Around the World in 30 Days – More Ulan Bator

A couple more stories

One day, a fellow came to our building and painted the stairway down to the outer door. It’s the only way to get in or out. He painted the walls of the hallway. He painted the handrail.

Then, he painted the steps! It looked great and he left after a good days work.

I came out into the hallway and slid on the first step that was covered in a fresh coat of vivid green. I couldn’t touch the handrail or the wall which were painted as well. One was yellow and the other orange. I tiptoed down to the street as carefully as I could.

As I walked out on the street, I left a set of single green footprints on the sidewalk.

Later, I asked the lady, who runs the place about it since her entry rug was now covered in green footprints.

She only said, “He should have only painted every other step.”


As a lifelong fan of the Beatles, I found their popularity in Ulan Bator a little mysterious since they were big in the sixties and seventies. In a restaurant, you often hear their music.

It came about like this: western music was decadent (and they hadn’t even heard rap music yet). So all western music was unsuitable for listening and forbidden. You might listen in secret if you could get it at all.

In 1993, Mongolia broke free from the Soviet influence. Even Ghenggis Khan was out of favor with the Soviets. Now Ghenggis Khan is big in Mongolia. You land at the Ghenggis Khan airport and can stay at the Great Khan Hotel and drink Ghenggis Khan vodka and wash it down with Ghenggis Khan beer as as you plan your trips to the various Ghenggis Khan statutes, all of which are enormous.

As a tribute to the Beatles, a statue was placed in front of the State Department Store in 2008. That may not sound like a great honor, but it is. Everyone goes to the State Department Store. You have to. When you ask about an item you can’t find the smaller stores, they say this:

“Have you tried the State Department Store?”

Nine times out of ten, you will find it there. This store is also a landmark for finding your way around town.

“It’s near the State Department Store.” That settles it. No more directions.

If you don’t know where the State Department Store is, you will soon find out.


One night at the local pub, this Irish guy wove a story of how he was training dolphins for the Mongolian Navy. I had made the mistake of asking him what he does here in Mongolia, a land-locked country. I tried to trip him up but he had an answer for every question I threw at him.

Me: But there is no ocean here.
Him: These are freshwater dolphins.

Me: But the river is dried up right now.
Him: That’s why we have them in big aquarium tanks.

Me: If you really swim with the dolphins, why aren’t your fingertips wrinkled?
Him: I wear special gloves during the training.

Me: But there is no Mongolian Navy!
Him: This is a highly classified project and I really can’t discuss the Mongolian Navy status at this time. In fact, I’ve said too much already.

He never even paused before answering and what he had to drink was plenty!

He was yanking my chain so I said, “I stepped over drunken Irishmen all through Europe to get here.”

He replied, “That’s as it should be.”


Around the World in 30 Days – Ulan Bator

Coolest Capital

More Mongolia

Everything I will tell you is what I’ve seen with my own eyes. I spent a year here in 2008. This place is like the Wild West with cell phones. The chief thing you notice is how dirty and how clean it is. It’s dirty because the desert tosses all kinds of dirt into the city daily, sometimes with a sandstorm. But it is also very clean in this chilly capital. Why? Because women are always cleaning.

If the women didn’t keep cleaning everyday, I think the whole city would be covered over in two weeks. Anytime I went into a men’s room, there was a woman cleaning. She ignores you and you have learn to ignore her because she’s not gonna leave. And the people are clean.

They have to be clean. Three days without bathing and no one can recognize you.


Everything is either easy or impossible to find. There are only two main streets and most things are on one of them. And there are a few landmarks that everyone knows.

I looked for this spa someone told me was great. It was great but it took me five hours before I found it. I would not give up. When I did find it, it was worth it. There are five rooms of different temperature. Some have the walls covered with beautiful stones. Whole families come and hang out here in the t-shirts and shorts that are provided for the guests.


Getting on the internet is easy. They have internet cafes. Not much cafe but a lot of internet. And they are open 24 hours and cost maybe a dollar an hour.

There is a downside though. You may be near young boys who yell to each other while playing video games. Do not sit between two yellers. Then there are mothers talking Skype to their sons in Korea where they are trying to make some money. They also yell as if Korea is too far away to talk quietly.

