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    Friday, August 31, 2007

    A final day of Yurtastic fun in Mongolia

  • Date and Time: Early morning, 30th August 2007

  • Location: Bed 16, Carriage 1, sitting in the Russian border of Naushki. Carriage swarming with Russian officials.

  • About 5 hours since the train pulled in just a few metres down the track on the Mongolian side, we're still going through immigration procedures. Our passports have been taken by the scary Russian officials. We'd better behave ourselves from here on or there'll be trouble...

    My final day in the Mongolian outback

    Our final full day spent with the family of herdsmen was a relaxed affair. After a late breakfast (I don't think I need to tell you what that consisted of) we piled into GI Jim's Toyota and headed off across the grassland, not following any particular track. I had no idea where we were heading, but reaching the peak of the hill, I guessed it must be something to do with that unusual collection of buildings in the middle of the valley that had just revealed itself to us.

    Sure enough, it was. The remains of an ancient (10th century?) Mongolian town that was of significant archaeological importance, as demonstrated by the plaques on the wall commemorating generous donations by some Japanese NGO that helped pay for the upkeep of the neighbouring museum that housed all sorts of ancient tools, pots and so forth.

    Me in the museum, with special guest 'blur effect'

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    Me with ye ancienty bird's claw up my nose

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    Hurrah for ancient cities

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    After a brief stroll around the grounds, it was back in the car, and off in a different direction from that from which we had come. The daughter of the family started making swimming motions - I guessed we were off to some river to get washed up.

    I was almost right. In fact it was a huge lake that seemed to be very popular with local herdsmen as a place to wash their cows, goats ...and cars. The water was a filthy sheep-shit green, but this didn't stop the entire family from washing their hair (with Pantene Pro-V) in it. Both father and GI Jim went for a swim, but having had my toes nipped more than once by these little prawn things, I decided not to go in beyond my knees, and contented myself with sitting on the shore watching the children chuck water at one another.

    The lake, looking surprising blue considering it was full of poo

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    Hair washing

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    Sheep washing

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    After a while, GI Jim decided to give the car a wash - the long journey along the dirt roads had not treated the paintwork kindly. To save him having to cart water to and from the lakeside, he did the sensible thing: reversed the car into the lake!

    Car washing

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    Back at the yurt, the family were preparing our final supper. It was to be a great feast, and there was immense excitement as the huge metal bowl containing the main course was set down before us.

    I took one look, and felt sick. In front of me was what had to be the remains of the goat slaughtered the day before - the fresh head had been given to the dog to play with, whilst the skin lay stretched out on the roof to dry. A huge great bowl of bones to be knawed at ...what should I do? Tell them that actually, I was vegetarian and whilst a bit of chicken was OK this kind of caveman thing was a bit beyond me? Ask the daughter if she had any Pringles left? Pretend I was really sick?

    The head of our supper

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    Dead goat anyone?

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    When the bottle of clearly very special black vodka was brought out of the back of the cupboard to accompany the meal, I realised that this was serious business, and I simply could not afford to risk offending them by not partaking in the meal. Thankfully, the lights were low, and so i couldn't really see the bones in too much detail. I told myself that this was some vegan alternative, after all, these days you could get some astonishingly realistic soya-based fake meat dishes. I carefully selected a small specimen, and slowly began to gnaw. At this rate, I could make it last at least half an hour, and by that time the meal might be over.

    Whilst the rest of the family dived in and created an impressively fleshless skeleton in the middle of the table, I hung back in the shadows, taking all the carrots and potatoes that I could find from amongst the mountain of gristle. Now and again I was offered another bone. I gestured that I still had some meat left on the one in my hand, and was left in peace.

    In this way, I managed to get through the ordeal without too much of poor Billy passing my lips. By the end of the meal, the group's attention was well and truly on the bottle of vodka, which had mysteriously become two bottles, both of which were rapidly being relieved of their contents. Despite my 6 shots in fairly rapid succession, I was happy to find that I didn't really feel drunk. I was eating plenty of bread to try and soak up the alcohol - whether that had any real effect or not I don't know, but the placebo effect alone was enough.

    I then made the mistake of asking to take a group photo - well, that was it! They clearly weren't used to having a camera to hand, thus the photo session went on and on - in fact it wasn't finished until after every single possible combination of people had posed and been captured on memory stick.

    I'll spare you the entire show. Here's just a couple.

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    Pepe and the gang

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    Whilst the herdsman's family had gradually been warming to me ever since we arrived, it was only really on that final evening that the conversation and laughter really flowed between us. The language barrier was finally overcome; there was much back-slapping and taking the piss out of one another. Finally, I was presented with gifts of a huge great bag of dried curd pieces (which sits untouched on the table next to me!) and some little wooden dolls, which I assume must be traditional Mongolian toys. In return, I gave them the only thing I had with me (apart from dirty clothes and a bag of electronics) - a pot noodle that I'd bought at a station in China! They seemed quite grateful, and no doubt will be filling it with hot milk some time in the near future.

    Moo Moo milking

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    And with that, my final day in the yurt came to an end. Aside from the incident with the sudden cessation of my constipation when stuck up a hill with no toilet paper, it had been a very relaxing day. I slept very well that night, thinking back on how lucky I was that everything had worked out as it had, with virtually no planning on my part. Yes, there had been times when I'd thought that I was going to be left in the middle of nowhere, my belongings stolen thanks to an incredibly well thought out plan which began with an old man falling off a platform on the sight of my penguin, but those times were very few and far between. Once again, I had been the recipient of incredible generosity: when was the last time you were invited to go on holiday with a family you happened to meet on a train the day before, none of whom spoke your language?

    Slicing curd to dry in the sun

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    The kindness continued once we were back in Ulaanbaatar. Following a pretty horrendous 8-hour trip back along the dirt tracks (which saw me throw up the remains of the goat from the night before in addition to quite a lot of milk...), I was invited in to the family home. Within 30 seconds I had one laptop and two cameras plugged into the mains, and a few minutes later was in the shower, washing away the smell of cow shit. Using their dial-up connection I made a quick check of my emails, and posted the three blog entries that I'd prepared before my departure earlier thin the week. It all worked out wonderfully!

    One of the thousands of birds of prey - shame about the flare from the sun

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    Three hours later, feeling thoroughly refreshed, I was given a lift to the station in their company car, and guided to the platform from which this train departed. What did I give in return for this hospitality? I provided the family with photographic memories, about 500 images (resized so as to prevent them selling them!) of their time in the outback. The mother had wanted her photo taken at almost every opportunity - a benefit of this was that she always wanted to take my photo in return, thus I now have quite a few pictures of me comparing my nose with those of Mongolian horses.

    By special request for The Daily Mumble..!

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    All in all, Mongolia was spectacular - I loved it. The image of those endless miles of grassland with nothing but the occasional yurt or the shadow of a herd of goats to interrupt the scene will be etched in my memory for good. I look forward to going back there with *Twinkle*. Think I'll take a packet of Kellogg's All Bran next time.

    Crazy goat

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    We are now being subjected to immigration procedures proper (after 5 hours sitting here, following 5 hours on the other side) - they're not done yet. It reminds me of my brief stop at Moscow International Airport a few years back, there too were the huge blonde Russian women who took no crap and barked orders at us. Our passports were taken a couple of hours ago; we're now waiting for customs to go through all our belongings whilst they're processed. I can hear the woman working her way down the carriage, giving the neighbours shit, making the kiddies cry. It seems they're pretty strict about the amount of luggage you have; this would explain why a couple of hours ago a Mongolian guy came to ask myself and Adrian if one of us would take a package across the border for him. We pointed out that doing so would be incredibly stupid, as we didn't know what was in the box. "It's just camel's wool" he insisted. I could just imagine myself trying to explain to customs what I was doing with a box of camel's wool, and why there was a package of washing-up powder in the bottom of the box... A similar thing had happened on the ferry (I may have already mentioned this); a Chinese girl asked if I'd take her laptop computer for her so she didn't have to pay duty. I remember thinking that I'd need the computer to be taken apart so I could examine the innards before I agreed to help out.

    Anyway, I'm gonna leave it here for now. The to-ing and fro-ing of this train as it goes up and down the border post tracks for no apparent reason is doing me nut in. I reckon the drivers are bored, just passing the time.

    Da svidanya! (Goodbye!)

    p.s. A few more photos from my time in the outback... Remember, lots more in my photo albums. Click on any image to be taken there.

    The son of the family I went with

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    This is how dusty the roads were!

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    Public toilets, Mongolian style (literally just a hole in the wooden floor of these doorless huts

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    Young monks

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    Horses at sunset

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    Where's my train gone?!

  • Date and Time: Early morning, early Autumn

  • Location: Bed 16, Carriage 1, Approximately 12 hours into a 40-hour journey from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar to the Russian city of Yakutsk.

  • There is something mightily odd going on here! I've just woken up and stepped outside to have a look at this station where our 10-carriage train has been for several hours. I know we've been here several hours because at about 4.30am I was woken by some loud clanging noises and the jerk of the carriage, as if an engine had just shunted into us. I checked the time, looked out of the window and just saw the usual collection of non-descript station buildings seen at many of the quieter stops along this route. I then fell back to sleep.

    15 minutes ago I was woken again, this time by the rays of a beautiful golden sunrise, shining through the wafer-thin carriage curtains. Looking out of the window I see we are in the same place; the only change is that now there is a gathering of dogs, some 3-legged having been involved in arguments with trains, waiting to be thrown scraps of food. I;m thinking they are the ones abandoned at the border by owners ignorant of rules regarding the importing of animals. I also see a few people clutching towels heading off to the station building; I guess there must be a bathroom there. Needing a morning wee myself (and preferring to avoid the cesspit that is the on-board loo as much as possible), I get up and step off the train. Concerned that it might leave without me I glance along the platform to check that all the other carriage doors are still open. But they're not - because there are no other carriage doors!

    Shunted off and forgotten for good?

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    The rest of the train has vanished! All that is left is our carriage, and one other! No engines, nothing! What is going on here? We seem to have been abandoned in the middle of some isolated freight yard! Did the engines get too tired and leave us behind? We were the last two carriages after all. Or did the coupling break without the driver noticing, him continuing to Russia with 8 carriages, oblivious of the fact that he has left a fifth of his sleeping passengers behind?!

    I suppose there's not much we can do but wait. The matron doesn't seem all that concerned; she's just standing at the end of the carriage, cigarette in one hand, coal shovel in the other, feeding her mini boiler for our morning tea.

    Myself and my carriage companions - two Mongolian Russians, and Andrew the Ozzie, have debated what might be the reason behind our abandonment. All we can think of is that our carriages were the only ones with printed images of foxes with pants in their mouths on the curtains.

    No need to worry too much yet though, according to the Russian timetable on the wall we're not due to leave here for another 3 hours... At least I think it's three hours. Time zones make it somewhat confusing. Apparently, Russian trains run on Moscow time, which is 5 hours behind the time in the section of Russia to the north of us. But hang on, we're still in Mongolia right, so does that mean we go by Mongolian time? To make matters even more confusing, as soon as we do cross the border time actually goes forward, not backwards as it should when travelling West. Thus, as of a bit later today, I'll be back on Tokyo time despite a week on the road travelling north-west through the Tokyo-time-minus-an-hour time zone!

    And I thought just dealing with a different alphabet was going to be tricky - now I have to start using a clock that goes backwards!

    Tarra for now.

    The moon. Not a bad shot for a normal camera me thinks.

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    Speechless for three days in Mongolia

  • Date and Time: Early evening, early Autumn

  • Location: Tradition Mongolian Yurt, somewhere in middle of Mongolia, 7 hours drive West of Ulaanbaatar

  • Feeling: Dairyed out, but happy.
  • Ulaanbaatar

    It's nearing the end of Day 3 of our Yurt adventure. I wasn't expecting us to still be here, the arrangement having been that we'd be returning home either late last night or early this morning. Initially, upon discovering that we wouldn't be heading back into town today I was a wee bit peeved as the decision had been made without any consultation. I had the (literal) recharging of multiple batteries planned, and the washing of socks. As it is now, I'll only get into town a couple of hours before my next (30 hour) train ride begins. Still, I've come to accept this new reality now, and I am happy to remain at peace here in the countryside.

    'Countryside' seems a somewhat inappropriate label for the grasslands of Mongolia. It suggests that somewhere there is a 'town-side' - yet Ulaanbaatar is (comparatively speaking) so miniscule that it doesn't really deserve a 'side' to itself, and the countryside so large that, well, it IS the Country.

    Herdsman on the plain

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    I can't really come to terms with just how much space there is. I mean, it just goes on, and on. It belongs to no-one. This family of herdsman has been in this spot for three months - soon they will move on to fresh grazing land, as they do every few months. I asked the English-speaking daughter if they have always lived here, if they have always lived like this. No, when she was born they lived in the south, but yes, her family have always lived in yurts, moving from place to place with their livestock. She herself was now at university, and just came back to the family 'home' to help over the summer. Thus her ability to speak English, although somewhat mysteriously after that first night she has not said a word to me. The cynic in me says that after she'd managed to get me to hand over the money for my stay (I'd been told to give it to someone else and thus had not paid up) she no longer needed to be nice to me. However, the ego in me says that she was scolded by her husband for flirting with the Englishman. Whatever the reason, it initially threw me, but now I appreciate that it's her issue, not mine.

    The girl in question with her brothers, holding Pepe

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    This has of course meant that I have not been able to talk to anyone for three days now, aside from making Mongolian-sounding acknowledgements and so forth. For the first day I even had trouble using my phrasebook, as I was unsure what language the family was using. It shouldn't have been Mongolian as they were allegedly Chinese, yet they spoke Mongolian with our guide and the herdsmen. It wasn't any Chinese I'd heard before either... I was stumped, until finally I managed to establish the fact that coming from Inner Mongolia (which is now a part of China) they were speaking a mixture of the two languages, but that they were happier reading Chinese than the Cyrillic script.

    Yours Truly, and the parents (and a baby herdsman)

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    Joseph and the kids

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    My first full day got off to a mixed start. It wasn't quite as unpleasant as the one in Beijing where the first thing I did was electrocute myself by unplugging my mac in a careless manner, but it came close. Initially it was OK, well, more than OK - a beautiful sunrise that enabled me to get some great shots of rucking goats. They were very funny, sounding like human's impersonating goats with their calls to one another. There was one Billy in particular whose persistence I admired. He followed this female for ages, making sneezing sounds to seduce her, and then when she stopped walking, he'd raise his front right leg in a kind of begging action, and let out a gentle "Please?" type beeh. It was very sweet to watch, and I admired his gentlemanly approach.

    The gentleman goat

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    The lads fight over the ladies

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    Anyhow, it was what followed this that was unpleasant: the digging out of live maggots from sheep's bums. At first, I didn't realise that these huge great wounds (some big enough to get a small fist in) were the result of a maggot's feast - but they were. The herdsmen /women would grab a hold of the affected sheep, sit on them and then start to dig the maggots out with any stick small enough to suffice. They then washed the wounds out, and filled them with some kind of powder. Astonishingly, once pinned down the sheep put up little resistance, although you could see just how happy they were when it was all over as leaving the holding pen they jumped for joy.

    De-maggoting a sheep

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    Jumping for Joy

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    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Following that, I went to watch the cows being milked, and then the horses. Yep, horses. They didn't give much milk, and weren't half as co-operative as the cows or goats, and always had to have their foals right next to them when being drained.

    Breakfast, for a change, was milk, a mountain of dried curd, huge great slappings of butter and cream balanced on the end of little breadsticks, and more milk. By this time my stomach really was really complaining, and I had to go for a stroll to take my mind off the pain. Up the local hill I went, the vast grasslands stretching out before me in all directions. Down by the little zig-zag river in the shallow valley below the four yurts stood huddled together, smoke rising from the cow-pat fuelled stoves that sat in the centre of each one, boiling huge great bowls of milk for hours on end, resulting in a great thick pancakes of cream floating on the surface. Behind the yurts horses grazed, some tethered, some penned in, the remainder free to roam but reluctant to stray far from their friends. And beyond them, in the distance, a cloud of dust moved across the landscape - the goats were being herded to fresh pastures the other side of the valley.

    Dust rises from a herd of goats

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    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I felt better after my little stroll, and decided to give horse-riding a go. I've only ever ridden a horse once before, and on that occasion it became tangled in barbed wire and (naturally) extremely agitated. Still, out here, apart from the pens used to hold the animals in prior to milking, there's nothing in the way of fences. Just vast stretches of open land ready to be conquered by the pounding of hooves of a galloping horse.

    Or, in my case, the incredibly slow clip-clop of the hooves of a horse that doesn't speak English and thus doesn't understand the words, "Go on horsey, good horsey, forward horsey". "Horsey, can we go a bit faster? They're all laughing at me". The horse seemed in no mood for speed that day however, and so I just went round in circles for a while. It was fun though - watch out for me jockeying in next years' derby.

