The Big Trip East: Emails Home
9: Things get a little bit trickier………..
After 9 days of relaxing and sightseeing in Hong Kong while we waited for our Chinese and Russian visas, on Friday we packed up and ventured into China proper. We took Hong Kong’s ridiculously cheap and efficient public transport system up to the border town of Lo Wu in the New Territories. From there you can walk across the border into Shenzhen on the Chinese side. We managed to negotiate immigration and headed for the bus station to see if we could find a bus to Yangshuo. At this point we realised we’d been spoilt in HK by everything being in English. Surrounded by various incomprehensible signs and directions I headed for the ticket office and boldly shouted ‘Yangshuo’ at the lady. At least that’s what I thought I was shouting - maybe I should have looked up how to pronounce it in Chinese rather than just saying it phonetically. After an impromptu Chinese lesson from the ticket lady, she said ‘no bus’ and gave me more incomprehensible directions. We were then left wandering around the bus station futilely looking into the guidebook, when a passing local youth took pity on us and acted as interpreter with the information desk. After several animated conversations and mobile phone calls, he wrote down the name of another bus station, 20 minutes drive away, in Chinese on a piece of paper and told us to show it to a taxi driver.
I was a little dubious about this, and remembered some hazy information I’d read on the internet about a sleeper bus going from a hotel in the town. So we disregarded his advice and headed off into Shenzhen. Shenzhen is some kind of special economic zone with open markets and the guidebook had warned that one consequence of this was increased beggars and suchlike. It wasn’t wrong - and being the only western faces around meant we were prime targets. We soon learned not to stay still for long. At one point we had to negotiate some kind of shoeshine obstacle course. First you had to pass through men either side of the pavement armed with various tubes of liquid. They frantically tried to fire their tubes at my trainers, shouting ‘one dollar’ all the time. I almost made it, but the last guy got a huge dollop right on top of my foot. Their work being done, we passed immediately through into the women armed with brushes. I was determined not to be caught and we broke into a run, and even when one woman grabbed me round the ankle I still managed to get away. Needless to say we avoided that particular street for the rest of the day.
Anyway we made it to the hotel, and to our relief, the internet rumour was right and we bought our tickets for the 8.00 bus. We killed the time in between by treating ourselves to a meal in a luxurious restaurant (8 quid in total). The business executives didn’t look too pleased to have two less than clean people with backpacks entering the place, but we didn’t care. We knew the bus journey was about 12 hours, and were a little worried about the state of the bus. We needn’t have - it actually had proper horizontal beds. I felt like taking a photo I was so gleefully surprised. We settled in and I was happily getting off to sleep while watching Pirates of the Carribbean in Chinese when we turned off the nice smooth motorway onto the local roads. Any ambitions of getting any sleep soon disappeared as I was tossed around in bone-jarring fashion. It didn’t help that the driver had an annoying habit of stopping through the night at seemingly random locations and reading his book for an hour with all the lights on.
Finally we made it to Yangshuo, our current location. Yangshuo is what the book calls a ‘backpacker haven’ and now I know why - it’s packed with cafes selling western food at rock-bottom prices. It’s also surrounded by beautiful scenery - limestone karst formations sprouted out of the ground all around. Unfortunately it’s rained since we got here, and I get the feeling it’s been raining for some time and will continue to do so. I think we’ll give it a chance to improve over the next couple of days, otherwise we’ll head off. I can imagine this would be a nice place to relax if you’d been travelling around for some time, but I don’t have a great yearning for shepherd’s pie or pizza just yet. And it’s frustrating because all the things to do and see are outside. Christiane came up with some good alternative things to do from the guidebook until I pointed out that she’d spent the last hour reading about Yangzhou rather than Yangshuo.
Still, we have a lovely huge double room for 60 yuan a night (less than 4 quid) in the Fawlty Towers hotel. And yes, the porter is called Manuel. At least that’s what he tells us. I haven’t met Basil yet but I’m looking forward to it - especially if he finds out Christiane is German….
Day 20: Illness strikes
Well, I guess it had to happen sometime. After almost three weeks of no stomach complaints I obviously got a bit complacent. Having had enough of the tame southern cuisine I ordered a Sichuanese style dish in pepper oil. It was quite possible the hottest thing I’ve ever tasted, but my pride made me endure it until the plate was empty. The result: a rude awaking early Monday morning by my stomach, and a day confined to my bed and the bathroom. Christiane had also been getting steadily ill over the weekend and we both spent the day in a feverish comatose state. We were supposed to get the bus that day to Dali, but we’ve postponed it twice and we now leave tomorrow, health permitting.
So, we’ve now been in Kunming for almost a week and spent most of it within 100 yards of the hostel. At least it gave us time to get a healthy start in what we intend to be the longest game of rummy (or romme, as Christiane insists I call it) since records began. (At the moment I trail by 30 points, but I’m confident I can claw that back in the next 19 weeks). Anyway from what we’ve seen, Kunming is a very nice city. Not particularly chinese, more international, but lots of open space and a nice atmosphere.
We left Yangshuo a week ago, after four wet days. Of course, on the day we left it was beautiful blue skies, but we’d already booked our train tickets so off we went. We took the bus to nearby Guilin (another nice-looking city - I was worried all Chinese cities would be as nasty as Shenzhen so seeing Guilin and Kunming has been a nice relief) and from there took our first long-distance train ride - 19 hours in total. It was a bit intimidating at first - we were the only westerners in the station waiting room and the only ones in our train compartment. Fortunately our bunks were opposite a friendly couple from Shanghai who could speak good English and helped us out a lot with the train etiquette.
Some random observations from our time here so far:
1. Traffic. Is basically chaos. The country roads usually have a line down the middle but this must be arbitrary or something because it seems like as long as you beep your horn continuously you can drive where you like. And in the cities, the law apparently states that drivers have to beep their horn when cyclists are near. And as the roads are usually five deep in cyclists, this also entails continuous horn-honking. It’s quite funny watching the bus drivers try and change gear in record time so they don’t have to take their hand away from the horn. Usually they don’t bother and try to climb the steepest hill in fourth.
