Posts Tagged ‘Money’

Clueless American Tourists Leave Omsk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The next morning we had a late start and were beginning to feel pressed for time before our train left at 1216. With twenty minutes left, we were a little unsure as to the distance after I proposed we try a more direct route than that which we followed two days before. With only 26 roubles to our name, even a taxi was questionable. The clock at fifteen until our only TSR train left the station, I found an ATM and we tried to hail a cab. A few minutes dragged by until we wedged ourselves into the back of a yellow van and asked for the вагзал or train station. The ride wasn’t long but I doubt we would have been able to walk it in time. The driver accepted my 20 roubles and we hurried inside the station with a minute to spare. We didn’t even check the train but boarded the first one we encountered. Barely settled, we pulled out of the station with the consolation that it was 1216 on the dot; it had to be the right train.

We shared this two-night trip with a congenial older woman and an always-smiling middle-aged man. The woman took it upon herself to explain much about the train to the clueless American tourists. Unfortunately, she did so very quickly in Russian. Between reading and sleeping, I was able to learn that I could not plug Dan’s laptop into the two power outlets when we were stopped or when we were moving, for that matter. They were for cell phones, only. I also learned why the smiling man was smiling; he was traveling to Irkutsk to visit his girlfriend. Before night fell, he presented the train’s blankets to Dan and I, smiling. At least one clueless American tourist was thankful during the chilliest night in a while on this trip.

It didn’t help, however, that I had the bunk against the end of the car, next to the doorway to the bathroom and area between cars where many people smoke. That door happened to be one of those that people feel required to slam as hard as they can. All day and all night, people loudly passed. My bunk also had a footboard which prevented me from a comfortable sleeping position. I have always preferred to sleep in a K-shape but the bunk only allowed something like a ƙ-shape. With my feet planted on the board, I couldn’t even lie flat without tilting my head to the side. My mattress kept sliding nearly off the bunk as I tried to find a comfortable position in my sleep. My smiling friend, sleeping below me, was always ready to assist the clueless American tourist in repositioning my mattress.

During the evening we played a version of Charades with the smiling man. It took a few minutes, but we identified his occupation of air traffic controller based on his sketch. Dan’s web developing and my design occupations were easier to guess. He also bought us a “souvenir” at one stop, a steamed pine cone or шишка. He demonstrated how to peel back the segments to reveal delicious seeds or оген. I wonder if I could do that with the millions of pine cones at home. This morning both he and the woman wished us hearty goodbyes as we arrived in Irkutsk about 1030 local time (5 hours ahead of Moscow time). We thanked them and I wanted to wish him well with his girlfriend, but as a clueless American tourist I didn’t know how. If I had to guess, I would say he’s still smiling.

Finding Astana

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

As we stepped off the train onto the platform at the Astana, Kazakhstan Train station on that chilly Thursday (30/07) we quickly realized two things. First, we had almost no idea how to speak Russian and I had only a very rudimentary ability to read Russian and, second, we had no guide book to help us find anything in Astana. We left the train station, loaded to the hilt like pack-mules, walked in a highly confused circle around the square not recognizing a word on the signs, and returned the the station feeling as though we had failed our first foray into the sleepless city.

We decided the thing to do was turn to the all-powerful Internets. There was a little internet shoppe in the train station near the waiting area and, after grabbing some Kazakh Tenge (€1≈400KT) from the cash exchange shoppe around the corner, Matt and I split an hour of internet time. During that time, I discovered that all of the hotels listed online had prices in the €30 a night category for a twin room. I did discover, however, that there was a resting-room hotel in the train station which had much more reasonable prices: in the €5 per person a night range (2000KT). I also discovered that there was no easy way to get out the National Park which was a hundred or two kilometers away without using a travel agency and, again, the prices listed online were astronomical.

