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    Sunday, September 30, 2007

    Random stuff the day before it all kicks off

    One advantage of being plugged into a university network (along with thousands of other students) is that one often finds other users inadvertently sharing their music collection. Right now, in iTunes, just above my own music collection are those of two other people who have forgotten to turn 'library sharing' off on their computers. I'm now listening to some rather nice music that is being streamed directly from a mystery student's computer. Thank you Mystery Student.

    It was only after I had laughed at their silliness that it occurred to me that I might inadvertently be doing the very same thing. Into iTunes preferences I go, and sure enough, I am offering 9978 songs to users of the uni network.

    How kind of me. That might explain why my external hard drive has been spinning up at odd moments.

    In other computer-related news, I spent a few hours this evening with the award-winning artist Panni Po Yoke Loh, who is hoping to do some podcasting during her upcoming exhibition. She too is a Mac user, but hasn't wasted much of her life in front of the screen like yours truly, thus was after a few hints and tips. It was a pleasure to visit her home studio - such an inspiration! Sometimes this degree is such a distraction!

    If you are in the Sheffield area, why not visit Panni's East-West Spirit Earth exhibition - it opens to the public on Saturday 4th October. Further information on her website.

    My good friend Will of fame will be supporting the event too. I've seen a lot of him since I got back - very inspirational. Lots of business ideas buzzing around, including a different approach to selling my photography. Oh! If only I had the time!

    I've finally finished the 9000 miles website. It's built for Firefox and Safari - and I don't expect any Mumblers are daft enough to be using Internet Explorer, so the fact that it doesn't display properly in that shouldn't be an issue, right?

    It's now a nice self-contained package - a bid to not let the story get lost amongst the hundreds of mumbles I have in the archive.

    I learned on Friday that I have a part-time job. I'm a member of the Tech Team within the 'Student Network Ambassador', which came into existence a little while back thanks to a 4 million pound grant from the government to promote Inquiry Based Learning. Do you remember I gave a presentation via Skype for a symposium in Sheffield when I was in Tokyo earlier this year? - that was for the IBL program. It must have been soon after that that I said I'd be interested in being a Student Ambassador, but was unaware that it actually paid until I attended my first meeting on Friday. Jolly good jolly good. Apparently I'm going to be trained in how to use all the latest technology and work on helpdesk and stuff. Suits me (gadget boy) down to the ground. Oh, and I get paid to Blog as well!

    In other finance-related news, I was delighted to receive a phone call tonight telling me that *Twinkle*s new health and beauty business in Japan saw a turn-over of £6000 / $12,000 in September. It's seen steady growth all year, a sure sign that she has a great team working with her.

    I would be peeing my pants about tomorrow (tomorrow being the first day of the new semester), were I to truly appreciate just how terrible my kanji knowledge is at the moment. I was going through my flash cards from the second year today, and whilst I could remember most of the meanings, when it came to the readings I was stumped, even with basic characters. I think that this year is going to be my toughest yet, as I grapple with my conflicting desires. Really, I just want to be out there taking photos and things, and in here being 'creative' with my Mac, ...but I've started this degree, so I really must finish it.

    Am I still aiming for a 1st (70% and over)? Well, the answer I want to give is 'No, I'll be happy with a 2:1 (60%~69%), but these damn books and CDs have taught me to say 'Yes - if you really want it, you can get it'.

    I added meditation to my daily routine this morning. Perhaps that will save me.

    Fruit would be good too. I must buy some tomorrow.

    Oh, did I mention that I've given up alcohol? You know what, it feels fantastic. Several mornings this past week I have woken up after a night out and thought, "Wow, it feels soooo good to know that I don't have that poison inside me!". And blackcurrant and soda is only 45p per half-pint.

    Anyhow, best get to bed. It's up at 6am for me from now on.



    Friday, September 28, 2007

    Change the channel

    I would like to report back on the successful outcome of an experiment that I began 7 weeks ago, prompted by my departure from a broadband/TV equipped place of rest.

