Saturday, 30 May 2009

We are riding on top of the world!

20090530_053341_DIG_CHN_RTW_9999_A350_Quinghai Tibet Railroad

At its highest the Quinghai Railway runs across terrain 5100m above sea level. At this height they give you piped oxygen in the trains, and although we did not faint or anything, you feel the altitude.

This trip was just amazing, the scenery is the perfect taster to Tibet, and I really felt like I was doing something very special by taking this train from Xining to Lhasa. Can’t really describe the experience, but this kind of feeling is what this world trip is all about for me. Simple specialness I guess. Feeling that we are crossing new boundaries and creating something of a history of our own. Tibet is the final goal and this is going to be real special, particularly with the trek we are going to do. But this journey is special as it is new and uncharted for us. I have not seen scenes like that on this train, and then when you think about the engineering marvel that it is it makes it all the more special.

Before 2005 it would have taken 4 days to drive to Lhasa. They built this railroad, and it now takes around 24hours. The train climbs about 2000metres, and weaves through 3 main mountain ranges. Most remarkable of all is that a significant segment of the journey is on track laid basically on permafrost (ice). They have accomplished by building the longest road bridge in the world. This is where they have driven foundations 30m down (like in a normal bridge) and built the track bed and track on it.

All in all it is has been an amazing amazing journey, and marks the beginning of one of the most important stages of the trip – Tibet and Mount Kailash await.

Friday, 29 May 2009

The next time you see a lost tourist – help them.

After the last few days I have now made a vow that I will make sure I help any tourist I came across that look lost and in need of help. We have been helped by so many people just over the last few days, and I am sure that if we had not had their help we would have been stuck stuck stuck.

This one lady at Xian station first approached us with a usual tour card and the promise of a great deal on visiting the sights. A great deal it was not, but a very nice lady she sure was! We gave her a bit of an abrupt ‘no thanks’ went on to try and find the ticket office. Clearly in the mass of people we stood out like 2 sore thumbs and she saw that we were getting lost – going to the wrong place for the ticket office, so she came up again and before I could tell her where to go with her tour offer, she directed us again! Finally when we go to the right place, she wrote all the details of what we wanted in Chinese and directed to the best queue. Without this assistance I was really worried that would struggle with getting our ticket. Her help sure made it really much easier.

When we arrived in Xining we were due to pick up our tickets for Lhasa from the local agent. We could not find the office, so we went to a small hotel where the guy at the travel desk helped us by calling the agent and getting him to meet us at this hotel, this really helped as the office was miles away!!

Once we had our tickets and the infamous Tibet permits in our hand we went off to the station, we were really early but this was a god send as the copy of the permit was not correct. You have to present your permit to the police at the station before they will allow you to wait for the train, anyway to cut a long story short, this really nice police officer again called our agent explained that the permit copy was not good and that he would need to get the guys in Lhasa to send it again, she gave them a fax number and when we went back to the station after a few hours she had our correct copies with her. That was a close shave!!

We went off to the station, we were really early but this was a god send as the copy of the permit was not correct. You have to present your permit to the police at the station before they will allow you to wait for the train, anyway to cut a long story short, this really nice police officer again called our agent explained that the permit copy was not good and that he would need to get the guys in Lhasa to send it again, she gave them a fax number and when we went back to the station after a few hours she had our correct copies with her. That was a close shave!!

Monday, 25 May 2009

Have you ever wondered why you see so many Chinese tours everywhere around the world?

Maybe you haven’t, but I certainly have! Everywhere you go, you are sure to bump into a group of Chinese tourists, all wearing the same funny coloured baseball cap and all clicking pictures like the world would collapse if they didn’t! I have started to call them goods trains, because if you get stuck behind a group of Chinese tourists, you will be stuck with them for a while! We found out that in order to control the numbers of people who go out of the country (and presumably get a flavour of what the rest of the ‘free’ world is like) the Chinese government make people pay a huge deposit before they can leave the country independently. Therefore the only way to go out and see the world is through one of the billions of organised and maybe mildly censored tours that are in the main organised by the CITS (Chinese International Tourist Service). I found this so interesting as it explained one of the great mysteries of the world!! Why do you only see Chinese tourists in tour groups!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Our own Taj Tour!

Some of you may be aware of the famous Taj tours that run out of India - where they will show you 15 countries in 3 weeks, and they go with slogans like breakfast in Berlin, Lunch in London and Dinner in Denmark...

Well we did our own mini Taj Tour across China. Between the 22nd May to the 29th May we travelled to Datong – Beijing – Pingyao – Xian – Xining and got on the Train for Lhasa. That’s 5 stops in 8 days, including 3 days in Beijing!! I will cover Beijing in a separate post so this is about the rest.

20090522_052681_DIG_CHN_RTW_9999_A350_Datong City Monastary and Grottos

20090523_052844_DIG_BEI_RTW_9999_A350_Beijing Forbidden City


20090528_053241_DIG_CHN_RTW_9999_A350_Xian Terracotta Warriers

The first thing to say was that it was tiring and maybe not the ideal way to see a country like China, but with the 30day visa deadline approaching and the major block of time in china being spent in Tibet we had to follow a bit of a hectic schedule. I know this was not Urvi’s choice, but I guess that with the 15 days in Tibet coming up there was not much else we could do.

The trip was tiring and I don’t think we did full justice to any place, but only got a bit of a flavour. What was in interesting was how far away any of the main sights were from the actual cities that we went to. Landing up at the station we would get into a habit of storing our bags and then getting out to see the place, however as we would be going to 1 or 2 of the main sights we would then miss the main towns. In some cases this was not a big deal such as Xining, but in others the towns are interesting and we missed it – Xian for example, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in China.

