I was pushed and shoved and trampled over. My donut peaches and bananas bore bruises. Approaching the Mongolian train felt like a similar clash of cultures as boarding my Chinese train in Vietnam. The attendants were enormous women, buxom giants standing guard at the entrance to the train. Signage was all in Cyrillic, our comfortable compartments had 4 beds, a small table and an enormous picture window. The four of us sat in silence and stared at nothingness for a few hours, then enchanted into slumber we napped the afternoon away. As the sun was beginning to set over nothingness, Dominique and I tried to find somewhere to smoke a cigarette. A train attendant chased us down the train, yelling “no smoking, no smoking” in an accent that sounded European, a stark contrast to her features.
We kept walking, smelt smoke and knew we had reached a nicotine addicts mecca, the restaurant cart. The sun was setting and the ageing decor made us feel like we were transported to a bygone era, where train travel was the usual mode of transport for the elite. Lace tablecloths, thick crystal vases with a single rose. We smoked and laughed, barefoot and an apparently entertaining sight for the train guards who were taking their dinner. The only other diners in the cart were two (at least) septuagenarian women. Both in red lipstick, one had her head covered in a black scarf. They were unapologetic in their consumption of cheap chinese tins of beer and smoking of cigarellos; neither factors could offset their air of dignity. My biggest fear in growing old is losing that and becoming impotent, stagnant.
When we got off at the border we had the choice of either remaining on the train or being locked out on the platform for 3 hours. It was about 10pm and the moon was perfectly full and illuminated the dark green train – number K23. Good signs all ’round. Our passports were taken into some sort of no-mans land. There was a decent sized group of travellers doing the same trip and we talked tat. We were permitted back on the train and our passports, now stamped out of China, were returned by the Chinese border officials who searched our cabin luggage storage units for stowaways. I fell asleep shortly after, woken up by the Mongolian officials coming around to stamp us into Mongolia, and check for any stowaways that the Chinese officials may have missed.
The bright sunrise at 5am over miles and miles of Mongolian nothingness woke me. It’s the ultimate travel writers cliche, speak of contrasts and contradictions with vigour, but it’s hard not to mention just how different China was to this vast, untouched wilderness. Green feilds, alien shaped rock clusters. For most of the day we played with the silence – stared out the giant picture window in our cabin and occasionally pointing out cows/cars/people to one another, like kids on a road trip.
Ullanbataar, the capital (and only) city of Mongolia on first appearance has all the hallmark charactaristics of an ex-Soviet Era city. Big grey cement blocks with small windows, cyrillic lettering and very little to suggest beauty and life. Our guide, Timu picked us up at the station. She was 22, younger than all but one of us and spoke with an American accent. She took us to “like, LA, like, this really cool restaurant with like cocktails” which turned out to be a restaurant called Los Angeles which served American fare. We were all a little taken aback, expecting to be eating Mongolian food for our first meal. Timu spent 90% of the dinner texting. “I think we should like, go clubbing tonight. like, definitely lets go clubbing.”
In the hotel, our three rooms had huge windows which opened out onto the rooftop of the bar downstairs, leaving us with a big flat paved area to drink, smoke and watch the incredibly late sunset. We drank Vodka and watched the grey sky get progressively darker. The sun wasn’t fully set until about 10.30pm. I was drunk. We stumbled to 4 or 5 different clubs that were all closed, due to the Mongolian national holiday. Eventually we found one called Brix, which was open. We all kind of went to town. I graced the locals with my terrifyingly awkward dance moves, and at one point was slapped on the vagina by a woman who wasn’t happy that I was dancing with a big group of Mongolian dudes.