    Where's the "Go forwards" button on this thing?

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    The horse refuses to move out of frame as the parents have their photo taken

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    Naturally, after all that excitement, and a heavy lunch consisting of copious amounts of dairy products and goat broth (I tried not to look too closely at the pieces of meat after an initial glance - I could make out little veins and other yukky things), I was absolutely shattered, and so settled down to sleep in the cool of the dark yurt. I've not felt that relaxed in a very long time; several hours passed, with me oblivious to the comings and goings of the herdsmen as they played around with various barrels of milk at different stages of transmogrification.

    As the sun neared the Western horizon, so it was time for the evening milking. Once the goats had been rounded up, a particularly amiable character was chosen to be victim of my udder abuse, as I tried in vein to get a drop from the swollen animal. It seems I just didn't have the knack. Thus, after five minutes the somewhat agitated animal was taken off me, and I was given the job of keeping the post-milked goats near the holding pen whilst the remainder were dealt with. Initially this was easy - 10 goats weren't all that much of a handful and I was easily able to keep them exactly where I wanted them to be. However, one-by-one the number increased, until 30 minutes later I was struggling to keep the gaggly gang of 50 together. Some were determined to explore the long grass off to the east, whilst others were steadfast in their mission to explore a particularly green patch of land the west. The biggest problem though was Blacky and Whitey - a naughty mother and daughter pair who insisted on not sticking with the crowd and doing their own thing. I later learnt that these two were notorious trouble-makers, and were often tethered for the day so as not to gander off to Europe as seemed to be their plan.

    Trying to milk a goat

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    Sitting on the fence

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    Cowboy Joseph with the two naughty goats

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    By 8pm it was getting dark, and I was feeling sleepy. It seemed my body had well and truly surrendered to the rhythm of the outback, and after an evening meal of, er, milky stuff, I was only too happy to hit the carpet.

    A Mongolian evening sky

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    Live from the Yurt

  • Date and Time: Early morning, early Autumn

  • Location: Tradition Mongolian Yurt, somewhere in middle of Mongolia, 7 hours drive West of Ulaanbaatar

  • Feeling: Peaceful, despite sore bum

  • It's extraordinary what a powerful influence one's surroundings have upon one's rhythm. It's only been 36 hours since we arrived at the collection of 4 yurts that is home to this family of herdsmen, but already my body feels it is only right that I rise with the sun, retire at about 8pm soon after the sun sets. I recall trying to get into this rhythm in Tokyo, but my body was vocal in its complaints from the start. Even after a week of forced early mornings I was no closer to waking up of my own accord before 9am, yet here, my eyes opened just before the sunrise, and I was wide awake within seconds.

    Rucking goats at sunrise

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    If anyone had told me the story of how I'd end up here, I'm not sure I'd have believed them. On the Trans-Mongolian train I'd have a brief conversation with a Japanese-speaking Mongolian of Chinese origin; she would invite me to join her family when they went to stay 300km west of Ulaanbaatar in the Mongolian outback. I already knew her parents, as her father had fallen off the station platform when trying to stroke my pet penguin. She would tell me to meet her the following morning at the gates of Mongolia's most important monastery. I would turn up at the appointed time, where I would wait for almost an hour, engaged in conversation with a peak-capped Mongolian chap in his 70s, who, with the aid of my Phrasebook tells me time and time again that he is the highest lord in the entire land.

    The monastery located in central Ulaanbaatar

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    Eventually, my new friend - who's name is so long I can't even remember - arrives at the gate. I am expecting a 4x4 or a high-wheel base van, the kind of which are seen outside all Mongolian tour company offices, but no, behind her is a Toyota XEV Vintage - a low-slung four door family saloon. Assuming that our route will not be along the kind of dirt tracks I saw from the train, I think no more of it and get in the passenger seat, next to the well-built chap dressed in camouflage gear and sporting a pair of wrap-around shades, just as he had been yesterday when he met the family at the station. In the back, her mother, father, younger sister and a little dog are sitting. I was just about to ask where her younger brother (age 10?) was going to sit, when he climbed on my lap. I shouldn't be too surprised, you rarely see a car that isn't full to bursting. But what about her, my friend?

    The driver, GI Jim

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    "Oh, I can't come, I have to work" she tells me. Er, right. So that leaves me with your family and this army guy, none of whom I know anything about, and none of whom speak English (or Japanese). I try not to feel put out by this, maybe it was some kind of oversight on her part, you know, not to tell me. Everything will be OK, I tell myself, looking forward to a couple of days of relative silence on my part. I guess it will kind of suit the environment.

    Miki the dog

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    The seven of us set off. After 200 metres or so we stop outside a fruit and veg market. Men carrying impossibly tall stacks of boxes - fruit from China - on their backs pour our of the front door, dodge traffic on the four-land highway out front and plonk them down on the opposite kerb next to waiting taxis. There are so many vehicles loading and unloading fruit that one gets the impression that the entire Mongolian economy is centred around fruit distribution. Out of the corner of my eye I see a vehicle that makes me look twice - a genuine Japanese "Kuro Neko" van, belonging to Japan's most widely used courier company. It's paintwork has been left exactly as when it was when it retired from service, but there's no smartly-dressed baseball capped driver running down the road with a parcel of fresh fish; instead there's a group of scruffy old men, sitting in the back surrounded by boxes of peaches and bananas.

    Our already fully-loaded car is packed further with a great sack of cabbagaes, a box of plums and 12 litres of water; bursting at the seams we drive a bit further out of town, fill up with gas and oil, stop at a little roadside shrine to offer vodka to the Gods in order that we may be looked after during our epic trip West, and then hit the highway.

    Shrine stop

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    I'm glad to see the back of Ulaanbaatar. Just as the guide book said, it's a filthy city. It sits in a shallow valley surrounded on all sides by mini-mountains that serve to retain the blanket of pollution that rises from the factories to the south-west of the centre. It's another of those places, like the places in China I visited, where one doesn't really want to breath. I think back to the Mongolia I saw from the train, and can scarcely believe it's the same country. From the train, that looked so big, so empty, so clean.

    However, it seems that with so much apparent space (I think the country has a population of only 2 million, half of whom live in the capital) there is little concern for the environment - if there's so much of it, why bother protect it? The effect of this attitude is pollution both in the city, and the few tows that exist elsewhere. The Ulaanbaatar yurt hostel that I stayed in on my first night in Mongolia was situated in the heart of what I would describe as a 'yurt slum'. Filthy streets, a river that was more rubbish than water, and the stench of general crap. Thankfully, the yurt hostel had been built on top of a hill, and the yurts were pitched on the roof of the main building, lifting them above the stink below.

    The Yurt Slum

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    Perhaps my concern for the environment clouds my judgement when it comes to summing up a city. I can't really get beyond the pollution to appreciate any other aspect.

    So yes, you can imagine how glad I was when we reached the end of the city. I wasn't entirely sure where we were going - all my Japanese-speaking friend had said was that it was 300km to the west. And it is, but the journey that followed made it feel like it was a lot further. The thing was, the road was still under construction. It had been completed for the most part - a long straight bed of gravel that cut through the grassland like a knife, but every 500 metres or so there was a gap where a bridge across a little stream was to go, thus making the entire road useless. Instead, what we had to deal with was 300km of off-roading, in that family saloon. Initially I guessed that this was just a temporary thing, that we'd soon reach the end of the roadworks - but no. It went on, and on, and on. For 300km. We were driving for 9 hours in the end. Occasionally we'd spot a stretch of the highway that was without gaps all the way to the horizon - it looked beautiful. However, being under construction there was no entry ramp, so we'd climb the embankment, scraping the underside of the car on the gravel as we went over the top. Then GI Jim would floor it, and we'd bomb down the road, 90, 100, 110kmph, loving this opportunity to go faster than a drunken snail. In less than a minute we'd reach that horizon, and seconds later, without fail, we'd find ourselves facing a break in the road: time to return to one of the many dirt tracks that zig-zagged a course parallel to the road-to-be. Sometimes we were lucky and found a fairly shallow embankment to exit down, but more than once we ended up having to turn around and retrace our steps looking for some section where the road elevation wasn't all that great. Then there was that time when we got well and truly stuck whilst trying to negotiate a particularly risky way off. First, the sound of stone on metal, then the tyres spinning. We get out, and push GI Jim over the rocks and out of the mud. Behind us, a brand new Land Rover waits for us to clear the way, and then effortlessly continues on its journey, the embankment being nothing more than a minor blip in the road surface to its great big tyres and superb suspension. I try to tell myself it's more fun doing it the hard way.

    A section of the dirt road

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    A section of the road we wished we could drive on

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    300km of off-roading near their end

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    The landscape was similar to that that I'd seen from the train - endless grassland, without division of any kind. Only this time it wasn't so flat. There were frequent gentle hills (covered in pot-holes where dirt roads traversed over them I hasten to add), and in the distance mini-mountains. We often passed herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and usually not far beyond them a little collection of yurts. Other than these (and the road on which we were driving), signs of human life were seldom indeed - in 300km we only passed two small towns.

    A herd of goats cross the plain

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    There were a few other vehicles that caught my eye. One was a Citroen 2CV - I really thought that the mirage ahead was getting creative when I saw this, but no, it was a real French 2CV, and according to the sticker on the side, had been taking part in the Trans-Mongolian rally. Knowing how hard it was to not shoot the suspension to bits in a fairly modern Toyota, I marvelled that that little Dolly was still in one piece!

    Another that struck me was a motorbike, Well, it wasn't the motorbike itself - that was like any other you'd see on any Western road - it was the passengers. Two farmers ...and a goat! Absolute classic. Heaven knows how they managed to stay on on those roads.

    The final vehicle to make one question the sanity of the driver was the lorry with a car balanced precariously in top of its second trailer. It was tied on with bailer-twine wrapped around the back wheels...!

    How to get a low-wheel-base car across Mongolia - give it a lift!

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    I don't know why, but it didn't seem like it took most of the day to get here. Time wasn't really a factor, it just took as long as it took. As I mentioned before, the only times that mean anything cannot be described by fixed numbers; they change every day with the rising and setting of the sun.

    We were met by the herdsman and his family, who turned out to be related to GI Jim. A meal was set out before us: dried curd pieces, miniature sticks of bread, a huge dish of butter and cream, a bowl of partially fermented sour milk, all washed down with (you guessed it), milk.

    Food that was going to be making an appearance at every mealtime for the next three days...

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    The dairy theme has continued ever since, and is the only cause of discomfort for me. I'm not a great fan of dairy produce, and when in Tokyo hardly consumed any save for a bit of milk in my irregular mugs of coffee. My stomach is not all that happy with this 3-meals-a-day dairy overdose, and I've become pretty constipated. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though, and is infinitely preferable to diarrhoea. Why? The toilet is that patch of ground just over there, behind that bank of tall grasses.

    Our yurt

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    Our Yurt - in situ

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    I long to drink some water, but there's little of it around. I'm not too keen on drinking the dirty river water, as drunk by the herdsman's family. Their immune systems may be able to deal with it, but I'm not sure mine would. I'll stick with the constipation thanks.

    We were all in bed pretty early that first night, and I, following an hour or so of Kafka on the Shore, slept very soundly on my own mattress-shaped carpet.

    It was a good first day, great to be out in the vast, tranquil countryside. Free of the noise, stress and dirt of the city. I reckon all Japanese people should be sent here for a 3 week holiday every year to help them remember that life is more than just jobs and shopping.

    Down by the riverside

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    Yurt and horses at sunset

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    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Endless miles of stars


    Date & Time: 25th August 2007, 10:10am

    Location: Train carriage next to remote village in central Mongolia, 1500km from Beijing.

    Feeling very happy. The train has stopped at some remote village - by 'village' I mean a group of 6 little widely-spaced homesteads, each consisting of a tin-roofed bungalow with up to three yurts behind it, and a large satellite dish. I guess that's so they can connect to the Tesco website to order their weekly groceries.

    I slept well under my Mongolian rug. This, despite the most incredible snoring you have ever heard. It really was incredible, Harold and Barry sounding like they had entire orchestras up their noses. The sound of the train trundling along was incredible soothing though - it hasn't once gone over about 50mph, but that's just fine, somehow it fits in with the landscape. An awe-inspiring landscape. Vast, endless stretches of grassland. With not a tree in sight the dusty green is only occasionally interrupted by the appearance of a bunch of grazing horses or an isolated yurt. There's absolutely no agriculture, it's far too dry. In fact, rivers don't feature at all, not even in a dried-up form. I don't think they've ever been here.

    I did actually wake up once or twice last night when the train jolted into action after a brief stop: looking out of the window I saw an awesome sight. Such a huge empty landscape, illuminated by the light of the stars - the stars! They were just beautiful. I have so missed them having lived in cities for so long. Out there, there is nothing to mask their beauty.

    The sun rises casting a long shadow beside the train

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    Horse on the plain

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    Very hairy horses on the plain

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    This morning Harold and Barry played a few rounds of Mahjong, and then began a nectarine-peeling competition using the box of thirty or so fruits that I bought last night for a pound, and my penknife. There was much laughter as I failed miserably in every attempt to peel a nectarine in one - I blame the movement of the train. They've also invited me to stay with them at our destination, a very kind offer that I have turned down due to my booking at the yurt hostel(!).

    Barry shows us how it's done

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    A little while ago I was standing in the corridor, camera lens sticking out the window, when I girl in her early twenties approached me and starting talking in Mongolian. I told her that I didn't understand - did she speak English? No. How about Japanese? I asked, in Japanese, not expecting any intelligible response. On hearing this her face broke into a huge smile, and she replied, in good Japanese, "Yes, I do!".

    It turns out that she's here with her parents, who in fact I met last night at the Mongolian border town station when her husband, distracted by Pepe the penguin, fell 2 foot off the platform. He was ok, just shaken, and once he'd recovered we had a good sign-language conversation about penguins.

    So anyhow, Wurentaogesi (am yet to get the pronunciation right) and I continued to chat, talking about our plans. I told her that I was thinking of going to some place near the capital to ride a horse and things, but that I wasn't sure exactly where this was. As it happens though, she's taking her parents to just such a place owned by a friend of hers, 300km East of Ulaanbaatar, and at only £8.50 (transport, meals and horse included) it's a bargain - would I like to join them? Sounds like a plan to me!

    Looking at my schedule, I'm a couple of days behind but this doesn't really matter, I can still make it to Moscow on time. In fact, the less time I spend in Moscow the better I think, it sounds bloomin expensive!

    As the train nears Ulaanbaatar so the number of yurt-centred homesteads increase. A fairly well-used dirt track has appeared by the railway line too - and with more than half an hour until we reach our destination people are already starting to carry their luggage to the vesitible area! After that show at Chinese customs I guess I shouldn't be too surprised!

    The train approaches Ulaanbaatar

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    Tatta for now!

    Hello Mongolia

  • Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 10.13pm

  • Carriage 8, bed 9, train to Ulanbaataar from China. Currently just inside Mongolia, Gobi Desert

  • It was so funny when we were waiting to get through customs and immigration. As mentioned in my previous entry, I'd got to the station pretty early and so was first in line. The initial line was that for the first of 2 luggage x-ray machines; all major Chinese stations have them at the entrance for some reason. That wasn't so bad, as there wasn't all that much waiting involved, thus not too much pushing and shoving. After that it was the customs x-ray machine. By this time people were starting to get excited, and there was about 30 minutes of waiting for the officials to show up for them to get inventive with their queue jumping. Now, once again, I was right at the front, standing on the yellow line in front of the immigration booth. Seeing this, about 10 Chinese men who'd turned up late started to slowly edge their luggage under the barrier next to me. When the official on duty turned his back, they proceeded to shove it forward until it was right up against the official booth - and they were now standing in front of me!

    The crowds - and their luggage - begin to gather in front of the station
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    I didn't mind too much, after all, seats were assigned according to ticket, so being first in line wouldn't really make any difference in the end.

    But the game wasn't over yet. The men continued to edge forward whenever the official turned his back until eventually they managed to make it all the way past the booth to the x-ray machine. Eager to get through quickly they then started to place their packages on the machine's (stationary) conveyor belt! The more they put on, the further into the machine it was pushed - if they carried on like that it would be coming out the other side! ...and all this time the immigration staff were still in their office behind the scenes. Now and then a station worker would tell the men (kids) to get back behind the line, but they'd just argue with him until he gave way. It was all pretty funny to watch. I tried to imagine what would happen if they did this in Japan - something tells me they wouldn't get too far!

    The atmosphere in our cabin is really nice. After a 90 minute walk around the border station (during which I met a very interesting Mongolian student who spoke excellent English, as well as Spanish, Korean and a bit of Chinese), we were back on board, welcomed by the two women in charge of our carriage and its little coal fire. During the first part of our trip they were pretty scary, barking at us to shut our window, yelling in high pitched blabbles for us stow our luggage properly. Now they know our faces, and now we are playing the role of obedient passengers, they are being kind and caring.

