Difficulties

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Our trip has not been all sunshine and rainbows. We get lost, have misunderstandings, miss our transport connections, or waste time. Sometimes the weather is bad, the AC is broken, or the wi-fi connection is out. At times, we forget things in hostels, have trouble finding good places to eat, or can’t figure out how to open the rental car’s gas tank and it’s due back 30 minutes ago. Here are some of our worst travel experiences:

  • In Cambodia, we decided to travel by boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. The trip is up the Tonle Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong, and we thought it sounded very romantic. When we booked tickets (at US$35 each,) we were told we were lucky, because the day we were traveling just happened to be the last day the boat was running until next season. During the dry season, the water level gets too low and the boat doesn’t run. I tell you what: the water level was already WAY too low. The large boat couldn’t travel far enough upstream, so we had to take a tiny boat to a smaller boat to the large boat. The trip, which was supposed to take five hours, took ten. We had no food besides a few raisins, and none was available for sale. The smaller boat didn’t have enough seats for everyone, and don’t even ask about lifejackets. Almost all the other passengers were German, and they had brought beer, which they started drinking heartily at 9 a.m. It was a rowdy ride.

While on the boat, I read my dad’s Cambodia guidebook. It recommended taking the bus instead of the boat, as the road between Siem Reap and the capital has recently been improved and the fare for the five-hour ride is only $6. Ugh.

Cambodian boat ride

But at least the scenery was nice.

  • In Lijiang, China, we returned late from hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Chinese restaurants tend to close early, so after putting our bags in the hotel room, we scurried out to look for a bite to eat. We’d been in Lijiang a few days before, so we had seen some places we wanted to try, but they were all closing up. Even the street vendors had gone home. In desperation, we went in a restaurant that happened to have an English menu. Everything was more expensive than we were used to, so I chose the cheapest chicken dish there was: chicken Jane. It was less than half the price of the others, which should have clued me in. When it arrived, it looked nothing like chicken. It tasted nothing like chicken. The texture was of rubbery mushroom caps—it was like chewing a ribbed balloon. We had no idea what part of the chicken it was. It was stir-fried with green onions, so I picked out those and ate them with white rice.

About a month later, we were on a train with a Scottish couple who had also been traveling through China. They described eating something very similar. “And did you find out what part of the chicken it was?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” they said. “It was chicken ovaries.”

  • From Yangon, Myanmar to the ruins of Bagan, the only way to travel is by bus or plane. Naturally, we opted for the cheaper (and probably safer) option: the overnight bus. The road to Bagan is paved all the way, but it was so bumpy it was like riding on a rumble strip for 10 hours. The driver had cranked up the AC as high as possible, and of course our jackets were in our backpacks, stowed under the bus, so we huddled together for warmth. To make matters worse, he never turned off the interior lights, so it was bright as day inside. Once or twice we made pit stops, and when the engine was off, the bus was quiet, still, warm, and dark; that was the only time we could get to sleep. At about 4:30 a.m. we made another pit stop. We happily curled up on our seats while everyone else filed off. Five minutes later, the driver came to get us. “Nyaung U,” he said. “No,” we said, “we’re sleeping,” and closed our eyes again. He tapped one of us and told us the name of the town again. We willfully ignored him. Another man boarded the bus and also told us we had to disembark. Grumpily, I asked why. “We’re here,” he said. “Get off.”

Thanks to that bus ride, our first day at the beautiful ancient ruins of Bagan was spent catching up on lost sleep.

  • Driving in Melbourne is one of the worst things one can ever do. There’s the normal city craziness, like one-way streets and hellish traffic, but Melbourne’s main streets have a weird system of putting medians between lanes that are traveling in the same direction. So, for example, a four-lane road will have with three medians across it. If you’re on the far side, you can only go straight or turn left. If you’re closer to the center, you can only go straight or turn right. God help you if you realize you’re in the far lane but need to turn right.

These streets are impossible to avoid, because the fastest way into town is to take the toll road, but the tollbooths don’t accept cash, only prepaid electronic cards like SmarTrip, and cars that attempt to pass the tollbooth without one will be fined hundreds of dollars. So tourists are pretty much screwed. In two months in Australia we never did figure out where to buy one of those cards.

And if you arrive in Melbourne on the first night of Sexpo, and the convention center is right across the street from your hostel, I repeat: God help you.

