D day / Once Upon A Saga (massive detour)
Day 1,884 since October 10th 2013: 166 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
Will it ever be worth it?
In my attempt to reach Pakistan via China I swiftly ran through plan A, B and C. Next comes D and here I am executing that plan. Somehow there is always a way if you look for it.
Did I get everything out of Mongolia which my heart desired? Heck no!! I feel like I spent more time on filling out forms, buying tickets and applying for visas than anything else. Did I get anything out of visiting Mongolia? Absolutely!! I tasted the food, walked the streets, met the people, visited the Red Cross, added a new country, tested my strength, pushed my limits and touched my heart... On my last night in Ulaanbaatar I even met up with Philip who is a Danish student on exchange in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We first met in Lebanon and now he was traveling in the region with a friend and happened to be in Ulaanbaatar. We met at a Korean restaurant and had some spicy beef soup. I was stressed out of my mind trying to get everything ready before my race to reach Pakistan in time for my visa aka: Plan D. It was a quick meet up before I headed back into the extreme cold on my way to my hostel. I had to finish the Friday Blog among other things. I went to bed around 4am.
Plan D is roughly a 14,000 km (8,700 mi) detour.
The following day I had breakfast at the hostel and met two young German travelers who had just checked in. Great people with really open minds. There’s a saying that you should be careful not to open your mind too much as it might fall out ;) Their minds were still there and we had some good conversations on conspiracy theories, religion, existence, the future and a lot of other lofty subjects. Then we headed out to hear the monks chant at the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery which is the centre of Mongolian Buddhist. Although that was just a ten minute walk from my hostel I had never managed to find the time. 90 minutes later I was back at the hostel making my final preparations before departure. I was staying at Top Tour Guesthouse Mongolia Under the wings of Mugi (Munkthuya) who manages it. I have met a lot of people and with that in mind I think Mugi might just be one of the kindest and most caring people on this planet. She is absolutely soft spoken, service minded, trusting, hospitable and amazing. Somehow I think her guests are far more important to her than the money.
In my experience the Mongolian “presetting” is not one of a smiling face. Most people I have seen have had a stone face and observing eyes. However when they smile it melts your heart. And it happens often enough. In some ways I also find a resemblance between Mongolians and people from Greenland. There is something about the way they pronounce words, the way they look, the small population in a large country, the strong primal connection to nature, the wide open landscape... well, there are barely 60,000 people in Greenland and 3,000,000 people in Mongolia. And the differences are a lot easier to point at than the resemblances. Isn’t it always like that? I’m just saying: there was something in Mongolia which reminded me of Greenland. And with that I left. I had a 3:22pm direct train to Moscow to catch. Carriage number 7. Seat number 24. My ticket was printed in Russian and German for whichever odd reason?
Plan D - day 1:
A lot of Mongolians take the train from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk in Russia. Then they connect to Moscow by flight. It’s a lot cheaper than flying from Ulaanbaatar and a lot faster than taking the train all the way. So the isolation and solitude I was hoping for did not come on the first day. I got to share my cabin with two young students and their teacher. The students had been chosen to compete in Moscow at a Russian language competition. The disciplines include writing essays and making translations among other things. They all seemed really nice although the teacher didn’t speak any English. However he did begin to mention everything he knew about Denmark which turned out to be a lot. And he was not shy to show me photos on his phone. The two young students spoke English surprisingly well considering their age. I’d guess they were around 14. So we had a good opportunity to speak together and they also helped me communicate with their teacher.
We crossed the border between Mongolia and Russia before the day ended which meant we had to go through customs and immigration twice that night. The Mongolian side was more easygoing. I guess there isn’t as much to smuggle out of Mongolia as in from Russia? My passports are raising a lot of eyebrows. It’s all the stamps and visas from conflicted countries. I aim at applying for new passports in Moscow before catching the connecting train to Odessa (Ukraine).
Plan D - day 2:
I did not get out of my bunk until midday. And I was out before two of my three fellow companions. It was way past midnight before we cleared customs and immigration the night before. I was given some “star status” by customs and immigration officers upon my fellow companions revealing to them that I’m traveling to every country in the world. One of the officers even felt worried for my safely given certain countries I’ve been to. There was a language barrier so the two Mongolian students had to help with some translation. That night didn’t offer much sleep. I woke up every time I needed to turn, when the train slowed down, when it stopped, when it started again etc. Once back on my feet I washed my face and headed down to dinning area where I saw Vasali who had served me when I was going in the opposite direction. He recognized me as I did him. I have now become a regular on the Trans Siberian Railway.
