A Real Bavarian Beer Festival

We went to Munich “one month too early,” as one traveler we met put it. He was backpacking around Europe and planned to arrive in Munich in time for Oktoberfest, and seemed surprised that we wouldn’t also plan accordingly. Well, sometimes life just doesn’t work out that way. It’s not that the idea of drinking vast quantities of beer and eating pretzels while listening to an oom-pah band doesn’t appeal to me. It does. But our return flight is from Paris and the timing is just too tight to make it to Oktoberfest and also see Paris. I told Bob that I would like to go to Oktoberfest, someday, maybe for my birthday one year.

Then I logged into couchsurfing one day and I saw this message, titled HerbsFest Rosenheim, posted under “Nearby Events”:

Not everyone knows that the Oktoberfest in Munich is not a German tradition but only a Bavarian one. But only a few persons know that there are more Beerfestivals like the Oktoberfest in Bavaria. The Oktoberfest may be the biggest and most known Beerfest in the world, but is it really the best?

I, as a bavarian, know many of those festivals, and I say: No. The Oktoberfest is just to big, to crowded, to expensive and their are too many tourist. I put this event into couchsurfing to give you the chance to see a traditional and real bavarian beerfestival as it should be.

Well. I really did not know just how many beer festivals were held all over the country. Good on you, Germany! The town of Rosenheim is only 40 minutes from Munich by train, and it just so happened that the first day of their annual autumn festival, or HerbsFest, would be our last day in Munich. A real Bavarian beer festival! No question about it—we were going to go.

I’ve heard that Oktoberfest has something of a fairground atmosphere, and HerbsFest was no different. Actually, it reminded me of the Arlington County Fair, although with more beer. There were rides, carnival games, and food stalls everywhere, and a few large beer tents.

Hotzinger-Brau tent

There were also PEOPLE. Lots and lots of people. Our couchsurfing host, who had accompanied us for the afternoon, told us that this was unusual on a Friday but it was probably only because today was the first day. The weekends are crowded, she said, but the weekdays are not too bad. I asked her about Oktoberfest. “Oh, it’s crowded all the time,” she said. “It’s like this every day.”

HerbsFest beer tent

We sat for about fifteen minutes and tried to flag down a waitress. Some of them made eye contact with us, but shook their heads no. There were way too many people in this tent. We moved to another one and got our beers within five minutes. They only serve one size of beer at  Bavarian beer festivals: masse, or one liter. The mugs are heavy on their own, and filled with beer they’re a little painful to lift. Drinkers need to adjust their grip accordingly. Cheers!The proper way to do it is not to grab the handle, but rather to slip your hand around the mug, balancing your thumb on the top of the handle. Then you can comfortably hold your beer one-handed– especially necessary during the many, many rounds of “Ein Prosit.” Our host told us that the waitresses at beer festivals need to be able to carry ten mugs of beer at once. I wonder if they have to prove their strength during the interview? I did see some of them carrying that many, but they move so quickly that I wasn’t able to get a picture. I also noticed most of them wearing wrist braces.

I was delighted to see how many people dress up for the occasion. I wasn’t expecting to see that at all. The number of people in dirndls and lederhosen far outnumbered those in street clothes. It wasn’t only the older people, either; almost all of the younger people were dressed up, and I even saw toddlers in tiny lederhosen. It was just great.

Men in lederhosenWomen in dirndlsLederhosen and dirndls

The thing that really completed my beer festival experience was the band. I’d known there would be beer and pretzels and carnival rides, but each tent also had their own live band. They were pretty good, not too loud, and just generally gave the tent a good atmosphere.

HerbsFest band

We were only able to stay for a couple of hours, but it was a great afternoon out. Now I feel like I don’t need to go to Oktoberfest—if it’s really as crowded as everyone says, I probably wouldn’t have a very good time. Maybe HerbsFest doesn’t have the name recognition, or as many beer tents, but the locals still seem to like it fine. And we liked it too. It had a lot of local flavor, and a fun, relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. By the end of it, we too were singing along to “Ein Prosit” and clinking glasses with anyone sitting near us.

