Weekly Photo Challenge: From Every Angle

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Moscow St Basils Red Square

russia saint basil detail

There weren’t many things in Russia that I photographed three times, but Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square was one of them!  This week’s photo challenge looks at the same person, place or thing from three different angles, which can be hard for a traveler and photographer who is always on the move (or always reviewing their shots and only keeping the best).  What is something you’ve photographed again and again?

Quick Updates for August 2015

I have just returned from my summer holidays and wanted to touch base quickly!

First, while I was away I received a lot of great information about feminine hygiene around the world.  I made almost twenty updates to the directory of pads and tampons around the world today!  Please check it out if you’ll be traveling soon or if you have information about the availability of pads and tampons in a country that hasn’t been mentioned.

As well, I made a small gallery of photos from my trip, which is available on imgur.  It features twenty (out of more than 3000!) photos that I took as I crossed Russia this summer, and it’s a great preview of some posts that I have planned that will help you prepare for your own trip across Russia by train!

I recently wrapped up graduate school and have committed to myself to take it easy for the next little while.  I hope this means that I will have lots of time to keep this blog fresh, excited and current, with all the best information about how to backpack, beautifully.  Keep checking back for new posts, or subscribe (the link is to the right) to receive updates by email.

  Mealtime Monday – At the Stolovaya, Part One

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Just wanted to do a quick update letting you know that I’m still in Russia I haven’t died of scurvy yet!  The Trans-Siberian and the Baikal-Amur Mainline have, in general, both offered me a plethora of vegetarian options.  The options are often simple, and often the same from place to place, but they’re workable.  I’ve been relying a lot on stolovayas, which are cafeteria-style restaurants that were popularized in Soviet times.  Many retain the air of Soviet simplicity, but others are elaborate affairs with too many choice to count.  At this stolovaya, just outside Komsomolsk-na-Amur, I had fresh Greek salad, meatless borscht, a fruit drink called compote and blini with sweet sauce for dessert.  Not bad, right?

The Truth About Russian Hostels

  

By my calculations I have spent about 365 nights in hostels over the past ten years. I feel like there is a certain rhythm to most of the hostels that I’ve stayed in. These little things make life easier for everyone, and they also make it easier to meet new friends when you’re on the road. Say hello to people in your dorm room and around the breakfast table. If there are four beds and four coat hangers, each person should use on coat hanger. If you have an early morning departure, pack your bags in the evening. Those little things are pretty standard at all the hostels I’ve been to, from La Paz, Bolivia to Tallinn, Estonia.  

I am writing this from Russia, where I have visited three cities and stayed in two hostels so far. Both of the hostels that I’ve stayed in were noted by my Lonely Planet guidebook, which was published just a few months ago. The Lonely Planet actually says, “Increasingly common across Russia… Western-style hostels are a boon for budget (and other travellers) as they not only offer comfortable accommodation, but also friendly and clued-up English-speaking staff.” Sounds good, right?

Well, the truth about Russian hostels is nothing like the picture painted by Lonely Planet and the online hostel booking sites (Hostelworld, Hostels.com and Booking.com, I’m talking about you!). The truth about Russian hostels is that they serve as long-term accommodation for Russians who are living and working in a city away from home, and they operate on a completely different rhythm than hostels anywhere else.  In both hostels that I have stayed in I have been the only foreign traveler in my (completely-full) dorm room, and last night I was the only foreigner in the entire hostel.  

What does this mean for backpackers? Well, it means that, at times, you can feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you’re in someone’s “home”. In my last hostel there was a Russian man who would loudly have Skype conversations in the common room, and then would turn on the news when he was done. When some backpackers wanted to Skype home themselves, he yelled at them for interrupting his TV-watching. In my current hostel the “locals” pack the common room in the evening and spread out all over the furniture, laying across couches that should seat three so that there is nowhere for other people to sit. That kind of behaviour is okay at home, I suppose… but are we really at home?  