Also, watch out for well dressed foreign guys who are Mormon and are way too glad to talk to you.


Walking down the street in this sunny place is sometimes challenging. People toss banana peels over their shoulder. There are also many manhole-like openings you can fall in. The covers are who knows where.

You read that the country has a small population but they all seem to be here in the capital, Ulan Bator. But the upside is that you can get food and shelter for reasonable prices.

I stayed in a family-run guesthouse that treated me like a family member for $14 a night. We sat watching Mongolian idol one night. I don’t know what the judges are saying so I watch the face of the contestant. They nod soberly but the singing can be really good and sometimes in English. I think that gets them extra points.

All Mongolians sing. It’s pretty much required here. We had group sing on the tour bus. And if you want to be in the vodka drinking ritual, you must sing holding your drink in front of you. If you really can’t sing at all, you start a song that everyone knows and they join in and drown you out.

More Mongolia


Around the World in 30 Days – Leaving Russia

Border Crossing by Bus

Ulan Bator, Mongolia is next

As much as I liked Ulan Ude, I wanted to get down to Mongolia and see my friends so I took leave of the city and headed for the border. But not before taking some advice I would regret.

“Why take train? Bus is cheaper.”

I forgot how tough these people are. The bus may be nothing to them but they are used to suffering. If fact, there has been so much suffering in the history of Siberia that a hard life seems easy. Anyway, don’t take a long bus ride in Asia unless you are prepared for some suffering.


But the good part was: the bus riding torture stops for a while when you get a dose of Russian border crossing suffering. I had about four documents stuffed in my passport and hoped I had them in order.


As you approach the border, uniformed people keep stopping your bus, boarding, and checking your passport. I lost count of how many stops we made. But finally you get to the actual border. Your bus is in a line of vehicles that inch along. Then you get off and line up in person.

Mongolians don’t care much for lining up and some new ones kept getting ahead of our group until a Russian lost his temper and said something in a stern, no nonsense command. He may have been an old military guy. Anyway, there was no line cutting after that and we moved on.


You go through many buildings and climb up and down many steps and finally you see a guy with a stamp in his hand. It sounds like a happy explosion as he slams it down on the passports. You almost tremble with anticipation of your own stamp. But you don’t want to tremble too much since that might get you into trouble, so you stand still hoping you look bored with the process. When the stamp comes down, you feel you can begin your life again. You get back on your bus and the bus suffering doesn’t seem so bad anymore.


The Mongolian side of things seems rather easy after the Russians although I had some trouble with a dirty lad that wanted something from me. I kept a close eye on him as he tried to find a way behind me.

Finally, I turned and faced him. He really had nothing to lose so he didn’t move and I didn’t move and we stared at each other for a while like a couple of dogs that don’t want to fight but don’t want to quit either. The tension was broken as the bus driver had us board and I scampered off to my seat.

Next stop: Ulan Bator, And only six hours away!

Ulan Bator, Mongolia is next


Around the World in 30 Days – Ulan Ude

Southern Siberian at Last

Border Crossing is next


Not long after passing Lake Baikal, we arrived in Ulan Ude in southern Siberia. A former student met me at the train station and, boy, was I glad to see her. This was the first person I knew since I entered Russia. She was eight months pregnant! These Siberians are tough. I was on the way to a hotel with an interpreter, this would be a snap, I thought. But nothing is easy in Russia except getting in trouble.


The lady at the desk said 1200 rubles for a room. I had read 900 on-line and this was a lot more. It had said there was a travel agent in the hotel that would help negotiate better price. I went to look for them. I found the office but there was only a girl who said she started two days ago. While I was getting nowhere with her, my friend came and said the lady had lowered it to 1000 and I should take it. I persisted with the travel agent girl to find out if this was a good price.

“I’ve only been here two days,” she repeated.

I went back to the desk clerk.

I said, “OK, 1000.”

She said, “1100.” I said, “What happened to the 1000?”

She said, “You took too long deciding.”

I paid the 1100 and headed up to see what it bought me.


