Photos

New! 'Best-of' photos available here in interactive album.

All photos from this trip can be found in my Trans-siberian gallery. Click on the image below to enter.

Click here to enter my Trans-siberian gallery

Videos

All videos from my trans-siberian trip can be found on my Trans-siberian You-Tube channel.

Click here to view the Trans-siberian video channel

Blog Index

My summer 2007 trans-siberian blog can be viewed as a single (HUGE!) page, or as individual pages listed below.

Japan

The journey begins
Leaving Japan

China

Welcome to China
Voyage to Shanghai
Shanghai - Day 1
Shanghai - Day 2
Bullet Train to Beijing
Arrival in Beijing
Forbidden City & Great Wall
Stranded in Jining
Beijing Duck
The hotel Hutiejuhengnuobinguan
Business in China
Thoughts whilst waiting

Mongolia

Hello Mongolia
Endless miles of stars
Live from the yurt
Speechless for 3 days
Where's my train gone?
Yurtastic fun

Russia

Buying tickets in Russia
Driving in Russia
Lake Baikal - part 1
Lake Baikal - part 2
Travelling 3rd class
The Russians
The 60 hour, 4100km ride part 1
60 hour train ride part 2
A walk amongst the stones
Hello Moscow
What? You mean my train for Germany left an hour ago?
A day in Moscow

Europe

The most luxurious Train in the whole world
Hello Poland
They speak my language!
British Passport Control

England

Arriving in the UK
A familiar sunrise
One week on
The final Leg
The final word

Blog

This is the single page blog of the entire journey, a mash of the 3 monthly archives that the journey covered.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The final word



It's now 4 days since I arrived at my final destination, Sheffield, bringing to an end my 9000 mile, 30-station trip halfway around the world in 28 days.

I made it!

Sitting here in bed under my Paddington Bear duvet, accompanied by a Penguin and an oversize teddy bear, how do I feel about this past month now? What have I gained from the experience? How has it affected me?

Firstly, I have a new sense of connection with Japan. It is no longer in a different world, it is just at the end of the line (albeit rather a long line). This is having a profound effect not just upon potential feelings of Japan-related loss (which are virtually non-existent), but also upon my attitude towards everyone else I meet. For example, the Chinese student who lives in the room next door comes from Jining. This is no longer a totally foreign place on a different planet, but rather a friendly city with two plastic tigers at its centre, a city that through a boy named Tom welcomed me with open arms and led me to embrace China as I never have before. When meeting people from places I have yet to visit, such as Pakistan or Finland, I no longer feel that their roots lie in foreignness, in places of which I know nothing. They like myself come from this beautiful planet Earth, and if I were to continue moving in a particular direction for a period of time I would arrive in their hometowns. I would be standing upon a shared landmass, looking up at a shared sky that knows no geographical or political boundaries.

This feeling of connection with others is truly wonderful. It enables conversation to flow without that barrier of differentness.

I have also gained more of an understanding of the cultures that I passed through. The people of China, Mongolia, Russia - all are very different from the big butch security guard who calls me "duck" (or "love" if I'm lucky") in the university library, yet if there is one thing that strikes me about all of these people, and that is their similarities. Whilst they may all differ in terms of language spoken and behaviors, they are all fundamentally alike.

We are all human. One might think that statement superfluous, but at times one could almost forget that fact in this media age where nothing but differences make headlines. Fundamentally we are all the same. We come from the same source, and we will return to the same source - why must we insist on differences during our time here?


Oh what a beautiful sight!


When thinking on why I haven't felt this sense of oneness before (I have, after all, spent over half of the last decade living abroad), I think it's because until this trip I have not enjoyed the sense of there being a physical connection between the places I have visited. It has always been a case of getting on a plane, sitting there for 15 hours, going up into space, coming down again and getting off in another land. Is it any wonder that I thought I'd arrived in a foreign world far removed from my reality, when the experience of the journey itself was so unlike any that nature may provide?!

A 15-hour flight only serves to reinforce the sense of differentness.

And now I'm thinking, "what would happen if all politicians around the world agreed to participate in a 5-year experiment? An experiment in which they refrained from flying when visiting other nations. An experiment which saw them travel over land and see to foreign lands, in order that they gain a true feeling of oneness with their 'foreign' counterparts."

World Peace? Or perhaps just a booming international rail industry.

This trip has affected my behavior too. The most notable difference I see in myself is that I have a renewed sense of confidence when it comes to meeting others. Whereas before I tended to hesitate before initiating a conversation with strangers, now I don't think twice. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a part of my long-term approach to life, or whether one week at university surrounded by Freshers finishes it off!

A few people have asked me if I will be taking the train back to Japan next summer. The answer is, I don't know yet. Let's just say I would like to.

The 19-storey monster from below


And with that, I bring my journey halfway around the world in 28 days to a close. My thanks to you all for your support throughout, knowing you were there has encouraged me to engage with those around me, and has led to some great adventures that had I opted to play it safe might never have happened.

Thank you.

With love to you all under our shared sky,

Joseph

posted by Joseph at 15:33   permenant link 0 comments

 

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The final leg

So, this is it. Morning of the final day of my journey from Tokyo to Sheffield. In a few hours, Mr. C will be arrive from Bristol to take the helm of the family chariot and drive it three hours north to the university of Sheffield, from where I shall pick up a key to Broad Lane Court, the now familiar block of early-90s housing that we all know and love. No doubt I will then be meeting my housemates (at this stage I know that one is American and another Jamaican), and wondering how on earth I'm going to fit everything in that room. They're not the largest of student flats you've ever seen, but they are clean, warm, and have high-speed internet (I noticed yesterday that I can set my Airmac Extreme to generate an invisible wireless network, so that gets over the issue of no wireless networks being allowed).

Penguin at dawn


I finally finished my packing yesterday afternoon. I've managed to reduce my long term memory collection (that being schoolwork, letters, diaries, cards and photos) down to 6 banana boxes, which can be stored under my bed for the time being and sent to Japan when the time comes. Mum and dad have been just great, giving me the space and time I need whilst feeding me yummy food and doing all my washing! Despite being in a financially sticky situation, they have also been very generous in covering my transport costs, getting my 16-year-old bicycle serviced and sorting out a big box of food to keep me going until my student loan comes through.

I'm pleased to have been able to keep my body clock on Moscow time, waking naturally just after 6am. Early to rise and early to bed is my ideal rhythm, but whether I can maintain it whilst at uni I don't know. I was asleep by 9pm yesterday!


Waking this morning I feel excitement, it's surging through my body. There's a nervousness too. The nervousness is connected with the thought of all the things I will be committing myself to doing. The course. The Japan Society. The Photography Society. The Student Ambassador thing. The daily exercise. The web-site creation. Oh, and the part-time job, which I now accept is going to be necessary if I don't want to end up begging towards the end of term.

Where's the time for my reading? Returning home last week I was delighted to find an article in Resurgence by Deepak Chopra; it was a response to Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, which I note with sadness remains in the top 10 bestseller list. Unfortunately I don't have it to hand (it's at the bottom of one of my boxes ready to go to Sheffield), but it is a superb expose of the fundamental flaws in Dawkins' thinking. It left me thinking of Dawkins as the Channel 5 of the literary world - full of cheap sensational crap aimed at those who have just finished reading Big Brother 345 - Debbie's secret diary from the inside.

That was actually the first of Chopra's works I've read, despite being only too familiar with his name. Having read that, I asked mum if they happened to have any books by him. I suppose I shouldn't have been all that surprised when she produced two, one dealing with coronary diseases and how to overcome them, the other focusing on The Path to Love. I started reading the latter last night and have found it utterly inspiring.

Nephew No. 1, Jamie, playing the clown



In this book, Deepak 'explains how we can rediscover the love we long for, one which is rich and meaningful, satisfying and lasting - by restoring to love its missing element: spirituality'. I can see that by reading this book one could come to appreciate one's relationship with one's partner, family and friends on a whole new level, and come to accept that when one is struggling with others, really one is struggling with oneself. One's current partner is always the right person - the right person for who we are at that time.

Through the glass: Nephew No.2, Edward



Unfortunately I now have to load the car up, and I doubt I will make the time for this book once I reach Sheffield, so instead I shall be buying the audiobook version from Audible.co.uk - Hurrah for modern technology and its role in the path to enlightenment!

Nephew No.3, little Ralph


See you in the North!

Love, Joseph

Friday, September 21, 2007

One Week On

I find it somewhat ironic that it's only now I reach the UK that internet access becomes an issue.

Mongolian Yurts? Light-speed connections to the information superhighway.

Isolated Chinese border-town hotels? SO online there's a Google search toolbar in the bathroom to help locate lost contact lenses.

Dodgy 8th-floor youth hostels in Moscow? Username and password required to flush the toilet.

Parent's home in Western England? A wind-up telephone attached to the net courtesy of long piece of string, and a Windows 98 PC that has all the internet-connectivity skills of a stale chocolate-chip cookie.

Thus, the lack of Mumbles of late. That, and of course the only-to-be-expected reaction against the keyboard following a month of copious drivvling.

So, where are we then?

The folks' place, Herefordshire, 3 hours West of London. Dangerously close to Wales. I've been here about five days now, having spent last weekend visiting the Bristol crowd. I would be making my way to Sheffield already, my final destination, were it not for the fact that my housing contract only comes into force on Saturday morning. I welcome the pause however, as it gives me the opportunity to do the annual sort-through of belongings that mum and dad have stored under my old bunk-bed. This time I'm being extra-ruthless, as when I return from Sheffield next summer I'll be off to Japan for good (a.k.a. a decade or so), thus anything that I won't use this year as a student is going. Books, 200 Minidisks of music and 3 Sony Minidisk players/recorders, 90 CDs, miles of USB cabling, a chess set, more books...

I am helped in my task this time by the reminder that I am not the 'owner' of any of these things, just the temporary keeper, and I will be letting go of them all one day anyway. Having this at the forefront of my mind as I sort through objects that at one point were a major part of my life (such as my minidisk collection) makes assigning them to the relevant box (Charity shop / eBay / Sheffield Freecycle / recycling bin) much easier.

Whilst rummaging around in the front bedroom I came across one box that I had completely forgotten about: the one containing 6 months' worth of anti-epilepsy drugs. That's 3200 purple pills to be returned to the doctor with a smile. It's been about 3 months now since I replaced my Epilim with organic multi-vitamins (and extra vitamin B complex), and I had been looking forward to seeing the epilepsy specialist in Bristol later this month. That was the appointment that I made 18 months ago, with one of the UK's best consultants. The appointment which, when late on Wednesday afternoon I finally located the letter detailing the appointment, turned out to be early on Wednesday afternoon.

Woops.

It's been a good week though. Babies seem to have been the dominant theme. Firstly, there's my new nephew, third son of my amazing sister (and her husband). You know, she really is incredible. If I were her I would be definitely be having a breakdown, every ounce of sanity having been purged from my brain by the non-stop stress generated by having to look after a baby whilst trying to stop a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old from destroying the planet whilst fighting over the Noddy car. The problem is, whatever one of them wants to play with, the other then wants. I think parallel universes are about the only thing that would keep them quiet.

That's not to say that they're not adorable. They do make you smile, especially when you listen in to the two of them on the baby monitor at bedtime, big brother Jamie trying to reassure little brother Edward that it's alright, mummy will be coming upstairs soon, he doesn't need to cry. Oh, and the first thing Jessie heard when she woke up in the morning: "Did you have nice dreams mummy?"

Another very cute baby I was happy to finally meet was Lewie, product of co-operation between dear Jo and Jim of Bristol fame. They make a great family; it's so good to see how things have worked out since our college days together, and I feel very grateful to be counted as one of their friends.

Next little'un to visit was the littlest of the lot - Alice and James' 5 day old bundle of loveliness, Isaac. He's mightily cute, as only newly-born babies know how to be. Quiet too, something one can't help but feel is a significant bonus having been around toddlers for a couple of days!

The final baby of the week to make my acquaintance was Jo and Joe's 9-month-old son, Ben. He's a lovely boy, and despite initially being a bit shy around the bearded stranger, by late afternoon he was more than happy to try to pull my nose off. I got some lovely shots of him - he's very photogenic.

This baby-fest (which is a continuation of that that began in Japan where 4 of my friends became parents this year) has left me really looking forward to becoming a dad, and thinking what a great mum *Twinkle* will be.



I am happy being here in England. There has been no reverse culture shock - I've lived in this country for over 2 decades so I really should know the score. In fact, it's all been remarkably easy, and leads me to question the very existence of (reverse) culture shock as anything other than a figment of one's imagination - yet it is something I have felt keenly upon returning to the UK in previous years. It would seem that my three-pronged approach has worked. When on that train in Russia I made the decision to

  • be happy to return

  • accept differences in attitudes towards life and others with recognition that this is what I have always known here

  • live in the present, one day at a time


  • There is one more factor which I believe has aided me considerably, and that is the lack of heartache (something of a novelty for a Joseph returning from Japan). This time I have a great big rock of security (I'm not sure if *Twinkle* would appreciate being called a 'great big rock' ...but it's a very pretty rock that I happen to fancy rather a lot), a strong source of love and support which gives me an incredible sense of strength and ease. I feel very secure, protected by our partnership. Whilst I guard against becoming dependent upon another for my own sense of identity, I celebrate being a part of our relationship. Our meeting was a precious gift, which serves to further encourage me to believe in an intelligent energy that serves as our shared source.

    I wonder how I would be feeling now if I hadn't embarked upon this voyage of self-discovery this year? I guess that I would be carrying on as before, agreeing with others who told me that it was going to be difficult, feeling that it was difficult, and having a difficult time.

    You know what though? It seems I'm not the only one who has an attitude of acceptance towards life (now there's a surprise!). It's the just-bought-a-red-car syndrome (suddenly there's red cars everywhere). For the first time I'm noticing the embrace without stress or worry by friends and family of what many in this world might refer to as 'problems'. Acceptance, and trust that all will work out (because funnily enough, it always does!). On those occasions this week when I have met people with a lack of trust / distinctly negative attitudes towards life's happenings, I've found myself recognising their stance immediately, like a red hot poker up my nostril, only without the singed hair. Whereas a year ago I may have voiced agreement that yes indeed, that's really not fair and is something to be angry about, or yes, so-and-so is a pain in the arse, now, I find it impossible to back up such opinions and not feel dark. Why confirm their negativity? It does them no favours, it does me no favours, it does the world no favours.



    I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. C, who has very kindly agreed to do me a huge favour and drive my parents' car full of stuff to Sheffield tomorrow. The privilege is usually dad's, but he has been struck down by a rather ferocious attack of the flu rendering him horizontal, poor chap. I'd drive myself if I had a license, but I won't be reapplying until next summer, a year after my last epileptic seizure.

    The academic emails have begun to arrive from tutors at university, reminding me of the task ahead. This morning I read the first half of a book on dissertation writing, and have a topic in mind. I have a stack of A4 pads ready to be scribbled on, and 2 boxes full of pens and post-it notes. The kanji revision cards have been recovered from the bottom of a box of T-shirts, and are sitting expectantly on the sideboard. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway Joseph!!

    Anyway, I am now off to town with mother to pick up my freshly-serviced bicycle, the bicycle that will help me return to Japan as the most pert-buttocked Westerner ever to have stepped foot on their concrete shores. Maybe.

    And then tomorrow morning, it's Sheffield Here I Come!

    Tarra.

    Saturday, September 15, 2007

    A familiar sunrise

    There's no words for this Mumble.


    Except to say, it's good to see this familiar sunrise again.





