Early on in my career break, I came up with a list of “must-do” activities or experiences for my travels through the former Soviet Union. These were some of the things that had been floating around in my mind for months, even years – the things that I wanted to do no matter what.
Here is a look back at the list – and how I did:
1. Volunteer in at least 3 different countries. Check. Last fall, I volunteered through Geovisions in Russia, tutoring English in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In the spring, I volunteered at the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia (the de facto national tourism board), placed through the Armenian Volunteer Corps. Then, in the summer, I volunteered with the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association in Tajikistan, living with two different families and teaching them English.
2. Become fluent in Russian. Not quite. I can definitely speak much better than I could when I started and my conversation skills were good enough to get me through just about any situation and to make small talk with people I met. But I can’t say I was anywhere close to fluent.
3. Run an international marathon. This was the first item I checked off the list when I ran the Tallinn Marathon on September 11, 2011.
5. Visit Yekaterinburg. Check. I spent nearly three days in this city near the Ural Mountains in Russia and of course my visit included an excursion to Ganina Yama, the site where the bodies of former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were dumped after they were murdered in Yekaterinburg in 1918.
6. Ride the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow. Check. I started my journey on November 9 and finished up December 4, stopping in Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan along the way.
7. Visit Chernobyl. Check. Tours had just resumed when I got to Ukraine in January so I was able to make a very snowy visit to the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
8. Visit Transdniestria. Check. While staying in Chisinau, Moldova, I made a day trip to this country that doesn’t exist in the eyes of 99% of the world.
9. Take the Black Sea ferry from Odessa, Ukraine to Poti, Georgia. The ferry actually lands in Batumi, Georgia, but check. It took nearly twice as long as it should have, but I made it!
10. Take the Caspian Sea ferry from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Nope. I decided to take this off my list due to the uncertainty as to when it might leave and how long it might take, as well as the fact that I had no desire to repeat my Black Sea ferry experience and I had heard conditions on the Caspian Sea ferry would likely be much worse. I wasn’t too disappointed that I missed this one.
11. Go hiking in the Yangykala Canyon in Turkmenistan. Sort of. I visited the Yangykala Canyon, walked along the rim and camped on the plateau above the canyon. But what I didn’t realize until I arrived is that it really isn’t possible to hike down into the canyon the way you can the Colca Canyon or Grand Canyon (at least not from what I could tell).
12. Take a pilgrimage to the mosque of Beket-Ata in Kazakhstan. This almost didn’t happen, but thanks to a little serendipity in Aktau, I was able to join a bus if pilgrims to take a day trip to the mosque. While it was an interesting experience, it was also a bit of a let-down.
13. Visit the Aral Sea. Check. I arrived in Aralsk at 2:30 a.m. and after a short nap and shower, took an excursion to the sea and the nearby “ship cemetery.”
14. Travel the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. Nope. When I decided to volunteer in Tajikistan, I effectively removed this from the list. I hoped to be able to get a 45 day tourist visa so that I could still travel the highway after my volunteer stint, but it wasn’t possible. And as it turns out, fighting in the Pamirs led to the closure of the region to tourists toward the end of my time in Tajikistan so I likely would not have been able to go anyway.
15. Stay overnight in a yurt. Check. I spent three nights in Kyrgyzstan staying in these portable s made out of a wood frame and covered in felt, historically used by the nomadic peoples of Mongolia and Central Asia. Sleeping on mattresses on the floor covered with thick blankets, they were just as cozy as I imagined.
I actually forgot I made this list until toward the end of my trip, but everything on it was so ingrained in my mind, it didn’t take much effort to remind myself what I wanted to do. I feel pretty good that I accomplished most of the items I set out. The Caspian Sea ferry will never happen, but I plan to keep working on my Russian and I definitely want to return to Tajikistan someday and make it to the Pamirs.
Do you have a bucket list? What’s the next item you want to check off?