Thursday, September 15, 2011


Finland is awesome, and I am positive that all three of us want to go back. Our full day in Helsinki was spent walking around the city (Juha had class :( ). We saw some of the churches and interesting architecture. We walked around the shore and coast and saw the ends of an outdoor market that was also full of all the touristy things one could ever want. My favorite part of the day was when we just sat on a park bench and watched people for a couple of hours. The most curious thing we saw all day were groups and groups of people about our age dressed in different colored jumpsuits. All the suits were worn with the top tied around the waist. Some of them were filled with patches all other and sharpy writings. While other were less covered. I stopped one of them who walked by alone and asked him what was going on. He replied that they were all students in Helsinki. The different colors were correlated to what faculty the student was studying. The more a jumpsuit was covered with patches, stickers, and writing the older the student was. The jumpsuits are uniquely Finnish as far as he knew. I thought it were the greatest thing ever created for college kids. No one cares if they get dirty, and you are actually not allowed to wash the suit, unless of course you are wearing it into the shower or diving into a lake.

Jumpsuits! Greatest party attire ever.
That evening we went back to make dinner and chill with Juha before we all went out to the college party that all the jumpsuit kids were preparing for. It was cool to see all of the students in a club with their different colored jumpsuits on. We didn’t stay out to long and caught the last bus back to Juha’s place. The next morning we departed for the North and said good-bye to Juha and thanked him for being such an awesome host.

We were headed about seven hours north to Oulu, Finland. Before we graduated from Colorado College I had made a CouchSurfing account for us. We never really talked about it that much but it was something that I definitely wanted to try and do. Since we were in Europe and low on cash we decided that we should try and couchsurf everywhere we could. While we were in Helsinki I sent our first couchsurf request to a Mr. Sami Latvalehto. He seemed nice from his profile and was a student studying in Oulu. He had never hosted anyone and we had never surfed anywhere so it seemed like a good match. It was more than good, it was perfect.

We met Sami and his housemate, Simo, downtown in front of a pizzeria. It turns out that Oulu is famous for pizzas and has 152 small pizzerias. The city’s population is 150,000 and is the 6th largest city in Finland. He read that I was from Chicago, which is also famous for pizza, and he wanted me to have a Finnish experience regarding it. It was delicious. Jack, Richard, and I all got different pizzas and shared them all. My pizza was covered in reindeer meat, yum. Jack’s pizza was covered in mayonnaise, yum. Mayonnaise around the world is so much better than in the USA. This stuff was delicious. Richard’s pizza was called TexMex and was covered in tortilla chips, salsa, jalapeños, and meat, yum. The pizza hit the spot and during our conversation during dinner we realized that this was going to be an awesome couchsurfing experience. We were given a short tour of the town as it got dark and met some their friends. Everyone was extremely friendly and we had a great time meeting everyone that Sami and Simo introduced us to.

Reindeer and Mayonnaise! 

Richard's TexMex Pizza

As it got later we headed back to their charming 75 square meter apartment. We were only supposed to stay one night because they were hosting a party the next evening. After hanging out with us though they wanted us to stay another night and even attend their party. We were happy to oblige. The next day we woke up late and relaxed at their apartment while they were at school. Sami skipped his second class and came to chill with us for the rest of the day. We made dinner together and prepared for the party. I was super pumped because it was another jumpsuit party (I am definitely going to get one if I get the chance). We had a great time meeting all their classmates and friends and talking to them about our trip and their lives. We met some really amazing people and definitely want to return to Oulu. We were even invited to stay a third night because everyone wanted to hang out with us more. We wanted to as well, but sometimes the road calls. When the road calls you, you gotta go. We enjoyed our stay in Oulu with Sami and Simo so much. These two guys were awesome hosts and it was great to meet them. I am sure we are going to stay in touch. Sami, we definitely want to get some of your Finnish music. Thank you guys for such an amazing time, we will see you soon somewhere around the world.

Simo, Jack, Sami, Richard, and Me

-- Ezra

Into Estonia and Finland

We left Liepaja bidding our farewells to Aldis and his family.  Driving away in our front wheel drive Impreza felt so good. Damn it was good to be in our own car again. We were ready rock Europe with an ultimate road trip. It only took a couple of hours to reach Estonia. Between Latvia and Estonia the border crossings are still really noticeable when compared to other EU border crossings. The buildings that were there were from the old controlled border crossings. They looked abandoned and are not in use anymore. We have decided to hop out of the car and take pictures of us at every border crossing sign. I am planning on making a cool photo album from these photos. As we crossed into Estonia the roads were clearly in a better condition than those of Latvia. None of them compared to the roads in Russia, or to the non-roads of Mongolia. I don’t think we will encounter any sort of road problems in Europe.
This is our new style of picture taking!

