Day 1 of Trans-Manchurian: And We’re Off!

The journey?  Six whole days on the Trans-Manchurian from Moscow, Russia to Beijing, China.  The diary?  Below.

The sleepers are more comfortable than anticipated.  We’re in second class, so third class would be more open, less private.

I’ll admit, the cabin space for three people is cramped.  This train journey seems to be a tourist draw, seen a few foreigners already.

When we boarded last night, the fella managing our car was overly friendly, kissing Nora’s hand as I was filming her entrance on the train.  I’m pretty sure he grudgingly kissed mine to be polite.  That guy is for Nora all the way.  Should I be happy or insulted?

The landscape?

Mucho trees turning into fall colors, reminds me of Canada a lot.  I approve.  What is interesting? Some of the houses seem built with matchsticks, like a strong wind could blow them over with one huff.

They look abandoned, and an observer wouldn’t know if anyone lived there until the eye catches sight of a laundry line straining with clothes or a garden patch teaming with cabbage.  A touch of desolation hit the senses when I saw the occasional abandoned car or truck.

BIG PROBLEM: Constipation!  My body is pretty regular, so when it can’t go, especially when it needs to. Ugh.

Tep Wireless Saved My Bacon

I’m sure you all read accounts of Nora and myself using tep Pocket Wi-Fi Devices across the European leg of the Ultimate Train Challenge.

My overall impression of using this device?  It saved my butt more than once.

There were numerous occasions I hadn’t booked a hostel, couldn’t remember where I was going next or needed to see a map quickly.

Instead of panicking, I simply planted myself in the middle of a train station, pulled out my laptop and figured out what to do.

If you need a recap, tep provides a device that can either connect to your computer or operate hands-free (unless it needs a battery recharge) that utilizes any 3G network within range.  You connect to the device like any wi-fi network quite easily.

This means you can pretty much get wi-fi in the most unexpected places.

I got signals on moving trains.

I honestly don’t know where I would have slept in Barcelona if tep wasn’t in my computer bag.

I was in the small city of Montpellier and was able to pick up a signal with no problem.

For reliability, it wins hands down.  I even had my new iPhone with me and tested the difference.  A handful of times, I got a stronger signal with the tep device, than my phone.

By |September 26th, 2011 |Categories: Ultimate Train Challenge |1 Comment

When in Rome, Try Something Else: My Top Five in Italy

The sad reality is I won’t see nearly all the cool places or do enough interesting things in Italy.  So, why not let former Italy resident and damn fine blogger Annie Bettis tell you her top five musts?

 

It is almost a guarantee that no matter who you happen to ask, their answer is going to include Italy as one of their top must-see destinations. When it was time for me to hop on my flight across the Atlantic, I have to admit that I’d considered Italy very little as a destination in my brand new desire to see the world. My reasons for going there were completely different than most; delicious pasta and wine had, shockingly, spent very little time lingering in my thoughts that year. Nevertheless, there I was in the middle of Florence where I thankfully ended up stuck for the next year. It was the perfect amount of time to see just what my fantasies were missing.

Living in the Renaissance City meant that every single day I was bombarded with the names of famous artists and must-see museums. I’m not really one for art, a trait that I blame on my bland American education, but if art and history are what you fancy then a trip to each of the Florence museums should be on your list. If you’re a bit more like me, with food, wine and sunshine taking a higher priority, here’s what should be on your list.

1. Pizza

Above all else, if it’s the only thing you do in Italy, eat pizza. Your best bet will be to head straight to the birthplace of the slice itself and step into some of the most famous pizzerias in the old port town of Naples. There are plenty of famous and worthy pizzerias in Naples but if you want to experience your pizza in Hollywood style, then it’s Pizzeria Da Michelle that you want. Given world-wide fame thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert’s reference to it in her book Eat, Pray, Love, the deliciousness is as real as the lines. The waits will be worth it when you take your first bite of melting, ooey-gooey, cheesy, sweet tomato-y love. Shall I go on?