    The matrons

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    Once the four of us were seated, the main man, one of the 50 year olds from Shanghai, I'll call him Barry, asked me for my penknife and cut one of his 6 watermelons from the net under one of the bottom bunks. He divided it into 8 slices, and together we sloshed away at the sweet flesh. Being a bit nervous about one of the matrons showing up and telling us off for getting the carpet wet, we shut the door and tried to keep the noise down. MMmmmmm, it was delicious. ...Barry and the other older chap, let's call him Harold (as he does remind me of the famous Mr. Bishop of Neighboursfame) are now comparing stomach sizes, teasing one another about being overweight.

    From left: Harold and Barry

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    It's now getting on for 11pm, and I'm feeling dozy. I think I might retire to my bunk and get a bit of sleep. When I wake up we should have finished our Gobi Desert crossing, and will be close to the Mongolian Capital.

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    Oyasumi xxx

    Thoughts whilst waiting for the train


  • Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 2pm

  • Location: entrance lobby of station, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert

  • Time until next train: 4 hours

  • I don't really need to be here this early - check-in for the international train doesn't start for another hour - but I've had a look round town and had enough of the dust and heat.

    I managed to get my grocery bill halved, simply by going through my collection of food and asking how much each item was, then saying 'that's too expensive' in Chinese to every price quoted. Turns out he was trying to charge me £1.40 for the Cadburys chocolate, double the UK price! I got him down to 70p on that, although he had the last laugh as after I'd eaten half of it I spotted the Best Before date - it was 2003!! Despite being over 4 years old it tasted pretty good, so I ate the rest of it. I'm now stocked up with coconut bread, pot noodles and plenty of water.

    Young workers on the Chinese railway

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    Scene: 2 hours later, sitting on the train, 90 mins till departure for Mongolia

    Myself and three chaps from Shanghai have now settled into our sleeping carriage - it seems most people have brought everything but the kitchen sink, thus the carriage is absolutely packed with boxes and suitcases. As we sit here waiting for departure, so local people keep on stopping at our door clutching great big nets of huge watermelons, boxes of peaches, bottles of half-frozen water and cartons of ice lollies. A sack of 6 watermelons will set you back £1.50 - makes a change from Japan!

    I've acquired some informants, a group of three girls, a Mongolian and 2 Mongolian-speaking Koreans who also speak English. Apparently the train to Ulanbaataar from the Mongolian border town that this train is heading for is fully booked - seats are sold out until mid-September, and there's not even standing room available for tonight's train. It seems that all remaining tickets were bought up by touts who will auction them off at extortionate rates on the platform. There's a second rumour though, and that's that we can buy a connecting ticket here on the train before we get to Mongolia. I'm a bit confused as to whether this actual train will go all the way to my destination or whether we have to change on the Mongolian side. Well, I'll just do what my friends do, as I'm clueless. They said they'd keep me informed.

    A small business in the border town of Erlian

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    Meeting so many people along the way means that I haven't really felt lonely at all on this trip. Well, actually, there have been two moments when I was filled with a rush of despair and isolation, longing to be with *Twinkle*. they were when I arrived at my hotel in Datong, and again here in Erlian. The Datong incident was soon dealt with as I found a broadband internet port behind the bedside table, and in Erlian I distracted myself by listening to a couple more chapters of Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore - thanks for the recommendation Tom, and thanks for the download!

    I dislike the idea of not being happy being alone, as it suggests that one does not like one's own company, which in my mind is not a good thing. If one doesn't love oneself (I don't mean in an egotistical or narcissistical way) then one can't give so much love to others. I mean, think of someone you know who is very happy with themselves - doesn't their radiance rub off on you?

    I'm finding writing quite therapeutic, and am very glad I brought my MacBook with me. I find it pretty shocking just how forgetful I am though - I've been taking notes on a pad of paper along the way, and find it hard to recall the days when I've not written anything.

    I'm trying not to think about arriving at my final destination, the UK. Even a brief moment of imagining being there fills me with fear and upset, as it confirms my separation from Japan and *Twinkle*. Those first couple of weeks will be spent visiting friends before I return to Sheffield, and I imagine I'll be in a bit of a mess, not really wanting to be there. That I am sort of looking forward to, back in my own private space, in touch with my friends in Japan thanks to the broadband, surrounded by my belongings from Japan. I'd like to think I'm a free nomad, not needing the comfort of possessions or a fixed routine, but that's not the case. I am yet to reach that stage of stillness.

    That's not to say I'm not happy travelling, because I am, despite the very real concerns of having my belongings stolen. Time and time again I have been warned about 'the bad people' - they're worse in Mongolia you know. I have my passport and money in a hidden belt, my wallet attached to that with a cord. I never let my black rucksack out of my possession, as it contains everything of value that I own. The green one is just clothes and tea, so whilst it would be a pain if it was nicked I could easily replace everything it contains. I've avoided alcohol altogether ever since I left Shanghai; I just can't be too careful.

    Bye-bye China

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    Scene: 3 Hours later. Sitting on the train at the Mongolian border town of thingamijig, Gobi Desert, waiting for immigration to process our passports.

    Turns out the rumours were true and false. The false one was that we had to change trains and that all seats were already gone. The true one was that we can buy a ticket through to our destination from a women on board. 36,000 Mongolian Tugrik for the 13 hour trip to the Capital on a comfortable sleeper - that's £15. Mind you, sheets and the cup of tea handed out upon boarding are extra - a whole 1000 Tugrik, or 43p. I'm sharing a 4-berth cabin with three blokes from Shanghai. Two of them are in their 50s, the other is a university student. None of them speak English, so communication is limited to the sentences my phrasebook contains and a large piece of paper now covered in pictures. We've shared a few laughs and a bag of pumpkin seeds, and helped one another out with the immigration forms. When given a Chinese form I asked for the English version - the immigration official had a leaf through his pile of blanks but couldn't find one, so handed me the Mongol script version and burst out laughing. I thanked him in my best Mongolian, bayarlaa. That made him laugh too.

    There's not much to see round here as we're surrounded by freight trains. There's a bunch of kids running around the yard, now and then pulling some lever under the carriage, causing a dramatic release of compressed air. Let's hope it's not going to disable the brakes.

    A two-hour wait at the border gives us a chance to stretch our legs

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    One thing I noticed in Erlian was that far fewer people looked at me. I guess being a border town they're used to seeing foreigners - it made a refreshing change.

    For some reason the train is now heading back towards China. Not entirely sure why, but according to my carriage mates it's quite normal. As long as we don't go too far - I left my passport back there!

    tatta for now!

    Doing Business in China

  • Date & Time: 24th August 2007, 12pm

  • Location: The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert

  • Time until next train: 6 hours

  • Length of next train journey (to the Mongolian capital, Ulanbaataar): 17 hours

    Hello. I'm sitting at my desk in my hotel room, just getting into the mood for crossing the Mongolian part of the Gobi by listening to my Mongolian CD.

    I spent the morning getting all necessary business done, namely changing money and buying a train ticket across the border. Stepping out of the hotel at 9am I was dismayed to see a queue stretching a long way down the street in front of the international ticket office. People were standing there clutching great wadges of passports - at this rate I'll miss today's train too! I said to myself.

    As it happened though, things went pretty smoothly. That is, until I reached the ticket window, where, contrary to what the policeman had told me, I found I couldn't pay in US dollars. I asked the somewhat embarrassed policeman where I could change money, in response to which he commandeered an old granny standing nearby and commanded her to take me to a local grocery shop where the owner was happy to rip me off with her personal exchange rate. Armed with my yuen, I returned to the ticket office and picked up my passport, various official vouchers to get me across no-man's land, and a ticket to the Mongolian border city. There, I shall have to buy the ticket to Ulanbaataar. For that transaction Mongolian Tugrik are necessary, and thus another exchange was called for. Reluctant to go back to the woman who had been only too pleased to see me before, I asked at the hotel reception where I could change some money. She babbled away in Chinese, me not understanding a word, and then drew a map for me directing me down the street. I followed the map, and at the point that she had indicated found a Post Office. In I go, and ask the clerk if I can buy some Tugrik. He looks at me in a disinterested fashion and shakes his head. I ask him where I can exchange money, which prompts him to heave himself of his comfy chair and take me for a walk a little further down the road. We enter another tiny little grocery shop, where the owner is apparently happy to change money.

    This time I'm prepared: I've checked the exchange rate (or at least that of a few days ago) on my MacBook, and have the precise amount written down. He looks at this, and somewhat surprisingly only takes about 20p commission. Mind you, he wasn't gonna miss out on this opportunity to get all he could off me, and so when I asked him how much my two bottles of iced tea, Cadbury's Wispa, bread rolls and cup ramen cost, he told me 42 yuen - that's about £2.50. What a rip-off! There was no way I was going to pay that, and in fact I didn't actually have that much money on me, at least not until the hotel gave me my £7 deposit back. I told him I'd be back later - and later back I shall go, ready with my "That's too expensive" phrase.

    I then went to look for some kind of internet access to tell the yurt owners that I've been delayed again. I decided to go and ask the very kind man in the travel shop who had told me all about the ticket-to-Mongolia system, and sure enough he came up trumps, switching on the pc at his desk and initiating the dial-up connection. I sent my mail, and thanked him many times; he was grateful for the 4 yuen (28p) I handed him.

    I've been told that although the train leaves at 6pm, I need to be there for 3pm to get through immigration and so forth. It's gonna be a long day.

    I've been meaning to tell you a little more about Datong, the first city on the Trans-Siberian after Beijing.

    Riding from the station to the hotel on the 7p bus was quite an experience. The bus itself is a stunning mix of old and new. Whilst it sported an LED display (its disconnected wires dangling down) and the latest in IC-card technology ('touch and ride', no need to fiddle about with change), it also had a huge tank of water behind the drivers seat, with a hose going through a whole in what could be loosely termed a 'dashboard'; I guessed this was feeding some kind of cooling system. The problem was though that the tank wasn't actually watertight, thus every time we slowed down, speeded up or turned a corner water sloshed out of the top and onto the floor.

    There were many traders with their jumble of plastic goods laid out on blankets on the dusty streets, people selling peaches from carts (sometimes sleeping soundly on top of the carts next to their produce!), burst water mains flooding the road, and what's that? A donkey and cart! And another one! They start appearing everywhere, usually with a load of watermelons or other assorted fruit behind them, led by an old man.

    Checking in to the once pretty snazzy hotel was an amusing experience. I only had 200 yuen (£14) on me, thus the 250 yuen room charge was beyond my budget. When my phrasebook skills hit a brick wall, a phone call was made, and a young girl in a long pink traditional dress appeared. "Hello! How can I help?".

    Her English was pretty good, and thus I was able to discuss all sorts of options such as cleaning the floor, or teaching her more English in exchange for a discount. Eventually a deal was struck - I could stay for 185 yuen if I didn't eat in the hotel restaurant. This was fine by me. I handed over my passport, and they then proceeded to photocopy my Japanese student visa instead of my Chinese visa. Error rectified, we took photos and up I went to my room, which all in all wasn't half bad.

    The following day I spent hours trying to sort out a ticket for Jining. What a palaver! With not enough yuen to get me to Erlian I needed a bank, but was told that there was only one in this huge city that would change foreign money. Reluctant to take a bus and get completely lost, I opt for a taxi, writing down "Bank of China" and "place to change foreign money" on a slip of paper for him to read. 10 minutes and 35p later we arrive at the bank. In I go, and wait in line until served. It seemed to take forever to carry out this transaction. As I waited I glanced around, noting the fact that they don't have money kept in drawers - the just use big metal suitcases to keep their dough in. The other thing that caught my attention was the little electronic staff name cards with 3 buttons on. In English and Chinese they read, "With your help, how was my service today?". Once could then press the button that best summed up your feelings - satisfactory, average, dissatisfactory. I wondered if this meant that for the average Chinese banking customer, the service was neither satisfactory nor dissatisfactory - what might that be?

    You know in the UK we have signs on the doors of banks saying "No helmets", well it's not really a security issue here. You see, for one thing, no one wears helmets, but more importantly even if one did it wouldn't really be as much of a threat to bank security as the other thing - people ride their motorbikes into the bank! I kid you not. There were two people in there actually sitting on their bikes whilst being served. It's not as if this is a drive-through bank either. It's a proper Bank of China bank, with a polished marble floor and three steps down to the street. Talk about being able to make a fast getaway!

    Eventually I managed to buy my ticket (after being referred to about 5 different station departments!), and boarded the train for Erlian. It was standing room only, but I didn't mind as it was only a couple of hours. After a little while, I was approached by a 15 year old girl who speaks a little English. She invites me over to talk with her and her granny; I am only too happy to oblige. We go through all the basics, her granny (a high school teacher) doing more of the questioning than her, constantly prodding her grand-daughter to ask me this that and the other. Meanwhile, she is constantly feeding me hot water; I'm a bit mystified by this as it's a boiling hot day, but assume that it's some health thing, and sip away as slowly as possible. After a while it becomes clear that the 15 year old boy is understanding some of what I'm saying. I ask him if he speaks English - he does, a little. The process is now repeated with his mum, a maths teacher in her late 30s quizzing me on what I'm doing. The subject turns to my ring - am I married? I produce a photo of *Twinkle* and tell our story. When they hear that she is Japanese they all make a great deal of noise: "but Japanese girls are so beautiful and sweet! You are very lucky man!"

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    We exchange contact details, and as the train pulls into my station I promise I'll keep in touch.

    I was only alone for an hour or so, as it was shortly after I alighted there that I met Tom.

    Well, check out time is upon me, and I must go do battle with the man who sells Cadbury's chocolate.

    See you in Mongolia!

    love Joseph

  • The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan

  • Date & Time: 23rd August 2007, 10.30pm

  • Location: The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan, Chinese border town of Erlian, the Gobi Desert

  • Distance travelled from Beijing: 842km

  • Time until next train: 20 hours

  • I don't really get what the architect was thinking when he was designing the bathroom in my large, clean and fairly modern hotel room. It's an all-in-one affair: sink on the left, toilet in the middle, shower on the right. But there's no shower tray or curtain, just the head attached to the wall. The floor is tiled, but is lacking in any kind of drainage channel. Being the same level as the tiled floor of my room proper, when one has a shower the waste water, soap and all, hits the wall, runs down to the floor, runs under the door and floods the entrance hallway. The toilet also gets a good soaking, as does the toilet paper.

    Despite this, tonight's unanticipated hotel stop is turning out to be a lot more pleasant that last night's. For a start the white-washed walls are not covered in mosquito corpses and dried blood; all the lights work, the floor is clean (apart from the bit by the front door which has a nice coating of soap-scum!) and the price is the regular price, as shown in the hotel brochure (£7).

    Arriving in the border town of Erlian, I was kind of expecting a connecting train to Ulanbaataar, 700km to the north. I've had my thinking conditioned by a Year in Japan - here in the Inner Mongolian Gobi Desert there's only one train a day, and I'd missed it by 30 minutes. I only found this out half an hour after we arrived at the end of our 7 hour trip from Jining. One of my friends from the train (who had earlier saved me from accidentally getting off at the wrong station) took it upon himself to find out where I could get a ticket to the Mongolian capital. He didn't speak any English (no-one did on today's train, although to be honest I was glad of a break from constant chatter), but we managed to get by with my phrasebook and sign language. First, we did a tour of the station's many ticket halls - all said they couldn't sell cross-border tickets and I'd have to go to an agent, the location of which they didn't know. Feeling stumped, we stood together thinking. I then suggested that we ask the police, writing the simple kanji for 'Police' that I'd picked up (literally 'Public Safety' if given the Japanese meaning) on the palm of my hand.

    The police were just as unhelpful as the station staff, simply pointing in the direction of the main city and talking about some agent. It was at this point that I started to get a bit worried, picturing myself stuck in this place for days on end, unable to get a ticket for any train north. My first impression of Erlian is that it's not the most hospitable of towns. It's kind of raw, it's got that wild border-town feeling, ungoverned by any authorities - the hundreds of kilometres of Gobi Desert providing an effective barrier between Beijing and the locals.

    Little boys on the streets of Erlian
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    The filthy streets are more sand than asphalt. Carrier bags do American Beauty dances wherever you look. Taxi drivers circle around in front of the station, hooting their horns to get your attention, even when they're in what could be loosely described as a taxi rank. Half of the shops are empty; those that are occupied have thick plastic curtains hanging from their door frames to keep the dust out, behind which stand owners who don't seem to want to have anything to do with the foreigner and his guide.

    The main street, Erlian

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Eventually we find a little non-descript business, the owner of which speaks a few English words, and is happy to advise. He tells me that I can get a ticket to Ulaanbaatar from his neighbour in the morning, it'll cost 360 yuen (£24) for the 16-hour overnight trip. For the time being though I'll have to stay here. He points at this hotel, a recommendation I accept, its size and prominence reassuring the part of me that is sure that everyone is trying to scam me. I thank him, and turn around to thank my fellow passenger, but he has vanished - his wife had been anxious to get home.