We reached Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, around the early evening and found our hostel, the Old Alur Hostel. Situated in the heart of downtown Tallinn, it was a short walk to tons of bars and restaurants. This was by far the largest hostel any of us had ever stayed in. Our room alone consisted of twenty beds. The hostel had about seven rooms on each of its three floors. In the basement was the reception, common area, kitchen, and stairs to an outdoor eating, drinking, and smoking area. In my experience most of the staff at hostels are natives, but at Old Alur, staffed by fifteen people, only three were Estonian. The rest were Guatemalan, Ukrainian, American (first Americans we had spoken with on the trip), and British. It was an interesting mix and provided for a lot of interesting discussions and stories. The main theme to the hostel was partying. Most of the foreigners working at the hostel had originally arrived while traveling only to get trapped in the “black hole” that is Tallinn.

With partying the main attraction we seemed to be in for a trip because the one night we were staying also happened to be the going away party for the manager. Our dinner that night consisted of pasta with sauce and bread. I was really excited because it was only the second or third time we had pasta sauce. Next to us at the table were a large group of Uruguayan students eating their marinated chicken breasts with side servings of mashed potatoes and salad. My happiness dimmed a little bit.

As the party started up we just followed everyone out of the hostel and started having drinks with the staff of the hostel and the manager. We met some super cute girls, and it was even better because they spoke English. We bar hopped for three or four hours and had a great time seeing the nightlife in Tallinn. However the “black hole” was not that enticing to us and we decided to head out the next day instead of staying another night.

The next day we had a slow start and enjoyed the company of fellow travelers in the common area as we decided what ferry to take to Helsinki. It is about a two-hour ferry between Tallinn and Helsinki and Finnish people to my knowledge primarily use it. Alcohol and generally everything else is very expensive in Finland so Fins take the ferry in the morning, buy copious amounts of alcohol, and take the ferry back at night. Usually the ride back involves tons of drinking. We took a ferry that left at two in the afternoon thus missing all the action I previously described.

I got in contact with a schoolmate from when I studied in Japan who was Finnish and studied in Helsinki. His name is Juha and he let us stay with him for our time in Helsinki. More to come on Finland later.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

New Country, New Car

Ah...  Latvia.  The English language is a wonderful medium of communication when both parties can speak it.  I learned that in Latvia after learning the opposite in Russia.  

We took a fourteen hour train to Riga.  Up to that point we had been riding Platzkart, third clsass with double stacked beds in an open wagon (no compartments).  On this train we saved three-hundo USD riding fourth class.  No beds, just three person benches.  Not exactly comfortable on an overnight train.  But no matter.  We stopped at the Russian-Latvian border at 2am and didn't have any problems getting out of the country on our in-valid visas.  Technically we had spent close to two months in Russia illegally but after Vladivostok no one seemed to mind.

At 8:55am we walked out of the train station in Riga, chose to turn right, and walked through a market straight to the bus station.  When navigating and in doubt, pick a direction and walk/drive/run.  If life in the "real world" is anything like this trip there's a nine in ten chance that you'll find what you're looking for by choosing a random direction.

Buying a bus ticket from Riga to Liepaja was a pivotal moment in the trip for me.  I took a picture of the bus schedule with my phone and kept it on the screen to show to the attendant behind the window.  This way I could point to the bus that we wanted and there would be no confusion.  It's a techniqe that we had used in Russia more than once with success.  I cued at the window, made it to the front of the line, and said "hi, do you speak any English?"  She stared at me blankly and looked a little annoyed.  I was used to it.  This was the typical response to the English language in Russia.  I started to lift my phone when she did something that I didn't expect.  She said, "of course I do" in perfect English.  I was so surprised I froze for a second.  In that half of full second I realized that Russia is not Europe.  We were still in a former USSR country but it was completely different world.  As much as I enjoyed Russia and would love to go back, at that moment, I was imearsurably happy that we were out.

