Border Crossings

Two days ago, Andrés and I, along with a handful of tourists, Vietnamese merchants, and several bushels of cilantro, crossed an imaginary line together. The line wasn’t visible, nor was it tangible, but nevertheless it held a bit of that tension that zips along the lines defining countries. On a forested mountain, we waited on the Vietnamese side for our broken bus to be mended enough to cross over to Laos, taking the opportunity to stretch our legs outside with a cup of instant coffee from a ramshackle restaurant catering to a clientele with nothing but time.

International border crossings are serious affairs, requiring preparation and a degree of respectful watchfulness. Ever since I was quite invasively interrogated at the Port of Spain airport I have known that the zone between countries, whether imaginary or spatial, is a place where simple rights can slip away. To make the land crossing from Vietnam into Laos, we had prepared by researching visa requirements for each of our nationalities, and methods of payment. We had investigated the most viable checkpoint for our itinerary. We knew when the border opened, and what towns were nearby. We were prepared for every aspect of the (admittedly, easy) crossing into Laos. Unfortunately, we there was no way for us to prepare for the bus that brought us there.

I knew we were in for it when a man on a scooter met us at the hotel door to pick us up. We had no tickets for the 24-hour bus trip, but the man recognized the travel agency that we had booked the trip through, and soon we were following him down the busy streets of old-quarter Hanoi. It was impossible to steer our suitcases around the parked scooters and small tables that cover the sidewalks, so we walked in the street, trying to follow the man on the scooter with our eyes, already blocks ahead. When we finally caught up, he told us to wait, and swerved away to join the traffic of the city.

He came back a half hour later with more tourists. We were bundle into a van and brought to the bus station. The bus we met there was a double decker, but the bottom half was already full to the ceiling with boxes. We climbed up the stairs, taking off our shoes at the top, and found it almost as full as the bottom, not of people but of cargo: boxes, food, and building supplies stacked high on top of the seats. The cracked windows were held together with opaque advertisements, making it impossible to see outside. A few reclining chairs were available, and more below: the seats were also double deckers, and we were packed together, excuse the cliche, like sardines. I’ve never felt more like a sardine: salty with sweat, squished against my seat neighbor (luckily that happened to be my boyfriend) and somewhat horizontal.

And that was my position for 26 hours. “Somewhat horizontal” is very uncomfortable after only a few hours. A Vietnamese travel agent who was on the bus to research a potential contract with the bus company (not happening after this trip) told me that international buses in Vietnam make most of their money through shipping cargo. Having a few tourists on board has the duel benefit of letting them operate without a commercial license, and also ensuring a more lenient customs process, making it easier to smuggle in a few things. He said there isn’t really a better option for traveling via land to Laos, and that’s why his agency doesn’t handle trips to that country.

All things considered, the trip went very well. We made it to Vientiane in 28 hours, not too much longer than the estimate. The dust from the red dirt road that filled the bus’s air seemed pristine and unpolluted. No one lost their passport, and my preparedness meant that an unprepared young backpacker was able to pay his visa fee despite having no money on him. Compared to many border experiences, this was a piece of cake. But I hope to never ride another bus like that again.


We chugged into Hanoi at 5:00 this morning. Though the night’s sleep was interrupted by a midnight border crossing, I feel rested enough to forgo any nap. From the balcony of our hotel room, the sounds of motor engines below lend me a bit of the energy I might naturally lack.

We crossed an interesting border today. Somewhere in the darkness outside of our train window, in the humid night masked by the cigarette smoke of other passengers, the feeling of this trip changed again. Traveling in the tropics: I experience it through my olfactory glands, with the full fresh smell of plants that grow above rot and the tickle of smoke in my nostrils. The sounds of engines and people’s voices mingle, the melody of street hawking and a piercing notes of a birthday song sung in the hotel lobby. I have lived in humid places where bougainvillea claws concrete buildings, and the sensation of being somewhere hot always fills me with the past, a past that didn’t necessarily belong to me, but that I went out and found. Usually I step into this wet heat from the airless cavity of an airplane. Today, the heat grew around me, slowly pushing my traveling feeling into a new (final?) realm.