    My train doesn't leave until 6pm tomorrow, although this isn't an issue as I'm sure I'll have plenty of fun in the meantime attempting to change some dollars into Mongolian Tugriks, and trying to find somewhere to send an email to the yurt owners to tell them of my further delay. (I'd experienced a brief flash of joy when I first turned my MacBook on here in the hotel room - there was a wireless network! Unfortunately it turned out to be an internal thing, and is not connected to the www. The hotel receptionist, when I asked her about internet, happily assured me that there was no such thing in this city).

    Right, time for bed.

    Beijing Duck


    Time: Mid-morning, 23rd August 2007
    Location: On the local train heading north towards the Gobi Desert from Jining.
    Thoughts: Hmm, now I understand why the windows are sealed shut - if they weren't the train would turn into a moving sand pit!

    The landscape is pretty flat in these parts. Long thin strips of crops occasionally break the stoney grassland, turning it into a rainbow of greens, yellows and browns. For the most part a line of trees protects the banks of the railway from erosion, and the trains from being tossed from the line in the vicious spring winds (they are not always successful in doing this, as the occupants of a train just like this one discovered a few months back).

    The carriage air is now full of fine particles of dust. It doesn't smell all that good either as the two guys next to me have just taken their shoes off. One of them clears his throat and spits on the floor. I guess he hasn't seen the Beijing Olympics ads on CCTV.

    My Final night in Beijing

    I shall now backtrack, to pick up my story that I left off with with the photos of the Great Wall.

    Once back in Beijing, I decided to explore the old part of town, the network of little alleyways that, as mentioned in a previous blog, house a quarter of the city's population. What a fascinating place! I was mesmorised by the glimpses I got of life the other side of the door frames that marked the entrance to the walled-in communities. Many of these are now protected by preservation orders, as they date back to, erm, a long time ago, and have been victim to modern development projects. Some cunning foreigners (and increasing the locals) have seen these tumbledown grey-bricked shacks as great investment opportunities: they are, after all, in the very heart of Beijing. Subsequently, new cafes with Western menus, ethnic shops of the kind you will see in any Western city and swanky wood-floored Jacuzzi-equipped homes for the elite have sprung up - not a bad thing, as without this money the homes would be reduced to rubble in no time.

    Fruit and veg shop in the Hutong area
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    As evening drew close, so I returned to Ku-san's apartment. Short on cash, I take the subway to the other side of town. I'll still need to get a taxi, but it'll cost considerably less. Once again I am mesmerised by the electronic ads that are displayed on TVs on the tunnel wall. They are programmed to display a perfect sequence of images, adjusted to match the speed of the train as it passes. We stop at a station, and suddenly the carriage is filled with singing. A heavily scarred man has got on the train with a microphone attached to a specially adapted rucksack containing an amp and a speaker where the back pocket usually is - busking, Beijing style. Once home I have a quick shower, and then we're all out into the waiting taxi: it was time for the local speciality, Beijing Duck.

    Go into any supermarket in Beijing and you will be struck by just how many ducks there are. All dead of course, and pre-cooked, in bags. Anyone would the eat duck the way we drink tea; it made me glad I wasn't a duck in China.

    We weren't going to eat in the supermarket though, no, I was being treated to what will probably turn out to be the most delicious meal of this entire trip at one of the capital's top restaurants. The endorsements said it all; alongside the various framed letters of thanks (for a great duck) signed by many ambassadors was one from the King of Morocco, saying he's never tasted a more delicious quacker. The service wasn't bad either - as soon as you walk in you are presented with a bar where you can help yourself to free plum juice, tea, or wine.

    [crikey, this guys feet reaaaaallly stink}

    Watching the ducks being cooked was quite a spectacle. Behind the glass wall, a team of chefs hauled ducks in and out of great flame-powered ovens, now and then dangling them directly over the fires to crisp off their skin. When it came to serving them, the duck was brought out whole on a small trolley, and one of the chef's would carve it up for you, placing the thin slices upon a bed of lettuce. The head, beak and all, was unceremoniously snapped off, and then chopped in half and used as a presentation piece to a single piece of breast meat that was supposedly the most delicious.

    Beijing ducks. As seen in Tokyo, not Beijing due to temporary lack of a camera
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    [Crikey, the train's just speeded up to what I guess to be about 50mp/h. The way it's shaking from side to side I think I'd prefer it stuck to its previous 15mp/h!]

    Accompanying the duck was an assortment of dishes, including venison, some gorgeous bamboo shoots served with crispy seaweed, and a duck soup served in a real hollow orange with its top chopped off. All in all, it was gorgeous, and I felt thoroughly privileged. Ku-san, THANK YOU! It shall not be forgotten!

    I'm really very grateful to Ku-san, not just for the food and bed, but for the friendship that I found to be such a great comfort just a few days after leaving my home. It set me up for this long journey north; just knowing that you are there a few hundred kilometres away is a great comfort.

    2 hours later. The Gobi desert

    It's a captivating landscape. Vast stretches of sandy grassland, punctuated by nothing but the rare gathering of disfigured trees. There's no sign on any agriculture - the ground is just too dry. Any rivers there are do not carry water - they are just channels of dust, devoid of all signs of life. More than once I have mistaken them for dirt roads, roads without traffic. Every thirty minutes or so the train grinds to a halt at a seemingly deserted collection of tumbledown walls and dishevelled slate roofs. Do people really live here? What do they do? How do they survive? The wind removes what top soil there is and replaces it with sand, the rain ...what rain?

    Life on the train continues to bustle. Families left right and centre scoop out the innards of halved watermelons, or munch on ice lollies sold by the staff who walk down the isle with boxes of snacks. Some compartments have a coal stove at the end on which one of the many conductors boils water in a big kettle; he then brings this round to us for our drinks flasks and pot noodles. Several hours into the trip many people are dozing, attempting to comfortable on this narrow plastic coated seats that make your bum sweat. There's a lot of people standing in the corridor, all seats having been sold. With only two trains a day one can't afford to be picky.

    Beijing West station

    This was the scene that greeted me at the incredible Beijing West station a few days back, after I'd said goodbye to Ku-san, his wife and daughter. Initially I'd seen the 'soft class' sleeper section, with its royal blue bed spreads and comfy-looking chairs. "Wow, not bad, not bad at all", I thought, as I headed down the platform to my carriage, the carriage full to bursting, with people leaning out of the windows, huge crowds crammed around the doorways, a granny being lifted up so she could get her foot on the first step into the carriage.

    I told myself that this was far better than the comfort of the Royal Blue beds - this way I get to travel with all the characters, the way that most Chinese go. Entering the carriage, I start looking for my seat - Number 9. Everyone stares at me as I try to make sense of the seat numbers, and then suddenly, some one says in English, "What's your seat number?".

    I turn around and see a Chinese man in his 50's, and next to him his wife. They are smiling; "Your seat number, which it is?"

    Dr. Ci Jun Liu and his wife turned out to be Chinese Canadians. Born and raised in China, Dr Liu studied in Maryland, before him and his family moved to Canada in the 1980s. They were now on their annual trip to China to visit their families, and today they were going to the same place as me, Datong, several hours West of Beijing.

    Dr Liu

    How lucky could I be?! I Took my place by the open window, opposite a smiley young girl and a bossy granny. Naturally, it wasn't long before the folks around my table, and those around the table opposite (including Dr. Liu) became best buddies - we were one big happy family! I watched as the train continued to fill up; little boys dragging hessian sacks; people with mini-luggage trolleys stacked with huge great computer monitors; 5-litre bottles of water, plastic bags full of peaches, bananas and fresh dates from southern China.

    With the train not yet moving, the temperature slowly rose, sweat dripping from my every pore. Seeing this, Dr Liu offered me a drink of a Chinese speciality - hawthorn berry juice, good for preventing heart attacks (and cooling one down on a hot day!). Beethoven's 9th symphony drifted over the intercom; this was later to change to the local folk music of all areas that we passed through. A mixture of coal and tobacco smoke drifted in from the vestibule area where the conductor was stoking the fire to boil the kettle.

    Finally, the journey began. Leaving Beijing, I was struck by how different landscape this was from that that I'd seen from the bullet train from Shanghai. There, floods and swollen rivers were the order of the day - here, between the rocky peaks that rose up beside us, small terraced crops of maize and sunflowers struggled for survival. It was mountainous terrain, with the train passing through over 40 tunnels. At several points we passed huge great power-producing lakes, the result of communist China's first great construction projects in the 1950s. Then came the vineyards, home to the grapes of China's most famous wine, the name of which I forget. (It's a Chinese name in case you're interested..!). The coal-powered power stations were never far away - don't you know, Datong is famous for its coal, being exported as far away as the UK for its unique light-it-with-one-match properties.

    Water-starved disfigured trees now dot the landscape

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I'm handed a delicious peeled pair by a woman across the way - one of this year's new crop. We share sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds, and a few delicacies that I've not come across before.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Dr. Liu translates questions and answers for other passengers until a crowd gathers. It seems that amongst the onlookers is a shy English speaker named Hao Yin, an 18-year-old girl studying business English. He encourages her to talk to me, but she is too shy. In a bid to encourage her, I produce Pepe the penguin, "Talk to him, he doesn't mind if you make mistakes, and he'll tell me what you say". Dr Liu translates for the crowd, and there is much laughter, the girl, despite being a bit embarrassed, can't help but smile herself. This seems to break the ice though, and in broken English she begins to ask me a series of questions.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    As we near our destination, I ask my new friends if they have any recommendations on where to stay in Datong. A couple who until now have been passive participants in our party speak up - yes, they know of a good hotel in one of the less dodgy areas. It just so happens that they are going that way themselves, why don't I take the bus with them?

    Arriving at Datong station, I say my goodbyes to Dr. Liu and co., and follow my new friends onto bus number 4. They insist on paying my fare (7 pence / US 14 cents), and tell me where to get off. I thank them profusely for their help and kindness, and wave goodbye. Everyone oggles out of the window of the bus at the foreigner who can say 'thank you' in Chinese. I wave enthusiastically, raising a laugh or two and prompting a couple of waves in return.

    I felt blessed to have met those people on my first short stretch of the trans-siberian proper. It was a nice ease-in to the world of Chinese local trains. Dr Liu, I thank you for your kindness, and wish you a happy visit to your brother's hometown, and a safe journey home next month.

    The landscape has become increasingly desolate over the past couple of hours of writing. Proper sand is now becoming a prominent feature, not just yellowish grass. The stations, a single building with an antenna and a large satellite dish, are becoming fewer and further between, and it makes one wonder why they have them at all - there's nothing here! I look left, I look right. Nothing. I don't think I've ever seen such an endless horizon on land before; it's just a sea of flat, brownish grass; no hills, no mountains, no nothing but a small power line following the railway.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I'm getting a little peckish now so I think I'll tuck into my over-priced salted soya beans. We must be approaching the border soon, that's if the guidebook is to be believed. I have no timetable to go by, it's just a case of sitting here and waiting. With the train rolling along at speeds like this it'll be wonder if we ever make it!

    Tarra for now.

    Stranded in Jining

  • Time: 06:30, Thursday 23rd of August 2007 (This means nothing to me. Time in the manmade sense lots its relevance last week) (This could be why I keep on missing trains...)

  • Location: 'Characterful' lodgings, city of Jining, 498km north-west of Beijing, China

  • Moments of sheer wowness in last 24 hours: too many to count

  • Feeling: this is what it's all about

  • I wake-up after a fitful five hours sleep here on the ground floor of a hostel type affair that is apparently run by the railway station management. This city, in addition to being an important player in the region's coal industry, is a major railway junction, the last outpost of civilisation before the long haul north into the Eastern fringes of the Gobi desert (inner Mongolia) - a fact confirmed for me by the near-continuous hooting of air-horns by freight trains on the tracks in front of the building. They kept the noise down for about 6 hours, but have once again begun their raucous calls. Anyone would think they are looking for a mate. Other disturbances throughout the night included mosquitos, their high-pitched whine in my ear sending me further under the stiflingly hot thick duvet. With day-time temperatures reaching 34 degrees and nights not being all that much cooler, I am dripping hot, but if it's a case of mozzie bite or sweat, I'll go for the sweat. There's plenty of them in the room, although all but one are dead, making up the for the plainness by providing colourful red splodges on the whitewashed walls. I've been horrified by the amount of blood that comes out of them, especially when they die on my white MacBook keyboard's 'Ctrl' key - I hadn't even seen the blighter; it was basically a case of unfortunate timing on his part.

    Couriers outside Jining Station

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    Another disturbance last night was the owner of this 3-storey block of rooms. It must have been about 3am when the shouting started. Every 10 seconds or so a man (who I assume to be the same old feller who has dealt with my stay here up until now) let out a bark from the reception room neighbouring my private dorm. It was quite bizarre. There were no other sounds to indicate the presence of others, just this solitary voice, shouting in what sounded like anger.

    I was pretty surprised to find that he was actually the owner. Arriving in this desolate little town (has a small-town feel despite the population of 1 million) at 5pm yesterday, I emerged from the front of the station and had a look for the ticket office - they're nearly always housed in a separate building to the side of the main block. Seeing some chinese characters that seemed to be suggesting tickets, I head over to a little 1-storey hut: I am greeted by a group of old men, perhaps in their 60s, their skin a dark brown from endless hours in the unforgiving sun, their clothes torn, cigarettes hanging from their lips. One in particular seems interested in my fate. I repeat the name of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar; there is a shaking of heads and a babble of Chinese. He makes the gesture of sleeping, and points down the road to what I assume is a hotel he has a personal interest in introducing me to - it seems there are no more trains today, and I must stay in this dusty city, about which nothing is written in my guide book. I am not convinced, and I do not want to believe him. After all, this is a major rail junction, surely there must be more trains. And why should I believe this old guy? - I should ask some uniformed station staff.

    The ticket office staff have been looking on smiling at the foreigner, as has the remainder of the local population it seems. I find the transport section of my phrasebook, tell them I want to go to Ulaanbaatar, or at least the border city of Erlian: when is the next train? We find the time section, and he points to the "Tomorrow. 10.30am". A wave of dismay washes over me, I have over 1000km to travel by the following night in order to reach my Yurt - at this rate I will never make it on time. OK, OK, so I can't travel today, but for tomorrow's train, where can I buy the tickets? He points at the old guy on the street, the one who had been badgering me to stay in his hotel. I raise my eyebrows, "really?!". He says "Yes, OK", and leaves it at that. Well, if the station staff tell me he's to be trusted, I suppose I'd best give him a second chance.

    He beckons me to follow him. Rucksack of valuables firmly strapped to my front I stay a couple of steps behind him as we make our way down the deserted alleyway next to the railway line, until he points out a sign with Chinese characters I can read - "accommodation". It looks pretty clean, and I am pleasantly surprised by my room with its tall ceiling, huge TV and clean white beds. He gives me a tour. These are the beds, I can have them both. This is the table. And look, here you have your own bathroom. I follow him one step into the windowless hole, and am struck by the stench of urine. There a shower head attached to the wall, a washing machine stacked with dirty linen, a toilet with no water in and a sink that has come dislodged from the wall; it balances precariously on its stand.

    He tells me that the ticket to the border town of Erlian, 350km to the north, will cost £1.40 (US$2.80). If I give him the money, he'll go and buy it for me. Oh, and the room - that's £7 for the night. A little steep I think, but I don't have much choice, and he has been very kind as to persevere with making the foreigner understand what's going on. Soon after he has left a woman in a flowery dress enters the room with a huge red thermos flask of hot water and a paper cup. I thank her, remove the cork stopper and make myself a cup of tea with the leaves I was given following my £45 mishap in Shanghai.

    Sitting back on my bed, I flick through the TV channels. It seems somewhat in character that the buttons on the remote control do the opposite of their intended function" volume up is volume down, channel up channel down. There's not that much on in any case, just the endless TV dramas from Hong Kong, badly dubbed into mandarin. I tell you, my rating of Japanese TV has gone up considerably since I came here. The most popular program (which appears to have 2 channels devoted to it, 24 hours a day), is one featuring a man dressed up as a monkey, who, with his friend in the pig mask, has all sorts of amazing magical adventures courtesy of some TV technician who clearly loves to play with (very cheap) special-effects software.

    The other thing that catches my eye is the endless broadcasting of adverts centered around the Beijing Olympics. Talk about a lesson in manners! The government has enrolled the services of some major celebrities to smile at people who they see doing good deeds for one another. A tricyclist is unwittingly about to lose his load of cardboard boxes - a young woman rushes over and saves the day, whilst Mr celebrity looks on, smiling and nodding as if to say "Now there's a good girl". Variations of the scene are replayed again and again: a lift door closes just as someone is about to get on - one of the people inside press the open-door button. A driver is about to reverse into a moped when a young girl steps in and bangs on the rear window. A worker leans back too far in his chair which starts to topple over - he is saved by a passer-by. Whilst these adverts may be a bit cringeable and cheesy, I like them a lot, and think that Japan should replace its entire TV schedule with them for a whole year.