Possibly more concerning to me than the potentially-hostile atmosphere is the idea that it seems some Russian hostels are basically serving as homeless shelters. At my first hostel I was assigned to a top bunk, and the bed underneath mine was assigned to an old woman. She yelled at me a few times: once, I put my water bottle down on the table beside the phone she was charging, and she got mad. Another time, I tried to hang my towel off the edge of my bed (because she was using ALL the coat hooks) and she didn’t like that it hung down in front of her space. When I saw the fur coats she had hung on the coat hooks I thought that was odd for the middle of summer, and asked at the desk. My suspicions were correct: she had been living in that dorm bed for two years. Over time this elderly woman had developed other habits that were not conducive to hostel living, such as bathing irregularly, loudly burping and passing gas in the night and then commenting loudly about it, screaming in the night, straining to use the toilet… while leaving the door open, etc. Again, this might not be terrible in someone’s own home, but was this really her “home”?

Obviously I recognize the need for affordable accommodation for Russians within their own country. However, I don’t necessarily think it’s best for hostels to try to pass themselves off as “European-style backpacker hostels” while basically ignoring everything that makes hosteling unique and enjoyable. I know that some hostels in Russia have started instituting strict short-term stay policies, which is a definite step in the right direction. This will hopefully help the market separate into “hostels” and “dormitories”, as it should. If hostels choose not to implement this policy, they should make it clear to travellers that their target market is mainly long-term Russian residents, so that travellers can make an informed choice.  

I wish someone had told me the truth about Russian hostels before I set off on his backpacking trip, and I can’t believe so many guidebooks gloss over the extent of the cultural difference between hostels in Russia and hostels in most other regions. Hopefully knowing the truth will help you make the right choice on your next trip across Russia!

Mealtime Monday – Are My Eyes Deceiving Me?

Bagel Cafe in Gdansk Poland / Vegetarian Lunch

Wandering around Gdansk, Poland in the rain, still feeling the sniffles, I started to worry that I was also experiencing hallucinations.  You see, in front of me there was a sign advertising bagels.  When I’m home sick in Canada I will often drive myself through the Tim Horton’s drive through and order “one wheat and honey bagel, toasted with herb and garlic cream cheese, please.”  And here I was, halfway around the world, slightly buzzed on cold medication, with bagels right in front of me!  Of course I had to go inside the restaurant (I think it was called the Amsterdam Bar) and order a lunch combo, with a bagel, cream cheese (I think they mixed in some sun-dried tomatoes?) and a little Greek salad.  Sure, it wasn’t an artisan bagel, but it was just what I needed to feel a little less miserable.  (The ice cream I ate for dessert helped a bit, too!)

Weekly Photo Challenge – ROYGBIV

The Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland

Sunset in Roatan Honduras

Torre del Caballito, Mexico City

View from the CFF Viseu de Sus Train, Maramures, Romania

The Blue Church, Bratislava, Slovakia

Instituto de la Artesania Jalisciense, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

I skipped the “i” because I’m not convinced that indigo is different than blue.

This week’s photo challenge is about all the colors of the rainbow.  Obviously I had to pull from my library of travel photography, as everything seems more colorful when you’re on holidays!

Red is from the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland.

Orange is from Roatan, Honduras.

Yellow is a sculpture in Mexico City.

Green is the landscape seen from the CFF Viseu de Sus wood-powered train in Romania.

Blue is the Blue Church in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Violet is a purple sign outside an artisan studio in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Travel Countdown – 14 Days

With fourteen days to go before my Russia travel adventure begins, I’ve mostly been focusing on the details of how I’m getting to and from the places I plan to visit.  And by the places I plan to visit, I mean the places I plan to visit in the first five days of a seven-week trip, because I don’t like being tied down to a specific itinerary when I’m on a long trip.

Condor Air 747

I am ticket to and from Russia on Condor Air, which is an airline I have never flown before.  They are a German budget carrier who will take me from Canada to Frankfurt, and from there I will connect via Aeroflot.  The advantage of Condor Air is that I can fly in business class for just a little bit more than the price of economy with a regular airline, and I’m looking forward to arriving in Frankfurt feeling refreshed after a decent sleep on the plane.  The disadvantages are yet to be known, although I will say that bizarrely, it took Condor almost a week to email me my confirmation and flight details after charging my credit card.