The hotel was quite plain in every way and the room was OK and the bathroom was almost OK. My friend left and we agreed to to meet later for dinner. The reason the bathroom was almost OK is that it was tricky to get a decent shower and the toilet was a bit mysterious looking but functional.


I would like to tell you how wonderful Ulan Ude is but I was so glad to have some help and be clean again, my experience was better than the reality of the place. My friend brought her friend to dinner and left her to show me around the city. Again, my friend and former student was eight months pregnant and we walked everywhere around the city. I was glad to let her go get some rest.

It’s a small, quiet, reasonable clean city. It’s claim to fame is a giant head of Lenin in the main square. After that, the rest is pretty tame. I was so glad to be on solid ground and all in one piece, I was mildly euphoric.


The next day, we went to the museum where the friend of my friend’s mother worked. I can hardly remember the museum, which was interesting as any museum is, but I won’t forget our guide. She was a tall blonde that spoke like a robot but what a robot! I asked some questions to check if she was real. She was.

You have to understand something about the Asia past of Russia. Most the people look Asian. I mean a version of Asian which is striking. High cheekbones, golden skin, and a beautiful sturdiness about them make them the most beautiful Asians I’ve ever seen. And I have seen quite a few. But when you see a blonde, blue-eyed Russian in the middle of all this exotic beauty, it catches you by surprise. There are the Asian beauties all around and then this European beauty shows up and it’s just too much, really.


I decided to stay another night but only if I could get a lower price for my room. I went boldly to the desk but it was another woman than before. I told her that I would only remain in their hotel if I could get a decent price for my decent room.

“You want telephona?”

“Nyet!” I answered, impressing her with my command of the Russian language.

“You want telewision?”

“Nyet!” I said again.

“Okay, 700 rubles.”

Stunned, I took the new key from her and headed for the elevator. These keys, by the way, are attached to a metal piece the size and weight of a doorknob. You could kill somebody with one.

“See woman on floor for change room,” she said to my back.

I got to my cheaper room and looked around. It looked exactly the same as the other one. It had a telephone and a TV. I sat on the bed and thought, this makes it 900 rubles a night. I had a slight uneasiness because it seemed too easy which added to the puzzle of the rooms being exactly the same. I unpacked a few things and went for the bathroom. It, too, was exactly like the other bathroom and the hot water was just as hard to coax out.

Border Crossing is next


Around the World in 30 Days – Traveling on the Trans-Siberian

Life on the Train

Ulan Ude, Southern Siberian is next

I was mad about being in third-class but quickly got over it. My five fellow travelers were great. We shared food and tea. If I wanted something more to eat, I could go down to the food car and try my skill with the lady who runs it.

My first breakfast cost me about $20. It was good but it wasn’t twenty dollars worth of good. I met a couple from England that were on a pre-paid tour. They spent close to fifty at their first meal. The worst part for them was that meals were included. The lady did deduct their food allowance when this was discovered but they had way more food than they could eat.

There are several other ways to eat if price is important to you. You can bring stuff as most Russians do. You can buy stuff at a stop. If you’re desperate, you can buy from the lady who runs your car. You can easily get some snacks from her and some noodle soup. You won’t starve on the train. Noodle soup and tea will sustain you at a tiny price.

I used all the options over the four days I was on the train. I went back to the food car for coffee after a breakfast in my car one morning. That couldn’t cost much, right? I sat with my English train friends and ordered coffee.

The lady said, “Milk?”

I said, “Yes.”

She brought me black coffee and a full glass of milk. The milk cost more than the coffee. It’s no use fighting since she has the only game in town. I did finally get off cheap one evening when I ordered a beer. I repeated the price and she repeated it back. I felt some satisfaction drinking my three dollar bottle of beer. No overcharge. Ha!


The worst part and the best part came about the third night. This big quiet fellow sat and looked out the window all day but snored at night like lumberjacks with a two-man saw on a hardwood tree. I had a mp3 player but even with my earpieces in, it was still in the background.

Unable to sleep, I saw someone else awake sitting on the lower bunk and went down and sat next to them. She had got on the train after dark.

“My name is Lee,” I said.

“My name Veronika.”

