The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Seven years—I’ve been told that’s the cycle for life crises. Every seven years we change our minds, fall apart, and alter our direction only to be reborn as the same person but one with new perspectives, different priorities, and another set of eyes with which to see the world and our place in it. Initially, I thought the seven-year time frame was too short. Surely I’m not beset by such confusion and change (i.e. falling in and out of love with a man, a profession, and/or a city) so frequently. But as I stare down another impending birthday, now (happily) mired in another “crisis,” I think back to my last crossroads of considerable implication and sure enough, it started roughly seven years ago as graduate school was ending, and I had no definitive idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be.
It was with that frame of mind and during that period of time that a dear friend of mine first proposed taking a trip. We were sitting on my couch in my Denver, Colorado apartment, digesting Thai food and drinking wine. “Let’s go somewhere. We need an adventure,” she said. Nicole was slated to begin medical school in the fall and felt equally as free and adrift in that moment. 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.
7 April: St. Petersburg, Russia (Note: All italicized writing is an excerpt from my travel journal written during the trip)
St. Petersburg—the Venice of the North with its icebergs, broken off somewhere in the Gulf of Finland and now floating silently through the canals that interlace the city; the city of the tsars with its Cyrillic letters that offer me no communication, its giant palaces morphed into museums, its menus filled with meat and so few vegetables, its cold, low-hanging clouds, and its streets thronged with people. This is St. Petersburg to me thus far, this and the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre and impressionist artwork at the Hermitage. It is a city of artistic pleasures, less so culinary ones . . . More St. Petersburg tomorrow. Cathedrals to visit and vegetable markets to peruse and those little nesting dolls to buy.
9 April: On the train between St. Petersburg and Moscow
The distance from St. Petersburg to Moscow is 480 miles. Consider this a preview of the seven days it will take us to travel to Beijing, four and a half of which will comprise the non-stop leg from Moscow to Irkutsk. It feels good to be on a train. It feels good to be moving, productive in a sense, especially after the day we experienced. What began as a desire to get out of St. Petersburg and visit Peterhof devolved into a disastrous journey that left us on the front steps of Catherine the Great’s Palace in Pushkin. We never quite made it into Catherine’s Palace, however, a decision made out of spite and after five hours of riding on public transportation.
Our route bears mentioning. We traveled from Nevsky Prospekt to the South St. Petersburg metro station where we then boarded Bus 342 with the intention of arriving at Catherine’s Palace. We missed the palace stop entirely (who knew that a tsar’s palace would be so subtly marked?), and now frustrated and hungry and back at the South St. Petersburg metro station, we decided to eat lunch at an Azerbaijani restaurant which proved to be our best decision of the day. Following lunch, we made a cocksure return to Bus 342, certain we’d find the palace this time; we didn’t. So we flagged a cab to finally reach Catherine’s Palace. (Note: We had scrapped our initial plan of visiting Peterhof earlier in the day after being told that the exterior fountains and gardens were closed due to April still being considered tourist off-season.) We were indescribably frustrated and fairly irrational by the time we finally arrived late in the afternoon. Workmen were seemingly everywhere, crawling around the palace’s blue and gold exterior as the noise of heavy machinery ricocheted around us. At the ticket counter, we were informed that we would have 15 minutes to visit before the palace closed. Not even stories of the Amber Room’s renowned beauty could compel us to enter now. We were done with Catherine. After five minutes of seething underneath some immense old trees, we left. Of course, our transportation woes continued; two buses refused us entry. We were forced to sprint down the main street of Pushkin in sweat-drenched down jackets (it was an unseasonably warm day) to chase a cab that would take us back to the bus station where a bus would then drive us to the South St. Petersburg metro station which, after a metro ride and a short walk, would lead us home to the Grand Hotel Europe. We did all of that and then waited for three and a half hours in the hotel lobby—we homeless and sweaty vagabonds with our Lonely Planet guides and our Tolstoy and Dostoevsky novels spread before us, eating cocktail nuts and drinking $15 cappuccinos—before we could catch our overnight train to Moscow. Many would deem this a day wasted, but I enjoyed it the most out of our days thus far. It is good sometimes to have absolutely no clue where you are going, or, if you do, to never quite get there.
