2012 still marks the most dramatic shift in Scott and I’s lives to date. This was both the year that we met, and the year that we both embarked on a round the world journey with Dr. Chad Thatcher and the CMU Outdoor Program. Our group would travel from London, up to Finland and into Russia, and we would make our way east via the Trans-Siberian railway through Siberia to Mongolia. On the last stop, we would end our journey in Beijing, China. In its entirety, we visited over 12 countries and over 20 cities in just two months.
I had quit my miserable job, and Scott had taken advantage of being laid off from the weld shop he had been working in. We were both seeking an epic adventure and extreme life changes even then. We had never met, but little did we know we would soon be crossing paths with our future spouse for the first time. We would also be embarking on the most epic journey of our entire lives. Not only did we fall in love on this trip, but we made lasting friendships with our fellow travelers in the group whose lives were forever changed by the journey too.
Thanks to our seasoned and old-school professor Dr. Chad Thatcher, we learned the backpacker ins and outs from the best. When we hit Russia, it was Chad’s 100th country. We learned how to backpack, how to navigate, and how to handle abrupt travel situations of all kinds. Most importantly, Dr. Thatcher showed us what it was to be in the moment and just live. At the time, the “Trans-Eurasia” trip as we called it was the longest distance traversed by any CMU Outdoor Program group, and was a massive distance to cover in just two months.
Part of this “course” required not making any reservations in advance whatsoever as we went along. No accommodation bookings were made except (perhaps) the night before arrival. All transportation tickets were bought on the spot. Research was done the old-fashioned way, by packing around a few Lonely Planet paperbacks each. We used maps, not google maps. In fact, the only reservations we had set in stone were our flights into London, and our flights two months later out of China back home.
As you can imagine, we had some straight up adventures. This is a very brief outline of some of our group’s most memorable moments on the trip that changed us all forever.
WALKING THE RED CARPET
We saw most of Europe in just 2 ½ weeks. From London to Finland, we visited nine countries. We constantly moved and stayed in each place a mere 3 days at the most. It was Germany though, where we haphazardly got to live like A-list celebrities! On one of our few days in Berlin, the rain was relentless. To pass some time and allow the rain to let up, we went to the theater in the Mall of Berlin to see a movie. We noticed there was some sort of Amazing Spiderman setup going on, but didn’t think much of it.
After watching Moonrise Kingdom, and taking a very solemn and touching trip to the Holocaust memorial nearby, we wandered our way back to the Mall of Berlin to see what all the Spiderman fuss was about. We found it packed to the brim with giddy fans and paparazzi, all waiting to see the German premier of the film! Celebrities like Emma Stone, and the director Marc Webb himself were making their way down the red carpet right before our eyes.
Our stealthy professor noticed a newscaster in a suit asking fans questions with a handheld microphone, and realized he was giving away free premier tickets to everyone he interviewed. Together, we shouted and hollered until we got the man’s attention. He finally caught sight of us, and we were ecstatic when he pointed the microphone our way and asked us where we were from. We represented our college and Colorado loudly and built up the hype. Low and behold, with a slight grimace after asking how many of us there were, the man got us eight free tickets into the Spiderman showing.
Up to this point, we had been traveling nonstop for days. None of us had showered in about three! With our fancy premier tickets in hand, we walked the red carpet, the same red carpet all the stars of the movie had walked along just minutes before. Soaking wet from the rain, smelly, and in dirty and unattractive travel clothes – we were a confusing sight for onlookers.
The crowd must have thought we were the janitorial crew or some non-worthy group of vagabonds. High class stars and their constituents were arriving in limos and checking their fur coats at the doors, and we were checking our wet day packs and bothering the bar tenders for more free beer!
The movie itself was okay, but it’s the experience that made us never forget. It was amazing seeing how a premier is actually executed. Not only that, Scott and I got to meet the professor of the director too, who happened to be from the little town of Steamboat, Colorado!
INTO RUSSIA AND ONTO THE TRANS-SIBERIAN
The sardine can beds and rail-car induced madness that is the Trans-Siberian railway will always stick out in our minds, and it was a highlight of our journey. From partying with a car full of drunken soldiers, to nearly dying on a renegade Russian taxi ride, we felt like we’d seen it all. We travelled through some extremely intriguing cities along the way, as well.
Saint Petersburg and the Church on Spilled Blood
Sadly, we barely missed the White Nights festival by the time we arrived in St. Petersburg. However, it was still the time of year where it would not get dark until after 2:00 in the morning! The nights looked like evenings, and it never fully got dark. We had an epic time in this fantastic and underrated city, getting to know the locals from our hostel and drinking vodka well into the night. Though there were countless buildings and monuments to see in St. Petersburg (including the biggest museum in the world, the Hermitage), one of the best was the Church on Spilled Blood.
This place is said to have its central black jade altar built on the very spot where Emporer Alexander II was killed. Though it had been destroyed by war, it took hundreds of artists and 27 years to rebuild this beautiful monument. The interior is just as amazing as the outside. Millions of tiny mosaic tiles make up the detailed murals along its walls.