In all this frenzied travelling the real high point was the day in Pingyao. This is a tiny town that has not moved on from the 1700s, it is a really characterful Chinese picture postcard town. We arrived in the rain and therefore did not spend loads of time ‘touring’ but we found an amazing Youth Hostel - Yamen Hostel where we basically set up shop, it was awesome. Free internet so we could make final arrangements for Tibet and Japan, and also lovely coffee and Chips!!! Hurray! The day we spend there was just lovely and really helped to distress from the hectic train to train travel we were doing

Highlights for this portion of the trip were the Hanging Monastery at Datong, The whole of Pingyao, the terracotta warriors (just an amazing sight and wonderfully persevered and shown off)

We now get ready to get on the train to Lhasa, on the Quinghai (pronounced Ching Hai) railway. The highest railway in the world that also contains the longest land bridge in the world.

Beijing – this place is awesome and the hostel was even better!!!

Ok so imagine getting off the overnight train at 5am, being faced a mammoth Beijing West train station, finding your bus, getting on with a million others and fighting with the ratty conductor who is shouting at you in Chinese, and you are shouting back in Kutchi – no it’s not a funny sight!!! (Well it was actually) but then you get off the hot bus to a hot Beijing (20c at 6am!) and then we go searching of our Hostel. It is in the middle of a Hutong (which is basically a cram of small streets, and common courtyards, off which people’s houses are to be found. This is a very traditional way to live in China, and was really interesting to experience but a killer to navigate. It was lucky our Hostel is soooo popular that even the locals know where you are going when they see to back packers plodding aimlessly along the streets, looking at the road signs as if they were written in Chinese!!

So the picture I am trying to paint is that we are a bit haggard and tired, we enter the hostel and suddenly cool, calm, relaxed, everything is just lovely and we sink into the easy chairs in the semi open courtyard/common area. The hostel – ‘Sitting on the city walls hostel’ was soooo nice and the perfect remedy for our condition. The guys who run it were really nice and very experienced at making sure the guest get the best out of Beijing. On arrival they gave us a cheat sheet for the city, so that we could avoid the inevitable rogue tour guides that would take us to the great wall in a 10th of the price of the official rates, and then proceed to take us to 101 shops and other things that would sap our money!
Anyway back to the city itself and our take on it.

We loved Beijing, it is a humming place, that may well have been different before the Olympics but from what I recall about how my parents found it, I think they like it too. Beijing is huge, and there is a lot to experience and take in, it was really hot when we were there which made seeing the place kind of tough, but the city is so nicely planned in terms of public transport you can make it anywhere fairly easily. We became pretty good at navigating the metro (which is totally world class) and the busses too, and at 10p per trip it is a bargain.

The biggest thoughts I had on Beijing was that it was a young city, both in itself and in the residents. The city clearly has been majorly developed and even after the Olympics it moves on with further development. Maybe at the expense of the old traditional city, but that is the case in so many places around the world. And too be honest apart from some major sights and places of national value I don’t think the regime in china is too bothered. The people are also really young, everywhere you go it is young people, maybe cos we were there over a weekend we got more of that, but I don’t think so.

The major sights are all amazing, the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace is where we concentrated our time, and we loved them. However I was not taken by Tiananmen Square. One may ask what is there to be taken by a square. Albeit the largest public square in the world. However it felt really stale to me. On the other hand Beijing’s Snack Street was a real fun busy place, basically I saw it as a little china town within a Chinese town!! There were small eateries and stalls, and shops and all sorts sprinkled with loads and loads of people all enjoying an evening, it was really fun, eating the fried Dofu (Tofu) the huge plates of Noodles, and then trying to explaining to the guy that we wanna pack it as a take away!! Trying to avoid the mass of sellers, telling us to ‘hello... come a look a look, I give you goood price!’ for the ‘antique’ chess board that she has stacked in a high pile.

We went to the Olympic stadium and trust me on the outside it was amazing for its architecture, presence and technology, but from the inside it was amazing for the sheer numbers of people who came to see it as a temple to the Chinese plan to dominate the world. I could not work out if people are almost told that they must visit the ‘birds nest’ or whether they truly feel the pride it is meant to symbolise, either way there were thousands of people all coming to see it. Admittedly it is not even a year since the closing ceremony took place, and Boris Johnson came along on his big red bus. So maybe the crowds will die, but the authorities have kept it exactly like the stadium was during the games, including all the hoardings etc.

The most notable thing about the Olympic stadium visit for me was the totally open way the stadium had been opened for people. You basically pay to enter, the stands are open and then the whole ‘pitch/track’ area is open. People were relaxing as if in the park, taking food, playing with their kids, playing badminton etc etc, it was lovely dare I say it almost not Chinese – in that there was no tour, nothing very regimented, relaxed. Maybe I have read the Chinese wrong, but I noticed that they were all very relaxed in this space.

I have always wanted to see the great stadia of the world – Lords, the MCG, Wembley, Old Trafford, Neu Camp, the Birds Nest, the Maracana etc etc, not totally for the sports connection but because these places represent 2 really strong traits that I think are so powerful, the idea of achievement – that comes through sports at the highest level, and an amazing sense of human togetherness. People come to stadia to watch and experience in unity. And these temples of sport are just so good at pulling people into the action, the history and the uniqueness of the sporting spectacle.

Overall we loved Beijing, the hostel really helped to set up the city for us, but it is clear that Beijing has something about; a something that we felt was missing from Moscow. The people were helpful, interesting and really seem to know where they are going. We were not there to assess the levels of control asserted by the communist regime, but even if we were, on the surface there was not a lot of suppression that people seemed to feel. The young were expressing themselves as much as anywhere in the world, however I am mightily angry at the fact my blog was blocked here!!