Pushkin Monument

In Moscow I’ve booked two nights in Puskhin Hotel.  I couldn’t find a good photo of the hotel so I picked a photo of a monument to Pushkin.  Sometimes I wonder if Pushkin might be my spirit animal, as I once stayed only a few doors down from his old house in Chisinau, and I also once stumbled across a bust of him in a park in Mexico City.  It seemed fitting that I stay in the hotel named after him for two nights upon arrival, after which I will mainly be switching to hostels and other budget accommodations.

I’ve printed out a metro map (even though there is one in my guidebook, it’s pretty bulky) and feel confident that I can figure out how to take the train from the airport into town, and then connect to the metro line that will take me to my hotel.

aeroflot airplane

Next I’ve booked an overnight flight from Moscow to Vladivostok with Aeroflot.  I’ve heard that the train that connects Vladivostok’s airport to its city center has closed (even just since my guidebook was published this April!) so I will need to sort out transportation into the city upon arrival.  Once there, I’m booked into a hostel for two nights, and then plan to begin my epic rail journey all the way back to where I started!

I am keeping an eye on train availability through the official Russian trains website.  At the moment there seem to be many spots available in second-class sleepers for the days I will probably travel, so I’m not going to book anything unless I see the stock dip dangerously low (like, fewer than twenty-five spots remain or something).

I’ve just found out that I need to move to a new office in the days before my trip begins, so while I’m packing for my holiday I will also be packing up my professional life for the first time in five years.  I’m a procrastinator at the best of times, and chances are good that I’ll go twice as slow as usual since I’ve got twice the work to do!

I’ll be back in a week with a seven-day update, and hope to get in a post or two between now and then as well.  If you’ve got any Russia travel tips, especially for people riding the Baikal-Amur Mainline or vegetarians leaving the big cities, let me know in the comments!

Condor Air photo via Oliver Holzbauer on Flickr, Pushkin via the Russian Wikimedia Commons, Aeroflot via Aleksander Markin on Flickr.  All creative commons licensed at publication time.

Travel Countdown – 21 Days

More than two years ago, I wrote a post about my travel bucket list.  There were five places in the world that I absolutely had to visit, and #2 on that list was riding the Trans-Mongolian Express.  Today, I am so excited to share with you that twenty-one days from now I will be able to cross this item off my list (mostly!).

On July 1st, I will depart my home city at 6:00 pm, and almost exactly twenty-four hours later I will arrive in Moscow, Russia.  From there I will be flying across the country to Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I will begin to make my way back to Moscow for my flight home in late August.  I have a double-entry business visa that allows me to enter and leave the country twice within a ninety-day period, so while I won’t be going to China on this trip there will be the opportunity for me to go to Mongolia, if it piques my interest along the way.

This all came to fruition very quickly.  In mid-April I learned that I would not receive the funding I had applied for that would allow me to study Italian in Italy for the summer.  I made the quick decision to apply for a Russian visa instead, and after a lot of money, some tears, and another entire month, I had a Russian visa in my hand (I’ve written a post about applying for a Russian visa but think it’s probably better to share it upon my return, in case it causes any problems).  The next day I booked flights and bought the Lonely Planet guidebook, and now I spend my days pretending to focus on work when actually I’m dreaming about the pastries I’m going to buy from babushkas at all the railway stations along the route!