    The experiment has basically involved avoiding all news of the national / international variety. No glancing at newspapers in shops, no more daily emails from news sites, no subscribing to RSS news feeds, and especially no television or radio news.

    Initially it was a bit tough - I felt I was missing out, and what if something really important happened?!

    How do I feel now?

    Firstly, far less angry, frustrated or upset about events elsewhere. After all, what is the point in leaving myself open to a constant stream of negativity? Does it help me? Does it help others? No, not in the slightest. It merely spreads the negativity, the depression, the anger, it increases the overall amount of negative energy in the air and does no one any favours.

    But what about when something really bad happens and people need your help, like after the Asian Tsunami of 24th Dec.

    Well, it turns out that when something important like that does happen (such as the current events in Burma) someone will tell you about it.

    But what about education? Won't one end up being an ignoramus?

    Only if one thinks that the only way to educate oneself is to consume media hype.

    In summary, this experiment has been a great success for me personally, and I would invite others to try a media switch-off, and maybe subscribe to some positive news. It'll do wonders for your mood if you're the kind easily frustrated by bad news, and perhaps even for those of you who think you deal with it without a problem too - subconsciously all that negativity can't be doing you any good.



    Do feel free to take part in the raging debate in the comments section


    I'd like to share a few links and stuff that has caught my attention lately.

    First off is How to Write Down Your Goals - [MrWangSaysSo]. I've integrated this into my daily routine: why not try it yourself and we'll compare notes in a few weeks.

    Incidentally, I cam across that via the ever-excellent

    Then there's Kintaro Walks Japan - now why haven't I done that? I did enjoy that video, although it left me feeling a bit pathetic. It's just the kind of thing that appeals to me, the sort of thing I feel I really should be doing (Thanks to Tom for the link).

    Those feelings of frustration at not reaching my full potential were once again brought up by A Long Ride (thanks to Mum#2 for the link). In fact, it was whilst I was in Mongolia that I received the mail pointing to that site; my initial reaction was 'Joseph, what the hell are you doing taking the train?! Everyone takes the train? Why not live a little - get on yer bike!'

    I just hear these words echoing in my head: "don't die with your music still in you".

    Another source of inspiration is No Impact Man (thank you AC) - what a fabulous experiment!

    A superb little animation entitled "The Big Hoax" reveals the system for what it is - check it out here (thanks Alice).

    That's all for now.

    You don't know me but, (...I know everything about you)

    Last night, whilst loitering in the Student Union foyer waiting for folks to turn up for our first Japan Soc social, I was approached by a a stranger who said,
    "You must be Joseph! How's your knee now?"

    This reference to an injury I sustained in the spring in Japan through the Trailwalker Challenge came as something as a surprise to me - who was this guy, and how did he know about my knee?

    "Oh, and congratulations on the engagement! How is *Twinkle* by the way?"

    Seeing me looking a little freaked out he began to explain,

    Well, the thing is, I found your podcast online, been listening to the archives for the past couple of months. I've not had internet access lately so haven't been able to check the Mumble - but obviously you got back OK from where I left you in Russia!

    Ah, so that's why you know everything about me...

    I used to feel uneasy about people in real life plugging in to TGW (it's private, don't you know!). These days it's not really an issue. Mind you, only this week I was talking with someone who was expressing alarm at the thought of sharing so much stuff with the world - doesn't it leave one vulnerable?

    Well, yes it does, should one choose to react to negative feedback / mini hate-sites with an attitude of fear and hurt. However, should one choose to accept criticisms with an attitude of gratitude, then it's a different story.

    Oh, that's not an invitation by the way :-)

    As it happens, the chap I met yesterday was very complimentary about my podcast/blog/photos; that kind of positive feedback is priceless, and makes it all worthwhile!