2. Spitting. Seems to be the national occupation. Everywhere you are there’s always someone clearing his or her throat or nose. And it’s quite a sight, and sound, to behold. I think they think it’s getting rid of the germs. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not pleasant to witness. I sneezed whilst sat in the breakfast room at the hostel here once and a waiter, who was stood about ten yards away, immediately walked off into the kitchen where I could hear him spit. Seems like he thought I’d infected him - either that or he was spitting into my breakfast as revenge.
3. Staring. People seem continuously surprised to see us. Not so much in Yangshuo where there were a lot of backpackers, but everywhere else. And they’re not afraid to show this curiosity by staring incessantly. I’ve tried out-staring them back but they don’t mind that, it just seems to be encouragement. One guy nearly fell off his bike he was staring so much. I felt a bit guilty for laughing but I couldn’t help it. The kids find it funny to shout ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, etc (or, in one unexpected case, ‘luverly jubberly’), then burst out laughing. I quite like it actually, maybe it’s an attention thing. On the whole, the people have been really nice. People are not shy of coming up to talk to us, probably to practise their English. One guy in the train station intently watched us playing cards, then when I picked up the ace of spades he snatched it from my hand and ran off with it to show his wife. I was quite concerned for a while (I needed it for my rummy hand) but he did bring it back. Perhaps their packs of cards don’t have aces. They are supposed to be communists after all.
Day 33: The Gorge
Sorry it’s been a while since the last update. Once we had recovered from our respective ailments, we took the bus from Kunming to Dali. Dali was apparently once a sleepy backwater frequented by backpackers - not any more, as we found. From the moment we arrived we were harassed by touts trying to ply their wares. One guy in particular would pounce on me wherever I was in the town to point at some loose stitching on my trainers. I assume he was a shoemender and not just an interested dogooder, but either way I was getting very paranoid. However, once we learned to ignore them we had a pleasant stay. The town has mountains on one side and a huge lake on the other, and the scenery was beautiful. We spent a couple of days taking cable cars into the mountains, another on a boat tour of the lake, another venturing out into neighbouring villages, just relaxing in general. We arrived on a Thursday and on the Sunday came Labour day which, as we had been forewarned by the Shanghai couple on the train, was the start of China’s Golden Week when the whole nation embarks on holiday. They had been quite forthright in telling us to avoid Dali and, in particular, Lijiang during the Golden week. Sure enough, the place was invaded by Chinese tourists and their cameras. However, it wasn’t as busy as we had thought and we set off to Lijiang on the following Wednesday optimistic of finding a cheap room there.
After arrival in Lijiang our optimism had evaporated. Firstly we realised why it was supposed to be the busiest place. It has a beautiful old town full of cobbled streets and little canals, a bit Mediterranean in feel. The first places we checked were on the outskirts of the old town and we were quoted 200 yuan for a room. Not much in UK terms (about 12 pounds) but after paying around 60-80 it seemed a lot. Anyway, Christiane was convinced we could find a room cheaper elsewhere and, for some reason blessed with an alarming amount of energy, she made us tour the entire town looking for a cheaper room. After 2 hours of increasing prices, and increasing volume of my moaning, and we returned back to the start and found a room in tiny family-run place where we caused great excitement as seemingly the first foreigners to stay.
After three days fighting through the crowds in Lijiang we decided to set off for the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were both a little apprehensive about this, partly because of Christiane’s vertigo and partly because after some days of eating, drinking and lazing around we felt a little out of shape. Anyway, we took an interesting 3 hour bus ride to Qaiotou, where the gorge trek starts. We were the only passengers on the bus so at the last minute the driver decided to invite his family along for the ride. The drive through the mountains was punctuated regularly by stops so they could buy fruit, take packages on board for friends etc. The views were lovely though so we didn’t mind. We spent the night in Qaiotou, a one-horse town (literally, probably), so we could get an early start in the morning.
We both had a broken night’s sleep that night, Christiane because she was nervous about the heights on the trek, and me because I had no way of finding out Oldham’s fate in their crucial relegation-decider. Anyway we set off on the Sunday morning armed with a bag of provisions and a map kindly given to us by Margo the mad Australian who had also made us breakfast in the local cafe. The first morning of the hike was fantastic, walking through fields and terraces, with snow-capped mountains up above, climbing steadily but without any scary drops. The map had estimated times on it, and we soon realised that we had to double their estimations to allow for our slow pace. Anyway we arrived in a village at lunchtime and joined an Israeli woman and French man for a spot of lunch. Of course, they had set off 30 minutes behind us and had arrived for lunch 30 minutes ahead. This we would get used to.
Suitably fed and watered we set off for the next section, described as the 28 bends, which the guide said was the most strenuous part. After an hour or so of walking, we said to ourselves that it wasn’t too bad, and we seemed to have gone through about 20 of these bends. After turning one corner, however, we realised that what we had thought were bends were mere deviations compared to the near vertical set of hairpin bends we saw above us. Anyway, summoning up all our energy, we managed to get to the top with only a few moments of panic from Christiane. On the following descent, however, I soon realised that going down was worse for vertigo than going up. That we were both exhausted from the climb at this point probably didn’t help earlier. Inch by inch we managed to get down, with Christiane alternating between calling me every name under the sun (it helps, apparently) and repeating the mantra ‘one foot in front of the other’ to herself. Finally, at around 6.30, we came to a tiny village on the mountainside where we knew was a guesthouse that we could stay at. We got ourselves a bed for the night and retired to the terrace for a beer where we enjoyed the crazy views of the mountain tops directly opposite. After about half an hour three more backpackers arrived, an English girl, and two Canadian and French guys. We were a little embarrassed when they said they’d set off at 2.30 that afternoon, a mere 5 1/2 hours after us. Anyway, after a convivial evening of chat we retired for the night.