Matt and I were a bit dejected. We had wanted to come to Kazakhstan so that we could see the beautiful scenery! Look at Astana from Google Maps and you’ll see just to the South-West of the city, a series of spectacular blue lakes… but… they seemed completely inaccessible. We were carrying hiking equipment and it didn’t look like we’d be able to use it. Man, things were not turning out as we had hoped. We bought an Astana map from a little kiosk in the train station, dug out our Russian phrasebook and sat down in the train station waiting area to decide on our course of action. Before we decided, however, I went to the Train Station information office, asked the location of the tourist office in phrasebook-Russian, was assisted to a booth outside by a kind lady who spoke no English, and was rather rudely informed at that place, that they could not offer me any information on hotels, guesthouses, or other accommodations.

We decided to spend the night in the cheapest place we knew, the Train-Station Hotel—despite the fact that the price didn’t include showers—, drop our bags there and wander around the city looking for a better place to stay. We also had another mission. Upon finally being allowed to enter Kazakhstan, we had read on the back of our entry/departure form we filled out that we had to register within 5 days of our arrival in Kazakhstan. We were convinced that it was too late to register that night, and we had no idea where to go to register. We were in a pickle.

That evening we spent a few hours wandering the city, familiarising ourselves with it. The city lies in the middle of a flat plain and consists of three informal divisions on a north-south axis. The first is the old, crummy city on the North side of the train-tracks. This area has existed for decades, since Astana had a different name and was the capital of nothing. It is filled with low-rent, three-to-four story apartment buildings, shacks, sheds, and markets. According to everyone we talked to, it was filled with seedy individuals, the “Russian Mafia,” and unsavory people of various sorts.

The second division of the city is between the train station and the river to the South. This consists of a lot of older, Soviet-era cement-block buildings. Several universities, a museum, a few dingy parks, and a number of palote apartment buildings. In this area, older restaurants, cafes, and a few “Beesnes Tsentrs” or shopping centers mingled with police headquarters, a military university, and a place called “Congress” which is apparently where the circus performs when it’s in town. I liked this area, because it was rather what I was expecting from Astana, and because there were several odd statues, like a naked boy standing on the back of a lion-sized wolf.

The third part of the city is South of the river and past a large park/amusement park area. It consists of gleaming new buildings, a “diplomatic quarter” slated to be completed by 2030 and house all the diplomats in the capital city, and dozens of buildings of stunning un-Soviet architecture. This entire region had been built up since 1991 when Astana became the capital of a free Kazakhstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Architecture was the main feature of this picturesque part of town. The famous tower of Astana, now a national icon sits at the middle and is surrounded by buildings which spiral, curve, and angle skyward proclaiming the worth of this oil and land-rich nation and perhaps reflecting a bit of its space-faring past (the spaceport from which most of Russia’s cosmonauts and Soyuz vessels launched is inside of Kazakhstan and the nation makes some money renting the spaceport out to both commercial groups and nations).

We realised that the main adventure of this part of our trip would simply be learning how to survive and do the things we needed to do like register our visas, find a cheap place to stay, and see the city.

Relief

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The morning of the 23rd, I (Matt) drove us across the Latvian border and into Riga. I felt relief that we had been able to contact the Millers regarding our financial plight and the ol’ Volkswagen had withstood the strenuous drive north without a mechanical breakdown. Little did I know, the capital of Latvia would ultimately add to my relief.

A little before noon, I found a parking space along a busy street near the train station and a block from our previous parking spot during our visit several months before. This time I had the same intention, finding a free Wi-Fi connection. We hung there for several hours, sharing the computer. When I fell asleep, Dan left to inquire at the station for two train tickets to Moscow for the next day. He returned with a couple price figures and the two times trains would leave each day. We agreed to leave the next night at 6 pm on the lowest class train for only 22 Lats or about $44 each. So far so good. Instead of following through and purchasing the tickets, we were distracted by the wonderful World Wide Web. I returned to the station with the group debit card to make the purchase but, after visiting two information desks and three ticket counters, I discovered the tickets had seemingly jumped in price to about 56 Lt each. Alarmed, I returned to the car, and we began discussing alternatives like air and bus fare. We had to make it to Moscow by the 27th to catch our expensive Trans Siberian Railway train. We weren’t, however, willing to pay roughly $230 to train there. Stress.