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Looking For My Roots

I would like to tell you the story of my great-great-grandmother Julia.

She was born in 1888 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ethnically she was Polish, and more specifically Galician; the village she lived in was part of Poland just over 100 years prior, but between 1772 and 1795 Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire split up Poland into three pieces, and southern Poland came under Habsburg control. At the time she was born, the village of Nyzhankovychi (Niezankowice in Polish) was quite diverse: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews each made up about a third of the population. She had six or seven brothers and sisters. In 1906, at the age of eighteen, she decided to immigrate to the United States. The story goes that her father had to lend her the money for the boat fare. She was never able to pay him back.

She and a female relative (probably a cousin?) traveled to Hamburg to embark on the sea voyage to New York. On arrival, she didn’t speak any English and had no prospects. Luckily for her, Catholic charities were taking an active role in assisting new Catholic immigrants. They got her a job as a maid and probably also helped her find a place to live. Within two years, she was married and pregnant with her first child: my great-grandmother.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, war was breaking out and in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had dissolved. Poland was back on the map, but it was even bigger than it is today: its territory included all of the region of Galicia, which today straddles the Ukraine-Poland border. The rest of Ukraine, however, was soon incorporated into the fledgling Soviet Union. Lucky for the Galicians, they were spared from the terrible famine that struck Ukraine in the early 1930s. In 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany, and most of the country’s Jews—including, I suppose, the ones living in Nyzhankovychi—were killed. At the end of the war, when Poland came back into existence and the border was redrawn, the territory of Galicia was split in two, and Nyzhankovychi ended up on the Soviet side of the border. I don’t know much about the Soviet years, but it’s my impression that the Polish community did not fare well during that time. Polish culture was repressed and Catholics were forbidden from worshipping. Nowadays the Polish population in Nyzhankovychi is almost zero. The descendants of those who survived both world wars, who weren’t very many, have mixed with the Ukrainian population.

Road into Nyzhankovychi

The road into Nyzhankovychi

I wanted to visit this village for myself, first of all to see where one of my ancestors came from and also because it sounded like an interesting place in the crux of history. Not many towns can claim to have been part of five different countries in the past 100 years.

During the Soviet years, Nyzhankovychi was a border town. The international train passed through on its way to Poland. Nowadays the train still runs on the Ukrainian side of the border, but it is not an official border crossing with Poland. Since Poland is in the EU and Ukraine is not, apparently there have been some problems with smuggling (for example, in Ukraine, things like cigarettes are much cheaper.) When we arrived in town, a soldier boarded our bus and we were immediately questioned. First he checked our passports, and asked why we were in Nyzhankovychi. With the help of a passenger who spoke very good English, we explained that we just wanted to see the village, visit the church, and so on. He told us to wait. I was thinking, “Oh no. We’ve come this far and we’re not going to be allowed to get off the bus.” He came back a few minutes later with a plainclothes police officer and another soldier. Checking our passports again, they asked how long we had been in Ukraine. I was flustered and accidentally said “since June 20th” instead of “July 20th.” Luckily, I don’t think they noticed. He asked again why we were there. I gave a more specific answer, explaining about my great-great-grandmother (I hoped this would win me some points, but their expressions didn’t change.) Then he asked, “When are you going to Poland?”

“Poland??” How did he know that our next destination was Poland? Then I realized he meant today, not in general. “We’re not going to Poland. We’re here to see Nyzhankovychi. We’re going back to L’viv tonight.”

After this was translated, he had one more instruction for us. “The last bus is at 5:00. Make sure you’re on it.”

Bus stop, Nyzhankovychi

Bus stop in the center of town. It's a happenin' place

We agreed, and we were allowed to get off the bus. I was relieved, but Bob was paranoid that they’d be watching us the rest of the day. We started to walk around the town a bit, but when we saw more soldiers, Bob insisted that we shouldn’t walk any further; that they’d be suspicious if we were walking towards Poland. It took him a few hours to relax.