I met a devestatingly handsome man outside having a cigarette. His name was Max, born and raised in Mongolia but studied at Oxford in England. We went inside and danced then started kissing then he was like I NEED TO GO I’LL BE BACK and ran away. I collapsed into bed at about 4am. After a few too hours of slumber, we woke up offensively early to head to the Ger Camp in the Terelj National park. The grey soviet era blocks gradually made way for wooden houses, sporadic and spread out in the feilds. each had an identically sized fence around it. as we got further out, the houses got more delapidated. many fenced off areas contained no house, simply a Ger. The tentacles of the city were spread and grasping, but the further away we got the less the city could reach, fenced off areas made way for completely clear areas, every so often sprinklings of nomadic ger camps. The population of Mongolia is 3 million, with 1.5 million residing in Ullanbataar. The rest of the population are nomadic, or semi nomadic, moving their Ger’s (or as known in the rest of the world, Yert’s) upwards of twice a year depending on the season.
We stopped at a Ovoo, a shamanistic Mongolian shrine. They vary in size, this one was enormous, a huge pile of rocks and rubbish (broken frames, bedsheets, scrap metal) with a totem out the top tied with strips of blue and yellow and red fabric. It was absolutely stunning. As is custom, you must walk around the Ooloo clockwise three times, then throw an offering to it. I walked, dizzied by the blue sky; three times clockwise. I threw the most sacred looking pebble I could find and it was instantly lost amonst thousands of others thrown by presumably dizzied pilgrims.
There were two young Mongolian men with beautiful Eagles tethered to wooden stands. For the bargain price of 3000 tugriks (approximately $1.66) I donned a falconers glove and held one of the most magestic creatures in the animal kingdom on my arm. It was a strange feeling, being in the presence of something so free, so powerful. He could have attacked me at any point, instead he stood calmly, spanned his wings and looked out over the fields, in my imagination he was dreaming of soaring, but then again maybe I’m projecting.
The camp was gorgeous – a cluster of Ger’s in a grassy expanse, wild flowers and nettles growing like, well… weeds. We were sheltered from the wind by a small mountainous heap of rocks. The Mongolian landscape isn’t something that can’t adequately be described using my words, but I’ll try my best. green as far as the eye can see. but not just green. Veridian, cyan, emerald, olive, kelly green. tall pine trees. lilac wildflowers. rock formations of burnt warm orange, like the colour of a creme brulee just before you crack the top. the rocks are smooth and round, stacked ontop of eachother like some force from above has dripped molten blobs for fun centuries before. the sky is so big and so blue i started to suspect it was more the fault of the heavens than my clockwise rotations for making me dizzy.
We spent our days in the fresh air outside, and as fresh air tends to do, we worked up an appetite. The food was hearty soul food, dumplings filled with potatoes, roast vegetables, pickled things. We climbed up turtle rock, which had zero resemblance to a turtle in my opinion, but had incredible 360 degree views of the entire plain. I listened to cheesy pop songs and danced around in my own little world. I don’t want this journey to come to an end. I don’t want to close the curtains this period of growth and change and beautiful experiences every single day. Sydney was fine for me. It was livable. I had beautiful friends and a place to call home and a lucrative career. I had a nest egg which I was going to invest. It was a slight problem, though… Every time I went to make the leap – buy some shares, look at property online, something held me back.
I’ve got a list of words I want to use that I find fascinating, at the top of that list is “iconoclastic.” I’ve been waiting for the time to use it in the correct context, and I suppose this is it. The past few years for me have been iconoclastic, to say the least. Every vision I’ve held dear about how my life would turn out has been shattered. I was supposed to study. invest. own. consume. wed. breed. What does it say about me as a person though, if permanence and routine and stability are my biggest fears? The promise of committment and waking up next to the same person day after day is enough to make me hit the ground running?
I’m just a coward when it comes to love, gravitating towards obsession and guaranteed heartbreak because on some level, I do know that no matter how in love I am, I’ll always be on the lookout for the unmistakeable dewyness of something new; the five seconds before you first kiss someone that will always be illimitably better than anything that could ever come after that. There is an ancient chinese legend about frogs at the bottom of a well, who claimed the sky was only as big as the round opening at the top of their well**.