Andrés and I didn’t plan our trip to be part of a movement. Nevertheless, our airplane-less sojourn around the world could be considered an extended exercise in “slow travel,” and I am enjoying the benefits that this kind of exploration offers: getting off the beaten path, getting into the rhythm of a place, keeping our tourist dollars local, that sort of thing

We have crossed continents on trains, but getting on a train will never be as exciting as embarking on a long boat ride. It’s still unbelievable to me that you can take a boat from Russia to Japan, even though I’ve been on that very boat. The passage between two strange countries on a ferry is a swaying, sooty affair. On the water, everyone is a traveler, and we’ve celebrated that status with whatever culture we are accompanying: most passengers left the boat to Norway inebriated; between Sweden and Finland the Fins let loose on the dance floor to a live band; and the Russia/South Korea/Japan boat was complete international cross-culture madness. We’ve taken 5 international ferries so far, each with their unique charms, all utilitarian, shabby, and fun.

Passengers enjoying a smoke on the Stena Ferry from Denmark to Norway.

The ferry between Stokholm, Sweden and Finland takes a stunning route through the tiny islands that make up these Nordic coastlines.

The Eastern Dream stops in Vladivostok, Russia; Donghae, South Korea; and Sakaiminato, Japan. At each departure, the ship is brought out to sea by the harbormaster. He then turns the ship back over to the captain and bravely leaps onto a hovering pilot ship.

The boat from Osaka, Japan to Busan, South Korea was full of teenagers who immediately put on pajamas for the big boat slumber party.

As our boat from South Korea neared China, the famous air pollution became visible.

We won’t take any more international ships for a while: it’s over land from now on. These fun trips have left their mark, though, and I’ll be sure to favor boat travel in the future, whenever I have the time for it.

Street Food in Busan: You are what you eat

Some experiences happen behind the eyes, and a little downwards. I recently had an experience whose astounding visual impact was surpassed by its mouthfeel.

The day we arrived in South Korea, we were very tired. The boat from Japan had traversed a rocky sea, and I had been too frightened to sleep very well. Still, we had only one day in Busan so we decided to plow through the fatigue and hit the streets.

A friend recommended the Jagalchi area for seafood, so we headed there. We emerged from the subway onto a narrow sidewalk, the road illuminated by neon signs. The pedestrian walkway was crammed with foot stalls, each consisting of a stove and a small counter, tented over with clear plastic. We saw customers eating oysters and snails, stir fries with meat and vegetables, and soup. We found a stall that smelled good and sat down, displacing a grumpy woman’s purse.

“Move your purse,” I imagine the stall’s proprietor, a stout woman with smart eyes, said in Korean.

“Ah, but those smelly tourists have plenty of room!” The grumpy woman might have replied. We sat down in the space her purse vacated.

There were empty snail shells and oysters covering the counter. We couldn’t understand the lines and circles of the handwritten menu, so we decided to look around and point at what looked good. Before we could do that, though, the chef held up a plastic bag filled with water. Looking more closely, we could make out a mauve octopus drifting around. It’s head was about the size of my fist, and its muscular arms explored the limits of its transparent cage.

“Ok!” Andres approved. Fresh octopus, pan fried and served up with some chives, maybe. That could be delicious!

The chef put the writhing octopus on her cutting board and with a few swift chops cut it to pieces. She swiped the disassembled mollusk onto a plate, sprinkled it with sesame seeds, and placed the plate in front of us.

Immediately, a tentacle started trying to crawl off of the plate. Others waved around and knotted together. Our meal was shaking hands with itself on the plate in front of us. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the soju we had been sipping, but it seemed at that moment that the only possible plan was to pick up some chopsticks and start eating, before the whole meal escaped.

The tentacle did not want to be eaten and put up a fight. They gripped the plate with their suction cups. It was impossible to pry one off of the plate, instead it had to be slid sideways to the edge. The tentacle squirmed in my chopsticks, and in my mouth. It sucked onto my teeth and onto the inside of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. I chewed many times to ensure the octopus wouldn’t suck onto my throat and choke me from within. A man across the stall lifted his arm and made his biceps pop. The octopus is strong, and I am strong for eating it.

Eastern Dream: The ferry between Vladivostok and Sakaiminato


We have arrived in Japan. It is warm and sunny, and the pointy hills have a coppery glow on their green slopes. I feel clean and hopeful and surrounded by artful, whimsical beauty.