Friday, 22 May 2009

We are finally in China! But with a special pit stop

The border crossing was really interesting not for the visa processing, not for the rush to the duty free shop at the border not for the masses of people trying to swap Togrigs to Yuan etc etc.the interesting and really impressive thing was the physical changing of the WHOLE trains wheel sets! Russia and China run on different gauges so when the international trains come over the over board there are 2 options, either empty the whole train into alternative Chinese train or change the wheels!! It sounds crazy but actually it is not as stupid as it sounds. Moving everyone and everything from one train to another across a border would a logistical nightmare, so better just change the wheels.

We were shunted into a special yard where all of the wheel sets were unlocked from the carriages. Then each of the carriages were uncoupled and lifted on massive jacks, once clear the wheels were all pulled away. As we were on special tracks which could then change gauge and once this had happened the new wheels were pushed into place. Finally the carriages were lowered and the journey continued.

It took about 30 minutes for the whole train, which isn’t exactly formula 1 pit stop speed, but i reckon that’s far quicker than the changing the train. It was a good example of the Chinese efficiency they are trying to show the world. The passport were just as delayed as in Russia, but to be fair with the pit stop we had other stuff to keep our minds occupied.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

It is soo amazing to have everyone’s thoughts and best wishes

I have been trying to catch up on the emails that we missed since being on the Trans Siberian, and then Mongolia and it is so amazing that there are so many people who are wishing us well and who are interested in the trip. Without getting too emotional it is really an amazing feeling.

I really feel quite amazed – thanks to everyone!!!! We already feel so privileged to be doing this trip and then to have so many thoughts and wishes makes it even more special...

Monday, 18 May 2009

Mongolia road trip deep into the country

When I first thought of Mongolia, I thought ‘outer’ Mongolia – being in the middle of nowhere and desperately barren and empty. In many ways this is exactly what it is, but along with that, Mongolia is a beautiful country with even more beautiful people. There are only about 3 million people in a country that is 3 times the size of France. Urvi really liked the capital Ulaan Bator, I didn’t think there was much to it but we both agreed that the countryside was stunning and the trip we took out for 3 days to the rural areas proved to be a real hit.

Mongolia is poor, and historically has been caught between Russia and China, both physically but also politically and commercially. There is fair amount of Russia money there, but it is not so apparent anymore.

The biggest asset I think the country has is its people. They are a tough and hard working bunch that are always ready to smile. Most people outside of the capital live an almost Bedouin existence, where they travel around the plains with their sheep or horses. They live in traditional Ger tents (low round constructs that withstand the fierce winds, snow and heat that Mongolia experiences through the year. ‘homestays’ are common and even the locals will share their Ger with local travellers.

It was really interesting to be in such a large country with so few people, you would maybe see 10 or 20 people in the whole day??!! It was spooky! When you do meet some of the locals they were so warm and welcoming. Of course language was a problem but people can communicate so much with their expressions and they were always warm. We went out on a 3 day Ger trek, visiting the ancient capital at Kharkorin, stayed with some local families in Gers and took in some of the stunning natural beauty. The families with whom we stayed were the highlights. I know that we paid (under GBP2 per person for dinner bed and breakfast) to stay with them, but we got a real sense that the appreciated us, as we got so much from them.

There is a real simplicity to peoples life, they do things to survive, and spend time coping with the weather, and not much else. This lack of complication rubbed off on us, and we spent the evenings when we go to the camps talking, looking at the amazing star scapes and playing cards, no TV, no internet – it was amazing! I think we have cluttered our lives a lot with things that may not really matter, with complications that we think are important, just these 3 days with families in Mongolia showed me that our lives are not stressful in themselves - we create stress. Maybe we need to think about it, and maybe if we were to restrict our life to a simple matter of what you need to do to survive and restrict your possessions to what you can fit into a Ger tent, we would be happier? Maybe it is not that easy, but i think i have seen that simplicity is invaluable.

20090518_052419_DIG_MNG_RTW_9999_A350_Mongolia Country Trip

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Getting across the Mongolian Border

The last 2 sections of the train journey involved 2 border crossings one between Russia and Mongolia and one between Mongolia and China. Of course we cross borders all the time, when we fly, but the experience on this train was somewhat different from the generally slick airport experience. Exiting Russia involved stopping at the border station, handing over your passport and sitting around for over 4 hours hoping that you get it back! Oh yeah, then there is the cabin checking and also the various health forms that you need to complete. The final output of all this is a small exit stamp on the returned passport! What was funny is that everyone on the train was as apprehensive and worried that they would never get their passport back, or worse still get stung for some customs fine or something. In reality although it takes time, the process was pretty good, considering the fact that they have to process the whole train before it can move on.

Needless to say we were all fine and we have made it out of Russia, after an amazing taste of the largest country on the planet.

Final leg of Trans-Sib Russia concluding thoughts

20090516_052186_DIG_RUS_RTW_9999_A350_Trans Siberian Train Irkutsk to Ulan Baator

We are on the final leg of the journey through Russia and out into Mongolia. So it’s time for some concluding thoughts on the Russian Republic. The most obvious thing to say is that Russia is huge and we have simply just scratched the surface of a tiny bit of it. It comes across as a hard country to live in and a hard country to ‘make it in’. St Petersburg was a real European city and is full of history and culture but as it is a really difficult to travel, it is not a big draw for the city break market. If it was any easier then I am sure that it would have been swamped. Moscow is a big brash city which has an attitude. In the past it was thought of as crime ridden and not welcoming, but we found it ok to be in now. It is really clear to see how people are straining to change in Russia following the fall of communism, and due to the different pace people are travelling at, there seem to be many separations. There are financial divides and major cultural divides, with the youth generation doing everything to be like the US and the older generations who have been brought up in communism resenting this and pushing up against it.