I’m currently 2 days into the 5 day journey from Ullanbataar to Moscow and we aren’t sure what time it is. It is 5.42pm Mongolia time, but for the sake of convenience, the trains all run on Moscow time, which is 1.42pm. We are crossing 4 or 5 time zones on this journey, so the sun is perched right in the region of the evening. My concept of time has warped slightly. How do you measure time if not by nights and mornings? Tomorrows activities and yesterdays happenings… What about when tomorrows blur into an expanse of time on a train carriage… Cabin fever incoming.
The Yurts we stayed inside had three beds and smelt of a barn yard – presumably due to the wool used as insulation. The covering of the structure didn’t come all the way down, so a gang of little Mongolian squirrels would sneak into the room through the gaps and eat all our bread when they thought we weren’t looking. We rode wild horses owned by the nomadic family in the area, they all had short shorn manes and mangey bites. The young boy in charge took a liking to me and gestured to my face and did the thumbs up, then gestured to my body and did the thumbs up. We shot home made arrows into an animal hide target, wandered the fields. We went to visit a nomadic woman in her yurt. She fed us plates of food that resembled no food product I’d consumed before, all made from mares milk. She told us, translated through Timu, about life as a nomad. Because it was during the national holiday, she had visitors – presumably her children and some friends. They had Range Rovers and modern tents pitched next to the Yurt. A few of them were having a picnic amidst bottles of the finest Mongolian Vodka. They were red faced and merry, their tiny round babies playing around them. “HEEEEELLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MY NAME IS PRIYAAAA” the drunkest woman yelled at us. I went and sat down on their rug with them and she continued to yell her only English phrase at me, much to the hysterical, clapping, intoxicated delight of her friends.
The most striking thing, I think, about the Mongolian landscape is the weather. One side of our field would be ashen from the apocolyptic storm-clouds, electrical flashes lighting up the sky. Within walking distance was scorching harsh sunlight on green shimmering grasslands. I was watching a father play with his young daughter much like my father had done to me when I was a child, throwing her up in the air, hanging her upside down and her glorious screams of delight. I wondered, for a brief moment how such games could be entertaining for adults, then realised that this game was as much about his pleasure and happiness as hers. Every peal of laughter from her incited in him some sort of visible joy only known to fathers who see their daughters happy. I have written and deleted about 8 incarnations of a similar sentence attempting to sum up my paternal relationship but none are adequate, so I’ll not try.
Returning to Ullanbataar was a bit of a shock, much like returning to Sihanoukville from Koh Rong. The sky is perpetually grey, despite being smack bang in the centre of the country with the most days of blue sky in the world. Maybe the Soviet-Era blocks caused such a scar on the landscape that it reflects into the sky. We wandered aimlessly, populated the empty halls of our creepy dated hotel. We slept. The only part of Ullanbataar that feels like it has the soul of the rest of Mongolia is the monastery in the centre of town. The grounds are beautiful, feel far more tibetan influenced than any Buddhist temples I’ve seen. The monks wore dark red instead of the iconographic vibrant orange in South East Asia. Serene smiles, frigid air thick with incense. Around the grounds were thousands upon thousands of pigeons, fed dutifully by monks and followers. “The Chinese people eat dogs and pigeons, but because Mongolians are good Buddhists we feed dogs and pidgeons, not eat them” Timu told us, in one of the rare moments she wasn’t texting her boyfriend.
It’s funny, just how “primitive” I expect to find certain countries compared to my own. Timu was just like any bratty teenager I’ve met in Sydney – preoccupied with her image, her friends and pop culture. I expected Mongolia to be full of Yurts and livestock and weathered faces. Ullanbataar is full of beautiful, fashionable people. The music store across the road, 3 doors down from the late night burger joint, was playing Four Tet one day and Morcheeba the next. Strangely, it took less than a kilometre for that to make way for teenage boys selling the crudely butchered skin of cattle on the side of the road, blood and organs still visible.