But first things first things first: How is it possible that we are in Japan? Weren’t we just lumbering across the flat grassy expanse of Siberia, passing the idle hours wondering how close we were to China’s northern border? Only days ago, weren’t we sitting on the cold metal seats of the Trans-Siberian toilet, hoping for a breath of fresh air at every 20-minute stop and disappointedly searching the smoke filled platform for that elusive wintery breeze? Yes, that was life less than a week ago. But the train arrived at the energetic and hilly city of Vladivostok, our final destination. There, we hopped on a boat, skirted North Korea and paused in South, and hopped off again here, to green hills and warm toilet seats of Japan. I’d like to share a few of the details of how that all transpired.

It all started a year ago, when the idea of taking a boat out of Russia at the end of our Trans-Siberian journey first occurred to us. A little research confirmed that such a boat exists, and is called the Eastern Dream, run by the Korean company DBS. The DBS website is helpful in that it supplied information about the different sleeping arrangements and the ferry’s once-a-week schedule, but it doesn’t have any readily available information in English about making reservations. If you are like me, making plans for such an unprecedented trip so far away from home is a bit stressful, especially when the expiration date of a Russia visa looms. It was easy, though, and definitely worth it. Here is what we did and what I think you can expect if you decide you want to make the Eastern Dream part of your trip.


Step 1) Research the ferry schedule and the different types of rooms available on the DBS website. In addition to the number of roommates you want, you can choose between bunk beds or the options to sleep on a mat on the ground. We chose the “1st class” (4-berth) room and had a spacious room with 4 mats all to ourselves the first night, and on the second were upgraded to a pretty uncomfortable “Western” bed in the Junior Suite. We heard from other travelers that the humongous economy room of bunks is quite comfortable. The larger rooms with mats seem to be very social, so you if you’re in one of those you might not get to choose when you sleep.


Step 2) E-mail Olga ( with the date and sleeping arrangement you want. She will ask for a copy of your passports via email (her email to us said SEND ME COPY OF PASSPORTS and left us a little worried, but it turned out ok). After you’ve sent those she’ll send you your PDF tickets, which prove your spot is reserved. **Check your spam folder, Olga’s emails to us often ended up there.**

Step 3) Make sure you have enough cash rubles to pay for your fare and the exit tax. In Russia, the ATMs often only let you take out 6,000 rubles at a time (less than $100), so if you don’t plan ahead you might have to do multiple ATM visits. Alternately you can ask a bank teller to use your debit card to take out one large amount (we did this successfully at Rosbank). **While you’re banking, plan for how you will buy things on the boat. In Vladivostok we exchanged some rubles for Korean won at банк Приморье (Рrimor’ye Bank) but I think that on the boat they also accept US dollars, and maybe Japanese Yen and even Euros (but not rubles!). You can also charge purchases to your credit card unless you’re really far out to sea.**

4) If you have time the day before your boat leaves, scope out the ferry port, which is by Vadivostok’s train station. If you take a taxi, you’ll arrive at the bottom floor and have to follow signs through a nondescript metal door, up a few flights of stairs, and through a souvenir mall before you find the DBS ticket office.

5) Two hours before the ferry’s departure, go to the ticket office to buy your ticket. This is when you’ll hand over all of your rubles, in exchange for a very long and tearable ticket. Two hours will probably give you a lot of time to kill, because boarding isn’t scheduled until 30-60 minutes before the departure. We didn’t start boarding until 14:00, the departure time, and we rushed to stand in a very annoying line. It might be better to wait until the crowd passes, but definitely buy your ticket earlier because at some point the ticket office closes.

6) The immigration procedure is very annoying and convoluted, but nothing unexpected.

7) Once you’re on the boat, everything is easy. Get out on the deck and enjoy your last look at the golden domes of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the tree covered hills of Vladivostok flanked with fascinating ships. Watch the sun set over what might be North Korea. Make sure to check out the night club for a wild night of dancing. If you are going all the way to Japan, do get off in South Korea for a few hours if there’s time. Donghae is a pretty city.


8) And stay in Sakaiminato/ Yonago if your trip allows! We stayed at an AirBNB by Kaiser Onsen and enjoyed two peaceful days of soaking in that healing water before heading into the madness of Tokyo.