Russia is a country that is difficult to categorise, it was naturally beautiful and has a massive amount of culture, history and complication. I am glad that we have travelled through this great country; it is not true that people are unwelcoming and it is not true that the cities are depressing grey sprawls. The Trans Siberian was one of the main reasons that we launched our world trip from Russia and this experience has not disappointed. We have met many wonderful people along the way, and seen that we are not alone in travelling such a great distances and for such a long time. I think this has been a great start to our trip and we now look forward with verve to the next stage – See you in Mongolia!!!!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Travelling is hard work – on the mind, body and spirit

But isn’t that the point? Talking to people about their travels and thinking about our trip it is becoming more and more clear to me that travelling in the way we are doing it is not easy, and sometimes it is not fun, however it has benefits that you just can’t describe. The people you meet, the gems you see of the world and the places that are just so far away from your own comfort zones and reference point that it blows your mind. There are over 190 countries in the world and a million different cultures and ways of life, nobody has a right to say their way of life is the best or better than any others, but until you experience the different cultures you can’t even begin to describe the differences.

The mind - I think I would classify our trip as backpacking tourists; we are away for a long long time, and this means it is not the same as 2 weeks of a vacation somewhere, the trip requires planning, persistence and a greater degree of mental strength than I initially thought. Take money for example, sometimes we feel like doing things that we financial can’t do, and then other times we think that we have spent too much! I am sure will settle on a middle ground sometime, but right now it is like my scuba diving - very up and down!! I am worried because in an attempt to budget and plan we should not lose sight of the scenery and sounds and flavours around us. Also you have to constantly think and plan ahead, what is going to happen when you arrive in the next place, what do you need to do, where to go what to experience. You have to show flexibility and react to situations, and doing this day in day out can be wearing. Once again I revert back to the fact that we WANTED to do this trip, we are FORTUNATE to be doing it and I am sure that when we are back in the comfort zone we will recall the ‘tales’ for this trip and smile fondly.

Physically – this is it the least of my worries. Travelling this way will be sometimes tiring, uncomfortable and smelly, but I know that we will work our way through this. Our fitness is already starting to improving, and one of the big things I want to learn from this trip is tolerance, including for being uncomfortable on occasions, having to walk long distances, and eating at random times. A lack of order in one’s life is probably a really liberating thing!

The spirit – at points on the trip I am already feeling so many things about the world. Sometimes that there are so many things the same between all our cultures, sometimes that we live in pockets of isolation, that don’t know or care what is happening next door. Sometimes one sees things that questions faith and that question human goodness. I have no right to draw any conclusions yet, but the spirit is tested and challenged all the time on a trip like this, and that has to be a good thing!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Scuba Diving Lake Baikal – a cold but amazing experience!

20090513_052166_DIG_RUS_RTW_9999_Z100_Scuba Lake Baikal

So one of the things that I would like to do as we travel is develop and improve my diving experience and also dive some of the nicest dive spots in the world. This started in a very frosty way by diving the 2°c waters of Lake Baikal. I will be honest this was a dive I was not prepared for and therefore was very daunting.

Diving is all about preparation and experience. I don’t think for this dive I had either! The biggest thing was that to dive in water this cold you need a dry suit and you need insulation. If I told you I had 3 insulated woollen trousers, and 3 woollen jumpers tops on when I went diving you would think I was mad! But that is exactly what I wore, plus a dry suit, and full head cover, gloves and boots. This all made it pretty unmanageable out of the water. Also without the technicalities using a dry suit is not all that easy, as it fills with air, so you have to control the amount of air in the suit, to avoid yourself blowing up like a balloon when you rise to the surface!!!

This was the first time I had dived in these conditions and the basic point I am making is that it was a challenge!!! My dive buddy was pretty patient to be honest, despite only having met me a few hours before we dived.

The dive itself was ok, it was tough to see lots because I was concentration too much on the diving technicalities but I am glad I did it. I have now dived the deepest lake in the world, although I only went to 15metres! I also got to try out the underwater housing for the camera that we bought in readiness for the Great Barrier Reef – which will be much nicer diving and much warmer!!!! The shots are of me as my dive buddy was snapping away.

The lake is very clear, but at this dive site fairly unspectacular. Again the achievement for me was to dive in this deepest lake, and also to dive in this cold cold water. It makes me want to do more diving soon!!!

Listvyanka and Lake Baikal – pristine lake, evolving village

If Listvyanka were in the US, there would be motor boats, jet skis and all kind of aquatic craft whizzing across the miles and miles of pristine waters of Lake Baikal – thank God it is not in the US. The lake and the only major ‘town’ on its north western shore is beautiful and quiet, calm and very very cold!


The Village of Listvyanka hugs this north western shore for what feels like dear life. It is about 65kms from the main city in the region – Irkutsk. We took a minibus to the town and immediately as you arrive you notice the quiet. There are few sounds other than dogs, and chickens and the bells of the cattle grazing on the hillside. It is pretty, but in a rugged, working village kind of way. The real local people seem to simply get on with their lives, and the main focus of this seems to be recovery from the past winter and preparation for the next. Wood is the main non lake based activity (although at this point there did not seem to be much lake based fishing or industry to be seen), and people are constantly building and repairing their homes, chopping wood for the winter and generally tending to small patches of vegetables and crops. From one angle this village is in a time warp - maybe that is being too judgemental? - from one angle this village is doing the things it has always done and the things that villages all over the world do – get on with life. On one day we walked over to a local Russian Orthodox Church in the valley, it was a lovely example of the decorative simplicity that can be a feature of churches in this area. On going inside we came across a christening ceremony for a new born – maybe a few weeks old. It kind of felt really nice for us to sit and watch this going on. Urvi had her scarf on so she put it over her head, and the grandmother looked over approvingly!! We sat for some time, watching the function, and it just made me think how much life just goes on for people everywhere and how little real interconnection there really is between people. Just for a small moment we randomly connection with that family.

