Eastern Dream: The ferry between Vladivostok and Sakaiminato

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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.

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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.

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Step 2) E-mail Olga (dbsferry@dbsferry.com) 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.

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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!

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Stir-Crazy

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.

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…

Moscow vs. St. Petersburg?

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Over the past two months, Andrés and I have passed though many cities and towns. We’ve been to lots of churches, lounged at several beaches, and eaten dozens of bowls of phô (and we haven’t even made it to Vietnam yet!). It isn’t difficult to enjoy it all, but to really relish the experiences we’re having, I find myself craving a hierarchy.

Several times a day I ask Andres, “Which did you like better…” He knows that my brain has already arranged our experiences in an elaborate matrix, raking our daily toils based on their sensory and emotional appeal. And though I like to spend time detailing pros and cons of every piece of pierogi I try, what I most enjoy is deciding that, for no particular reason at all, I just prefer one experience over the other.

And so, acknowledging that there is an age-old rivalry between the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and recognizing that I’m only spending a few days in each city, I’m going to make the following bold statement: I love Moscow, and I just liked St. Petersburg. Something about these two cities begs a comparison. And I have fabricated reasons for my preference!

Moscow is dirtier. What can I say: I left Boston for New York. I like a dirty city. Based on my internet research, there is actually evidence that points to Moscow being a cleaner city than St. Petersburg. However, my short autumnal impressions are that Moscow has just a little more muck in the subway, and a little more paper plastered to the walls of buildings. It just comes across as a little more ramshackle, and that’s the way I like it.

Moscow is more populous, and so the sidewalks are healthily lively. In St. Petersburg, I felt rather alone walking around the neighborhood south of the Mariinsky theatre. I’m going to hide my third claim, that Moscow is friendlier, in this paragraph, because I think the two are related. With 12.19 million fellow residents, maybe Muscovites don’t have time to put on airs. If we use both cities’ extensive metro systems as microcosms of the cities themselves, I have noted more eye contact, more friendly gestures, and much more assistance here [in the Moscow subway, the veins of the city] than there [in St. Petersburg’s].

The never ending metro escalators.

Moscow has the Red Square. I wasn’t prepared for the immense beauty of this place. We walked over on a rainy night and had it practically to ourselves. Thrilling. (We also went during the day to see Lenin’s embalmed body, but I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular rivalry, so I’ll leave that to a different rumination.)

I just like it more. We walked off the train and onto the streets and I knew it: Moscow is one of my kindred cities. I have traveled enough to recognize the feeling I get in one of these places: I’m relaxed, I’m curious, I am excited to hit the streets. I’m delighted by the ordinary quirks that every place has: Green balloons around a McDonald’s entrance? How wonderful!

Maybe in another post I’ll explore my quack theory about energy vibrations causing certain cities to resonate with certain people ( :D). For now, I’ll just throw my less-than-two-cents into the bucket: I really like Moscow.

Visiting an Illusion

I came to know a city last week that I have dreamed about for years. St. Petersburg, in my imagination, was a city of golden domes and glossy nesting dolls. Of ballet and vodka and rosy cheeks. The name itself is regal, and I imagined St. Petersburg as the twinkling setting of every fairy tale I loved as a child.

St. Petersburg was our entrance to Russia. Russia, a shadowy mammoth of a country, and St. Petersburg its glittering eye, or a gleaming tooth that shows through a smile. Except that smiles don’t come very easily here, I soon discovered. At the Finlyandski train station, we used apps and the Cyrillic alphabet to buy metro tickets and join the stream of Peterburgstys descending deep into the belly of the city on a long escalator. The machine, a conveyor belt for humans, felt solidly made under my feet, but old. A uniformed woman at the bottom sat in a small glass box, watching the faces of rush hour gliding up and down. So many faces! Where did they go once we made it to the street?

I didn’t know that St. Petersburg is full of canals. The canals are spanned by low bridges. The sidewalks are made of large chunks of smooth rock. From any bridge, any sidewalk, I could look up and see the gold painted domes of a cathedral looming over the low blocks of buildings. In early October, the parks are still green. The plazas are monumental. The obelisks are tall. The traffic is bad. St. Petersburg is grand and golden against the cloudy sky, not the enchanted city I had imagined. It’s starker, more solemn, and no longer a figment of my imagination.

Vøringfossen

My model and I took a hike in Norway. The tourist brochure lured us city folk in by describing the walk to Vøringfossen as being a ideal for families, an easy ~4 kilometers out and back, with views of the waterfalls from below. Andrés only wears hiking boots so he was naturally prepared. I somehow believed that one pair of white sneakers would get me through 5 months of traveling. This hike put that fashion choice to the test.

The glaze of a light, constant, rain made the many rock slides we hiked over very slippery. Where there weren’t rocks, there was mud, and the 1000 ft decent into the river valley required all of our limbs and vigilance. We made it, and without any major injury to our bodies or our shoes. After witnessing the falls from below, we hiked back to the car and drove up to the top of the mountain, where we could watch the river valley winding towards the fjord in its new autumn yellows.

For those traveling to the Hardanger region of Norway, this hike is worth a try. As usual, wear your sturdiest shoes (my white Reebocks held up ok) and wear a few layers: temperatures here plummet when the sun goes behind a cloud.