That was all the English I was going to get out of her.

She had a phone so I brought up some pictures she had on it. There were pictures of many girls together. I realized it was a beauty contest. She pointed to a tiny picture of herself among the contestants. I don’t think she won the contest but some Russian girls are really beautiful. I loaned her my spare earplugs and went back to my bunk and music.

When I woke up, she was gone. I never got a good look at her in the dark. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or not. My earplugs were on the table with a one-word note, ‘Thanks’.


A guy from England was on this trip. He had dreamed of this for 30 years. His wife and adult daughter bought him this tour for his birthday. He said after he opened the card which explained the gift, he went in his office and wept. We had some time to talk over the four days. His lovely wife asked me if the train had a window at the end car. She wanted to take a picture of where we had been, I guess. Yeah, we did. I was in the last car, so I knew.

On the last day, she came down from first-class to take her photo. I was wearing pajama bottoms, a T-shirt and flip-flops. I hadn’t shaved or bathed for days. I was eating some noodle soup with a tiny, white plastic fork. I had gone native.

She said, “Lee?”

I said, “Yes, these are my people.”

She took her picture and left. I wonder if she told her husband something should be done, like more humane treatment for third-class travelers.


The snoring Russian bear spoke his first word as he looked out the window on day four, “Baikal.” We had crossed into the Asian part of Russia at the Ural mountains. This had been a big discussion in my car when we were looking at my map of Russia.

Looking down on the frozen lake was amazing. And the mountains on the right were snow covered with a haze of a light snow. He had spoken but I was speechless. The train followed the edge of the lake, twisting around so you could see different views. It was a hypnotic experience. We were at the southern tip and nearing my destination of Ulan Ude.

The big Russian began to talk to his fellow passengers. I could tell that he was telling stories and several were listening closely. I asked someone who could speak a little English what he was talking about.

“Hunting stories.”

They say this is the most fresh water in one place on earth. More than all of the Great Lakes in Michigan, where I’m from. Maybe the Great Lakes look bigger on a satellite map but Baikal is really deep, they say.

your intrepid reporter,

Ulan Ude, Southern Siberian is next


Around the World in 30 Days – Getting on the Trans-Siberian


Traveling on the Trans-Siberian

This was the inspiration of my trip: riding the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia. Six days travel gets you from Moscow to Vladivostok on the east coast. I get off just past Lake Baikal in lower Siberia. You can pass through seven time zones. Just four days for me. Four days?

The Trans-Siberian Railway changed Russia. Millions of people and a lot of stuff has moved across Russia on this line. Now, it attracts foreign tourists like me.

I told you I had a hard time buying a ticket in Moscow (three hours of various lines at various railway stations). The Russian word for second class and third class are similar. I ended up in third-class. I didn’t know there was a third-class on that train!

Third-class means six people with an open walkway through your cabin. I expected a four-bunk cabin with a door that closes on the hall but that is second-class.


Although I spoke few Russian words and my fellow passengers spoke little English, we got along well. We shared food and tea and sat around a small table to eat lunch. I looked at people doing crossword puzzles using Cyrillic letters.

A conversation would go like this:
“My name is Veronika.”
“My name is Lee.”

I spent a lot of time reading Dostoyevsky. The book was called ‘The Idiot’. That’s how I felt when I realized that I was riding in the caboose.


You might think such a trip would be boring but it isn’t. If you get tired, you can catch a nap on an upper bunk. If you want some exercise, you can walk the length of the train which involves opening heavy doors between the cars. You can stop between cars and do stretching stuff. You can also find your way to the food car and eat. Be careful about this because the staff are bound to charge high prices to foreigners. Real Russians eat simple meals in their cars.


More to come.

your intrepid reporter,

Traveling on the Trans-Siberian

Around the World in 30 Days – Reflections on St Pete


St Petersburg Thoughts

On the Trans-Siberian

When I bought my train ticket in Helsinki to come here to St Petersburg I asked if there was a bus. No bus. I asked if there was a cheaper train. No. Just the new expensive one. OK.

