The In-Transit Report


The In-Transit Report: Sports of the World

The Olympics, February 2014:

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Going to the Winter Olympics has been on my bucket list since I can remember; as a kid, watching all the events on TV every four years was a highlight, and once I realised how possible attending really was, I committed and put my money where my mouth was. I bought tickets a year before the games started, when they were first released. I normally don’t follow winter sports, but I think what excites me about the Olympics is that it’s a time when the countries of the world can (in theory) set aside their differences in the spirit of friendly competition. Since I love travel, the international aspect was particularly appealing. (pictured is the Bobsleigh/Luge track)

I’d heard from a lot of friends and family about the various issues and controversies surrounding the games before I even got to Russia. I’ve watched the Olympics for years, and the only issue I remember hearing about was the amount of unsold seats in London, but of course this wasn’t anything like that. Regardless of the various truths behind the headlines, though, the point of the Olympics is the athletes, not the politics of the countries, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing politics. One thing mentioned that I will discuss was how unprepared Sochi was. The truth is, it wasn’t as bad as the media would have you think. Yes, there were a number of unfinished hotels and other buildings. Lots of places where they hadn’t filled in the grass, hadn’t put the finishing touches on stuff. But honestly, it didn’t matter. No one I talked to had major problems. 

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The infrastructure and transportation was stellar, the volunteers were friendly, excited to be there, and helpful, and the general vibe was amazing. Once I got to the games, it was all about the athletes, and that was a breath of fresh air. I had a wonderful time at 12 different events, with politics on the backseat. The setting itself was beautiful in the mountains, and weirdly warm at the coast. Taking various gondolas to get around between venues in the Mountain Cluster was scenic, although a bit nerve-wracking for someone like me who’s not a fan of heights.

There were mostly Russians at the games, with something like 70-80% of tickets going to Russians. Many were completely decked out in Sochi2014 tracksuits, jackets, shoes, hats, etc. Foreigners were clustered into certain parts of the stadiums, since we bought our tickets through authorised agents that are different per country. Even so, the Russians loved to cheer for everyone, but especially Russians and ex-Soviet nationals. There was always raucous cheering when a Ukrainian, Kazakh or Belorussian athlete came on, for instance.

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Most of the events I went to were snowboarding, the most exciting being Women’s Halfpipe. I stood in the cold snow for more than 9 hours, watching all the qualifying runs, quarter and semi finals, and then the final. It was one of the longest events I went to, but it was worth the time and money!

I wound standing next to a group of Americans who were there supporting two different athletes, and a couple Australians cheering for their star athlete, Torah Bright. They let me stand in front at the barrier for the final (pictured to the left), so I held the Australian flag and cheered Torah while they held up their inflatable kangaroo in the background. The Russian kids standing near us joined our friendly group and actually started the “USA! USA!” cheer, which was pretty hilarious. We all took turns holding each others’ places while we ran to the toilet between runs.

In the end, both American families had winners (Kaitlyn Farrington was the surprise winner, and the favourite for gold, Kelly Clark, got bronze). Torah wound up with a silver after a solid run. My whole group were ecstatic, and I got to see the athletes well from my great vantage point! My feet recovered on the train ride back to my hostel. An exhilarating start to my 10 days at the Olympics, and still my favourite event of the entire run.

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The rest of my 10-odd days were spent running back and forth between the Mountain Cluster, where all of the outdoor events were, and the Coastal Cluster, where the Olympic Park was. Inside the Park were the venues that held indoor events like Speed Skating, Short Track, and Figure Skating (which was of course way too expensive to even think about buying tickets for). Instead, I watched the Figure Skating final on a huge TV that was set up at one of the train stations, which had a huge crowding standing around craning their necks to watch a Russian girl skate her way to a gold medal. Those live TVs were a great addition to the stations and other places, letting us get a glimpse at the events we couldn’t afford to see otherwise!

I did wind up getting tickets for a few Speed Skating events (pictured to the left), which the Dutch dominated, and also Short Track, known for its crashes since it’s a race of four skaters side by side. I’m not sure I would go to Speed Skating in the future – it’s not the most exciting thing to watch live when you can only see the athletes closely when they pass your column. However, watching a Dutch women break the Olympic record was pretty cool, and feeding off the excitement was great. The Dutch are a sea of Orange, very easy to identify and congratulate anywhere you see them.

The other event I loved was Snowboard Cross, which is like Short Track on snowboards. 4-6 snowboarders race down a track until the last group. It winds up with a lot of collisions and falls, and many of the expected winners wiped out early on and didn’t even make semi-finals. I remember watching the Olympics one year, on TV, where a snowboarder (Lindsey Jacobellis) who was very far ahead did a trick, wiped out, and watched the gold medal slip away as another girl shot past her. Hilarious.