    Arriving in the UK

  • Date and Time: Thursday 13th September, 2007. 15:49 BST

  • Location: Carriage C, Seat 35, First Great Western to Newport, 3 minutes West of London


  • Crikey o'reiley! How on Earth can anyone afford to live in London?! 2 hours there has nearly bankrupt me! You know how much a single ticket on the underground costs? Let's do a comparison:

    Beijing: about 21 pence
    Moscow: 34 pence
    Tokyo: 70 pence
    London: FOUR POUNDS!!!

    And they're trying to reduce congestion??? I think that is an absolute outrage, and as a mark of protest I shall not return to London unless absolutely vital. So naaaa. That'll hurt 'em!

    And it's not just the tube. You know what the minimum charge from a public call box is now? 40p!!! That's DOUBLE what it was when I left last year!

    OK, deep breath.

    I don't really mind at all as I rarely use public phones and seldom visit London.






    Talk about baptism of fire. London had some nice surprises in store for me, aside from ticket prices. Well, British Rail to be precise. It all started when I went to the ticket office at Waterloo station to renew my Young Person's Railcard. I'd bought my ticket from London to Hereford online in Tokyo, selecting the Young Person's Railcard option, thinking that when I got to London I could simply renew my old railcard. At that point, I had about an hour until my train departed.

    Things seemed to be going ok, until the chap behind the counter noticed my date of birth.

    "Ah, you're over twenty five".

    "Yes, that's right. I'm a mature student".

    "Ah, mature student. I'm afraid if you're a mature student you can't renew your railcard without additional ID."

    "That's OK, I've got my student card here."

    "I'm afraid I can't accept that. You either need your university's stamp on the form, or an International Student ID card. Without it, you can't renew your card, and without a railcard, you can't use your ticket. You'll need to buy a new one. It'll be £50."

    After an initial reaction that I vocalised with a high pitched and fairly loud "WHAT?!!", I stopped, and took a deep breath. What had I been listening to this morning? Wasn't it a lesson in how to deal with frustrating situations?

    Breathe Joseph, Breathe.

    I smiled at the chap, and said, "OK, ok, so basically, if I can somehow get an ISIC card in the next 30 minutes, I'll be able to renew my railcard, and catch that train from Paddington with my existing ticket?"

    "Well, theoretically. But I doubt you'll be able to do that. I have no idea where you could get one of them. Not round here."

    "Thanks."

    I picked up my rucksacks (which suddenly seemed to have put rather a lot of weight on) and left the ticket office, wondering what on Earth I could do. Think, think. ISIC card. There's only one place I know you can get them, and that's STA travel, the student travel company. But where am I going to find one of them?



    It was time to give British Telecom a pint of my blood (otherwise known as £1.00, or 100 pence, or 5 trips on the Shanghai subway), for the privilege of connecting to the internet for up to 15 minutes. That's even more expensive than that rip-off joint in Moscow! OK Joseph, calm down. We're not in Moscow now. This is London. I browse to STA's website and check out their store locater. Nearest one is... er, I haven't a clue. There's lots of places in London listed, but I haven't a clue where any of them are. Except one - Victoria, I've been to Victoria station, that's probably easiest.

    Amputating my leg and giving it to London Underground PLC, I board a tube train. 10 minutes later I'm there, and looking to see where the sun is - according to STA's map the branch was to the south of the station. Rounding the corner of the next to the park I spy their office, career across the road in front of several taxis and a London Bus, slam through the front door and, gasping for breathe explain my plight to the man behind the counter. He'd been looking incredibly bored, but on hearing of my mission jumped up from his seat and said, "Ok, well usually you have to make an appointment, but this sounds like an emergency - we can't have you missing the last train of what sounds like an epic adventure!" With that he takes my details and sends me off to a photo booth in the nearby station; I return minutes later with a lovely selection of shots of one sweat-drenched boy looking somewhat uptight.

    He is my hero, and within 5 minutes I'm seen running from the shop, ISIC card in hand. The clock is ticking away - I have 25 minutes until my train departs. In that time I have to donate my left arm to London Underground to get to Paddington, then beg with anyone in the queue at the ticket office to let me be a Russian and push in at the front. I rehearse my speech in my head, and picture myself on my knees in front of some suited businessman, pleading with him to let me go first.

    As it happens, when I get to the office I see the First Class counter is free, the chap behind the glass looking half-asleep. I soon wake him up with my story, "PLEASE could you renew my railcard! You'd really save my bacon. Grudgingly he accepts my application form. When he tells me "Sorry, can't do it, you need your university stamp" I try not to look victorious and push my shiney new ISIC card through the slot. He's not impressed by my preparedness, and ignores me as I tell him what fun I've had to reach this point. A couple of minutes later he's done though - I have a new Young Person's Railcard, and a train waiting for me on Platform 4.

    Success!




    I shed a few more tears when walking the South Bank (prior to all the excitement). Tears of gratitude, tears of achievement. I'd actually done it! I'd made it all the way from Tokyo to London by train (and ferry, and car, and bus). A pretty amazing achievement really, even if I do say so myself. The longest journey I'd ever taken. It forms half of one of my long held life-long ambitions - to circumnavigate the globe without the use of planes.

    It's funny being back in the UK. Or, more precisely, it's funny being back amongst British people. They're so proper! Personal space seems to be highly valued - when making my mad dash from Waterloo to Paddington via Victoria on the bankruptcy metro, I accidentally bumped into a couple of people. I apologised, but clearly this wasn't enough, they weren't at all happy.

    Reintergrating is going to be interesting.

    OK, enough for now. Time I looked out of the window.

    Love joseph

    Bristish Passport Control

  • Date and Time: Thursday 13th September, 2007. 11:56 CET

  • Location: Carriage 4, Sear 24, Eurostar train from Brussels to London - about to depart Brussels


  • Well boys and girls we made it! I tell you, it was so nice to reach British Passport Control in Brussels.

    "Hello, how are you?" I was asked by the chap behind the counter.

    "Very well thanks, and very happy to see you!"

    I mentioned that I'd come from Tokyo and he was intrigued. He seemed to forget about the queue behind me and started asking all sorts of questions. What countries had I been through? What was the most memorable bit of the trip? What was it like being back in Europe? What a nice welcome home (and I haven't even reached the UK yet!).

    The ICE train from Koln to Brussels was lovely. The driver sits in a cabin with a perspex wall, enabling the few passengers that were on board to watch him play with his knobs. It was terribly exciting for a little boy like me.



    There's been a few occasions this morning when I've turned my attention to the fact that this journey is very nearly at an end. Yes, it's still another 9 days until I reach my final destination, Sheffield, but of course, stepping back onto British soil is the major marker in time. Recalling the events of the past 4 weeks has seen me overcome with emotion, bringing tears to my eyes. Thinking of all the amazing characters I've met along the way, the many challenging situations I've found myself in... I find it deeply moving to recall the many acts of kindness that have been shown towards me. This journey just would not have been possible without the support of so many, and for that I will always be deeply grateful.




    Crikey, this Eurostar train is FLYING! And I only paid them 30 Euros for this Brussels to London trip. That's cheaper than any flight - only takes a couple of hours too. Why people still fly I don't know... [and as of November 17th, the Eurostar service will be even faster, thanks to the opening of London's new St. Pancreas terminal and the new high-speed rail link leading from it].



    Minor glitches aside, I think overall the uploading-on-the-road thing has worked pretty well. Feedback welcome.

    Hmm, it sounds like I'm wrapping things up - and I've not even passed beneath the English Channel yet! Stay tuned folks, it's not over yet!

    They speak my language!

  • Date and Time: Thursday 13th September, 2007. 00:02 CET

  • Location: Berth 32, train from Moscow to Cologne, German border control


  • So this is it, just left Poland, now back in comfortable EU territory. By that I mean we're now in a country where I can speak the language, at least to a certain extent, with a healthy dose of Japanese unconsciously thrown in where memory fails me. You have no idea how exciting this is for me after 4 weeks of feeling like an imbecile!

    You know how long the border official held onto my passport for? About 3 seconds! Oh the joy of not being a hardcore foreigner!

    It's hard to believe that despite being 3 countries away from the UK (Germany, Belgium, France) I will actually be there in precisely 12 hours. After traversing the vast expanse of Russia these European countries seem like miniature counties, little toy countries that just occupy the eye for a second or two. Crikey, I mean, I could walk home from here if I felt the urge. (but actually, I think I'll stay in my comfy bed, then transfer to Germany's ultra sexy answer to the bullet train - the ICE - then in Belgium board the legendary Eurostar for the final leg through France and under the sea. No doubt when we make landfall in the UK a 30mph limit will be imposed due to flooding and we'll take another 3 days to reach London...)

    I understand that the rhubarb is already being prepared for tonight's (tonight's...??!!! yippppeeee!!) celebratory meal, oh, and all but one of my parcels sent by surface, SAL and air mail from Japan have arrived and are waiting for me to open. Thinking about this I have very mixed emotions. Whilst I am excited about being back in the UK, I think that this is a reaction to 4 weeks of having to watch my luggage and struggling to communicate (don't get me wrong, I don't regard this as having been a negative experience in the slightest. It's been one of the most fun and memorable trips of my life ever, and I would do it again - but it'll be nice to be able to totally relax for a change!).

    However, if I think about opening parcels from Japan... well, that's a different kettle of fish. It bypasses the past 4 weeks and summons the harsh reality that I am a long long way away from 'home'. No matter how gentle the re-entry process, it still doesn't change the basic facts. It'll be interesting to see how I deal with it. Currently, my biggest concern is mum and dad's lack of broadband internet, the only connection being a very slow dial-up via my first computer, a Windows 98 PC!

    Anyway, enough of this midnight babble. After a stop of approximately 15 minutes we have left border control (the Russians, who held us up for 11 hours coming out of Mongolia could learn a thing or two from the Germans me thinks...), and are now zooming across Deutschland (the spelling of which I forget), scheduled to reach Cologne in just under 6 hours.

    I think I'll have a shave in my private sink, before settling down to a few hours kip on my final overnight trip on this voyage half-way around the world in 28 days.

    Thursday, September 13, 2007

    Hello Poland

  • Date and Time: Wednesday 12th September, 2007. 14:26 CET

  • Location: Berth 32, train from Moscow to Cologne, somewhere in Eastern Poland


  • I suppose it's only appropriate that after a year of heavy use (almost every day) and much brutal treatment, my trusty laptop starts to show signs of wear and tear. In a way, I am happy about the breaking off of a section of plastic from its front. It is a sign of maturity. A sign that it is a trusty workhorse, not just some posey toy with a picture of an apple on. Although I wasn't necessarily expecting this breakage, I'm not all that surprised: Sir Simon (who waved me off from Osaka port many moons ago) has a reconditioned model with the same problem, caused by near-constant pressure applied by the lid to this particular section of plastic next to the trackpad. A design flaw. Apple, please take note.



    Hello Poland

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    So yes, I've finally arrived in the EU. It makes such a refreshing change to not have my passport taken away for hours on end at the border. A brief glance at the United Kingdom emblem on the front, a casual flick through the pages and it's handed back with a courteous 'thank you'. No more intimidating border officials removing ceiling panels and emptying out bags in search of illegal imports of bears paws either. It feels good to not be classed as a criminal until proven otherwise.

    Even the Russian woman who's looking after us has a European attitude. There's no more shouting at us to get back in our boxes. Instead, she comes politely knocking at our doors, asking if we would like a cup of coffee to help pass the time whilst the bogeys are being changed.

    I always thought that a rather strange name for a set of wheels. That aside, the little boy in me was mightily excited when I realised that the huge warehouse we'd been shunted into was the bogey-changing station. I'd read about it in the guidebook: Mongolia, Russia and Belarus use an abnormally wide gauge track on their railways, thus any cross-border trains need to have their wheels changed at the appropriate spot. I'd missed it the other end having changed trains at the Chinese border town of Erlian. Crikey, Erlian. Seems like a lifetime ago. Remember the fun I'd had at the station, watching desperately eager Chinese passengers pushing their luggage into the x-ray machine in front of me? The endless shunting backwards and forwards for no apparent reason? The chap who I was later to spend a few days with in an isolated Mongolian yurt falling off the platform at the sight of Pepé?

    The idea of trains simply being jacked up and having their wheels replaced whilst all the passengers are still on board really appealed to that part of me that always wanted (but never did have) a great big Hornby model railway. There was also the idea that by not getting off we were being allowed to be naughty - the drunken kids riding in the back of pick-up truck at crazy speeds down a New York State highway (no mum, I didn't really do that when I was over there 10 years ago, honest...), or the secret hitching a ride in an open-top rail freight wagon from Hereford to Liverpool (thinking about that now I can hardly believe I actually did that, age 16, ...but I did!).

    Unfortunately, being a border crossing point I was warned that photos weren't allowed, thus the poor quality of the stealth shots on this page.

    Slowly, the train is jacked upClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The process was remarkably simple. First, the train was shunted into this big warehouse with its dual-guage lines and overhead crane, the carriages were then separated and each positioned precisely between 4 heavy duty jacks. Down into the pits below us jumped a load of workmen armed with hammers. They banged away for a while, before signally for the carriage to be lifted. The movement of the jacks was barely noticeable, and it was only when I found myself looking down on the neighbouring carriage that I realised that we were now riding high. From the far end of the building a new set of bogies was shunted under us and then positioned precisely by the workmen, now armed with big levers for sticking in front of the wheels. Once again the whir of the jacks was heard - down we came onto our new set of wheels. In the meantime, the overhead crane was being used to change all the couplings to the European standard. The speed with which all these huge bits of metal were replaced was staggering, and reminded me of a formula 1 pit-stop. OK, so it was a bit slower (taking about 45 minutes), but nonetheless...

    New bogeys are shunted into placeClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It was whilst we were in that yard that we saw what I think will be the last of the old women selling berries, fish, cigarettes and loaves of bread. I'd been quite amused at the border station by the ongoing battle between uniformed personnel and these babushkas. Clearly here the practice was frowned upon, and so whenever an official appeared the babushka gang would retreat to beneath a stairwell, hidden from view. Now and then one of them would stick their heads out, and if the coast was clear she'd signal to the gang. Back up to the train they'd come clutching pieces of cardboard with what I assume was a list of what they had to sell in their big plastic bags written in Russian. One of them even managed to stow away onboard, and when we arrived at the bogey changing station just down the track she appeared in the corridor, pausing outside every cabin and whispering to us "Cigarettes? Vodka?".

    Now in place, the train is lowered onto the bogeys and a fresh coat of superglue appliedClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    Until yesterday I knew nothing of Belarus. I still know very little, having only read the introduction to the former soviet state in a Lonely Planet guidebook. "A taste of the old Russia", complete with human rights violations pretty much sums it up - although unsurprisingly I saw little of that from the train. No, what I saw what looked like a rather idealistic landscape. Cute little wooden houses with flower-strewn gardens, the occasional donkey and cart, and lots of agriculture stretching across the many flat miles (flatness being another well-documented feature of the country). What I saw of the capital (Minsk) from the train didn't make any great impression upon me - it could have been any city which was yet to embrace the glass-plated skyscraper age. But of course, passing through a country on an international rail route can't really give you any more than a general impression of the place - although of course it still beats flying where you don't even realise you've crossed a border!

    Poland is pretty flat too. Having not read a thing about the country I don't know if this is a general trend or not. Once again, it's agriculture all the way. Both large and small-scale. You might have one huge great field of corn, and then a comparatively small patch of potatoes being worked on by the whole family. In the distance, an evergreen forest forms a horizon.