    It's then that I spot the large nude portrait on the windowsill behind the curtain. A Chinese woman stands clutching a Tea Pot. It's nice I think, although a bit of an odd choice for a room in a guest-house, especially considering how realistic it is. Moving it to one side I can't help but laugh at what I find: a half-used toilet roll. Ah, that's why it's here... How thoughtful of the management!

    As I sit there, I think back on all the people I've met since I left Beijing 30 hours previously. I marvel at the fortune I've had in this place where I only speak two words of the language, and the locals only two words of mine ("Hello" and "Bye Bye").

    Following a few cups of tea, I debate what to do with myself. It's still early, and I could either catch up on some badly-need sleep, or go out and explore this strange foreign place. I opt for the latter, and repack my bags so that I can carry all my valuables in a single rucksack, leaving the other one in the room. Using my best Mandarin (painstaking read out of my phrasebook), I tell the owner "I feel like going for a walk", and using sign language ask him to lock my door for me. He obliges, and off I trot into the unknown.

    Where to go? I really know nothing about this place; I'll just follow the crowds. Wandering across the big square in front of the station, I notice how not a single person fails to stare at me. I smile back, call out "Ni-hao!" followed by a "Hello!". The old people grin wildly, the middle aged reply with a greeting of their own, the young girls giggle and hide behind each other. It's not long at all before I meet an English speaker - an 18-year-old boy with spikey hair and a beginner's moustache, "Hi! Where are you from?" he asks in an American accent.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    We start to chat, until I realise that we're actually standing in the middle of the road with maniac taxis approaching. Moving over to the street corner we continue our conversation. A crowd gathers, all fascinated by this foreigner in their city. A little girl in a pretty denim dress stares wide-eyed at me. Perhaps she'll like my penguin, I think, and reach into my rucksack to extract Pepe. She lest out a squeal of delight and says thank you. I quickly ask my new English-speaking friend, Wang Xin (English name Tom) to tell her that I'm sorry, it's not a present, as the penguin needs to go to England. She isn't too disappointed, and loves the photo I take of the two of them.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It turns out that Tom is a self-taught English speaker. Text books and films have been his tools, which explains his accent. I tell him I've just arrived in the city and I'm wondering where I should go - does he have any suggestions? He asks me if I've been to Tiger Hill? No, what's that? Let me show you! And so the two of us begin our exploration of the city that is to last several hours.

    He's a great guide, and chatters away telling me this and that. He's never been outside of China, indeed has never been far from this city, but has international ambitions, and an enthusiasm that will surely lead him to success. After 15 minutes or so, the endless straight, flat boulevards come to an abrupt stop and a huge hill rises vertically in front of us. It appears to be some kind of park, and at is entrance two huge tigers pose for photos.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Why the tigers? "A long time ago there were too many tigers here. They're all gone now" he tells me. We climb the steps to the plateau above - it offers a spectacular view of this industrial city, red roofs of the workers' houses stretching off into the distance where coal-furnace chimneys prick the horizon. He tells me it's a beautiful site. I think to myself that yes, it is, in a kind of desolate way. He points out the flowerbed in front of us, "I love flowers! I love green too!". I can't help but feel a little sad that in this dirty, polluted city, the little flowerbed atop the hill of rock is about as much of nature as one is going to see. Using my zoom lens, I capture a street scene: an icon of so many streets that I have seen of late.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    We sit down under a beautiful little pavillion, its detailed paintwork outshining all around it. We talk about family. Brothers, sisters, jobs. "Is your father a happy father?" he asks. I tell him that yes, he is ...he is happy for me; "but my father is not a happy father. He is always tired and shouts at my mother, but she is tired too from working all day. I like my uncle - he works in a university in Beijing!"

    The city of Jining
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    "You smoke?" "No, thanks" I tell him, declining his cigarette. "I know smoking's bad for me, but, but, well, I just love it!"

    "Have you eaten?" I ask, feeling a little peckish. "No, you want to eat? Great, let's eat, come on, this way!". We descend from the plateau into the dirty streets below. He unlocks his bicyle and head for a really great Chinese fast food restaurant. Stay there, I'll do everything for you, he tells me as he leaves our table and heads off to the buffet. I can't help but remain a little suspicious, I've been told to trust no-one, and even after several hours with Tom I remain a little uneasy. I watch as he fills the kettle with tea. I'll wait for him to drink first in case there's something in it. I feel bad for thinking like this, ...but I'd kick myself if anything happened.

    The noodles are good. I'm not sure about the reconstituted meat and so put that to one side, hiding it under the soup. We chat away, the centre of attention in the restaurant, until the elderly man with but a wee strand of hair in the centre of his head, skillfully arranged to cover as much of his scalp as possible, leans over and starts talking to Tom. For once, it's not me that's being talked about. It's Tom. "You know, you are a great student" he tells him. "What you are doing is really fantastic, well done. Tell the foreigner that he is very lucky". I respond by seconding this opinion, and then raising my cup of tea against the old man's hip-flask in a gesture of friendship and a toast to Tom.

    When we leave, Tom tells me not to worry about the bill; he's already paid. I protest strongly, but he does not want my money. Is there anything I can do for you? I ask. No, I don't think so. Oh, unless you have any dollar bills. I've always wanted a dollar bill! Hmm, maybe I do, I tell him as I open my wallet. I pull out a few 1$ notes, and am only too happy to give them to him. He is delighted - I tell him to save them for his trip to America which I am sure he will make one day.

    We wander back to the station, past a middle-of-the-mainroad clothes market and a group of gypsies playing some folk music (I pause to take a photo, and then watch with dismay as the crowd around the musicians becomes a crowd around me!), until it's time to say goodbye. I thank Tom whole-heartedly for his kindness, and head back down the alleyway to my bed.

    Once inside I knock on the owner's door - can he unlock my room please. With more amusement than horror I watch as he goes to the entrance of the building, and pulls out a huge keyring from under a pillow lying on the bed next to the door. My one little rucksack of clothes is till in the cabinet under the TV - finally I can relax. Or so I thought. Seconds later the owner is back again. He sits down on my bed next to me, offers me a cigarette, is surprised when I decline and then lights up his own. I guess I can't really object... He then starts to talk to me, in Chinese of course, and I understand nothing. He writes down some kanji characters, but they are not ones shared with Japanese and I am clueless. I count the strokes used to write them and search through my phrasebook's dictionary. No joy. Eventually, he gives up trying to communicate whatever it was he wanted to say, and I am left in relative peace. Just the trains calling to each other.

    I had wanted to write about my trip on the train that day, but I am exhausted. Killing what I thought were the last two mosquitoes, I settle down to sleep.

    It's now 11am. I have left Jining and am now on a local train heading north. We're just heading out of the suberbs - endless orange-brisked houses, stretching off into the distance. Between them and us is a constant pile of rubble, mixed up with rubbish. The pollution along the railway has to be seen to be believed, yet still cows are grazed next to the tracks, the solitary herder standing on the bank above; children scramble about in the remains of tumbledown houses, motorbikes converted into mini-farm vehicles putt-putt by. When I see these scenes I am reminded of the Mexico that I have seen in the films, or one of those rapidly expanding African cities that are heaving at the seams with new immigrants.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Perhaps the air is fresher outside than it was in the centre of the city where the smell was such that it encouraged one to refrain from breathing. I can't tell, as the windows on this train are jammed shut. Cigarette smoke aside, the atmosphere isn't all that bad. A row of fans attached to the ceiling like in some old-fashioned Tokyo trains keeping us cool.

    As mentioned above, it was an early start this morning, up with the trains' morning calls. This wasn't a problem though as I wanted to write. However, an hour or so later my peace was disturbed by a knock on the door. I was actually on the loo at the time, and had a feeling that that might happen. Then someone called out in English, "hey, it's me!" Of course there was only one person I knew in this town who spoke English, and that was Tom. "I'm on the toilet!!" I called back, hoping that the owner didn't unlock my door and let him in as I was mid-poo and had left the bathroom door open to let the light in. Thankfully, he understood, and waited.

    "i came to say good morning, and bring you your breakfast!" he say with a look of delight on his face. What a nice surprise! I set about carefully transferring the (liquid) tea - which for some reason was in a plastic bag - into my paper cup, and tucked into the pastry-wrapped meat concoctions, which I must say were delicious. "Ok, so what you wanna do now?" he said in his best American accent. I explained that I was just writing my story, and would like to finish it before going out, if that's ok. He was fine with that, adding his spit to the ash on the floor left by the hostel manager the night before, saying he needed to wash his hair and brush his teeth in any case - he'd come back in an hour.

    Looking at my trans-siberian guide book, I realised that I was gonna have a job getting to Ulaanbaatar by nightfall: I needed to contact the yurt owners. Tom kindly offered to take me to an internet cafe where I was able to delete my spam and send the necessary mail, before heading back to the railway station to catch this train.

    Tom was clearly upset that our time was up. It had been fun, and I could tell that he desperately wanted to get on the train with me and travel to foreign lands where he could use his English every day. I'd given him my map to Shanghai - he'd not been there before, but had heard stories of the buildings that disappeared in the clouds they were that tall - and encouraged him to believe in his dreams of travel and having many international friends. I was sure he could achieve whatever he wanted with the passion he had within him. Just before I boarded the train I picked up some food and drink for the long trip. When I asked how much, an argument developed between Tom and the Owner. It seemed I was being ripped off, being charged 98p instead of 70p for my four bottles of ice tea, bag of salted soya beans and pot noodle. I paid the 98p in any case, I'd have been willing to pay more for the fluid that is going to be so vital as we head into the desert.

    Tom was mightily pissed though, "It's just not fair!" When I told him I paid 100 yuen (£7) for the room for the night he was shocked - half that would have sufficed. A small part of me feels a bit peeved at this injustice, but the rest of me says it's only right, seeing what his country has done for me - like make this MacBook.

    We waved goodbye at the ticket barrier, although this was not to be the last I'd see of him! Just as the train was about to depart he appeared down the corridor, struggling through the masses of hessian sacks, rucksacks, futons and suitcases and clutching a bag of apples - for me! I was really touched by that gesture. It, along with everything else he had done for me (despite my initial suspicions) had been entirely selfless acts of generosity. Perhaps this was why I had missed the only trans-border train the day before, which had forced me to stay in what I initially thought would be a dull town with little to offer.

    Tom's attitude towards me is actually fairly representative of the majority of the people I've met and had any interaction with - I'll tell you about the other characters in posts to come.

    For now though, I'm going to gaze out of the window at the arid landscape before us, and wonder if this train will ever break the 15mph speed limit.

    Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go...

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    The Forbidden City and Great Wall of China

    With just two days in Beijing before my journey continued West, I was up early Sunday to go and meet the Emperor for tea in the Forbidden City. Having seen the film The last Emperor, I was pretty sure I'd recognise him when I saw him. I mean, judging by that film there weren't all that many people in the place - and how many little boys with pony tales do you usually see when you're out and about?

    What I was forgetting is that this 15th century palace has over 9000 rooms within 800 buildings, and that we were now in the 21st century, era of the Chinese tourist big stylee.

    forbidden city 02

    forbidden city 12

    a section of the Forbidden City, from above
    forbidden city from above 06

    I won't dwell long on describing the city, as I'm more inclined to spend time on describing what this trip is meaning for me, and the characters I meet, rather than being a travel guide. Have a look at Wiki if you would like to learn more about its history. To summarise though:

  • it's big.

  • It's got some really beautiful architecture and paintwork

  • It's constantly under renovation

  • It's well worth a visit, despite the fact that Roger Moore no longer does the English Audio Guide.

  • Here's a video summary of my visit:

    The city consists of inner and outer areas - each collection of buildings being separated from the next by these huge walls.
    forbidden city 31

    Exquisite paintwork
    forbidden city 09

    I was threatened with arrest by this Imperial Guard unless I took a photo of him with the legendary Pepe the Penguin
    pepe forbidden city 05

    And that, ladies and gentleman, was the forbidden city. Incidentally, don't be put off buying a ticket if there's large crowds outside the gates, as once inside there's so much space you can happily wander around without having your toes stepped on.

    In the afternoon, following a brief visit to Tiananmen Square (it's a big square with a communist flag in the middle. No sign of any tanks though), I decided to be daring and go and buy a train ticket. The guide book warns about buying tickets at Beijing station, as the queues go on for days, and once you do get to the counter you probably won't be understood in any case. Thankfully there's a VIP ticket office upstairs, entry by lots of cash or by scaring the security guard through the use of English.

    This office was absolutely HUGE. A cavernous (almost desrted) hall, the ceiling rising some 10 metres from the floor, over 30 ticket windows - all closed except for one. I took my place in line and waited patiently behind a chap who was buying an enormous number of tickets. The ticket-selling procedure seemed to be one of immense complexity, involving heated debates between clerk and customer, debates behind the glass, the recounting of bank notes time and time again and ultimately the involvement of about five other passengers who used the opportunity to barge in front of me, to secure a better position for partaking in the debate. I resigned myself to a long wait and decided to enjoy the spectacle, as several other men then persuaded the middle-aged women that their case was urgent. Staring at people in the back of the head doesn't seem to work here, so I decided to use a more Chinese technique to preserve my place in line: no, not kung-fu, just the ancient zen practice of applying an elbow to the opponent's ribs.

    Once at the counter I presented my prepared written script, "One hard-class ticket to Datong on 2007/08/21 at 07:45" - all Chinese characters painstakingly copied from my phrasebook. The woman looked at me as if I'd written "Do you know why cornflakes are so crispy?", and then beckoned another member of staff who I'd noticed had been eyeing me suspiciously for some time. It seemed that this other woman could speak English. I was waved off to another window, where I was to wait for the English speaker.

    After another 15 mins of standing there, watching the summoned linguist behind the glass dodging my looks, a second window finally opened. It turned out that she actually spoke pretty good English, but was too embarrassed to use it. And I'm not surprised, because as soon as she said "where you go to?" her colleagues all stopped what they were doing, looked at her and burst out laughing - as did the customers in the other queue!

    I handed her the same piece of paper with the Chinese instructions written on it. She read it, printed out my ticket and took my money, occasionally whispering "please" and "thank you" as quietly as possible so as not to be heard by anyone else.I complemented her on her excellent English, and finally left, saying goodbye to everyone who had been so kind as to say harro to me.

    Lesson: if you want to buy a ticket in Beijing, make sure you do it at least a day in advance!

    That evening Ku-san and his wife very kindly treated me to a delicious meal at a very nice restaurant. It was just a shame that it was a bit rushed due to my post-ticket-buying inability to persuade a taxi driver to take me home, and an appointment I had to star in an acrobatic show as a member of the audience that evening at 7.15pm.

    Flying through the air
    chinese acrobatics02

    These girls are supporting their body weight by clamping their teach around these lolly-pop ended 'branches'!
    chinese acrobatics07

    When not to pull the chair out behind someone about to sit down
    chinese acrobatics09

    Balancing head-on-head whilst plate spinning. Perhaps they don't wash their hair for days to make it extra sticky...
    chinese acrobatics16

    When not to get a puncture
    chinese acrobatics16

    That acrobatics show was absolutely amazing. Really impressive, if a little painful to watch at times. Some of the ways they bent their bodies... not natural... Mind you, it did inspire me though, inspired me to look after my body a bit more. Watch out for pics of me in my leotard in the months to come.

    The following morning I was up exceedingly early to take a bus to the Great Wall - about an hour outside Beijing.

    As with the Forbidden City, I won't describe this is detail at present - instead I have a little video - apologies to mum and dad on their dial-up connection!

    The crowds
    great wall crowds 03

    The vendors
    great wall crowds 05

    The Cheat
    great wall crowds 18

    The cute little girls
    great wall girls02

    Off the tourist trail - the tranquility
    great wall quiet 27

    great wall quiet 41

    great wall quiet 43

    great wall quiet 12

    No great wall would be complete without its camel
    great wall camel

    A sad little grizzly in the Great Wall pit
    great wall bears 08

    Well, I must be off. I have another ticket to buy - this one for Monglia. I'll tell you more about my last day in Beijing next time I have an internet connection.

    Love, joseph xxx

    Arrival in Beijing

    It was dark by the time I pulled in at Beijing Station. What a madhouse that place is! Image a tin of sardines, then take away the oil, turn the sardines into people, multiply them by 4,785 and add a string of fairy lights - then you've got Beijing Station.

    station 14-Beijing104

    I'd been given the address of a very kind friend of John John and the Nakamuras', Ku-san, who's working in Beijing for Sony's gaming arm. Selling computer games in China isn't all that easy - something to do with the fact that gaming is illegal here.