So, with three weeks before I head off on the world’s longest train journey (it’s more than 9000 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok!), are you wondering how to prepare for a trip to Russia?

travel antibiotics

The first thing I did was visit the travel doctor.  In my country, GPs or family doctors are often not well-equipped to deal with travel-related queries.  Instead, for anything out of the ordinary travelers need to pay out-of-pocket to visit a doctor who specializes in travel medicine.  Prices are fairly reasonable: I paid $75 to see a specialist here, who advised that I get an updated tetanus shot but skip the more-costly Japanese encephalitis vaccination.  He also prescribed two types of antibiotics in case I experience a stomach or chest infection that doesn’t cure itself.  The vaccinations and medications were covered by my employer’s health care plan, but would have cost about $200 if I didn’t have that coverage.

travel souvenirs

Next, I went to my local dollar store and picked up some souvenirs of Canada, including a few pins, some stickers and sparkly pencils.  I often give little gifts to children that I meet in my travels, especially after spending 24+ hours in a train carriage with them!  I spent $15 on souvenirs, including the bag I’ll keep them in and a Canada bottle opener that I plan to use to open my own bottles along the way.

russian roubles

After that I went to the bank and ordered a small number of euros (for my transfer in Frankfurt) and Russian rubles.  Once, I flew into Moldova with no local currency and discovered that because it was Sunday, the currency exchange at the airport was closed and there wasn’t an ATM anywhere around.  Fortunately, a kind taxi driver had faith that I wouldn’t scam him, and drove me to an ATM close to my hostel so that I could pay him for the ride.  Now, I like to have a small amount of local currency on hand when I arrive, just in case.  Although the exchange rate isn’t the best, my bank is willing to order in small denominations for me (each of those 100-ruble bills is only worth about $2 CAD!) which makes it easier to pay for small purchases, like metro tickets and taxi rides.  If all you’ve got is 1000 ruble bills, chances are good that your taxi ride will cost exactly 100 ruble!

russian books for children

Finally, I have been attempting to learn some Russian.  I already owned the Russian in 10 Minutes a Day book, but I found that I really needed a program that had an audio component as well.  Next, I tried Get Started in Russian, which was helpful, but still not quite right for me.  I asked the librarian at my local public library for a recommendation, and she suggested that I try Mango Languages.  I can log in for free through my public library’s website to access dozens of different language courses, including a great beginner’s guide to Russian that I can go through at my own pace.  I like that the Russian components of the course are entirely in Cyrillic, but by mousing over each Russian word you can see it spelled out phonetically in the Latin alphabet as well.

I would love to hear any of your tips for slow travel along the Trans-Siberian, or what you’re planning on doing this summer!  Let me know in the comments!

Mealtime Monday – Soup to Start

Vegetable and corn soup in Peru

I know there is research out there that suggests starting your meal with a broth-based soup can lead you to eat 10% fewer calories overall during that meal.  It’s nice, then, that so many healthy vegan and vegetarian restaurants offer a fixed-price lunch menu that starts with soup or salad before offering a main course and dessert.

When I was traveling in Peru, I oddly found that Lima was the most challenging place to find good vegetarian food.  Fortunately there was a restaurant called El AlmaZen near my hostel, and on my last day in Lima my schedule aligned with their opening hours so I was able to enjoy their lunch offerings.  My meal started with this perfect bowl of soup, full of noodles, fresh herbs, onions and a huge piece of corn with the largest kernals I’d ever seen!  It was just what I needed to warm up in the Peruvian winter (remember, July and August are winter in Peru!) and it certainly inspired a number of broth-based soups in my own kitchen when I returned home.  If you’re a vegetarian in Lima Peru, you have got to head out to Miraflores for lunch at El AlmaZen!

Weekly Photo Challenge – On the Way

Crossroads in Mexico

This week’s photo challenge is all about photos that we’ve taken on the way to somewhere else.  I didn’t choose this photo because it’s a great shot (it’s obviously not), but rather because it shows the kinds of situations I often find myself in when I’m on the way to a destination.  I took this photo in Mexico, when I was changing buses between Taxco and the nearby cave system called the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa.  I had expected the cave system to be slightly more popular than I suppose it actually is, and I ended up being the only person on either bus, and the only person waiting on a random bench in the hot Mexican sun to change buses.  I didn’t see anyone at the little shops near this crossroads, though there was a horse tied to a pole down the street behind me.  I’m getting the details of my summer holiday sorted this weekend, and I anticipate many more experiences where I find myself all alone at a foreign crossroads as I travel from one place to the next…