WHO: Dick Schwartz, 78, of Lunenburg
WHERE: Russia and China
WHEN: Three weeks in October
WHY: "I've always wanted to go to China, but everyone said, 'With your diet problems, don't go,' " said Schwartz, who is on "an extremely low-sodium diet." He had traveled across Russia before with British tour operator GW Travel/Trans-Siberian Express Co. , which offers private train journeys, and was impressed enough that he decided to go.
ALL ABOARD: "We started in Moscow for two nights and although some of that was a repeat for me, it's a very interesting city. We always stayed in five-star hotels," Schwartz said. But more often, the group slept on the train, which, like a cruise ship, would travel at night. There were about 80 passengers, two-thirds from Britain and the United States and another third from all over the world. They slept in small compartments, and every car had a shower and restroom. The group would join in the dining car for breakfast, while most lunches and dinners were off the train.
STANDING TALL: The first stop was Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, where the defeat of the Nazis began during World War II. "The city was completely rebuilt and they have a tremendous war memorial, with a museum and perpetual flame, where we saw the changing of the guard. The biggest statue is Mother Russia," 170 feet tall. Next they visited Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. "It's all very dry land, and all irrigated," Schwartz said. "They grow a lot of cotton and it's so dry that when they pick it they leave it outside in big piles, like 30 feet high, before shipping it off."
INTO CHINA: "It took five hours to get from Russia to China," he said. "There was all this red tape, and we'd wait and wait and each had to have a little interview." During the ride through the countryside, Schwartz was surprised at how much corn was grown and harvested. "In the poor sections, the houses had flat roofs and the corn would be drying on the tops of houses," he said.
TOPS WITH TOURISTS: In Dunhuang they visited the Mogao Thousand Buddha Cave Complex, which contains almost 500 grottoes filled with more than 2,000 statues and 45,000 murals. "It was amazing, but a real tourist place. I counted more than 50 tour buses there. But it was so well done that you still got to see things." They saw the famed Terracotta Warriors, rows of warrior and horse figurines, in Xian. "You think you're going to see several thousand, but there's only a small fraction that are restored."
GROWTH SPURT: Their last stop was Beijing. "They're rebuilding a lot and getting ready for the 2008 Olympics. They're putting up these tremendous apartment houses, blocks and blocks of them, 30 stories or more." Although Schwartz wasn't able to partake in many of the culinary offerings, "the rice didn't have salt, so I could always eat that."