On my most recent trip to Europe, I decided to bring my 70-200mm f/2.8 G lens in place of the smaller beercan lens. and the Samyang fisheye. With the increase in camera equipment, I didn’t want to lug around my laptop and decided to try to just make do with my iPad (original).
I picked up the iPad camera connection kit, which is pretty neat but has a few limitations.
The kit comes with two adapters. One is for SD memory cards (which my a700 doesn’t use); the other is a USB cable connector, intended for use with a USB cable that connects your camera with the adapter. The problem there is that my a700 has a proprietary USB cable, the tip of which is pretty small and easily bent, and its the sort of thing I can easily misplace in a tangle of other USB cables. I figured I’d be able to use any USB card reader instead.
I was wrong.
The first card reader I tried was a inoV8-brand card reader which I picked up in London. It’s sort of a crummy brand (the inov8 CF card I bought broke on me within weeks) but the card reader has worked well enough for me – until I tried it with the iPad connector kit. I immediately got an error message telling me that “The connected USB device requires too much power.” Crap. But I was saved by the magic of cheap Chinese engineering, in the form of a different USB card reader I had picked up for a couple bucks in the Pearl Market in Beijing (I’ll have to write up a guide to haggling in China at some point). That card reader (designated as a “Direc SR8217″ if you want to look for one somewhere) worked fine. I’m willing to run the risk that the card reader is sending my intellectual property to Politburo headquarters.
So that’s the set-up for getting photos into my iPad. Once they’re in there, what do I do with them?
I already had the free Adobe Photoshop Express app, but had never been too enamored with it, so I bought Snapseed for $4.99.
Snapseed is really neat and has an incredibly intuitive interface for iPad. You select a function like “Tuning” within which are options like Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, etc., which you switch between by swiping up and down. Each setting is adjusted by swiping left and right (same as the PS Express app, but with a meter at the bottom so you know exactly how much you’ve applied). My two favorite sliders are the Ambiance slider in I’m also a big fan of the Structure setting in the Details menu – similar to Clarity in Lightroom. I think the best aspect of Snapseed is how quickly those adjustments are made — (of course, there’s a lot less versatility).
The only real drawback for Snapseed on the iPad is that I don’t think it’s processing the RAW file but the embedded JPG (it’s either that, or the file it saves just isn’t high quality enough) – and the result is that there can be some banding in the finished file.
Here’s a shot I edited in Snapseed, and then edits I did in Lightroom to the corresponding RAW file.
The versatility of Lightroom comes through when trying to get better colors out of the water – I was able to get better aqua tones through the HSL sliders in Lightroom, something I wouldn’t really be able to do with Snapseed. But I think Snapseed has the edge with the Structure slider, bringing out the detail in the rocks much better than Lightroom can, even with Clarity at 100 as it is here.
One thing that surprises me is that there’s no simple vignette function on Snapseed. The Vintage function can apply selective blur, so it seems like a simple functionality to add. Maybe in the future.
The first chance I get to see the train in daylight is at Kirov. Most of the passengers get out to do some trackside shopping. Meanwhile, the mail car sandwiched between the locomotive and the passenger wagons gets loaded up with sacks of mail destined for points east.
All of the pictures in this post are taken from the train as it rolls towards Perm, gateway to Siberia, on my first full day on the Trans-Siberian. In some cases that means poor quality as the train is in motion and I’m shooting through glass, so there can be glare or blur. Oh well. I’ll post some of the shots from stations themselves in subsequent posts.
The next day I wake up around 9 am. I’m now 800km and one time zone away from Moscow. By 10am, most of the train carriage is up.
Your ticket on the Trans-Siberian only gets you a bunk – not a whole compartment, and the No. 2 Rossiya is a popular route with few empty bunks. And since it takes seven days to complete its journey to Vladivostok, you’d better accept that you’re going to have to interact with your fellow passengers, even if you don’t speak the same language as them.
Next door, the English I heard earlier turns out to be a Dutch couple, Maarten and Brigitte. The reason they’re speaking English is to communicate with the couple they’re sharing a cabin with, Svetlana and Peter – young Russian newlyweds. Peter is a boxer who doesn’t say much, but while you certainly get the sense you wouldn’t want to cross him, he has a remarkably easygoing demeanor. His English is limited, but his wife speaks English fairly well. I spend a good portion of my first day on the train dropping in to this compartment from time to time.
Meanwhile, in my own compartment, there’s the young family of three, returning from a beach vacation somewhere on the Baltic sea. I learn that Yulia’s husband Aleks works for the railroad, but if Yulia told me what she did for a living, I’ve forgotten it. Yulia, as it turns out, speaks a little English, and she asks me about where I’m from. I take the opportunity to show her some pictures of Chicago I brought with me. My shot of the Bean in the snow is of interest to her: “winter!” she says.
I tell Yulia that I am trying to get to Lake Baikal. She tries to tell me something about it, but she doesn’t know quite the right word. She asks if she can draw it in my notebook. Turns out I’m supposed to look out for aliens – Baikal is apparently mildly famous for UFO sightings.
