I was in Russia two years ago. It was dark and cold. Actually, it wasn’t too bad considering it was summer. Kenny Reed and I were talking about trips we wanted to do and places we wanted to go. Not an unusual conversation for us. It was then that I first heard of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a train that goes from Europe to Moscow, across Siberia, through Mongolia, finally ending in Beijing. I instantly wanted to go on it. There was something amazingly attractive about the chance to experience the presumed desolation of Siberia and going to Mongolia, a country I had never even thought about visiting. Just going into the complete unknown.
Someone had emailed Kenny a photo of an amazing spot in Omsk, a city just over the Ural Mountains. It appeared to be a smoothly paved dirt bike racetrack, with all kinds of bumps and burms and whatever else a dirt bike track has. There were spots out there for sure. How could I make this happen was the question. Who would fund a trip to a completely unknown place with absolutely no guarantee of getting enough photos for an article? It wasn’t going to be easy. Two years later, it finally came together with the help of Vans, Zero, Planet Earth, and Ipath.
Keegan was stuck in traffic, which maybe wasn’t that unusual for driving in downtown Moscow. But there was a problem. The rest of us were on the train prepared for a two-day ride across the Ural Mountains to Omsk, our first stop in Siberia. Not only was Keegan late, but he also had Van’s passport and train ticket. All of a sudden we were going to be two members short on the first leg of our exciting journey. “All aboard!” yelled the conductor in Russian. We said goodbye to Van and told him we’d see him and Keegan in three days, when the next train out would arrive at the first stop. We were bummed. We sat quietly in our cabin. How had this happened? How was it possible to miss a train that left at 9:30 pm? It was raining and dark outside. There was a jolt to the train and the sound of the couplings between cars being pulled tightly. We were moving. “Damn, they really missed it.” I can’t believe it,” we thought. Looking out the window, I was watching the rain in a steady downpour. The platform was dark and empty. Then I heard some commotion down the corridor of our train car. I poked my head out and, to my surprise, it was Keegan and Van running toward us! They were drenched and their bags were hanging off them every which way. There was much cheering and celebration. Keegan had come running across the platform just as the train had started moving. He and Van had literally jumped aboard the last car as it left the station. The conductor had been there, helping hoist their bags on board. It was f**king amazing.
Now we could sit back and enjoy the ride; we were going to be on the train for the next 40-some hours in our two little compartments. About 6-by-5-by-8, I’d say. Each cabin contained four beds that folded out from the wall, a table at one end, and a window. Pretty tight quarters, but not too bad.
The crew consisted of Kenny Reed, Jack Sabback, Keegan Sauder, Van Wastell, Kirill (a skater and writer from Russia who helped us out immensely), and Mike Fox on filming duty. We had been in Moscow for a week skating to ensure we got some tricks before embarking into the complete unknown. We had no idea if there would be anything to skate in the center of Mother Russia.
The sights from the train were pretty intense the next day. There were these old wooden villages nestled in vast forests. The houses were all gray from weather and most were in pretty bad states of disrepair. Babushkas and old men would just sit and watch the train at each station we passed by. The train would slow to a crawl or stop for a few minutes as local people got on and off. Sometimes the train would stop for 20 or 30 minutes and we could get off, stretch our legs, and buy “Big Lunches” or “Business Menu.” These were just the nastiest Ramen noodles you can imagine. They weren’t bad at first, but after a couple of ’em you didn’t want to eat one ever again. That only came after our provisions ran out or spoiled. Some of the trains had dining cars, but nothing to write home about.
After Van and Keegan just barely made the train, I felt we needed to commemorate the trip somehow. I had an India ink pen for drawing, so I suggested we all get Train Tats. I wasn’t really that serious when I mentioned it, but a few hours and a several bottles of wine later, Kenny was claiming hard that he was going to get one. I got out the kit and prepared it for Kenny’s tat. Keegan said he would do it. I found a safety pin, a beer cap for ink, a bottle of vodka, and a cigarette lighter for sterilizing. Oh yeah, and a headlamp for Keegan to use so he could see. We went down in the smoking section at the end of the car where there is hardly any light and no seats. Needless to say, Kenny’s tat came out pretty sketchy; large and spotty. I’d say. But, damn, that thing was pretty badass at the same time. His first tat, and the first tat Keegan had ever given. He got the Russian letter “R.” The backwards “R,” pronounced “Ya,” is the Russian word for “I” and also reminiscent of “R” for Railway. It couldn’t have been a better choice really. That’s when it was decided. We would all get the same letter. The Cult of the Siberian Railway. We also agreed that they all had to be given while the train was in motion, just to give it that slightly risky edge of character. By the time we reached Mongolia, we all had legit tats by Keegan. It was pretty interesting to see his tattooing skills increase with each one. By the end, they looked almost pro.
We had been warned about Omsk while in Moscow. It was a dangerous place with not much to skate and a general hatred of outsiders. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the local crew of skaters. Kirill had hooked that up, emailing ahead to each city in Russia to arrange transportation. The people of Omsk actually turned out to be quite nice and there were spots galore as well. We spent three days there and could have stayed much longer. We had already bought our train tickets, though, so we had to leave as planned.