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The other big part of being at the Olympics was the partying. The entire Olympic Park was a big party, and most of the countries had houses set up throughout, complete with restaurants and bars. The best of these was the Swiss House, which was open to everyone, unlike the invite-only American and Canadian houses (boo!). I met up with a Couchsurfer and after watching a few medals ceremonies (pictured, left) we wound up having dinner at the Swiss house, then got free passes for the party upstairs, which was ironically full of Canadians who were there watching an Ice Hockey match on the Swiss House’s TVs. I don’t know if there were even Swiss people at the Swiss House!

Another night, I met up with some more Couchsurfers and went out to a restaurant in town, where we met a group of Ukrainians and shared beer and vodka. One of the guys eventually got up and sang a song after being pressured by his friends – this guy seriously sounded like Ukrainian Pavarotti, with a fantastic tenor voice that silenced the room! It was a highlight of the event, that we had a group of Russians, Ukrainians, an American, a Slovenian, an Italian, and probably another few nationalities. We all got along well, and this was around the start of the Ukrainian/Russian situation. No one cared about that, it was all about being there for the games. In the end, Ukrainian Pavarotti and his friends gave out copies of his motivation book, and some free Mandarins. It was quite a special night.

FIFA World Cup, June/July 2014:

Spain v netherlands group b 2014 fifa world cup brazil2I normally don’t watch a lot of sports on TV, but traveling during the World Cup was actually a highlight of my time in Central Asia. There’s something particularly enjoyable about cheering on one country or another as opposed to various teams in one country, and I tend to cheer for the countries I’ve either been to, or ones where I have good friends. Of course, that’s almost every country playing in the World Cup.

So the first thing about watching the games while traveling is that, obviously, it’s called football, not soccer, and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong. I mean, a sport where you kick a ball around with your feet should naturally be called FOOTball. And a sport where you carry a ball in your arms is… American?

I had just gone through the Pamir Highway ending in Osh when I saw my first game, which was Spain versus the Netherlands. I’d spent the last two weeks with a Spanish traveler, and we met and then met again a Dutch guy who was traveling along the Pamirs as well. In Osh, we decided to find a place to watch the game, and wound up at a place where locals went to watch the game, and more importantly bet on it. So there we were, a Spainiard, a Dutch, and an American, and another random American we’d picked up from the hostel, in a crowd of Kyrgyz watching this game. In the end, I decided to support Holland because I remembered how well their speed skaters did at the Olympics, and because there’s a chance I might wind up there for University.

For the next month I watched every game I could, in hostels and hotels, random pubs with locals, and with a variety of travellers from many countries, some playing in the games we watched. I watched the USA vs. Belgium game in Uzbekistan, with a Belgian guy who was on my tour of Turkmenistan. I was supporting Belgium, because the USA doesn’t even call the sport by the right name 😛 Staying up to watch the game start at 1am wasn’t that bad with company.

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Sports is also a very easy topic of conversation. When you meet someone new in a hostel or on the road, it’s a safe bet that they know something about football, so it’s the perfect icebreaker. Even being an American wasn’t so bad. After all, we had Tim Howard, who put up great resistance against Belgium. You’re Dutch? Hey, you guys have been doing great. German? You too! From Spain? Sorry to hear you didn’t make it out of the group stage… okay, so maybe it’s not the safest topic for ALL nationalities.

In the end, Holland finally lost a game, and so my loyalty switched to Germany, who was my second favourite. They easily won against Brasil — we’ll just forget about that painful game. Thankfully there weren’t any Brasilian travellers to hang their heads in shame. Germany won the whole thing after a fantastic game against Argentina, with Gotze’s goal in the extra half sealing the deal. 

Russia Part Four: Ulan Ude, Lake Baikal, and the Transsiberian 2nd leg to Nizhny Novgorod

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Once you’re inside its borders, Russia becomes like a whole other world, made up of different ethnicities and cultures comprising their own semi-autonomous Republics.

The Buryat Republic, my next destination in late March, is one of these, and is the centre of Russian buddhism. It borders Mongolia (whose capital of Ulan Baator is a 7-8 hour train ride away) and shares many cultural similarities. I spent a few days in Ulan Ude, the biggest city, and ventured out to the east side of Lake Baikal from there.

Ulan Ude is a big city with a balance of Buryats and Russians, and is known for having a giant statue of Lenin’s head, and the nearby buddhist monastery, Ivolginskiy Datsan. It also doesn’t take long to find some beautiful examples of Siberia’s famous wooden architecture (pictured), spread throughout a number of places in the city, still very much in use. 

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I spent a day and a night in a town called Ust Barguzin, on the east side of the lake halfway up. The drive out there was long and not entirely paved, but the area had a nice, remote feel to it. The guy who ran the homestay was really nice and accommodating to me and his other guests, a group of Poles who had been going from one part of Baikal to the other.