We’ve now gotten from Bulgaria to Japan without taking a single airplane, and with every shift between time zones and culture, I realize how wonderful this method of travel is (if you’ve got the time). The Eastern Dream is one of the vessels that make such a trip possible, and what’s more, you experience a boat the Russians, South Koreans, and Japanese all use to carry out their lives. It’s a fun mix!




Affection. Passion. Whatever the word is, I’m developing strong feelings for the grasses outside of the window. One grass in particular has captured my attention. It’s smooth stalk is a sandalwood pink, and its head of grain is white and fluffy. Patches of it smear the landscape, which is otherwise monochromatic unless you look closely. I’ve been on this train for three days, so I am looking closely. The pocket of Russia that dips between China and the Pacific Ocean is quite barren and quite beautiful.

I’ve used the word “stir crazy” to describe myself before, but I can’t remember another time when I’ve felt like jumping out of a moving train to embrace some pinkish grass. It’s nobody’s fault, I’m just not made for sitting this long. The 1st class compartment on the 008 train from Novosibirsk to Vladivostok is comfortable. It’s red decorations add a luxurious air that the modern teal-and-beige compartments of the 002 are lacking. There is a small table separating the cots, and a large window above the table, which gives an endless view of the endless landscape. Every two hours or so the train stops long enough for us to get off and stretch our legs. Occasionally it stops for 30 or 40 minutes, and we begin to stray away from the platform, creeping through unknown stations, onto the bustling street of a city who’s name we don’t know. It is then that I become frightened and hustle back to the train, where everything I have is packed neatly into a suitcase and shoved above the door, back to the safety of our close little compartment.

We work at the table and eat on the table. At night, I sleep next to the table, practically under it but for the pillow I’ve crammed into the gap between the table and my cot. My cot is also my chair, where I sprawl, reading and writing, crawling and playing. Because after a few days in a box, my body wants to feel its full range of movement, and my mind finds ways to help. I stand with one foot on each seat, stretching to the ceiling, or with my hand on the ground and my legs climbing the walls. A child has moved into the compartment next door, and she walks the walls of the narrow corridor. At least, for her, the space is bigger.

In 7 hours we will leave this train and never get on it again. We’ll be let loose onto the strange streets of a city wedged between China and North Korea, and I will quickly find somewhere cozy to hide away in, trapped in my demand for safety.

Devoid of a plan

We planned our trip as far as here. Now we’ll step off of the train into Asia, without language or much of an itinerary. Andrés, my companion, is so comforting. But sometimes I fight with him, because we are lurching forward on this dark train into the unknown, and it is stressful, even a little scary. We are two tiny scarabs scrambling across the face of the earth, fighting off the ridiculous fatigue of train-lag, and I’m the one carrying too much luggage.

I think every Trans-Siberian tourist must feel like an expert by the end of their journey. We’ve assembled the important and viable groceries to bring on board, manipulated pillows to make the cot more comfortable during sleeping and waking hours, invented close-quarter exercises to get the heart pumping again.

Tomorrow, we’ll arrive in Vladivostok, and the next day, we’ll board a boat headed to Japan. From there we’ll take a train…to another train…to a boat…to a train…

Slow travel requires patience and so so many trains.

From Bulgaria to Vladivostok over land and sea. We have months of traveling behind us, and months more ahead. Thousands of kilometers. The final destination is decided, but the route is unknown and complex. We will seek visas that we don’t have yet in hot cities with consulates and colonial histories. We will try to find a beach to rest on. It is difficult to imagine these cities, this heat, this beach, while sitting on a train on the far edge of Siberia, a few miles from China. Eventually, though, our imaginations will draw small lines across the map of South East Asia, and a plan will emerge, connecting our reality with our destination. It’s already happening. All we need is the internet…

Body Language

After my freshman year in college, I couldn’t wait to get off of that conservative campus and into the wild world. I was finally old enough to participate in the archaeological dig I had had my eyes on for a few years, and, with my parents’ permission and financial support, I planned on dedicating my entire break to the Blue Creek dig in Belize.