The houses are functional, wooden constructs, which through western eyes would be classed as derelict or run down. They may well be, however they clearly work and work through the harshest of seasons – the Siberian winter. They, and the village, have a ‘little house on the prairie’ feel to them, with decorative shutters, neat piles of chopped wood, outside toilets and fences all round. Our chalet – Chalet Baikal, was at the centre of one of the housing colonies about 1km from the main road. I was glad we were there, 1) because of the great views from the balcony out to the lake and 2) because it was away from the limited commercial, touristy set ups. We felt in the middle of the real Listvyanka.

The other angle to this place is the lake, and the tourist trade. In some ways the Siberian Tourist board could and probably will make more of this gem they have. However despite what you read in the guide books we felt that Lake Baikal and Listvyanka are fairly underdeveloped by western standards, there is one supposed international standard hotel and a few other nice local guesthouses. There are also some homestay options although; despite trying we were not able to sort anything out to stay with one. There are a few small eateries but as with all place in Russia endless places for people who want beer to get some! Essential you could say there is not much to do. Maybe that’s the best thing - you relax by compulsion! Also there are beautiful walks to do into the hills, and through the forests, which really are worth it. We walked up to a viewing point in the hills which was a short 1.5 hours walk it was stunning and the lake looked amazing. Listvyanka is not a cheesy British summer beach resort, but things are very seasonal, and the place is only now coming to life.

The lake itself is the continuous backdrop to our time here. Its the deepest in the world – at 1600m in the centre. It is also one of the largest – it is just immense! It is longer than Switzerland, contains 20% of all the fresh water in the world and you could fit all 5 of the US great lakes into Baikal and still have space left over!! Despite this scale it freezes over completely during the long winters, and despite it being mid May we were told that the lake had only thawed a few weeks before we arrived. Most of the lake (in particular the south eastern sections are very much wilderness and very tough for travellers to anywhere near. If you want to ‘visit’ the lake, Listvyanka is where you end up.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the tourist scene and the local villagers. You are in the same place but don’t really interact. The traders who sell you souvenirs are a small group of the population, but it seems that the majority of the locals live in the small valley settlements, and don’t really bother about the outsiders who flock in the summer boom times. Wealthy Russians are also now getting in on the action and there are many swanky private chalets going up around the place, often jostling for space with the out ‘shack houses’, most of time the large looming chalets win, and I am sure you would see lots of the shacks ‘disappearing’.

Lake Baikal is on the tourist/traveller trail because it is on the Trans Siberian line. It therefore will continue to get a fairly regular contingent of travellers coming through. There is always a nice feel to the place, in part because you often catch up with people you met and spent time with on the train. Sharing a coffee or a meal with them by the lake is lovely, and discussing the next portion of the journey – most of the time on into Mongolia and China is a staple discussion!

I am glad we came to Baikal, not so much for the lake ironically enough, but because it gave us a chance to relax and because I learnt about the way Siberian cultures are so driving by the relentless seasons.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Trans Siberian train from Moscow to Irkutsk

After the short breaks of St Pete and Moscow we are now on the single longest train journey either of us has ever taken. This is the Trans Siberian from Moscow to Irkutsk. In days gone by there was really only one train that would travel from Moscow on the west right through to Vladivostok on the East coast. Now the modern traveller has many options and combinations of various trains. You can stop in many places and take months to travel the breadth of the largest country in the world, but we decided to do a fairly standard 2 stop route; this would take us as follows:

Moscow – Irkutsk (stay in Listvanyanka, Lake Baikal).
Irkutsk – Ulan Bator (stay in Mongolia for a few days).
Ulan Bator – Beijing (we will get off early in Datong).

20090509_051956_DIG_RUS_RTW_9999_A350_Trans Siberian Train Moscow to Irkutsk

For this, the first leg we left Moscow late night on Friday 8th May, and travelled all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We will arrive to Irkutsk early morning of Tuesday 12th May. That’s over 76hours on the same train! We cross 3 time zones and 1000s of KMs of Russia baron but beautiful countryside.

Basics – the first thing to say is get to the station early. This train left at 23:25 which was fine, but the station is little difficult to navigate and in the evening hub hub can be a little disconcerting. This can really be helped by getting there early and therefore not rushing around too! Our train was number 10, Baikal. As the name suggests this lovely train ply’s the route between Moscow and Irkutsk. There were about 12 passenger carriages and a dining car. The train has 1st class, 2nd class and a 3rd class. 1st class was ok, but I am glad we went for 2nd class. The major differences are that in 1st class you have a dedicated 2 berth cabin (same quality seating and beds as in 2nd class but better privacy), electronic ‘hotel style locks’ a TV, oh and some questionable interior decor (Ships cabin style). 2nd class was again a cabin, with 4 berths, wood laminate, and simple decor and fittings. I think it was really nice and vindicated our decision on the 1st class fare.

The service on this train was excellent, you have a dedicated ‘Provencal’ or carriage attendant (who on this train were all ladies) the attendant, would welcome you on board (checking your ticket on the way!), make sure you have anything you need, including use of the amazing pewter ‘Baikal Train’ tea tankards. They would also clean regularly, including vacuuming twice per day; and even come round with a few tourist bits and bobs for you to buy. It was really lovely and our attendant was so nice, she made us all feel really welcome.

