Eurasian Adventure

Transnistria

We believe Young Pioneer Tours is the only western tour company to offer trips to the unrecognized county/breakaway republic of Transnistria, highlight of our annual month long Eurasian Adventure Tour, and a destination I just led 16 tourists to.

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Building propaganda art in Tiraspol, Transnistria.

Transnistria occupies a vertical sliver of land between Moldova and the Ukraine. With its past soviet heritage still proudly on display a visit there is like stepping back in time.

Before getting to all my photos from the visit I’m going to share Gareth Johnson’s (YPT founder and three time Transnistria visitor) impressions on the self declared state.

After waking up after the hectic first night in Tiraspol it was time for actually doing some real touristy stuff, which for us this day was to consist of city tour of Tiraspol, including monuments, more monuments, and propaganda posters like you would not believe.

To give some basic back story to the country, it is not only a place that “does” not exist, it is also a place that has essentially never existed. The quasi-country happened through ethnic Russians opposing the break up of the Soviet Union, not wishing to join Moldova, and well having the balls, guns, and a big friendly neighbour to back them up. Also having a strong leader, a Mr Smirnov, clearly did not hurt with things, and since the fateful war, he is the man, or rather his family are the people that control pretty much everything. Big Smirnov is the President, little Smirnov is the owner of the one super-corporation (Sheriff) that control everything from petrol, supermarkets to even a football team, that just so happen to be the best in the country.

Therefore the city is littered with his image, his companies, his re-election posters, and from a business side “his brand” be it political, or business is all encompassing.

Bendery the second city was much the same, although with a much more independence war feel, inclusive of bullet ridden buildings.

I have heard Transnistria called many things, “Europe’s last Soviet State”, “Europe’s North Korea”, and even “The Last Outpost of the Cold War in Europe.

The fact of the matter is that it truly is none of the above, at all. Firstly it’s a very relaxed, free place, corrupt, of course, but so are some countries, even in the EU (just visit Romania, or Bulgaria), and as for the cold war stuff, whilst it is pretty tense regarding Moldova, this conflict, or wish for independence is bore solely over ethnic, linguistic, historical, and patriotic lines. To ask the question of why Kosovo deserves independence and Transnistria does not can only lead us to one answer, the same reason Iraq and Libya got military action, and Rwanda, and Syria did not. A question that quite frankly is pointless to answer, we already know.

In fact more than anything the place reminded of China, or the other “socialist states” of Asia, big wild west style ultra-capitalism, controlled by a big man from a big party, with lots of soviet/communist nostalgia, the modern heirs of the communist party doing things their way. Socialism with Transnistrian characteristics. In my mind the one thing Soviet about it was that the place reminded me of what might have actually happened had glasnost and perestroika actually worked, and the Union had been preserved, perhaps this might be what things would look like. In fact some Russian politicians even believe that Transnitria could even be the trigger and starting place of a new Soviet Union.

Whenever I have traveled it has always been fascinating to see what places really look like, to separate the myth from the fact, this place had smashed the myth to pieces, and whilst I had found it far different, and much less terrifying that people had led me to believe, I still left a massive chunk of my heart here.

Photos from Transnistria:

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Chernobyl – Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure

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Group picture at reactor #4, scene of the Chernobyl explosion and meltdown.

Today we toured nuclear reactors and the abandoned ghost town of Pripyat on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure.

I’m quite behind on my blogging of the trip. Having assumed a team leader position on our Phillipines disaster relief effort, and co-leading this tour leaves me little spare time. After the Trans Siberian Express we spent one night in Moscow before spliting our group, myself leading 3 guys on an increadable visit to Belarus and rejoining the main group in Kiev.

Chernobyl was an amazing experience. We had a lot of luck with getting a local guide who was willing to streatch the rules and lead us into places not approved for general visits, such as one of the cooling towers and a countryside kindergarden.

I’m in a rush, have to take the group out tonight; will let the pics from today tell the story:

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Pripyat middle school.

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Abandoned cooling tower construction.

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Abandoned cooling tower construction.

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Abandoned cooling tower construction.