Just over 100 years ago, the population of Nyzhankovychi was about 1,750. Now it’s 1,850. The area is still predominantly rural, and we saw several horse-drawn carts traveling up the road.

View from the main road

It was all kind of strange. Cars alongside horse-drawn carts, geese wandering across the road, modern houses next to ancient-looking wells. I imagine that in some ways it still looks a lot like it did 100 years ago. Old well
The Catholic church is still standing, unlike many other churches in the former USSR. The church was established in 1461, although the present structure is from the 19th century. It was used as storage until 1991. I wandered around for awhile, trying to find an unlocked gate. An old woman saw me, showed me in, and waited while I looked around. It was very small; only eight or ten short pews. Interestingly, the Bibles and hymnals were in Polish.

Catholic church

Finding no leads in the church, we headed over to the graveyard to see if we could find any stones with my great-great-grandma’s surname. Eastern European graveyards are always colorful affairs. The graves are very well cared for, and I wonder if the descendants ever compete with each other for the title of “most fabulous.”

Graveyard The Polish graves were all in a separate section. We combed through those, and the Ukrainian ones for good measure, but found nothing. There are other graveyards in the area, so my relatives could be buried there. Or they could’ve moved. I’m really not sure what happened to the rest of the family after Julia immigrated.

Back in the US, my great-great-grandma moved to Philly, became a widow, moved to Chicago, remarried, and eventually took American citizenship, thirty-five years after immigrating. She lived long enough to meet several of her great-grandchildren. When visiting her, my father remembers her asking, always in Polish, for him to give her a kiss.

In the end, it wasn’t a very interesting town. We left sometime around 2 or 3 p.m. because we didn’t want to wait until 5. And I found no evidence that anyone I’m related to had ever lived there. But I felt satisfied anyway. I wanted to see the town and I did. Growing up, I never felt any sort of connection to Europe, even though I’m European-American. Seeing a place where one of my ancestors came from helped me feel more connected to the continent than I did before.

Eating Eastern Europe

Maybe it’s because we are genetically predisposed to it, but eastern European food really agreed with us. Perhaps it’s because our favorite vegetables feature prominently (mine is mushrooms; Bob’s is potatoes.) Or maybe it’s just that good. I mean really. Look at this: Polish buffet dinner

This is mall food in Poland. I am so jealous.

European food is always served in courses, so I should go through one by one. Eastern European salads are not beds of lettuce with some cucumber and tomato on top—there are endless varieties of pickled salads, coleslaw-type salads with mayonnaise, shredded carrot salad, potato salad, and my personal favorite, beetroot salad. Yes, seriously. You can see it in the photo, wedged between the fries and the cucumber-dill salad.

Ukrainian buffet dinner

Clockwise from top left: sour cherry dumplings, potato dumplings, roasted eggplant and tomato salad, and borscht

The next course is soup, so let’s talk borscht. I got to try two types of borscht: green and red. The green one is made with sorrel and the red one is made with beets. Borscht is not Russian in origin, but Ukrainian, and each country in the region seems to have their own variation.

Of course there are more soups: one Belarusian woman I met told me that her mother cooks soup every day. We tried solyanka, rasonyik, tomato cabbage soup, chicken soup…. All were good, but my favorite was rasonyik, made with pork, barley, potatoes, carrot, onion, and cucumber pickles.

Main dishes tend to be meat- or fish-based. When we stayed at Lake Baikal, we ate grilled fish every day, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Russia doesn’t do seafood, and I didn’t find the meat dishes very exciting (hamburg steak, grilled chicken, etc.) so when possible, I opted for dumplings or just stuck to soup, salad, and bread. Bob is still disappointed he never found a restaurant serving beef stroganoff. In northwestern Ukraine and southern Poland, though, things were better; we really enjoyed Galician chicken pot pie and bigos. When cooking at home, we usually went to the supermarket and picked out a few random kielbasa. We were never disappointed.