I woke the next morning with a hangover, which was hardly good preparation for another day of hiking, but nevertheless the sun was shining and we knew we were roughly halfway, so we set off in good heart. After about an hour of following the mountainside we came across a local woman lying by the side of the path. I thought she was dead at first, but she managed to lift her head and look at us with wild eyes. We were a little shocked, but Christiane poured her bottle of our water and left her my packet of biscuits and we resolved to walk on and get help. Soon after we passed two more women lying on a rock. We tried to communicate to them about the other woman, but soon realised from their blank eyes and strange behaviour that we weren’t getting anywhere. At this point we both concluded that all three women had perhaps been enjoying some of the local herbs which were dotted on the hillside, and hurried on. (Later we spoke to some people who had passed them later and they said the first woman was up and about - which made me most annoyed at having given away all my biscuits). We then arrived at another settlement, where we had lunch at another guesthouse. They were more trekkers there, all of whom had overtaken us at some point. Two Americans had passed us the previous day when Christiane had been having her worst panic moment, clinging to the ground for dear life, and so her fear of heights soon became common knowledge. I think all the attention helped a little.
After lunch we set off and came across a track which took us down from the high trail, which we had been following, to the low trail which had been made into a road. As the track was wide enough for cars, and we had heard that the descent waiting for us on the high trail was a little hairy, we decided to follow it down and continue on the low road. At about 6.00 we finally came to our destination, Walnut Grove, where we found a room at Sean’s guesthouse. Sean was a very laid-back Tibetan guy who was married to Margo the mad Australian. Sean’s was a sociable place with a huge terrace facing the mountains where we spent an enjoyable evening chatting to the guests of various nationalities. Christiane’s vertigo had by this time become a talking point and all the attention was definitely going to her head at this point.
The next morning we took a nightmare bus ride along the low road back to Margo’s where we had left our backpacks and, together with the Israeli and Frenchman, took a bus from there up to Zhongdian, which was a Tibetan town not far from the border with Tibet proper. The altitude was about 3300 m, and we were very breathless and unable to walk anywhere. At least that was the excuse we had for not doing much. We spent 3 days there in the nicest hostel yet, really cozy and run by friendly people. Bizarrely, virtually all the people we had met at Sean’s guesthouse previously arrived there at various points, and we hung around playing cards etc. I relearnt how to play mahjong (disappointingly, instead of being the mystical eastern game of my memory it turns out to be rummy with tiles) - and won, which was fortunate as the table wasn’t big enough to tie my shoelaces under.
Most people were heading into Tibet at this point but we’d had enough of the altitude and scary bus rides so yesterday we took a bus back to Lijiang. It had been interesting to see the Tibetan people in Zhongdian (scary men with cowboy hats and knives, and colourfully dressed women and children), but most of the people seemed a little insane, with wild eyes and crazy grins. We’re spending one more night here to relax before undertaking a mammoth journey tomorrow to Chengdu, in Sichuan - 8 hours by bus, followed by a night and day on a sleeper train.
We’ll be sorry to leave Yunnan province after 3 1/2 weeks, it’s populated mainly by minority groups (Lijiang here is a Naxi town, and Naxi people live in a matriarchal society, which Christiane likes very much - hence we’re leaving tomorrow before she gets any funny ideas) and it’s been fascinating to see the differences between the people, who are all very relaxed and friendly. Anyway I’ll write again soon from Sichuan.
Day 42: When Pandas Attack!
Thought I’d do an update on where we are. From Lijiang we were intending to take the bus and train to Chengdu, but while we were trying to buy train tickets we found out we could fly for 600 yuan (about 40 quid). This was twice what the bus/train would have cost, but the thought of an hour-long flight as opposed to 10 hours on a bumpy bus and a night on a train was enough to swing the deal. Christiane was worried about the safety aspect (but then she always is) but she needn’t have - it was the most modern plane either of us had been on. So, we booked the ticket at 4.00, flew at 10.30 and arrived in Chengdu before midnight.
Although 10 million people live there, Chengdu is a fairly laidback city. We spent a lot of the time strolling around the parks and sitting in the various teahouses. It (or at least the surrounding forests of Sichuan) is also the home of the panda bear, so we made the obligatory visit to the panda breeding & research centre. Christiane was most excited about this - I think she wanted to pay her respects to the only animal as dedicated to eating and sleeping as her. I have to admit they were quite appealing creatures, although they sure don’t move around much. The highlight of the trip came when the annoying American in our group decided to have his photo taken while cuddling the panda. All through the minibus ride from the hostel he was droning on about how he was going to pay whatever it cost to get to pet a panda. Sure enough, the chance came and he paid his 400 yuan, put on a special white coat and sat on a bench while they brought the lucky panda out to him. All seemed to be going swimmingly until the panda had a sudden change of mood. Maybe the American had digged it in the ribs one too many times, or maybe it mistook his leg for a juicy piece of bamboo - for whatever reason, with an unprecedented burst of energy the panda lurched over and sunk it’s teeth into the guy’s thigh. The resulting scream was something to behold (for supposed herbivores, pandas have surprisingly sharp teeth), and chaos ensued as the keepers tried to regain control. In the aftermath I think one of them also got bitten. Anyway the guy emerged from the enclosure, regained his composure and was soon boasting about what a story he would have to tell and how it was worth twice what he paid. We got to watch the whole thing for free - I know who I think got the better deal.
After we’d seen all the pandas we were ushered into a cinema. With no warning, we were treated to an extremely explicit no-holds-barred documentary on pandas’ breeding and reproductive habits. This soon shattered the cuddly image Christiane had of them. In fact, only a few hours after the trip I succumbed to illness again, and I held the video to blame. Anyway, I was under the weather for a couple of days but after a period of convalescence spent sipping tea (I fear I have become addicted to Chinese tea) was well enough to hit the road again.