Shopping for food for the 5 day train was an immense task. Being the broke traveller that I am, I needed to find the perfect balance between healthy, cheap, tasty and able to be consumed with no cooking utensils, crockery or anything other than boiling water, freely provided at the end of each carriage. it kind of dawned on me the monumental journey ahead of me. What the fuck was I going to do for 5 days on a train… Am I going to kill my cabin mates? Or the much more likely scenario, are they going to kill me? I couldn’t imagine enjoying myself in a confined place with no showers, no internet, no contact with the outside world for 5 days and 4 nights.
Here I am, though, three nights down, one to go. I awoke to rain, Tycho and cashmere sweaters. After this amount of down time I’ve retreated into myself a little bit, I’d rather write and read and stare into the nothingness without the disturbance of anyone else at this point. I feel like I am finally catching up on all the rest I lost in Vietnam. Rain against the train window and i’m in and out of my thoughts like the beam of a lighthouse.
It’s hard for me to describe the past few days because it has very much been hours spent spellbound by the hypnotising landscape. Every border I’ve crossed on this trip has presented gradual shifts, changes in language and landscape and culture. We were stamped out of Mongolia at 11pm and I fell asleep. At about 1am Russian passport control woke me up. She was blonde and blue eyed. The contrast was stark. She asked Fe, one of the Swiss girls to stand up in the middle of the carriage. Fe stifled one small giggle and then apologised. In my delirious state the flood gates were opened and I laughed the laugh uncontrollably until she left.
At some point we all decided to start drinking. it was one of the hazy evenings where we weren’t sure if it was midnight or 4 in the afternoon which always breeds confusion. Confessions started to spill, as they only can by the fumes of vodka and the camaraderie of near strangers. Dom spat out the suicide of his estranged father like it was a fact he was complacent with. The smoking area of the carriage, was the back of the restaurant car. Ancient and smelling like laquer from the faux wood pannels, it was the domain of three large laughing Russian women. “he’s never spoken about it that much before” Tess said, through tears. The window on the train had been wedged open and a breeze was coming out. We four stood for a while, slapped alive by the wind. The sun was setting and Tess looked back at me and smiled, blonde hair whipping around wildly, face framed by a landscape endless pink wildflowers.
Other things have happened, but not really. We’ve laughed a lot and ate a lot and slept a lot and Fe stole a carrot from the store room. The train ladies yelled at us for drinking Vodka in our room, and unlocked the toilet door from the outside to yell at me while I was just trying to have a wee in private. By the last night I was well and truly suffering from cabin fever. I couldn’t sleep or stay awake enough to read. Music became unbearable, like it was hitting a wall inside me and bouncing off and the reverberations were giving me a headache. The five days on the train had gone so quickly, but the last night was dragging on and on and on.
We arrived in Moscow and instead of the frosty grey sad city we were expecting, it was warm and bright and beautiful. Our guide, clad in hiking sandals and a cute little hat arrived onto the train and greeted Jake and Dom and ignored everyone else. His mannerisms were odd, but he actually knew what he was talking about. We walked the city, through parks and alleys of gorgeous buildings and statues of Russian poets and authors and musicians. It’s what struck me the most, about Moscow I guess, the reverence in which they hold the arts. Giant bronze statues of Gogol and Tolstoy and Russian rockstars I’ve never heard of grace the streets. In Australia we are so focussed on vocation and industry and keeping the economy growing – we’ve a lot to prove; our fledgling colony. We ambled down a street filled with painters and musicians, one graffiti artist showcasing his skills, 3 young men playing the Piano Accordian and some triangular guitars – traditional Russian instruments. Ivan told me the song they were playing is called ‘the rabbit who was not afraid of the wolf’.