St. Petersburg was a place unlike any other, just like all of Russia. As we made our way from city to city across Siberia on the railway, it seemed our experiences became increasingly memorable with each new train car.
The Fat Man and the Soldiers
Boarding one of the Trans-Siberian trains, we found our beds to be within the same cars that were full of young Russian soldiers just going home for leave. Among them was a round, jolly and shirtless man who looked eerily similar to Randy from Trailer Park Boys. The party atmosphere in the car was booming, and the fat man was one of the crew, and the instigator.
Giant beers were being passed around the entire car, and slices of sausages were being handed out to compliment shots of vodka. (Yes, there’s no orange juice or coca-cola here, vodka chasers are slices of Russian sausage.) The rail car maid, or provenista, was a very worn-thin and mean-looking woman. She was keeping a close eye on us to make sure we didn’t untidy her rail car too much past her comfort zone, but the second she turned away all hell broke loose!
One of the soldiers opened up a 2-liter beer, which had apparently been shaken up. The thing exploded all over the place, and within seconds all of our newfound drinking buddies had deserted the car in fear of the provenista taking their heads! They left us Americans there alone, to face the angry provenista and take the blame. All that was left was us, and the drunken shirtless fat man. Her footsteps were like T-Rex stomps as she stormed down the isle of the rail car, her face red and fuming. She began screaming at all of us immediately at the top of her lungs in Russian.
“It was only the fat man who could talk us out of it, but in his drunken state she wasn’t having it.”
Since none of us were Russian speakers whatsoever, we could only shake our heads and point. It was only the fat man who could talk us out of it, but in his drunken state she wasn’t having it. She screamed and yelled and pointed her finger angrily at all of us. Luckily, a quiet woman who had been giggling at our clown show stepped in to tell her what really happened and saved our asses. The provenista stormed to the rail car where the soldiers were hiding and to our surprise, returned with all of them to make them clean up their mess.
“As she screamed at them, they bowed their heads like scolded toddlers.”
As she screamed at them, they bowed their heads like scolded toddlers. Their tough looking uniforms were nothing in the eyes of a provenista. These ladies run the show on the Trans-Siberian, and we weren’t allowed to party anymore and were sent to bed early. Lights out. In the morning, we heard her screaming at someone all the way from a different car, and we assumed it was another blunder by a soldier. As it turns out, the fat man had lost a metal spoon she’d given him. We’re sure he never heard the end of it, and neither of them looked enthused as we made our way off the train.
This moment is still to this day one of our favorites. Though it had been tense, we give the fat man kudos for being so cool and taking the brunt of the provenista‘s force. And she was a force to be reckoned with indeed!
Religious Realizations in Kazan
Kazan was a city on the Siberian map that we knew nothing about and figured it would be just a stop through. But when we arrived and had a chance to wander, it’s significance became overwhelming. In this city, both Muslim and Russian Orthodox people not only lived alongside each other, but they lived in harmony. What was even more interesting was that most people we encountered there had never met an American before in their lives.
We got stares, and curious looks and whispers everywhere we went. We never felt it was in a negative way, it was more like a public icon or celebrity might feel walking down a busy street. We even met a few excited schoolgirls who were super excited for the chance to practice their English with us, and they gave us a small trinket parting gift too.
In our wanderings, we reached a Muslim mosque that was so beautiful we were astounded by its beauty. Bright blue domes were nestled between chalk white pillars that grasped at the sky. Old ladies were handing out scarves to women entering the mosque (to cover shoulders and legs), and there was even a wedding going on inside. Just as we reached the mosque and took in the scene, we watched a spontaneous rainstorm roll in over the area and shoo away the heat all around us.
We were so hot and muggy from the day, we jumped at the chance to play in the rain. A few of us slid along puddles and got soaking wet. People watched us in disbelief from all sides. The bride and groom watched from the lower doorway of the mosque with their family members, laughing as we slid along the slick tiled ground.
In addition to the mosque, we also visited a Roman catholic church, with a large smoking incense pendulum swinging along the ceiling. Singing priests lined the altar. Kazan truly helped us realize the beauty of people being able to live in peace.
Both religions were a part of the city’s culture, and both were extremely prominent at the same time. Mixes of traditions all in one place, the people seemed to have a deeper understanding of each other. Kazan was proof that we are all the same people, and we can all get along no matter our traditional backgrounds.
The Taxi Cabs of Death
In Russia, traffic laws are nonexistent. Any laws that do exist are not enforced at all, and it’s unbelievable that anyone is able to get down even one block without crashing violently! In a complete rush one night, we realized our next train tickets were set to depart so soon that we may not make it.
Though we could buy tickets in one station, our train was leaving from another all the way across town. We hustled our way out of the invalid station and frantically searched for taxis that would take all eight of us to where we needed to be in just 10 minutes.
After some relentless haggling for a few precious moments, we found two drivers willing to help at a reasonable price. We split into two groups of four, cramming into two cars. I was on Scott’s lap and backpacks that wouldn’t fit in the trunk were slung about the car wherever they would fit. The second we left the station, we knew we were in for it.