Christiane had decided she wanted to get off the beaten track for a while, so we decided to head south from Chengdu for a few days. The area was only mentioned in one guide book so we figured it might fit the bill. First stop was Zigong. The book had described it as south west China’s best-kept secret. I can only assume this meant that it was best for people who hadn’t been there that it was kept a secret. That’s being a bit uncharitable, but it was certainly a gritty kind of place. We had a cockroach in the room, which was a first. It also claimed the record for the most number of “hello”s. We must have clocked up at least a hundred in the first hour. We soon realised that Christiane had got her wish. No-one could speak English, nothing was written in English, and as our Chinese consists of hello, thankyou and sorry this was a little problematic. Fortunately we had our phrasebook, but that doesn’t help to understand what they say back. (Something I’ve noticed is that the Chinese have no imagination when it comes to communication - if I don’t understand they just look at me and repeat the words over and over again. No attempts at miming, nothing. They obviously don’t play charades at Christmas).
We spent 2 nights in Zigong but the attraction there is the dinosaur museum. By some geological coincidence hundreds of dinosaur carcasses got washed up in the area and were discovered about 30 years ago. So there is a museum where they’ve assembled the bones to recreate the movements, and also you can see some of the current excavation area. I was surprised at how impressive it was to see these things. Maybe I am a secret dinosaur buff.
After Zigong we took some buses to get us to the Bamboo Sea. This is a huge forest of bamboo which covers valleys and mountains for miles and miles. It’s been developed as a tourist attraction so we paid our entrance fee on the bus and got turfed out at the tiny village at one end of the ’sea’. The book had said that tourism had slowed here outside of high season. They were not exaggerating - the place was deserted. We bagged ourselves a room in an empty 4-star hotel for halfprice and settled in for the night. The next morning we awoke to rain. Fortunately it cleared by the time we set out but the mist was hanging everywhere. We set off walking through the forest and soon came to a cable car station. Suddenly about 4 attendants were disturbed from their slumber and leapt to attention. Their surprise seemed evident at seeing some customers. After about 10 minutes of cranking about in the machinery they managed to get the cable cars started, and despite our apprehension we leapt aboard and were carried up. The ride went on forever, and the views of the bamboo sea and the mist were amazing, until we neared the top and disappeared into the cloud. That was rather eerie in itself. We spent the rest of the day walking round the various parts of the forest and caught the cable car back to the hotel.
The next day we spent five buses and 9 hours getting back to Chengdu. After one night there we took the sleeper train to Xi’an. The train was half-empty and fairly uneventful, save for a monk who seemed to take a particular interest in me. I guess he must have recognised me as a fellow spiritual soul. We arrived in Xi’an two days ago. When we got to the hostel and the guy found out that I was English, he started going on about how we’d just had a football festival and how great it was that England had beaten Italy. I didn’t have a clue what he was going on about until he showed me the paper with Liverpool on the front. I’ve been surprised my how nice Xi’an is, for some reason I wasn’t expecting it. It helps that we have a lovely room right in the centre. We’re off to see the terracotta warriors tomorrow, then hopefully will get a train to Shanghai on Monday.
Day 55: Shanghai’d
I think I last emailed from Xi’an, which was nicer than I expected. I thought the only reason to go there would be the Terracotta Warriors, but the atmosphere was quite nice and the food was the best we’d had in China. I’m not sure what I thought about the warriors - I guess I was neither disappointed nor wowed. I had a sense of being there because we kind of had to. For once I had to agree with Christiane’s ’seen one warrior, seen them all’ theory (she substitutes warrior for temple/museum/city etc as required). We have no pictures either because the new batteries I persuaded Christiane to buy for 1 yuan from a discount shop ran out after taking one photo. Serves me right for yuan-pinching I suppose. Mind you there were signs everywhere saying ‘no photos’ (not that this ever makes any difference to the Chinese - apparently there is also a ‘no spitting’ law), and maybe the warriors are still fulfilling their tomb-protecting duties.
From Xi’an we caught another sleeper train to Shanghai. Shanghai was totally different to anything we’d seen before in China. It’s hard to describe - kind of a cross between Hong Kong and London (or, more probably, Paris). We stayed in the foreign students dormitory at the Conservatory of Music. The upside to this was the lovely setting in the middle of the old French Concession area - the downside was that we were subjected to the neighbouring students practising their ‘instruments’. I don’t think much of it as a seat of learning if the noises we heard were anything to go by. Anyway, we spent a pleasant few days wandering the leafy avenues and admiring the view from the Bund and its old colonial buildings. We also took advantage of the high level of westernisation by plucking up the courage to have our hair cut. I was slightly intimidated by the up-market salon, but felt strangely more relaxed after the assistant who washed my hair offered to clean out my ears with some cotton buds. Something I think English hairdressers could take note of.
Unfortunately, Shanghai seems to suffer from an attitude problem. I almost had to admire them for their high levels of rudeness. We should have known from the start when we entered the accommodation. After standing there for a few minutes, the lady behind the desk finally looked up from some very important staring at the wall business and, with a sigh, greeted us.
“Do you have a double room for tonight?”
“With bathroom or shared bathroom?”
“What’s the difference in price?”
“Er, how much are the different rooms?”
“With bathroom or shared bathroom?”
“Okay, er, with bathroom?”
“No rooms with bathroom. Only shared bathroom.”
And so on. It was kind of a comfort to find over the next few days that it wasn’t us being singled out, as this was definitely the norm. The behaviour on the metro system was also quite something. The concept that it might be easier to wait till people had got off the train before charging on like lunatics had obviously been lost somewhere along the line. It was quite entertaining to watch people barging and elbowing their way on in the hope of securing a seat, then sitting there with triumphant grins on their faces. At least it was entertaining until I was the one being elbowed, whereupon I welled up with indignation and lectured Christiane on how it wouldn’t have been like this in colonial times. It was my ambition to actually get a seat myself before we left, but sadly this went unrealised.
