Kyle’s Journey in Armenia

Just Another Peace Corps Blog

5
Aug 2008
Posted by Kyle at 5:54 pm | 1 Comment »

Riding across Russia in an old Soviet train car has always sounded appealing to me, for some reason. Whether for the excitement of traveling across a land which once seemed so inaccessible, or to meet travelers from around the world, or to simple make a (not so) quick getaway from Armenia, I boarded train #4 in Moscow the evening of July 27th, ready for an adventure.

Ready to depart - China, here we come! 

And an adventure is what I got, from start to finish. I tried to keep a journal, so I’ll share some excerpts with you, along with some pictures:

Day 1: We boarded the train around 9, with the Vladivostok train next door, and left at 9:35. Our cabin is small and not as comfortable as the St. P train. The beds have a sheet and a fleece strip a blanket. Matresses have no padding. We just organized our things, I read (Crime and Punishment) and went to bed around 11. Before, our cabin attendant, “P” brough us a .6L Chinese beer which was just ok. Nice guy, and we’re going to try and get on his good side.

Waiting for the the train Fresh lettuce

Day 2: Woke up around 8 AM. Very restless sleep as the cabin’s not long enough for me. It was also cold. We slept with the window and blinds open initially and that was a bad idea. Now it’s better. After waking up, Kathy and I toured the train. There are 2 first class trains; two with 4 person rooms, and two with 2 person rooms. The two person rooms even have a shower inside! The bathrooms are all the same, though. There are no paper towels and no soap. The toilents flush straight on to the tracks. There is also one dining car, which smelled like coal and served mashed potatos for breakfast, and no observation car. Definitely no frills.

Our conductor collecting tickets 

Day 3: Yesterday was a lazy day. I only slept til 8, and then had a snack at 1, lunch at 2, watched Gone Baby Gone from 2-4, slept 5-7, ate dinner at 8. Went to sleep around 1, and woke up this morning about 9:30. All these times are Moscow time, so now our sun is setting early and rising earlier as we head East. We’re already +2 hours from Moscow, and will be +5 by the time we end our trip.

The views yesterday were good - it rained on and off, but we were going through big tall trees and rivers. Today is hot and sunny but even flater with lower trees. Reminds me of east Kansas. I really enjoy the relaxing days, and am sleeping better now. My favorite part of the train trip so far has been getting out at the stops along the way. We stop every 4 or 5 hours for about 20 minutes at various stations, and at each stop there are tons of stores selling any amenity we could need for the train, from toothbrushes to bottled water to 5L jugs of beer!

Many sellers on the train platforms  Delicous homemade food always available

Day 5: See previous days. We have passed a big lake (Baikal) which is pretty, but was not worth Kathy saying, “Guys, you have to wake up to look at this,” while opening the shades at 8:30 in the morning, and then leaving the cabin. It looks pretty much like Lake Sevan, but maybe if we stayed there it would be better.

Lake Baikal 2 

Scott Demyan (one of the Peace Corps volunteers from my group) is getting married today. Too bad we couldn’t be there for that. Today we pass the the Russian-Mongolian border. There’s a chance my next entry will be from prison. Our visas expired 2 days ago, but it’s because Levon Travel in Yerevan promised that when we left Moscow on the 29th, we entered a possibly-non-existant free travel zone. T-minus 5 hours and we’ll know. Russian border guards are usually very friendly people so I doubt we’ll have a problem.

…..

We did have a problem :) But tomorrow we will be leaving Russia, and I will explain everything safely from Mongolia. Until then, enjoy the rest of my pictures in the photo gallery.

I will write a post later tonight about the railroad experience itself, but wanted to let you know you I posted ~100 photos from the rest of my time in Russia on my Flickr photos.

Take a look in the photo gallery!

3
Aug 2008
Posted by Kyle at 5:48 pm | No Comments »

As you may have figured out, it’s been about 5 days since I’ve updated this. That’s because I just finished my trek from Moscow to Ulan Bator (almost…) on the Trans-Siberian Railroad! The train trip, which from Moscow to Ulan Bator alone covers over 5,000 km, has been something I’ve always wanted to do in my lifetime. Today we settled into a hotel and had a chance to have a nice shower after 6 days and 5 nights of train travel. I will post all of the pictures and an extended narrative about the trip tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Before I move too far forward, I wanted to mention our 3 day stop-over in Moscow after we left St. Petersburg. Moscow is a very interesting city. First of all, we found it was far less touristy then St. P. There has been almost no signage in English (even at the Kremlin!) and English speakers and restaraunts have been few and far between. The city doesn’t have nearly as many attractions or history as St. Petersburg, but is instead a functioning capital for the people of Russia. As such, the Metro system is far more developed (it could rival London’s), and there were many more people coming and going from work. Regardless, we spent our time poking around near the Kremlin and saw some amazing sites.

We stepped off the Metro near Red Square, and the view was nothing short of stunning:

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(sorry for the bad photos - I’ll fix them tomorrow)

This is St. Issac’s Cathedral, probably the most well-known building in Moscow. The entire Kremlin complex is huge, and features vast gardens, beautiful churches, a state history museum. Here were my highlights from the three days:

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Outside a tiny, tiny church is a golden circle; they say that if you stand in the middle, facing the church, say a wish and then throw a coin over your head, your wish will come true. That’s all well and good, but the part that amused us most were the 6 grandmothers standing behind the thrower to intercept the coins! I think there is a minimum age requirement of 70 to participate, but these old ladies were ruthless and cutthroat. One lady even brought a baseball cap, and she was literally able to grab the coins out of the air. It seems like they have quite a business operation going there!