Parking is located on the side of a short stretch of road between tunnels: if you are traveling from Eidfjord, park at the information turnoff directly after leaving the Mabøtunnelen to the right, before the road enters another circular tunnel. There you will see a sign for the path to Vøringfossen. Follow the road for about a quarter mile: it goes under the highway and along the mountainside until a path cuts down to the right into the forest. From here, you will be heading mostly downwards over muddy and rocky paths until you reach the suspension bridge. Walk a little farther and the mist of the impressive waterfall will be soaking your clothes.

3 weeks in Berlin: 15 little things I’ve learned

We’ve spent 3 weeks in Berlin, exploring and relaxing and imagining what it would be like to live here. Inevitably, my initial impressions have changed so dramatically that I can hardly remember what I was thinking two weeks ago, when I was a little uneasy. Here is some of the essential information I’ve picked up.

1) You cannot set your watch to a Berlin train, nor can you count on the buses following their assigned route.

2) Bicycles own the road, the sidewalk, and anything else they want. Do not try to defy a bicycle: they will run you over with a chirpy bell and a “danke shoen!”

3) You can get pretty far here speaking English and Spanish. Some say even farther if you speak German!

4) Eis is the word for ice cream. Beyond that, you’re on your own at the ice-cream store. With only color as my flavor guide, I’ve ended up trying some unusual ones: yogurt-currantberry, cardamom-passionfruit, apricot-something and blueberry marshmallow, to name a few. All were delish.

5) Despite the profusion of ice-cream, Berlin is a vegan paradise.

6) There is too much delicious food here to try in a few weeks. For non-vegans, I recommend focusing on bread, döner and ice cream. Currywurst is overrated as far as I’m concerned.

7) German-style breakfast is…amazing.

8) Wasps like sugar, they really like honey, but they go absolutely crazy for mortadella. A crazy wasp is not a pretty sight.

9) If you want to chance a ride on public transportation without a ticket, do so at your own risk: the transportation police don’t always wear uniforms.

10) Not all Riesling is too sweet.

11) The little neighborhoods of shacks that take up blocks here and there are not German shanty-towns. They are little garden communities, or Kleingarten, where city people can rent or buy a remote backyard for growing flowers and food.

12) Sometimes, though, the shacks are part of a squatting community. These communities are loudly visible in many of the Berlin neighborhoods I’ve visited, announcing their anti-capitalist presence in the middle of a city that, by all accounts, is rapidly changing.

13) Wear your ugliest outfit to the club for a good chance of getting in.

14) Contrary to all of my instincts, dimly-lit parks are totally safe in the middle of the night, especially when they are full of strangers drinking and smoking in all of the darkest corners.

15) Surfaces are meant to be covered with spray-paint. The graffiti here is magnificent.

Berlin has taken my calcifying brain and twisted it like a sponge, revealing some challenging ways to live in and share a city. It is confusing to my suspicious mind, but I am impressed by what seems to me a deliberate absence of judgement. Berlin seems to be truly a city of independents, co-existing with a level of harmony that isn’t perfect but really seems to have worked.

Aqua

I was told the Ionian Sea in the south of Albania had clear, blue water.

I found clear, blue water, and white sand and smooth pebbles. The sea was so salty that I floated like an apple, bobbing in the calm water without having to move my limbs at all.

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Thanks Cee for the posting opportunity!

Conformist

There is a bar on every corner. Where there isn’t a bar, there’s a späti, and you can pull your own beer from the fluorescent-lit refrigerators, pay for it, and drink outside on the ground, on the curb, or at the picnic tables the convenient stores here set up outside for just this purpose.

By the canal, groups of people sit on the sidewalk, their bicycles leaning against the bridge railing and their beer growing warm in their hot laps. The canal is full of bicycles. The streets are paved in bottle tops. The picnic tables are plastered with stickers. The walls are covered in graffiti, colorful and layered and meaningful. Everything is meaningful, or seems to be. People here are meaningful. They dress in somber blacks, faded denim, utilitarian pants gathered at the ankles so that they won’t be caught up in the bicycle gears, hair hacked short on one side of the head and left in long, tangled locks on the other. They wear burkas. They wear tracksuits. I catch snippets of a conversation, because English is commonly spoken here. So is Spanish.

“I was destined to end up here.”

“It’s a place for people to come together in meaningful conversation.”

“…e increíblemente, agarró la cabeza del otro y la cortó.”

[wait…what was he talking about?]

I do not understand a word of German, and it embarrasses me. I do, however, understand German crying. I witnessed this at a café. A man looked at his phone and a sob visibly rose in his throat. His face gathered towards its center, and he covered his eyes with his sleeve. When his friend arrived, they hugged, and the friend laughed. The crying man smiled, and the sob escaped his agonized mouth. Maybe I don’t understand this kind of crying.

At the cafe, wasps crawl in and out of the sugar bowls. They investigate my espresso, they fly around my head and with my eyes closed I can feel their wings tickling my eyebrow. At the cafe, men cry, men yell and yelp. Women smoke. Bottles fall and break. Everyone talks. The tables are sticky with sugar and spilt milk. The wasps are everywhere. I cannot fit in, because I don’t know how to communicate. One the other hand, I’ve heard that many Americans who live in Berlin don’t bother to learn German.

I could be a nonconforming American. But I am a conformist, in this nonconforming city.