From Parks to Parties: Killing Time in Rio de Janeiro

I have to admit, my stay in Rio de Janeiro was not quite like how I had originally imagined it. Around the world, the name brings to mind exotic images of the legendary Carnival, and belly dancers in the streets and lavish, feathered costumes and parties on the beach and… well, I guess I can’t really speak for the rest of the world, but it’s definitely considered a bit of party city. So I surprised myself at how little partying I actually did while I was in town. I spent a great deal of my time outside, either on the beach or taking walks through the neighbourhoods and some of the nearby greenery, or just hanging out with Tom.

***

On my first morning I was woken up by Tom getting ready and having breakfast in the kitchen – which was, for all intents and purposes, my bedroom. He was doing his best to be quiet, but I’m a pretty light sleeper, and he noticed me stirring.
“Sorry,” he said in a whisper as he shuffled between the tiny gap between my sofa bed and the kitchen counter. “If you want, you can go into my room and lie on my bed if you wanna sleep in some more, so I don’t disturb you.”
“Oh, nah it’s alright,” I said, “but thank you.”
“You’re welcome. How was the bed?” His face looked a little wary, as though he was afraid how I might answer.
“It was… okay,” I replied with a sheepish chuckle, and Tom started to laugh too.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit hard,” he said, with the slightest hint of regret in his tone of voice. “Sorry”.
“Really, it’s okay. It’s fine,” I said again, but I guess I must have made a grimacing face as I went to lie back down – the sofa bed was pretty uncomfortable to sleep on.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna go and sleep on my bed?” Tom said again with a knowing smile.
“Well…since you’re offering,” I said with a reluctant laugh, and gathered up the sheets from my bed to go and rest for a few more hours in Tom’s room. He had to head to work for the day, so he left me to sleep in and relax.

When I finally got up for the second time that morning, I decided one of the first things I wanted to see was the beach. Firstly I grabbed some breakfast at a café on the adjacent tourist street, full of bars and restaurants that catered for the English-speaking crowds, but as I went to head straight to the beach I found myself having second thoughts. I’d heard my fair share of horror stories about getting robbed or mugged on the beach in Rio, and while I’d had to make some pretty dodgy security arrangements for previous beach visits, it didn’t make sense to take my bag with my phone and wallet in it down to the beach when I was staying in Ipanema, such a short distance away. So I headed back to Tom’s apartment, lathered myself up with sunscreen, and headed off down to the beach. I didn’t even bother wearing a shirt – all I had was my towel, my thongs, and the swim shorts I was wearing, with the apartment key safely secured in one of the sealable pockets.

The day was overcast, but temperatures were still warm and humid. This meant it was still warm enough to go swimming, and there were significantly less crowds due to the fact nobody was sunbathing. It was actually perfect. The cloudy weather also made the beach beautiful in it’s own mysterious way, to the point where I actually returned to the apartment after my swim so that I could fetch my iPhone and take a picture. But it was so lovely to be in the ocean again – I hadn’t been swimming in the sea since my dip into the beach in Amsterdam, and as someone who grew up on a coastal city, I was realising for the first time how much I really did love the sun, the sand and the surf, and how much I missed it when it wasn’t in my life. So I didn’t do a great deal that day except for be unashamedly lazy, and indulge in the beach bum lifestyle while I had a chance.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

That evening Tom and I just hung out at home. We ended up bonding over a mutual understanding of certain pop culture references, and I introduced him to Ja’mie King: Private School Girl. He couldn’t get enough of it, and we pretty much exhausted the collection of clips that YouTube have of the hilariously offensive Australian character. Later we ended up watching an episode of American Horror Story: Coven on TV, since it was the only thing that was in English. The TV was in his bedroom, so we were lying on his bed watching it. Tom must have noticed me start to doze off at some point in the evening.
“Hey, if you want, you can sleep here tonight. I know the sofa bed is pretty uncomfortable.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I’d hate to feel like I was intruding on personal space, but Tom did have a double bed and the sofa bed was one of the hardest things I’d ever slept on.
“Yeah, it’s cool. Honestly, I don’t mind, I just thought it would be a bit creepy to offer on the very first night,” he said with a laugh. But we’d instantly taken to each other as friends, so when the time came to sleep we very comfortably crashed there together, and I ended up doing so for the rest of my stay in Rio.

***

The following afternoon, when Tom had some free time, we went for an easy hike up the mountain that was located in the park by the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The national park of the side of the hill was semi-dense rainforest, but once again the weather was humid and overcast, which made the day warm but not too blistering hot with intense sunshine. It was a pretty peaceful and pleasant walk through the natural surroundings, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the streets and the beach.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

And when we got to the top of the trail and stepped out onto the lookout, it was a pretty incredible view.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive houses on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive buildings on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

Taking a break after the climb.

Taking a break after the climb.

And when the clouds momentarily parted, Christ the Redeemer made himself visible from the taller, neighbouring mountain. Tom and I both quickly grabbed our cameras to snap some pictures before the clouds rolled over again to conceal the famous statute.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

On the walk back down we found ourselves locked in at the gates to the park, so we had to ask one of the groundskeepers to let us out via the service exit. We chatted as we walked back to Tom’s place, watching kids playing in the park and locals jog around the flat areas by the lagoon. We also stopped to sample something that Tom insisted was an important part of local Brazilian life. I don’t know if there was an actual Portuguese name for it, but essentially it was just a purple frozen smoothie, made from the pulp of the açaí berries, found on the palms of the same name which were native to Brazil. It didn’t have a very strong flavour, but it was common to throw in little extras or add-ins to make it more exciting. I got a small cup and mixed in muesli, while Tom had protein mixed into his larger one. I can’t say I was a huge fan, but it wasn’t too bad.