10 April: Moscow, Russia
Moscow—the name has always inspired some sort of fear in me, images of dark alleyways and KGB hitmen and evil heads of state presiding over the gulag system, a cold city viewed through a black and white prism. My actual experience with Moscow has been quite the opposite—there’s not a cloud in the sky; large boulevards and a sense of openness pervade; Red Square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral on one end and the massive GUM department store and the Kremlin on the other end, is one of the more awe-inspiring urban sites I’ve ever seen. It’s huge and majestic—the sight of Soviet parades and executions during Peter the Great’s reign, now home to a huge mall, smiling families, and captivated tourists. There’s no sense of suffocation, only an awareness of one’s relative diminutive size while standing below the blue and green and red mushroom domes of St. Basil’s. If I was intimidated by or fearful of or indifferent to Moscow before, with its stories of metro bombings carried out by Chechen separtists and its KGB legacy and the dark, ominous history I was made to swallow as a student of American history, I am no longer.
p style=”margin-left:0in; margin-right:0in”>11 April: Moscow, Russia
The Moscow revelry continues. We paid our respects to an embalmed Lenin today, walked around Old Moscow with its venerable onion-domed churches that are often lost amidst towering concrete buildings, traipsed over to Arbat street before our intended path was blocked by a parade of Moscow’s youth walking en masse blowing bubbles and celebrating something—what exactly they were celebrating remains unknown—then we sauntered over to the Moscow River for a new view of the Kremlin before topping off our day with a delicious dinner of Indian food at Maharaja.
Back to Lenin, though—with a bust of Stalin sitting sentinel over his body and lying alongside the graves of other Soviet Premiers and leaders from the days of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—there’s so much history in that room it’s intoxicating. Lenin’s waxy face, his mustache and hairline still perfectly visible, his hands folded neatly over his starched black suit, he who died in 1924 yet appears perfectly . . . modern? Albeit dunked in paraffin wax every 18 months and redressed in a new designer suit.
12 April: Trans-Siberian Railway
And so it begins. From Moscow to Beijing, the first three and a half days of which will be spent in our 1st class cabin on the “Baikal” #10 train. However, it appears to me that 1st class is really just a 2nd class compartment where we bought out two other individuals and thus have four twin beds to ourselves. There’s no shower; our bathroom is shared; we will be living in a room that is 5.5 feet x 8.5 feet at best; and the train attendants speak not a word of English. This is our life. After days of civilization, afternoons of museums, and nights of opulent dinners, we now head into eastern Russia. Goodbye Moscow. Goodbye Coffee Mania with your $10 beers, goodbye Kremlin guards and Kremlin walls and Kremlin armory full of Fabergé treasures and gilded wonders, goodbye city of Range Rovers and men of new money. Hello, Siberia.
13 April: Trans-Siberian Railway
The earth is brown here. Winter is ebbing; the snow is melting; it is most unscenic. With coffee and tea and a strange pasty made of fried cabbage in our bellies, we creep eastward towards Perm and other cities whose names I associate with gulags. From my top bunk looking out the window, I see snowflakes falling on the concrete platform of a small railway stop. We crossed the Volga River in the night and are now somewhere amidst the Urals, unnoticeable from our train compartment . . .
We are now somewhere between Yar and Balezino, and the view out my window is one of small houses and discarded industrial equipment and the barren boughs of trees which stand among patches of melting snow. It is difficult to fathom where we are and where we are going. We are headed to cities that were off-limits to foreigners during the Soviet period: Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk, among others. We are going to dip down close to the border with Kazakhstan while crossing time zone after time zone, but it matters little as we have no place to be other than on this train and no time to worry about other than Moscow time, which continues to dictate our train schedule from thousands of kilometers away.
14 April: Trans-Siberian Railway
The scenery outside remains relatively unchanged despite the distance we have covered. Nothing is green; everything is brown and tan—a thousand and one shades of tan. Time is lost to me. I read; I write; I gaze out the window and think. We sleep well to the sound of the rustle of the train’s interior, the churning of its wheels, the imperceptible rocking and rolling of forward progress. We eat well enough, too. We venture to the dining car for breakfast and dinner but stay in our room for lunch. In the morning there’s potatoes stuffed in fried pastries washed down with coffee and tea; for lunch we eat a handful of walnuts and raisins along with honey or chocolate spread atop bread we picked up days ago at a St. Petersburg market; and dinner consists of rice with either chicken or beef . . .