After Shanghai we took short train, bus, and bicycle taxi rides to the nearby town of Xitang. This wasn’t in any guide book so we weren’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a lovely water town with ancient streets criss-crossed with canals. By the time we got there the day-trippers had left, so we spent the evening wandering around with just the friendly locals for company. The next day we took another short journey to Hangzhou. When we arrived we had a hard time locating first a bank, then some accommodation, and in the heat and humidity tempers were rising. We were looking for the Academy of Art foreign students dormitory - finally we found it courtesy of a very helpful local who insisted on walking around with me until we located it (I’ve lost count of the number of times local people have suddenly appeared to help us when all looked lost). When we finally got into our room we were astounded to find it was like a five star hotel. I guess foreign art students have more expensive tastes than foreign music students.
Hanzghou is exceedingly popular with Chinese tourists, mainly because of the West Lake, which is indeed very picturesque. We spent 2 pleasant days hanging around the lake, generally providing entertainment for the legions of Chinese tourists who seem to find us strangely amusing. At one point we were minding our own business sat on a bench when one enterprising guy asked if he could take a photo of his wife sat next to us. Fair enough, we thought, but unfortunately a huge group happened to be passing by. You could almost see the light bulbs lighting up above their heads simultaneously as they all had the same idea. One by one they queued up for the seat on the coveted bench while we had to smile for the camera. At least it gave me an opportunity to try out a few new poses I had been working on.
After Hangzhou we took our last Chinese sleeper train to Beijing, where we arrived on Friday. We managed to secure our onward tickets to Ulan Bator for the 20th, so we have ten days to see what Beijing has to offer and then we say goodbye to China and start the mammoth Trans-Mongolian railway trip. Better make sure we’re stocked up in books, I think……..
Day 77: Mongolia
I’m writing this from Ulaan Baatar, apparently the coldest capital in the world, although it’s sweltering in this internet cafe. Last time I wrote we had just arrived in Beijing where we spent our last ten days in China. Beijing was quite hard work as a city, and we were pretty exhausted and ready to leave China by the time we got on the train to Mongolia. The sheer scale of the city took us by surprise, and the heat and humidity didn’t help. But I was impressed with its sense of awe - standing in Tian’men Square under Mao’s portrait with the sun beating down was intimidating in a good kind of way.
We did most of the prerequisite tourist sights: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall etc. We both found the Forbidden City a bit average, although my experience was enriched by forking out an extra 40 yuan to have Roger Moore guide me round. It was with some reluctance that I parted with the audio handset at the end - I was quite keen to have Sir Roger’s dulcet tones continue to guide me through life in general. A lot of the buildings were closed to renovation, I guess with the Olympics in mind. That wasn’t the last time this would happen.
One of the unexpected highlights was a trip to an acrobatics show we decided to do at the last minute. I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea, but the acrobats were amazing. The contortionists in particular made my eyes water. By the end I declared to Christiane that I was going to become an acrobat myself, but she told me that I wasn’t allowed and I should stop being so silly. Also good was the night market, where countless food stalls set up to ply their wares. It was amusing to watch the local youths have macho contests to see how many skewers of scorpions they could eat. But the best thing we did in Beijing for me was the trip to the Great Wall. We ummed and aahed about how we should do it for a while because of Christiane’s aversion to heights, but in the end plumped for a trip to Simatai, an unrestored section in the hills. It being China, the 120 km journey there took 4 hours, but it was worth it. The wall was way more impressive than I expected. There was virtually no-one there and it felt like we had this particular section to ourselves.
All the time in China I had wanted to have a Chinese massage, but had never plucked up the courage. As Beijing was our last stop I made myself do it. I was a bit concerned that if I went alone they might misinterpret what type of massage I was after, so I dragged Christiane along and made her wait for me. I’d never had a massage before in my life, and was kind of expecting to lie there and relax while the masseur (who was blind – apparently all the best masseurs are) gently rubbed away my worries. It was therefore quite a nasty surprise the first time he sunk his elbow into by shoulder blades. Several times during one of the longest thirty minutes of my life I had to bite my fingers to stop myself screaming in pain. I’m not sure if it did me any good or not – someone told me afterwards that a good massage should hurt, in which case I think I had the best massage in the world.
After ten days we said goodbye to China and boarded the train to Ulaan Baatar. I think we were both ready to leave – China is quite a tiring place to be after a while. I remember reading in the Lonely Planet early on in our trip how travellers could sometimes get frustrated and angry with some of the more unpleasant aspects of Chinese life like staring and spitting, and remarking to Christiane how I couldn’t imagine that happening to us and how it was all part of the experience. Well after 11 weeks we could empathise with them a bit. I have fond memories of each individual destination, but no great warm feeling for China as a whole.
The train journey to Mongolia was the first part of our Trans-Mongolian railway journey. It was supposedly more luxurious than Chinese internal trains as we were in four-berth compartments which were individually lockable, as opposed to six-berth open compartments. However, we had the misfortune to get the only non-air-conditioned carriage. Instead each compartment was equipped with a fan – but ours was the only one in the carriage that worked. This meant that we were treated to the disturbing sight of several Chinese men stripped down to their underpants in an attempt to keep cool. They weren’t shy either – when we made a lengthy station stop they would happily of strolling up and down the platform and popping into the shops in nothing but a pair of boxers. I could forgive them though as the two guys sharing our compartment insisted on keeping us well fed throughout the trip. They openly laughed at our meagre rations of pot noodles and crackers, and plied us with homemade goodies instead.