At that time of year (mid-late March) the lake was completely frozen over, letting cars and even trucks drive from one side to the other. However, it wasn’t cold at all, so I spent a warm day driving around to see various parts of the lake with the Poles, a view of the Holy Nose peninsula in the background. The Poles had been out ice fishing, so for dinner we had fresh fish and lots of vodka.

Our host also treated us to the quintessential Russian Banya, or sauna. Sitting around in extreme heat and then getting whacked with a bunch of leaves (white birch, oak or eucalyptus usually) isn’t really my forte, but hey, when in Rome. How the hell Russians drink vodka in the Banya, I don’t want to know. Apparently I can’t even handle 65 celcius / 150 fahrenheit for more than 15 minutes, much less while drinking vodka. Apparently it can get as hot as around 90 c  / 195 f, which just sounds like instant death to me.

I had also wanted to see the Barguzin valley, which looks close by on a map but really isn’t. It would’ve cost too much money though, at least for one person, so I’ll just have to save it for when I’m back in the area and can find a group to take the tour with to this very remote area.

I spent a day as well at Ivolginskiy Datsan, which was a beautiful Buddhist monastery set at the edge of a quiet village not too far from Ulan Ude. I walked around and contemplated, listened to the sound of birds and wind, paid my respects to the Buddha, and succeeded in getting around with my basic Russian.

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I met another American girl in the hostel in Ulan Ude, along with an Italian girl, and together we went out to a different, closer, village on the edge of the lake, called Gremyachinsk. This wound up being a great adventure, from getting out there, to tromping through the slushy areas en route to the icey lake, and then playing around a giant pile of ice and snow out on the ice (wall of blue ice pictured). A couple young Russian kids took pictures with us and used their few English sentences before giggling and running off. We wandered back to the edge of town and marvelled at the beauty of the slabs of ice, its frighteningly long cracks, and the various textures of the surface (see picture).

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We stopped for snacks on the beach, and got inviting to join a BBQ with a group of older Russian ladies. Despite our lack of Russian (I had the most knowledge of Russian, which is pretty laughable), we made friends and were force-fed, poured way too much vodka, and had a great time. The ladies were convinced I was going to freeze to death despite my insistence that I was fine, so in the end one of the ladies gave me her knit cap and wouldn’t let me refuse it. Absolutely adorable.

Finally, we figured out where to pick up the bus back to Ulan Ude, managed to get tickets despite a number of language errors on my part, and walked around the village looking for coffee in the hour or so we had to kill before the bus.

The next day, the other American girl and I went onwards to Irkutsk, a bigger city on the other side of the lake that’s a more common base to see Lake Baikal from. Lindsey and I bonded at the hostel because we’re both nerds, and it’s been a long time since I met someone with as many common interests as we had. That was really nice, so we had plenty of fodder for conversation while watching the landscape. 

The main reason I wanted to stop at Irkutsk before continuing on was to make sure I could catch a daytime train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk – this was rumoured to be the most scenic part of the trans-siberian. It didn’t disappoint.

After a fun day and change in Irkutsk, I got on the Rossiya 1, which is the classic “transsiberian” train that goes all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok and vice versa. This journey was slightly longer than the last one: 69 hours from Irkutsk to Nizhny Novgorod, a big Russian city only a few (7-8) hours from Moscow.

I got a 2nd class seat again, opting for the nicer ride, and wound up cabin-mates with two 20-something guys who were also going to Nizhny. 

IMG 2073It was refreshing to have the same cabin mates the whole time, and between my Russian and their bit of English, we got to know each other a fair amount.

This cabin was more comfortable than the last one, so I parked myself in a seat next to a window, drank a ton of tea, and read the first few Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books, having polished off Harry Potter in Ulan Ude. The time went quickly this time, helped along with shared beers and attempts at political conversation while lacking substantial vocabulary.

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I spent only a couple days in Nizhny Novgorod before I was due back in Moscow to fly to the States, but it was a nice town to have a stop in. The first half of the day, it was sunny and bright, so I walked all around the Kremlin and checked out the various churches and buildings, but later on, while I was back at the hostel, it started snowing.

I took my camera out and took some shots in the blizzard, which was exactly what I was in the mood for. I’d missed the epic cold and snow of Siberian winter, so this was a happy occasion. Inside the Kremlin I strolled through the tanks and guns on display, the snow sticking to the naked trees.

I walked to the embankment and looked down, but where the promenade met the Volga river, the fog was so dense you couldn’t see anything beyond the edge. It was like being on the edge of the world, and it was absolutely beautiful.

The In Transit Report: From Bolivia to Belize, via Colombia

I got a flight from La Paz, Bolivia, to Belize City, Belize only a few weeks in advance using frequent flier miles, which meant it was a bit indirect. Additionally, it meant I had a 15-hour layover in Cali, Colombia. Instead of sitting around the airport, I decided to go into the city for a while.