    We're now about 18 hours into this trip, which with time zones taken into account is actually going to be 34.5 hours long. I've enjoyed it so far. I slept very well last night - the bed is ultra-comfy - and today I've read an entire book cover to cover. 'Drop the Dead Donkey 2000 - the novel to end the century'. As you can guess from the title, this Channel 4 book is not exactly an intellectually stimulating read, being based as it is on the rather lame newsroom sitcom of the early 90s. I never found it that funny when I watched it as a teenager, yet despite this, I've been utterly riveted by the 'comedy' and superficial storyline contained within its 250 pages. I don't think I could read it in normal life, but for this trip it was just right. (Incidentally, I didn't really 'choose' the book: it was the only English language publication on the shelf at the last hostel where I swapped it for the well written but ultimately depressing In Siberia by whatshisface).

    Right, must be time for another piece of bread and a boiled egg.

    The most luxurious train in the whole world

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 12th September, 2007. 06:55

  • Location: Bed 32, Train 11 from Moscow to Cologne. Currently in outskirts of Moscow, 20 minutes into 32 hour journey


  • Diese zug ist nicht 'gut'. Diese zug ist SEHR gut!

    or something like that. I tell you, this train is something else. This is train travel how it's meant to be. This is what it's all about! This is the most perfect near-ending for this trip halfway around the world in 28 days!

    I arrived with plenty of time to spare at Moscow Belarsussky station last night - two hours in fact. That gave me the opportunity to spend the last of my roubles on vital supplies of chocolate, and stand around getting very cold. Finally, the platform is announced, and a few seconds later the train slowly reverses into the station.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The first thing that strikes me is that it's a very long train. Quite where my carriage is I don't know - in the section of the ticket where the carriage number is usually noted it simply states '256'. Odd, I think. Whilst this train may be pretty long, surely it can't be that long!

    Things do not bode well as I approach the train. For a start, the scruffy sign in the window of the first carriage has 'Minsk' written in Russian - I want to go a long way beyond the Belarus capital - does this mean that I'm going to have to change after all? Then, looking through the window I see that these are platzkart carriages, and ancient ones at that. Prehistoric cracked leather bunks that look about as comfortable as beds of nails hang down from the walls - that train I took from Krasnoyarsk was luxury compared to this! Whilst not expecting any first-class treatment, I can't help but feel disappointed that I have to spend another 32 hours trying not to fall off the top bunk.

    The Ost-West ExpressClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I continue to walk, now in search of a member of staff - the one thing you are unlikely to find at Russian railway stations. Interesting, I note that the carriages change completely about a third of the way up the train. Now they say they're going to Warsaw - and inside they look even worse than those going to Belarus! This must be the Polish section then. The Russian electric water boilers at the end of each carriage have been replaced by coal fires. This is clear not only from the smell of the smoke pouring from the little chimney, but by the lumps of runaway coal that litter the vestibule area. I dread to think what the toilet looks like.

    I continue to walk - I'm nearing the front of the train now, and starting to despair. Perhaps, because my ticket was last minute, I don't have an assigned seat. Perhaps there's an open carriage within which I'll have to fight for a place to sit. Perhaps. But I don't despair - everything will work out just as it was to meant to, whatever that might mean.

    And you know what? It does, in the most luxuriously spectacular way I would never even have dreamed of. When I reached the penultimate carriage I noted that its destination was Frankfurt. This sounded hopeful - it was at least the right country! And what's this? Ah, yes, below the destination is printed '256', the only other remaining carriage being '257'. This must be it.

    From the outside, these two carriages differed significantly from the others. They were taller, squarer, and had clean shiney paintwork. Somewhat modern I thought. I'm greeted by a very polite German-speaking Russian wearing a very smart navy-blue suit and a peaked hat. He checks to find out which language I would like to use (I opt for German!) takes my ticket and welcomes me aboard.

    I make my way down the corridor looking for berth 32. Odd, I think, there's only three numbers per cabin, not the usual four (or six). Finally locating mine, I open the door, and within seconds am almost jumping for joy! OOOOoooooohhhhh the luxury! On one side of this miniature cabin is a row of three very comfy-looking seats. The beds were actually in the wall so you couldn't bang your head on them, and as I found later when the attendant came to lower mine, when it folds out, you find your bedding strapped to the top of it, ready to go! After weeks on Chinese, Mongolian and Russian trains this struck me as very sci-fi!

    The most comfy bed in the whole worldClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    In the corner is a little table, and as I only discovered this morning, if you fold the table top back you'll find your own private sink below! There's a bathroom cabinet above: open the door and there's your mirror, a decanter of sorts and two glasses. On the wall a thermometer, and next to that the temperature control knob - yes, a TEMPERATURE CONTROL KNOB! "Can life get any better than this?!" I ask myself. On the wall behind the door is a rack to dry your towel on, and hanging from it 3 high-class wooden coathangers with gold-plated bits attached. The door is completely lockable, and even has one of those security chains on if you only want to open it a bit - perfect to keep those bothersome immigration officials out of your personal space! Every bed (of which only one is in use of course - it would seem I have this cabin all to myself, which is nice - I can always be social a bit later by visting some of the other folks down the corridor) has it's own little light and button to call the attendant, making this the first time I've had room service on a train!

    Pepé gives the sink a goClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I must say, I am utterly blown away by this luxury! What style to spend my last overnight trip in! Anyone would think I was travelling first class.

    My personal bathroom cabinetClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    You see, I knew there was a reason I missed that first train yesterday...

    A day in Moscow

    The following 3 posts come courtesy of a wireless link at Cologne station, Germany

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 11th September, 2007. 6.10pm

  • Location: Sweet Moscow Hostel, Moscow


  • Checking in to the Sweet Moscow Hostel I was almost surprised that there was no-one there that I knew. Ok so there was the girl with the siblings who lived just up the road from my Sheffield accommodation, and a Japanese guy - but that didn't really count.

    However, the lack of small-worldness didn't last for long: the following day, whilst chatting with the lady behind the counter at the Belarus embassy (possibly the nicest smiliest civil servant you've ever met, who started to laugh everytime she saw me due to our communication problems), who should appear beside me but Tom, as in Tom from the hostel on the lake Baikal island, and Tom from the Irkutsk hostel. That wasn't the last I'd see of him either - I bumped into him walking round the Kremlin a few hours later, and then of course once more at the embassy at visa pick-up time.

    A cloudy day at the Kremlin

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    His wasn't the only familiar face I saw that day. Whilst watching the most extraordinary domestic ever to be played out in Red Square (a Chinese couple in their early forties yelling at each other like angry Tyrannosaurus Rex's - they drew more of a crowd than Lenin's tomb!), who should tap me on the shoulder but Darren and his wife Kylie - I'd shared a room with them in a hostel over 4000km to the East of here. They gave me an update on the dried curd that I had inadvertently left in the shared kitchen, telling me that they had continued my quest to get everyone who stayed at the Baikaler to try some. Turned into a bit of a party game apparently. I'm glad it went to good use, as I was a bit miffed that I'd forgotten it, imagining it being left to harden further (if that's possible) on top of the microwave.

    Note how wide the woman's mouth is open. THAT'S how loud they were

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I enjoyed my day out and about in the centre of Moscow. On the Sunday of my arrival it chucked it down, thus I hadn't been all that keen on sightseeing (it was that afternoon that I got stung at the umbrella shop. I've since been back to try and sell it to them in its nearly-new state. The woman, on seeing me, said

    "Oh".

    I finished the sentence for her.

    "Yes, that's right, it's me."

    She wouldn't take the umbrella back, even at half price. Looks like I'll be lugging all 3 tonnes of it back to Sheffield then. It has got a good push-button erection action though.)

    So yes, it was Monday that I set off early for the Belarus Embassy to apply for my transit visa. Met a Japanese girl from Kyoto in the small queue - I was struck by how much of the language I seem to have forgotten in the space of three weeks!

    Application submitted and $45 dollars paid, I trotted off to the Kremlin, which lies at the very heart of the city. I'd never really known what a Kremlin was - just some government building I thought, but it turns out it's a lot more than that. Moscow's Kremlin is mightily impressive. It has huge red walls interrupted at regular intervals by magnificent towers. Inside the compound can be found a number of palaces and cathedrals, and at 202 tonnes the world's largest bell that has never had the pleasure of being donged.

    Not quite 22 tonnes, but a nice bell trip nonetheless

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Whilst I was very taken with the Kremlin architecture as seen from the outside, I wasn't intrigued enough to pay the entrance fee to wander around its inner sanctum, and opted instead to walk the (outer) circumference. Another reason for not going inside was that penguins weren't allowed access, and the thought of a few hours without Pepé filled me with fear.

    Pepé admires the kremlin walls

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Approaching the eastern side of the compound I was struck by St. Basils - the icon of Russia. It truly is quite a sight. So outrageous it seems more like an oversize children's toy than a real building. (Legend has it that Ivan the Terrible, who'd commissioned its construction in the 16th century, had the architect blinded after its completion so as to prevent him from creating anything comparable).

    Pepé doesn't know what to make of St. Basils

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Unfortunately, Red Square was closed that afternoon in order that the (British) Queen's Royal Scot's Guards could practice tattooing their bagpipes: for three days from the 13th this part of Moscow will host a magnificent dawn celebration, featuring military bands from all over the world. It was a shame that I was unable to get a shot of them in their kilts (they being hidden behind a stack of portable seating) - nonetheless, I loved standing there just listening to the melodious wines echoing down the boulevard.

    Lenin's tomb, being situated in Red Square, was also off limits. However, with the aid of my 200mm lens I was able to get a couple of shots of the magnificent slabs of granite.

    Lenin's tomb

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Another sight I enjoyed was the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unnamed Soldier, a memorial to all those who died in the second world war. I wasn't aware that this would be happening, and it was only when a crowd began to gather along the railings in front of the Kremlin wall that I realised that the Ministry of Silly Walks had managed to extend its influence all the way to Russia.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Clearly, these chaps have never looked at themselves in the mirror when doing this. In fact, I bet mirrors are banned in their dojo.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The highlight though had to be the exchange of meaningful expressions seconds before the fresh guards dismissed their colleagues. A close up reveals that these two are clearly quite emotionally involved. Is one of them angry with the other for the things he said last night? Or are they communicating about the darts match after work through precise rhythmical movements of the eyelids?

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Moscow has a lot to offer the weekend tourist. In addition to the eye-catching architecture, it has a wide variety of highly regarded museums and galleries. These, however, were not for me. Whilst I find history in the classroom fascinating (a recent discovery, thanks to the talented staff at SEAS), museums tend to bore me silly. A piece of pottery is still just a piece of pottery, no matter how old it is. I can but hope that this attitude of mine changes over time as I'm sure when I'm a pensioner museums will feature prominently in the SAGA holidays I take. For the time being though I'll give them a miss thanks. Galleries - it depends on the nature of the exhibition. I love modern 3D art, and recall with enthusiasm some collections by artists whose names completely escape me in London, Milan and Tokyo. Naturally, I am a great fan of photography exhibitions too, but stick me in a room with a bunch of 18th century landscapes and you may soon find me dead on the floor. Once again, I hope to educate myself in this field before I die - I know that if one attends a gallery equipped with knowledge of the artists and their influences paintings can come alive, no matter how dull the scene being portrayed.

    Despite not visiting any of Moscow's fine galleries, I have had the opportunity to appreciate some real live art - in the subways. The Moscow metro system features some of the most stunning stations you have ever seen. A magnificent labyrinth of huge caverns deep below the ground (I actually suffered from vertigo when stepping onto one escalator!), great domed halls with walls plastered with original tiled mosaics, fancy chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. If ever there was an underground network worthy of a ride, Moscow's is the one! The service is fantastic too: at peak periods the next train can be seen approaching the platform before the tail of the last has disappeared. My only complaint is the signage, which is absolutely atrocious. The lack of any English can be forgiven (anyone planning on being in Russia for any length of time should learn the Cyrillic alphabet, as I didn't), but the complete lack of underground maps anywhere except on the trains themselves means that one has to get on a train in order to find out which train one has to get on! This accounted for the fact that on my first evening it took me about 90 minutes to cover a distance of some 2km. I can only guess that this oversight is deliberate, there being some idea that any form of modern colour on the walls would destroy the austere beauty of the communist-era architecture.

    Another thing that has struck me when wandering the streets of Moscow is the beggars. Being a large capital city there are of course many of them (as with China and Mongolia, over a third of the population live below the poverty line. The state pension is only about £40 a month, yet the cost of living in places like Moscow is now said to be comparable with London. It's a dire situation, and thus its unsurprising that you do find many people on the streets, cup in hand. What is significant about Moscow's beggars however is their age - almost all of them look over 50, and the majority are female. They clearly manage to get by on charity; I lost count of the number of times I saw generous donors dropping a few coins into the cups of a sign-bearing babushka.

    There was one beggar, a young woman sitting on the street near the Belarus embassy that caused me to stop and think twice. Generally, I don't give to beggars, instead donating to charities that invest money in setting up support systems for people in need. But this time I was so stunned that I'd literally walked not 20 yards further when I had to stop and ask myself how I could possibly ignore this woman's plight. Why had she made such a strong impression? In her arms, wrapped in what reminded me of the swaddling clothes that Jesus was wrapped in the picture in our Children's Family Bible, was a little baby, not six months old. As I walked by, his dark eyes seemed to fix upon mine, and follow me. I was utterly stunned. I wouldn't describe myself as the religious type, but this experience was overwhelming, and saw me hurtling back to Sunday School. I started to think, "Ok, so I've heard that there are organised crime syndicates that have beggars working for them, but seriously, would a mother be so callous as to put her child through this, in these freezing temperatures, were she not desperate in her bid for survival? I turned around, walked back down the road, and handed her a note from my wallet.

    It was not long after that that I picked up a free copy of the English-language Moscow Times. talk about contrast. The Russia depicted in this was the one of the may sleek black cars with tinted windows that filled the streets outside of Moscow's many casinos. Pages and pages of 'news' about oil and gas deals - and that wasn't even in the business section, which also had little else to talk about. Seriously, anyone would think that this was published by the state's energy companies. Oil field this, natural gas pipeline that. I winced at the thought of those pristine areas of Siberia that were being sold off for their 'vast energy reserves'.

    Then there was the political news, most of which had some energy connection. It was either that or stories of corruption and the suppression of an opposition movement in the run-up to next year's presidential election. Oh, and the ongoing 'chilly war' with the West.

    I'm quite glad I don't live in Russia.

    But you know, I've really have found the ordinary people to be extremely kind and friendly, often going out of their way to make you feel at home. It's only when you put them in any position of authority (such as behind the counter in a shop) that they become somewhat tricky to deal with. However, even those steel facades can be melted by a big smile and comical use of a phrasebook (except when it comes to border officials).

    St Basils peers over Red Square at Lenin's tomb

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Being in Moscow, and Russia in general, has been an interesting and rewarding experience. It feels good to have more of an understanding of the people and the place, an understanding that until now has been pretty much limited to a couple of 'memorable' flights with Aeroflot!

    I now appreciate that not everyone drinks vodka all day every day (the drink beer instead; alcohol is a major factor behind the declining population here, alcohol-related health problems and accidents being common causes of death); the women are beautiful until age 30 when they seem to throw it all away (probably the stress of living with alcoholic partners); people in positions of authority are hard nuts that can be cracked with grotesque displays of deference and a sense of humour; I can easily pass as a Russian (until I open my mouth. Must be the nose); the food is great; the country is so huge that it defies the imagination. I mean, 11 time zones! The environment is trashed in those areas that have been settled; and finally, PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) are common, especially snogging (the more of ones partner's face one appears to be eating the better).

    So that's Russia then.

    Tarra.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2007

    What? You mean my train for Germany left an hour ago?!