***

While I did spend most of my evenings just hanging out with Tom, but there was one night where we did do a bit of partying. I’d failed to get in touch with any of Fausto’s friends in regards to invitations or offers to join them at their parties, but I much preferred hanging out with Tom and James instead, so that’s what I did. On Saturday night James came over to Tom’s and the three of us drank vodka and laughed and caught up, and James gave me some advice and suggestions about things that I could see or do during my last few days in Rio de Janerio. There was also a lot of Ja’mie quotes being thrown back and forth, and for a minute I actually felt like I was back at home in Sydney, between the mindless banter and the crude jokes and figuring out if we had enough vodka left to make a decent roadie or if we should do a few shots before heading to the club.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what we decided about the roadie, but eventually we were in a taxi to a place called 00 (Zero Zero), supposedly a pretty popular gay bar in the area. When we got there we went through the whole process of getting IDs checked and registered and being assigned a tab card, but after going through the same drill so many times in São Paulo it felt basically normal. The club was an interesting space, with an indoor seating area, a huge outdoor patio, and a dance floor that kind of blended into both of them. Tom, James and I got our first beers and sat down outside, since the night air was nice and warm, and it was only a matter of time before we were approached by some of the local men. I have to admit, a large percentage of Brazilian men are absolutely gorgeous, but so many of them have this weird charm about them that would come across as super sleazy if it were anyone else. But somehow it just makes them seem cheeky and romantic. Or maybe it was just sleazy and I was blind to it, I honestly can’t say. I also discovered that a lot of Brazilian gay men were very flaky and unreliable, and despite strongly insisting that they would “be right back”, there was really only a 50% chance you would ever see his face again. So based on personal experience, I guess I now have a few trust issues with some of the locals (although, if we’re being honest, it seems more like typical gay bar behaviour than anything else).

It was a fun night, with the three of us continuously being separated and reunited throughout the course of the evening, each time a little bit more drunk and having some other bizarre social interaction to report. The music was a mix of pop and funky traditional music, and a few times I found myself being awkwardly dragged through a drunken two step tango by a sensual Brazilian gentleman, though for all the ballroom dancing classes I’d taken in high school I still struggled to keep up with his lead. The dance floor was fun and wild, though I had a fair share of unwanted attention while shaking my hips to Shakira and insisting that they didn’t lie. Though Tom was great for that – he was a well built guy and at least six feet tall, towering over literally everyone in the club, so I could always just fall back and swoop behind him for protection.

I don’t know what time it was when we eventually decided to call it a night, but we were all danced out and our skin had a light sheen of sweat. We checked ourselves out of the club and paid, then piled into a taxi and headed back to Ipanema. Once we were in the general vicinity of home, we got out and parted ways with James, who wandered off in the other direction to his hostel while Tom and I headed home. However, the amount of dancing that we’d been doing combined with the amount I had drank meant that I was totally unashamed in telling Tom how hungry I was and pleaded that we stopped somewhere to get greasy, post-drinking food. Of course, he agreed – I was his guest, after all –  and after we wandered through a few streets we found a place that was open 24 hours. The service was less than satisfactory at such early hours of the morning, but that didn’t matter once we’d been served our burgers, chicken legs, and our delicious plate of bacon and cheddar fries.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues. And it was so, so good.

After that we headed straight home, showered and crashed into bed. As beautiful as the beaches and the natural surroundings and the hiking had been, I couldn’t have let myself leave Rio without doing at least some partying. And even though it was the only night in Rio de Janeiro that I had spent partying, it was a damn good one.

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The Big Apple and Other Fruits: a taste of gay NYC

During my first week or so in New York, I didn’t really do something that I had done extensively while I was in all the other previous cities I’d recently visited, and that was explore the local gay scene. Which is a little surprising, given that a city as huge as New York is bound to have some incredible scenes to discover, but I suppose I was still slightly recovering from the hole that Dublin had corroded in my liver. I’d also been hanging out with Melissa, and while she is fabulously gay-friendly, she wasn’t exactly familiar with Manhattan’s gay nightlife scene, considering that her gay best friend lived in Brooklyn and wasn’t even above the legal drinking age anyway. However, when Mischa came down from Connecticut on the weekend that we ended up going to Six Flags, he had a couple of New Yorker friends who were going out for a few drinks and so we decided to join them.

We went over to Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the on the western side of midtown Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen was probably closest New York came to having a ‘gay district’, although from what I had heard and what I would eventually discover, the city was a lot like London or Berlin or Paris in that it had numerous clusters of gay venues and parties scattered all over the island, and there wasn’t really a ‘central’ district of Manhattan because the whole thing is a complete metropolis, north to south and east to west. Historically the locations of the more popular gay areas had shifted, and right now Hell’s Kitchen seemed to be the place to be. We stopped by Neil’s briefly, where I met Walter and Neil for the first time, before we headed out to a bar called Boxers. When we arrived I discovered that Boxers was a sports bar – that’s right, a gay sports bar. I don’t know if I was shocked, surprised, or just confused, but the concept of a gay sports bar just seemed so contradictory to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a huge sports fan of any kind, but I could never imagine a dedicated gay sports bar ever taking off in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. It was also possibly an American thing – come to think of it, ‘sports bars’ aren’t so much a thing in Australia at all, since people just go down to the local pub if they’re going to watch the football.

The juxtaposition of the hyper-masculine, all American jock themes with the obvious gay pride rainbows actually worked pretty well. All around the bar there were various sports games being shown on television screens, but less than half of the people in the bar were actually paying them any real attention. We got some drinks and stood around for a little while, but the bar wasn’t exactly going off. We had plans to go to a nightclub later – some place where Neil’s friend was working as a promoter, which meant we could get in for free – but it was still incredibly early, so at Neil’s suggestion, we swung past a corner store on the way back to his apartment and all pitched in for a case of beer. Neil’s apartment was new – so new that were were surrounded by half unpacked boxes, and were sitting on his bed because it was either that or the floor – but we made ourselves comfy and sat around drinking our beers and chatting and laughing. It was during this period of a couple of hours that Neil convinced us to join them at Six Flags the following day, a decision that would feel like a huge mistake when the alarm went off at 7am the following morning. It wasn’t like I had any other plans though, so we agreed to come along.