    That's one thing I wanted to find out during my time here - does the communist government control really impact upon one's daily life? It seems the answer is yes and no, although more the latter. Ok, so one is not allowed to have prostitutes in one's hotel room (darn!) or carry guns, explosives or knives onto the subway (I'm afraid I broke that law due to the presence of a swiss army knife in my rucksack), but other than that, it seems pretty free. The main restrictions appear to be on entertainment, although this too is gradually being relaxed with more and more late night bars opening and so forth.

    To be honest, I'd say that China is a lot freer than the country I have just come from. This struck me pretty forcefully on the train today - it was a 6 hour trip on a local service to Datong from where I now type. There were 12 of us in this little section of the carriage. We were made up of 5 completely separate groups, that is we'd never met before, yet within 15 mins following our departure, we were all getting along as if we were going on a big family outing together. I'll leave that tale here for now; I just want to compare that to a trip on a train in Japan, or even to a certain extent the UK, where people would never usually end up swapping seats around all the time to ensure that everyone had a chance to talk to everyone else, peeling fruit for each other and taking the piss out of each other's unwillingness to talk. Whilst living in a (Japanese) society where everyone keeps themselves to themselves can make for an easy life, it also makes it a lot more dull!

    Japan is great at cultural borrowing - let's hope it considers borrowing a looser straight jacket in the years to come.

    Anyhow, so there I am standing outside Beijing station on Saturday night, surrounded by revelers young and old who look like they're camping out for a live gig in front of the ticket office (never figured that one out), wondering where to get a taxi from. Yes, there is a taxi rank, but have you seen the length of the queue? There's also the hawkers - "Hello taxi?" - charging at least double the meter rate. I consider taking one of them, as double the meter rate is not exactly a lot of money. The minimum fare is 10 yuen - that's about 70p / US$1.40, and that will get you a long way. Mind you, if you have a destination reachable by subway that'll cost you even less - 3 yuen / 21p / 42 cents, choose the bus and you'll have to fork out all of 1 yuen / 7p / 14 cents / 15 JPY. This kind of pricing extends to other stuff too. Half a litre of mineral water? 2 yuen / 14p / 28 cents. When I bought an ice lolly the other day I was determined to not pay foreigner rates (some naughty shops do secretly have them) and thus only handed over two 1 yuen notes (I guessed that was the standard price) - 1 yuen notes being the smallest notes in circulation, or so I thought until I was handed a 50 cents note (that's 3.5p / 7 US cents) as change! 10p for an ice lolly! Felt just like the good old days!

    Mind you, that gulf between rich and poor of which I spoke the other day is only too visible in shop prices too. Go to a Western coffee shop here and a latte will cost you the same as 8 litres of water on the street. In order to be able to give the illegal taxi driver in exact change what I intended to pay to get home on Sunday (25yuen / £3.50) I thought I'd go and change my 100yuen note, and so bought a cold drink in some chain cafe. Walking out, I realised that I had just paid 30 yuen to break the note - that is, I'd paid more for the drink than the journey itself was going to cost! It was my subconscious association between 'taxi' and 'costs-a-lot-of-money' that led me to make that mistake. The differing areas of Beijing cater for very different tastes; the tiny alleyways to the north of the Forbidden City are something straight out of a film set in the 1940s - they don't even have toilets - but take a cab 10 minutes South East and you'll find yourself in a department store that looks no different from Mitsukoshi (a high class chain in Japan). Naturally, almost all cities have these kinds of contrasts, but until now I've not seen them taken to such an extreme.

    Incidentally, prices are on the rise in Beijing due to the Olympics. Hotel rates will rise to 3 or 4 times the norm. Landlords are only offering the locals short-term renewal contracts, as they intend to rent their apartments out at astronomical prices next summer to loaded foreigners. The Beijing of the Olympics will be a pretty different place from the beijing of today.

    One of the many hundreds of 'Hutong' - little alleyways, home to a quarter of Beijing's residents
    beijing hutong 50

    Anyhow, back at the station I eventually managed to locate a second taxi rank a little further down the road, and after a few failed attempts at being accepted as a fare (they said they didn't know the place I wanted to go to, even though I'd written it in Chinese), settled into the front seat of a cab, and off we went.

    Crikey oh riley, what a journey! You know those computer racing games that are set on busy roads? Well, this was one of them, only real. The driver was a complete maniac (although as I was to find out, you have to be a maniac rally to survive on the road in Beijing). There seems to be no set system for the use of lanes; the fast lane is the slow lane and the slow lane the fast lane, all depending on the mood of the driver. This results in the most crazy weaving in and out of traffic at high speed you've ever seen! Amber traffic lights are the sign to speed up, and the horn is only to be not used when there's no-one around to hear it, which in Beijing equates to never. The number of cyclists and pedicabs (converted motorbikes like the one shown below) is pretty impressive too - as is the relative lack of accidents at night considering the complete lack of bicycle lights in the city.

    Mum, don't ever hire a car in Beijing. If Hereford traffic stresses you out, well, just best not to come here. Or of you do, ask to be blindfolded before stepping into a vehicle.

    3 wheeler 03

    In a bid to stave off the heart attack, I decided to admire the scenery, like the huge great 1980s neon rainbow that loops over one of the cities main thoroughfares. Beijing, like the rest of the China that I've seen so far, is under construction. Everywhere you look a skyscraper is rising. The architecture is often spectacular, with some buildings (such as the State-run China TV building, known as the 'trouser legs' as it will look like a pair of trousers when completed) defying gravity with crazy angles and illusive supports. Then there's the Olympic venues. I've not been to the main site, but I have seen several sub-sites. Will they get it all done in time? Probably. The thing that I'm more intrigued by is how they are going to enable Olympic visitors to communicate with the taxi drivers - not one of the many I've met over the past few days has spoken a word of English. Then there's public manners: the not waiting for people to get off the subway before forcing ones way on, the spitting, the refusing to walk on an escalator even if in a hurry (preventing others from walking), the not-quite-getting the queue thing. They do queue, but when the bus turns up or the shop opens, it becomes one big mosh pit.

    The thing is though, I'm actually quite liking this. It makes such a change from hum-drum conformity. Here people are pouring their energy into doing their thing, and not caring what other people think (or which lane they're in!). I'm actually finding the staring and random shouts of 'Harro!' from across the street quite amusing now, and always shout back or wave wildly. I'd be interested to talk to my fellow School of East Asian Studies students on their return from China - what did they make of this treatment, and how do they feel after a year of it (somewhat neglected once back in the north of England I should think!).

    After 20 minutes or so we arrive at Ku san's apartment - a fairly new development of 30-storey skyscrapers encircling a big lawn on which dog owners tie their poodles to trees and command them to poo. The place is immaculately clean, and the black-capped staff, both at the outer gate and inner the reception are very friendly. I present Ku san's address, and one of the boys dials him up on the intercom. I'm told to come on up, and led through a security door to the elevator, both of which require an IC card to operate.

    Ku san and his family greet me - I recognise his face from John John's photos - and warmly welcome me into their 19th floor apartment. Talk about Wow! This place was lovely, beating any high-class hotel any day. I was given the futon in the guest room; boy was it good to be back on the floor! After bringing one another up to speed on how we'd met JJ etc, it was bedtime. It had been a mightily long day, and I was well and truly knacked!

    The children were not convinced by mum and dad's 'fun' idea to get dressed up in national costume...
    traditional chinese costume 06

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    Bullet Train from Shanghai to Beijing


    Location: Car 1, seat 53 of bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, 3 hours into a 10 hour 800+ mile train ride north. Currently somewhere north of Nanjing.
    Number of times the chap next to me has fallen asleep on my shoulder: 1 (has been asleep in that position since)

    My first impression of China outside of Shanghai is it's very wet, at least in this region. The landscape has been pretty consistent in offering up small paddy fields, swamp land and miniature fields of maize. It resembles the flatter areas of rural England, indeed at times the only thing suggesting otherwise is the sound of spoken Chinese coming from my fellow passengers, and the policeman who keeps on coming in and shouting at us. Everyone seems to ignore him though so I guess he's just trying to make work for himself. Here and there are little brick farmhouses with higgledy-piggledy slate roofs, glassless windows and tumbledown outhouses. Were it not for the washing hanging outside the front doors you'd think they were deserted. Occasionally a bamboo-hatted farmer can be seen on his mini-tractor, his wife riding in the back, but other than that, it's a landscape devoid of human movement.

    The urban districts are made up of what look like 1960s apartment blocks, although the larger cities, such as Nanjing, are seeing great redevelopment projects, with whole sections of the city becoming populated by new estates; row upon row of identical concrete boxes. Trees seem to form a key part of the development plan, as all new roads are lined with green lollipops, even in rural areas. It's good to see that solar panels are popular too, with even the oldest of houses having one perched on the roof. It makes you wonder why we haven't cottoned on in the West!

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 21

    2 hours later

    I'm starting to think that the only thing anyone eats in this country is sweetcorn. The past couple of hours have seen us pass by nothing but vast maize fields. Remember that we're travelling at about 150km/h, so that's a lot of maize! There's a lot more life in this area too. This upgraded railway track frequently passes over little unpaved roads, many of which have quite a few three-wheeled covered bike carriages on them. They've clearly had torrential rain recently as the rivers are full to bursting, and virtually every underpass is flooded.

    A temple rises above the endless fields of maize

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 27

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 19

    Occasionally we shoot over an underpass that has become impassable, and groups of locals stand looking on, debating whether their motors will make it through the water. Big roads are few and far between, but when they do show up they are ridiculously wide and almost deserted, save for a few of the same 3-wheelers, built for a deluge of traffic that failed to show up. I've not seen a car for a long time. There's an impressive number of people working on the railway; dressed in orange cotton tops and wearing bamboo hats, carrying picks and shovels, they look on as the bullet train speeds by. Passenger trains are a rare sight - the majority of traffics is freight, taking the form of impossibly long chains of wagons.

    Incidentally, the speed at which we are travelling, and the electric wires overhead make photography a little impractical, which is a great shame. This is a China that I would dearly love to explore by bicycle. I want to stop and take photographs of the little red brick houses with their communist slogans and faded flags, the young boys playing in the pond, the old men pulling carts stacked high with rough planks of wood, the convoys of mini tractors and trailers, the old bamboo-hatted women weeding between rows of beans. The bright beach umbrellas found at regular intervals along the road which runs parallel to the railway line. Underneath them a cart, stacked with what I assume to be drinks and snacks. The little stone-walled communities, half in ruin, half occupied. The goat herders keeping their herds moving.

    I've been thinking recently that I would actually like to do this trip by bicycle, from England to Japan. I'm not yet at the stage to set a date, rather, I'm more at the stage where I'm thinking that I must get back on my bike, even if it's just to explore the peak district.

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 31

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 35

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 07

    An Hour Later

    All it took was one river for the landscape to make a dramatic change. Suddenly, rocky mountains rose up from what had been an endless plain, and I felt like I was back in Greece. There's still the scattered walled communities and the laundry, but the vast fields of maize are gone - the crop is now confined to mini-terraces ion the foothills.

    trainview - shanghai to beijing 23

    Crikey, my bum really hurts.

    Been on this train for just over eight hours now. Two more to go before I arrive at Beijing (I'm glad I bought that extra MacBook battery!) The more I see out of the window, the more I want to explore. I love these little clay-brick communities, and want to get closer.

    When I arrive at Beijing I'll get a taxi to the home of a friend of John John's, whom I was introduced to last month via email by our mutual friend, Shinji. He has very kindly offered to let me stay at his apartment which I'm very grateful for. It'll be nice to plug back into my network.

    Boy oh boy will I be glad to get my bum off this seat!


    trainview - shanghai to beijing 28

    Shanghai - Day 2

    Day two was another scorcher. I set off fairly early to YuYuan Gardens, located just a few blocks West of the hostel. Dating back to the 1600s, these Ming Dynasty gardens contain over 30 halls and pavilions, as well as a huge rockery that forms a labyrinth of tunnels and caves. It was whilst sitting in one of the many mini-courtyards that I suddenly heard my name being called - it was one of my Japanese friends from the boat! Turned out that there was a whole crowd of them there, all almost as delighted to see me as I was them. For the remainder of my time in the gardens I could relax in an environment within which I was happy - speaking Japanese, knowing instinctively how to relate to those around me. It was then that I enjoyed my second tea ceremony (see, just thinking about them leads me to adopt Japanese styles of speech!), this one was free, and unlike last time I managed to leave without a little pottery pig that did a wee when hot water was poured on it...

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    This image is a crop of a photo I took within YuYuan Gardens. This woman deliberately waited until I was about to press the shutter before sticking her finger up her nose!

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Leaving the gardens I strolled around the mightily impressive recreation of a Ming Dynasty shopping mall, complete with Ye Oldey Ancienty Starbucks.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    In the afternoon, following a visit to the local market (I think they had at least one of everything Made In China there!) I decided to visit the new financial sector, with its 88-storey Jinmao Tower, and the soon-to-be complete 91 storey World Financial Centre. You may have heard of the latter, as just a few days ago a fire broke out inside it, the superficial effects of which were clear to see.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    In order to get a clear idea of the extent to which Shanghai is changing, I decided to cough up the 60 yuen (£4) entrance fee and take the 9-metre-per-second Mitsubishi elevator the top. That was pretty impressive, catapulting us to the viewing platform on the top floor in no time. I must say, it was well worth the entrance fee. The view was absolutely spectacular. One of the most impressive things was the surrounding skyscrapers - they looked like little midgets from our top floor platform. It was like flying!

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    From our vantage point, we could also clearly see the construction workers on the very top of the Financial Centre. OK, so they did have safety harnesses on, but none the less, just watching them go about their jobs made me feel weak at the knees.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Another impressive sight from up there was that down the centre of the building to the hotel lobby 30 floors below. It made me think of the Matrix, or the big assembly hall in Star Wars.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    After all that sightseeing, I finally felt like it was time for home. Thus it was with a sense of fulfilment that I returned to the hostel, and began to write.

    That evening, a new guest checked into our 4-person dorm. I picked up on his accent immediately - he was Japanese. We were both happy to find someone who spoke our language: I wasn't the only one feeling somewhat shocked by the full-on nature of the Westerners that filled the place!

    A couple of beers and a lot of chat later, it was time for bed. My two days in Shanghai had come to an end, and I had to be up early in the morning for an all-day trip to Beijing.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    Shanghai - Day 1

    It seems TameGoesWild has been deemed unsuitable for The People: I can't access anything on the TameGoesWild network! I wonder whether I should be proud of this fact or just annoyed! Must be the references to horses. Hurrah for a Blogger interface I say! Once again, apologies if the images don't display correctly; I have no way of checking.


    Location: Sitting at the IKEA desk in my IKEA dormitory, International Youth Hostel Shanghai
    Distance Travelled: Many miles of Shanghai's roads since I arrived yesterday morning
    Number of times I've been asked if I'd like buy a cheap Rolex Watch: 34,898
    Number of tea ceremonies: 2 (1 was free, the other one was, er, definitely not)
    Photos taken: 650 (after copious deletions)

    Arrival in Shanghai

    The sunrise yesterday morning was absolutely superb. Due to the fact that we'd been travelling due east, it was considerably later than the previous day - something I hadn't considered when setting my alarm! In the end, it was only after we'd entered the absolutely huge harbour (seems to extend for miles out into the East China Sea) that it showed up, putting on a spectacular show for us in collaboration with the cargo cranes.

    (please could someone email me if this image is too big for the page! Thanks)




    Shanghai glows on the Wester Horizon


    It was really interesting entering Shanghai - it took about an hour to reach the dock from the outer wall. First, there was the 'offshore' container port. Row upon row of enourmous cranes, servicing some of the biggest ships you've ever seen.


    As the dirty brown channel began to narrow to take on a river-like appearance, so activity seemed to increase. (It was at this point that I shot the video below, which I posted to TDM yesterday)

    It was amazing watching the place come alive. Passing by the stinking gas works and clanking cargo cranes, smaller boats began to appear mid-stream; moored together in little communities their occupants just waking up. Brushing their teeth, hanging their clothes out, walking around on deck in their underpants; it struck me as being all very homely, especially with the appearance of potted plants on the roof.

    ;img src="" width="400" alt="shanghai_port_029" />

    Mid-stream community


    Morning teeth brush


    Washing Day


    Just as I was starting to think that we'd never reach our final destination, a huge welcoming gateway appeared in the form of a dramatic suspension bridge across the river - and beyond it, on the hazy horizon, the 420 meter Jinmao Tower (4th largest building in the world) and its twin, the almost-complete 100-storey Finance Tower, rose up to defy all rules governing how high humans can build. It was a spectacular sight. One's eyes couldn't fail to be drawn upwards, in a constant bid to come to terms with just how tall these skyscrapers were.


    Finally, the boat began to slow, and the International Ferry Terminal (known to most people as 'that great big building site just down the river') came into view. It too was mightily impressive, the largest of its buildings taking on the form of a 2m x 4m portacabin with a sign saying 'immigration' bolted to its roof.