  • Date and Time: Monday 11th September, 2007. 3pm

  • Location: Sweet Moscow Hostel, Moscow


  • Before I tell you about my time in Moscow, I must breathe out. I am just recovering from the most hectic 2 hours of this trip so far. It could have been the most stressful too, beginning as it did with a realisation that I had done someting incredibly stupid, something that made the bottom of my belly fall out.

    It began at 9am. I'd been up for several hours, trying to sort out a few issues with the hostel's computer, as requested (my expert opinion in the end was that the best thing to do was to throw it out of the window and buy a Mac). At 8am I was joined by Svetlana, the 19-year-old Russian student of Urdu who looks after folks when the manager, Baira (as featured in that photo in my album of Pepe eating a pickled sandwich) is away. We chatted for a while about learning languages and so forth, before I started to edit some Moscow pics. It was whilst I was doing that that it occurred to me that I should check the time of my train that departed for Berlin, via Belarus and Poland, tonight.

    I was pretty sure that it was scheduled to leave at 10pm, but best to confirm to be on the safe side. First off, I needed to check the address of the travel agent who was holding my ticket for me - I'd bought it a couple of months back via the internet at a cost of $219, and had to pick it up from a Moscow office that by sheer 'coincidence' happened to be located just up the road from the hostel.

    Looking at the email from the agent I got the biggest shock of my life, and then the sickest feeling ever, as I saw, below the travel agent's address, the train times. "Monday September 11th, 8.20am".

    Oh. My. God. That was, er, about an hour ago. I quickly found a wall and started banging my head against it.

    You should have seen me fly! My clothes were back in my rucksack in no time! At the door I was seen off by Svetlana, Takashi (from Japan), and the couple from Belgium. "Good luck!" they called, as I forgot my fear of long drops and summoned the elevator. Oh! But my socks! I'd left my socks in the bathroom! Back in I went, grabbed the sweet swelling pair and then dashed back out onto the landing where the lift doors were just squeaking open. I felt everyone rooting for me as I ran, rucksack laden, up the busy commuter street to the main road which I was only too familiar with having spent hours trudging its pavements on the morning of my arrival in town. This time though it was a very different place - it was quiet. But not just quiet - deserted. What's going on? Hang on, what's this? there, on the opposite side of the streets all the traffic is being held back by police. The buses confined to their stops. Glancing down the road things become clear, as a huge long motorcade of police cars and armoured vehicles sandwiching 2 black Mercedes came into site. "That must be Putin" I thought to myself, having dreamed about seeing him a couple of nights back.

    Despite being in a desperate hurry to get to the travel agent, I calculated that dashing across the road in front of the cavalcade would probably not be the wisest of moves - if I was able to make it to the other side I'd probably find myself feeling rather holey, or flat.

    Emerging from the underpass I darted down the sideroad as per the emailed instructions, and a few queries later found myself in the reception of MPP Megapolis travel.

    Despite being told to take a seat and wait, I couldn't help but pace up and down the almost deserted office. They weren't due to open for another 45 minutes, but I'd asked Svetlana to phone ahead and let them know that an idiot of an Englishman was going to show up shortly.

    I showed 'Jenny' (well, she struck me as 'Jenny') my receipt, who, unaware of the minor problem with date and time handed it over with a smile.

    When I pointed out what a silly boy I'd been she threw her hands to her head and made an "On no!!" sound in Russian. Yes, I was a silly boy wasn't I?

    I didn't really know what to expect. Having experienced the joys of Russia service for the past week or two I thought I might just get a shrug of the shoulders, and a "there's nothing we can do about it". But no, this was Jenny, Jenny the amazing, Jenny the incredible, Jenny the I-can-talk-on-two-phones-at-once. I explained the situation with my tickets from Berlin (translation service provided by her colleague on the other end of the phone) - if I missed those high-speed rail links from the German capital I had no way of getting home, at this late stage the tickets would be prohibitively expensive, and I only had £100 (US$200) in the bank. On hearing this, Jenny invited me into her office in the back, and flew into a frenzy.



    She did use two phones at the same time, babbling away with a voice that carried more urgency than an ambulance siren on speed. As more staff arrived at the office, so they were collared and instructed to make further phone calls. After about 20 minutes the English speaking receptionist turned up. On hearing my story she burst out laughing, and agreed that yes, I was a silly boy. The office was now buzzing. With all that activity, there had to be a positive outcome.

    Initially, taxis and buses to the Russia / Belarus border were looked into, but no, it really was too late. Even with a suicidal driver we'd never catch that train. Trains of course were out too - this was a non-stop international service, so the national ones had no chance of competing. Flights ...er, what was the whole point of taking this trip...? (I must confess that I did think that if worst came to worst, I might have to take to the air. I mulled over whether I'd reveal it or not on the Mumble!!) (I know honesty would have got the better of me).

    Another major issue was my Belarus transit visa. It came into effect at midnight last night, and is only valid for 48 hours. Miss that window of opportunity and I have to traipse back to the embassy and go through the entire application (and payment) process again.

    After 45 minutes of frantic activity Jenny struck gold - there was a train leaving Moscow tonight, not to Berlin, but direct to Cologne, the very place I was heading for (after Berlin) to catch my high-speed train to the UK via Brussels! A miracle!! This train was even better than the first one - despite leaving Moscow 14 hours later, it arrived in Cologne 25 minutes earlier!

    And guess what time this train is leaving? 22:00. Exactly as I had (mistakenly) thought from the outset. Funny thing that...

    But what about the cost? What about the $200 I'd paid for the train I'd missed. Surely I couldn't expect any refund for that, what with me having given absolutely no notice, thus effectively absently occupying the seat all the way to Berlin. Two Hundred Dollars. It made me sick to think about the wastage. And the price of the new ticket? $300. But then Jenny gets her calculator out and deducts 75% of the value of my wasted ticket - I just need to pay the difference - $150 - almost exactly what I have left in the bank back home.

    And so the story has a happy ending. I'm told to return in a couple of hours when my tickets will be ready. This gives me time to drop my bags back at the hostel and buy some flowers for Jenny, who blushes when I present them at lunchtime. I'd wanted to buy chocolates for the receptionist too, but was now down to my last 10 dollars - if I spent that, I wouldn't be able to eat until Hereford!

    Walking through the office on my way out from Jenny's office, a couple of members of staff in their mid-40s shout across the room, "Hello Mr. Brown, how's business?". Laughter erupts all around. I tell them that thanks to their company business is great - although my name is not Mr. Brown!

    There's a postscript to this story.

    Back at the hostel I started chatting with the Dutch chap who'd had a restless night on the bunk above mine. I ask him if he's liking Moscow. No, he's not. In fact, he's desperate to leave but can't find a flight. There's something about the way he's talking that tells me that there's a story behind his desperation, but I don't push it. Instead, I tell him about Jenny the amazing travel agent - maybe she can help. As we head off to the now-familiar office together I learn more about his plight - he's been jilted by his boyfriend, and can't bare to be in this city any longer. I sympathise with him. Its not nice to be in such a state in a place with so many memories.

    Opening the door of the office, I am greeted by laughter - it's the secretary - "what are you doing back here?!" "It's not me, it's my friend. He needs to get out of Moscow, and the service is so good here that I couldn't help but recommend it!

    I've left him in their capable hands.

    With all that sorted, and my eye firmly on the clock, I've been shopping and bought 3 huge loaves of bread, a big bunch of bananas, half a dozen (now hard-boiled) eggs, some olive spread and a tub of Philadelphia. Sandwiches have been made - they should see me through.



    If I was able to turn the clock back 12 hours in order that I could get that train this morning, would I do so? Well, although it's cost me all the money I have left in the world (literally), I don't think I would. The kindness shown me today was priceless. As was having the chance to talk more with the staff and other guests here this morning, and then of course there's my friend who, had I not missed the train, maybe wouldn't have been able to get out of town today. Oh, and I wouldn't have seen Putin either.

    Anyhow, I SHALL be on that train for Cologne tonight. It's a 34-hour journey that will see me pass through 4 countries - let's hope my bananas see me through.

    Bye bye Moscow, thanks for having me. It's been fun.

    [a full account of my time in Moscow will be uploaded once I arrive in the UK. Can't afford to miss another train so it's off to the station for me! In the meantime, Moscow photos are now available in my online Web Gallery]

    Monday, September 10, 2007

    Hello Moscow

  • Date and Time: Monday 10th September, 2007. 22:45

  • Location: Sweet Moscow Hostel, Moscow

  • It was only when our train was within about 90 minutes of Moscow station that our little section of carriage 9 got talking. Up until that point, the atmosphere had been somewhat strained by Marilyn and her daughter. Mother had had a funny effect upon us all. We felt that we had to behave ourselves whenever the mother scolded the child (which was constantly). But when we all woke up at about 5am on Sunday we discovered that mother and daughter had done a disappearing act in the night, and had been replaced by a rather talkative granny, age 45 or so.

    This is what platzkart is all about

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Well, that was it, we were off. Once it had been established that I wasn't Russian and that I didn't understand any Russian (that didn't take long) the questions came with all the force of a machine gun, and at about the same rate of rapid fire too. The lady from the next carriage translated: What was I doing in Russia? Why had I come from Japan? Did I like Russia? What was my favourite city? Was I married? Did I know anyone in Moscow? Where was I going to stay.

    It's when the line of questioning reaches that stage that I start to become uneasy. I begin to imagine being welcomed back to people's houses, and being unable to relax for fear of offending the generous host. Of having to continue to make a huge effort to communicate, when all I want to do is take it easy in an English-speaking environment for a while. Like at the hostel I booked a couple of months beforehand. So I tell them, "Yes, I know people in Moscow" (well, I've exchanged emails with the hostel receptionist haven't I?). "I'm staying at a friend's house" - and this is true, well, now it is as I've met the owner of this 8th floor apartment that has been converted into a guesthouse of sorts.

    They seem satisfied with this, and move on to the next topic: the ring on my finger. The granny becomes very animated when I show her a photo of *Twinkle*, passing it around whilst nodding and cooing in approval. It's then that the slightly odd-looking chap in his 20s (another recent addition to our carriage) starts to tap-tap away on his Nokia. I'm curious. He's been eyeing me suspiciously ever since he got on. Glancing up at my bunk, looking away when I catch his eye. What's going through his mind?

    Suddenly, he sits bolt upright, and reading from his screen announces to the world, "My name is Arthur. I am a student. I want to be an actor". I try to suppress my involuntary laughter (caused more by surprise than anything), and instead just manage to splurt out, "You speak English!!" A look of satisfaction gradually spreads across his face until he is positively beaming. Spurred on by this initial success he ignores my question that follows ("do you live in Moscow?") and instead returns to his touch-screen Nokia, beating out his next sentence. "I am 24 years old. Where are you from?". We've already covered this ground, so I assume he's just going for the stuff he kind of knows. Well, that's OK. I answer his question, although he pays no attention to what I'm saying - he's too busy tapping out his next announcement.

    The sense of relief I am expecting to feel when we arrive at Moscow never comes. Instead, there's just sadness that our little community has to split up so soon. It's not quite over though - the granny beckons me to follow her; she guides me off the platform, around the corner and down the stairs to the Metro ticket office. I thank her, say goodbye, and start to think about my first task of the day: finding the hostel.




    PepŽ waits for the Moscow Metro

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Initially I was really impressed with my navigation skills. I'd found the street that was given on the booking confirmation on my ridiculously undetailed Lonely Planet map, and figured out which subway train I needed to take to get there. Grateful that it was only 6.30 on a Sunday morning (both streets and platforms were deserted, giving me time to think), I made my way to what I thought was my station. Emerging from the dimly lit passage, I was faced with Lenin, sitting outside what I guessed to be Lenin's Library.

    Not Lenin's library

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The hostel was number 31 Arbat Street. This street seemed to match the description given (Arbat something-or-other-written-in-Russian), so off I set in search of the building.

    The Moscow Metro

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I walked.
    And walked.
    And walked.

    Number 5, number 15, and after no less than half-an-hour, number 29. ...and then the end of the road! Where was number 31? Was this some cruel joke, or was it a kind of Harry Potter type arrangement, with the doorway magically opening between the brickwork of number 29? I wasn't about to run into the wall to find out, and instead returned to studying the map. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I was on Arbat something-or-other-written-in-Russian, whereas the hostel was on Arbat something-or-other-ELSE-written-in-Russian. Knowing that there must be a good reason for me getting mixed up which would reveal itself in due course, I smiled, and made the turn south for the correct Arbat street.

    A cow walks past the Hard Rock Cafe opposite our hostel

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It must have been about 8.30am by the time I found the building. I was expecting some sign to jump out at me with the words "Hostelling International" - but there was none of that. It was a normal door in a normal early 20th century apartment block. Odd, I thought, this definitely was the right address. I dialled 31 on ye ancienty keypad, and pressed the bell button. There's a feint ring... but no reply.

    Pepe and the Moscovian flowers

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Now I was stumped. How was I supposed to get in? A temporary ray of hope hit me when I saw a nearby payphone, but that simply insisted that there was an error with my visa card. I was half-expecting the message on the LCD to flash up the message "Nice try - but you're gonna have to be a bit cleverer than that".

    What else could I do? Not much. I stood there contemplating the situation. Should I sacrifice my morals and pass the time with a coffee in the 'McKafe' (the burger chain's answer to Starbucks, complete with Starbucks interior and Starbucks music) down the road? My desperate need for the toilet adds to the pressure, and I was about to cave in when suddenly, the door behind me opened, and an old headscarfed babushka emerged. I seized my chance and slipped in before the door closed behind her - and found myself in the most unhostelish entrance hall.

    A long dark corridor led stoney-floored towards a wide stairwell at the back of the building. There was a strong smell of rotting garbage in the air - must have been coming from that waste-chute in the corner, unless there was something I'd rather not know about behind the cobwebbed stack of forgotten chairs on my right. Next to the staircase was a metal cage - a lift - it looked like it was experiencing an afterlife following years hauling blackened men up some Siberian mine shaft. I glanced at the solitary cable that held it dangling mid-air - and decided to walk. (Later, on seeing the sign stating that a hefty fine would have to be paid by those riding more than two at a time, I thought what a good idea this had been).

    8 flights of stairs later I found myself at the door to the Hostel Sweet Moscow. The only indication that this was the place, and not some family home, was a little scrap of paper stuck to the door. In Times New Roman it said, "Welcome".

    I ring the bell. The sound of a cuckoo can be heard, against a backdrop of teeth-brushing. No footsteps though. No latch-turning. I ring the bell again. This time, after a little pause the door opens. Standing there is a lady whom I later learn is an opera singing granny from New York. "I'm 71 don't you know" she tells anyone who will listen. I can't help but admire her, despite the manner in which she uses most people as doormats.

    I guess I'm in Russia

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    In the end, check-in took me no less than 5 hours. I didn't mind though. I was happy to sit in the reception area, which also happened to be the living room, and kitchen, and manager's office, chatting with other guests, checking my emails (on the only computer in the place, an ancient machine with its side-panel removed, revealing a tangle of wires and a hard drive that clicked away furiously with the sound of the hard drive pixie's footsteps). Finally, my online booking was retrieved and I was shown to my bunk. "You'll be OK in here" said the girl from Manchester who's brother and sister both lived just up the road from me in Sheffield. "We slept in here last night; no-one snored at all".

    Golden turrets against a torrid sky

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    And so began my time in Moscow.

    A walk amongst the stones

  • Date and Time: Sunday 9th September, 2007. 4:38am Moscow Time

  • Location: Internet cafe next to the Kremlin, Moscow

  • £10 for an umbrella?! £4.50 for two hours of internet?! This place is killing me.

    I didn't actually have enough roubles to pay for my umbrella - the only one in the street, so I used all my charm, wit and intelligence (?) to persuade the rather stroppy woman in the shop to accept Chinese Yuan instead - which she did.