The only downside to the journey was the presence of a middle-aged American guy in the neighbouring compartment. At first we found him friendly enough and had lunch together in the restaurant car, but just an hour in his company was exhausting. After a while I knew his entire life story, each chapter more exciting and far-fetched that the rest. Any conversation soon turned to a one-way monologue. It was with some relief that we parted when the train arrived in Ulaan Baatar (or so we thought……)
We were quite excited to arrive in a new country after so long in China, but our initial experience wasn’t a pleasant one. I foolishly decided against taking a taxi from the station and we spent far too long walking around in the midday heat looking for the bank so I could get some money. By the time we’d managed it and headed to the hostels we found they were all full, as our fellow train passengers hadn’t been so stingy and had beaten us to the rooms. Finally we found a bed in the apartment of Bolod, a local tour-fixer. It was nice talking to him and his wife about their lives in Mongolia. We knew we had around 2 weeks in Mongolia and I had expected to travel around independently like in China, but we soon realised that this wasn’t practical and the done thing was instead to hire a jeep. After one day trying to work out what we could do, I was a bit overwhelmed by the options and upon waking the next morning pleaded with Christiane to sort it all out for me. Fortunately she accepted the challenge with aplomb. At lunchtime we finally found a trip we wanted to go on from a guesthouse, and for a reasonable price. However the price would come down a lot if we could find fellow passengers, and also we thought it would be more fun with others. Then followed a stressful afternoon and evening. First we went round guesthouses and cafes and Christiane left notes and took down details of people interested in doing similar trips, then she emailed a few people, and at 4 we went back to the guesthouse to see if anyone was interested. No-one turned up, so we had accepted that we were going alone and were going over the details with the organiser, when an Israeli-French couple who we had emailed turned up. After a few minutes chatting they seemed really nice, and said that they might be interested but that they had to think about it and would email us before 7 with a decision. We were really hoping that they would say yes, and it was with some nervousness that we checked our email later on. The answer was yes, and we happily headed back over to the guesthouse feeling pleased with ourselves for having sorted everything out so well.
When we got there we met the couple again and then the organiser guy surprised us by saying he had found a fifth person to come. Okay, I thought, the more the merrier, and we went into the kitchen to meet him. Who should be sitting there but the American from the train. My memory of the next few seconds is a little hazy. He said something like, “Wow, this is great” and joked about whether we could stand another 12 days with him. I just started laughing nervously and said ‘of course’, but fortunately Christiane couldn’t hide her feelings so well and just let out a small “nooooooooooo” and kept repeating “12 days, not 12 days….”. At this point I decided it would be best if we stepped outside for a minute. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen then but the other two came out too and said that they were with us, and that they had heard him before from outside and weren’t keen. That was a relief, and then the organiser came out and we explained about the train and he said not to worry, and that he had another trip he could put him on.
In a daze, we then sorted out the details and headed off for a much-needed drink before packing our bags and attempting to get some sleep. The next morning we set off for the trip, the four of us in the back of an old Russian van with our driver, Altai. For both of us the next 12 days were easily the highlight of our trip so far, although for me it didn’t start so well. After the first day we pitched out tents near some sand dunes and settled in as the hot day turned to freezing night. At about 1.30 I woke up wanting to be sick. In my stupor, I climbed out of the tent, grabbed the torch and headed outside. I already knew the tents were surrounded by wild dogs, and was suddenly aware of several strange other animal noises. I switched the torch on and was swiftly covered in mosquitoes, at which point I beat a hasty retreat to the tent. I holed myself up there for the rest of the night being sick and generally feeling very sorry for myself. I never get ill at home and it’s four times now over here. To think I used to pride myself on my ox-like constitution.
At the worst point I was assuming that we would have to travel back to the capital and cancel the trip, but as the next day wore on I stopped being sick and quickly recovered, and we continued on. Mongolia is an amazing country, the least densely populated country in the world with no land ownership, so you can drive and camp wherever you want. Beforehand I had imagined that the nomadic lifestyle was just practised by a few people, but outside of the capital almost everyone lives in gers (white felt tents) and herds animals. Some nights we camped, but most of the time we stayed in gers. We got on really well with the other couple and it was with some sadness that towards the end we went our separate ways in the town of Moron, as they had more time in Mongolia to continue their trip westwards. I can’t really do it justice by writing about it so I won’t describe the places we went.
We arrived back in Ulaan Baatar late on Tuesday, exhausted after 2 days of continuous driving. After surviving on mutton in the countryside we treated ourselves last night to bangers & mash and apple crumble in Dave’s Place, where there were a few expats celebrating London’s olympic win. Since then have been trying to prepare and organise for Russia. Our train leaves this evening for Irkutsk. We’ll both miss Mongolia, even here in Ulaan Baatar which is hardly a pretty place, but has a kind of soul that seemed missing in a lot of China.
Day 102: Russian Around
Thought I’d send an update of where we’ve been since leaving Mongolia. From Ulaan Baatar we caught the train to Irkutsk, our first stop in Russia. We were nice and relaxed as we arrived at the train station a good 50 minutes before the 1930 departure - or so we thought. We’d bought the ticket before going on our jeep trip, and it turned out that in the intervening 2 weeks the powers that be had decided to change the timetable. None of the train officials seemed very surprised by this. Fortunately the guy who ran the hostel had given us a lift and he ascertained what was going on and managed to hold the train for us. So it turned out alright in the end.
Irkutsk was a quiet laidback kind of city, with lots of wooden houses which we’d get used to seeing in Siberia. The first thing I noticed from walking around was that everyone was drinking. Just walking down the street, any time of day, male, female, old or young, most people had a can or bottle in hand. The street alcohol vendors were doing a roaring trade. We also got an early lesson in how to do business Russian-style. I was stood waiting at the post office in desperation for someone to serve me while they milled around behind the counter chatting and looking disdainfully at me, when another guy came in. Immediately one girl called the postmistress who rushed over while the guy pulled two huge bars of chocolate from under his jacket and handed them over. It was service with a smile from then on.
We spent one day and night in Irkutsk then took an 8 hour bus journey to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. Baikal is the largest lake in the world - apparently it contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. Interesting fact. The island has no electricity or running water (although I believe in a matter of days this will no longer be the case - ’switch-on’ day was being hotly anticipated by the islanders).We spent 7 nights there in a strange collection of wooden huts and cabins that an ex-Russian table tennis champion called Nikita had built. We spent the whole time doing virtually nothing. Playing table tennis and swimming in the freezing lake was about as energetic as it got. When it came to mealtimes we walked 20 paces to the cafe/restaurant where all meals were provided. Even at lunchtime we were given a packed lunch, which reminded me of a PGL holiday. I must say that we did stay a bit too long. Even the staff were wondering what we were doing with ourselves - all the other guests were rushing around on excursions and we just hung around. After a week we felt fully refreshed and headed back to Irkutsk where we treated ourselves to an expensive Italian meal, where it was a bit disconcerting to be frisked with a metal detector on entry. I presumed it was the restaurant of choice for the local mafiosi.