Anyway, the train ride was really good and I arrived here with great expectations. But this is Russia so things are different than Europe. Now let me say that I loved being in St Petersburg, loved every minute, but this was my first experience in Russia where they say this when things don’t make sense: It’s Russia!

First, I wanted to check in and get my official visa verification. I found the place on the fifth floor. No elevator. I’m dragging my luggage up the dark stairs. I find the small office with a young lady ready to help. She can check me in and I can pick up my document tomorrow. 900 rubles. Now I had paid about $250 already to get the Russian visa. This is over $30. I tell her I only have 700, which is true.
Is special discount today, she says, only 700 rubles. She takes all my Russian money.

Now to find my hostel. I’m on the right street but the numbers don’t make much sense. I finally find what might be the right door but it’s locked. It pops open and some people come out so I go in. I find the door that may be the right one, up on the second floor.

No one answers but some girls are going into the room next door. “Is this a hostel?” “Yes, hostel.”
They pound on the door and I see a shadow through the crack. The door opens. A Russian woman allows me entry. She seems to be the only one there and does not speak English.

It does look like a hostel as I look around. The lady offers me some tea in the kitchen. I go through the place and find various rooms with numbers on them. The lady comes up to me and hands me a bunch of keys.

I try them on the doors and find rooms with luggage and stuff. On the fourth try – an empty one! I leave my luggage and a note for the desk clerk (whoever they might be). I keep the key to that room and return the others to the lady. I don’t think she is sober but she was very helpful.

I head out to find some money and food.

Later, when I return, I am interrogated by the guy who runs the place.
Did you have reservation? No.
Who let you in? a lady
Was she drunk? Possibly.
Yeah, she lives here in a room and drinks a lot.
Okay, 1200 rubles (maybe $42)
I saw a lower price on the website.
How much? 700 I say.
Website is out of date.
I just look at him.
Okay, 1000 but don’t tell anyone.
Got it.
I give him the money and he disappears into one of the rooms.
I never saw him again.


I am looking for an atm as I figure out how many rubles to withdraw for my train ticket. I find one in the crowded, narrow entrance to a bank. A small group is in the tiny entrance area to use the atm. We are all bunched in and people who want to enter or exit the bank must push through our group. Eventually someone points at me. My turn. I jump to the machine and hope that it will speak English. It does but it offers me only certain amounts in rubles. There is no “other amount”! One amount is too low. The next is too high. The crowd is watching me: a deer in the headlights. I say to the crowd, “It doesn’t say what I want!” I press a button – grab some cash – and bolt into the street.


My plan to go through Moscow quickly and try to get on with my train travel without staying over night. I will be using the train to sleep in as well as transportation starting tomorrow. My trip from Moscow across Russia will take four days. This is where the adventure really begins.

your intrepid reporter,

On the Trans-Siberian


Around the World in 30 Days – Moscow


Getting on the Trans-Siberian

Moscow is the capital of Russia. There’s a lot of people here, over 11 million. And it’s a little intimidating.

Moscow is on the Moskva River. It goes back to the medieval times and, later, the Tsar hung out here. But now, Moscow has the Kremlin, an ancient fortress where the Russian President lives. It does not look welcoming. The subway ride down here was intimidating with it’s long escalators and marble walls and don’t forget the chandeliers. I thought I was descending into the third layer of hell at one point.

The Moscow Metro is recognized as one of the city’s landmarks due to the fantastic architecture, a landmark underground. Anyway, it was so overwhelming that when I got off at Red Square, I decided to stay there.


I was told to look ‘like a bum’ when in Russia so no one would rob me. But I may have overdone it, since people started giving me things.

This is a view across Red Square in Moscow. I looked at this building for about an hour and was still amazed.


I got my train ticket to Siberia. This took about three hours. No one spoke English and I was even shooed away from one window and called a ‘tourist’!

After going to three different railway stations and many rooms that sell tickets, I finally got a break. A person who spoke English and they took my credit card to pay. It was $200 not $500, like I thought it would be. I just hope they don’t make me shovel coal into the engine or something.

So here I am in Red Square and my plans to walk around to all these famous sites has faded. Also, this is an expensive place.

I think I’ll just go to the train station, that is if I can remember which one and wait there. On to Siberia!