After each of us had made several more intensely stressful trips to and from the station, we understood that Dan, when he originally found the ideal tickets, hadn’t been informed of the seats’ availability, only of their existence. The one friendly clerk told Dan that only six similar tickets were next available for the 26th. That inspired more stress as we tried to determine whether a train departing that evening would allow us to make the TSR’s departure the next day. Dan searched his e-mail account but couldn’t locate the crucial time of departure from Moscow. Sweating, I returned to the ticket counter to find the clerk had taken a fifteen minute break. I was ready at the counter when she returned to confirm that the tickets were refundable and sell them. Smiling, she informed me I had purchased two of only four remaining tickets. Back at the car, I sat there, overwhelmed and holding a pair of tickets to Moscow at noon on the 27th. Then Dan found the TSR itinerary in a previously undiscovered e-mail, the moment of reckoning… We would make the TSR’s departure. Utterly relieved, we high-fived from our seats in the car. We had two of the very last four affordable tickets to make our connecting train. A few minutes later and we would have had to spend nearly three times as much. Instead, we would travel for the lower price, arrive in time to pick up our tickets, and possibly see Red Square. Relief.

We celebrated with two McDonald’s apple pies. We finished on the Internet, I fell asleep, and Dan drove us a little out of the city and parked in a pull-off. We woke the next morning early, determined to sell our car. We emptied the car, packing our main bags and collecting a significant trash pile until noon. We followed a Google map Dan had loaded to two junkyards and a couple car repair ships. No one bought used cars and I began feeling a little stress. We didn’t want much for the car; we merely needed to dispose of it somewhere before training across Asia. The next shop bought such cars, including Volkswagens. Dan received an offer from two rough-looking Latvian men eying the Passat, of €600 and successfully asked for €700. A little shocked, we grabbed our stuff from the car. We walked away with Euro bills in our pocket and our current possessions on our backs and in our hands, before they could change their minds and refuse the deal. I am in awe of the Lord’s provision on this trip. This includes my disbelief in the fact that our station-wagon, purchased in England for about $2 thousand, returned $1 thousand off the Baltic Sea, three months and 20,000 miles later. Relief.

Suddenly without wheels of our own, we caught a bus back to Riga’s train station and walked to a youth hostel in Riga’s old town. Our day’s goal completed, we settled into a comfortable dormitory room for a two-nights stay before our train journey began the 26th. Dan and I spent some time on the Internet and I walked around the old town, seeing the touristy shops and restaurants, buying some provisions at a grocery store, and touring the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The Museum outlined the plight of Latvia under the German and Russian regimes from 1940 to 1991. The country, centrally located between the East and the West, has seen its fair share of occupation and oppression. We shared the 12-bed hostel room with a man who was studying the result of Russia’s practice of deporting thousands of citizens in the Baltic States to scatter them across Russia and replace them with Russians. As a part of his Master’s thesis, he had researched for three weeks in Riga before soon moving to Estonia for two more.

Still rebuilding from its Soviet past, Riga is a pleasant city. The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, allowed us to explore its back roads. Saturday night I left the hostel and its frustratingly sketch Internet connection and intentionally got lost in the confusing network of roadways. I enjoy getting intentionally lost and I believed I could easily find my way back to the hostel by following the three impressive church steeples in the old town. Not so when, an hour and a half later, I ended up in a residential part of the city with only apartment buildings and only business buildings on the horizon. I tried to ask a few people but no one could direct me in the direction of the old town or the train station. Several people gave me the numbers of the buses I would have to take. I had gotten lost on purpose; I wouldn’t concede defeat by busing back. Finally, I had a young woman point the general direction and two hours and 45 minutes after I had left, I walked, into our hostel room. Relief.