But Yulia’s favorite topic is definitely my family – or lack thereof. One of the pictures I show her is of me and my parents at Christmas dinner. She points to one of the empty chairs and tells me “wife.” I shake my head. She is undeterred: “and one, two, three, many children.” I tell her no more than two kids, which is easier than explaining the concept of “I’m not sure I’ll ever have kids,” which is tough to swallow even for most Americans. I ask her how many she plans on having, and she reveals with a smile that she is expecting her second in November. “I am hoping for a boy,” she tells me. After a moment, she points up towards the top bunk where her husband has been watching the absurd WWII drama all day, and corrects herself: “we are hoping for a boy.”
Still, socializing can only take up so much of your day. The rest of the time is passed reading, napping, eating, drinking, and staring out the window at a place I’ve never seen and may never see again. I’ve got my camera with me, as well as a Flip video and and iPod touch for video, and as I switch equipment on the top bunk, the Flip manages to fall through the narrow space between the wall and my mattress, narrowly missing Yulia sitting on the bunk underneath me. As she returns it, she scolds me: “You kill me with this.”
The Rossiya leaves Moscow a few minutes before midnight, and though it’s been a long day, I want to stay up until the first stop at Vladimir. I’ve brought a lot of food with me, but I forgot to bring any bottled water. There was no reason for me to do so – I knew that the the train had a samovar where I could get hot water. I figured I’ll fill up my thermos tonight, leave the cap off, and have cool water in the morning.
My first encounter with the samovar ends in disaster. It’s a complicated looking apparatus, and I first try testing it by pouring some hot water into the cup that makes up the lid of my thermos. This test is a success. When I subsequently finish filling up my thermos proper, I absentmindedly replace the cap, dumping the still-steaming water on my hand. Result: hand burned slightly, but not nearly as much as my ears are as my mishap did not go unnoticed by a few occupants of my wagon.
It wasn’t until the next day that I found another valve on the samovar that dispensed clean cool water.
The restaurant car is modern and clean but not particularly popular. Warned that the meal options on board might be limited, I’ve stocked up on food in Moscow – a lot of cured meats, some fruit, and some unhealthy snacks. There’s no fridge; you just have to store your food in your compartment somewhere. Chocolate is a bad idea as the train gets way too warm at the long stops, at least in the summer.
Life on the Rossiya is surprisingly comfortable. As one of the flagship Russian train routes, the cars are modern. That means a TV screen and a power outlet in every carriage. Unfortunately the TV only plays a DVD picked by the provodnitsa, so I’m subjected to a Russian-produced WWII drama that follows a squad of Russians on a mission into Germany territory. Aleks, who rarely moves from his top bunk on his day and a half ride to Perm, is thoroughly engrossed in the show. War movies are pretty easy to follow in any language, or so I think. What had seemed for hours to be a fairly historically accurate account of the WWII era ends with the Soviet squad storming Hitler’s bunker and unceremoniously dispatching der Führer with a quick burst from a machine gun.
Aleks’ wife Yulia speaks just a little bit of English, but it seems like I’m headed for 4 days of catching up on my reading. But as I walk down the corridor, I hear accented English coming from the compartment next to mine.
Stopover in Barabinsk.
The No. 2 Rossiya Train leaves Moscow every other day just after 11 PM. Seven days later, it rolls into Vladivostok, Russia’s main port on the Pacific Ocean. I am not going that far, but I still have 74 hours to fill aboard the train. I’ll pass through 5 time zones; my Sunday departure will put me into Irkutsk around 8am Thursday morning.
This is the only part of the trip I have really planned in advance. The No. 2 is a popular train, and I was worried that tickets would sell out before I got to Moscow a few days prior, so I booked my ticket online. I seriously recommend doing so, if for no other reason than I seemed to have to deal with a lot less paperwork than folks who had a paper ticket (I’d have paper tickets for the next two long-distance trains).
Yaroslavl Station in Moscow is not particularly remarkable. It sits in an area of town that has at least 3 major rail terminals in close proximity to each other…and not much else, except one of Stalin’s Seven Sister skyscrapers, now a decidedly non-Communist Hilton. My extensive travels for work in the preceding months happened to leave me with a stockpile of Hilton Honors points which I used to book a few nights here before heading across Siberia.
I say goodbye to Shannon and, after the provodnitsa checks my confirmation number, I climb on board.
I’m the first one in my compartment, which is kupe, or second class. That means four people to a cabin. First class is called spalny vagon or SV; compartments are the same size as the kupe compartment, but with only 2 beds. There’s also platskart, which is open bunks without compartments. (I walked through the platskart carriage on day 2. It’s…dicey. Unless you are remarkably comfortable with a lack of privacy for 4 days, I do not recommend the platskart carriage.)
I’m not alone for long. A family of three – mom, dad, and their daughter of about 6 - joins my compartment. Aleks, the father, wastes no time removing his shirt. I can’t blame him – the train is uncomfortably hot when it’s sitting at the station. I’d put him at about 35, with a significant beer belly. Aside from shaking my hand when I introduce myself, he seems to take little interest in me.