Eventually we left – heavily intoxicated by that stage – for XL, the club where Neil’s friend was working. We skipped the line and didn’t have to pay entry, and his friend even showered us with a handful of drink tickets. XL was located nearby in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s since closed and reopened under a new name) and was a huge club – when the smoke machines came on it was almost impossible to see the other side of the dance floor. I honestly can’t remember much else about my time spent there, thanks to the several shots that Neil ordered us immediately upon arrival and the fact that I probably drank way too much beer beforehand anyway. We attempted to drink more, mostly likely attempted to dance for a bit, and when I used the bathrooms I was intensely fascinated by another concept that was incredibly foreign to me as an Australian: bathroom attendants. These people stand around the sinks in the bathroom and offer you all kinds of things, from soap to hand towels to spritzes of cologne, in return for an appropriate tip. I find the whole thing rather awkward, because instead of requesting their service they just jump in and try to wait on your every whim or need, when honestly I would rather dry my own hands on my jeans. You feel like a bit of a jerk having to actively avoid them or ask them to leave you alone, since they’re just doing their job and trying to make as much as they can out of whatever tips they can gather, but I still find it all rather uncomfortable. Although being drunk probably helps.

I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed at XL, but knowing that we had to get up early for Out in the Park at Six Flags, I’m assuming we left at a relatively reasonable hour. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and the next thing I know I woke up nursing a headache, spooning Mischa, and cursing that damned alarm clock.

***

My second night out on the gay scene was a little more memorable… well, that probably isn’t the right word since I definitely don’t remember all of it. But it was definitely a lot more eventful. I had met Scott a few years ago when he had been holidaying in Sydney. He was a big partier, and we’d gotten on pretty well, so we’d kept in touch. He had been my only gay contact who actually lived in New York, so one evening when Melissa had other plans after class, I got in touch with Scott and asked about the best places to go. It was a Wednesday night, so naturally he was going out himself, and we met for a quick sushi dinner after he had finished work before heading back to his apartment – also in Hell’s Kitchen – so he could get ready. He went to offer me a drink while I waited, although the only alcohol he had was this strange Czech liquor (which I had actually tasted with Ike in Ancona) or absinthe. I guess it was at that early point in the evening that I should have known the end of this night wasn’t going to be pretty. I opted for the absinthe on the rocks. I don’t know, #yolo or whatever.

We went to a nearby theatre where a new weekly event was starting – So You Think You Can Drag? It’s exactly what you think it is – a whole line up of drag queens performing on stage in front of an audience, with a panel of judges making comments and scores and eventually choosing a winner. Now, I’ve been all over the world and seen a fair few drag queens, most notably in Cambodia, Russia and Germany, but so far I had yet to see any drag shows that came close to the quality of the queens that I’ve seen back home in Sydney. New York changed all that. I guess you really need to have something special to stand out in a place like this, and these queens were trying their hardest. I’ve always appreciated my favourite drag queens back in Sydney, so I really enjoyed watching all the acts. Add to the fact that the first hour of the event had an open vodka bar, and I knew that if I lived in NYC I would most definitely become a regular here. Like Scott obviously was. The hostess of the evening, Paige Turner, is one of New York’s more successful drag queens, and is on a first name basis with Scott – a relationship which I am sure developed purely because he never missed one of her shows.

Scott and Paige Turner - apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

Scott and Paige Turner – apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

New York drag queens giving it all they've got.

New York drag queens giving it all they’ve got.

Scott introduced me to a bunch of people as we mingled before the drag performances. It was here that I would learn that aspects of nightlife in New York are very different to Sydney – different from most places in the world that I’ve been to, now that I think about it. It’s not so much about certain venues or bars as it is about different events run by certain nightlife companies, which are held over a variety of venues on a weekly basis. Of course, there are dedicated gay bars too, but it’s very much a matter of knowing where to go on what night, depending on what you’re looking for or what you want to do. I think you could probably live there for years and still never figure it out, so I’m not going to pretend I am an expert or anything – this is purely just my understanding and perceptions based on my experience. When I was waiting in line with Scott, I was introduced to a guy named Bobby – he worked for BoiParty.com, the company that was running So You Think You Can Drag? – who was going down the line and signing up anyone who wasn’t part of the mailing list. Maybe it was something else, since it seemed like I had to give my details to even get in, but I didn’t mind, since I had no idea about what was going on in New York and would appreciate some email notifications about upcoming parties. I got chatting to Bobby for a little bit too, and he told me to add him on Facebook. He would end up being my go-to guy when it came to all things nightlife-related in New York.

After the shows had ended – the winner of tonight was a musical theatre queen named Sutton Lee Seymour – I headed back to Scott’s with a bunch of other people for a… ‘between events’ party? Post/pre drinks party? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I discovered just now non G-rated Scott’s life is. More absinthe was involved. The next thing I know I am at a bar called the Ritz, a place Scott was always raving about, which was the official, or maybe unofficial, after party for the previous drag event. The venue was pretty small and intimate, but the drinks were cheap and it was packed with guys and queens from earlier in the night. We danced, we sang, we made it rain dollar bills during the impromptu performances. Tipping drag queens was another thing that slightly shocked me, but I was coming to realise that the service industry workers who primarily relied on tips didn’t just finish in restaurants and bars and hospitality. It was something I would get used to during my months in the states, but right now it all seemed kind of awkward. At least, it did for me – the workers on the other end had no hesitation in taking my money.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