Dan and I walked another hour, tentatively looking for a cheap restaurant before returning to pub near the train station. We enjoyed mushroom pizzas and soups while discussing acceptance and correction according to the Bible and their role in the intended Body of Christ. Fascinating. After attending two churches the next morning (merely because I slept in), we ran into each other, Dan walking with four people from his earlier English-speaking service. We joined them for a delicious meal of Latvian potato pancakes, delicious courses with sour cream or jellies. Keith Trampe, with his wife Andrea, were Nebraskans, nearly done with their year-long post as minister at the Riga Lutheran church. We shared a wonderful conversation about Latvian, Nebraskan, and Indonesian culture and our European travels with them and another couple, an Indonesian woman and a German man, the German police liaison to the entire Baltic region. I thought visiting 40 countries was impressive; the German had spent time in over 90. Fascinating.

We finished, exchanged contact information, headed for the hostel, late, and checked out. Lugging out bags behind us, we found a bench in the park by the train station. Dan read while I walked an hour to a cheap grocery store before we cooked a meal of ham, tomatoes, and macaroni stew. Soon, we left for the station, two hours early. On the way, I gave our large pot, with the stew we were unable to finish and a plastic fork, to a homeless man on the other side of the park. Dan reminds me that he may not have been homeless. Perhaps he was just a normal guy who enjoyed digging through trash cans. He accepted the pot gladly and it felt good to share out humble dinner. I explored the station and wrote a postcard to my family. Unfortunately, I only had 20 Lat cents, 30 short of those necessary to mail a postcard to America. Wolfers, if you’re reading this, know that I still have your Roman Colosseum postcard and I’ll send it asap. I returned to a nervous Ziegler, 10 minutes before the train’s departure. We walked nearly the entire length of the long train and struggled to work our way into the full car to our seats with our stuffed bags. The car portion of the trip had satisfactorily completed and the train portion had successfully begun. Relief.

Matt

Turkish Delight

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

I (Matt) navigated us to the Turkish border the morning of the eighteenth and remained reading in the car while Dan ventured into the offices to assess the costs of entry. He believed the man behind the counter at the border to say it would cost 50 each for a visa. He walked to the ATM and withdrew 100 Euro. He walked back to the man and learned they required Turkish Lira. He walked back to the ATM and exchanged the money into Lira. He walked back to the man and learned they only required 15 Lira each. Let me interject here and tell you that it’s really difficult to differentiate between 15 and 50 in foreign accents. We’ve experienced this several times on the trip, including the time when I insulted a t-shirt vendor at the U2 concert. In my defense, the t-shirt was only worth 15 Euro to me. Dan continued walking, returning to the border checkpoint with our visas before being informed of the required 40 Euro Turkish insurance for our car. He walked to another counter, bought that, and returned to the checkpoint. Daniel drove us into Turkey, delighted to be in Turkey and also off his feet. “To Istanbul!” we almost literally exclaimed.

Once in the city, we sat in a traffic jam off the Bosphorus for an hour before finding parking near the towering Hagia Sophia. We walked across the old city in search of an ATM. Only later did we realize we has walked past half a dozen. Dan must have wanted to walk a little more that day. I’m kidding, but at least we saw more of Istanbul. With our money, we tried to decipher our map and ended up at the Archeology Museums. A few Lera and we wandered the incredible collection of over one million objects from nearly every civilization in history. Istanbul, the bridge between the East and the West, has collected so many impressive artifacts from both sides. These included Hellenistic gravestones with concise, wonderful inscriptions like: “Marcus Flavius, he who caused no harm, farewell.” We also saw the oldest known peace treaty in the world, the Kadesh Peace Treaty, signed between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire in 1258 B.C. There were some 800 thousand Ottoman coins, seals, decorations and medals. There were even artifacts with crazy-small inscriptions from the early civilizations of Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt, a few dating as far back as 5000 B.C. Delightfully mind-boggling dates. We walked back between the Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) and found a hotel for the night. A room to ourselves, a warm shower, free parking across the street, free wi-fi access, a fan, clean sheets, comfortable pillows, a small breakfast, and the comfort of relaxing : $25. The ability to look out our room’s fourth floor window, across to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, practically on either side : priceless and delightful.