The trains seem to always run on time, which for a 4 day journey was pretty good. I would say however that during the whole journey we were tailing the Beijing train, but other than that there were very few passenger trains of any description on the tracks, therefore my guess is once these trains get moving they don’t stop for anyone. There were a total of 34 station stops across the route, but only 13 of these were for over 15mins. Not a major problem really because there is little to see or do at any of the stations, and to be honest I felt there was little atmosphere, definitely no hustle and bustle.

Food wise, the best thing to do is combine some of the on board food with your own supply of things that need hot water. The water boilers in each carriage never run out and never run cold. So tea, coffee, soups, noodles... you get the idea!!! The restaurant is a bit overpriced I thought – 12p of HALF slice of small bread and GBP1.20 for a handful (I mean Karunika’s handful) of salad. You can buy crisps, biscuits, fruit (limited) and water etc on platforms, so no need to do what some other travellers did, and buy 10 bottles before leaving Moscow. However note that you can get Mirinda (famous Indian Fanta kind of drink) from Moscow, so we bought a 2L bottle of that – Urvi was happy!!

General observations – The first thing that hits you about this journey is how different the rest of Russia is when compared to Moscow. We boarded from the trendy capital, and immediately day broke on the 1st morning there was a sparseness of people, buildings, and sort of real civilisation. It is a strange but recognisable feeling, again thinking back to leaving Delhi or Bombay on train for example.

There is something of a touristy feel to the running of this train. Pretty much all of the 1st and 2nd class passengers were foreign tourists/travellers making their way to Irkutsk and then Listvanyanka. This meant that at each station all of your carriages passengers would queue up and leave the train, stand by your carriage (for fear of the train leaving without you!) and then get back on again after having taken a few pics of the neighbouring cabin. It got a little comical by the 4th day! But I guess we were all here for the same reason, and as you can see I took the say pics myself!! I truly wonder what will happen when we get to Irkutsk, my guess is that everyone will pile off the train, and jump on various buses, taxis and other pickups to all meet again in the few places to stay in Listvanyanka!

The scenery you witness as you progress does not change very much. There are large stretches of woodland, and large stretches of farmland. Industrial landscapes pop up every so often but you don’t see them that much, and there a only a handful of large towns or cities. At one point we went thought the Ural Mountains but you could really tell as I think you were already at some height.

There so so so few people along the route, this was really noticeable to me - at the stations in the villages and through the towns. Of course this is bourne out by the fact that in most of Siberia there are 0-5 people per square km. For reference Moscow would have around 500-1000 per square km!!

All the houses we saw other than in the cities were made of wood, they looked tiny and a bit like allotment dwellings, they also had veg patches alongside which added to the allotment like feel.

On reflection, if we were able to time it right, this journey should be done in the winter. The vista would have been so so different I think and the feeling of travelling on a cosy sleeper train with a mug of hot soup in your hand would just have been magical.

In summary the ‘Trans Siberian’ is a wonderful experience; it is a mammoth journey across a mammoth country. For me it marked the real beginning of this epic trip of ours, there is no turning back and there just so much to look ahead for. Essentially I don’t think that you do this trip for the stations and getting off the train to see lots of things. This train journey is about the journey, about the people you meet on board. It’s about the sheer distance you cover, and the things you do to pass the time – playing games, talking to people, writing blogs! thinking. I looked out of the window each time and saw the way that people live, I did not feel sorry for them, I did not feel lucky for me, I felt that there is so much difference in all our lives but also so much similarity, it is just amazing to see this pass you by as the train meanders relentlessly on its course through Siberia.

Friday, 8 May 2009

General thoughts on our travels....

Just a few points that have come to mind since we have travelling

Days seem to go by much slower than we would have thought, it is nearly the end of our 1st week, and it feels like we have been away for months!!! This might be due to the atmosphere in Moscow, and also hostelling. Our living environment is really different so maybe that’s it.

Trying to budget all the time is hard work! It makes you walk loads more than I (Anand) am used to, and it means that you really have to consider what you do and when

It takes a good few days to really get a feel for a place, often doing nothing, and just watching people go about their own business is the best way to understand a place, an example of this was Moscow, i think it is fair to say that our first impression of the city was not good, but after the few days that we have been here, it has changed.

No where will be perfect and no where is just ‘like home’ but isn’t that the point of travelling the world? Otherwise we should have stayed at home for 16months and chilled!!!

Urvi is now certain she packed to much stuff, I would love to say I told her so, but maybe I have taken too much stuff too!!!

Moscow – from communism to rampant capitalism

When we arrived to Moscow someone said to us, ‘all the stereotypes about this place are totally true – its crime ridden, corrupt and difficult to be in’. Maybe on the first day we felt that this might have been true, but honestly as we pull out of the station destined for Lake Baikal, our feelings about Moscow have changed. It is a world city on a mission. It just feels that this mission is not one we in Western Europe completely understand.

20090506_51722_DIG_MOS_RTW_9999_A350_Moscow City

We came into Moscow by the overnight train from St Pete (as the locals call St Petersburg) and made our way through the Metro system to our Hostel. Let me tell you Olimpia Hostel is not the easiest place to find at any time but with rucksacks and a whiff of ‘foreigner lost’ you really draw notice! We did indeed get a bit lost but this was not the fault of the Metro system, but to my ability to read directions. Bit of advice, in Moscow there are often multiple exits to subways stations, and these are not marked well, furthermore if you take the wrong one you can be a few blocks away from where you are meant to be!! Anyway, we get to the hostel which is basically a converted apartment in a block in what turns out to be a good central residential area. Walking there was like travelling the world – the streets look really really like New York, and the entrance to the building and then the building itself felt like you were in Bombay! Strange but reassuringly familiar.