The next leg wasn’t too bad, a one-day ride to Novosibirsk. We got off the train and were met by some local Russian skaters (Rollerbladers?) Not really too sure. Not one of them ever had a board with them. The first thing one guy said to us was, “You are in Siberia. Are you scared?” What was that supposed to mean? We didn’t feel scared, but he didn’t seem like he was joking either. I didn’t say anything. The locals had arranged an apartment for us, which was cool, but when we arrived someone had spray painted “Kill the USA” on the wall next to the front door, in English, which I thought was a little weird. But it was nice inside.
We were starving. The three meals of Ramen hadn’t really set too well. The locals said, “Oh, you’re American. We’ll take you to an American restaurant!”
Oh God,” I thought, “I hate to think what that’s like in the middle of Siberia.” Novosibirsk is in the exact center of Russia, the middle of nowhere. But at that point we would have eaten anything. We arrived at New York Pizza pretty late. It looked like a classic diner: all silver walls with pictures of Elvis and booths with red pleather seating. After a couple minutes, the door flew open and about five guys burst into the restaurant fighting. They were rolling on the floor and there was a lady screaming at one of them. Everyone in the place just sat and stared. It then became clear that one of the guys had tried to steal the woman’s purse and the other four had chased him down and gotten it back for her. Then they beat the crap out of him and blocked him in a booth in the restaurant until the cops came. “Welcome to Novosibirsk,” I thought. The food sucked. I had spaghetti with cinnamon sauce I think.
This is what I thought Siberia would be like. The place was rugged, full of pollution and sketchy drunks on street corners. It wasn’t quite as rugged as a Third World city but definitely unwelcoming. The next day we met up with the local guys and rented a van to drive to spots. The driver took one look at us and was completely over it. He was a 30-something rugged-looking Russian guy. He looked as tough as shit. He was so bummed to be driving around a bunch of American skateboarders. That all changed, though, when Van needed a container to spit dip into. All there was in the van was an empty Coke can. Van took a skate tool and started banging out the top of it to make a bigger hole. Victor, the driver, turned around to see what the noise was about and started watching intently as Van violently bashed in the top of the can. He finished abruptly and then, without a pause, spit a huge mouthful of chaw juice into the can. After watching the whole event, Victor got stoked. He started laughing and gave Van a pound and a look that said, “Hey! You’re a scumbag too!” After that he loved us. He was all smiles and cheering and shit. It was pretty awesome. He didn’t speak a word of English.
After three days in Novosibirsk, we got back on the train for another 48-hour ride. Our next stop was Irkutsk, a city near Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, which holds 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. Pretty crazy. Anyway, we arrived there after many a Ramen noodle Big Lunch and Business Menu. It was 6 a.m. but, fortunately, we had arranged a pick up from the hostel we were staying at. We were driven to the back of some large cement building and on the wall, spray painted in red, was the word, “HOSTEL.” It looked like it was straight out of the movie, super sketchy. We gave each other glances that said, “Are we really doing this?” and went through the doors. It was actually very nice inside. We were greeted by one of the most beautiful Russian girls I’ve ever seen. Her name was Irena, I believe. She looked after the hostel and was as cold as f**king dry ice. It was insane. I’ve never met a less personable girl. Of course, maybe she was just sick of getting hit on constantly by Western travelers.
Irkutsk, though, was one of the nicest and most welcoming cities we visited. Nearly every building downtown was made of logs and built in the early 1800s. They were covered with ornately carved eaves and shutters. The place looked amazing. The local skaters took us to Lake Baikal the next morning. It was cold. It had been sleeting that morning. It was a dreary day, probably exactly like what you’d picture a day in Siberia to be like, a place to which prisoners would most definitely be exiled. There was a fish market, which looked pretty gnarly. Salted fish, smoked fish, and very little cooked fish. I didn’t really feel the urge to try any, but our Russian hosts bought a bunch of them and we all ate off a log that had washed up on the stony beach. The fish actually turned out to be quite good. The water was freezing, but local folklore says if you go swimming you will be blessed with 25 extra years on your life. We all went swimming. It was f**king cold but it made the day seem nice and warm after getting out.
Kenny’s visa expired on the 25th. We left Irkutsk for Mongolia on the 25th. Something we didn’t consider, though, was the fact that the train didn’t actually leave Russia until the 26th. We arrived at the border the next morning and sat for 7 hours while they searched the entire train for illegal contraband. Everything was fine until they checked Kenny’s passport. Kirill was arguing with the border agents for a while, but it was no use. In the end, Kenny had to get off the train and go back to Ulan Ude, the nearest city with a Russian consulate, to get an exit visa. He had to stay in some guy’s shanty house who specialized in rooking travelers out of a few hundo. We all said worried goodbyes and watched Kenny get smaller and smaller in the distance as our train moved on into Outer Mongolia.