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

The dumplings were probably my favorite part. Russian dumplings are filled with meat and are called pelmeni. Ukrainian dumplings are filled with vegetables or fruit and are called vareniki. The designation doesn’t mean much; both types are available in both countries. In Poland, all dumplings are called pierogi and come with many different fillings. “Russian” pierogis are filled with cheese, potato, and onion. The funny thing is that in Russia, that combination would definitely not be regarded as Russian. When serving dumplings, don’t forget plenty of butter and sour cream.  The savory ones are more well-known in the US, so the fruit-filled ones were a delicious surprise. Sweet dumplings are usually filled with sour cherries, but we were lucky enough to visit during blueberry season. The berries were tiny and the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.   Blueberry dumplings in Poland In a slightly upscale restaurant, I had them with a white chocolate sauce and powdered sugar, but at home, we ate them with sour cream and coarse granulated sugar. Heaven.Blueberry dumplings in Ukraine

When it comes to sweets, you only need one word in Russia: bliny. In two weeks, we visited a bliny chain called Teremok a total of five times. They do savory blinys too—mushrooms and sour cream is my favorite—but the sweet ones are really, really good. The best ones: apricot and tovorog (a kind of Russian sweet cottage cheese) or mixed berry. Teremok bliny

In one restaurant in Ukraine, we had something that was called baked bliny:

Baked bliny, Ukraine

Yes, that's more sour cream

Being of central and eastern European descent myself, a lot of these dishes were familiar to me. My ancestors all immigrated to the States over 100 years ago, so I’m not particularly close to any European traditions, but when it comes to food, I guess old habits die hard. The flavors and ingredients were very similar to the cuisine my mom cooked when I was growing up. It’s the kind of food that isn’t often served in restaurants—it’s not haute cuisine—but in the home, it really shines. Thanks to couchsurfing, we enjoyed several home-cooked meals while in the region. Our Ukrainian hosts took us to meet their grandparents, who welcomed us like their own grandchildren and stuffed us silly with great food. Since it was just an informal meal at home, they didn’t serve courses, but rather just laid everything out on the table and told us to eat up. In this photo, Bob is reaching for a crepe-like roll that’s filled with chopped mushrooms. It’s eaten with a mushroom cream sauce. For eastern Europeans, there is no such thing as too many mushrooms.Lunch is Ukraine

The potato-looking things on the center top are actually potato dumplings—kind of like gnocchi but much bigger. They’re filled with cottage cheese and can also be eaten with a cream sauce. Our couchsurfing host told us that this was one of her most favorite foods, so her grandma always makes it when she comes to visit. This spread is nothing, by the way; this was just lunch. Apparently, on Christmas Eve, they do a twelve-course dinner.

Eastern Europe is not generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations, but if you come with a big appetite and a liking for dairy products, they will never let you leave hungry.

Trans-Mongolian Railway: How We Did It

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this particular part of our journey, so I thought I’d write a little about it. Although St. Petersburg is not officially part of the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian, most foreign travelers include it on a visit to Russia (as well they should, it’s a fabulous city) so I’ve mentioned it in this how-to.

How we did it: We traveled completely independently, with the exception of a four-day countryside tour in Mongolia. We booked train tickets online using Russian Railways’ rzd.ru, which is only in Russian, but this website translates everything and has a helpful step-by-step tutorial with screenshots. The other website we used a lot was Everbrite’s site, which gives lots of info on all things Russia and CIS. Unfortunately Mongolian and Chinese tickets cannot be booked online, only through travel agents (very expensively,) but even in summer we didn’t have any problem buying these tickets a week or two in advance. I would only recommend using a travel agent if your plans are completely inflexible. The Ulaan Baatar- Beijing route is the most underserved portion of the route, and travel agencies know this: they charge at least double what you’d pay in-country!