Stopped in Barabinsk for a locomotive change. We hopped off the train for fresh air and finally it felt cold in the way one would expect the Siberian air to feel. We met our first English-speaking Russian couple of the train trip. They helped us purchase ice cream cones from one of the many women pedaling foodstuffs on the platform, the most interesting of which is a skinny dried fish that looks as though its been handled by one too many pair of hands to be considered safe for consumption. Dinner tonight was a beef Stroganoff that resembled my beef goulash from the previous night in every aspect . . .
When did it become apparent that I wanted to remain living in Denver after grad school? When did I decide that I didn’t want to move back to D.C. or even try to apply to jobs there? Do these things just get decided over time by what one decides to do on a daily basis, rather than in a rash moment of decisive impulse?
15 April: Trans-Siberian Railway
We have moved into a land of snow and timber houses, some of which are painted blue and white and pop out of the dreary landscape in explosions of color. How far do these houses and small communities extend from the railroad tracks? What do these people do? Are they the descendants of serfs or peasants or tribes moved up out of Central Asia?
Every train station we pass through appears the same now. Freight trains are being loaded with cargo; soldiers patrol the area; old women meander about, selling newspapers or dried noodle bowls or cabbage and dumplings made at home which now sit in plastic Tupperware. All the while our stern-faced provodista (carriage attendant) looks on, tapping the undercarriage of the train with a metal rod, her blue overcoat melting into the blue paint of the carriage car that reads “Baikal.”
16 April: Lake Baikal, Russia
Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal is said to be the most touristy of all of the little towns strung out along this unimaginably large lake—the largest freshwater lake in the world. It does not feel touristy. Baikal is frozen, and the ice is said to be at least one meter thick, which explains all of the cars and trucks driving on its surface and the clusters of people walking on a sea of white. The mountain backdrop, a range 60 kilometers away, is gorgeous, and we are in a little paradise of omul kabobs and baked omul (the species of fish endemic to Lake Baikal) and where falling asleep on a real bed that isn’t gently humming to the tune of wheels churning on a railroad track is an indescribable luxury.
We went dog sledding this afternoon. Nicole and I commanded our own dog sleds in Siberia—how ridiculous does that sound? We watched our guide prepare the sled as fifty frantic dogs barked and begged to be attached to their harnesses and then each of us took turns on the course. First, I rode in the bucket seat as the guide issued commands. Then he and I switched spots. I stood atop the rails, gripping the handles, watching the trees pass as the dogs pulled, one after the other grabbing snow to eat as they ran, and I thought: “How refreshingly easy.” There had been no papers to sign, no liabilities to discuss. You just get on and go.
17 April: Trans-Mongolian Railway
Back on another train, this one headed to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We are in a shared compartment with two Swiss roommates on this 26-hour leg of the journey. The Swiss boys have taken the same Moscow to Irkutsk route as us, and they will get off in UB before heading onto Beijing, as well. They said they finished university a few years ago and still study sometimes (when not traveling), a welcome comment since that’s exactly what I am doing . . .
We have entered Mongolia with less than a bang—5.5 hours were spent at the border crossing waiting for engines to be changed and Russian customs officials to check passports and inspect luggage; now we are waiting for the Mongolian authorities to do the same. I have 35,000 Mongolian Tugriks in my possession, equivalent to 35 U.S. dollars, and my dinner consisted of sour cream and onion Lay’s potato chips (Lay’s arguably being the most universal of all foods), a Coca-Cola (inarguably the other universal food), and a watery noodle soup purchased at a small general store in the border town.
20 April: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
There are more Dutch people in Mongolia than there are in the Netherlands. That is my initial impression of this country—that and the arid landscape windswept by cold air, a vast and limitless night sky filled with stars, and nomadic livestock that graze on hillsides and wander among the sporadically placed gers (tents). We arrived yesterday morning in Ulaanbaatar and were quickly ushered away to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park where we were shown the ger that would be our home for the next two days. This circular tent with its four sleigh beds painted in bright orange, blue, and green designs succumbs to the cold easily, but once the wood-burning stove is stoked, the place turns into an inferno.