    I'm considering trying to sell it back to them tomorrow at half price.

    Having paid so much for it I'm almost hoping that when I get out of this basement level internet cafe it's still piddling it down, as the BBC widget tells me it should be.

    It took me about an hour to get up to date with stuff : Send and receive a stack of emails; update the Mumble and its mirror; Download this month's audio book - thought I'd learn a bit about Taoism... ; upload a load a photos to Flickr, download the new version of iTunes; order my vitamins so they'll be ready to keep me epilepsy-free when I arrive in the UK; find out where the Belarus embassy is to get my transit visa tomorrow; marvel at all the new iPods that Apple have released (but funnily enough not lust after them all that much, I rather like my 30GB classic); listen to Skype messages; do a bit of banking; check the weather forecast; take a quick peak at international news (rather dull, the only thing that caught my attention was Pavorotti's farewell. I'd always wanted to see him live...); download new podcast episodes; check my RSS feedreader (over 300 new stories - I declared RSS bankruptcy, and will start from scratch!); updated my exchange rate converter thing.

    Oh yeah, all this is part of the re-entry plan.




    So, the 60-hour journey finally came to an end. I found myself getting really excited as we neared Moscow (when I say 'neared', I mean within about 7 hours of arrival), and was unable to sleep. Had to get up again and make a list of things to do once back in the UK.

    I'm tremendously excited about returning now. My motto for this year is "I must be all I can be". It's gonna be a big big challenge, but I will strive to make this year in the UK one of my best yet.

    Reading some of my friend's blogs who have just returned to the UK from their year in Japan takes me straight back to my last return after a long stint away, in 2003. I remember being shocked at the rudeness, the loudness, the inconsiderateness. I'm hoping that this time I'll adapt much more quickly - after all, it's all in the mind. I could choose to be put out by it all, or I could chose to return with a positive attitude, one that sees me embracing the differences.

    It's been great getting messages from *Twinkle* on her mobile (they use email in Japan rather than SMS), it feels like she's just around the corner. Her business is going so well it makes me sickeningly proud of her - in a non-patronising way. I'm dead excited about going back there and living with her after my amazing 2007 / 2008 in the UK. I love home-making. What's even better about home-making this time around is that we now have all the basics that a home needs, so it won't cost us an arm and a leg.




    5 hours later, back at my Moscow hostel

    I never did tell you what happened to our engineless train on the Mongolian/Russian border did I? Well, it turned out that the international part of the train was actually only two carriages long and the other 8 or so had been shunted off after their domestic run, leaving us to wait for immigration to come on duty at 9am. After that, we were joined by 8 carriages which formed the Russian domestic bit.

    And I never did tell you about my second day in Krasnoyarsk did I? The incident with the chipmunk? The appearance of Woody the Woodpecker? The big rocks sticking out of the ground?

    Pepe meets the chipmonk



    It was a 'nice' day. I had an easy morning, looking for a toilet as the water in the hotel had been cut off just for my benefit. I eventually located one in a fast food restaurant - which even had toilet paper! Quite a novelty for Russia (and I thought Japan was bad not providing hand-drying facilities... that toilet roll I stole from the hotel in Osaka has been coming in mighty handy :-) It was then a case of finding some lunch, so off I headed to the one supermarket listed in the guidebook which, just for my benefit, was a pile of rubble that morning. So I tried to locate some other place that sold food, a place that wouldn't involve too much pain, perhaps a place where the display behind the counter wasn't so far away that pointing became a pointless exercise. I eventually located some kind of delicatessen staffed by a friendly looking girl in her mid 20s, where homemade Marks & Sparks type dishes were sold from great porcelain dishes, porcelain dishes that were within easy reach of my index finger! The only minor problem was that I didn't have a clue what any of the labels on the dishes said - all I could do was guess by the textures and colours. I was lucky though: when it came to lunchtime I found I'd selected a gorgeous smoked salmon dish, followed by a heavenly beetroot and cheese salad. Well done Joseph. This following your instincts business really works!

    Trees grow on big rocks, so they do


    It was then off to find Bus 55K departing from just north of the river - and here I felt totally indebted to a very kind girl (who lives just up the road from the Arts Tower in Sheffield) whom I'd met at the hostel in Irkutsk. She had given me detailed instructions on how to reach Solby nature reserve, located some 20km south of the city. It turned out that the trans-siberian guide book that we were both carrying was hopelessly misleading: it talked about taking bus 55a from the station, and gave no details of where to go once one had got off the bus in the village of Dhakov.

    But with her gift of knowledge, and my little scrap of paper with "please tell me when we get to Dhakov" written in my best Russian handwriting, I was prepared. She'd told me to take the little road on the left a few hundred yards from the bus stop, to follow it until it turned into a dirt track, and to just keep on walking.

    She said keep on walking, but I didn't think she meant keep on walking for that long! Crikey oh riley, that track never ended, it went on for, like, 3 billion miles. Up and up through the woods - I was sure I was going to end up face-to-face with a polar bear in the arctic. It was a bit scary actually. I let my mind wander, and thought that the gang of construction workers putting up a safety barrier by the side of the road were going to murder me, and when I managed to escape them (by walking past as calmly as possible and pretending I wasn't actually there) the chap in the huge lorry that buzzed up and down was going to run me over.


    He didn't in the end. Nor did the driver of the great Japanese digger that was clearing out the ditch swing his shovel round and knock me to the ground. The man who ran the little shop by the log-cabin-chapel didn't try and shoot me with his rifle either, and in the end even the bears decided not to eat me. I tell you, by the time I reached the sign announcing the entrance to Solby Nature Reserve, I felt blessed indeed.



    I'm unsure as to why Solby nature reserve plays host to some mightily impressive pointy rocks, but it does. Some rise as high as 80 metres from the ground, towering above the surrounding trees. I followed the path for some time between various turrets, until eventually I was overcome by the desire to climb one of them. That turned out to be not such a wise idea as I got rather stuck halfway up one, memories of that time I climbed up a Swiss Alp covered in ice coming back to haunt me. I nearly died that day, and since then have not been all that keen on rock-climbing in trainers.

    Still, after about 15 minutes of an overly-cautious descent, I made it back to the safety of solid ground, and decided to calm my nerves with that beetroot salad bought earlier in the day.

    It wasn't long after I'd tucked in that Mr. Chipmunk turned up.

    I must say, I was quite pleased with these shots.






    Having regained my confidence I set off through the woods once again, passing by numerous woodpeckers (unfortunately too high up under the shade of the forest canopy to be made to look lovely with my 200mm zoom), until I found the path back down the mini-mountain. As I walked I listened to an inspiring audiobook, and smiled at all around me. I was happy.


    Once back in town I discovered to my delight that the rucksack I'd left with the hotel receptionist hadn't been stolen, and that I had ample time to make my way through the dusty suberbs to the railway station, where a couple of hours later I boarded train 55 for Moscow.

    It had been a lovely final day out and about in Asia. I was going to miss the peace and beauty of those vast expanses of open grassland and dense birch forests. Perhaps, once back in the UK I might be able to recapture that feeling of freedom by biking out to the Peak District at weekends. Or by playing Second Life in my student flat when supposedly studying kanji.




    Tomorrow I head off to the Belarus embassy to try and convince them to give me a transit visa on the spot. After that, if the rain's eased off, I may do a spot of Moscovian Site-seeing.

    If you have an hour or so to spare, do feel free to join me.

    Love joseph

    Sunday, September 09, 2007

    Photo albums back online

    It was brought to my attention that I had (inadvertently) locked my online albums to non-registered users, and not allowed new users to register!

    Just to say that I have today realised my mistake and unlocked them. Apologies for any trouble caused.

    All 9 albums from this trip now available here

    A note to Mumblers

    If you're enjoying these mumbles from the road, please consider clicking on the adverts bottom right of the Mumble. These Russian net cafes cost an absolute fortune!

    If you're not enjoying these mumbles from the road, please consider clicking on the adverts bottom right of the Mumble. These Russian net cafes cost an absolute fortune!

    60-hour train ride - Part 2

    [apologies for lack of photos. I took very few during this stretch of the journey.]

  • Date and Time:Saturday 8th September 2007 14:52 Moscow time

  • Location: Seat 18, Train 55 to Moscow, Siberia



  • The Beatles' Yesterday wafts down the carriage from one of the sections that has the radio turned up loud - Yesterday? I can't recall any yesterday. 'Time' has lost all meaning.

    When was the last time you got on a train clean-shaven, and found yourself stepping off it at your destination with a good bit of bristle? Probably never if you're a girl, and likely to be never even if you're a boy.

    That's the way it's going. I'm now 45 hours into my trip from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow, breaking the previous record for a single ride - that was 44 hours across the East China Sea to Shanghai.

    Whilst the scenery outside the window has not changed all that much - the birch trees continue to line the embankment (albeit now joined by beeches and other deciduous varieties) The characters around me have nearly all changed; only Marilyn (with still-perfect makeup) and her precocious daughter share my roots way back East. Gone is the businessman in his brown suit and bright orange tie: in his place a granny who woke the whole carriage at 2am with her complaints about being on the top bunk. The other mother and daughter pair now take the form of a sleeping alcoholic, his huge belly on show to all, his loud snore ensuring we don't fail to notice he's there.

    Unlike most of train journeys I have taken up until now, this one is proving to not be about the places I pass through or even the people I ride with - it is unmistakably about me. With virtually nothing by way of distraction, my mind has been wandering. At first I felt I needed something else to soak up the hours, so I read (and finished) my book, In Siberia. It painted a very depressing picture of the region, and one that I felt wasn't all that fair. The grim picture the author painted of the view from the chapel on the hill above Krasnoyarsk was not the same view I saw. I saw a city much like any other city, with a centre, suburbs, and industry. It was a city that was alive with activity, not some casualty of an economic slump gasping for breath.

    Then the book was finished, so I decided to listen again to a couple of audiobooks that have helped me a great deal in this year. One focuses upon our ability to take control of our lives should we so choose to do so, and listening to it blew away those mental blocks that had, until that point, prevented me from believing in my true potential. The second audiobook focuses more on the spirit, and helped me awaken to the idea that we are but energy, and that all around us is energy. One chapter I listened to yesterday was focusing on problems. A problem, before it hits our eyes or ears, before our brains process it, is merely energy. It is not innately good or bad - it is just energy. It is only when we grasp a hold of that energy and assign meaning to it that it becomes a problem - so why not choose to assign a more positive meaning to it, whatever it may be? I have tried to embrace this kind of thinking in the past few months, and I must say, it has made a huge positive impact on my life.




    When my iPod died, so I was left to thinking. My mind turned to my final destination - the UK - how did I feel about returning there?

    Just over three weeks ago I left Japan not in the least bit prepared for being back in the UK. I didn't want to return. I had a life in Japan with which I was happy. My finance was there, as were some precious friends.

    Arriving in China, all thoughts of loss were wiped from my mind as I became embroiled in the 'struggle' for daily survival. OK, so this was no life-and-death struggle, but familiarity and the ability to easily communicate my ideas, wants and desires was taken from me. As I journeyed north into Mongolia, so my surroundings became even more foreign. There were times when I felt I had lost control over my destiny - I was at the mercy of the kindness and guidance of others. Leaving Ulaanbaatar I meet Adrian, and then the good folks at the Baikaler and Nikita. The tide has turned, and I am being eased back into European life.

    And finally, I take this train. The landscape, whilst not exactly typical of that I might find in the UK, could be thought of as vaguely familiar. European chocolate bars appear in the shops on station platforms, Western pop music is heard over the intercom including a number of absolute classics that I love.

    One frustration has been the inability to communicate with shop keepers, and thus the inability to buy the food I want. As I lye there in my bunk I begin to dream of my mum's cooking - and wow! I can taste it in 5 days! I then start to think of how good it will feel to be able to talk with others, to have a shower when I want, to put my photos of Japan up on my wall in my Sheffield apartment, to plug my Mac into the mains and not worry about only having 15 mins of battery power left.

    I start to really look forward to being back in the UK. This is not expected. Every other time I have left Japan I have felt a sense of mourning, but this time I have not made an artificially short journey of 15 hours, no, this time I have done it the way it was meant to be, and it feels just right. Yes, I do miss my fiance and friends in Japan, but this time things differ there too as I have far firmer foundations, and the knowledge that I am going back in under a year on a semi-permenant basis.

    I decide that it is important that I be everything I can be during this coming year in the UK. I must live each day as the precious day that it is, and press forward to achieve the many goals I have set myself whilst sitting here in this bunk, on train 55 to Moscow.

    And with that, the battery died

    60-hour train ride - Part 1

  • Date and Time: Friday 7th September, 2007. 08:38am Moscow Time
  • Location: Seat 18, Train 55 to Moscow, Siberia

    I'm not entirely sure where I am at the moment. Somewhere is Siberia. The train left Krasnoyarsk for Moscow 14 hours ago now.

    In that 14 hours, it's stopped three times.

    Waking this morning after a surprisingly good night's sleep, I looked out of the window and saw exactly what I'd seen when I got on - a vast flat land, covered in silver birches. I wonder what it is that has led to their dominance - they really are everywhere. And we're not talking just one rather large forest, we're talking hundreds of miles of pencils of white.

    Oh, and you know I said that I wouldn't be going hard class anymore? That my previous journey travelling commoner style was experience enough? It seems I was wrong. I'm spending this 60 hour journey back in the open carriage, and to make things extra-memorable, I have a top bunk again. A top bunk that is so close to the luggage rack that I can't even sit up in bed, and struggle to turn over without falling off the edge.

    Not only that - I have hyperactive traveling companions to contend with for the duration of the 4100km trip. One is age 3 (thus the potty on the floor of our section), the other about 5. Two blonde-haired girls, with their blonde-haired mothers. I haven't made a terribly good impression on the one who looks like Marilyn Monroe - when trying to extract a banana from my rucksack on the luggage rack my penknife slipped out and fell, narrowly missing her daughter's head. I apologised and laughed nervously.

    The constant rock of the train is strangely calming. The general theme is sleep, interspersed by periods of shared activity (in the case of most passengers this means eating. In our case it means playing with mummy's mobile phone when the story that's being read to us gets too boring, or crying). There's certainly no sign of dirty old men swigging from bottles of vodka.

    When we do stop most people tend to get off and stretch their legs. The timetable on the wall by the toilet informs us how long we'll be pausing for (about 20 minutes at the main cities) - waiting for us with their dried fish, bags of boiled potatoes, loaves of bread and bunches of flowers are the army of babushkas - the elderly women with faces made of wrinkled leather, hair bound to their heads by tight scarfs. The men meanwhile have their arms full of the furriest fur balaclavas you've ever seen. They have a huge variety of colours, although I've yet to see any of the blue or green ones that have been especially bred following research by Siberia's top university.

    Personally, I give them a miss. Instead I head for the row of 10 little cabins at the end of the platform all selling an identical selection of drinks and snacks. It had been my intention to not at anything but fruit on this trip - after all the abuse my stomach suffered in Mongolia I want to be kind to it - recently everytime I've eaten anything at all it's started to hurt. (Another benefit of not eating much would be fewer visits to the toilet. I imagine that on such a long journey they can only end up looking more suited to Glastonbury Festival than an otherwise pretty clean trans-siberian train).

    But seeing the selection of chocolate bars and sweet pastries is too much like temptation, and I climb back aboard a few roubles later with a selection of sugary treats. The bag of apples and bananas I bought yesterday are returned to the luggage rack.




    2 hours later

    Wow, Roxette! I knew it was just a matter of time before we were to hear the classic early 90s It must have been love blasting out over the PA system!