The Moscow metro system is utilized by over 8 million people per day. “I am going to take you to see some beautiful metro stations” Ivan told us. We laughed, expecting this to be some sort of joke but he persisted. “trust me, you will see, it’s very beautiful.” He wasn’t wrong. In the Soviet Era, Lenin believed that palacial buildings and beauty should not be restricted to the upper class. The Metro was the lifeblood of Moscow, utilised by every faction of society, so he built metro stations to resemble palaces previously restricted to the elite. There were chandeleirs and mosaics and stained glass and grand statues. We later saw Lenin in his mausoleum next to the Kremlin. It was cold and dark and we were hushed by the stern guards. Lenin had a sneaky grin on his face, was illuminated in a glass box by red lights. He reminded me of Anton La Vey.
Ivan took us to Mcdonalds, an unlikely stop you may think, but it was the first Mcdonalds in the Soviet Union, openned in the early 90’s. To the Muscovites, it was a symbol of the western world. Ivan said it was as foreign to them as if aliens had come down from space and landed. The front of the Mcdonalds has a display of politicians in a press conference outside, the ribbon cutting, thousands and thousands of people lining up, salivating over their first taste of capitalist freedom. Ivan’s grandmother was one such punter, and lined up for hours in the blistering cold waiting. She brought two cheeseburgers, travelled 2 hours on the metro station home and cut them into pieces to share with the family. “We soon realised the American Dream did not taste so good” Ivan laughed.
We walked to the Red Square – centuries ago Red was the word used to describe things of great beauty in Russia. We walked through a square, tossed a coin behind our backs on the plaque that signifies the geographical centre of Moskva. We were supposed to make a wish, but of late whenever I have to wish for anything I’m stumped. I was high in the Andes of Peru in a natural hot spring in the side of a beautiful valley. I had a cerveza in my hand and the steam was rising into the twilight. “times like this, there is no need for wishing.” his articulation struck me. I’d heard the age old platitutde “what more could you wish for” a million times but it wasn’t until his jarring enunciation that I actually understood it. I knew the context perfectly – you say it when you see something beautiful. But when I was forced to comprehend the meaning it held so much more for me. What we are experiencing is so glorious, all encompassing and completely satisfying that there isn’t anything in the world that could make it better. I feel like I’ve told this story before.
The coins hit the cobbled stones and the Babushkas rushed to pick them up and pocket them. Carry my wish well old woman! Walking through the arch of one of the buildings I caught my first glimpse of St Basil’s Cathedral. It’s glorious twisted design, gold shining in the afternoon Moscow sun. I’d never seen something so awesome. Everything in the Red Square was painfully gorgeous I couldn’t beleive my eyes. So often I feel like I might not be experiencing places for what they are because I feel like I am walking in this clouded dream state, everything feels so illusory. Too magestical to be real, in some ways.
That night I met a beautiful english boy reading Morphene by Mikhail Bulgakov, his name was Darius. A group of us went for a walk and sat in the Red Square and saw the Gum lit up by fairy lights, St Basil’s illuminated in the distance. We smoked cigarettes and laughed about the crazy town we were in. I knew there would be a point on my overland journey where the landscape and language and culture and people would change quite drastically but I didn’t expect it to be like this. I feel so close to Europe I can taste it man, I don’t know what to do.
I noticed I had developed some sort of pheremone which seemed to attract Russian men. I was by far not the most attractive woman in our group, but the other girls seemed unscathed. I was subject to photo requests by mulleted toothless folk, horse noises and a butt slap by a man on the metro whose wife and child were sitting nearby. For the most part, Russians have a sense for foreigners. When they notice foreign men nearby they clutch their girlfriends in inane displays of PDA. Gender politics are fascinating, masculinity is severely hegemonic, things are topsy turvy compared to anywhere I’ve been before. Nightclubs have strict policies for women, and men on their own, especially foreign men are the punters most desperately sought.