Upon our arrival at the ger yesterday, we were promptly taken on a hike with four Belgians and seven Dutchmen. With a yak and a yak driver leading the way, we hiked 15 kilometers to a Buddhist monastery built on a mountainside. The highlight of the excursion, however, was popping in to visit the yak driver’s ger where he and his wife live with their daughter and grandson. One circular room functions as their bedroom, kitchen, and living area. Their television is powered by a solar panel outside, and they each have a cell phone. Yet all of their worldly possessions fit inside one tent, and all of their income is derived from selling animal-based products: yak cheese, yak milk, and yak yogurt. The little 10-month-old baby rolling around on the ger floor will begin tending the family’s livestock at 4-years-old. This is the life he was born into—this is a traditional Mongolian family in the 21st century, television-owning and cell phone-wielding while still living in a ger in an isolated valley alongside goats and yaks, offering warm yak milk tea to tourists from Western Europe and the U.S. as they pass through with their cameras and their questions, all minds thinking the same thing: “How do they do this? How do they live so simply?” We view their world through a lens of quaintness, and we hand over 500 Mongolian Tugriks—the equivalent of 50 cents in the U.S. —and continue on our way.
Yesterday’s dinner conversation involved a lengthy, thought-provoking dialogue with our fellow ger camp visitors where topics ranged from Islam and religion in Holland to the nature of linguistic education in Belgium’s secondary schools. How envious I am of their ability to speak flawless English during one conversation before pausing, turning to face someone else, and switching seamlessly into Dutch or French or any number of other languages. The post-dinner festivities continued in the Dutchmen’s ger where the air filled with the smoke of French cigarettes and plans were made to meet in Ulaanbaatar the following evening at Grand Khaan Irish Pub (real name). We have social obligations in Mongolia—how absurd.
22 April: Trans-Mongolian Railway
We are currently south of Choir, Mongolia, home to little girls and boys selling rocks for 1,000 Tugriks (1 USD), a statue of the first Mongolian cosmonaut, and excessive dust. The Gobi Desert is passing by as we make our way southeast to Beijing on this last leg of the journey. Sand creeps through our shut window and begins to collect on the sill. A solitary horse grazes outside on God knows what; all I can see is sand and dust and the skeletons of dead plants.
We left the ger camp yesterday morning for Ulaanbaatar, the sprawling capital of Mongolia, arriving midday to find standstill traffic, heaps of trash and pedestrians darting across streets as drivers screamed and raised their fists in anger. UB is the Wild West incarnate. Foreign investment is streaming in as the country’s mineral riches are being extracted. Spend a few minutes in Grand Chinggis Khaan Square, previously known as Sükhbaatar Square, and you’ll see the juxtaposition of 21st century Mongolia unfurl before you. In one direction your eyes will rest on a squat statue of Genghis Khan. In another direction you’ll strain your head heavenwards to look at a shiny new skyscraper; keep turning and you will notice a Buddhist monastery set amidst a number of blocky Soviet-era buildings. But some things remain stubbornly unchanged. A lunch of buuz (mutton-filled dumplings) will set you back about 1,000 Tugriks (1 USD). Walk inside the Gobi Cashmere Store and let your inner-consumer rejoice at the sight of cashmere scarves and blankets that cost a fraction of the price they do back home.
Did I mention that we’re in the Gobi Desert? Our train wagon is filled with a noticeable coating of dust, and we just looked out the window and saw a herd of wild camels . . .
Just finished a surprisingly filling dinner consisting of a spicy Chinese noodle bowl purchased at the train station in UB and some delicious, freshly baked bread purchased on the platform at Sainshand—another nondescript railway town in the middle of the Gobi Desert with its rundown buildings and children running around on the platform flashing the peace sign at those Westerners who looked their way. We have come quite a ways since our Trans-Siberian #10 train. We now know that oftentimes tastier and certainly cheaper food can be purchased off of the train. We know to bring tea bags onto the train to be used with the warm water that is stored in a jug at the end of every wagon car. We know where to seek out the best ventilation, and we’ve come to know what to expect at every stop—the derelict buildings we’ll see, the poverty that waits for us on the platform. But this Chinese train is infinitely nicer than the #10 Baikal and the #362 from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar—perhaps a harbinger of things to come in China?
23 April: Trans-Mongolian Railway
We are three hours from Beijing with a rocky mountainous landscape out one side of the train and a world of carefully tilled fields, hay bales, livestock, and agricultural productivity out the other . . .
The Dutchmen just stopped by our compartment to confirm dinner plans at a Peking duck restaurant south of Tiananmen Square. Our rendezvous for drinks at Grand Khaan’s Irish Pub in Ulaanbaatar can best be described by a conversation Nicole and I had later that evening in our hotel room. “They’re so smart. They’re so well traveled. They’re normal,” she exclaimed. “They’re just like us,” I replied. When you unexpectedly stumble upon fellow travelers that are “just like you” despite having been born in different countries and despite having known one another for a grand total of ten hours, you obviously make plans to meet up again.