We walked to the Istanbul Strait for some Turkish coffee and a bottle of water to wash it down. Seriously. I jokingly called it motor oil. Not really, but it was certainly of a similar consistency, really thick and strong. Daniel liked it. Cultural experience. Back at the hotel I called my parents on Skype and Interneted late into the night. The soothing piano music from the restaurant below our window was silent be the time I finally signed off and fell happily asleep, clean body in a clean bed. I mention clean because I hadn’t had a shower since that Monday and had sweat a lot in the week’s summer heat. Another delightful shower in the morning and we left by 11 for church. Over the next two hours were involved in an accident and lost several times.

I had the laptop in my lap, trying to navigate from the Google map, turning right onto a busy Istanbul road, stuck behind a bus, signaled, and when I thought we were clear, Dan pulled around the bus. Halfway into our lane, a taxi whipped around the corner and slid its right, rear wheel well across front, left bumper. Dan pulled off to the side of the road and jumped out to face the less-than-delighted taxi driver. The traffic cops arrived soon and it took an hour to sort out paperwork and work out blame for the accident. An officer assured Dan we were innocent and we left with a photocopy of the taxi driver’s insurance information. We continued to struggle to navigate the city for the next hour, getting “stuck” in a tiny back ally when it suddenly dead-ended and we didn’t have room to turn the Passat around. A woman came out of her apartment and shared laughter with us and with another woman until a man arrived to move his van, letting us out. A couple more narrow roads, steep slopes, navigation in reverse, automotive showdowns, and we found a parking garage and walked to the Dutch Embassy and it’s service in Turkish and English. We attempted to sing along with the Turkish worship music and a man translated the lesson, delivered by four Turkish men. We left the delightful service and were served some coconut, chocolate, and pistachio-flavored Turkish Delight.

We finally visited the Hagia Sophia, the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years after its completion in 537 A.D. Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its construction and proclaimed of the rich decoration, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the building into a mosque. The Christian features were replaced by Islamic, four minarets were built outside, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. We toured the building, now a museum, enjoying its incredible Byzantine architecture of uncovered mosaics and massive marble pillars and ornamentation. I’m not sure, but Solomon would have probably been delighted. The main columns, each over 65 feet of granite weighing 70 tons, support the 102 feet wide central dome 182 feet above the floor. Not of Solomon’s wisdom but we were delighted. We retraced our steps westward towards Bulgaria.

Matt

Paris: Comprenez-vous?

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Sunday morning (17th of May) served as another major step in our adventure: the language barrier. After breakfast, we arrived in Pontoise with full intentions of parking and taking public transportation into Paris. Even the former was a new challenge; our understanding of French parking signs was far from perfect. The qualifications above our parking sport contained an ambiguous French word, sauf. Ziegler successfully defined the word’s meaning as either “except” or “death.” Parking there meant either that we should pay-and-display except on Sundays or that we would be killed on Sunday. I (Matt) instinctively hoped to avoid both fines and death, if possible. Transportation inspired more trepidation. We studied the train and bus station’s maps and ticket machine for such recognizable terms as cul-de-sac, soup de jour, rendezvous, or laissez-faire. After seeing our few minutes of failure, a timid young woman approached us and asked in halting English if we needed help. Oui. She generally explained how to purchase tickets on the RER train into Paris. As she led us to the correct terminal, she informed me that she was studying to be an illustrator. Still very cautiously speaking with limited English, she brightened when I told her of my graphic design minor. We thanked her profusely and I boarded the train with the broader awareness of the extent of our adventure. We were suddenly very foreign and very alone in a country that spoke very little of our mother tongue.