    I just paid my first visit to the toilet, and despite being pleasantly surprised by its cleanliness, I was horrified by what I saw in the mirror - my face is falling off! I knew I'd burnt it pretty badly when I went cycling on Olkholn, but I had no idea that I was going to lose an entire layer of skin as the main character in a cheap horror film might. It seriously looks pretty disturbing: my forehead had big strips of skin hanging off it, and whilst I've now removed the worst of these, I still look somewhat odd with my dual-layer face.

    Perhaps that's why the three-year-old was looking at me with such fascination.

    Hopefully the transmorgification will be complete by the time we arrive in Moscow, the day after tomorrow. Until then, I'll just try not to scare the kids.

    The terrible two have been causing a lot of grief for their mothers, although I can't help but think that they could make life a lot easier for themselves by practising a policy of non-interference. Constantly telling their girls to sit still seems to be exhausting for all involved. I suppose I should wait until the day I have terrible twins to keep control of on a 60-hour journey before passing judgement!

    I'm guessing it's about 5.30pm local time now - hard to tell when the train is scheduled to pass through 4 time zones en-route to the capital. We've made a couple more stops during the day at fairly major cities. It's fascinating watching the gradual conversion from countryside to town - clearings in the endless miles of trees (the silver birches have lost their monopoly now) gradually become more common, playing host to traditional wooden cabins with their brightly painted shutters. The number of minor railway stations increases, as does the number of people on foot or bicycle on the track that runs alongside the line. Vehicles only start appearing when we come closer to the city, marked by chemical plants with belching chimneys, surrounded by 15-storey apartment blocks still under construction.

    For some passengers this is the destination, and I eye the now empty seat and table with interest. However, a minute later my hopes are dashed as new passengers climb onboard: a girl in high heels and the tightest jeans you've ever seen takes the place of the old man who was there a moment ago. She looks more like she's going out to a nightclub than spending 40 hours on a train.

    Outside the train the old women selling fish are joined by a team of rail workers who stop at every carriage and hit the axels with a hammer. Checking the wheels aren't about to fall off perhaps?

    And then before we know it there's movement, on to our next stop perhaps hundreds of kilometers from here.

  • Wednesday, September 05, 2007

    Thoughts on The Russians

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 5th September August, 2007. 19:40 (Moscow +4)
  • Location: Room 513, Hotel Gostiny Dvor, Krasnoyarsk, Russia (4098km East of Moscow)

    It's been a recovery day today. A series of late nights, and then yesterday's 19-hour train journey had left me exhausted, thus, when I arrived in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk at 5.30am my first thoughts were of getting more sleep in a cheap hotel.

    And that's exactly what I've done. Checking in was fun. I asked, in my best Russian, for a single room - but they had none. Instead I was offered a room for three, which I accepted. It would seem that no-one else is going to be joining me though, so I have a larger room for less than the price of a single which I'm chuffed about. I reckon they are afraid of getting complaints if they put anyone else with the foreigner who has decorated the place with his freshly hand-washed underwear, and who has spread his belongings far and wide in a bid to find out what's in the bottom of his rucksacks.

    Then came the trouble with my visa. In post-communist Russia, one still has to get one's visa registered whenever one stops anywhere for more than 3 days. Many hotels offer this service, and charge up to £20 for doing so. Its a nice little earner for them, and many tourists, hearing tales of fine-hungry cops pouncing on unsuspecting foreigners, are only too eager to pay for the stamp.

    However, technically, if one is moving on in less than 3 days, one doesn't need a stamp - it's just a waste of money. Thus, when the lady at the reception asked for my passport, ticket and immigration card I suspected she was going to 'kindly' (and unnecessarily) register my visa, and charge me more than the cost of the room for the service. How could I explain that I didn't want to be registered? In the visa section, my phrasebook only tells me how to say "Where can I have my visa registered?" (gdye registriravat vizu). What to do? My solution was to say, in Russian,

    "Where can I have my visa registered? NO!"


    The receptionist looked a bit perplexed, but eventually seemed to understand and only charged me the £10 room fee.

    The Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk from aboveClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    After a morning nap and the writing of a load of emails connected with my return to the UK (I came to the conclusion that the only sensible way to deal with the fear of returning was to embrace it), I decided to head out to Stolby nature reserve, which, with its spikey rocks is one of the main attractions around here. However, on arriving at the appropriate bus stop it began to rain (for the first time since I left Japan, aside from the amazing thunder and lightening storm that the train passed through last night, scaring the stripy red and white-topped girl out of her wits), thus I decided to do that tomorrow, weather permitting. My train to Moscow isn't until 10.30pm, so I'll have the whole day to do stuff. Oh, about that train: you know yesterday I said that "My lack of funds means that the use of the comfy couchettes has come to an end. From here it's Platzkart all the way to Moscow... well, yesterday's 19 hour trip persuaded me otherwise when it came to buying the tickets this morning. At least I think so. The price would indicate that I bought a bed in a comfy couchette carriage, although I won't really know until I get on the train. The thing is, in order to pack an additional 20 beds in per carriage they've made the bunks much smaller, thus, not only do my feet stick right out into the corridor, but there's also the risk of falling off the top bunk as there's no guard rail. Also, there's no air conditioning, and when the fearsome granny says she wants the window shut, every obeys. Finally, there's no corridor with windows in which to sit and watch the world go by or to take photos from. Yes, I may be spoilt, but the thought of another 3 days spent on a train like yesterday's just fills me with despair! Thus my 15 minute preparation for the ticket-buying event, which saw me painstakingly writing out in Russian script exactly what I wanted, with a "please" written in big letters along the bottom of the scrap of paper.

    It seemed to do the trick.

    The further West we go the fewer of these traditional wooden houses remain. Many have been replaced with Western style apartment blocksClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I was actually pleasantly surprised to be able to buy any ticket at all. It's well known that these trains get booked up in advance, and even if there are tickets available there is this mysterious phenomena in Russia whereby people will just refuse to sell you something for no apparent reason. It's most common on the railways, where one can simply be refused a ticket to some particular town, despite the fact that other travellers you know have had no problem. This even occurs with Russian speakers, such as Mark, the travel guide author, thus ruling out the possibility that this is just due to the language barrier. It happens elsewhere too - like in the supermarket. I was refused some bananas the other day, for no apparent reason. I was allowed bread, cheese and water, but the big display of bananas they had was off limits. There was nothing I could do but shrug my shoulders, pay for what I was allowed, and try someplace else.

    I don't really enjoy shopping for food in Russia as it involves a lot of pointing and misunderstanding. For some reason - I guess it's high crime levels - in virtually every food shop I have been in one is not allowed to pick up what one wants oneself. Everything is behind the counter, which is sometimes protected from the public by a row of iron bars which stand from counter to ceiling. There may be fridges stacked with drinks on the customer's side of the counter, but these can't be opened unless you ask the lady behind the counter to point her remote control at them. This one took me a while to figure out; I've never come across such a bizarre system.

    My impression of Russians in general is that once you get to know them they are friendly and helpful. Initially, my unthinking feeling was that they're not half as friendly as Asians - in Japan, China or Mongolia conversations with complete strangers were not uncommon - but to say such a thing would not be fair. After all, here I tend to blend in. I don't look like a foreigner so there is no obvious reason for the locals to ask me where I'm from. Another reason for having less interaction with the locals is that English speakers are relatively rare in Siberia, in comparison with the number that there are in Asia. I suppose this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise really. German seems to be the preferred second language.

    One of the newest buildings to grace the city's streetsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    My time on the train yesterday was punctuated by acts of kindness by my fellow passengers, despite our inability to effectively communicate. As I mentioned before, the granny expressed considerable interest in my journey (as well as asking if my laptop computer was in fact a computer...), the man in his 40s gave me his seat, the stripy-topped girl bought me a cup of tea, the man in his late 20s helped with my luggage and generally kept an eye out for me. I felt looked after by that temporary family.

    I must admit, it wasn't at all what I was expecting. I'd pictured that local trans-siberian train as being filled with chain-smoking vodka-swilling men singing hearty folk songs (as it happens the trains are non-smoking), but in reality it was far less rowdy. In fact, I think the most 'rowdy' element was the school-mistress granny, and the 1980s/early 90s Western pop music playing over the PA system (I almost started to sing along when Berlin's 'Take my breath away' came on).

    Anyhow, I can feel my tummy rumbling, so I think I'll head out for a bit of food.

    If I don't have time to scribble an update tomorrow, the next you'll hear of me will be on Sunday or Monday, when I arrive in Moscow after three days in what will hopefully be a comfy bed on wheels.

    From Russia with Love,

    Joseph xxx
  • Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    The train to Krasnoyarsk

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 4th September 2007, 12.41pm
  • Location:Seat 25, Carriage 1, train 205 to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia

    My lack of funds means that the use of the comfy couchettes has come to an end. From here it's Platzkart all the way to Moscow, 80 hours / 5,185km to the West. The Platzkart class is not actually as bad as I thought. Basically it's a sleeper train without individual compartments - all the beds are open to the corridor. This means that as well as having no privacy, you can also hear everything that's going on in the carriage right from the comfort of your own bed, a bed which incidentally strikes me as being significantly under 183cm in length. I think anyone walking down the corridor tonight might get a pair of my feet in their face!

    Trainspotter: The huge engine that is hauling our great caterpillar of carriages across SiberiaClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    However, at half the price of couchette class, this commoner carriage is not to be sniffed at. It has another benefit too - one is forced into making friends quickly! As has been the case here. Next to me is scary Russian granny with dyed red hair who insists that I will understand Russian if she speaks enough of the language to me. I've given up with the ya nye panimayu's ("I don't understand"). Instead, I've taken the compliment-her-houseplants tack (she's brought several large cuttings with her which are now sprawled over the table next to my computer), hoping that this will generate protective feelings within her towards me. The more friends I have the better, especially out here.

    I'm not the only one she treats like this though. Watching her in conversation with others, I am reminded of a school mistress who, when prompted starts a grand speech that she wrote and rehearsed prior to boarding. Wo betide anyone who dares question her logic; they will be in for a thorough telling off, how could they be so ignorant?!

    Next to me is the very nice chap in his 40s who has been kind to me since I first got on, giving me his seat with the table so I can use my laptop. On the opposite side of the corridor is the girl in her early 30s with a stripy red and white top. She seems quite shy, only speaking when spoken too. Granny doesn't let her go silent for long though, firing questions at her in her continuing bid to establish her authority over everyone within earshot. Oh, and who's this? We've just been joined by the 5th member of our gang. A chap his late 20s with short blonde hair and big feet. He's brought a pair of plastic sandles with him.

    Big Smellyfeet.




    A wee little puddy cat I spied by the roadside yesterdayClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I'm feeling quite emotional today. I know why. It's because I've left the community that had formed at the Baikailer Hostel. I first checked in there about 5 nights ago, and promptly established an emotional relationship with the place and its people. Having Adrian there added to the sense of familiarity and comfort. Knowing that I'd be returning there after my stay on the island I left some belongings in the cupboard, thus reinforcing the sense of that hostel being my home in Siberia. When I returned to the city after the weekend I found another familiar face - Tom, the lawyer-to-be from South-East England, who the night before had also been on the island. And of course, Yulie was there, looking after us all.

    Crossing back to the mainland from OlkholnClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    This morning I went back to the internet cafe where the staff recognised me and my mac, and then when my 1000 rouble (£20) note was rejected for being a forgery it was time for a trip to see my old friends at the bank around the corner to (successfully) complain. To get to the station I had to take the now familiar Tram No. 1, throwing my 10 roubles at the driver and punching my ticket just like any local. I felt settled, secure, and not at all ready to move on.

    Being almost three quarters of the way through my trip home in terms of time I feel that I am almost home in terms of distance too. Of course, the truth is very different. If I look at a world map and locate Irkutsk, the city I've just left, I can see that I am not even halfway yet. Indeed, according to the regular distance markers by the side of the track there's over 5000km between here and Moscow!

    Another reason for feeling emotionally mixed up is the intrusion of my UK / Japanese lives into this current consciousness of mine that is only concerned with the present. Whilst FTPing another batch of photos to the TGW server this morning (link) I downloaded the thirty or so emails asking for my attention. Sure, it's good to receive emails of support, thanks and affection (and I thank those of you who have sent them), but some emails which deal with practical issues connected with my everyday life (whether it be that in the UK or Japan) leave a a sour taste in my mouth. I don't want to be reminded of those responsibilities I have elsewhere. I just want to be here, now, free to be myself. It makes me fearful to return to the UK - an event that is only 9 days away now.

    Anyhow, I feel that I'd better give this seat back to its rightful owner. I'll write more later from Krasnoyarsk.
  • Lake Baikal - part two

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 4th September August, 2007. 08:20am


  • Location: Kitchen of Baikaler Hostel, Irkutsk, Siberia



    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I had big plans for my only full day on the island of Olkhon, an island that is actually a mile-high mountain, with only its peak poking from above the mirrored lake surface. I had it all mapped out: get up at around 8.30am, having a delicious breakfast, sort out some lunch to take, pack my rucksack and hit the dirt road on a mountain bike.

    It's just a shame that Arthur, the chap who rents the bikes out, had different plans. His idea was to sleep off his vodka-fuelled hangover, only emerging from his cabin at about 11am - despite the stream of people who had spent much of the previous 2 hours banging on his door.

    He was in a pretty sorry state when I asked if I could rent a bike. Barely able to focus, he stumbled over to the shed and asked me which model I'd like. I opted for the one with full suspension - I'd spent enough hours in cars without adequate suspensions to endure another day of bump-induced pain.

    As it happened, my choice wasn't all that good. In my enthusiasm to get out on the road I had neglected to check the 21 gears, and it was only when I was a couple of kilometres down the track that i realised that only 7 of them worked. Not to worry though, after all, hadn't it been a teenage policy of mine to never use the lower 7 gears, something about not stooping to that level of laziness?

    Pepe attempts to fix the gears for me

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Off I went, turning right out of the gates of Nikita to follow the main 'road' south towards the next village. There, in accordance with the hand-drawn map of Arthur's recommended route, I turned inland, pitting myself against a long incline that was to lead me to the forest that smothered the central section of the island.

    As I slowly wound my way up the slope, muscles shouting that this level of violence simply wasn't called for, so the view opened up before me. In the foreground lay gentle yellowing slopes of grassland, contrasting sharply with the deep blue of the Pearl of Siberia behind. In the distance the horizon was formed by a range of chalk-toothed cliffs that punctured the western shoreline. This is what it's all about I thought as I powered higher and higher, my heart becoming lighter with every rotation of the wheel. This was indeed a dream come true - mountain biking in Siberia with not another soul around, surrounded by nothing but pure and natural beauty.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It wasn't long before I entered the forest and my pace slowed significantly. It wasn't the continuing incline that was the problem, it was the beauty of Autumn crying out to be captured by my camera. The vivid yellows of the deciduous trees had me stopping again and again, if not to take a photo then just to say "Wow!".

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    After an hour or so I reached the summit of the backbone of the island. Being deep in the forest I couldn't see far beyond the perimeter of the small clearing in the sea of silver birches, but no matter, I had a feeling that the island had a treat in store for me if I was to continue along the track.

    It's me. In the woods.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    And so it did, in the form of an unexpected opening in the forest, in which were nestled a series of golden meadows, some still sporting their lines of hay waiting to be carted off for the cattle that wandered the western shoreline. This, in collaboration with the thrilling downhill slope, had me straight back in the Swiss Alps where, in the summer months, I had frequently biked down valleys just like this one. There was one significant difference though: at the end of this valley lay the world's largest lake, ready to welcome me into its deep blue waters. At least, water that appeared blue from a distance. In fact the slightly alkaline water was completely transparent; as light pierced the lake's depths so other colours were filtered from its spectrum, leaving just the blue, the least absorbent.