It doesn’t happen often, but that night I blacked out. When I woke up, I was lying on Scott’s bed, fully clothed except for my shoes, which I appeared to have kicked off and were sitting on the floor by the bed. There was another guy lying next to me, still asleep and also fully clothed. I had no idea who he was. Scott was sitting on the end of the bed, and seemed to be in the middle of a very serious conversation with what appeared to be a drag queen who had only gotten halfway out of her drag outfit from the pervious evening. When I stirred and tried to sit up, Scott broke away from the conversation and turned around.
“Okay, twinks, it’s 9am. I have to teach in four hours so I need my bed back.” I stared at him, comprehending but being beyond speech in my current state. “You can sleep on the couch.”
It was nine on the morning?! I should have just gone home but I wasn’t ready to face the day. Scott woke up the other guy on the bed, who I later learned was named Mat, and shooed us both out of his room, along with the drag queen. She left, but Mat and I collapsed on the couch. I had absolutely no recollection of ever meeting him, or why we we’d ended up on a bed together, even though we were fully clothed. We spooned on the couch so we would both fit, and I managed to get a couple of more hours sleep. However, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable, because I had somewhere to be.

Melissa had some family coming to stay with her that weekend, which meant I had to make myself scarce for a little while. So I had planned a trip out of the city to Washington, DC. Well, I had a cheap bus ticket and a Couchsurfing host lined up at the other end, which is about as much planning as I ever do. The bus was leaving in the early afternoon, but I had, in all my infinite wisdom, still decided to have an absolute bender of an evening the night before. Eventually I dragged myself out of Scott’s apartment and into the to bright sunshine that was Hell’s Kitchen by day, and ran back across town – with a quick pit stop at McDonalds – to pack my bag and head of the bus station. Melissa wasn’t around, but by this point of my stay I finally had my own key, which she had said I could hang onto until I was leaving New York for the final time. I thought I’d left myself enough time to get the bus stop via the subway, but by the time I got home, showered, threw all my stuff into my bad and got back to the station, I realised that I really hadn’t. I hailed a cab. We got halfway across town – the bus was leaving from a corner near Penn Station – when it started to rain. Traffic came to standstill. I ended up throwing some cash at the driver and running through the torrential downpour that seemingly came out of no where. Gasping and panting, I made it to the bus just in time to have my baggage stowed away underneath. Climbing aboard the bus, I made a promise to myself I would never be hungover on a day of travel again – it wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last.

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.

Cabin Fever

When my friend Iain had suggested the Trans-Siberian railway to me, it had sounded like a pretty cool idea, although in retrospect I think I vastly underestimated the journey. I’d sent out a Facebook post last year when I was in stages of planning my trip, asking for the opinions of my well-travelled friends on things like round the world plane tickets, overland travelling, what was the best, what was most cost effective, and other details like that. Iain is a Scottish friend of mine who now lives in Australia, and he travelled the Trans-Siberian railway from Russia to China and continued his travels further south from there – essentially the reverse of what I would be doing. He recommended the tour he had gone with, a company called Vodkatrain, and the enthusiasm with which he talked about it almost sold it to me straight away. But I did my own investigation, and it turned out that this train route had been exactly the answer to the questions I had been asking.

I was a little taken aback by some of the reactions I got when I told my friends of my plans.
“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” my good friend Blythe had exclaimed. “Wow! Robert, that’s like an ultimate bucket list journey for some people!” Maybe I’d sounded a little nonchalant, I don’t know, but it was almost as if she didn’t believe me.
“Umm… Okay? Is that a bad thing for me?”
“What? No, it’s incredible! I know so many people who would be so jealous of you! You’re going to have such an amazing time, it’s supposed to be an awesome experience.”
I think that was the first time that I realised this journey was going to be quite unlike any kind of holiday I’d had before.

DAY 1

When we arrived back at Irkutsk train station, Kostya handed out the tickets and made sure we all got onto the train without any problems. He wished us luck and bid us farewell, and it all felt very similar to most of our other train journeys. There were a few major differences though. Firstly, the quality of the cabins. There wasn’t anything exactly wrong with them – they were just a bit older, a little rickety. Jen, Matt and Tracy had found rubbish in our cabin – we had to wonder if this train had even been cleaned at all before we got on.The previous trains we’d been on had had carpeted floors and hallways, but this train had a dull linoleum surface that made the soles of your feet a gross black colour if you forgot to wear shoes when you walked around. The trains were adequate, and I guess we’d just had some nicer trains on our previous trips so we had harboured some expectations. “I just think its hilarious,” Tracy had said with a giggle, “that we’ve had the more cushy trains for the short trips and now it’s back to basics for the long haul! I love it, bring it on!” Tracy had worked as a tour guide on bus trips through both South America and the Middle East – no doubt she’d seen far worse living conditions, and part of me suspected that ‘roughing it’ was simply more her style.

But there was another thing that none of us had really planned on. On the previous trains, we’d all been in cabins together, save the one extra person who was on their own – which so far had been myself from Beijing and Dan from Ulaanbaatar. So we were all very confused to find that all that had changed. We had two cabins all together – I was with the same three as last time, and Tim, Don, Marti and Rach were in another. But Claire and Alyson were in a room with two other Russian passengers, as were Kaylah and Jenna, and poor Dan was stuck in a cabin on his own again. It was a puzzling set up, considering pairs that had booked together – like Alyson and Kaylah, and Dan and Claire – weren’t supposed to be split up when it came to sleeping arrangements. In any other scenario, we would have spoken to the carriage attendants and asked them what had happened. As it happens, none of us could speak Russian, so in the end we all just ended up shrugging our shoulders and concluding that the one thing we can learn from the past 10 minutes was that the Russian train system is anything but consistent.