Upon leaving our final stop we chased the first recognizable structure, the Eiffel Tower. We circled beneath the monument and asked a random tourist to take the clique picture of us with the monument. The young man turned out to be a missionary kid from Utah, the first person we had met who spoke English comfortably. We moved on toward the Arc de Triomphe. It was a long walk past numerous buildings with illegible signage. We arrived at the famous arch during a curious lull in traffic and ascended to the top. Paris is quite the lovely city and the Arc serves as a hub for its numerous boulevards. We enjoyed the view and I, surprisingly, took several pictures before we purposed to walk along one such boulevard. First, we had to cross the roundabout encircling the Arc with its increased traffic. David informed us that the circle was the only place in France where fault was not defined in auto accident insurance claims. Instead, all involved drivers split the responsibility to avoid conflict. We decided to test this approach by making a mad dash across numerous lanes of traffic to the sidewalk. David had a showdown with a Mercedes-Benz and apparently some cops yelled at Shenk from a Police van. Still alive, we continued down the Champs Elysses boulevard to the impressive glass pyramids of the Louvre and then across the city to the even more impressive Notre Dame cathedral. Our hunger prompted a splurge on the exotic-sounding dish on a McDonalds menu, the Croque McDo. The woman behind the counter handed us a ham and cheese sandwich. Finding a train station, we returned to our camping spot for soup and sleep.

By the light of Monday morning, Dan discovered we were parked on one side of a stand of trees from a golf course; too bad we had forgotten our clubs. We drove back into Pontoise, bought some groceries (including croissants and Laughing Cow cheese), and parked the car at the station. We rode to the Louvre and ate a late lunch of our purchases before splitting up in the art museum. I could have spent two weeks in that building. Instead, we rationed our time in the three and a half hours until it closed at 5. I felt immensely torn between seeing as many works of art as possible and allowing enough time at specific works to appreciate them. As such, I had to continually remind myself that what I saw was not merely the subjects of my studies over many years but actually the pieces of art touched by the very artistic masters themselves. Da Vinci himself touched the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks. Delacroix touched Liberty Leading the People and not Coldplay. Some master sculpture chiseled Venus de Milo over two thousand years ago. Hundreds of brilliant artists had touched the art in the museum and made each uniquely beautiful. I emerged and met the guys at five, all of us slightly dazed. We walked across the river to Notre Dame but found it closed. On a brighter note, I finally made good on my aim to kick a pigeon and it helped me relieve some of the disappointment in missing the cathedral’s interior. The four of us began the journey alongside the Rive Seine and I tried in vain to ask where we could procure bagets, thin loaves of bread. I really fail at foreign languages and our French phrase book helped very little. To tide us over until dusk, we had some Expresso coffee and a croissant at a little restaurant. At the Eiffel Tower a little after nine, we discovered we were unable to climb the steps to the first platform at night as we had orignially planned, to save 3 Euro a person. I could have kicked another pigeon but we still took the trams up. Paris is even more lovely at night and from its highest point. We did the touristy thing and took lots of pictures. On the way down I realized I, the only single guy on this trip, had just passed up the most ideal opportunity to kiss a random girl. How could a single young woman refuse me a kiss at the top of the most iconic and romantic places in the City of Love? I even considered how long it had been since my last shower but I doubted it was much longer than for any true French young woman. On another note, we didn’t see any all red pickpockets like on the tower’s cautionary signs. Shenk, in his red lumberjack coat, was similar but thankfully kept his hand out of others’ purses.

By the time we returned to earth, it was after 11 and we had missed the last Pontoise-bound train from the nearest station. The feeling of being alone and foreign returned as four young men set out to either return to the car or find a place to sleep for the night. We trained to the central station and happily discovered the last train of the night to our destination would leave in 17 minutes. Naturally our debit card refused to cooperate in the ticket machine and anxieties began to rise. We tried to explain our situation to an employee and thought he explained that because of our predicament, we could just get on the train without a ticket. We hurried aboard. In our second encounter with the law, six police officers followed us onto the train and demanded tickets. Pale, we explained our position but the tense situation seemed rapidly leading toward us sleeping on benches in that station for the night. As exciting as that would have been, we were relieved when the head officer finally relented and we barely left on the last train to our car for free. Truly an exciting beginning in the foreign language step on this exciting journey.

Matt