Cali is a big city near the Ecuadorian border, with not a whole lot to see, but it was a nice place to stop for a while. I managed to get a hostel (for a ‘nap’ before my 6am flight out), get a shower, and walk around a bit. I even found a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. The area I stayed in was nice, and very developed compared to everywhere I’d been in Bolivia. I had to find an ATM and deal with bank issues, and found that every single Colombian I asked for help finding this or that, was sincerely helpful and kind. Seriously, I didn’t find one mean person in all of Colombia. Based on my 15-hour taste, I’m very sad I didn’t get more time to visit the country!

I took a taxi back to the airport at 4am and caught my flight off the South American continent, and I must say I was sad to go. Even sitting in the San Salvador airport, things just felt different. Latin America may be a word to describe all of these countries, but each is very different, and now being in Central America, I can really feel it.

Another thing I’ve been feeling recently is how much I’ve changed as a traveler since my last few backpacking trips. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I have much less tolerance for partying, and especially ‘party hostels’. My standards have changed; I’m much more willing to pay more for a better place to stay, better food, better ambiance, and better busses. I’m more inclined to take day tours if it means less work and more comfort, and I feel a bit less adventurous sometimes. I also don’t like to move very fast; I love having 2-3 or more nights in one place, and if I find a hostel with a good vibe I’m inclined to stay longer. I’m not the kind to get off of a night bus and immediately go sightseeing. I’d rather take a nap and relax, put the hard stuff off until tomorrow.

With that being said, and having added diving to the mix, my budget hasn’t lasted me nearly as long as I expected it to, by a long shot. I’ll be happy to make it to a year of travel, maybe longer if I stick to cheaper places. We’ll see what happens. I really wish I’d had longer for South America, and now for Central America, and I’m really excited to get to the part where I don’t have any future flights to catch. February that’ll happen – after the Olympics. In the meantime, I’m traveling a bit faster than I’d like to be at the moment in Central America.

The In Transit Report: Christchurch to Chuuk, Micronesia

I think this was the longest time I’ve spent flying, ever. About 32 hours of travel time total, from Christchurch to Guam, and that’s not even counting the flight to Chuuk! I had a 11 hour flight from Christchurch to Singapore, where I had a 7-hour layover. Singapore Airlines might be the nicest airline I’ve ever flown with. The planes are so beautifully decorated… one of them had gold toned seats and carpet, and the pillow was actually frilly. I also had the whole row to myself so I did get some sleep. The food was good (and all free), and they served it with real silverware. Loved it! In Singapore, I left the airport and went into the city. First off, it was crazy hot and humid outside. And it was dark out. That’s what I get for going straight from winter to summer.

Singapore reminds me a lot of Tokyo, in all the right ways. It’s big, clean, has really neat new buildings, and even the public transit is clean and very organized. Definitely cheaper than Tokyo, though. A ride from the airport to the city cost $2 on the train, and my dinner (friend rice with veggies) was only $5. In USD, that works out to a total of $5.50. As was recommended to me, I checked out the marina, which had some live shows going on, and all the buildings were lit up and gorgeous. There were light shows all around the marina, and it was really great to just sit and watch everything going on around me. I’m glad I got out of the airport, though I didn’t do that much. I think I would enjoy Singapore for a few days.

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Next I got on a 7-hour flight to Nagoya, Japan, also with the whole row to myself. In Nagoya I had a two-hour layover, so I just hung out in the airport. It was nice to be back in Japan, though I wish I’d had some Japanese money for the vending machines. I remembered enough Japanese to order my coffee and answer some questions, and the baristas were nice enough to not switch to English. Good practice! I’m excited to go back to Japan, which is where I’ll be around the second week of August. On the last flight, a 3.5 hour to Guam on a small plane, I also had the row to myself. Three for three!

I had about 24 hours in Guam, so I just got the cheapest hotel to crash at. There aren’t any hostels here, so that was cringe-inducing. But I had a whole room to myself, something I’m not used to, and took the longest shower known to man. There was TV, too, which was soul-sucking. Guam feels very much like America, and considering it’s technically a part of America (as a protectorate, territory, or something like that), I’m not surprised. I’m interested to see what’s it’s like outside of my 24-hour stint.

The next day, I wasted some time in the Micronesia Mall before my flight to Chuuk. It’s a mall, obviously. Got some lunch, wandered around, debating buying an underwater camera for my dives in Chuuk. In the end I decided not to, for a few reasons. First, I don’t want to buy more stuff, have to cart it around, and worry about it. Secondly, I’m not a skilled enough diver to manage diving and a camera at the same time without issues. Third, as much as I love photography, it can take away from the actual experience. Shipwrecks are definitely an experience. Having finished the dives in Chuuk, I have to say that not having a camera was absolutely the right decision. As for my time in Chuuk, that’s for the next entry.