    China had clearly heard who was about to arrive on its shores, as a welcoming committee had been arranged.


    (Shame it turned out to be for some US Navy ship that was following us...)

    It didn't take long to be reminded that I had left Japan. It seemed that the staff were very keen to get rid of us, hurrying us along into waiting taxis, translating our destinations into Chinese so the drivers knew where to take us, and shouting at anyone who should jump out of line. I wanted to talk to the taxi driver, but with my vocabulary being limited to 'thank you', I didn't fancy my chances. So, I just sat back, and gawped out of the window.

    What a crazy place! The first thing I noticed was the laundry - it was everywhere! Not just hanging out of windows, but dangling off power lines, draped between trees, attached to fences - and this was all along the filthy main road!




    Then there was the contrast between rich and poor. We've all heard the stories of the poor in China being trampled on by the rising wealth of the new upper class, but I never would have guessed that it would take on such a dramatic appearance. I've seen areas of the city that just a decade ago were home to hundreds of families, almost shanty-town like in appearance, that are now pristine parks complete with sprinklers and teams of uniformed attendants. Huge tinted glass-walled banks rise up in streets that stink of garbage - on the pavements below sit the impoverished poor trying to sell enough fruit to afford another day. The main shopping street in this area is a new glitzy affair, packed with Western brand shops and strikingly modern architecture. But take the street behind it on your way to the river, and you find people rummaging through sacks of rubbish,

    The gap between rich and poor can be seen inside the banks too - they have "Elite Club" Windows next to the standard ones. And sure enough, the lady next to me was being handed huge wadges of 100 yuen notes as I changed my few remaining yen (speaking of banks, I noted that they still used wooden abacuses to make calculations. I'd like to see that introduced at Barclays).

    It's all quite a shock for me coming from Japan. Japan, the country where no-one would ever consider asking one for money. Here I have been approached by amputees, by mothers pushing disabled children around in wheelchairs, by little old women rattling plastic cups. They have to be on their toes in the posh new tourist sectors though - if spotted, they will be shooed away like hyenas by angry officials. Then there's the 'traders'; you know all that plastic crap you see in cheap toy shops in the West - it's all being sold here on the street. The current favourites are: a pair of wheels that you stick to the bottom of your shoe to turn them into rollerscates; plastic mini-models of the Eiffel tower that light up in a rainbow of colours; and most common of all these squelchy plastic creatures that you slam into the ground so they become as flat as a pancake, before slowly regaining their shape as if by magic. It never ceases to amaze me how much the traders seem to expect me to be interested, even though they can know full well that I have been approached time and time again whilst walking down this street. And does a 29-year-old male really want to buy a squelchy plastic blob to throw at the ground? One is almost led to believe by the looks on their faces that these people are just so amazed by the metamorphic power of these things that they went through a lengthy interview process to get the dream job.

    Walk past any up-market jewellery store and you will be accosted by touts selling fake Rolex; walk past a sports shop and be offered some shoes. I pointed out that I had a pair of shoes - he retorted by offering me a shoe case. Not long afterwards I was pestered by a chap trying to polish my canvas trainers; turn a corner and a 5-year-old boy says "Hello Bags. DVDs?" And I thought my name was Joseph.

    It gets to you after a while, the constant heckling. I don't like to ignore them completely though, so I talk in Japanese instead. They recognise the fact that it's Japanese and become confused, this leads them to give up. With the approaches so frequent and persistent I need to humour myself in order to not say something offensive - that's how tired of the game I am.

    "My name's John. Let's be friends! I support Chelsea, and Tottenham Hot Spur. I don't like Wembley though. Ok, so we go for coffee now?"

    I turned down his kind offer, only to accept a similar one from "Linda" and "Laurence" a few minutes later - it was that that led to the £45 cup of tea incident, which I have since read warnings about on the youth hostel notice board. It was a clever ruse though - I wonder why I didn't put a stop to it when I was told (before anything had happened) that it would cost me a lot of money. What makes me laugh is that today I went to another ('official') tea ceremony, identical to yesterday's, that was completely free. Yesterday's tricksters seemed to have modelled their routine on this original as the script was almost identical. The only difference was the price should one want to buy a tin of tea. I couldn't help but grin at my own stupidity when I learnt that the government dictates tea prices, setting them at less that 10% of that that I had paid.

    "Linda" the "student" - I can only hope that she needed the money much more than I did.


    Mistress of the tea ceremony


    I've lost count of the number of times people have said 'Hello where are you from?" as they walk past me. Oh to be back amongst the peaceful, repressed Japanese!

    The most memorable greeting I received was shouted loudly by a women picking her nose. "UGLY!" she bellowed when I smiled at her. I was struck by her knowledge of English - I wondered what other gems she might have up her sleeve, but decided against smiling at her again.

    All of this heckling, and the constant stench that fills the air, the dirty water and the suicidal maniacs that fill the streets in buses, cars and on bikes, makes me glad that I didn't choose to study Chinese and be sent here on my year abroad! Two days of this is bearable - but a whole year of being asked hey where are you from Mister...?!

    Of course, every city, every country, every culture has its bad elements. I've not been harmed in any way, and only been taken advantage of through my own stupidity. The majority of Chinese people have been very nice and friendly to me (and cliche though it sounds, some of my best friends are Chinese). They have said nice things about my big nose, they have asked to have their photo taken with me, in some cases they have even made absolutely no hint of recognising the fact that I am not Chinese. They have laughed at their inability to speak English and my inability to speak Chinese and sought out interpreters. They have not objected to me putting my lens where others might, they have instructed their children to look at my camera, and have laughed with me as I held my penguin for a classic shot. They have shown genuine selfless friendship when I asked for it in a moment of desperation.

    I would be wrong to draw any conclusions on China from my experience here in this one city of millions in a country of x billion. The fact is, is that Shanghai has seen tremendous upheavals over the last couple of decades. Take the new financial district as an example: in 1990, this huge plot of ground that now hosts numerous skyscrapers (including the 4th largest in the world) was a boggy marshland housing many people in slum conditions, whilst providing the city with vegetables. Where did all those people go? What happened to those interdependent communities? They're certainly nowhere to be seen in that area now: when I paused to rest on the low wall surrounding the Jinmao tower earlier today it was only a matter of seconds before I was told that sitting there was not allowed - I had to use one of the officially sanctioned marble benches.

    The stars of the financial district
    finace tower and jinmao tower

    With such impossibly tall symbols of wealth springing up in the city, is it any wonder that there are so many touts and traders on the streets? With idiots like me around is it any wonder that fake tea parlours do a thriving business? It's a wonder I haven't been persuaded to invest in an ant farm yet!

    Pepe meets Push


    Arriving at the International Youth Hostel I was greeted by Push, a Chinese university student who had come to Shanghai to see Avril Lavigne in concert. Despite having a sore throat from all the screaming the night before, he was only too happy to chat away in his perfect queen's English. It was a bit surreal really - he said he'd picked up the accent from British people he'd met in China, but unless all the backpackers he met happened to be on a royal visit I don't really see how that's possible.

    After an hour or so of checking emails and failed attempts to upload photos to TameGoesWild, I decided to head out into the city. Mike, a chap I'd met in the reception had told me about a great little walking route to take which included a few of the major sites of Shanghai. Stepping out into the scorching sun, I soon learnt that if one valued one's life one should develop eyes not just in the back of one's head, but the sides too. Whatever traffic rules there are seem to be ignored by the majority of motorists - more than once I've almost been hit by a taxi darting across a pedestrian crossing when the lights are on red. Some of the junctions really make for great comedy sketches, as cars from all 4 directions jostle for a way through, and no-one gets anywhere. In addition to the traffic lights there are whistle blowing traffic wardens, frequently ignored when they turn their heads the other way.

    "All together now: It's MY right of way!"

    shanghai traffic

    Then there's the bikes. And I thought there were a lot of them in Tokyo! Here, there is an abundance of the three-wheeled trailer variety, into which are piled watermelons, mountains of cardboard boxes, towering crates of beer. Now and then you'll hear the ringing of a bell as one of these couriers pedals slowly down the road looking for business. Scooters are popular too, often ridden with the engine switched off to save on fuel. There is little patience for people who get in the way; the same goes for badly parked vehicles, as the absent owner of a gleaming motorbike discovered when returning to his pavement parking place, where seconds earlier another biker, frustrated by not being able to squeeze through the gap had kicked the Honda to the ground. I had been considering hiring one of the youth hostels bicycles to get around; 5 seconds into my walking tour I'd come to the conclusion that perhaps this wouldn't be such a good idea.

    bicycle madness

    bicycle beer

    bicycle garden



    My first stop was People's Square, a fairly new park development sporting a multi-million pound museum and a 5-storey exhibition detailing the rather ambitious plans for Expo 2010. Here again, a huge section of the city has been cleared to make way for some mad architecture. Standing in the 360 degree cinema I thought how sci-fi this computer-genereated cityscape seemed, yet now, having witnessed the amazing rise from the marshes of the financial district, it doesn't seem so unlikely. The amount of money being poured into this project must run into billions of dollars - one can't help but wonder whether this is money well spent.

    The 3rd floor of this exhibition housed a huge scale model of the city - over 100 square metres. I couldn't help but think what a clean and comfortable place the city looked like when situated in an air-conditioned room. Shame they can't do that with the real thing. (Having said that, the story about the authorities setting up a 15km rain exclusion zone around Beijing during next summer's Olympics, using rockets to shoot the clouds down, does make one think twice.)

    People's Park






    As the afternoon wore on, I made my way down to the Bund, the long paved boulevard that stretches along the Western bank of the river. In the late 19th and early 20th century this served as the nerve centre for the colonial powers, as is only too clear from the old Western buildings that still occupy the waterfront. This area attracts tourists in their thousands - the majority of them being Chinese, wanting to have their photo taken with the backdrop of the financial district on the opposite shore. Those that don't have their own camera need not worry - there is an abundance of young boys with digital cameras and portable printers just waiting to make you look beautiful.


    photo by the waterfront


    As the evening wore on, so the light-up began. Initially, it was simply a case of the floodlights coming on at the bases of the colonial buildings. Then, the "Oriental Pearl" started to flash. Pretty, I thought, but not overly impressed. However, 15 minutes later it was a different story, as the faces of two skyscrapers turned into giant TV screens! Then came the pleasure boats with their flashing neon, and the floating billboards advertising cargo ships, skiing trips in Japan, and Rover cars.




    It was about 10pm by the time I returned to the hostel, "All Shanghai'd out". Exhausted from such an intense day, beginning with that beautiful sunrise some 16 hours earlier, I couldn't bring myself to be social. I wanted some time alone, without being told I needed some cheap DVDs or a Rolex watch. I settled down with my mac and a dodgy internet connection, content to sort through the hundreds of photos I'd taken, and to think through all that had happened.

    Sitting there in the common room surrounded by Westerners, I noted how uncomfortable I felt. All these foreign tourists speaking English, talking about how they'd 'done' Beijing the day before and were flying to Bangkok the next day. Surely, I wasn't one of them was I? I was there for a reason, I was on my way home, I had a right to be there as myself - not as just another tourist.

    But of course in the eyes of everyone else I was just another tourist. I had spent a year 'belonging' in an Asian country, feeling as at home as is possible for someone with a foreign face. Here though, I didn't have my language ability to set me apart. I had no friends, I was not familiar with the street layout. Realising this, I became queasy and decided to concentrate on my photos. It was easier to be in China through them than by being there in reality.

    I was mightily happy to get to bed that night. In my dreams I could be at peace. No fake watches. No tea ceremonies. No one wanting to be my 'friend'. Just a quiet Swiss mountainscape where language was no barrier between myself and my surroundings.

    Voyage to Shanghai

    This post was written on Wednesday 15th August 2007, 21:47 JST
    Apologies if the images do not display correctly - TGW is being blocked by the people in power in this country, thus I'm not entirely sure I've picked the right ones off Flickr!

    Voyage to Shanghai


    Location: Dining room on the Shanghai-bound ferry, Xinjianzhen
    Somewhere in the middle of the East China Sea.
    Distance Travelled: a long way
    Number of hours of sea-sickness: 12
    Number of new friends: 20+
    Photos taken: 300+

    What an incredible start to this epic adventure. It started at Osaka Port 36 hours ago, with Simon and I sharing a taxi from the station to the International Ferry Terminal with Yoshi, whom we met when getting off the train - he had the appearance of an international traveller about him. Turns out that like myself he's an amateur photographer, also making his way through China to Mongolia. Here he can be seen on the right, sitting on the front of our ferry with thingamijig, who's also been a good companion.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Trouble at the border

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Unfortunately Simon wasn't allowed any further than the indoor viewing gallery, from where he did a superb job of photographing me on deck, and acting as an interpreter - using sign language - between myself and *Twinkle* who had just missed her last chance to speak to me on his phone. Our limited non-verbal communication skills weren't sufficient for me to convey the trauma I'd just experienced on passing through immigration; I had almost been prevented from leaving thanks to a little law by which I was unable to abide. The thing is, is that every foreigner who stays in Japan for 3 months or more must carry an Alien Registration ID Card, which must be surrendered upon departure. For some reason, I got it into my head that I'd sent it back to the UK last week, when considering holding onto it as a kind of memento.

    The immigration official was absolutely furious when I explained that I didn't have it with me, telling me in a raised tone that there was no way that I could leave without surrendering the card in question. There wasn't much I could do but apologise profusely, and reassure him that I'd send it back as soon as possible. Whilst he continued to berate me, his tone softened and he produced a form for me to fill in, which basically stated that I was a naughty boy unable to stick to the law, and that I would make every effort to rectify the situation.

    It was only once I was on the ferry that I found the card in question in my wallet, where I always keep it...

    The Voyage of Dreams

    It was just over two years ago that I first fell in love with the Inland Sea, that section of water between Japan's main island of Honshu and its fourth island, Shikoku. In the summer of 2005 I did some voluntary work on an organic mikan farm in Ehime prefecture, and thus crossed the Inland Sea via Japan's longest bridge (I forget the length, but it's a few kilometres at least). In the days leading up to that journey I'd read Donald Richie's beautiful The Inland Sea, in which he recounts the tale of his time spent island hopping in the 1970s. He describes a spellbindingly picturesque part of Japan, a long way from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. Life proceeds at a relaxed pace under the vast blue sky; the sea, protected on all sides by islands remains calm throughout the year.

    A boat makes its way across the calm of the island-dotted Inland Sea
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    One of the 3 huge bridges that connects Shikoku with the Japanese mainland island of Honshu
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Many of the larger islands support little fishing villages
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I'd been under the impression that our ferry would head south from Osaka, out into the open sea, skirting the bottom of both Shikoku and Kyushu on its passage across the East China Sea. It wasn't long before I realised that this wasn't the case; we were heading due West, and it wasn't long before I could spot our friend's apartment block in Kobe through my 200mm lens. Somewhat appropriately, we also passed by the last airport that I took a flight from, the flight that convinced me that flying was not the way to go, and helped me decide to make this surface trip.

    A plane lands at Kobe Airport
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I must admit, I was absolutely overjoyed when it clicked that we were going to travel the entire length of the Inland Sea, a journey which was to take over 15 hours. Wherever we looked we saw beauty. The deep blue of the mirror sea, dotted with islands rising to form feint horizons. It had a magical quality, drawing all passengers together to form a community of happy souls, free from mainland restraints, soaking up the freedom and breathing it back out through huge smiles. It was whilst we stood together on the bow of the boat that exchanges of "Wow! It's so beautiful!" developed into name exchanges and longer conversations.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Myself and Keitsuke soak up the sun - I know have a rather stupid-looking dual-tone forehead thanks to that bandana!

    Pepe proves to be quite a hit with the young'uns joseph_pepe_and_gang

    For the first few hours of the voyage the weather was absolutely beautiful, blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds, but this was not to last. As we neared the middle of the sea so dark clouds appeared on the horizon, giving birth to torrential waterfalls that smothered the ground below them. We seemed to be heading just to the right hand of the of the storm - would we be fortunate enough to miss it completely?

    Approaching the storm Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    There's no escaping the downpour that hits as we approach the second bridge. It is absolutely torrential; people scream in mock terror as the huge drops hit the deck. Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Suddenly everyone starts to cheer - we have made it through the rainstorm, and are blessed by a beautiful rainbow Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    As the sun set so we retired to this gloriously tasteless dining room, complete with flower-petal curtains and fake velvet tablecloths. It also happens to be equipped with a tax-free beer vending machine - lethal for a Joseph in party mood. It was a fun night though, with all manner of characters providing amusement. There's Yuka, whose 7 years in the US seem to not only have given her near-faultless English, but have also equipped her with a very outgoing personality! Then there's Tatsuya, who also spent some time in America: three years from the age of 7 mean that his English is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker. There's Harry and his friend (William?) from Hampshire (UK), who are four weeks into their 9-week trip around Asia. There's Kan, a Chinese girl who wants me to take her laptop computer when we disembark so that she doesn't have to pay import duty. I've had to turn her down, you never know what might be inside the hard-drive casing! There's the Italian chap and his Chinese wife on their way home from a short summer holiday in Western Japan. There's Kerry and Courtney, two American girls taking the long route home after a year working in Nagoya.