After another 2 nights in Irkutsk we caught our next train, to Krasnoyarsk (we’d decided to break up the mammoth train journey by stopping somewhere roughly every 24 hours). Krasnoyarsk was a pleasant enough city. There were marginally less people drinking, which I put down to their installation of speakers on every street playing mood music all day. It was quite soothing strolling around to instrumental versions of George Michael hits. After one night there our next stop was Yekaterinburg. Another nice place, except Christiane was feeling a bit under the weather at this point. One night there, and on the train again to Vladimir, a nice old Golden Ring town not far from Moscow. We treated ourselves to 2 nights there, then took a short train ride to Moscow where we arrived last Tuesday.
The first thing we felt on arriving in Moscow was that it was nice to be in a big city again. We spent 5 nights there taking in the sights. St Basils Cathedral was our favourite. The inside of the metro stations are also very impressive, like tourist attractions in themselves. They are also built twice as deep as most metros, and to compensate for this the escalators run twice as fast. This was terrifying for Christiane whose aversion to heights also covers escalators. Many’s the time I’ve stood behind her imploring her to get on with it while she stands with her foot hovering over the first step, while queues are forming behind us. This time she adopted the eyes-shut technique which seemed to work okay.
In Moscow I decided that we could loosen the purse strings a little as I needed to treat myself to soothe the pain of my impending departure from my twenties. Joining the Russians in their non-stop drinking seemed to be the best way. Anyway the day came and Christiane treated me like a king (or Tsar?) for the day, which was nice. I had champagne and birthday cake for breakfast, went on a nice river cruise, then a night out in the evening. One hungover day later and we were catching the night train to St Petersburg, where we are now.
We were both looking forward to St Petersburg but unfortunately haven’t seen that much of it since arriving here on Monday. After freshening up, the first time we ventured out of the apartment Christiane, in her enthusiasm for seeing everything, managed to throw herself down the stairs and ended up with a balloon-like ankle. So she has been confined to quarters since with an icepack for company while I play nursemaid. We’re hoping she’ll be able to get out more tomorrow.
We’re almost done with train journeys now. It was certainly an interesting experience. The first thing I noticed was that it was surprising how quickly the time went. I remember from trains from Manchester to London or Reading that the 3-4 hours can sometimes feel like forever, but when you know you’ll be on here for over a day the same length of time can go by in a flash. I think it helps that you can stretch out on your own bed, and take a walk to the restaurant car. The main problem I had was sleeping well - for a variety of reasons I only slept well on a few journeys.
The other thing we realised was that it mattered a lot what kind of cabin-mates we had. On the Chinese internal trains the compartments were open plan so it wasn’t so important, but on the Trans-Mongolian trains it was four to each closed compartment. On the first train, from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, we just had one Chinese guy, although he had a mate who would come in and play cards with him in his underpants. They were nice and insisted on giving us all their food. It was a bit embarrassing as we couldn’t really offer anything back. Except when one of them wanted to cut his nails, and asked if we had any nailclippers. Christiane tried to hide her look of horror, and they’ve been boiled pretty well since.
From Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk we also just had one guy, a Russian who looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was so serious-looking he scared me. He was also the loudest snorer I’ve ever heard (whatever he was worried about it certainly didn’t stop him sleeping well) and gave me the most sleepless night of all. But he did help to guide us through the interminable Russian border procedures. From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk we had a mother and small child, who kept us entertained. So far so good, until the Krasnoyarsk-Yekaterinburg leg. We boarded in the morning, midway through the train’s journey and our two cabin-mates, two young soldiers on military leave, were already there. They were quiet as mice during the day and we were nice and relaxed until they befriended another young soldier called Max who then made our compartment his home. Things were fine enough until the evening when the drinking session got into full swing. Christiane was on the top bunk so she could escape a little but I had to sit there until the small hours when all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Russian hospitality dictates that it’s very difficult to refuse which is all well and good but after having a beer thrust at me for the tenth time and ordered to drink I was longing for some British reserve. Finally relief came at about 1 am when the carriage attendant looked in to tell them to keep the noise down, must have noticed my pleading eyes and asked me if I wanted to sleep. The attendants are not to be trifled with (they can withdraw toilet priveleges) and with some reluctance Max withdrew and the party came to an end. Even then, after I was all tucked in, he came back in, grabbed me by the shoulders, as was his wont, shouted “John, John” (for some reason he always called me John), “Beer! Cool!”, his catchphrase for the evening. What made the whole thing worse was that he’d persuaded me to swap Christiane’s favourite Abbey Road pen (when you turn it upside down the Beatles walk across the zebra crossing) for his crummy ladbrokes style biro. She wasn’t pleased when she found that out the next day.
After that we were a bit concerned about the next leg, from Yekaterinburg to Vladimir, and when we got on to find two more soldiers in the cabin I though a repeat was going to happen. However I needn’t have worried. One guy just slept all the time while the other, a minesweeper (if that’s the right term), was one of the nicest people we met. He couldn’t speak English but with the aid of the phrasebook, and mime, we had several conversations and at the end he presented us with a gift he’d bought from one of the station vendors. We were a bit embarassed as we had nothing to give in return (that bloody Abbey Road pen might have sufficed) but Christiane had the bright idea of getting his address so we can send something from home.
On Saturday our visas are up and we leave Russia for Tallinn, then we’ll be hopping down the Baltic States on our way to Germany. Feels a bit like we’re on our way home now, in fact ever since we crossed our first time zone in Siberia it’s felt a bit that way. Maybe I can persuade Christiane there’s nothing left to see and I can make it home for the start of the football season. There’s always hope…….