***

After we’d gotten over the slight drama, I was sitting on my bed eating some bread and cheese with salami, carefully managing my portions so as not to eat it all in one go and be left hungry come day four of this journey. As I nibbled away, Tim stuck his head into our cabin.
“Ah, on the vodka already then?” Matt asked, noticing the cup in Tim’s hand.
“Well, they don’t call it the Vodkatrain for nothing!” he laughed. “But yeah, I know it’s still early, but we’re getting the party started in our cabin if anyone wants to join.”
I never really need an excuse to drink, but having one always helps. I grabbed my vodka, Coke, and made my way to the neighbouring cabin. The vodka was flowing freely, and we managed to cram eight people into the bottom bunk seats without too much discomfort. When there are that many people in a confided space drinking alcohol, its inevitable that the drinking games are going to start.
“We’re not playing ‘Never Have I Ever’, not when we have couples present,” Tim said adamantly. “I’ve seen too many awkward fights start over that game.” Both Dan and Claire and Rach and Marti were part of the vodka party. Marti was trying to get us to play card games, but in the end I joined voices with Alyson to champion for a game of ‘Two Truths, One Lie’. Technically not a drinking game, but always better when drinking is involved, I figured it was a happy medium – people can still make those drunken confessions with their truths, instead of drinking to their own statements in Never Have I Ever. and people can still withhold all the secrets they want.

I’m not going to explain drinking game rules, but Two Truths, One Lie was a fun way to learn a few quirky things about my fellow travellers – Alyson played the violin for 14 years, Marti was a maths champion in the 9th grade and has a near photographic memory, and Dan once poured frozen peas down a toilet at a party at Johnny Wilkinson’s house. There was plenty more, and I probably did some lame confession about coming out when I was only 15 – my lack of dinner and the amount of vodka I ended up consuming meant that a lot of the finer details were lost on me. Later reports would inform me that I shakily stood up, announced to the cabin through slurred speech “I really need to go to bed now”, and sauntered my way into the hallway and back into my room. I woke up at some point in the night, face up and back arched over a mound in the middle of my bed that turned out to be both my pillow and my blanket, and only half aware of where I actually was. I crawled out of the uncomfortable position and very quickly slipped back into my drunken slumber.

Vodka Party!

Vodka Party!

DAY 2

The following day was a complete write-off. Luckily, we didn’t exactly have anywhere to be. It wasn’t until midday that I was able to sit up in my bed and eat a few flakes of cereal, some super sweet version of honey coated corn flakes I’d picked up in Irkutsk. It was all I could really stomach, and though I felt absolutely awful, I found a silver lining in the fact that my food might last a little longer now. Kaylah eventually visited me on my top bunk, as I was strumming away clumsily on my ukulele.
“How’re you feeling?” she said with a knowing smile.
“Ugh,” was all I could manage at first, dropping the ukulele on my chest to rub the palms of my hands into my tired eyes. I then picked up the bottle of vodka – which for some reason I had been cradling in my sleep – to show that it only had about a quarter of the bottle remaining. “I shouldn’t drink vodka!”
“Aww, you poor thing,” she said as she rested a hand on my shin, sounding very genuine despite there being a giggle in her voice.
“But what happened to you last night?” I said, only now really realising that Kaylah had been absent from the vodka party.
“I don’t know!” she said. “I think I just started reading my book and… I fell asleep? I don’t know I just woke up and it was morning!” She just laughed it off, and I found myself rolling my eyes and laughing along with her infectious mirth.

I didn’t change out of my pajamas at all that day. Every time I even thought about it, part of my brain kicked in saying, Why? Who are you trying to impress? It was a fair point. Most of us had all seen each other at our various high and low points by now, and as long as I didn’t begin to smell incredibly offensive, I was more than happy to lounge around in my bed, read my book and watch the Siberian scenery pass us by. I was on he top bunk this time, which meant I wasn’t in anyone’s way if I didn’t get out of bed. On one of my toilet breaks I stuck my head in to say hello to Tim, Rach and Marti.
“Ah, he’s alive!” Marti had exclaimed as I appeared at the door. “You were so funny last night Rob, you nearly fell asleep in the corner there.” They recounted my final moments of the previous evening to me, and I asserted that it sounded exactly like something I would do, before dragging myself back up into my bunk and attempted to sleep off what was one of the worst hangovers I’d had in a while. I couldn’t seem to stick with one activity for more than half an hour, whether it was reading, sleeping, plucking at the ukulele or gazing out the window. That much restlessness after the first full day definitely couldn’t be a good sign, and I feared I might be climbing the walls sooner than I’d anticipated.

DAY 3

I woke up on my second morning on the train feeling gross again, but this time it wasn’t a hangover. Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my hygiene routine knows that I’m pretty regular when it comes to showering, usually twice a day, and I always use a fresh pair of underwear. But this wasn’t regular life – this was life on the Trans-Siberian, and showers were a luxury we didn’t have. I’d gotten lazy yesterday, and allowed myself to fester in my filth, but it couldn’t go on like that any longer. When you can’t stand your own BO, things are a stones throw away from getting very ugly, plus I hadn’t even brushed my teeth in at least 24 hours. Long story short: I was a hot mess.

So I had my first of what had been coined ‘Baby Wipe Showers’. They’re pretty self-explanatory – in the absence of a running water shower, you simply mop yourself down with baby wipes, or just a wet corner of your towel with some soap, and trick yourself into feeling just a little bit fresher. I also spritzed a little bit of cologne on my faux-fresh body, to keep the stale, unwashed scent at bay for a little longer. It was a far cry from an actual shower, but when you’re feeling the way I did, a slap of cold water to the face and even the slightest bit of a scrub down made me feel like a new man. About five minutes later, I ran into Marti out in the hallway.
“Hey Rob, were you just in the bathroom?”
I was struck with a moment of intense panic – had I done something wrong, broken the toilet, perhaps? I hadn’t even used the toilet, but I’ve had worse luck before, so who knew? A few of our group conversations on the trains had been about the lack of etiquette in some people when it comes to shared bathrooms. I’d hate to become one of the case studies.
“Ah, yeah I had a baby wipe shower just before,” I said tentatively.
“It just smells so nice in there!” she said with a laugh, and I relaxed a little. “I was expecting it to smell of like, you know, piss or whatever. But I stepped in and was like, ‘Ah, smells really nice in here!’ So thank you!”
“Ah.. Well you’re welcome, I guess?” I said as I laughed along with her. And to think, I nearly didn’t bring my two favourite colognes – out of a collection of seven – because they didn’t seem ‘essential’ enough.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

A dull, dreary Siberian morning.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

View of the train from the platform at one of our stops.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

Train as seen from a platform bridge.