At 2:30pm the train stopped in Irkutsk and my companionship got off. They were to spend a night in Irkutsk before taking the flight the next day. I also left the train albeit briefly just to locate an ATM and draw some rubles. It turned out that the train did not accept Mongolian tughrik. At this point I really hoped that I could exchange them in Moscow as I had 120,000 ($46 USD) worth of them. I got to like the students and their teacher a lot. They would often laugh when interacting amongst themselves and I had some good conversations with the students. The train left Irkutsk and I was now alone in my cabin which suited me just fine. And I noticed that my next door neighbors are a young couple from Germany and France. Chances were about 100% that I would interact with them sooner or later before the train reached Moscow.
Plan D - day 3:
Not much to say. Sort of happy to be without internet. Got some reading done. A woman brought me a plate of soup. First I thought it was a mistake but it turned out to be an act of kindness. Not sure if she is an employee or a passenger on the train? Either way it was nice of her. The outside temperature had dropped considerably. -22 degrees (XXX). I set the clock back two hours. The train passed the halfway marker between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow. At some point into the evening we passed through Novosibirsk which looked rather impressive from the window of my cabin. Lots of tall buildings. There was a club marked with radioactive signs called “Reactor”. Somewhere in the background you could see a huge factory of sorts with a large chimney and smoke rising into the cold atmosphere...
Plan D - day 4:
It was still dark when I woke up. The time read 09:32 but it was pitch dark. There wasn’t a single reason on the planet to get out of bed. But I did. I had breakfast: 2 eggs, some white bread and a cup of tea. The winter landscape flew by outside. Beautiful in its simplicity. I turned a few more pages in a book I had started long ago. A book about a danish expedition which took place between 1761 and 1767. Years before the USA was considered a country. Five scientists and their waiter leave the port of Copenhagen on a perilous expedition to explore “Arabia Felix”, the “Happy Arabia” which is today known as Yemen. The expedition was paid for by the Danish King. Only one man returned alive. They traveled by land and sea. Malaria proved to be their demise. The book originally came out in 1962 and is considered Thorkild Hansen’s masterpiece. It is indeed a good read.
In the afternoon I asked the young French / British travelers if I could join them. They were very kind and we talked for a good hour until the train reached Yekaterinburg and they briefly got off to hunt for some food. I bought eight instant soups to bring along for the ride. The food on the train is good but relatively expensive and the portions are rather small. The British traveler is called Harriet and the one from France is Arnaud. They have both been abroad for more than a year and are on their way home from Cambodia. It’s interesting how far away Cambodia seems until you travel home overland. Arnaud has been studying in Phnom Penh and Harriet was working for a local NGO. They offered me some Chinese tea and good company. That’s what you get from good people. We met up in the dining carriage in the evening and spoke some more over a couple of Russian beers. Among other things we spoke of how internationally connected the world has become. It is far easier today than ever before to take a job in a foreign country and settle down somewhere remote from your home. I basically see that as a threat to job security as today anyone can gun for your job no matter where on the planet they live. Fortunately we have a secret language in Denmark.
Plan D - day 5:
I set the clock back another two hours. It was again dark outside as I got up. Luxury to have a four bed cabin all too myself since Irkutsk. Breakfast consisted of three eggs instead of the usual two, a slice of semidry white bread and a cup of tea. I guess Vasali wanted to send me off with a full breakfast? I finished the last 70 pages of my book and it is quite a book! A danish expedition funded by the danish king. Those days appear to be gone? Just before 2pm the train rolled into Moscow and I returned to the city which I had not seen for five full years. I managed to get the train tickets from Moscow to Georgia reimbursed (the tickets from plan C) and has my ticket to Odessa confirmed. Then I reached the Danish embassy which was an exceedingly pleasant experience this time. I was greeted by beautiful competent employees in a spectacular building which has been the residence for the Danish embassy since 1946 but the present day building actually dates back to the 19th century. It’s a beautiful building in an old neighborhood of Moscow. The street in front of it was created in the late 16th century so you can just imagine the history.