    Baikal has other peculiar properties. Being located over the fault-line between two tectonic plates it is constantly oxygenated from below. This means that whilst it can host deep-water species unseen anywhere else on Earth (and 60,000 of the world's only freshwater seals), it proves fatal to regular marine life should it enter through one of the many rivers that supply the lake. Bodies of fisherman thrown overboard in the vicious gales that often whip the region are devoured by the magical liquid, bones, clothes - the lot.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Perhaps it is these abilities that have added to the island's claimed significance as an important centre of shamanic powers. Directly behind the Nikita guesthouse two great shafts of rock just out into the deep water. The trees that have dared survive the harsh climate are blue with prayer flags, and on the cliff top, sitting exactly halfway between the two pillars, believers are gathered, recharging their batteries.

    Nowadays it is thought that no real shamans remain in the area, and that the shamanic significance of the rocks is simply being exaggerated and promoted to draw visitors to an otherwise unknown village. Yet the film crew told of how they had located and interviewed the last remaining shaman - had they been duped? Watch for yourself and make up your own mind.




    After the briefest of dips in its cold waters, I sat on the pebble beach for over an hour, gazing at the barely discernible eastern shore, munching on my cheese sandwiches and losing my thoughts in the constant crash of the waves. It was absolutely idyllic, and I thanked my lucky stars I'd been able to make it all the way there. I certainly was a long way from central Tokyo...

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    A butterfly sunning itself on the shore

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    I wasn't quite sure how it was possible (considering the laws that govern the surface level of lakes), but there was considerably less uphill on the way back to the Eastern side of the island than there had been on the way there. Perhaps the Earth had been temporarily tilted in my favour? Unlikely perhaps, but possible nonetheless.

    Jonathan

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Once back at camp I felt satisfyingly shattered. My body having that nice physically knackered but-don't-have-to-do-anything-else-today feeling about it, I headed off to the Banya (Russian sauna), sweated pints from my grimy pores, then washed all the filth away with a refreshing shower. Thinking about that shower, one odd thing did happen whilst I was washing my hair - a (clean) sanitary towel fell on my head. I have no idea where it came from and I remain utterly stumped.

    Olkhon's eastern shore

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    That night, following a hearty vegetarian supper and a brief spell attempting to connect to the internet via a bluetooth phone belonging to a member of staff who, unusually for a Russian was also a Mac fan, it was early to bed for Joseph. My bus for the mainland was due to depart at 6.45am, and after all the exertion of the previous two days I was only too keen to sink down under the covers of my comfy cosy bed and drift off into the land of nod.

    Sunset over Lake Baikal

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery
  • Lake Baikal - part one

  • Date and Time: Tuesday 4th September August, 2007. 12:26am
  • Location: Kitchen of Baikaler Hostel, Irkutsk, Siberia

    I've had a wonderful few days. I've met some wonderful people, seen some wonderful sights, eaten some wonderful food that was both dairy and meat free.

    I'm back in the hostel in the regional capital of Irkutsk (capital to a region of Siberia the size of France) after two nights spent on the island of Olkhon which lies just off the Western coast of the amazing Lake Baikal. It's been a relaxing day despite an early start - I had to be up at 6.30am to catch the mini-bus off the island - this time it was not driven by a drunken maniac, and interesting conversations about the dangers of driving into cows were had courtesy of four lovely folks from Lancaster and Bristol, both English cities with which I have a connection. By lunch we were back in the city, and I have been content to sit in the kitchen chatting with Marc from Darlington (Lonely Planet / Thomas Cook / Bradt guidebook writer), Gemma from Sheffield (the 2nd Sheffieldodian I've met this week, the first being a member of the Discovery Channel film crew also staying at Nikita on the island), Tom from Kent (been teaching English in China for a year and now heading back to London to become a lawyer), Michael from Berlin (where I will spend the day next week) and the two Ozzie's whose names I forget, but who are travelling from Perth to Northern Ireland to start new lives in the rain. All the while, the lovely Julia (Yulia) has been running around looking after us, keeping us supplied with tea and telling the noisy folks to keep the noise down so some of us can write...!

    I was content to not explore the city further, although I know my brief tour has not really done the place justice. I managed the market and the old wooden houses, before becoming distracted by everyone playing in the new fountains in front of the sports stadium. I tell you, this image of Siberia being some cold wasteland is way off the mark - it's been shorts and T-weather ever since I got here, and without the oppressive humidity of Japan or China.

    Fountain FunClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    Lake Baikal

    In previous posts I've quoted a few statistics about this forever-deepening 636km long banana-shaped crack in the Earth's crust that will eventually split Asia in two, but you know, statistics don't really sum it up. It's much more than a body of water that accounts for 20% of the World's fresh unfrozen water, it's much more than an ancient giant home to the only known freshwater seals, and thousands of species of flora and fauna, 80% of which are not found anywhere else on the planet. It's a lake of staggering purity, staggering blueness, and sea-like qualities such as being somewhat on the big side, and sporting waves crashing upon sandy shorelines. Seeing cows lined up drinking its waters does confuse the mind somewhat.

    The distant shore is barely visible despite it being a superbly clear dayClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It also acts as the backdrop to Nikita, a remarkable guesthouse type setup run by a local chap who made it his goal to bring more people to the island of Olkhon to support the local economy. He has succeeded, big style. On the nights that I was there, there must have been at least another 30 guests from all corners of the globe. In addition to the Discovery Channel crew (really nice people, and very inspiring - watch out for "Atlas Russia" to be broadcast next February) there was a very friendly German family on their way home from Beijing who complained far less than most Germans I've met on this trip - such as the 50-year-old Helmut who, for as long as he can remember, has dreamed of taking the trans-siberian, but is deeply unhappy as there is not enough room for his luggage to be stowed properly on the train. Also staying there were a Scottish couple who had only intended to make it a brief visit, but a week later were still unable to leave, there was the professional photographer from Poland who was loving the chance to capture such beauty on film (has a better ring to it that 'memory card'), and there was a whole bunch of staff who were the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet.

    Crystal-clear water means one can see down as far as 40m - should one be adventurous enough to swim out that far!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    One of the highlights for poor-me-eating-supermarket-bread-and-cheese-everday was the food - absolutely delicious - and they had a vegetarian option! You can't imagine how happy this made me, even more so as I had no idea that this was an option until I arrived in the dining room for supper. Free (English) Tea on tap too, and some yummy cakes for dessert. I was in heaven.

    Relaxing after supper - Tom (the producer), Joseph (that's me) and AdrianClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    They don't sell alcohol at Nikita which makes for a very peaceful, relaxed environment. Those who do wish to sit back with a beer can wander down the widest dirt track in the village (it also happens to be the main road) to the little store that sells everything from Mars bars to engine parts, toilet rolls to carpets. After watching the sun set we did just this, before returning to the hostel to spend a happy evening admiring our new exhaust pipes whilst chatting with the film crew - I was particularly interested in talking to their translator, a graduate of Nottingham Uni's Russian department. I'm always intrigued to learn how these linguists get from language course to job-I-would-love-to-have. Of course there's no secret; it's just a case of being determined, and being a swot in the classroom!

    A helicopter makes a dramatic departure from the cliff-topClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    There was much laughter that night. They told us tales of the many places their work had taken them, including the Irkutsk Eye Hospital which apparently doubles as an upper-class guesthouse, visitors being accommodated in the disused offices on the top floor.
    "But you know, no matter how many times in the night we pressed the button by the bed that read "call for nurse", she never showed up...!"


    Forest fires on the opposite shore made for a spectacular sunsetClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    When it came to time to retire, I happily strolled across the courtyard lit by a million stars, contentedly feeling that I really had made the right decision to not travel by plane. Up there at 55,000ft I would have missed all of this - Siberia would just have been that pretty big landscape that took hours to pass over, not the place it is, that being a land full of beauty, excitement, peace and friendship.

  • And you thought your partner's driving was bad - You should visit Siberia!

  • Date and Time: Saturday 1st September 2007, 10.30am
  • Location: In a minibus that has been pulled over by the police, central Irkutsk, Siberia

    My trip to the vast lake Baikal has got off to an interesting start. My driver, Vladimir, is a nice chap. He doesn't speak English, but he does speak a little German, so we are able to have talk a bit. The problem is, Japanese keeps on coming out of my mouth, which is causing a great deal of confusion.

    Vladimir isn't actually in the driver's seat at the moment. He's sitting in the passenger seat of the police car on the other side of the road, giving his details to the policeman who has just stopped him for speeding. I think this might be an eventful trip.




    30 minutes later

    Traffic cop dealt with we continued on our journey to the lake. Well, I thought we were going to. Turned out we had to pick up his brother the other side of town, and now we've stopped at some miniature trading estate to pick up essential supplies of beer for some other hostel on the island. There's no buildings as such here, instead, all the merchants are operating out of open-ended cargo crates. The insides have been customised to such an extent that as first glance you wouldn't recognise them for cargo crates, some have even had their sides cut out and replaced with windows. It seems you can buy anything here. Some specialise in cleaning supplies, others in food and beverages. There's one to my left that seems to have a local monopoly on sticky tape, whilst on my right pet food is the favoured product.

    It's a bit surreal looking around at the other trucks in the yard. Almost without exception, they are post-retirement delivery trucks from Japan. We've got Takkyubin, Kangaroo, Keio, and the one with the fat sumo wrestler on the side. The van next to us is a little refrigerated truck from Osaka that delivered fresh fish in its former life. I like the way that no attempt has been made to remove the logos and names of the original companies - perhaps it has the same oriental effect here as Chinese tattoos do at music festivals in the UK.




    40 minutes later

    It's not a good day for my driver, Vladimir. He's being treated to a seat in a police car for the second time this morning, courtesy of yet another speed gun. He explained why there's so many police on the roads today: it's September 1st, and the kids are going back to school. Apparently it's policy to try and reduce accidents on this special day, a day when the girls and boys dress up in their best frocks and the most stunning hairpieces to celebrate a new year of education.

    30 minutes later

    The next distraction was some folks we picked up on the roadside, Peter and Slava. Peter, an 18-year-old student of English and economics in Irkutsk, was on his way to visit his parents in his little hometown not far from Lake Baikal. He was delighted to meet an Englishman with whom he could share his knowledge of the royal family - talking to him made me think back to Push whom I'd met in the Shanghai, the boy who spoke the Queen's English and had just been to an Avril Lavigne concert. We exchanged email addresses before dropping him off and continuing on our way.

    Pepe and PeterClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    This area of Siberia is fascinating. In just a few hours we have passed through various landscapes - I try to keep my eyes on the view and not on the road ahead, as concentrating on this suicidal driving would give me heart failure. The question is, do I sit in the seat facing forwards so that I can anticipate sharp turns (and cows on the road) yet run the risk being thrown through the windscreen upon impact, or do I sit in the seats that face backwards but aren't actually fixed to the floor of the van?

    It's difficult to make it out, but this is actually a photo of Vladimir (left) driving at a crazy speed whilst chatting on the phone. Note big oncoming lorry.Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    But yes, the landscape. Initially it was the spitting image of southern England. Gentle hills, fields of barley and oil seed rape. The only distinguishing feature was the horses being used to bring in the hay. And then it was densely wooded hills, initially birch and then evergreens as far as the eye could see. Moving on north, the trees have thinned and rocky outcrops dot the horizon. There's no sign of human habitation, and I imagine that in the winter few people would come this was, with the gravel track becoming impassable due to snow.

    Mid-dway between arable and no-man's landClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Coming over the summit of a mini-mountain lake Baikal has just come into view. It is magnificent. It is vast (7km deep, with 6km of silt on the bottom). It is old (at 2 million years old the oldest in the world, the next oldest being 20,000 years). It is a beautiful deep blue. It is time I took some photos.

    Pepe poses for the camera as the ferry sets out from the opposite shoreClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    1 hour later

    Arriving at the port about 45 minutes ago, we were met by Mr. Goldtooth, who, funnily enough, had gold teeth. He was extremely drunk, but still swigging from a glass bottle of beer much like the rest of the population of Siberia. Beside him was Tatiana, a Russian girl in her late 20s from Irkutsk who over the summer worked as a translator at one of the hostels here on the island - today was her last day, and she was clearly happy to be leaving the isolation chamber. She reminded me of a promiscuous horse, although I'm not sure entirely why, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

    Mr. GoldtoothClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Let's get a close-up on those beautiesClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    After half-an-hour or so the ferry could be seen setting off from the opposite shore, chug-chugging across the narrow channel that in the summer separates the island of Olkhon from the mainland. In the winter the lake freezes over, enabling people, bikes, cars and lorries to traverse its icy surface. But not always successfully - last year 6 vehicles never made it to the other side, instead taking a trip down, down, down to the mysterious murky depths, home to many a marine creature yet to be identified.

    Passengers on the cross-channel ferryClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Our crossing however was (thankfully) uneventful. We reached the miniature port in under 15 minutes, and, laden down with the beer and potatoes purchased at the cargo crate, boarded the minibus that was to take us along the 25km dirt track to the village of Khuzir. Then, my driver got in. He was a different driver from before, a driver with gold teeth, a very drunk driver.

    My reaction surprised me. I didn't make a fuss about the fact that the person behind the wheel could barely walk (let alone hold a steering wheel). I didn't refuse to put my life in his hands. In fact, I didn't even consider it to be an issue. The thing was, having been in China and Mongolia for a couple of weeks, I was so used to horrendous driving that even his high-speed zig-zag down the gravel track failed to make me realise that anything was amiss.

    As it happened, we got here safely, albeit with a few bruises where my head had hit the ceiling.

    One of the wooden creations at Nikita's guesthouseClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Checking in a little while ago, I was asked if I minded sharing a room with someone else. I said no, that was fine. "OK, follow me" said Olga. "Your room is this way". She led me across the Nikita courtyard to a wooden building of the bold variety, my room was the first on the right, and my roommate was ...Adrian! "Coincidence" has led me to share a room with him for the third time now. He may say that I'm stalking him, but we all know the truth is actually very different: he has an uncanny knack to foresee my next move and acts accordingly to ensure that our paths cross.

    Whilst I am by nature a solitary traveller, and I dislike the idea of travelling with someone else, I'm actually very much enjoying his company. It makes me feel more settled having him here. A dose of familiarity, a comfort zone in which I can happily relax.

    Anyhow, I think it's time to explore the area, starting with a trip down to the beach. From what I saw on our drunken drive here, we are surrounded by some rather spectacular scenery.

    tatta.

    Beach sceneClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

  • Buying tickets in Russia

  • Date and Time: Friday 31st August, 2007. 10.22am local time according to my Mac, although being on a train I'm more on Moscow time, thus it's 5.22am.
  • Location: On a sleeper train, between the shores of Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk, Siberia

    I tell you what, these time zones really do mess with your head. I now understand that all trains in Russia do run on Moscow time. It's kind of understandable when you consider that this country spans 11 time zones. But it does play with your head, and you lose track of how long you've been anywhere as you switch in and out. For example, arriving at Ulan Ude last night at 10pm, I stepped into the station to find all clocks saying 5pm. I had hoped to get straight back on the train I'd got off as it was going further West - the Mongolian ticket office had said they could only issue tickets that far into Russia, (something I now know to be not true, like the fact that giraffes only have a 3 month gestation period), and I'd need to buy an onward ticket at Ulan Ude.

    Entering Russia south of Ulan UdeClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Once inside the time-warped station, I was immediately accosted by a young man in uniform, asking for a cigarette. I told him I didn't smoke, it's bad for your health; he was a little taken aback by my English response, and after a few moments of loitering like a begging dog, he seemed to decide he wasn't going to get anything from me and wandered off to pester someone else.