    Finally, there's Kaya, an extraordainary three-year-old Japanese girl who speaks with the thought and intelligence of a 40-year-old professor. She understands irony, and knows how to create a reaction, manipulating her audience. She is destined for greatness.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    ...and there are many more now familiar faces that one smiles at and says hello when one passes them in the corridor.

    When I awoke at 5am to catch the sunrise, we were still passing by the southern coast of Honshu. With the wooded hills not all that far away, it was easy to lose oneself imagining what life was like in that isolated area of Japan. I promised myself I would visit someday - it looks so peaceful.

    SunriseClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Today has been a lazy day. I chose not to partake in the gymnastics class in the karaoke room held by the crew - now dressed in the most startling skin-tight leotards you've ever seen. I chose instead to try and sleep off my sea-sickness. Once out in the ocean proper the waves were merciless - sick backs appeared, hanging from banisters all over the ship. At one point I ran from my comfortable 8-birth cabin to the side of the ship, sure that I was about to throw up. However, gazing at the waves that matched the motion in my body quelled my uneasiness; I grinned, and tried to remember that in case of emergency I wasn't to get excited.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I'm feeling better now as the sea has calmed, and it's hours since I had any of the restaurant food that makes plane-food seem like the kind of thing served in five-star hotels. I've slept quite a bit, chatted with new friends, listened to my backlog of podcasts. The sunset was just beautiful, setting the horizon on fire with its golden glow.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It's now almost midnight. I plan to get up in about 5 hours in order to catch the sunrise, and the final 3 hours of our voyage as we approach the east coast of China.

    From the middle of the East China Sea, this is Joseph saying "bye-bye" in Mandarin Chinese, which I seem to have forgotten...!

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Video 05: The lights of Shanghai

    A video I took a couple of hours ago on the waterfront here in Shanghai

    Once again, my apologies for the lack of professionalism in these videos - I'll work on my technique! The thing is, it's all been so chaotic!!

    The videos that slipped through the Chinese net!

    So whilst Flickr and FTP are blocked, YouTube seems to be working... here's a couple of vids. Apologies in advance for "Moving the camera too much". I hope to improve my video skills over the next few weeks!

    Video 1: Tokyo Station

    Video 2: Osaka Port

    Welcome to China

    And a warm welcome it is too. I must have sweated at least 12 buckets
    today! Anyhow, I have actually written a great blog entry all about
    my fantastic 44-hour crossing to Shanghai - but for some reason I
    can't connect to my server via FTP, and both Flickr and Blogger seem
    to be partially blocked too - thus I can't upload the 300+ photos
    I've taken, and thus the blog entries I've written won't make sense!
    So it seems to be a case of being patient, and waiting till I get to
    my friend's house in Beijing in a couple of days.


    Monday, August 13, 2007

    T minus 10 hours and counting

    Yep, just 10 hours until my ferry departs from Osaka Port.

    I'm now staying in the Umeda Dormitory, which I stayed in for one night 2 years ago. It's in a pretty convenient location, and has very friendly owners; for these reasons I recommended it to my coursemate Simon who arrived in Japan a month back for his Year Abroad, who promptly moved in and thus is able to offer me his floor to sleep on - for a fee. The sign in the elevator states that
    IF YOU NEED TO DO YOUR FRIEND, please make a request to us and pay 2000 yen.
    Only 2000 yen to be done by Simon! What a bargain! ...although as it turns out, I've been given my own luxury room, complete with no window and 3 square inches of floor space. [Thank you Simon for your hospitality, I really appreciate it. And the Mac advice too. Will miss you!]

    When checking in, I was pretty surprised by the owner's power of recollection - he remembered me, and my friend at the tourist info office that recommended the place to me. Afterwards though, I though "Well of COURSE he would remember me..."

    So here I am, trying to desperately sort through the few hundred photos I've taken over the past couple of days. Busy Busy Busy. I've changed some of my money into Chinese, er, whatever the currency is there, and the rest into US Dollars, which is apparently the way to go in Mongolia and Russia.

    Money has been a bit of a concern lately, well, ever since I bought my camera to be honest! But still, I knew that things would work out, and sure enough, on the day I left Tokyo a very very kind friend handed me an envelope containing US$200 - as a gift! I was completely taken aback by that gesture - I am very grateful, thank you.

    A few hours ago I cancelled my phone contract, and picked up a spare battery for my MacBook to give me up to 9 hours of typing time on the train. Phoned mum and dad to say tarra for now and can you pick me up at the local station in one month at 6.30pm please? Dealt with the backlog of emails. Bought a load of food for the boat; just my socks to wash now.

    Sky Biru [as featured below] through the crayon box: the structure you see above is about 40 floors up

    The fact that I'm leaving Japan hasn't hit me at all, and may not do so until I reach my hometown in mid-September. I think only then, when the excitement has come to an end, will I feel truly lonely, that wretched feeling of loneliness when one is unable to hold one's love.

    Speaking to *Twinkle* I can feel her pain. It's terrible and terrifying. I'm not entirely happy with the manner in which I seem to be suppressing my emotions; I'm not allowing myself to feel the hurt and loss that I know is there.

    I know it's there because I felt it hit me when her Shinkansen pulled out of Shin Osaka station. Crikey, it was bad. Like the bottom falling out of my world. I lost it then, burst into tears on the platform. Writing about it now makes me feel distinctly wobbly.

    I regained my composure a few minutes later, and have not allowed myself to explore those dark places again. It'll be interesting to see how things go. We may be apart physically, but we remain together in spirit.

    We had a lovely final couple of days together. *Twinkle*, Pepe and I. Pepe, incidentally, is thinking about launching his own blog sometime in the next year, possibly followed by books and a film. Watch out for him. He is no ordinary Penguin. For a start, he can use chopsticks.

    As those of you who have looked at my latest photos will know, we spent a couple of hours on Saturday at Kansai's largest wedding dress place. It was somewhat bizarre, surrounded by all those people in wedding dresses. Great fun though, really made me smile. *Twinkle* looked so gorgeous (and no Alice, you can't have her, she's mine!).

    When it came to my turn to try on suits, I was stuck. I hadn't a clue what to choose. There was also a bit of an issue with size: being made for Japanese grooms, all the suits were midget-size. As was the assistant who dressed me up...

    I'm not really as bald as I appear in the photo above. It's the lighting.

    I do quite like the style of this suit. Although I think it would look better with patchwork pants.

    Despite having lived in Osaka for a couple of years, *Twinkle* had never been up the mightily impressive Sky Biru.

    I do love this building. One reason could be that it stands clear of any other tall buildings. Located next to the largest undeveloped space of any major city in the world (A Japan Rail freight yard which is to become a housing and shopping complex in the next decade), it really does shine. I love the architecture too - the way it seems to be made of shiney building blocks, bolted together with meccano struts (which happen to home escalators and elevators).

    The weather was absolutely superb, thus from the top we had views right across the kansai plain. The river was being mightily blue, and the bridge mightily white. The city almost looked pwerty.

    Went to a lovely Thai restaurant with Ena and Mariko. I won some little towels with my beer. Hurrah :-)

    Shame about the strange look on my face. Mind you, not half as strange as the look on my face tonight.

    Anyway, I must shower and go to bed. Bye Bye from Japan. My next upload will be from China. Let's hope TDM makes it through the sensors.

    Bye bye Japan, thanks for having me.

    xxx joseph


    I said bye-bye to *Twinkle* last night.

    As we won't be seeing her again for a while, I thought we'd have a Daily Mumble *Twinkle* Fest.

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    The Journey Begins

    According to the publicity campaign, my 14,000km trip starts on the 14th, but actually, that's just the day i leave Japan. The trip actually began two hours ago, at the little station of Shinden, 30 mins north of Tokyo station. We've decided to take the local train to Osaka whichtake 10 hours and 10 changes (versus 2.5 hours on the bullet train) - with tickets costing a fraction of those of it's high-speed cousin (2500yen/$20 vs. 14000yen/$82) it's not to be sniffed at. Very very tired after last night's prep. Excited though! Will write more when i have more than a telephone key pad to tap away on! jaa ne

    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Last entry from Tokyo

    Well folks, this is it. *Twinkle* and I moved out of Viva Kami Itabashi this afternoon, after about 15 hours of packing and cleaning. I was shocked by how much stuff we have acquired over the past year, although I'm happy to say that there's very little in the way of junk. We bought quite a lot of the sort of things you'd ask for on your wedding day: nice plates, a pan set that will last longer than our bodies, the water filters that are only too necessary for us chlorinated Tokyoites, the printer and scanner, the bedding, the carpet... Still, in the end we managed to make the move back here to *Twinkle*s parents' house in two trips; everything is now expertly stowed in nooks and crannies in this already over-populated house. When packing, I just kept on thinking "I can't wait to unpack all this!" I love 'making a home', and the idea of living somewhere bigger than a bonsai ants nest with *Twinkle* is very exciting.

    Random photo: Tea Ceremony in our home

    Fireworks in the park, starring *Twinkle*

    Last night the two of took a walk around the local area. As we walked, we recalled that we had done exactly the same thing almost a year ago, the morning after we arrived from the UK. It's amazing to look back and see how much we've accomplished this past year, and how fast the time has gone. I wonder though, us humans always talk about time flying by - why are we still under the illusion that time is slow? Perhaps it's because regular tick-tock time doesn't really exist, and thus it's only natural that when we examine our own sense of 'time' it bears no resemblance to that shown on the calendar or clock.

    I did my last night at the English school I've been working at 4 hours a week a couple of nights back. I feel kind of sad leaving there as I had grown to really enjoy conversations with the students. It was wonderful to see how relaxed they were in their use of the language compared to several months back. Several of them gave me little presents - as did the owner, thank you! - and one of them wrote me a lovely thank-you letter, in Japanese!!

    After that class I made my way to a little bar in Meguro, where our partners in business held a little farewell party for me. I was presented with the most beautiful bunch of flowers I have ever received (and we've received a fare few recently what with the engagement and all!); I must admit to being a flower-holic, often buying a bunch for the table.

    I said my goodbyes to the staff at uni - Hirai san really is a legend. I would strongly encourage anyone wanting to study Japanese at a Japanese uni to consider Rikkyo uni in Ikebukuro. The staff, the course, the campus, all great.

    Tom and *Twinkle*


    I was delighted to get a call from my good friend Tom two days ago with news of the birth of their baby boy. He sounds like he's doing really well, the hungry little chappy, and is blissfully unaware of the agony he put his mother through when he made his entrance. He also happens to be very cute! Congratulations both Miyu and Tom, I can't wait to meet him at Christmas time. Likewise with Emmie and Russ (their baby girl being born earlier in the week!) And Jo (Ling) I hope you and your new baby are getting over the rash, and Jo (in Hereford), I trust new baby Ben and new hubby Joe are glowing as ever. Not with nuclear radiation, but with happiness and healthiness.


    I did want to Mumble on for hours about my starring role, alongside the Japanese superstar actress Tokiwa Takako in the Fuji TV drama "Bizan" to be aired next Spring, but due to a lack of time, I'll just mention it briefly. (The full story can be heard on the final episode of this series of 'A Year in Japan', now available for download - see previous blog entry).

    Despite our 11 hours of filming, I'll probably only make it onto the screen for about 30 seconds. Watch out for the idiotic foreigner standing right next to Takako san, when, in Ueno Park, he is shouted at by the non-English-speaking tour guide (in English), "HEY, MISTER! This is a Statue of Saigo Takamori!" (I was quite amused by her "Hey Mister", she'd made it up on the spot). I can then be seen just behind Tokiwa san and her partner as they have their photo taken - now I am being taught the Japanese word for 'Dog', whilst pointing at the statue of Saigo san and his faithful friend.

    Rebel and Ryu, a couple of my co-stars

    I can also be seen perusing some Japanese wares at a mini-market in Yoyogi Park (that was a tricky bit of filming to do as a rock band was practising just across the way, thus it was a case of trying to film scenes between their songs! The director had spoken to them, but as they'd actually hired the stage on which they were practising it was only natural that they refused to stop!)

    Then there's the bus scenes.

    Rebel, the lovely Spanish girl, and moi
    The 1975 tourist bus scenes, using a genuine 1970s bus complete with no air-conditiong, shot in scorching temperatures! Round and round the diet (parliament) building we went, for 5 hours. Sometimes with the camera inside the bus, sometimes outside. I can be seen in the seat opposite that of the stars. That was no accident by the way, more a case of an idiotic foreigner desperate to secure his place in shot. It's during those scenes that you will hear my marvellous singing voice. As jolly tourists it was only natural that we sing a traditional Japanese song, despite being non-japanese speaking tourists. Well, since when did they ever go for realism on Japanese TV?

    The Diet Building (Government building) around which we drove for 5 hours on our "Tokyo Tour"!

    It was whilst doing the bus scenes that Tokiwa Takako started to take an interest in me, asking all sorts of intrusive questions. Questions such as, "What time is it?" At one point she got very personal, with the classic "Where are you from?". Then there was the time when she apologised to me when I almost sat on her cup of tea on the wall. Oh yeah, me and her, we're like this (Joseph wraps two fingers around each other). The famous actor blokey, Hashimoto someone or other, was a very nice guy. He didn't have that upper class air of superiority about him, although like everyone else on set he did smoke.

    Tokiwa Takako, taken using the secret photo-taking tecnique

    About the broadcast - Don't worry, I'll let you know when I find out the date and time. All I know at the mo is that it's likely to be next year, and will be broadcast on Fuji TV primetime.

    EDIT: Bizan was broadcast nationwide on Friday April 4th 2008. Click here for the related Mumble, which has photos of yours truly on the box!

    *Twinkle* in the park

    Anyway, time for the Last Supper. We leave for Osaka at 5.15am.


    Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    Episode 11 - Sayonara Japan, or should that be "Mata ne!"

    In the last show of series one of A Year in Japan, Joseph brings you up to date with the hectic final month of his Year in Japan as a university student.

    Hear the story about how a drunken hair cut almost cost him his Fuji TV Drama debut, in which he stars alongside the multiple award-winning major celeb/actress Tokiwa Takako.

    There's also news on his engagement to *Twinkle* too - exactly how did he propose?

    Then there's his next mega-exciting super duper project: 28 Days Halfway Around the World, a trans-siberian adventure that starts on August 14th 2007 (See

    All this and much much more in Episode 11 of A Year in Japan.

    Download Episode 11 now (66 minutes of incredible audio editing!)

    Advanced Version
    (suitable for most computers and iPods etc. Features chapter markers, lots of photos, and hyperlinks)

    Basic MP3 version (suitable for wind-up gramaphones and other devices that refuse to play the advanced version. Audio only).

    More listening options here

    Feedback welcome: joseph[at-mark] (mp3 messages / videos also ok)
    Skype: josephtame

    Friday, August 03, 2007

    This life business just gets better and better

    This life business, I love it.

    Will tell you all the news about my forthcoming Fuji TV debut with Takako Tokiwa very soon.

    [Who is Takako Tokiwa? Wikipedia | WaiWai | Fuji TV]

    In the meantime, here's a shot of some happy dancers in the park.

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    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    We become what we think about: The Haircut

    This haircut was not consciously planned, it just happened.

    Click on the image below for a 2-page comic telling the story of what happened last night.

    When mulling it over this morning, and being pleasured by the feel of steam from my miso soup brushing past my kopf, it suddenly struck me, "Hang on, didn't I write something about baldness a couple of days ago in that entry about the temple we went to?"
    "I like temples. Mainly for their architecture - but bald-headed monks are pretty groovy in my book too"

    As of next week I'll be abstaining from sex for a year too! What haircut could be more appropriate?!

    Wednesday, August 01, 2007

    TGW Photography

    Wow, finally I have completed stage two of establishing a photography business (the first stage being starting to take photos!).

    It's very early days yet, and in fact I do not intend for it to ever provide me with anything more than an irregular trickle of income - its purpose is not to make money. It currently has very few photos on it, and many of them are somewhat mediocre in terms of artistic value, but nonetheless, the framework is now there, it exists, and just as with Tame Goes Wild which started life as a 3-page Yahoo Geocities cite in about 2001, it will develop over time. It will not replace my current Web Gallery which will continue to host all the photos I choose to put online, but instead will just be a second home to some of the shots I particularly like.

    I was unable to integrate the shopping cart thing fully, so it's not as automatic as it could be, but I'm happy with it in its simplicity. I look forward to adding a lot of shots that I take during my forthcoming trip.

    The address of TGW Photography is, although I prefer the shortcut

    Visitors welcome.