We chilled for a few hours and then made our way to the centre of Moscow, to the centre of all Russia, and in times past the centre of the eastern bloc – Red Square and the Kremlin. It was a bit tough to comprehend the past significance of this place for 2 reasons, 1stly because the surrounding areas are plastered with everything western – ads for coke, MacDonald’s, designer labels from around the world and cosy coffee shops, so the cold war edge was severely softened, and the 2nd reason was because most of the square was cordoned off as the major practice sessions on going for the annual Victory day celebrations on the 9th May – more about that in a bit. I still got a feel the place and the scale of the machinery of this ex communist superpower.

We also saw the beautiful and magical St Basils cathedral, which stands on one side of red square. By the way just to set things straight Red Square is made of gray brick, and the only thing red about it was the sun burn of the few tourists who were out that day!

Moscow used to be full of crime and murder, and full of corruption, today it feels pretty safe, lively, full or young people, and in general really a nice place to be, it is certainly a place that grows on you and although we started by feeling apprehensive, we ended the few days we were there, feeling that it could grow on you. It is really interesting how I actually felt a little underwhelmed about the fact Moscow was not over run by secret police, and people ‘wanting to check your documents’ – it felt safe and affluent, very affluent.

85% of all Russia’s money/wealth is in Moscow, and it shows, Muscovites love quality. They don’t just spend money on ‘stuff’ they spend on the best stuff. I was amazed at the numbers of top top end Mercs and BMWs etc, and the shops are full of designer brands only. It is not a place for people to find a shopping bargain! We walked through one shopping mall next to Red Square, and I must admit it was the first time I was actually in awe of such a place, it was really amazing. And more amazing was that people were coming out with multiple bags full of very expensive stuff! (Probably with their chauffeur picking up a load more!!). Generally everyone you look at dresses immaculately, even if they are just going to buy fruit and veg. I must say this is a picture painted of the resident and middle class Russians, there still seems to be major inequity when you compare this group to citizens of some of the other soviet states who are coming to Moscow for ‘work’. Money is as dividing in Moscow as anywhere in the world. Capitalism is well and truly embedded in this town.

We didn’t visit a wide range of museums in Moscow due to lack of time, but again I think that this is something that Moscow is strong on – art galleries in particular. One of the main artistic highlights of Moscow is in fact the Metro, the stations and the concourses should be classed museums in themselves. The Metro in Moscow is fairly simple and is really reliable, on all lines trains seem to run every 1-2mins, the fare is 22RUB per journey (about 50p UK, no matter how many changes) that sure beats the 7.70GBP London travel card!! Back to the art – the main lobbies of each station were wonderfully decorated in Soviet splendour, depicting socialist themes and values, of course there are loads of hammers, sickles and stars everywhere, and I must say it made the travel really enjoyable, as I was waiting to see what the next new station we got off at would look like!

The central theme of the time we were in Moscow was the Victory Day celebration. This day basically marks Russian victory in the Second World War. So like many other countries involved in the winning coalition for the first or second world wars, there are days marking victory. However Russian Victory day is a little different because it stills seems to pull the whole country together in celebration. The people of Moscow, young or old seem to be getting ready with pride, for an almighty party. We were leaving for Lake Baikal on the8th evening so we missed all of the actual day, but the prep was amazing to see, in particular the military parades and fly pasts, which were being practiced continuously during the time were there. We caught some of this prep, and I can tell you the sight, sound smell of tanks, armoured vehicles of various shapes, missile launches and troop carries was amazing, and this was just a parade!! The attack on your senses of war machines was immense, and we just get it when we see things on the news

Thursday, 7 May 2009

“Head over heels” – Post by Urvi

When one talks about fashion in global sense, Moscow and St. Pete are probably the least likely to be mentioned. They may not be the ultimate trend setters but definitely have true followers. Women in Russia especially in big cities seem to have a very vivid sense of dressing up. This shows dramatically in their choice of shoes – they may all vary in the colours and styles but all are united in the height of their heels and that too at all ages, even more so than any other big cities like London, Paris and New York. It doesn’t matter what the terrain looks like these girls will put their heels on anywhere - Dressing up to go to the supermarket or anywhere else. Does this show a self-belief in own style sense or just relying on outward appearances for lack of self confidence?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Trans Siberian leg 1 St Petersburg - Moscow

Finally we are on the first leg on our trans-Siberian – St Petersburg to Moscow

So we have boarded the first leg of the longest train journey we are ever likely to take! This is the overnight St Petersburg to Moscow run, the train is the Red Arrow, and is reputed to be one of the best in Russia. It was really a wonderful train, and bang on time, we left at 23:55 and arrived at 07:55.

St Petersburg station is not that huge but is really beautiful, with a huge fresco on the ceiling of the main waiting room. We got there in plenty of time and chilled out waiting for the train, with Pizza, and cards (Snap!! Urvi let me win)

Our carriage was right at the front of the train, carriage number 2 of 18, we passed carriage after carriage of first class, where you could see the waiter service being provided etc, I was a bit worried that we would have a noisy and a bit of an uncomfortable ride, but not at all. The 2nd class service was better than i would expected even from first class, cabin attendants, large beds that were better than most hostel beds, and some hotel beds!!!!, carpets curtains, absolutely spotless cabins, and really every gadget you would expect. 1st class had TVs, but we had climate control! There was also loads of safe storage that Urvi was really impressed with.

Our cabin buddies on the trip were also from the UK, a daughter and mother combination, the Daughter – Nicola was going to China to teach – this is really popular now I guess – her Mom had come with her, for a vacation, and would return from Hong Kong.