    With 50 minutes until my train departed, I joined the queue in front of the ticket office, happy to know that by the looks of things I'd be back in my bed on wheels in no time. It was then, whilst looking at my fellow ticket-buyers, that I got a strange feeling of being caught between two worlds... Having not read my lonely planet guide any further than the sections on which trains to catch, I was unaware of the history of the area and thus oblivious to the fact that it was home to the Buryats. Numbering over 400,000, these originally Mongolian people form the largest indigenous group in Russia, and in some Eastern Siberian towns (such as Ulan Ude) they make up a significant proportion of the population. To the untrained (or trained-but-tired eye), they could almost be thought of as Japanese, thus I found it wholly surreal to be surrounded by familiar faces - speaking and acting like Russians! It was like hearing my (future) sister-in-law speaking in her Scottish accent (having been brought up in Scotland), only on a massive scale - foreign languages being spoken with uncanny fluency.

    Still, my attention was soon dragged back to the job in hand - getting a ticket and getting back on the train. Time was ticking by, and suddenly 50 minutes seemed like a very short time. The queue didn't shrink at the proper rate either, as every now and then some cheeky Russian would have a word with one of the people in front of me: My train's departing soon, do you mind if I join the queue just behind you? It was that or, in the case of the man who spoke a little English, "I'm in the other queue, but I'm also in this queue in front of you, even though I'm standing over there, OK?" I wondered if the appropriate response was to go over to the front of his queue and tell the person there that although I was in the other queue my invisible alter ego was actually holding a place for me just in front of them, and thus they should let me in when it came to their turn. I wondered whether this form of telekinetic queuing also worked over long distances. For example, when I get to Krasnoyarsk, 23 hours West of here, I tell the person at the front of the queue that actually I've been waiting since three days beforehand, and thus I am actually next in line, despite the fact that I appear to have just walked into the station for the first time ever. Crikey, if it does work I can even get in line now to have my organic vegees priced up at the health food shop in Sheffield when I get there at the end of the month. There's no limits to the possibilities of this magical Russian system.

    Despite my willing it to slow down, the digital clock never let up in its procession towards the critical time of 17:12. It was nail-biting stuff, and only when my turn came was I really sure that I was going to miss the train: it departed, on time, moments before I shoved the piece of paper with my ticket requirements on under the counter window.

    The woman was almost apologetic when telling me that the next train wasn't until 9.20pm, or, if one was to go by local time and not that a few thousand kilometres away, 2.20am. Hurrah!

    It was a big waiting room, with 4 walls and a tiny TV at the end showing some Russianised episode of 24. There wasn't much to do but ...wait.

    Finally, 4 hours later, my train pulled into the station. I somehow managed to decrypt the all-in-Russian train ticket, and noted that I was in carriage 16, couchette 7. I had my ticket to the big blonde Frau. She is nice to me, and whilst unable to speak English keeps the Russian she does use to a minimum, making me feel marginally less ignorant. Having established that our arrival time is none other than 25:00 (which I take to mean 1am), I wander down the quiet carriage and locate bed 16. There's only one other occupant in my apartment, but he makes up for that by being only too present, lying in a drunken stupor, head at an awkward angle against the glass of the filthy window, body and legs half-on-half-off his lower bunk. The table is strewn with empty beer cans, the air in the compartment confirms that he had had quite a evening. Not wanting to wake the sleeping giant, I quietly make my bed with the pack of sheets handed me by the Frau, set my iPod to wake me at 1am Moscow time, and lay my head to rest.

    The next thing I know the Frau is back, at least I think it's her. My bleary eyes can't make out the details on her face, but I assume it's her she's telling me we've arrived. I heave myself up, check the time on my iPod - it's 1am - and ask her, "Irkutsk? Irkutsk?". Her reply however mystifies me; "kopchenyj, kopchenyj". I guess one of us has misheard, and so I repeat my question. This time, her response takes on a very physical form, as she draws a huge great stinking fish out from her wicker basket and shoves it in my face. Naturally, I'm pretty stunned by this - it wasn't exactly what I was expecting - I let out an "Oh!" ...and finally a "no"; she closes the door and moves on.

    But we were going to reach Irkutsk at 25:00 right? I get out of bed and stumble down the carriage, past the old fish woman who is now waking the neighbours, to the Frau's cabin. Aren't we supposed to be in Irkutsk by now? No, no, 25:00 is when we arrive - you know, 5am.

    I guess this kind of telling the time is just part of the Moscow method...

    Wooden houses are the way to go in SiberiaClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    ...often with cute painted shuttersClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    Three hours later and I'm shaken awake, this time it is the Frau. "You wash now" she tells me, rubbing her hands over her face in mock-cleansing action. I thank her and stumble down the carriage to the toilet compartment. Whilst waiting for it to become free, a well-built blonde guy starts to talk to me in Russian. I apologise for not being able to understand, but it's OK, he speaks English, "Hi, I'm Igor, Do you like beer?"

    "Beer? Erm, yes, I do ...but it's a bit early for me..." He gives me a puzzled look, as if I've just proposed that we swap clothes for the day. The toilet door opens and I am saved from beer for breakfast.

    Little girls wave at the passing trainClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    A few hours later, now at the Baikaler Hostel, Irkutsk, Siberia

    I guess this must be Russia...Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    It turned out to be quite an eventful journey. As the Moscow clock finally hit our scheduled arrival time, so I began to wonder how late the train was running. Looking out of the window I saw that we'd stopped in a freight yard full of wagons loaded with Siberian logs. Fifteen minutes later I began to think that perhaps we were waiting for a platform to clear at the station ahead. ...or were we? I got up, and opened the door to the corridor. Looking out of the opposite window I saw the station master waving his flag, accompanied by a shrill whistle. Behind him was a station, a large station, and attached the rook was a sign in big Russian characters, it read "Irkutsk" as decoded by my guidebook.

    Oh crikey - It was my stop! I grabbed my bags and dashed to the end of the carriage, but it was too late. The steps had been pulled up, the door closed. The Frau looked up at me with surprise - what are you still doing on this train? she asked. I gestured stupidity. She sympathised, but there was nothing she could do. I looked on with dismay as Irkutsk station faded from view.

    My dismay deepened when we arrived at the next station - and didn't stop. So it was with the following station; finally, at the third stop, the Frau was able to lower the steps to the platform and let me off. With this being a fairly major-looking rail junction I assumed that I'd simply be able to hop back on a local train to the city centre, but no, the next train wasn't for another 2 hours! Upon seeing my look of desperation, the lady behind the glass took a scrap of paper, and started to scribble some bus numbers and directions in Russian. She handed this to me and pointed down the road. It seemed I was destined to take the plunge into Russian commuter life.

    Check out MY Lada...Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    As I made my way down the quiet backstreet, I was struck by how different it was to all the streets I have walked down over the past year. There was something about it that gave it a special feel, something that excited me - what was it? The trees for one thing. This street had autumnal trees on it, and they weren't the well-behaved regularly pruned types of Tokyo, they were sleepy trees, flopping their branches low overhead, cracking the muddy pavements with their roots. To the sides of the pavements were six foot wooden fences, rarely straight and with panels missing; through the holes one could make out gardens overgrown with weeds, and at the end of them dilapadated wooden houses, the faded paintwork of the shutters hinting at former golden times.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Then there was the cars. Being a run down neighbourhood there was no sign of any foreign models, just the old square-edged Russian types littering the roadsides. And finally, there was the people. For the first time in a year there were white faces wherever I looked, for the first time in a year I wasn't being singled out as being different - they were all just like me! I started to feel like I was back in Europe, a feeling that grew stronger and stronger the more I saw of the place. Having found my bus and figured out through observation that the payment system involved throwing a 10 rouble (20p) note son the carpeted table under which the engine sits next to the driver, I made it back into town. First stop was the information office (rare for Russia), where I was told that I'd just missed the bus to lake Baikal, I'd have to spend the night in Irkutsk. No matter, the place had already made a significant impression upon me with the Western-style buildings of the city centre now adding to the European effect. Walking down the road to the hostel I almost started to cry with joy, so overcome was I by the feeling that I was now in Europe. Memories of Switzerland came flooding back. Here I was in a foreign city where they drove on the wrong side of the road, but where everything was kind of familiar, where everyone looked like me. I was never expecting to feel such happiness at being back on 'familiar territory' (never mind the fact that thousands of kilometres still divided me from any Europe I'd been to), but after a year of alienation the indifferent welcome of the city smothered my senses. I felt ecstatic.

    No doubt this tram originates in some far-away land, and was brought here for post-retirement exercise, like all the other commercial vehicles on the roadClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    There followed a few hours of intense activity. I checked into the incredibly well hidden Baikaler hostel (it has a no drop-ins policy, but I was lucky), I changed my remaining dollars into roubles. I bought an onward ticket to Krasnoyarsk for the 4th. At the local internet cafe they let me plug my Mac straight into the network - down came 50 emails, up went 300 photos. I visited a nearby hotel to get my visa registered (a bureaucratic hangover from the Soviet era). "Ask for the blonde-haired lady called Olga, she'll sort you out (It provides an additional income for her, so she's always happy to help), and finally I paid a visit to the supermarket to stock up on bananas and bread, the staple diet of all budget travellers.

    Fruit and veg at the local marketClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Flowers are big business round here. What a romantic bunch they are!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    And so here I am. The hostel is basically a converted apartment in the city centre, grim on the outside but tastefully IKEAised on the inside. It's run by Yulia, a very friendly linguistics student from Ulan Ude writing her PhD. Best of all, it has a washing machine and a hot shower, so I can finally rid myself of the attractive odour of cow poo.

    A few minutes ago the door opened and a familiar face appeared - it was Adrian who I'd shared a compartment with for about 30 hours from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan Ude. An Ozzie by birth, Adrian is a well-seasoned traveller, currently on a trip from Hong Kong to Moscow, from where he'll fly to London and pick up a job in finance. Mere 'coincidence' sees us at the same hostel, and mere 'coincidence sees us both staying at the place on the shores of lake Baikal this weekend - anyone would think we'd planned to travel together! I'm very grateful that he's a really nice chap, and never a bore to be around. I do feel a bit sorry for him having to put up with my chatter though - I'm making up for two weeks of relative silence! Thank you Adrian!

    Anyway, I'd best stop here for now. There's a whole Siberian city out there just waiting for me to explore it.

  • 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'Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Me with ye ancienty bird's claw up my noseClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Hurrah for ancient citiesClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 pooClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Hair washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Sheep washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 supperClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Dead goat anyone?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Pepe and the gangClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 milkingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sunClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sunClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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..!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 withClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    This is how dusty the roads were!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Public toilets, Mongolian style (literally just a hole in the wooden floor of these doorless hutsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Young monksClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Horses at sunsetClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 plainClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 PepeClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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)Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Joseph and the kidsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The lads fight over the ladiesClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sheepClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Jumping for JoyClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 goatsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The horse refuses to move out of frame as the parents have their photo takenClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Sitting on the fenceClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Cowboy Joseph with the two naughty goatsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 skyClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    "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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    A section of the road we wished we could drive on

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    300km of off-roading near their end

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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!

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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...

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Our Yurt - in situ

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery



    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery



    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Yurt and horses at sunset

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Endless miles of stars

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Very hairy horses on the plain

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Tatta for now!

    Hello Mongolia

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Oyasumi xxx

    Thoughts whilst waiting for the train

    VITAL STATISTICS

  • 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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 Audible.co.uk!

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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!

    tatta.

    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.



    VITAL STATISTICS

    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)

    sunrise_shanghai_port_06

    sunrise_shanghai_port_04

    sunrise_shanghai_port_03

    Shanghai glows on the Wester Horizon

    shanghai_at_dawn

    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.

    shanghai_port_007

    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="http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1220/1139051057_e7cf2f8b96_o.jpg" width="400" alt="shanghai_port_029" />

    Mid-stream community

    shanghai_port_024

    Morning teeth brush

    shanghai_port_042

    Washing Day

    shanghai_port_015

    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.

    shanghai_port_049

    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.

    shanghai_port_060

    (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!

    laundry_001

    laundry_003

    laundry_002

    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.

    lind_pepe

    Mistress of the tea ceremony

    tea_ceremony_001

    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

    pepe_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

    shanghai_bicycle_002

    shanghai_bicycle_007

    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

    shanghai_park_003

    shanghai_park_006

    shanghai_park_008

    pepe_and_boy_01

    shanghai_park_014

    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.

    shanghai_waterfront_032

    photo by the waterfront

    shanghai_waterfront_019

    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.

    shanghai_waterfront_003

    shanghai_waterfront_007

    shanghai_waterfront_022




    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.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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!
    Joseph_friend

    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...!

    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.

    Apologies!

    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

    *Twinkle*

    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*



    BABY UPDATE

    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.



    FAME!

    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.



    *Twinkle* in the park


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

    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'Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Me with ye ancienty bird's claw up my noseClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Hurrah for ancient citiesClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 pooClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Hair washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Sheep washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 washingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 supperClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Dead goat anyone?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Pepe and the gangClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 milkingClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sunClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sunClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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..!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 withClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    This is how dusty the roads were!Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Public toilets, Mongolian style (literally just a hole in the wooden floor of these doorless hutsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Young monksClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Horses at sunsetClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 plainClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 PepeClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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)Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Joseph and the kidsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The lads fight over the ladiesClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 sheepClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Jumping for JoyClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 goatsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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?Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    The horse refuses to move out of frame as the parents have their photo takenClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 goatClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Sitting on the fenceClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Cowboy Joseph with the two naughty goatsClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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 skyClick here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    "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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    A section of the road we wished we could drive on

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    300km of off-roading near their end

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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!

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery




    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...

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Our Yurt - in situ

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery



    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery



    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Yurt and horses at sunset

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Saturday, August 25, 2007

    Endless miles of stars

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Horse on the plain

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Very hairy horses on the plain

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Tatta for now!

    Hello Mongolia

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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.

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    Oyasumi xxx

    Thoughts whilst waiting for the train

    VITAL STATISTICS

  • 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 Audible.co.uk!

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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
    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS
  • 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

    Click here for my Trans-siberian web gallery

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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!

    tatta.

    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.



    VITAL STATISTICS

    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)

    sunrise_shanghai_port_06

    sunrise_shanghai_port_04

    sunrise_shanghai_port_03

    Shanghai glows on the Wester Horizon

    shanghai_at_dawn

    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.

    shanghai_port_007

    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="http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1220/1139051057_e7cf2f8b96_o.jpg" width="400" alt="shanghai_port_029" />

    Mid-stream community

    shanghai_port_024

    Morning teeth brush

    shanghai_port_042

    Washing Day

    shanghai_port_015

    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.

    shanghai_port_049

    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.

    shanghai_port_060

    (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!

    laundry_001

    laundry_003

    laundry_002

    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.

    lind_pepe

    Mistress of the tea ceremony

    tea_ceremony_001

    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

    pepe_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

    shanghai_bicycle_002

    shanghai_bicycle_007

    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

    shanghai_park_003

    shanghai_park_006

    shanghai_park_008

    pepe_and_boy_01

    shanghai_park_014

    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.

    shanghai_waterfront_032

    photo by the waterfront

    shanghai_waterfront_019

    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.

    shanghai_waterfront_003

    shanghai_waterfront_007

    shanghai_waterfront_022




    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.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    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

    VITAL STATISTICS

    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!
    Joseph_friend

    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...!

    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.

    Apologies!

    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

    *Twinkle*

    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*



    BABY UPDATE

    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.



    FAME!

    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.



    *Twinkle* in the park


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