Liepaja is 210km south west of Riga on the coast of the Baltic Sea.  We were headed there to meet Aldis who would help us buy our third car of the trip.  Aldis goes by Lincx on the Dirty Impreza forums which is where we met him. has been a media partner of our trip from the early planning stages and we've kept a sub-forum going over there as best as we could.  When Aldis read that we crashed the Forester and were heading to Moscow he jokingly said,

Sucks... well ill hope you get another car...
Btw - im not too far from Moscow, and i have reliable impreza for sale (3k).... just saying! 

Our initial reaction was "lol."  Then over the next six weeks the offer kept coming up when we were talking about our options.  We had no idea whether or not it was a legitimate offer but as we got closer to Moscow most all of out other ideas looked to be impossible.  I sent Aldis a PM (private message) not knowing what to expect.  

Originally Posted by abumchuck (me, Jack)
Hey this is Jack from "The Road is West." So we're a bit stuck researching used cars in Europe. Were you serious about your Impreza being for sale?

Yeah im serious... Im trying to sell it right now...
im looking at around 2300 US $.....
its 2.0 NA sedan.. AWD, manual....

Eight emails later we were ready to make a deal.  But, fortunately for Aldis, about a week before we arrived someone offered him $3,000 for his Impreza and he sold it.  We were happy that Aldis didn't lose money giving us the "Dirty Impreza" discount.  He offered to help us find another Impreza in Latvia and he gave us a place to stay with his family.  So when we climbed out of the bus in Liepaja Aldis was waiting for us with his WRX wagon parked around the corner.

On the drive back to Aldis' place we took a "shortcut" down a dirt road.  As soon as we left the pavement Aldis put his foot to the floor and started reading himself pace notes like he was a rally car driver and co-driver.  "Left four.  Right three, tightens.  Keep right over crest."  Then he scared the piss out of us when he said, "junction right two" and flicked the car left.  I assume Ezra and Richard, who had never experienced a "Scandanavian Flick" (an advanced rally racing technique), thought that we were going to crash.  Who wouldn't when the WRX wagon was sliding down the dirt road sideways facing the wrong direction for the righthand second gear turn, seemingly out of control.  But we weren't out of control.  Aldis has been racing rally cars since he could drive and at the last second the car rotated 180 degrees back toward the turn and we slid perfectly past the apex listening to the sweet sound of the boxer engine pull us straight.  Boy do I miss the sound of a turbo boxer engine.  R.I.P. Forester.

Then right when our hearts stopped racing from the Scandanavian flick Aldis said, "right five, keep flat over jump."  There are a few things you have to understand to realize why this was such a terrifying pace note for us to hear.  First, the most basic rally pace notes have two parts: one part tells you which direction the upcoming turn is, the other tells you which gear to be in for the turn or, in other words, how fast to take the turn.  So a "right five" meant that we were driving very fast in the top gear of Aldis' WRX.  "Keep flat over jump" meant keep the pedal to the medal off of the jump.  Second, we had met Aldis twenty minutes before hearing him say this and knew almost nothing about him.  Third, like me in the U.S., Aldis likes to work on his car.  When he picked us up he had no back seats and no seatbelts for anyone.  Fourth, rally cars crash alot, especially off of jumps.  We saw the dirt road climb in front of us then disappear where the road dropped and we would leave the ground.  Oh s***!

But it was anticlimactic.  We weren't driving anywhere near race-pace and Aldis knew it.  Our stomachs stayed in place and the tyres (yes "tyres" we're in Europe now) remained planted to the Earth as we crested the jump.  The "shortcut" was a nice introduction to our new friend and savior, Aldis.

Here is an idea of how Aldis lives his life (the sticker on the back of his car):

The highlights of the next three days were hanging out at Aldis' place and playing with his two year-old daughter,

visiting Lithuania with Aldis and his wife on their six day anniversary,

celebrating Aldis' bachelor's party at some Latvian night clubs, visiting a local lake with the whole family, buying our new Subaru Impreza (see pictures below), and driving another Lithuanian rally stage with the new car (video to come).