***

By now, the days had really started to drag on. We watched a movie called TransSiberian that Marti had on her hard drive. It was pretty cool to see the story begin in Beijing, recognising the very same train station hall that we’d sat in about a week ago, and we empathised with the main characters as the train attendants yelled at them in Russian. We had actually been much luckier on this train in that regard – the main train attendant was a much younger woman than the previous train, and while not exactly polite, such was much more mild mannered than the ranting woman on the train from Ulaanbaatar.

But the movie was a thriller about drug smuggling where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and thankfully the rest of it was not quite so relatable. It killed some time though, and time was the one thing we had in complete excess. The entire Trans-Siberian route crosses 7 different time zones, with most of them occurring on this particular trip. Matt and Jen were very clued in to the changes, thanks to their Lonely Planet guide, and would give us the regular updates.
“So at about 12 o’clock it becomes 11 o’clock again”, said Matt as he studied one of the pages, while Jen consulted the timetable to check the next station we’d be passing through.
“Seriously? God, it’s like my lunch is trying to run away from me!”

While the socially dictated times for our meals kept slipping away from us, the food was well within reach, and many of us adopted a ‘Second Breakfast’ attitude. While I had previously feared for my food supplies, I managed to ration it all rather well, and soon enough these multiple meals became our own form of telling the time, creating a new meals through which to structure our day.
“They say it’s 2am somewhere, right? Well I say it’s noon somewhere in the world, so it’s time for lunch!” Tim had asserted.
“Yeah,” Rach had agreed. “We can have our Irkutsk lunch, and then our Moscow lunch later.”
“Mmm yeah, I could smash a second lunch!” added Marti, and we all laughed at what had become her own little catchphrase.
“It’s 3pm in Melbourne – this might as well just be my afternoon snack!” laughed Tim, and the banter continued as we all obsessed over our food. Soon we were laughing at pretty much anything.

Whenever Kaylah dropped by we would all end up in stitches – I can’t really put my finger on it, but her laugh was just so contagious that I can’t keep a straight face when she’s in a good mood. In the evening we tried to have another vodka party. I say tried because firstly, we didn’t have that much vodka left, and secondly, none of us seemed to really be in the mood – I personally just wanted to discard the bottle. However, alcohol goes straight to Kaylah’s head, and she was laughing like a maniac after only one drink. I, on the other hand, was definitely not in the mood for vodka, and only managed about one small drink before volunteering it up to the rest of the cabin. They were more than happy to help me finish it.
“Oh dear,” Tim had said with a sigh, after we’d settled down from a bout of hysterical laughter about something I honestly don’t even remember. “I think cabin fever has well and truly sunk in.”

DAY 4

On our final full day on the train, I woke up with the intention of changing out of my dirty clothes and freshening up like I had the day before – I had been wearing the same pair of underwear since the morning we’d left Lake Baikal, and was feeling pretty rank in general. Though the devil on my shoulder of personal hygiene argued that I only had to stick it out for one more day, and then I could actually have a shower before putting on clean underwear. I have this weird thing about putting clean clothes on a dirty body – I just hate doing it – so in the end I decided to fester in my well-worn clothes for another 24 hours and hold out until Moscow. For anyone who knew me before this train trip – I’m definitely a changed man.

***

The last day was mostly spent doing the same activities – watching episodes of TV shows on laptops, making tea, coffee and two minute noodles, chatting with each other, staring out the window and – something that had become a personal favourite – playing cards. Tim and Alyson taught us how to play a game called ‘Asshole’, where the objective is to get rid of all your cards lest you become the Asshole in the next round, suffering a relative disadvantage. It’s a fun game, but in the heat of cabin fever, when we’ve all been up in each others personal space for the last few days, our investment into the game was close to maniacal.

Though it was over one of these card games that the craziest and most brilliant idea of all was formed.
“You know what I really want?” said Marti as we took turns throwing our cards into the pile in the middle of the table. “I could totally smash a chicken right now. A big juicy chicken with some potatoes! Mmm, that would be the best!”
Having lived predominantly of bread, cheese, cold meat and two minutes noodles, you could almost hear the salivation from everyone in the cabin as soon at Marti mentioned it.
“That would be so amazing!” Tim exclaimed.
“When’s our next longer stop?” asked Rach. The train made short stops at some of the local stations along the way – sometimes they were five minutes, other times they were as long as 45 minutes.”
“There’s a 30 minute stop in about an hour,” Marti said as she checked the schedule, and looked up to grin at us. “What do you think guys – wanna see if we can get some chicken?!”
There were various rounds of agreement from Tim, Rach, Kaylah – I had rationed enough of my food to last me, but the thought of a hot roast chicken was just absolutely mouth watering, so I tagged along in the quest for poultry.

As we rolled into the stop though, our hopes sunk. Some of the stations had been quite big, with people selling all kinds of food on the platforms. However, this station was a tiny town, with a platform that wasn’t even long enough for the train. Marti and Kaylah had to jump down from the train and walk along the unsealed road to get back to the platform, but they did it in their desperate attempt to find chicken. Rach, Tim and I stayed back in the train to hold the fort, but we all agreed that we didn’t like their chances, and so had already really accepted the fact it would be one final night of noodles and bread.