Accommodation: We stayed in hostels/ guesthouses in Ulaan Baatar, Irkutsk, Olkhon Island, and Suzdal, and couchsurfed in Tomsk, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. We almost always booked ahead on hostelbookers.com. Russian hostels are typically in converted apartments, and some don’t have signs (those are “secret hostels,” and they avoid paying taxes this way.) If in doubt, try to arrange a train station pickup. They can be quite hard to find otherwise. Couchsurfing in Russia was fantastic. Our hosts were really friendly and helped us a lot with language difficulties, finding supermarkets, and buying onward tickets.

Food: We self-catered on the train rides. Every major station has some stalls selling instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, and other things that can be made with hot water. Supermarkets in larger cities (try the Central Market in Irkutsk, Kupets in Yekaterinburg) sell a great variety of Russian salads, breads, cheeses, and other things for train picnics. In the cities, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, we ate at Soviet-style canteens, which are just like the K&W Cafeteria back home, except in Russia they like to put mayonnaise in your soup. No language skills are required- just point at what you want. A full meal at one of these places, with soup, salad, bread main course, dessert, and a drink costs $10-12. (And honestly, a full meal is really enough for two people.) Teremok, a bliny chain, was another favorite of ours. Sit-down restaurants with table service tend to be pricey in Russia, especially in Moscow and St. Pete, although many places offer good-value “business lunches,” which normally include two or three courses and bread.

Russian supermarket

Russian supermarkets even sell beer on tap

The infamous Russian visa: I’m quite sure the authorities want to do anything possible to frustrate would-be visitors and force them into going on guided package tours. Tourists are supposed to make all their hotel bookings in advance and obtain “visa support” in the form of an invitation letter from one of these hotels. We bought fake visa support online from www.waytorussia.net. Then we had to wait to apply. Visas normally aren’t issued more than three months in advance of travel (although consulates around the world vary; check Everbrite’s site for updates and don’t be afraid to call different consulates.) Finally, each embassy/ consulate only deals with citizens and legal residents of the country in which it’s situated. According to the Russian rules, the minimum amount of time required to be considered “resident” in a country is 90 days. Malaysia automatically grants US citizens 90-day visitor’s visas, so luckily we were able to obtain our Russian visa in Kuala Lumpur.

After jumping through all these hoops to get the visa, you’d think that the nonsense would be over—after all, we were basically begging the authorities to be allowed to go to their country and spend lots of money—but it’s not. Upon arrival in Russia, your visa must be registered. The rules changed in March 2011 and now tourist visas need to only registered ONCE while in Russia—not once in each city you spend more than three days in, which was the previous law. It needs to be done within seven days of arrival in the country. This is great for couchsurfers because all you need to do is stay at a hostel at least one night when you first get to Russia, pay the ~300 rubles for registration, then you are good to go. In the past, we would’ve had to register as staying in a private residence (if we stayed for more than 72 hours.) Not anymore. It seems this part of the process, at least, is becoming more streamlined. When it came time to leave Russia, nobody lifted an eyebrow at any of our paperwork or stamps.

In total, we spent close to $200 each on the visa support, actual visa, and registration. Ouch.

Learning Russian: Bob downloaded some podcasts and learned some travel Russian, which helped immensely. How much Russian should travelers learn? As much as possible, but at a bare minimum, learn the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian numbers. How to order food and ask where things are also came in handy. Bob spent a long time learning how to buy train tickets, but it was moot when we found out we could just order them online. As for me, my best phrase in Russian is still “Ya nye gavaryu pa Russky” (I don’t speak Russian.)

As a general rule, we found that citizens of large, powerful countries tend to have poorer foreign language skills. Russians, Chinese, and Americans have this in common: most of us don’t need to speak foreign languages on a daily basis. People from smaller countries tend to need foreign languages for educational or economic reasons. So on a trip like ours, traveling to twenty different countries, we had to prioritize which languages we’d focus on. It turned out that studying Russian or Chinese was a much better use of time than studying, say, Khmer, since most Cambodians in the tourist industry have pretty good English skills and we only stayed in touristy areas anyway. I’m not saying those languages aren’t worth studying. Your mileage may vary. It all depends on where you’re traveling to, how long you’re traveling in that country, and what you hope to do there.