We visited a flea market, ate russian food (potatoes) and visited the highest point in Moscow. We had dinner in a traditional Russian restaurant and accidentally spent $60 on a cheese platter. After the rest of the group left, it was just Jake and I, braving this crazy country on our own. We were lost on the metro and lost in the streets and lost in the cacophony. We went to a park, whose name escapes me now but was described as a communist disneyland. There was a giant statue built atop the centre for space exploration, dedicated to Yuri Gagarin. It was a giant silver rocket launching into space, so high my neck hurt to see the top of it! Walking into the entrance of the park was a grand archway, topped with a glittering statue of a man and woman carrying a bale of hay, hammer and sickles ordaned beneath their feet; epitomising Lenin’s grand plans. The park’s circumference was designated by giant spectacles of Russian architecture. Churches and buildings all so large and so… Russian. More communist iconography. The centre of the park was grasslands and two enormous fountains, statues of the communist gods; the working class immortalised in gold. In a post soviet Russia, the park was part water park and part mating grounds for teenyboppers. Two precocious tweens smoking cigarettes and dancing to bad dubstep from a speaker were attracting the attention of the young boys with skateboards. Families lunched and contemporary art pieces were littered for everyones enjoyment.
I spent an offensive amount of money in Moscow, so my final day was part aggressive blogging, part walking aimlessly, smoking cigarettes and starting at Russian Orthodox churches, glistening in the midnight sunset. My train was at 2.30am and in the cheapest class available, so as to pay $50 for my train ride, as opposed to $250. The metro stations, bustling and full of life during the day, become desolate echoing halls late at night. My fellow commuters were drunk men who took inexcusable pleasure in making a tiny girl very terrified. Their catcalls held so much more vitriol after the echoing laughter followed me. I made it to my night train in one piece, thankfully. Because my ticket was so cheap, the conductor snatched my sheets off my bed and provided me with a complimentary towel made of what could only be camel fur and infested with the most pervasive form of Russian parasites.
St Petersburg is a stunning city. Feels much more European than Moscow did. The main city is separated from a number of islands by a river. It’s supposedly Russias’ answer to Venice, but with more Vodka and less Italians. It’s beautiful, but doesn’t have that Russian magic that Moscow sparkled with. I met some dudes in my dorm, who had bought a $500 shitbox car and driven through Central Asia along the Silk Road and were on their way home – travelporn if I ever heard of it. They had some amazing stories to tell, blog found here http://3unwisemen.wordpress.com .
We went for dinner and decided to go out for some drinks. A few expensive bars were patronised, then a bottle of wine was drank… oops. Somehow in a brief cigarette break we managed to meet two young russians, one was a long haired skater and the other was a gorgeous fashion buyer for lots of international brands. They took us to a Karaoke bar called Poison. It was about 3am by the time we arrived, and although the sun had “set” there was still a greeny blue glow in the sky with long tendrils of white light streaked across the sky like icecream. By 4.30am the sun had risen again and we were on our way home, hitchiking with a surly looking Russian man who insisted he take us to our doorstep.
I’ve been exploring and wandering and walking and not much else. Some hirsute asshole in my dorm makes a point of telling me off every time he sees me on my iPad. I hate that shit man, one of my pet peeves of travelling is that sort of shit. If i want to lay in bed and masturbate to candy crush all day then I can and I will. If i want to use technology to write, read, plan the absolute maze that is overland travel, do my taxes, do some banking, chat to my friends after being out all day I will. It’s the same sort of people that berate people for eating western food or taking guided tours or hanging out in backpacker bars. Everyone travels differently, and no experience is more valuable or authentic than another. I did catch him doing calisthenics in the room when he thought no-one would come in.
Tomorrow I leave for Tallin, Estonia; after an awkward mishap where Llewellyn booked me a 6am bus for a city no-one has ever heard of called Johvi by mistake. (iPad demon also continues to tell me that Russia is Europe. WHATEVER. It’s half Europe half Asia) so my Trans-Mongolian is coming to an end.
1 The Great Gatzby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
2 Wild Swans – Jung Chang