Moscow_999_5

World’s largest bell. Soviet ingenuity at its best - it’s never actually rang. Another thing to check off the list though (just wait, I’ll post photos of a much better “world’s largest” tomorrow!)

Lenin's Tomb

Lenin’s Tomb. Yes, the one and only Vladimir Lenin’s body can be found, perfectly preserved, in a creepy tomb right outside the Kremlin walls. The tomb is like a dungeon - very stern faced security gaurds, very strict, and when you walk into the room with his body, it’s an incredible experience. Every six months, his body is cleaned, then dipped in wax and other chemicals to preserve him, and then fully dressed in a new suit. He is then put on display for tourists to see. It’s one of the most… compelling… tributes to a man I’ve ever seen. I was happy to be out of there - only to see the graves of other Soviet big-wigs, including Breshnev, Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space), and our favorite Communist, Josef Stalin himself.

Anyway, there was a lot more we saw in Moscow, so be sure to check out all the pictures and videos tomorrow on Flickr. Until then, you can revel in this good news: we finally have our Chinese visas!!

Fortunately, most of you aren’t up to date on the drama that has been our Chinese visa. To make a long story short, we spent about a month trying to get our visas through the Chinese Embassy in Yerevan. The Embassy there was quite possible the least helpful and least welcoming place on Earth. Every time we went (pretty much every Tuesday and Thursday for the last month) they came up with a different excuse as to why they couldn’t get us a visa. We tried and tried, and finally asked the man who worked there if he knew anyone locally who could get us the documents we needed. Of course, he produced a cell phone number for his friend Artur, and we dutifully called it, I met him at a Metro station with an envelope of cash, and he got us the letter we needed. Or so we thought. Turns out the Consulate in Yerevan is just a jerk and would not have given us the visa no matter what (his parting words to us were, “Go apply for a Chinese visa in America”) and so we did just that: we mailed our passports home.

“What?!?!”, you are probably asking. Fortunately, Peace Corps provided us with a second passport during our service (aside from our personal passports). So, we mailed our personal passports to a wonderful company in Washington, DC, VisaHQ, who got us our visas quickly and professionally, then mailed them back to us in Mongolia, stamped and ready to go. It’s been quite an (expensive) ordeal, but the good news is, we’re finally going to China and the Beijing 2008 Olympics!!!

27
Jul 2008
Posted by Kyle at 2:30 pm | 1 Comment »

Our last two days in St. Petersburg were quite exciting, as we had the opportunity to visit some of the most remarkable landmarks. Thursday we visited the world-famous Hermitage Museum, which is the largest museum in the world and had some impressive collections. They had a rather impressive collection of Piccaso, Rembrandt and other European art, but the most interesting stuff was their collection from the Near East and Far East. It was beautiful but almost overwhelming - Russian opulence at its finest.

Our last day in St. Petersburg, we visited two amazing cathedrals - Catherine’s and Peterhof. Both were built during the 18th century, and both are incredibly lavish. The crown jewel of Catherine’s is the Amber Room, which, as you can imaging, is made of only amber. They didn’t let us take pictures there so these are some bootlegged images:

Me at Catherine's palace Catherine's garden

Peterhof was Peter the Great’s Palace, but was largely destroyed during WWII during the Nazi occupation of St. Petersburg. My favorite part of these palaces was the pictures of the reconstruction efforts. The most magnificent part of Peterhof was the cascading fountains in his lower garden. Absolutely stunning. Fortunately we were able to get there just before they shut the fountains off at 5 PM.

Fountains at Peter's Palace Me and some fountains

Friday night we had our first overnight train ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow. This was my first overnight train ride, and surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad! Even more surprising is that Russian trains are incredibly efficient and on-time, the exact opposite of anything in Armenia. Our train arrived at 1:44 AM from Finland, and left the train station by the 1:49 AM departure time, on the dot. That left exectly 5 minutes to get all of our bags on the train, and then stand akwardly in the hallway waiting for the large, angry looking carriage attendent to tell us where to go and what to do. In Russian.

We finally were led to our beds, which were narrow, but surprisingly long, even for me. I shared a cabin with three Russians. I must have looked like a deer in headlights as I basically copied the man who occupied the opposite top bunk, learning where the ladder was, how to use the water, etc. I slept like a baby, though (probably because it was so late), and the noise of the train was surprisingly soothing. The sheets were clean, the other people were respectful enough, and while it’s cramped, I think it’s going to be incredibly relaxing to just sit and watch the scenery and relax across Russia.

We leave for the Trans-Siberian the evening of the 29th. Until then we will be exploring the capital of Russia, Moscow, and today we are going to look at Lenin’s waxy body at his tomb. Woohoo. As always, all of my photos (and videos!) are uploaded to my Flickr page.

The views expressed herein are the views of the author and do not express those of Peace Corps Armenia or the United States government.