So you can imagine our surprise when the girls burst back into the cabin with two roast chickens.
“Chicken run was a success!” Marti shouted gleefully as she put the birds down on the table in the middle of the cabin. Claire and Dan had also bought a third one, and Kaylah had picked up some instant mash potato that only required the hot water, and so together we all had a final train meal together, a feast for our last night on the Trans-Siberian.
“Smash that chicken!” Marti said with a laugh, and we all literally pulled the carcasses apart, ripped the meat off and sucking the bones clean, leaving no edible scrap to go to waste. We must have looked like starved savages, but the freshly cooked meat was such a welcome change that I don’t think any of us cared in the slightest.

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Operation Chicken Run: Success

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

Kaylah, Tim and myself gorging on the hot chicken.

The aftermath.

The aftermath.

When the feast was over and we’d eaten our fill, we all started to prepare for bed. We were due to arrive in Moscow at 4am, and most of us wanted to get some semblance of a decent sleep. As I readied myself for bed, I had a brief chat with Jen:
“I can’t believe it’s almost over – it felt like this train ride was never going to end,” I said with an exhausted laugh as I fell back onto my pillow.
“It’s been rather interesting though. I mean I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d ever do again. Do you know what I mean?”
“Absolutely. I guess there’s a reason why it’s described as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, right?”
“Exactly!” she said with a smile. “Although it would be pretty to see the scenery of Siberia in the winter… but no. I think it’s definitely more than a journey. It’s a challenge, really, isn’t it?”
I didn’t have to consider that question long. “Definitely. Well, I know I found it a little challenging at times. But hey, we did it! We travelled the Trans-Siberian railway!”

***

Despite going to bed relatively early, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that last night. I don’t know if it was the train, the tracks, or some other factor, but it was one of the roughest and bumpiest sections of any of the train journeys we’d been on so far. Loud and rickety creaks continued through the whole night, and several times I felt as though I was about to be thrown out of my bed. Another downfall about these cabins was the the windows didn’t open, and so four sleeping bodies in that tiny space had turned it into somewhat of a mild oven.

Yet I must have slept for a little bit, because I was woken up as we were approaching Moscow station, at some ungodly hour that didn’t agree with any of the multiple body clocks I had been running on for the past few days. When we arrived, we jumped off the train and were greeted by a small woman, who informed us that she wasn’t our guide, but another Vodkatrain employee who would take us to our hostel. “We should also decide on a time to meet you guide”, she had said to the group. “But it’s still quite early, and I’m guessing that most of you would like to have a shower, yes?”

I don’t think I have to tell you what our unanimous group response was.

Lake Baikal: Scenery and Saunas

As enthusiastic as I am about efficient public transportation, our train out of Ulaanbaatar had been making such good time that it was actually ahead of schedule, and we arrived in Irkutsk almost a full hour before the expected time. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but we had been due to arrive in Irkutsk at about 8am, which meant we ended up waking up at 6am for our arrival at approximately 7am. No matter the season, Siberia is still extremely cold at 7am. It was hard to believe that only two weeks ago I had been sweating it out in South-East Asia. To top it all off, the fact that we were early meant that our guide wasn’t even at the train station yet, so we all sat around in the terminal building, shivering and shaking and waiting for him to arrive. I had made the mistake of not changing out of my thin material Thailand fisherman pants before getting off he train, so my legs were feeling ridiculously cold.

Eventually Konstantin arrived to meet us at the station. He was a tall, board-shouldered guy, and his face was almost always sporting a wide, slightly goofy grin. He was particularly upbeat and cheerful that first morning in Irkutsk, which was a stark contrast to how the rest of us were feeling. That didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he herded us off into the bus and took us to our first stop – our registration. Even now I’m not entirely sure what this registration business is all about, but it involved us having to part with our passports temporarily, and a small sum of money permanently, in order to receive an official stamped slip of paper with the details of our accommodation. We were told this would happen in every city, yet when he asked Konstantin – or Kostya for short – he shrugged his shoulders and through a sheepish grin replied, “I am not sure. My country does some strange things sometimes. Maybe in case you are a spy?” He chuckled, and there was nothing we could do but laugh along with him.

***

While we had gotten off the train in Irkutsk, it wasn’t where we would be spending the bulk of our time in Siberia. After our registration, we travelled for about an hour on the bus to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At its deepest point it is 1642 metres and tip to tip it’s 636 kilometres long, with a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. Tim explained to me that it is so big it has a trench at the bottom, caused by the gap between two tectonic plates. As we emerged from the forest and into the small town, the lake stretched out and off into the horizon. The morning was a little overcast, and the clouds hung so low that the other side of the lake was hardly visible, and we could have easily been looking out onto the open ocean. After stopping to shower and refresh ourselves at the hotel, which was more of a quaint little B&B, we met back down by the lake for lunch. Russian cuisine isn’t too different from Mongolian, especially out here in Siberia, but I had a traditional Russian salad that absolutely blew my mind. It was essentially just a salami salad that was drowning in sour cream, but both creamy food and fresh vegetables were things that hadn’t featured too heavily in my diet lately. Dan commented that I practically inhaled it. I asserted that it was a talent.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

After lunch we went on a short walk to a nearby lookout with good views of the lake. Or at least Kostya told us it would be a short walk. “Not far, just… hmm… 10 minutes.” Maybe we were all just walking a lot slower than he was used to, because it took us about 20 minutes to walk down the long main road to get to the base of the hill, which we had to walk up in order to get the chairlift which would take us to the very top. The sun had finally showed up at this point in the afternoon, but we were all rugged up in our warm Siberian clothes, so the result was a bunch of hot and sweaty tourists slowing undressing as we ascended the hill. Once we reached the chairlift, we were also given the option of walking to the top. Given all the walking we had done just to get there, and the fact I played my hill climbing card back at the Great Wall, I felt that I was well within my right to cop out and take the chairlift. Regardless of how we got up there, I was glad we did – the view of the lake with mountains bursting out of the horizon in the distance was well worth the small effort to get there. “I’m kind of glad he lied about how close we were,” Alyson commented as we soaked in the view. “I feel like we we’re all so tired that we mightn’t have done it if we’d known.” The sun had well and truly emerged from the clouds, and the afternoon was brilliantly picturesque. Despite the effort, it was ultimately relaxing, and as we sat down in the sunshine with some cold beers, I was thankful that we were staying in remote countryside again, rather than a bustling city. The downtime surrounded by nature was doing wonders for us all.