Be early for your train – the train pulled out of the station five minutes early, by my watch. In 13 days I am scheduled to meet up with my friend Scott in Beijing. Until then I am on my own.
You can take shots like this in a lot of world metros – DC, London, and Prague jump to mind – but there’s a certain faded grandeur to the Moscow metro system that you don’t find elsewhere. It’s a remarkably vast system made up of twelve lines and 185 stations (for my local readers in Chicago, the El has 8 lines and 144 stations, and if you want to compare the relative layouts of world metros at scale, I recommend checking out this website after you’re done around here.)
Getting around can be a little tricky if you’re not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. (TRAVEL TIP: If you’re going to Russia, learn Cyrillic). This sign isn’t the pinnacle of clarity either. The top is dominated by an explanation of what you can find at each of the exits. The dark banner at the bottom shows you how to transfer to Line 5. The confusion comes in because if you can’t read Russian, you might think this sign is hanging IN Line 5. But it’s not. You’re in Line 1.
Photo: an hour east of Kirov on the No. 2 Rossiya train, the day after I left Moscow. This was shot looking out the back door of the last train car, but if you knew that Russian trains roll on the right-hand side, you already knew that. Chinese trains run on the left.
“When can you start?”
In April of 2011 I had been offered a new job. It was a big deal – the economy was rough, my current job had all but burnt me out, and I felt lucky to get a new opportunity in such a tough climate.
But when I was asked for my start date, I hesitated. Most people at the new place that had moved over had taken a week or less.
I decided to push it.
I asked for a month.
They said fine.
I asked for that time not so I could sit on my ass in Chicago for a month, tempting as that may have sounded. Instead, I had decided I needed to take a trip that wouldn’t be feasible in normal vacation periods (one or two weeks, max). Many of my lifelong travel dreams like Japan and Kilimanjaro all fit into that one-to-two week window, so I decided I’d have to make them wait a bit longer.
There was another memory from my childhood that resurfaced: looking at place names in my atlas like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk and wondering what it must be like to live in a city so far from an ocean. (The presence of Lake Michigan here in Chicago made me forget that I already knew exactly what that feels like). More recently, I had read the story of two insane Austrians who took the train from Vienna to goddamn Pyongyang and blogged about it like they were recounting a weekend at the county fair. Those guys have balls of steel, and I recommend reading their blog.
So a plan formed in my mind: “TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILROAD.” I still call it that, although as the plan developed, it would actually be more accurately called the “Trans-Mongolian” voyage (there are three “Trans-Siberian” routes – 1) Moscow-Vladivostok, the true Trans-Siberian, 2) Moscow-Beijing via Harbin, avoiding Mongolia, known as the Trans-Manchurian, and Moscow-Beijing via Ulaanbaatar, the Trans-Mongolian, and the route I took, and then extended on through Shanghai). On paper, it was daunting. A straight shot from Moscow to Beijing alone would take 7 days on the train; if I wanted to make stops along the way, I’d have to time them right because trains didn’t necessarily run every day; I’d be making arrangements in countries where I not only didn’t speak the language, but could barely read the alphabet; internet would be spotty; and the list went on. But the allure of it was too great and I plowed ahead with planning.
I knew I was likely to be on this trip alone — nobody can take three weeks off of work, or if they can, they don’t have the money to fly halfway around the world. But to my surprise two friends, Shannon and Scott agreed to join me for part of the trip.
I read up a lot about the trip, both online at sites like seat61.com (which is a tremendously helpful resource), and with the help of the Trans-Siberian Handbook and Lonely Planet guide to the Trans-Siberian. But I didn’t do a lot in the way of actual planning. When I left the US, I had the following plans set in stone:
May 25 – leave Chicago, arrive Moscow May 26.
May 26 – 29 hang out in Moscow with Shannon (including her birthday)
May 29 – put Shannon back on a plane, get on train (first of several?) across Siberia and into Mongolia and then China alone.
May 29-June 11: ?????
June 11 – meet Scott in Beijing
June 11-June 19 – do stuff in Beijing and Shanghai, with a stop to climb Mount Tai along the way.
June 19 – Fly home from Shanghai.
So that was it. The 4 things I booked in advance were my one-way plane tickets, to Moscow and from Shanghai, my first train ticket from Moscow to Irkutsk, and my hotel in Moscow. Everything else would have to be planned along the way.
It’s a good thing I was flexible. Almost nothing went as planned.
It was the best idea I ever had.
Every three hours or so, the No. 2 Rossiya train will stop for about 20 minutes.
Usually that’s not enough time to do much more than stock up on some food from the vendors on the platform.
By this point I’d been on the train for about 60 hours. That means no internet, TV or radio – really no communication of any sort with the outside world.
I had heard the Krasnoyarsk train station was nicer than most along the Trans-Siberian, and that was true. I ran inside and took the shot above.
The other reason I ran into the station was in hopes of getting a wifi signal on my iPod touch, and to my surprise, I was successful. This picture was taken at the spot where I got word that my friend, whom I had unexpectedly had to leave behind 4100km ago due to a missed flight, had gotten home to Chicago safely.