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Reactor #4, scene of the Chernobyl explosion and meltdown.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

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Ghost town of Pripyat.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


Trans Siberian Express

We are currently underway on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure. Having made an epic 6 day crossing of the snow covered steppes of Mongolia and Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, I am now in Moscow after a week with no Internet or news from the outside world since Beijing.

For YPT founder, Gareth Johnson, several returning customers making the trip, and myself, the adventure started 16 days ago as we completed all the trip prep-work and obtained visas in Beijing. The YPT apartment turned into a frat house with men sleeping on every available couch and vaguely comfortable surfaces (I spent a few nights hot bunking with the intern), ordering massive amounts of pizza delivery, and getting up to general shenanigans (people who didn’t watch their backside got tasered!). We visited top end night clubs and proudly avoided all things cultural, but in the mornings we were busy working: making consular visits for visas, setting up trip logistics to unrecognized countries, and having lunches at a secret North Korean embassy restaurant.

I made 7 visits to the Belarusian Embassy, in the end sweet talking my way in and picking up my visa and passport on a day the consular was closed. The visa I finally received wont cover the time of my needed stay – I still need to visit the Belarus Embassy in Moscow to try to get the visa corrected.

Day 1

With everything close to being sorted, on the early morning of Oct 6th we brought 5 customers to the Beijing Main Station, boarding our 2nd class Chinese sleeper compartments on the K3 Trans Siberian Express. Being a group of 7 delinquents we promptly headed to the dining car and drank 5 bottles of Chinese Great Wall wine. I snuck off for an afternoon nap, returning later for more wine until we got kicked out of the dining car for being drunkards.

We reached the Chinese side of the Mongolian border around eight thirty at night. Largely due to having to change the rail gauge Chinese border formalities take about 3 hours to complete. Passengers are usually let off and herded into the station, but we remained on board, our passenger car taken to a hanger and lifted to change the wheel assembly units – a fascinating experience.

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Changing the rail gauge at the Mongolian border.

With the car rail gauge changed we waited for immigration. The attractive female officials of the Mongolian side, dressed up in fur hats, military outfits, and black leather boots were far more preferable to the dudes on the Chinese side. With customs finished, the bathrooms unlocked, and with the train heading north into Mongolia, I snuck into my top bunk for a sound nights sleep.

Day 2

New day and new scenery; we are now rolling northbound across Mongolia with yurt dotted hills, pastures, and mountains passing our train windows. The temperature has dropped and shallow snow drifts cover the terrain. We still have our Chinese carriage but the food car has been changed out, now a Mongolian rig with intricately carved woodwork decorations, and an elaborate menu with only one meal available – nothing like the picture, but still tasty.

We hit Ulaanbaatar in the mid afternoon far a one hour stop. Our mission was to split up and buy bread, cheese, sausage, beer, vodka, mixers, and any other available treats. Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city with a certain charm that makes me want to return for a one week summer stay; I find the girls here attractive.

Despite warnings that Russain customs is intense and that we would need to be on our best behavior, our search for vodka was so successful that by the time we reached the 5 hour Mongolian/Russia border ordeal we were all excessively drunk. somehow they let us though without any major incident and we rolled on into Siberian Russia.

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Mongolian yurts.

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Mongolian yurts.

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Mongolian yurts.

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Mongolian dinner car.

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Mongolian rail car detail.

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Ulaanbaatar monument.

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Ulaanbaatar street life.

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Ulaanbaatar’s finest.

Day 3-5

Woke up early (we are now on Moscow time) to the view of Lake Baikal out our window. With dark storm clouds on the horizon, and ferocious breaking waves on the shore, the largest fresh water lake in the world is truly impressive. Our passage along its southern shore took three hours. We seem to have settled into life on the train. The smells of 7 men sharing two cabins: cigarettes, stale beer, and spilled tins of Russian sardines has turned the cabins quite rank. I use baby wet wipes to “shower” with, I don’t think the other guys even try. The two Chinese compartment attendants don’t really do much other then watch DVDs and cook their meals in the wash room – we seem to be here fending for ourselves.

