It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and everything in sight was bathed in the brilliant, blazing light of an Arabian Peninsula sun. I had my sunglasses on and still felt the need to hold up a hand to shield my eyes from the glare. Around me stood men buying fresh produce, men selling khat for camel feed, men chatting amiably in long white dishdashas with colorful kumas perched atop their heads. I was standing in a souk in Ibra, Oman—the lone female and the lone foreigner—surrounded by Omani men going about their morning business in a market scene so customary to them it surely felt banal. Little here seemed ordinary to me, though, and I was savoring every second. I was the Other, the outsider, the ferenji, and my senses were heightened in anticipation of the unfamiliar, my eyes wide open to novelty. Situated somewhere between the dunes of the Wahiba Sands desert and the mountains of the al Hajar range, Ibra is an old city in a very old part of the world. Not for the first time, nor surely the last, I found myself wondering how did I get here?
“Let’s go somewhere. We need an adventure,” a dear friend once said to me. We were sitting on the couch in my Denver, Colorado apartment, digesting Thai food and drinking wine. I had just earned a Master’s degree; Nicole was slated to begin medical school in the fall. We were both feeling equally free and adrift and antsy at that particular moment of our lives. Let’s go somewhere exotic. Somewhere far away. Somewhere where we could lose ourselves for a few weeks and forget our respective realities. Let’s go on an adventure—that’s what was said, but the subtext was so much greater than that statement. It took us five minutes of naming destinations—Turkey, the desert (but which desert?), somewhere beautiful in Europe—to settle on a trip so vast it would feel more like three trips in one: The Trans-Mongolian Railway. Rather than end in Vladivostok, the traditional terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, we would switch trains in Irkutsk and venture through Mongolia to our ultimate destination, Beijing. The distance from St. Petersburg, Russia to Beijing, China via train is approximately 6,000 miles. Eight time zones are crossed en route. We would begin our trip in Europe, end in Asia, and circumnavigate the globe before it was all said and done.
“Let’s go somewhere,” Nicole said. And so we went around the world.
For a detailed summary of the St. Petersburg to Beijing via the Trans-Mongolian Railway itinerary, see the full post in the Travel Itineraries section.
As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, Laos, hundreds of Buddhist monks depart their various temples and walk in a single file procession down city streets collecting alms. This daily ritual, dating back to the 14th century, plays out today largely in the same way it has for 800 years—as a silent and spiritual river of orange moving through the still, heavy air of an early morning along the Mekong River.
Charmingly authentic, Sala Lodges in Siem Reap, Cambodia isn’t so much a hotel as it is a collection of Khmer homes—and while you’re there, it’s your home. The Temples of Angkor, named the best tourist attraction on the planet by Lonely Planet in 2015, are only a few miles away. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon along with the markets of Siem Reap and the rice paddy-speckled landscape of rural Cambodia are literally outside your front door. But with a house of your own so perfectly representative of rural Khmer life and with a staff so impossibly attentive and kind, the question becomes not where to go for the day but rather how you’re going to compel yourself to leave this personal paradise.