Day 154: The End is Nigh
This is the last email as the trip nears to an end (sniff). Christiane managed to raise her swollen ankle out of bed and we managed a couple of days limping slowly around the sights of St Petersburg before our Russian visas expired and we had to take the bus to Tallinn in Estonia. The first thing that struck me about Estonia was how well-off it seemed. After Russia it felt like entering some kind of futuristic civilisation. It knocked any pre-conceived notions I had about Eastern Europe straight out of my head.
We only stayed in Tallinn for 2 nights. The Old Town was nice, and we’d planned on staying longer but the place was heaving with tourists. By this time we’d come to feel much superior to your average citybreaker and didn’t fancy lowering ourselves for too long. Actually the main reason was that it was frighteningly expensive. Eating out in the Old Town was like being in London. With our budget, the only option was to eat every meal in the shopping centre.
So, we packed our bags again and headed off to Parnu, reputedly Estonia’s summer playground. Christiane loves swimming and the sea but due to a combination of bad luck and other factors she hadn’t swum a stroke since Hong Kong. After much complaining, I promised her we’d fit in a short beach holiday at the Baltic, her favourite sea. Naturally, no sooner had we arrived than a depression the size of, well, the Baltic Sea, decided to join us. If anyone saw the World Athletics Championships in Helsinki they’d know what kind of weather we had for our beach holiday. Nevertheless, we had a lovely place to stay and holed ourselves up for 4 nights enjoying the delights of western cable TV. After four months where we were lucky to catch a glimpse of CNN or the interminable boredom that is BBC World, it was heaven to be able to watch American and British TV. Undubbed too, which seems to be a rarity in Europe. We even discovered an indoor water park where Christiane could splash around to her heart’s content.
From Parnu the next stop was Latvia, and Riga. I liked Riga a bit more than Tallinn. It was much bigger and had more of a proper city feel unlike Tallinn which felt a little like Toytown. But Latvia in general didn’t seem as confident and relaxed as Estonia. There is a lot of tension between Latvians and the large Russian population left over from Soviet times and everyone seemed a lot more stressed and downcast.
After two nights in Riga we went to nearby Jurmala, a series of small settlements on a long beach . There the weather finally turned and we managed some time on the beach. After three nights there we came back to Riga and stayed one more night before our bus to Vilnius in Lithuania. That night Latvia were playing Russia in a World Cup qualifier. It was supposed to be Latvia’s biggest ever game, but it was nice to see both sets of fans watching the game peacefully in bars.
The bus from Riga to Vilnius was a little stressful. The signs were there at the beginning that the driver wasn’t all there, cursing and muttering to himself. We set off, made a couple of stops on the outskirts and then were seemingly on our way. I wasn’t really paying attention, but after a while I looked up and we seemed to be nearing the centre of another city. I was just consulting the map to ascertain where we were when Christiane pointed out the bus station we had left an hour and a half ago. Soon the whole bus realised and the air was thick with mutinous feelings. One American guy marched to the front to ask what was going on, only to be met with a guffaw and the answer “Free Excursion in Riga!” I could only assume we had got lost, as we didn’t stop but just headed back out of town.
Perhaps aware of the passengers’ annoyance at the delay, the driver then proceeded to drive like a maniac to make up time. Things came to a head when he got too close to an oncoming vehicle while overtaking and his wing mirror flew into the side window, shattering it and showering the people at the front in glass. He carried on like nothing had happened but people were getting angry and he stopped at the next service station. I think seeing the blood on his cheek made him clam down a bit as the rest of the journey wasn’t too bad.
Nevertheless we arrived in Vilnius two hours late at around 9 pm. We went straight to the hotel only to be told that they hadn’t received our confirmation email and all the rooms had been taken. Fortunately, after some ringing around they found us a room in another hotel which turned out to be very pleasant. We then spent 5 nights in Vilnius and I quickly decided it was one of my favourite places. It had the same beauty as Tallinn and Riga but with a quirky nature, (for some unexplained reason it has the only Frank Zappa statue in the world), and there weren’t so many stag parties around. I would highly recommend it to anyone.
From Vilnius we took the train to Warsaw, and it felt like the trip was coming to an end as Warsaw would be the last new place we’d visit. The train ride was a tortuous 9 hours and we had got out of the habit of long journeys. Fortunately for me I’d just started a trashy thriller novel which got me hooked and I couldn’t put it down. I got through 500 pages in the journey (if anyone has a long journey ahead I can recommend David Baldacci’s The Winner). Christiane, on the other hand, was terribly bored and kept pestering me to entertain her, to no avail.
We had one day in Warsaw for some brief exploration. It was nicer than I had expected. For some reason I thought it would be grim and industrial. Our exploration didn’t get very far, however, as I demanded the afternoon be spent in a bar drowning my sorrows at having to spend the next fortnight with Christiane´s family.
The next day we caught the early fast train to Berlin and on to Waren where Herr & Frau Luck picked us up. The weekend was spent at a Center Parcs near Hamburg for the annual family gathering. Everything passed smoothly enough and I did my usual smiling, miming and pretending to understand German. As usual I vowed to myself to learn more German back home – maybe this time I’ll actually carry it out. We lost in the annual football challenge (Christiane’s dad’s side of the family versus his brother’s side) – again. The teams were clearly unfair. I was virtually playing by myself. Honestly.
Anyway enough of all this blah blah blah nonsense. Time for the result of this summer’s most eagerly awaited sporting event (although I hear there’s some cricket matches attracting a lot of attention back in Blighty): the Big Rummy Challenge.
And so, after innumerable hours and miles on the train, the final score is: Christiane 27728, Jack 29085. Which means Christiane is the winner. In fact, except for a thirty minute spell on a train approximately 3500 km from Moscow, I have been trailing since the 19th of April. In my defence, since St Petersburg Christiane had refused to play, claiming the game was boring. Very bloody convenient……….