To Russia, Mongolia, Tibet and back again

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a seventh-grade teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

The seed to go to Mongolia was sown about 13 years ago in the jumbled mix of loving horses and adventure that pretends to be my brain. I had had a six-week adventure with my 16-year-old daughter in Australia, where we scuba dived, hiked, and rode horses and camels. I got on the Internet way back then and discovered Mongolia was the place to go for horse riding.

However, also since then, I had two more hip replacement surgeries -- bringing the total to seven -- a knee replacement surgery, and have had cancer treatment and the ever present threat of recurrent cancer. But, as the American dream would have it, as I advanced in age and infirmity, I also advanced in payroll.

Still -- who would want to go to Mongolia with me? I'd been to Costa Rica and Nicaragua basically travelling alone -- including driving a rental car through the season's first hurricane -- and this time I wanted a travel companion.

Despite the challenges, I announced to my group of friends last winter-- 2008-2009 -- that the summer of 2010 I would go to Mongolia. Who were they to point out the obvious problems? They knew me well enough to believe me.

I never mentioned horseback riding in Mongolia to my mother. She's constantly worried about my hips and cancer. But I did mention how fun it would be to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. That's all it took.

My mom is in a wheelchair, ready to go Home to see her Maker. She's OK financially, with a little bit of extra change. Plus she loves trains. I have one sister, Sue, who lives in Oregon. She and her husband have also traveled. She'd always wanted to go on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but at this he put his foot down. He doesn't like trains.

My sister and I haven't been the closest in the world. We're opposites, not only in looks, but in personality, too. But when my mom called me late last year and asked if I would go on the Trans-Siberian Railway with my sister if she gave us each $2,000, I didn't hesitate. "Of course!" I practically shouted into my poor mother's ear.

Thus began the long and arduous journey of hmms and haws, commitment, and finally delivery.

First, I announced to my sister that doing the Trans-Siberian meant doing a horse trek through Mongolia. That had been MY dream for 13 years. My sister is not the horse person in the family, although she'd been known to ride occasionally. I could hear her shrug through the e-mail, and she said OK. That was my ticket to my dream.

January came. I looked up the Condor -- a branch of Lufthansa. One way to Frankfurt was $371. Looked like a good price. I called my sister. "I'm going to do it. I'm buying my ticket. Are you with me? Are we committed?"

"Hold on. I'll call you back."

She went on line and discovered she could get the Condor from Vancouver. Five minutes later the phone rang. I could hear the deep breath. "OK. Let's do it."

Thus began the convoluted Catch-22s of travel as we incubated, and then hatched our own travel plans.

Laborious Internet research revealed that train tickets can't be purchased until 45 days before departure, they sell out quickly, and we had to have our Russian visas to buy them. We couldn't get our Russian visas until 60 days before and needed a letter of invitation from some hotel. So before the train tickets, we had to commit to where and when without knowing the days the train takes off from Moscow. And of course, there was the ever-present threat we might not be granted Russian visas.

Sue found a homestay organization on line, HOFA (Host Family Accommodations), we did our best guestimate of the train schedule, and booked two nights in St. Petersburg and one night in Moscow. She procured an invitation letter from them, we got our visa applications ready, and she sent them with her husband to the Russian consulate in Seattle. A week later we had our visas. Yea! One obstacle down!

Meanwhile, I was working on the Mongolia part of the trip. Research took me to Stepperiders. I liked their website and they would customize a trip. Plus it was a family business owned by Mongolians. We communicated via e-mail and Facebook, but couldn't book until we had our train tickets.

Trying to figure out the schedule before actually booking the train was tough -- especially the part from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, to Beijing. I simply couldn't find a train that suited our time schedule. It was hard to believe there were daily trains into Ulan Bator from Russia, but only two trains out to Beijing. It was definitely the weak link in our itinerary.

We knew we'd somehow get to China, so we had to figure out what to do there. We discussed pandas, Terra Cotta Warriors, and Shanghai. Then Sue e-mailed something that would change our lives: "You know, I've always wanted to go to Tibet."

"ME TOO!" I exclaimed in all caps. "I'll give up the pandas and the warriors for Tibet. Let's do it!"

"OK. We fly home from Lhasa."

Forty-five days before we left, we bought our train tickets, I paid for our horse trek, and we waited for our Chinese visas -- applications hand-delivered by my sister's friend to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Sue then went searching for a way to visit Tibet and discovered a special permit is needed which can't be purchased more than 10 days before entering, and tourists can't be alone: they must hire a driver and guide. We'd be on a horse trek 10 days before entering Tibet. With a deep breath of trust, we hired through a place called Spinn Caf with the verbal assurance our permits and train tickets to Tibet would be waiting for us at our hotel in Beijing.

One week before the Condor was to fly us to Frankfurt, trusting we really would be able to travel to Tibet, we booked air tickets from Lhasa to home.

Five months of planning, and we were ready to go!

Watch the Recreation page for the next installment of Polly's adventure.

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