    Anyway, today is Friday. Meeting day. Registration day. Happy day. Time to embrace it.

    love joseph

    This life thing

    There is something very special about true friendship.

    I am fortunate to have found a few people in all four of my major homes - Sheffield, Tokyo, Bristol and Hereford - who show a lot of trust in me and care for me.

    Tonight, I met up with a precious couple here in Sheffield who have been an enormous source of love, inspiration and laughter for both myself and *Twinkle* throughout our time here. I have missed them this past year in Japan, and tonight, as we sat by a sizzling tray of octopus balls in a near-deserted pub courtyard with my favourite track by the Japanese band HY playing in the background, I thanked my lucky stars to be counted as one of their friends.

    Just being in their company calms me. Any stress I might have been feeling disappears on the night breeze. I no longer care to plan what I'm going to say, rather, I let my heart speak, and speak it does - of the intelligence of the octopus, of engagement, of penguins with built-in fridges. I love rolling in the atmosphere of warmth that is friendship. I celebrate in their partnership, they celebrate in ours. They too wake up and celebrate today, they too see a happy future ahead. They too continue to educate themselves through reading and hanging out with others with more experience in life, they too are thankful for all they have.

    As I close my eyes tonight I am thinking, This life thing, there's just no beating it. How can anyone stay mad when there's so much beauty in this world?

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    Student Life Revisited

    Before I get into the emotional turmoil stuff, I'd like to tell you about a wonderful music service I have discovered (thanks to Leo), called Magnatune, ("We are not evil").

    Magnatune have an astonishingly large collection of hour-long podcasts featuring DRM free (no copy protection) music, covering many different genres. To find a genre that suits your taste, open iTunes and do a search for "Magnatune", then sit back and enjoy hours of wonderful new music for free. My personal favourite is the World Music podcast, followed by the Ambient and Indian podcasts.

    It's fascinating observing oneself trying to deal with change, especially when one is in the process of implementing new methods of dealing with change, as I am.

    Up until today, the return has been relatively pain-free. Sure, there have been periods of struggle, but generally they have been limited to a few hours at a time, and soon dealt with through positive action.

    Today however, I have been caught off-guard as 'student life' has suddenly rolled up on the doorstep and demanded entry with the full force of a rather large tidal wave of bricks. First off, there was the 1st-year intro meeting, which saw me (as one of the 4th year representatives advising the new folks not to go out and get drunk every night!) being taken right back to my first day at uni, when I too discussed with my new classsmates the best ways to remember kanji.

    Following that, it was the Freshers' Fair, which saw Japan Society (and 160 other student groups) doing its thing and recruiting new members for another year of fun. This year, whilst unable to completely let go of the society that played such a pivotal part in my student life in 2004/05/06, I am managing to not feel responsible. It helps that it is in very good hands, my classmate Maria and my former senpai Zak being at the helm. This year, I intend to make the most of the opportunities the society offers to meet Japanese students to help me improve my language skills, in addition to helping them to have a great year in Sheffield; lasting, meaningful relationships are the desired outcome.

    As the new community of Japanese language students and Japanese exchange students starts to take shape, I catch myself thinking of a previous year, in which there was a Master's student called *Twinkle* just about to start her course. It makes me a little sad that she is not here in person this year.

    This afternoon, as I wandered around the Octagon Centre being bombarded with flyers and free sweets from eager society volunteers, I couldn't help but feel a little tired. Whilst I look forward to the language study, I do find myself challenged by the culture of the student's union. I hate to say it, but I actually feel a bit past it. It was great in the first and second year, I loved being able to go back in time to when I was a teenager, receiving all those free sweets, T-Shirts and disposable cameras, being handed hundreds of flyers which after the briefest of glances went in the bin. I was full of enthusiasm for going out and failing in every drunken attempt to get laid.

