First Steppes

Dec. 1 – K3 Train from Beijing to Irkutsk – In Mongolia

We awoke to light blue skies, a vast white, undulating plain, and patches of yellow grass. Mongolia.

Yesterday, after an hour on the metro, I arrived before dawn at the Beijing Railway Station. Announcements boomed through the cavernous hall as I had a sad, bland breakfast at McDonald’s. We rolled out slowly into the frost-tipped city’s morning, elders outside doing calisthenics, car traffic still looking tolerable. All day the railroad cut north, tunneling through steep mountains which flattened into gentle, butternut contours. The pale brick buildings along the track were low and rough. Power and telephone lines. Water frozen in the ditches. Sheep grazing on dry stalks.

I had not expected to have an entire four-person compartment to myself, but I did and it was/is awesome. More room to spread out and makes sleeping easier. This did not entail isolation. I’ve met other “fellow travellers”; a former Starbucks executive from Los Angeles, a videographer from Brisbane, two bald, bespectacled Swiss men (one short, one tall), an Irish couple from Kerry. There’s easy and instant chemistry among us, doing the Trans-Mongolian route the “wrong way” and in winter. We’ve all done far-flung travel and can easily share stories without vanity or one-upmanship. There are Chinese and Mongolian passengers too, but language barriers limit the contact to nods and “Ni hao”.

Arriving that night at the China-Mongolia border town of Erlian, the train stopped. Mongolian and Russian railway gages differ from China’s so the wagons must change bogeys. While this was being done, I spent a slightly suspenseful half hour with the Chinese authorities. They had never dealt with someone who had come to China by ship. The entire green-uniformed border control staff clustered around me, like medical students studying a rare case of cranial deformity. Their best English-speaker asked the questions posed by his superior officer:

“Did you arrive by car?”

“No, by ship.”

“From where?”


[Pause. Discussion in Mandarin.]

“Were you working on the ship?”

“No, I was a passenger.”

“How many passengers on the ship?”

“Only me.”

[Pause. Discussion in Mandarin.]

“Was this a cruise ship?”

“No, it was a container ship.”

“Why did you take this ship?”

“For adventure.”

[Pause. Some smiles from the junior officers as this is interpreted.]

Lengthy discussion among the entire team ensues. Senior officer picks up the phone, makes a call, says a few words, puts the phone down, waiting begins. I try to remember that I’m dealing with the Government of the People’s Republic of China, that this is no time to be chatty, and keep my smiling mouth shut. All the same, I’m not too worried as the only word I understand being spoken among the relaxed-looking junior officers is “Xbox”. A few minutes later, response comes from Shanghai Pudong port where I landed. My story checks out and I’m free to go. I then wait past midnight for the Mongolian authorities to complete their formalities and return my passport. As we start rolling again, I can finally go to sleep, gently rocked by the rails.

From the warmth of my compartment, the wintry Mongolian landscape is beautiful. Deep undulations, sun sparkling on snow, herds of shaggy horses and even dromedaries. Ulan Bator, by contrast, sprawls low and ramshackle in a bowl of its own smog. Plank fences delineate small property lines, crummy houses with tin roofs. Packs of stray dogs trot along the tracks. Thirty minutes at the station, long enough to step out onto the platform, breath freezing while we snap a few pictures. Passengers board with large bundles, workers dump loads of coal to heat the samovars that supply each wagon with boiling water. Then northwards, sun setting over a mountain range to the west, and suddenly the snow is gone.

Leaving Lotusland

“I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Homer, The Odyssey




For four years, I’ve been staring at a large mural map of the world hanging just outside my kitchen. I guess its message finally sunk in. I will leave Vancouver by ship at the end of October. My vessel won’t be a Greek galley, but a container ship headed for Shanghai. From there, I plan to go overland to Europe. At some point I will return to North America. My stuff is here, and so are most of the people I love.

What’s this all about? I’ve been periodically nomadic for almost two decades now, and I enjoy big journeys. After high school, I worked in Germany and travelled through Europe for half a year before university. While doing my M.A., I spent six months in Slovakia on internship. After six years working in Toronto, I went to India for three months. And then I came to Vancouver. Crossing the world’s biggest ocean, and all of Eurasia, is an Odyssey worth doing.

No, seriously, what are you running away from? I suppose it’s the ultimate insult. “Vancouver, sorry, it’s over. I’m leaving you. For Siberia.” Well, Vancouver’s got a lot going for it but it’s no big secret that I haven’t worked much (for money anyway) since the 2010 Games. Sailing off across the Pacific isn’t going to solve that problem, but it should help me regain some momentum. If this counts as a career setback, I’ll take it.

What will you do? Where will you go? I’m getting visas for China, Mongolia and Russia. Beyond that I could go anywhere that allows Canadians in without a visa. Here are a few places I’m thinking about (subject to drastic change): Shanghai, Beijing, Ulan Bator, stops along the Trans-siberian route, Moscow, eastern and central Europe, Hamburg, London. If you have suggestions/contacts for any of the above (or if you will be there between November and February), I want to hear from you!

How can you afford this? Are you going to be working? No car, no mortgage/rent, no dependents, no worries. I play my cards right, I’ll get back a little poorer, but still debt free and with retirement savings untouched. I’ll be on the ship purely as a passenger, and have no work planned during this journey. But some of the destinations listed above will be great for networking.

How are you preparing for the trip? What about your stuff? Moving won’t be a big deal. My belongings will fit inside a 5×10-foot storage unit in a facility less than one kilometre from where I live. Visas, vaccination, insurance are all dealt with, and I’ve given notice to the landlord. There’s not too much I need to buy – perhaps some small gifts and a few books – and I’m shopping for a laptop (see below). Bearing in mind that I’ll be going through a Russian winter, I plan to travel light.

Are you going to write about this? I enjoyed blogging about my journey through India, and will do so again this time. Connecting to cyberspace might be difficult along parts of the route (especially mid-ocean), but I’ll find ways to post news regularly.