2. Taking a Wine Tour of Tuscany

Many people are confused about what exactly Tuscany is. All too often while I was in Florence I heard visitors referring to heading to Tuscany for the weekend. Well, technically that could mean that they were heading to the greater region and doing their best to keep the name-calling general but something tells me they didn’t know any better.

Tuscany is actually the region (think State, Province, etc.) that houses Florence, so referring to it as if you are leaving Florence for Tuscany doesn’t really flow well. That aside, be sure to give all of Tuscany a chance! Perhaps one of the most famous wines in the world, Chianti is made specially with grapes that are only grown in that region of the world. There are a number of adorable little medieval towns to enjoy these wines in while learning what it takes to be a wine-maker straight from the Italians mouth. Usually these tastings include fresh bread and freshly made olive oil along with other treats!

Although it may be some of the most famous wine in the world, Tuscany is not the only place to get something fabulous. Veneto, Sicily, Sardinia and Abruzzo all have some of super tasty and unique to their region flavors as well. Try them all!

UTC Charity: A Plea and Mohawk

I hope you read my site for enjoyment, even to learn something about yourself or the world around you.

So, I hope you forgive me for going down on my knees to beg, but the Ultimate Train Challenge team really needs your help.

If you’ve been reading me for some time, you know I volunteered last year in India.  In many ways, it was life altering and one of the attractive things about the Train Challenge was the charity aspect.

We really hope to try and reach our $10,000 goal for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who are supporting children horribly affected by Agent Orange.

Yes, still, to this day, they are affected.  And suffer from problems, from physical to mental, having a difficult time fitting into their surroundings.

The Da Nang Association of Agent Orange Victims runs a centre to help these kids by teaching them usable skills, offering physical rehabilitation or emotional support.

Anything you can give, be it $25, $50 or $100 is so appreciated.  The truth?  We are nowhere near our $10,000 goal.  And that saddens me.

Here’s how you can give!

UTC: Moscow!

Reunited, and it feels so good!

Basically, I had little time to explore such wonderful sights like Red Square, the Kremlin, Bolshoi Theatre or Gorky’s house.

Instead, on Friday, I had 30 minutes to pick up our tickets so generously provided by Real Russia before their office closed.  It was a mad dash through the metro stations and deciphering an unknown language.

On metro escalator scrambling to get our tickets!

I showed up to their office sweating and staggering, but got the tickets in hand. Jaysus.

The one comfort was Prosto Hostel. I’m such an art appreciator and Lydia, the cute and cheerful owner, had her artist friend leave her artistic mark all over the hostel.

UTC: In the Middle and Next? Russia

Oooh whee, where am I?  More importantly, where was I?

Italy

After my huge crush on Paris, it was time to move onto Italy.  I took an early morning train that zipped me across France into Milano, at the dead of night.

I booked myself into a bare bones hostel to grab shut-eye.  There ain’t much to say about this one, it was literally a boarding school style, beds ganged up against each other.

The only thing of note when you disembark a train at 10 pm in Milano was the use of benches at the platforms.

Round, and I mean, the kind of men who eat pasta three times a day, used these benches as a space to lay out and sleep. I saw several scattered across the platforms, happily snoring away, their shirts hiked up to reveal a jiggling belly.

Not exactly what I wanted to see at that time of night.

I got to my hostel, and literally passed out into my assigned bed.  Then woke at 6:30, opening my eyes to another large, Italian man beside me, chest heaving, whistling away like a freighter train in a hurry.

I couldn’t get away from them!

A consolation prize was trying my first Italian cappuccino at the Milano train station before departing.

My coffee palate will never be the same again.  I am ruined. Forever.

Next up: Verona.

Why Verona, you may ask?

Shakespeare says it best.

In Verona, I treated myself to ricotta and spinach pasta with a house, white wine.  Was deelish.

Seems this train trip is centered on food.