We had both booked with and both were really impressed with the service of the company.

If our Moscow – Irkutsk – Ulan Bator – Datong trains are as good we are going to love it!!

St Petersburg – a real European city

when you visit St Petersburg (and maybe Moscow, but our train has not arrived there yet!) you should throw all the clichés of the soviet union, the grim, the KGB checking everyone and everything and the drab grey blocks of buildings right out of the window. This city is as vibrant as any other European city one can care to mention. Sure it is not as culturally diverse as London or Paris, and it may not be a modern and lively as Valencia or Barcelona, but it has a real quality of grandeur. If you take away the cars, you can just imagine the great and the good clopping down the wide roads in their carriages. It has a real period quality to it.

We did not sample the latest cultural vibe that St Peterburg is really well known for and were only really here long enough to get that feel of the tourist hotspots, but there is a confidence in the people that you don’t see in lesser cities, it will be interesting to contrast it to Moscow – maybe there will be more of a USSR feel and quality there. St Petersburg is by far and away the closest thing to Europe you can get in Russia, so it was probably not a bad thing to visit there first and easy ourselves into the trip.

One thing that was defiantly not apparent to me in St Petersburg, was the infamous ‘negativity’ to non whites. People were all in the main helpful, although I did sense that they do not take kindly to being asked to communicate in English, and the older citizens still maintain a pretty stern exterior cast out of the Soviet era, but then why should we expect to come to Russia and have everyone greet us in English? In the UK there are no signs in Dutch or French, so why English in Russia...?

Sunday, 3 May 2009

An evening at the Ballet, for the cost of a pizza!

OK, so one of the things about backpacking is that you are on a budget, so we try and find the best deals at all times, this could mean student discounts, or looking for really simple accomadation. But does doing things on a budget include, getting box seat at St Petersburg finest Ballet?? Ordinarily not, but for us we had 3 major stokres of luck that conspired to result in us getting nearly the best seats in the house, for GBP 4 each, that was cheaper than the cost of most pizzas one would buy!!!!

Good luck No.1 – we were trying to find the tourist office in St Petersburg, and as ever were getting lost! We tried to ask at what seemed to be a pretty upmarket restaurant, one where you would think people
Would speak English, but as we quickly found out the only people who speak any English whatsoever in Russia, are the young. So the waiter did not seem to be any help, and we continued walking, a few moments later he came running up behind us, with a guide book to St Petersburg in English, this was really helpful for many reasons, including the fact that it had listings of performances going on, including the famous Mariinsky Theatre. The theate was just moments from where we were and the only performance we would have been able to go to while in St Petersburg was due to start 45mins from when we met the waiter!

Good luck No.2 – we made our way to the theatre, and everyone was arriving all suited and booted, we got in and at the ticket office we found nice old lady who did not know any English (can you spot the theme!) she showed us a ticket which was RUB200 each, that 4GBP. At that price we just jumped at it, and did not realise there were no seat numbers on them at all! It soon transpired that these tickets were unresevered, and the ushers place you once all the other seated ticket holders are sorted. We snuck in to the hall, in front of a major Chinese tourist good train (there were loads of tourists here!) and asked the usher to help us...

Good luck No.3 – not sure if it was my constant pestering or that the usher supervisor person felt sorry for us, but she spoke to her colleague and immediately she signalled to us to follow her. I thought we were being ejected from the hall, but no... We were given a room key (like those in a hotel) and given the best box in the whole hall! It was just wonderful and the view was awesome!!

Photography of the actual perfrmance was not allowed so i could only get pics of the hall, and the final call. But look just how close we were!!!

The performance of the Nutcracker was just beautiful, and being a popular ballet the music was recognisable and really enjoyable. If ever you get a chance to see the ballet, you must do it, the quality of the dance is amazing, and the physical dexterity, and agility of the dancers was mind blowing.

St Petersburg – welcome to Rossiya!

St. Petersburg is the only megapolis in the world which was included in the UNESCO List of the World cultural legacy as the monument of architecture and culture, city construction and landscape art of the 18-19th centuries. It really shows! This place is like a movie set, ornate buildings, wonderful sculptures and wide roads, and the music and art is everywhere to be seen. When we were there the weather also really helped to show off the city and buildings, it was warm and balmy, despite apparently having been snowing a few days ago!!

The city has more than 4000 ensembles and monuments, in 250 museums, 50 theatres, 80 art galleries, so if you are into your fine art, history or culture this is a place one should visit.

I must however, the first glimpse of St Petersburg , and maybe the wider city, outside of the old centre, was less inspiring. Polkovo airport is a little way of the city, and when you fly in you are greeted with the sight of old soviet planes and decommissioned helicopters, there are ‘guards’ and police dotted around the place, looking typically stern, despite their questionable importance!! It gave me a real sense of the old soviet cliché, the border officials were not to be messed, with, nearly all looked to be ladies and would quite easily tackle most of the guys coming off our flight. I could not help feeling that it was a real achievement to actually set foot into Russian soil.

The next, and maybe biggest challenge is the language – not being able to read or relate to the letter let alone the words is off putting. I would consider us as being able to tackle any European city, but when we got to St Petersburg, I felt lost, big time. You are basically at the mercy of the locals, and whether they want to help you out. Thankfully they did want to help and we got to the Youth hostel with no major hiccups. Although I can honestly say I will never smirk, laugh or lose my patience with the tourists in London, as they stand gawping at the underground map, looking as though they have just landed on mars – we did exactly this!!

Although it took a little while longer than planned, we got to the Hostel and once settled in (didn’t take long – the hostel was tiny, but really nicely located) we went about exploring the city.

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