Sexpo
Unhappy campers
  • In Bordeaux, France, we had planned to couchsurf the entire time, two nights each with two different hosts. However, by the day of our arrival, our first host hadn’t gotten back to us. We were getting in on a Sunday night, when *everything* in France is closed, so we booked a hotel and emailed to let them know that we were getting in late. We never got a response, and on arrival, found that there was no one at reception and that the door was locked. Luckily, after a few minutes of waiting, another guest came out, so we could get into the lobby. There was an emergency telephone with a contact number posted next to it, which we tried to use, but (of course) it wasn’t free, nor did it accept coins. We needed a French phone card, which is (of course) impossible to buy at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Plus, we didn’t even know how to dial the number. We tried several variations, accidentally called the police, and gave up. We were seriously going to sleep in the lobby, and had already moved our backpacks over to a nice cozy corner when another guest came through, saw us waiting, spoke a little English, and had a cellphone. She was our savior.

Did we get any apologies from the staff? Hardly: in the morning, when we checked out, they tried to charge us the full rate for the room.

Whenever we have one of these days, we say to each other:

“Today was difficult. Tomorrow will be better.” –Mr. S, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes

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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.

Potty Talk

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toilet seat Unfamiliar toilets can make us do strange things. At the risk of embarrassing my sister Jennie, I will relate this tale of toilet woe: when I was eight years old, my parents, sisters, and I traveled to Paris (a trip I am surprised that my parents don’t regret, due to our misbehaving most of the time and demanding to eat Domino’s Pizza.) Jennie, who had her fourth birthday on the trip, was of course toilet-trained, but still had some potty-related issues. Specifically: she did not like to use any toilet that did not have a white seat. That meant no beige seats, no pastel-colored seats, and no black seats. At home, all of our toilet seats were white, so this did not pose any issues. In Paris’ public WCs, has anyone else ever noticed what color the seats are? We checked several different toilets. They were all black, every last public toilet seat in the city. Jennie refused to sit on any of them, and ended up wetting her pants in public.

Jennie’s Parisian toilet trouble is minor league compared to how some Western travelers feel about Asian-style toilets, aka squatty potties. They may be intimidating at first, but they’re really not that bad. They do require a certain degree of balance and flexibility, but with practice (lots of squats at the gym?) it gets a lot easier. They are often dirty, for myriad reasons- but even if the toilet itself is dirty, I think it’s more sanitary than Western-style toilets, since no part of the body needs to ever touch the toilet. (If there is a flush, do what I do and use your foot to press down on it.) The most common complaint I hear is that it’s too hard to aim. Foolproof tip: make sure your feet are flat on the ground, or as close as possible. Balancing on the balls of your feet is a surefire way to pee on your hem.

I’ve been asked before: where in the world has the worst toilets? Rural Chinese and Mongolian toilets are the most horrifying I’ve seen so far. One fellow traveler we met called them “Chinese splatter trays.” Most rural public toilets are just troughs in the ground. There are two or three low partitions over the trough, to demarcate three or four “stalls,” and one side remains completely open; there are no doors. Train station toilets

If you want to preserve your modesty, travel with an opaque umbrella. Open it up to create a fourth wall for yourself while you do your business. These same toilets may not have plumbing, either. To put it delicately: breathe through your mouth and don’t look down. It sounds bad, but I think there is a cultural reason behind it. The Chinese are extremely pragmatic people, and tend not to dress things up. The attitude concerning toilets seemed to be “Why bother? It’s just a toilet.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to not install plumbing in public toilets, I can kind of see their point. The most important thing is that it works, not how it looks.  Toilet troughs

I don’t mean to scare people away from traveling to China. Generally, in bigger Chinese cities, all the toilets I used had proper stalls and doors, but not in Yunnan, especially in the city of Jinghong and along the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. In well-traveled areas, nicer public restrooms can be found, but those are for the benefit of the tourists, not the locals.Toilet tourism; Dali, China

If you are particular about what kind of toilet you use, I recommend using the facilities in shopping malls, nicer restaurants, or at tourist attractions that charge an admission fee. Everywhere in the world, train station toilets are the worst.

One neat feature on many toilets around the world is the option for a “big” or “small” flush. I’ve never seen that in the States—all of our newer toilets are low-flush, but anyone who’s used these knows the inherent problem with them. Low-flush toilets do save water… unless you have to flush two or three times to get everything to go down.

Where in the world have you found interesting toilets?