Chairlift up the hill.

Chairlift up the hill.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out - its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out – its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

***

My favourite thing about our entire stay at Lake Baikal was probably the sauna at our hotel. After the trek back from the lookout, Tim, Dan, Claire, Matt, Jen and myself all got changed into our swimmers and headed for the steam room. It grew a little chilly as the evening rolled around, although it would remain a bright twilight for hours, but inside the sauna we were sweating it out at temperatures of about ninety degrees Celsius. Kostya joined us, dressed in nothing but a skimpily clad towel, to help operate the sauna, but he also had another surprise. Traditionally, in Siberia they use soaking bunches of birch leaves to throw water onto the hot coals and create the steam, and the branches have another purpose. After soaking them in hot water, the bundles of leaves could be used as tools of massage. We all took turns to lie down on one of the wooden benches while Kostya brushed, tickled, and gently whipped us with the birch tree branches. The smell of the foliage also seeped out from the leaves and hot water and mixed into the steam, creating a pleasant aromatherapy atmosphere in the sauna.

After a little while the heat would become overwhelming and we would have to step outside to cool off a little. Sometimes we would just step out into the outer room, where there were showers to rinse off, and other times we’d leave the building in which the sauna was located entirely, to let the Siberian chill tingle our hot steaming skin. When it came time for my birch leaf massage, we’d just returned from the outside air, and so the heat of the sauna enveloped me and dragged my body movements down to a crawl. I climbed up onto the wooden seat, laid face down, and waited for the massage to begin. Obviously it wasn’t a hard or deep tissue massage, but the feeling of the warm, wet leaves being dragged across my back was a peculiar sensation, somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Though the highlight was when he got to my feet – we had been standing out in the cold, and my feet had probably lost more warmth than anywhere else in my body. Normally my feet are quite ticklish, but as Kostya covered my feet with the dripping birch leaves they were filled with a warm sensation that felt so good it was almost paralytic.

After getting me to roll over and continuing the massage on my chest and arms, Kostya threw the branches back into the bucket of water and said, “Okay, let’s go shower!” By this, he meant step out of the sauna so he could douse you with clean, fresh water. Now, I’m not saying that I was exactly attracted to Kostya, but it had been a while since I’d been half-naked and sweaty with another man after getting a massage, and he did have quite a good physique – as I’d been unpacking that morning, I’d watched him and another guest have a push-up competition and let me tell you, the boy’s got guns. So I may have been a little flustered when the two of us stepped outside.
“Cold or hot?” Kostya asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Cold… or hot?” I repeated back to him like a parrot.
“Water for shower,” he said as he pointed to the buckets. “You like hot or cold?”
“Um, warm?” I put my hand in the bucket he’d indicated to me hot, and instantly pulled my hand back out. “That’s cold!”
Kostya laughed. “Is not cold, just feels cold, ’cause… hot from sauna.” He made me feel to cold one, which felt like ice in comparison, to prove his point. “So, cold?”
“Yes but… that cold,” I said as I pointed to the warmer of the two buckets.
“So you want hot?”
I couldn’t believe how much I was stumbling through my words for such a simple decision. “Sure, bring it on,” I finally said. I was most likely going to squeal like a little girl either way, and the cold shower was quickly becoming more of a necessity.

“Okay – one, two, three!” Kostya said as he reached over me and tipped the water over me. No matter how warm he said it was, I was still a shock to the system and I’m fairly confident I let out a loud yelp as he doused me with water, washing away the bits of twigs and leaves that had stuck to me during the massage. Kostya just laughed and threw some more water on me. Cold as it might have been, it was actually amazing – the drastic change in temperature does wonders for your pores and skin, and leaves you feeling like a whole new person. I skipped away from the sauna slightly shivering in the Siberian air, but on the whole feeling like a million bucks. It was the highlight of my time there, to the point where I even went back the next night with Kaylah, Alyson, Rach, Marti and Tim.

***

Dinner also proved to be a new traditional cultural experience. On the morning we arrived in Irkutsk, Marti had attempted to pump us all up a little bit. “You guys ready to eat some dill-icious food!” She’d explained that Russians love putting dill in all their cooking – I didn’t know how I felt about that, as it wasn’t a herb I could recall coming across too often, and so couldn’t think to whether or not it was a taste I enjoyed. As we sat around the table to eat a meal that the hotel owner had prepared for us, there was a ripple of laughter around the table as the plates were set down in front of us, the generous servings of chicken and rice topped with an even more generous serving of dill. “Looks dill-icious!” Marti said through her big smile, and we all laughed along and enjoyed what was actually a delicious home cooked meal. I actually use the word ‘delicious’ a lot in my general everyday discussion of food – yes, I talk about food a lot – so the rest of the group probably thought I was intentionally overing-using the pun and persistently beating the dead horse. I swear I wasn’t, guys – it was just was delicious.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

But it wouldn’t have been a night in Russia without vodka – and we’d stocked up. We started at dinner and kept going into the night until it finally got dark, which actually wasn’t until after 11pm. There wasn’t exactly anywhere to go and party though, in this remote town, so we just sat around the dinner table talking. Slowly but steadily, the numbers began to wane as people headed to bed, and as the group become smaller and more vodka was consumed, the conversations turned a lot more deep and personal. In the end it was just Tim, Alyson, Kaylah and myself, and I feel like that night was a pivotal point in our group bonding. We’d all been together for over a week, and while it was surprising how well you get to know people when you spend so much time with them, I feel like it was those moments of candid confession and revelation that turned most of us into not just travelling companions, but also good friends.