24 April: Beijing, China
I love Beijing. I love China. I love that I can eat Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and never tire of it. I love that Nicole and I went to three different branches of the same Peking duck restaurant to find our Dutch friends, and I love that we stayed out until 4am discussing the nature of American political parties and the abortion-rights movement in Beijing’s bar district while holding a Tsingtao in one hand and a Marlboro Red in the other.
I love that we just stood atop the Great Wall of China after four hours of sleep. We walked outside our hotel, flagged a cab, asked the driver to take us to the best section of the Great Wall near Beijing, and we arrived at Mutianyu two hours later. The air was heavy and hazy; the mountains brown and the trees barren. To stand on that wall, to watch it stretch out before me and disappear around mountain bends only to peak out further along the horizon on its 5,000 mile journey, offered an indescribable feeling. It’s the same feeling I felt while standing in Moscow’s Red Square, humbled by history and grandeur, cognizant that I might never be here again. Yet to be here once—to see such a place with my own eyes and to know what it takes to reach it, to be open to the people encountered and the incidents confronted en route, and to recognize that life is never set and nothing is ever certain—I am forced to acknowledge that if I choose to see the magic in every meeting, the beauty in every place, and the necessity for travel, my life will never cease to amaze and surprise me.
25 April: Beijing, China
This is—hands down—the best trip of my life. Russia was great; the Trans-Mongolian Railway was unique; but Beijing—this city with so many sights we’re missing, this city that we came to with an itinerary we have only partially followed—this city will always be seared into my memory as the place where I felt so ethereally free, so completely happy, and so utterly reminded that I am a 25-year-old whose life is still very much her own. Nicole and I stay up until 4am here; we buy obscene amounts of pearl jewelry at the Hong Qiao Pearl Market; we whiz by the sights in the back of a tuk tuk laughing with a weightless joy that leaves us in tears. We have come a long way from the orderly manner in which we traveled through Russia. Beijing is a blur of people, cars, bicycles and tuk tuks. It’s an inundation of the senses. It is changing me.
What began last night at the Dōnghuámén Night Market, eating shark and sea urchin and ostrich and scorpion, evolved into yet another evening of intense, wide-ranging conversation at the bars overlooking Qianhai Lake. How is it that a conversation with relative strangers leads you to realize long-hidden truths about yourself? How is it that two nights of drinking beers and chain-smoking Marlboro Reds while talking about life—the jobs we have, the relationships we are in, the cities in which we live—can be the catalyst to upend everything? Is it only when I am stripped of all familiarity, far removed from the people who know me best and their projection of who I am or who I ought to be, that I am most free to be myself?
I saw Mao today—another country, another embalmed leader. Hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese citizens waited anxiously in line behind us to pay their respects to the deceased Chairman. I walked across Tiananmen Square and through the Forbidden City, my eyes lingering on the courtyards and archways connecting the largest palace complex in the world while my mind raced to acknowledge that this is our final night of the trip. Back to reality tomorrow, whatever that means.
Traveling changes a person. Every trip I’ve ever taken has changed me. More often than not, the change is not outwardly noticeable. Gaining a nuanced appreciation of diverse cultures is not a tan, after all. And more often than not, it’s a small change—learning I like a type of fruit in Thailand which I’ve never seen offered in the States; gaining an appreciation for Turkish textiles which now add pops of color throughout my house. But sometimes the change is significant. It was somewhere in Siberia, while I was spread out on the top bunk in our train compartment with War and Peace open in my hands, that I began to question whether or not I was truly fulfilled by the current state of my life in Denver. The undercurrent of restlessness and disquiet had been simmering in my mind, but it had been pushed back and buried beneath the dictates of everyday life: things to do, people to see, the minuscule and mundane decisions we make on a daily basis. It was later in Beijing, while drinking a Tsingtao at a bar overlooking a lake at our self-proclaimed “Funland” bar district, that I decided I would leave Denver and return to Washington, D.C. later in the year. The unspoken truth implicit in that decision was that I’d likely have to end a long-term relationship, as well.