Latvia provided me with the easiest car buying experience I have ever known and likely (hopefully not) will ever know.  We found the cheapest Subaru Impreza on Latvian craigslist (  It was in Riga so the day after arriving in Liepaja by bus Aldis drove us back to the capital.  This time we took his family's Honda Civic which got much better gas mileage.  We met the 1996 1.6l FWD Impreza in a parking lot spent five minutes making sure everything worked and said we'd take it.  We then drove ten minutes to the nearest Latvian DMV where the owner's girlfiend paid for thirty minutes of parking for us.  Ezra added another ten minutes and we were in-and-out with a transfered title, a new passport for the car, and three months insurance before the meter expired.  The car cost us $1,200, plus $150 for overdue registration fees, plus $46 for insurance.  Not bad.

It's no Forester, but on the plus side, it's no Niva.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Leaving Russia without Leaving Russia

Our last few days in Russia went by slowly, in a good way.  Up to the point when we arrived in Moscow we'd been rushed everywhere we went.  Always trying to make it to the next city or hostel or train station as fast as possible.  Moscow was different.

Our train got into Moscow's central station at 4:11am.  One of my pet peeves about Russian trains is that passengers prepare for arrival way too early.  From 1:15 to 1:45 alarms up and down our wagon were going off.  Everyone was up and at 'em by 2am.  By 2:15 every bag was packed and everyone was ready to get off the train.  Two hours of silent sitting later we arrived at the station.  Why?  Why sit for two hours waiting for the train to stop when you could be sleeping?  Anyway...

We negotiated with two taxi drivers and overpaid for a six minute ride to the apartment we were staying at.  The apartment is owned by my stepmother's sister's husband's brother Dan.  He rents out the apartment's three bedrooms one of which was between tenants.  Dan was kind enough to offer it to us.  Richard says the most important thing he's learned from this trip is that people and friends matter most.  I agree completely.  As we've said before, everywhere we go people have been overly generous and Dan and his family were no exception.

Moscow came as a shock to me.  I loved it.  I wasn't prepared for the architecture, the underground, the history, or any of it.  It didn't feel like the Russia we knew from the East.  Not at all.  I'll leave the lengthy detailed descriptions of the city out because you can find them all over the internet written by better writers than me.  I'll leave you some of my favorite pictures:

Our first ride on the Metro.

At the only remaining wall of the original Kremlin.

Our Moscow "tour guides," Masha and Anastasia.  Masha went to school with Ezra nine years ago.  When she heard that we were coming to Moscow she offered to meet us and show us the city where she's lived off-and-on her whole life.  

One of seven Stalin Skyscrapers scattered around the city.  They are massive.  When we walked around Moscow we always tried to spot them.

No description necessary.


Moscow's underground.  Every station was unique and I could have easily spent a day touring metro stations with a bottle of Coke.

Outside the Kremlin with our audio guides hanging around our necks.

A big bell.

Ezra and I went on our audio tour while Richard wandered close by.



We spent the weekend outside the city staying with Dan and his family at their Dacha.  It was relaxing and a great taste of Dacha (summer house outside the city) life.  Monday Morning we caught a train to St. Petersburg.

Ezra on the eight hour train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

A nice location for wedding photos.

St. Pete felt like I a more refined less crowded Moscow.  Maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see but it was exactly what I expected.  We only spent two nights before leaving for Latvia but we were able to catch a ballet.  Swan Lake, the quintessential Russian ballet in the best city in the world to see it.  Ezra was afraid he wouldn't get in because he didn't have a collared shirt but he covered up with a jacket and we were fine.  It was a small production at not at the famous Mariinsky theater because we're out of season but it was nice nonetheless.  It felt very "Russian."  Not Siberian Russian or Soviet Russian but old-timey Russian.  It was the perfect way to wrap up our Russian experience.

- Jack

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Train Trip to Moscow

A video recounting of our train ride and Lake Baikal, told on a beach.
It is my first video blog post, so it is a little rough and little too long.

- Dick

Leaving Mongolia

So after enjoying an amazing stay in Ulaan Baatar with the Joshi family we decided it was time to make our way back to Russia. We left early in the morning and got to the border in about six hours. I was preparing myself to go through all the crazy Mongolian procedures correctly on my first try. As we hit the border we were stuck in a line for about forty-five minutes before we even entered the crossing area. When we got let in I immediately realized that we missed the first check point where I had to get the car checked. I got out to run back to the building to take care of the first piece of paperwork and passed a group of what looked like Mongolian actors. One guy was dressed in a fresh suit with a purple cravat. Within the group were two professional looking video cameras. As I walked by they started talking to me and laughed when they realized I didn't speak Mongolian or Russian. I got the paperwork finished and did not think anything more of the actors and went into the main building to get the rest of the work done.