    Today, having signed up for JapSoc and donated an old SLR camera to PhotoSoc in lieu of a membership fee, I found myself wanting to get out, to retreat to my comfortable room, to sip a sweet, milky, fairtrade coffee and listen to Radio 4. I was grateful to be able to tell myself "You don't need to be here Joseph. If you want to go home and listen to Radio 4, do it". And I did.

    I think what it is, is that today's events have posed a direct challenge to my feelings of being an adult, with my own beliefs and attitudes towards the world. Due to the nature of the Fresher's Fair many of the people working behind the various stalls are (quite naturally) passionate about their causes, and thus overly-eager to encourage others to adopt them as their own. This makes me feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel that the punters are being regarded as blank canvases onto which society logos can be etched.

    It also feels a bit like walking down the Bund in Shanghai and being bombarded by requests to buy a plastic glow-in-the-dark model of the Eiffel Tower.

    I know that things will settle down after a while. The initial hubub will subside, and those first year students that haven't dropped out will be found sitting in rocking chairs, smoking pipes and listening to Radio 4. Then I'll be happy.


    Recently, I have been trying to work on that part of me that likes to be a consumer. This has been a strong part of me for as long as I can remember, and is manifested in the many belongings I have filling this room. I have always liked owning things.

    Influenced by my reading on the Tao, I've recently begun to try to let go of things (thus the flurry of activity on Amazon Marketplace this week, and For Sale / For Free messages on the university website). And you know what? It feels good. It feels good to be light and nimble, to not be weighed down with belongings, to be free of unnecessary clutter that might just come in handy one day. This may sound a bit weird, but through relinquishing permanent ownership and instead embracing temporary guardianship, my attitude towards everything around me has changed to one of gratefulness. There is no taking anything for granted, but instead a feeling of joy that I am fortunate enough to have (for example) this sexy Mac at my fingertips, this beautiful mug to drink this tasty coffee from, this swiss army knife with its mini-scissors. It's great to feel joy every time I cut my toenails.

    Another thing partly influenced by my reading this past year is a change in my attitude towards my body. One always hears how important regular exercise and a proper diet is - but how many of us take it seriously? A recurring theme of many books on health, success and spirituality is that of taking care of the body that we're temporarily inhabiting. Through my reading I was made increasingly aware of how I tend to take my body for granted, and that if I was to put off looking after it until after my health began to deteriorate I would be a fool indeed. Thus, these past few weeks I have been thinking "I really must get back on track", but where was the kick up the backside to come from?

    Then it happened: last weekend the opportunity arose to attend a free fitness coaching session run by a top US instructor, who also happens to be a very very nice guy. Boy was that inspirational! He reminded me how good it felt to be fit, and outlined a basic 10-minute exercise routine which can be done every morning without having to turn one's daily routine upside down. I've been doing it every day since - and Wow! What a difference it makes to my general sense of wellbeing!

    The routine is: 4 minutes of running fast and slow (on the spot in my pajamas - you should see me, I look like a right idiot), 3 minutes of resistance training (I use free weights), 2 minutes of core body work (with my 75cm sports ball that doubles as my desk chair to help improve my posture), and one minute of stretching. You'd be surprised how puffed out one feels after all that - and studies show dramatic improvements in health / weight loss after a few months of such a program. The key is to enjoy it, which I do.

    I've also re-started taking EPA and DHA (from fish oils), which with our family's history of heart disease is only sensible, and of course I'm continuing with my organic supplements (vital for students otherwise powered by Baked Beans!).

    Also influenced by my reading of the Tao (and other texts) are my continuing attempts to not feel obliged to fit in. I know that I will only find true peace when I abandon the pointless quest altogether - easier said than done! Curse my social conditioning! Oh to be a toddler again!

    But you know, with practice it's becoming easier. This does not mean that I am purposefully going out there and being a rebel, rather, I am listening more to what my heart tells me is the right thing to do or say, as opposed to attempting the impossible - to get inside the minds of my counterparts and act in accordance with what I think they want to observe. It feels so good to trust in one's own inner voice or whatever one might call it, rather than having to attach values to conflicting viewpoints, weigh them up and act in accordance with the result.

