From the Great Wall to the Berlin Wall - My Family Travels

My friend and I had been living in China for two years when we decided to take the long way back to the States. Instead of flying from China back to the United States, we decided to do what we would later call “the great communist tour.” We were living in Hunan Province, home of Chairman Mao, and decided we would travel all the way to Berlin by train, and only by train. We planned our route, secured our visas, (the only country that required a visa was Russia), and started saving money for the summer trip of a lifetime.

We took an overnight train from Changsha to Beijing where we spent a day seeing sites we were familiar with.  We had been to Beijing before, and had grown accustomed to the juxtaposition of ancient Chinese buildings, like those in the Forbidden City with the pagoda style roofs, and the stark contrast of the more recent communist-style buildings that line Tiananmen Square. We had some time before we took the Trans-Mongolian through northern China, Mongolia, and then into Russia. We decided to see the preserved remains of Chairman Mao since we knew we were going to be in Moscow, and would have the opportunity to see the preserved remains of Lenin. I had already seen the remains of Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi, and was thrilled that after the completion of the trip, I would be able to say I had seen the preserved communist leader tri-fecta. 

To this day, sitting on the Trans-Manchurian train, looking out the window and watching the busy hub of Beijing blur into some of the most beautiful natural scenery of northern China and Mongolia is one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Mongolia’s lack of industry and bustling cities is fascinating.  In most areas around the world, there are only remnants of the ancient culture.  In Mongolia, this ancient culture is still very prevalent.  When the train pulled through Ulan Bator, the country’s capital, it was a vision I was unprepared for.  Instead of the parliamentary buildings and skyscrapers that make up the skylines of most capitals, there was no skyline, and definitely no skyscrapers.  The tallest building was still under construction, and maybe six stories high.  Surrounding the city center were communities of yurts, or tent-like dwellings.  Mongolia remains a nomadic country; something that in the modern world of globalization and high speed Internet was both refreshing and shocking to know still existed.

The Gobi desert, arid yet beautiful, morphed into desolate Siberia as we continued northwest.  We passed by scenery for hours before we saw a dwelling until finally we neared Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.  It reminded me of a poor Nantucket.  The houses were definitely the dwellings of people who lived and made their lives by the water.  The buildings were mostly made of wood, and there were fishing boats surrounding small local docks.  We stayed in Listvyanka, a small town on the lake.  I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and this Siberian town made my town look like a bustling metropolis.  One person in the entire village spoke English, and we visited that person a lot.  We stayed with a local artist named Vladimir.  For those interested in going to Siberia, if you decide to do a home stay, which other than a luxury hotel is the only option, be prepared to drink a lot of vodka and peel potatoes with a knife.  It’s harder than it looks for all of those who grew up with vegetable peelers.  After our bucolic Russian experience, it was time to get back on the train and head to Moscow.  If you’re going to use the Moscow subway, which is one of the most beautiful subways in the world thanks to adorned walls of colorful paintings and mosaics, be prepared to know how to read the Russian alphabet.  Moscow is not an English-speaking-friendly city, which was a huge contrast to what we had experienced in Beijing where most of the signs are in both Mandarin and English.  In comparison, Moscow was a much different-looking communist city.  The buildings were architecturally stunning.   The Kremlin with its gold domed churches are unlike anything I have ever seen in the world.  There were communist-style buildings, but for the most part they were overshadowed by the grandeur of the buildings that were left over from the rule of the czars.  In St. Petersburg, our next destination, it was obvious as to why the Russians revolted; the opulence that the royal family lived in at the Hermitage was incredible.  There were ballrooms built basically out of gold, and their art collection, now made more resplendent with the opening of the museum, was beyond words. 

For those who wish to take the Trans-Siberian, or cross the borders of Russia by means other than air, it will behoove you to travel through Lithuania. Though Lithuania was for us just a country to pass through on our continuing journey, it became one of the more memorable stops, and I wish I could have spent more time there. Once we were out of Russia, getting around without speaking the language was much easier.

Lithuania was the first country we visited that portrayed communism negatively.  They were of course forced into communism under the old Soviet Union. Many of the citizens who fought the government were sent to live in the inhospitable Siberian work camps.  Lithuania was a very traditional-looking European city. It was also here that we learned how much we loved to eat belinni. 

From Lithuania we went to Poland, where we were entrenched in a much different history than the communist ones we had experienced before.  Though there was communist history in Poland that was shadowed by the famous Holocaust sites, the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, the trains and gas chambers; it was a harrowing experience worth seeing.

Poland has much more to offer than Holocaust remembrance sites.  Krakow has the famous Krakow castle, where the king once slew a dragon, or so the story goes.  The buildings look like they were taken from old fairy tales.  It’s easy to forget that these buildings have been around for centuries and not built by Disney.  Poland also invented vodka, which most people don’t believe because Russia is more known for the beverage.  In Italy you can go wine tasting; in Poland, there’s vodka tasting, and I recommend this to any adult traveler.  You learn a lot about the history and culture of the beverage as opposed to just getting smashed. The street performances in Krakow also make the city a notable stop.  In the center of the old quarter, different street performers perform every hour; there’s everything from singing, to break dancing, and fire throwing. 

 It was now on to the Czech Republic.  My friend had already visited Prague so we did all the typical touristy things in about a day:  walked around the old city, walked across the river to see the Castle and Kafka’s old residence, and visited the Dali Museum and the famous clock.  Along the way we did come across a Hare Krishna festival in the middle of town, which seemed a bit out of place, but was still interesting.  We decided to travel into Bohemia, and check out a medieval town known as Cesky Krumlov.  The town is beautiful and of course includes a castle.  I later found out that a friend of my father’s had been imprisoned in this castle for protesting during the time of Soviet control.  I think it would be a scary place to be imprisoned, because instead of a moat protecting the exterior of the castle, there are grizzly bears.  Cesky Krumlov also has one of the most unique pub-crawls I’ve ever encountered.  Instead of going from pub to pub in a city by foot, you travel from campsite to campsite by river on a raft, a potentially dangerous idea, but still a lot of fun. 

The last stop on our tour was Berlin.  The route from Prague to Berlin was littered with windmills, and amazing countryside vistas. 

 Befitting of “the great communist tour” we booked a hostel in East Berlin. We went to Check Point Charlie and the famous Museums; however, the most interesting tourist attraction, in my opinion, was the graffiti.  You can take an alternative city tour with a local guide to learn about the different graffiti artists and some of the stories behind the art.  The tour is basically free, at the end of the tour you pay your guide what you feel they deserved.  I learned more about Berlin during this tour than I did in any guidebook or from preliminary research we did before we embarked on the trip.  And, of course, we saw the remains of the Berlin wall on our last day. 

We had made it from the Great Wall to the Berlin Wall, and had seen and experienced the food, beverage, and communism in between.  

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.