When I walked in I saw the same woman that begrudgingly helped me the first time. She did not seem all that excited to have to help me again. Her demeanor quickly changed when she was approached by another Mongolian woman, who was not a customs official. Without understanding why, the customs official took our documents from me and then lead me outside with the other Mongolian woman. I thought we were heading back to the first place where I first filled out the car information, but I was led passed it to outside the border crossing gates. Outside was the same group of actors I had passed earlier. The guy in the suit and another dressed in Mongolian army fatigues. In some broken English I was told to stand behind the guy in the suit and look tough. I was given an adidas jacket and some blue tinted aviators and stood with my arms crossed behind the supposed Russian mob guy dressed in the hot suit who was apparently making a deal with the Mongolian army guy. With cameras filming from two different directions and multiple takes I had just had my first scene in a movie. We moved inside the gate and I was given a mini-van to drive the guy in the suit around in. I acted out another scene where I had to open the trunk of the jeep to a customs official and then get back in and drive off with my mob boss. Honestly, I had no idea what was going on or if I did anything correctly but it was fun. I got the card of the producer and I plan on finding this movie to see my acting skills.

When they had finished with me, the customs woman was super easy to work with. During the filming she had gone around and gotten all the stamps I needed. When a large group of Russians got into the line right before we did, she took us down the V.I.P. lane and we got through in no time. Next up the Russian border.

Here was the moment we were dreading. Since we had crossed out of Russia with our original visas we decided not to get a new one and take a gamble that they would let us back in. As we reached the first window I handed her my passport and the vehicle registration paperwork. Everything looked like it was going smoothly until she asked me about the picture on my Russian visa. This time I employed my "act like a stupid American traveler and you will most likely make it through" strategy. Like the time in Vladivostok she pointed at the picture and then pointed at me. I replied, "Uhh, what? the picture? It was there when we got the visa. Visa company (pointing at the photo), Visa Company did it." After fifteen minutes and a couple of stares at Richard's long hair in his passport photo we made it through the first check-point no problem. In the final check-point where they were supposed to check our luggage they seemed much more interested in our iPhones. After playing with them for a couple minutes we were let right though. We had made it back to Russia and were off to Chita with a stop in Ulad Ude. It takes about three hours from the border to Ulan Ude and then another ten to get to Chita.

We were a little past halfway to Ulan Ude at about 9:30 at night and were pulling over to get our last tank of gas in a city called Gusinoozersk. Pulling out of the gas station we drove about 100 meters. First gear, second, and as we shifted into third the transmission went out. We pulled onto the side of the road. Started the car, but the transmission had broken so the car was going no where. We walked back to the gas station and by using our phone to call Misha who translated for us. We had the woman at the gas station call a taxi for us. We unloaded the Niva, piled into the taxi, and got dropped off at a hotel for the night. We were warned almost every minute by everyone not to leave the Niva on the side of the road or it would be stolen. There was nothing we could do about it at the moment and we decided to figure it all out in the morning. If the car was still there...

Jack said that a new transmission would cost basically as much as the car. It seemed like the Niva was done and we would have to take a bus to Ulan Ude and then a train to Moscow. No driving it back to Chita to try and sell and get some cash back. It was crushing to get so close and then have to give up the Niva, but after everything we had gone through on this trip we knew we would continue somehow. The next morning we woke up and took a walk to see what remained, if anything, of the Niva. Low and behold it was still there with all its parts. It had survived a night, unlocked, on the side of the road. We asked the hotel attendant to call a tow truck, but the person who arrived was the owner of the hotel. He spoke a few words of English and after driving out to look at the car he called his mechanic. After taking a quick look the mechanic gave us a thumbs up signal and said he could fix it. Even better it would only cost us $150!! I was surprised and relieved and after four hours the car was fixed and we were back on the road.

We spent the night in a new hostel in Ulan Ude. The hostel seemed like it had just opened. Everything was brand new and pristine white. The next morning we took off and made it back to our friend Misha's house in Chita. I was so happy the Niva made it all the way back. After all the doubt about whether we would make it to Mongolia and back in the Niva it was great to have a successful story. Next up we planned on taking a train to Moscow with a brief stop in Irkutsk, which is on the western side of Lake Baikal.

-- Ezra