Orange Walk was the nearest city to the deserted Mayan settlement that we were uncovering. The camp where we slept and ate was surrounded by a Mennonite community. In this part of Belize, the Mennonites spoke a Germanic language and seemed to be grappling with the temptations of technology: the road was full of horse and buggies, but also pick-up trucks teeming with dirty blond children. Our camp was built upon the Mennonite’s old landing strip. Legend had it that they used to smuggle cocaine using an airplane, but now the USA monitored the area with a satellite so the airplane was hidden and the airstrip was no longer of use. Now, our neat tin cabanas lined the narrow grassy patch, two lime outhouses open either end.

The archeological work was hard, but my teenage body was more than up to the task. For weeks, I bend over a square of dried dirt in a sunny field, looking for shards of pottery. Later, I joined a scouting team, and we cut swaths through the jungle with machetes, encountering looted temples, trees humming with killer bees, and poisonous snakes. At 4:00 every afternoon, our work was done, and we returned to camp. Some showered, some joined the trip to a nearby swim hole. I, crazily, usually went for a run.

It must have been an effect of my introversion. I needed to run, because it gave me an excuse to be actively by myself. I would run down the road to the right, where the jungle crowded the road and the silence was broken by the gasps of howler monkeys. It scared me to run somewhere so lonely, so soon I started taking a left onto the main road. In this direction, there were houses set far back from the road. This was the direction of the gas station and general store, and so there was more traffic. But this populated area came with its own dangers.

The houses were far away from the road, with a dirt lane leading to the door. And in the dirt lanes lay at least two or three dogs, loose in the yard and alert. They barked at me, but I didn’t feel threatened because they didn’t move from their cool spots in the shade. There was one dog, though, that did scare me. He was a solid pit bull, with short white hair. He always ran right up to the lane when I approached, and barked ferociously. I was not going to test his ability to guard his territory: I figured out that it was better to turn around before that house appeared around a bend in the road.

One day, though, I was having one of those runs where you lose yourself in your own health and athleticism. My legs felt strong and full of energy. I was lost in a fantasy, and before I knew it, I had passed the house and the pit bull was loping up its front lawn to chase me. Turning around would have meant confronting the dog, so I kept running, and the dog, satisfied that I was gone, lied down in the dust and panted. I had gotten away, but the only way back to camp was down this same road, past the pit bull again. Would he let me pass?

I reached the general store and turned around. The sun was starting to set, and the palm tree forests stood dark against a whitish sky. It was later that it should be, and if I didn’t hurry, I would miss dinner. But I was worried about the dog, and so I kept my pace to a jog. As I approached the house, now lit up by a single street light, I didn’t see the pit bull. Before I came much closer, though, something stirred in the twilight by the roadside, and the white shape of that pit bull, tense and waiting, became clear. I couldn’t pass it, it knew now that I was terrified and would probably try to bite me. In the growing darkness, I stopped in the road, far enough away that the dog didn’t bark. I was stuck.

Coming up the road behind me, I heard an unfamiliar sound. The clopping of heels on asphalt, a jangling of reins. A Mennonite farmer was steering his wagon up the road, and I made a quick decision: sticking out my thumb, I asked the man for a ride. We shared no language, but the thumb is a universal symbol, and he slowed to let me hop on the back, with a few bundles of hay. The pit bull stood sentient in front of his yard, watching us pass but not barking, and once we had gone around the bend in the road I hopped off the wagon, and ran off ahead into the night, faster than the Mennonite’s old horse. I’m sure I was the smelliest archeologist at dinner that night.

Soft sweet Novosibirsk

Does the world need another break-down of the Trans-Siberian trip? As I journey these mystical tracks into and out of Siberia, I feel grateful to all of the bloggers who informed our planning of this part of our trip. The level of detail and analysis that went into their travel accounts is something I am not very good at and not interested in replicating. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of information out there vis-a-vis the Trans-Siberian railroad, enough that, for us, it has been an easily planned and (so far…knock on wood) executed trip. I have nothing much to add, besides inspiration.

The next question is: will there be a rainbow in Novosibirsk today?