Guidebooks: We carried the Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook, but we also read most of Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook in a hostel in Ulaan Baatar. I’d have to say that I preferred the layout of the latter book, but both suffer from small maps, outdated restaurant and hostel listings, and too much extraneous information—you’re not really going to visit EVERY city along the train line, especially not on a 30-day visa. I wish I’d just Xeroxed the pages I needed. For pre-trip planning and armchair travelling, Asia Overland has lots of useful information and nice pictures. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg have up-to-date editions of in your pocket, which were great.

Money: Our bank did not allow us to use our debit card as a debit card in Russia. It was still ok to use it as an ATM card, and a credit card issued by the same bank was also ok. No big deal because Russians prefer cash over plastic. Call your bank before you go.

Safety: Maybe this was the number one question I heard: Is it safe to travel in Russia? In big cities, there are some areas that might be worse than others, and I made sure to watch my purse in the crowded subway trains, but at no time did I feel threatened. We took reasonable precautions, but didn’t overdo it. For example, we never bothered locking our backpacks while we slept on the trains; none of the locals do. I’m convinced that traveling in Russia is no more dangerous than in the US.

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 5: Yekaterinburg to Vladimir

This section of our journey was only about twenty-four hours, and the most uneventful yet. The most interesting thing that happened was that the train was late. So far, no train we’ve taken in Russia has been late, not even five minutes—Russian Railways runs a very tight ship.The train was supposed to arrive in Yekaterinburg around 4:30 a.m., so in preparation for the ride, we had stayed up all night in the train station. Trains come and go at all hours of the night, so there were plenty of other people in the station. At some point, the station TV played two back-to-back episodes of X-Files, dubbed into Russian but without the English soundtrack being removed, so I watched those and then eagerly awaited the train’s arrival. And waited… and waited. It ended up being an HOUR late, so as soon as we boarded the train, we gathered our sheets from the provodnitsa and made our beds—she had to help me, because I was so tired I was becoming clumsy—and fell asleep.

Shortly after leaving Yekaterinburg, we crossed into European Russia. It was strange to think that we’d entered another continent, because the scenery looked pretty similar to Siberia. We’d passed through the Ural Mountains, but we’d been sleeping, so we’re not sure if they were visible from the train. This was our first view of Europe:
Meadow

Village

River

Yep, pretty similar to Siberia. Our train was called the Yenisey, and had been traveling from Krasnoyarsk, meaning most of the passengers had been on it for a day or two already. The woman in the berth across from Bob literally slept all day. She didn’t even get up to eat. Maybe around 8 p.m., we saw her go to the bathroom, and then come back and immediately go back to sleep.

Yenisey train

Our rockin' train, the Yenisey

Seriously. Don’t believe the Lonely Planet when it says the Trans-Sib is a party on wheels.

We arrived in Vladimir very early in the morning, about 4 a.m. Major train stations in Russia have resting rooms, and we’d hoped to take advantage of the ones in Vladimir station for four hours or so. However, when we finally found them, the sign said they were full for the night. So we ended up sleeping in the train station for a few hours. There were about 50 other people doing the same thing. At 7 a.m., a train station employee came to wake us all. Two straight nights sleeping in a train station does not make for a happy Katie and Bob. Vladimir has some wonderful World Heritage-listed churches to visit, but the first thing we did was get coffee.

From here, we diverged a little bit from the Trans-Siberian: after spending half a day in Vladimir, we took a bus to Suzdal (off the train line) to visit this wonderful fairy-tale village, and then bussed to Moscow, thus ending the official Trans-Mongolian journey. Our train travels are not over, however; as we’ll be traveling by overnight train to St. Petersburg, then back to Moscow and on to Kiev, Ukraine.

Verdict: I’m glad we did it. This was something I’d been looking forward to for years. Would I do it again? Yes, but I’d do a different route. I’d also wait several years. Like, 20. After I learn Russian.