New sobriety laws have been passed in Russia and buying alcohol at the various stops is difficult but possible. We make our hushed requests for pivo (beer) and vodka at the station snack kiosks, with the attendant checking to see who is watching and advising us to hide he bottles in our jacket until back on our carriage.

The days roll by; it has gotten cold! The carriages are toasty, warmed by coal burning furnaces – we find it fun to get drunk, sneak past the attendant, and feed coal into them ourselves. It’s only early November but the Siberian air mass is already frigid, making our food and booze runs at station stops a test of endurance.

I try to pass the time by reading books, but this only raises ridicule from the other travelers who want to get drunk or simply find it amusing to mess with me. We found on our new 2nd hand iPad an app called Star Girl. A game whose demographic targets prepubescent girls, Star Girl has given us hours of entertainment as we go on dates, receive gifts from virtual boyfriends, and build our wardrobe with new outfits to increase our attraction points. The fact that we spend a lot of time in the virtual underwear shop is admittedly rather creepy – but a game that teaches young girls that having lots of boyfriend whose sole purpose are to give you gifts is even more disturbing then us enjoying the game.

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Russian Siberian countryside.

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Russian Siberian countryside.

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Passing a Russian tank.

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A station stop in Siberia.

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Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.

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Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.


Russian Visa In Beijing – Eurasian Adventure

As I’m stuck here in Beijing, getting reading to lead Young Pioneer Tour’s Eurasian Adventure, I thought it might be useful to readers to describe the Russian visa process in Beijing.

Information online about the Russian visa process is rather dodgy, with many stories of frustrated travelers describing it as the worst visa experience of their lives. Our situation had three of us requiring visas, two people with Chinese residency paperwork, and myself only having a one year multiple entry tourist visa. We started yesterday in Beijing’s “Russia Town”, south of the San Li Tun district, and right next to the North Korean Embassy – we had a great lunch at a secret little DPRK restaurant used by embassy staff.

Our first idea was to search out an agent through a Russian travel agency. Starting at the Aliens Market (Russian market) we explored main avenues and side streets, discovering plenty of fur shops and freight exporters, but no travel shops. About to give up we inquired at a hotel which directed us to an unmarked travel agent who could facilitate visas.

Getting a normal Russian tourist visa in Beijing through an agent requires the following:

Chinese resident visa.
Travel insurance for citizens of Schengen member countries.
Passport photo on white background.
Filling out an application provided by the agent.

There were several options for pickup, but my friends opted for 3 working days at 1,800 RMB cost.

I don’t know the name of the agent, but her email and phone number are: 2350824570@qq.com and 13910885537. Her small office is located in front of the Tianya Mansion shopping center on Yanbao Road, just west of Temple of the Sun Park.

Although I only have a Chinese tourist visa the agent would have attempted to get me a Russian tourist visa, but she only gave the odds of success to be 50%, money back if denied. Given time restraints this wasn’t an option for me.

If you have a Chinese resident visa, plan to skip the agent, and get your Russian visa directly through the Embassy, my understanding is you would require the following:

Chinese resident visa.
Travel insurance for citizens of Schengen member countries.
Passport photo on white background.
Application – provided at the embassy.
Invitation letter and hotel voucher – provided by an internet agent.
Photocopy of passport photo page.

Because I only hold a tourist visa, today I went to the Russian Embassy and applied for a transit visa. The process was rather strait forward, requiring the following:

Application – provided by the embassy.
One passport photo – white background.
Copy of the Trans Siberian train ticket, and copy of my exit train ticket.
Proof of visa to next county – Ukraine is visa free for Americans.
Copy of passport photo page.

We arrived at the Embassy consular entrance before 9 AM and were first in line. Service was prompt, helpful, and friendly (by Russian standards), and I was finished with the process within an hour. 5 working day pickup cost approximately 800 RMB; I paid approximately 1,500 RMB for overnight service.

The Russian transit visa allows 10 days maximum in country, allowing for time on the train and stopover in Moscow.

With all luck my Russian transit visa is processed without any problems and tomorrow I can start the Belarus visa process!