It is raining (which is why I am writing). From our room on the 18th floor of the Marins Park Hotel, we can look down on trains pulling into the station. In the distant, smoke rises from the chimney of one of the city’s many factories. Down below, cars honk and crackle along the wet asphalt; exhaust-crusted buses groan through the bus stop, and a street cleaning tractor drips liquid from a tank with a glowing yellow triangle on the back. People walk by with umbrellas, leaving our hotel’s lobby, which offers ATM and postal services, as well as a karaoke bar and an erotic club. A rainbow would confirm what I already know about this large city in the middle of Siberia: I really like it.

Feeling this way about Novosibirsk is enlightening. Having traveled through so many cities in such quick succession, I often wonder what makes one city resonate with me where another doesn’t. I wasn’t planning on giving Novosibirsk much of a chance. We lumbered into town off of the train we had been on for 50 hours at 2 am. We fell asleep to the hum of the minibar harmonizing with the Siberian wind whistling through a crack in the window, and woke the next morning feeling cranky and stiff. Still, we ventured out, and I tried to pick a fight with Andres as we bought Ecuadorian bananas at a grocery store (but he deftly avoided my probes).

The day unfolded with one long walk, past monuments and parks. At the Monument to the Heroes of the Revolution, pine needles dropped from the trees, picking up the sun and landing softly in my hair and on my coat. Volunteers raked up the yellow birch leaves that covered the lawns, even as the wind continued to blow them off their branches.

We found ourselves in another park as evening fell. Центральный парк is Novosibirisk’s Central Park, Andres informed me. It was Friday night, and the weather was good. People were out, wearing warm jackets and stockings, dark ivy caps and scarfs, and bright snow suits for the youngest ones. We walked in the small park and enjoyed seeing the big yellow theatre with its name glowing in white on top, and the amusement rides that were almost ready to be closed for the season. The yellow leaves of birch trees gave everything a cheerful evening haze, and as it grew darker children wizzed around on scooters and rollerblades, their lights glowing as they circled around and around.

That was enough for me. Witnessing this simple ability (and desire?) for people to be together, loosely held by a public space, makes Novosibirisk a city that I’ll remember happily and recommend to anyone planing their own trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Still, I haven’t discovered what makes some cities resonate with me while others don’t. I’m beginning to think it goes deeper than sights and experiences…

Kolemenskoye Park

The staircase that led down to the gully was painted red and stood out against the light mist that rose up from the spring. Francine let a woman pass Her on the steps. She wore a brown coat, and a crown of leaves haloed her head. On such a mature woman the look was majestic, if a little unusual, thought Francine. The woman passed with a nod, and walked on to blend into the yellow leaves of the forest.

Kolemenskoye park, in the south of Moscow, had become Francine’s Sunday refuge soon after she moved to the city 6 months ago. The park was carefully maintained and heavily trafficked, but mystery managed to hover around the knobby branches of the apple trees, and near the tombstones of the orthodox church’s overgrown cemetery. The public orchards reminded Francine of her family’s fruit grove back home in Minnesota, where she used to spend days wandering along the shore of their small pond. In Kolemenskoye Park, the trees were tied with colorful ribbons. Once she had seen a man, bare chested, anointing himself with the water from the spring. And now there was this woman, dressed as the Queen on the Forest with her crown of leaves. As soothing as the park was, it was also full of reminders that she was far from home.

At the bottom of the staircase, the sound of the spring was loud. It’s path had been guided in some places with smooth round stones. But the rocks were eroding and the stream bed spread, matting the soft grasses into mud. The mist blew off of the stream, shifting into the banks of purple foxgloves and becoming thicker and heavier, and impenetrable to the eye.

Francine was alone here. Over by the bridge, where she had once seen the bare chested man ritualizing in the water, there was nothing but the morphing shadows of mist. It muffled every sound but the popping stream. There was a sudden small explosion by Francine’s arm as one of the foxglove’s seedpods popped, launching the ripe seeds against her bare skin. She brushed her hand over the plant and more seedpods sprang open. It was a miniature fireworks display, fit for a fairy, and Francine remembered how she and her sister used to play with the flowers they found around the orchard, pretending that they were dresses. Francine wondered if her sister’s daughter was old enough to play fairy games. She tried to calculate how many years had passed since they had last spoken, but with a brush of her hand dismissed that line thinking. Seeds sprang out of their pods and scattered over the mud at her feet, and Francine remembered again why she had come down to the gully.