I try to phone my wife using a computer. It didn’t work correctly and the error messages come up in Russian. I try Skype but that doesn’t get me through to the US. I try email and get through. Oh, well, no live chatting today.


People keep giving me documents and telling me not to lose them. “Just keep it in your passport,” they smile and say. I have four important documents stuffed in my passport and one of them is really important to show when I want to leave Russia. I can’t read any of them so I’m not sure which one that is.

I’ll let you know if I ever am ever allowed to leave.

your intrepid reporter,

Getting on the Trans-Siberian


Around the World in 30 Days – St Petersburg

St Petersburg

More on St Petersburg

Moscow, Russia is next

This former capital of Russia was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. That’s not so long ago and it is a cosmopolitan city full of beautiful people. I just started walking along Nevsky Prospect which is the main street. I was so amazed by everything that I kept on until I got to the river where the castle is and went back up the street. I think this city is where they grow the models you see in all the magazines.


It is expensive here but it lives up to whatever you’ve heard about it. Russians just refer to it as ‘Peter’. The best time to visit is in June during the White Nights when it never quite gets dark and people walk around until very late enjoying all St Petersburg has to offer.


After being awed by the city I spent the next day preparing for Moscow. It was frustrating. I went to the train station and tried to get a ticket for the Trans-Siberian that goes from Moscow through Russia eastward. The girl couldn’t speak English but got a supervisor who could. Anyway, it all took a very long time. In the end, they said my card wouldn’t work and I needed to pay cash.

What happened? I don’t know but it all took a long, long time. There was a girl crying and yelling at another ticket window across the room. I think I know why. I felt the same way. I’ll try again in Moscow.


Tsar Peter had St Petersburg cut out of miles of forest in 1720. Pushkin, Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nijinsky and Dostoevsky walked this town though not all at the same time.

Who was Alexander Nevsky anyway? The guy who defeated the Swedes and Germans in the 13th century. He was buried in the monastery named after him by Peter the Great. He named the main street after him and it hasn’t changed much since the Revolution.

Alexander Pushkin ate his last meal on this street before his fatal duel in 1837. Chernyshevsky, Krylov, Belinsky and Dostoyevsky also drank coffee and ate blini while composing their works.

Saint Petersburg’s main shops and businesses are all here and you can eat and drink at the many restaurants, cafes and bars. But stepping into a side-street could save you money. Even a cafeteria can be expensive on Nevsky Prospekt.

Nevsky Prospekt’s architecture rivals Amsterdam, Rome and Venice. Across the Moika river, you see the Stroganoff Palace. This is where the internationally known beef dish was created in 1890 by the chef of Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov as he entertained foreign dignitaries.


Travel the bridge over the Fontanka river and you see the four bronze sculptures of men taming wild horses by Baron Peter von Klodt. These horse tamers from 1850 were removed during World War II and buried underground near Anichkov Palace for their safety. They reappeared above ground in 2000 fully restored.

It is now over 300 years since Peter the Great declared that the old Finnish village by the Neva was going to be the new capital of Russia. The 300th anniversary involved a hundred million dollar makeover. Is it a coincidence that Vladimir Putin is a native?

your intrepid reporter,

More on St Petersburg

Moscow, Russia is next


Around the World in 30 Days – Helsinki


St Petersburg, Russia is next

On the edge of Europe, the Helsinki harbor is beautiful. There are still a few piles of snow in this northern capital. And the harbor is still frozen around the edges.

I came across from Tallinn on a ferry, a beautiful boat, on a sunny afternoon. It was pretty full and I finally found a place to sit near the children’s area. All the children are blonde, you know. They aren’t really but there is such a high percentage of blonde children that it seems like they all are blond.


They are sweeping up the little stones they use to make the ice and snow less slippery during the winter.

Maybe it was just where I went but drinking is a great part of life here. I was introduced to a strong drink made with tar. Now, in America, we use tar for the roads and I was familiar with the smell. But it was explained to me that it was an organic liquid much like resin or sap. It really tasted good and did me no harm. It joined the beer inside me and was a great way to remember this great city.

your intrepid reporter,

St Petersburg, Russia is next