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 4: Tomsk to Yekaterinburg

…Wherein we venture into the world of third-class Russian trains. Will we be drugged, stabbed in our sleep, or asked to traffic Russian nesting dolls? Hopefully this does not turn out like the Woody Harrelson movie

From Beijing to Tomsk, we traveled second class, but from Tomsk afterward we had only purchased third-class tickets. Known as platskartny in Russian, these carriages were very similar to the overnight trains we took in China. One wagon can hold 54 people, partitioned into nine groups of six.

Third class carriage on a Russian train Along one wall are bays containing four beds and a table. It looks a lot like second class, but without the door. Along the other wall are the lateral berths, meaning they are parallel to the aisle. The lower bed can fold into a table during the day. These are the least popular berths because they afford zero privacy. Passengers who sleep here often complain about being woken up whenever anyone walks by (because their heads are about six inches away from the aisle.) On Russian Railways’ website, it’s possible to choose your own berth, but since we booked our tickets only about one or two weeks in advance, pretty much only the lateral berths were available. (We were traveling in summer- what are you gonna do?) Personally, though, I liked these berths. They are perfect for couples.

The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian guidebook makes it sound like the train ride is just one nonstop vodka-fueled party. Maybe if you end up in a compartment with a bunch of soldiers, that’s possible, but most passengers were calm and quiet. The majority seemed to be women traveling alone, young couples, and the occasional family. There are so many people in platskartny that no one makes small talk. People tend to keep to themselves. Upon realizing that we were foreigners, one or two women tried to chat with us, but Bob’s Russian skills are very limited (and mine non-existent.) We told them our names and where we were going, and they the same, and that was that.

Lunchtime on the Trans-MongolianThe ride from Tomsk to Yekaterinburg is about thirty-six hours, the same as our past three rides. We did try the dining car on our first ride, but found that there’s not much available and it’s pretty overpriced, anyway. So we self-cater for all of our train journeys, which is what the Russian passengers do too. The supermarket situation in Tomsk was much better than in Irkutsk, and we were able to stock up on various interesting instant meals. I tried a cup of instant borscht.

The Russians tend to eat more picnic-style food, which always includes bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, sausage, and sometimes cheese and boiled eggs. I’m getting pretty sick of Cup Noodle, so I think from the next train ride, we’re going to shift to healthier fare. If you don’t have eating utensils, your provodnitsa can lend cutlery and mugs, featuring interesting Soviet designs:  Russian Railways mug

And if you need to buy more food, that can be taken care of at any large station. As we move west, the platform-food situation has improved immensely. In addition to sodas and potato chips, vendors also sell the local specialties, which in this town was dried fish (see the woman in the back, holding some in her left arm.)

Siberian train platform

You might think that the scenery would be getting boring by now. Really, it’s not. Besides the forests and meadows, there are small villages, big cities, and many branch lines, many of which go to still-closed cities. During WWII, when the fate of Moscow and St. Petersburg hung in the balance, all Russian factories and important research facilities were moved east of the Ural mountains. The area remains very industrial. Mining is also very big out here. While most of the scenery is still unspoiled, there are many more indicators of human presence as we move west. Most interesting to me are the Russian graveyards, which are always tucked into the trees.

Russian graveyard

About twelve hours after departure from Tomsk, we were passing through the ubiquitous birch forests when I noticed some snow on the ground. Okay, it wasn’t snow; we’re not that far north. But it looked like snow. It was actually a cloud layer, very close to the ground. I have no idea what caused this effect, but it was beautiful.

Siberian sunset

We are far enough north that the sun sets incredibly late. It’s been two weeks since summer solstice, so the days are actually getting shorter already, but I took this picture around midnight.

Sunset at midnight

It’s a trying journey. At times, I’m frustrated with Russian Railways, get tired of eating instant noodles, or feel desperately in need of a shower. But even after nearly 150 hours on the train, I’m definitely not bored.