    One thing that I have found disquieting lately is the realisation that my ego is far stronger than I had ever realised (you can save the comments!!!). This is something I have begun to work on, although I am only beginning to move into the second phase of this process, the first having been to look back on past incidents of ego-domination and be appalled by the behavior shown as a result. Now, just in the past few days, I have started to catch myself at those times when my ego is exerting excess influence upon my behavior, and saying "Woah there horsey!" (or something to that effect).

    It's so exiting to journey inside oneself. There's not a dull moment, and boy does it take the stress out of things.

    Anyway, I must be off as I have a Japanese BBQ to attend. Will's WillYaki business is going from strength to strength; I feel privileged to be a part of his journey too.

    Tatta for now.

    Love joseph

    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,


    Video: Hello London

    After 9000 miles on 30 trains, I finally arrive in London. Join me as I burst into tears.

    Well, almost.

    Video: Lake Baikal

    Over 600km long, 7km deep, a 5th of the world's unfrozen fresh water, millions of years old - it's amazin! Join me as I cycle across the island in the middle.

    Video: Arrival in Siberia

    Arriving in Siberia, I'm overcome by emotion.

    Video: Delirious in the Mongolian outback

    I knew I shouldn't have drunk that fermented milk before we left the yurt.

    Video: Yurt story part 2

    Yurting around in Mongolia

    Video: Yurt story part 1

    300km out in the Mongolian Bush...

    Video: Boarding the trans-Mongolian

    Taken just before the long journey across the Gobi

    Video: On the train to Erlien

    Travelling by train, Chinese style

    Video: Tom and his crazy English

    Before we wind up this trip halfway around the world in 28 days, I'd like to do a little video review of a few of the places I visited. Let's begin with Tom and his CRAZY ENGLISH!

    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 - 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.


    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!


    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."


    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.


    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

    A slight mistake in a previous post

  • 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].


    Whilst on DB's ICE this morning, I started to catalogue all my blog entries from this trip, to create a permanent record within TGW that isn't dependent upon the Daily Mumble Archives. When doing so I noted that in my entry the other day about missing my train to Berlin, I had accidentally deleted a vital paragraph just before uploading it. The vital paragraph explained that it was when I checked that email for the address of the travel agent that I noticed that my train had actually been due to depart at 8.20am, not 10pm, and thus I had just missed it.

    Apologies for any confusion caused. That entry has now been updated.

    I'd also like to apologise to those of you reading this on the Sheffield Star blog site. The blogging software over there is rather restrictive and does not recognise some basic bits of code, thus things like paragraph breaks have often been omitted. If I'd had the time whilst on the road I would have edited them for ease of reading, but as I'm sure you can imagine, when I have had internet access over the past 8500ish miles it's tended to be a bit of a mad rush to get things online before my credit runs out. Still, 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 up

    Click 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 place

    Click 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 applied

    Click 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 Express

    Click 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 world

    Click 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 go

    Click 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 cabinet

    Click 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


    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.


    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, 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

    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

    Sunday, September 09, 2007

    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 above

    Click 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 blocks

    Click 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 streets

    Click 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 Siberia

    Click 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 yesterday

    Click 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 Olkholn

    Click 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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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...

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    A butterfly sunning itself on the shore

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    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.


    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

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    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

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  • 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 Fun

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    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 day

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    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!

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    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 Adrian

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    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-top

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    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 sunset

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    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 Peter

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    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.

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    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 land

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    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 shore

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    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. Goldtooth

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    Let's get a close-up on those beauties

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    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 ferry

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    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 guesthouse

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    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.


    Beach scene

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    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 Ude

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    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 Siberia

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    ...often with cute painted shutters

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    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 train

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

    I guess this must be Russia...

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    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...

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    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 road

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    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 market

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    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.