I flew east to Russia outwardly content with the status quo. (En route to St. Petersburg, I wrote in my journal: “I enjoy my life. Do many people say that?”) I returned from Beijing determined to flip everything on its head. Did this shift in mindset occur because I was actively seeking it, or did the places and people I encountered along the way change me? It’s likely a bit of both. We need to meet certain people—people who challenge us to think, to feel, and to question; people who alight a spark of curiosity in our minds; people who, although from different cultures, share such similar worldviews and senses of humor and personalities that we are forced to pause and think “surely I must be meeting you for a reason”—and we need to meet them in certain places, some of which are beautiful, others of which are unremarkable, all of which are far removed from our everyday life. But if this collision of people and place is to truly change you, it must thread a narrow window of opportunity, for it is not often that we are ready and willing to have our minds bent and our perception of self altered. For me, this window of opportunity opens almost exclusively when I travel, and it is the foremost reason why I travel.
An excerpt from the Editor’s Letter in the April 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveler speaks acutely to the heart of this issue. “”In a strange place, you become more fully evident,” writes journalist Andrew Solomon in his new book, Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change. Solomon goes on to describe how immersing yourself in a foreign environment heightens an awareness of your own otherness—not just as a stranger in a strange land, but who you really are at home, too. Because as veteran travelers know, there’s nothing like those extremes of exhilaration and terror, freedom and vulnerability—the very essence of adventure—to make self-reinvention not just possible, but inevitable.”
I think I would have returned to D.C. eventually, but I can’t be sure. Of one thing I am certain, though: if I had not have taken this trip, I wouldn’t have returned to D.C. when I did; subsequently, I wouldn’t have found that first job in defense contracting or experienced the series of events which then led me to lobbying. The last six years of my life, from jobs to relationships, would have been entirely different. If we view life as a series of small decisions that build upon one another to create significant change, then my journey from St. Petersburg to Beijing doesn’t carry that much weight. It was just one thing in a series of events. It is easy to absolve oneself of responsibility in that mindset; that which happens to us is said to be inevitable, the result of many things set into motion. I don’t buy that argument here.
Spending four and a half consecutive days on a train where the only time you step off is to purchase a bottle of water (but you are hesitant to do so half of the time because some stops are two minutes long while others are five minutes long but you can’t quite be sure which is which because announcements are made in Russian and train schedules are written in Cyrillic, and the image of being left behind on a railroad platform in Novosibirsk is so unspeakably frightening that it paralyzes you to act no matter how grave your thirst), the only person you speak to is your traveling companion, and the only things you do are read War and Peace and write in your journal and stare out the window as Siberia rushes by in a monochromatic blur of brown, is a novel experience. I chose to change the course of my life on this trip. I chose to change because I had the time to think and because I removed myself from everything that was reminiscent of my reality back home. There was nothing to distract, delay, or deter me from asking what I wanted my one wild and free life to be.
My decision to modify where I was living, what I was doing, and who I was surrounded by on a daily basis wasn’t the result of a million little choices in this instance. It was the result of this journey. It was because I traveled across the world with an open mind ready to bent and broken and blown away, and as fate would have it, reforged completely anew.
WHEN TO GO: June-September. We traveled in April, which had its pluses—notably fewer tourists and cheaper hotel fares since April is considered off-peak travel season in Russia. The cons are still worth noting, though. Tsarist palaces around St. Petersburg were only partially open, and mud season is not exactly the most scenic time of year to be passing through Siberia.
RECOMMENDED TIME: No less than 3 weeks. To travel from St. Petersburg to Beijing, you will spend at least 7 days in transit on various trains. Spending a couple of days in each major location—St. Petersburg, Moscow, Lake Baikal, Ulaanbaatar and surrounding environs, and Beijing—quickly adds up.
GETTING THERE: St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport is serviced by a number of European carriers, including British Airways, Air France and KLM. We connected through Helsinki, Finland en route to Russia. Regarding booking a ticket on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, we secured our passage online using Trans-Siberian Express.
STAY: Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, St. Petersburg, Russia – from $385/night
Hotel National, Moscow, Russia – from $200/night
EAT & DRINK: Maharaja, ul. Pokrovka, 2/1, Moscow, Russia
Grand Khaan Irish Pub, Khoroo 1, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, Wangfujing Street, Beijing, China
SHOP: Gobi Cashmere Shop, Industrial street, 3rd khoroo, Khan-Uul district, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Hong Qiao Pearl Market, 9 Tiantan Rd, Dongcheng, Beijing, China