Another day later, we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the biggest city in Mongolia. That place was f**ked. It was definitely the most Third World city I’ve ever been to. There were huge high rises next to Ger tents (traditional Mongolian housing). Most of the streets were just dirt, and there were little shanty houses everywhere. Drunks lurked on every corner stinking of a vodka diet. It was intense. The streets and sidewalks were covered with open manholes. Apparently, the people there are so poor that they will steal the manhole covers and sell them as scrap metal. This leaves the streets full of gapping holes. Cars just dodge them, and since there are hardly any streetlights, you have to be damn careful at night if you’re walking around. This was the first place where no one spoke any of the language and we had no guide whatsoever. We lurked around and looked for spots. The local men were pretty rough there. They would shoulder check you while passing on the sidewalk just to see if you’d do anything. They were always looking for a fight it seemed. At one point Keegan had a brick thrown at him, but we managed to not get into any altercations.
In the morning, we got up and went to meet Kenny at the train station. We waited around for a while, but Kenny never showed up. Finally, we managed to find out his train had gotten in half an hour early. Where was he? We went back toward the hostel we were staying in and suddenly there was Kenny walking aimlessly down an alley. “Holy shit! You made it!” we cheered. We were all stoked.
Somehow we ended up going to a ranch in the desert outside the city. We rode horses, camels, and yaks, and Keegan held a falcon. We also had horsemeat. It was a pretty ridiculous day; we were all just looking at each other riding horses across a river in Mongolia saying, “This is a skate trip!? Why can’t they all be like this?” On the way back, I saw a guy sitting in the middle of a dirt road. He was talking on a telephone he had hooked up to the phone line under the road. He was just chilling there with his feet in a hole.
After three days, we were ready to leave Mongolia and get on our way to China. We went to the train station only to find out that the train to Beijing, which only leaves once a week, was fully booked. We would have to stay an additional week if we wanted to go there. None of us wanted to do that, especially since the day before Mike and I had cameras stolen off us. Mine was pick-pocketed for sure as I was shooting a photo of Keegan. It was just an obsolete digital point-and-shoot, so I wasn’t that bummed, but I was definitely over staying for an extra week. Fortunately, we found a local train that would take us to the border, at which point we could take a bus to Beijing. That night we got onboard the train and, as Van and Mike went into their compartment, which held four beds, they were surprised to see five Mongolian men and one woman in business suits already in it. They all jumped up and started arguing and yelling and rifling past them to get out. Van felt someone tugging on his backpack and spun around taking it off only to discover that his point-and-shoot was missing too. Four of the locals were making a beeline for the exit, and we grabbed two of them after we realized what had happened. Everyone was yelling and Mike was saying “Scum” over and over. We searched the two of them, including the woman’s purse, but no camera was there. They had handed it off. Then we were dismayed to find out that Mike and Van had to share the room with the two Mongolians who were left. They spoke absolutely no English, so you can imagine the awkwardness. Mike and Van put their stuff in our compartment. We said bye to Kirill, who was flying back to Moscow, and headed for China.
In the morning, we transferred to the bus. It looked nice enough. It was very futuristic and yellow. There weren’t seats or beds on it but, rather, some weird combo of the two: slanted seats that were pretty comfortable at first but after a while you hated everything about them. They were organized in three rows of bunk beds, with your feet ending up under the head of the person in front of you. I was situated in the back in the only row that had five beds across. I was sandwiched in between Keegan, who was wearing a leather jacket for some reason (It was as hot as hell), and some chubby guy who was sweating on me the whole time. There was nothing I could do because the seats were so tight. This was pretty harsh, but it wasn’t that horrible for a few hours. Little did we know the bus ride to Beijing was 15 hours, on dirt roads most of the way. By the time we got there, we were totally delirious and my arm had become fused with the chubby guy’s sweaty side. It was more disgusting to move away from him, only to have to face the inevitable cold, slimy contact in the near future, than to just accept it and try to ignore how wet and pruned my arm was getting from someone else’s sweat.
We got to Beijing early. It was 5 a.m. by the time we got to the hotel. We walked around our new zone checking out the meat markets. They were selling freshly cut dog loins and a bunch of other weird foods. I wanted to try some dog but never saw it on the menu anywhere. We rented bikes and rode around town. It was crowded and polluted as hell. The sky was gray and the sun was shining, which was totally weird. We checked out the Great Wall. After three days in Beijing, we went to Shenzhen for a week.
Shenzhen has tons of new skyscrapers and old men riding bikes with wooden trailers giving rides to guys holding computers or talking on cell phones. The city was totally bright and clean until you got down into the alleys and saw the crust on eye level. It was pretty grimy, like Chinatown in New York. There were food markets selling dog, frog, snakes, geese, chickens in cages with rabbits, pheasants, eels, crabs, clams, oysters, etc. You name it, they got it—live or dead. All this was right across the street from Amsterdam-style whorehouses with hoards of young girls trying to coerce you into their lairs. The place was nuts. Everything was shopping-related. You could buy anything there, and for cheap too. DVDs galore, luggage, electronics, shoes, clothes, whatever, but it was all bootleg of course.
The Blueprint guys were staying in the same hotel with us and we hung with them a lot, skated every day and then, suddenly, our five-week trip was over. It was definitely the best trip I’ve ever been on or put together. Now the question is: How do we manage to do it again?