The drivers literally laid their palms on the horns and pretty much kept them there the entire time. We nearly went on two wheels rounding corners, and it seemed they were maxing out their speedometers. They were driving straight into oncoming traffic, somehow keeping their speedy momentum on the wrong side of the road!!
All the while we were screaming at dangerous turns, cursing loudly and closing our eyes fearfully in the harsh brightness of other headlights. The renegade drivers were flashing their brights at people, driving over medians, and oncoming traffic was honking back and separating like water and oil to get out of our way.
“Luckily, we lived and we made it to the train with just seconds to spare.”
Luckily, we lived and we made it to the train with just seconds to spare. The drivers wouldn’t even take a tip for risking their lives for us! We were mostly grateful that we were still in one piece, but even more grateful that we had made it to our next train. Had we missed it, we could have been stranded for the night, and out the chunk of cash we put down on our tickets.
CAMELS AND NOMADS IN MONGOLIA
There is little that most people know about Mongolia, and for us we had done only basic research. We realized things like, Ghengis Khan’s name is actually pronounced “Chingus Han”. We also realized that throughout Mongolia the indigenous and nomadic culture is alive and well.
In the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, a whole half of the population resided there, with the rest being scattered along the Mongolian wilderness. We took a very long expedition via Russian kombi bus across the bumpy dirt paths that made up Mongolian roads. We mainly made our way south into the sand dunes of what is known as the “Little Gobi Desert” and across various landscapes and villages, and back to Ulaanbaatar again.
We experienced piping hot pools, drank fermented mare’s milk, reached a desolate volcano crater by horseback, and experienced true nomad life by staying in Mongolian yurts (traditionally known as gers) along the way. In addition, I spent my golden birthday in the Gobi desert, on the back of a camel. Though nomadic families can specialize in a variety of skills in Mongolia, no matter where we turned each family seemed to have generations upon generations of practice in everything they did.
We couldn’t speak the language or read the alphabet, but regardless the Mongolian people were extremely friendly and hospitable to us everywhere we went. The two guides we had on our excursion are still dear friends of ours to this day, and Mongolia’s deep nomadic culture is what is drawing Scott and I to return to Mongolia in the future.
TATTOOS AND WALLS IN BEIJING, CHINA
Beijing was the end of our amazing ride, but still the beginning of something greater. We were all a bit ready to head home and return to simple comforts, but deep down we had been instilled with a deep wanderlust that can never be broken.
After arriving in the city, it was a strange and almost unreal reality that we only had nine days left in our journey. Exploring the Great Wall, the hutongs, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace and Drum Tower, there was a sense of change that was happening under the surface.
This wasn’t just the change into Eastern culture. Throughout the Trans-Eurasia trip, we had seen firsthand the gradual transition from Western culture into eastern culture across Siberia. Written characters changed, faces and skin tone changed, and traditions changed.
This pulling sense of change in Beijing ran much deeper – I doubt any of us felt that we were the same people that had landed in London just two months ago.
To commemorate this life-changing journey, I had decided before I even left that I would get a tattoo. I had a couple small ones at the time (now I have lots), but it was important to me to have the meaning of this journey embedded in something more permanent than my own memory.
One day, I picked up a business card for a tattoo shop from the front desk of our hostel, and made my appointment for the day before we caught our flight home. Scott, who had now become my partner and boyfriend, accompanied me to the shop.
The artist was fantastic and did really great work. What we couldn’t communicate, google translate filled in fine. Also, he loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So, we were destined to get along nicely. Today, the tattoo is still bright and the outlines clear. The characters read “guo dua”, which means strong minded, decisive, and determined. Roughly, the yellow and blue lotus flower symbolizes knowledge, creativity, responsibility, and honesty.
Some people have asked me if the characters actually mean what they are supposed to. Tattoo artists in China don’t misspell characters on purpose, that is an inconceivable insult. I also made sure to research well. To this day when I see it in the mirror, I always think of how the journey changed me, and remember the lessons and the experiences that will stick with me forever.
This article doesn’t come close to tapping the surface of everything we saw and experienced along the way. Frankly, it would be impossible to lay out each and every bit of life-changing goodness here. Our adventures on the Trans-Siberian railway are what truly taught us how to live in the moment, and showed us what true happiness feels like. When you have no pressing responsibilities even in a short two months, you learn quickly how to enjoy your time alive, and appreciate the very moment you are in.
Without the Trans-Eurasia trip, Scott and I may never have met, or gotten married. Neither of us would have made some of the friends we have now. Sometimes, we wonder if it wasn’t for this trip, would we have felt comfortable leaving our normal lives behind and never looking back? Perhaps not, but maybe we were always destined to take this path, just as we were when we embarked on the Trans-Eurasia. There’s an even better chance we were meant to be exactly where we are today, at this very moment, experiencing the purity of life through travel again.
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Special thanks to Dr. Chad Thatcher not just for the pictures, but for the opportunity of a lifetime.