The media tells us this and it tells us that. Movies also tend to shape our view of what Russians are like. Moscow looked beautiful to me and I had clearly forgotten how many wonderful buildings and intriguing streets it holds. The city was well decorated and looked ready for Christmas. Back in December 2013 I hardly knew what the Saga was all about. The Saga barely had any followers and was virtually unknown. Now we are tens of thousands who bond over blogs and posts and combined we represent nations all over the world. Kind Russians helped me with directions at several of Moscow’s elaborate metro stations. A women went out of her way to ensure I got on the right train and missed her own but never stopped to smile. When I later on spilled my tea at a café a waiter was quick to wipe it up and bring me a new one free of charge. And the staff at the Danish embassy were really kind and helpful. So we’re all the people I dealt with at ticket offices and small shops. Denmark has a good relationship with Russia which also means that I get a better rate for a visa when applying at Russian embassies. The clerk at the Russian embassy in Astana (Kazakhstan) told me that. Did you know that Rurik, a Norse viking, is the forefather of the Russian Romanov Tzar dynasty? And Russian women look beautiful to me. It all adds up to a good impression. Now I almost feel like learning Russian. I revisited the Kremlin which is super impressive. I walked across the Red Square as I had done it back in 2013. Then I raced off to catch my 9pm train towards Odessa, Ukraine. Another night on a train.
Plan D - day 6:
I may have neglected to share with you how bumpy the recent train rides can be. It feels substantial at times. It can be so bumpy that you wake from it during the night. And walking down the isle of the train can simulate a drunken man waltzing down a street. The train from Moscow to Odessa does not live up to the standards of the Ulaanbaatar - Moscow train. However it is sufficient and I was once again fortunate to have a four bed cabin all to myself. I can’t say for sure but I figure we crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine around 4am at which point I had to wake up and show my passport. Customs could not have cared less about my baggage once they heard I was Danish. It’s one of the few words I know in Russian: “Dania”. I also know: thank you, hello, how are you, good, yes and no. That’s about it. Those few words didn’t get me far at the train restaurant. And the menu was entirely in Russian. So I had to do some guessing along with the waiters willingness to help by using google translate on her phone. I ended up getting some bread, a small salad, a glass of juice, mashed potatoes and some chicken. So that worked out well although it costs me twice as much as on the previous train.
Looking out the window observing the winter landscape flying by does at some point resemble relaxing by staring into a fireplace. I’m not sure that I see anything out there anymore. It’s just a perpetual lands which whizzes by. During my short stop in Moscow I managed to get online long enough to receive a gazillion emails, manage the social media, book a hostel in Odessa and send a few messages to my fiancée. Among the emails I found an electronic confirmation that my Iran visa has been approved and is waiting for me in Tbilisi, Georgia. That’s really good news! The Saga has taken us to Iran already two times before. And neither time did I get the electronic confirmation and on both occasions I had to visit the embassies and spend time on that. If all goes according to plan then I will reach Georgia by boat on Sunday and make my way to Tbilisi. The next day, Monday, I will get my visa and I can be on the way to Yerevan with the night train in the evening. Then Tuesday I can be on the overnight bus to Tehran in Iran arriving Wednesday morning. And if the train connection works out then I will reach the Pakistan border on Thursday December 13th. I reached Odessa, walked to my $5 USD hostel and checked in. Then I had a pizza, worked out where to get the ferry ticket and went to bed.
Plan D - day 7:
My $5 USD hostel was okay but the people I shared the dorm with were annoying. They had loud conversations long past midnight, phone conversations right next to me in the middle of the night, would turn on the room lights and storm in and out of the dorm room. Alas, this was my first night of seven in a bed that wasn’t attached to any means of transportation. I got up before 8am and had some tea. Then I created an account and booked my train ticket from Batumi to Tbilisi in Georgia. I skipped breakfast and headed straight to the office for the ferry to Georgia. The man who sold tickets did not seem friendly at first and told me that they had closed for taking on any more passengers. My next opportunity was three days away. I pushed a little and the man made a phone call. Then he returned to me and said that there was space for me on the ferry leaving a few hours past midnight. Once he saw my passport and learned that I was Danish his eyes came alive and he began speaking broken German too me :)
Roman is the Country Manager for Maersk in Ukraine. His office is in Odessa and we had not seen each other since September 2017 when Ukraine first became country number 139. So we met up for dinner together. He’s a really great guy and we had a lot to catch up on. Marina from customer care and Igor from sales joined in. Well actually we joined them because they were at a nice local restaurant with a client I regret to say I can’t remember the name of. I’ll just mention it again: I really like Ukraine! Then I returned to the hostel, created this blog for you and called an Uber to take me to customs near the ferry at 02:30am. Because such is my life. Reaching Odessa made the first 7,305 km (4,539 mi) of this massive detour. But we are on schedule and making excellent time. And you would not be reading this if I had given up at any point. Because around here we keep on keeping on! And you can too...
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - "Thunder, feel the thunder"
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga