Well, it appears that my last post on this blog was over a year ago. Anyone who follows our progress solely from this blog might reasonably have assumed that never made it out of China – sucked into the dark world of organised crime, huge debts owed to ruthless gang lords, forced into semi-slave labour to pay off our debts, making iphones, mattel toys and cheap consumer crap for the unrelenting western consumer machine.

However, despite the high probability of this reasonable assumption, any such assumer would be surprisingly incorrect. We did not, in fact, get sucked into the dark world of organised crime, or at any point get involved in horrendous exploitative factory work. We actually had a jolly nice time, and went on to succeed in our goal of arriving in Australia without catching a single plane. Yep, well over 12500 miles (20000km) and a lot of buses, trains, boats, rickshaws and tuk-tuks.

The reason for the lack of activity on the blog is basically down to what a great time we’ve been having or how busy we’ve been working since we arrived in Australia (and also a little bit down to a slight case of the boneidleitis).

Heroically, I have been managing to keep physical notes along the way, and still plan on continuing the blog in a linear fashion to create a little online diary/reference for ourselves and anyone else who may, bewilderingly, still be interested.

So, still to come: Inadvertently desecrating a sacred turtles lake in Vietnam, temples, volunteering in Cambodia and Lao, Dengue fever, eating beetles and bird fetuses, temples, cruising around South East Asia on motorbikes, temples, Bangkok, not getting blown up in Hat Yai, did I mention temples? many incredibly kind couchsurfing hosts in Malaysia, cockroach infested ferries to Indonesia, our first experience of Australian culture in Bali, and hitching an 11 day boat ride with a crazy old Australian dude on his 40ft sloop – straight from Bali to Darwin.

Since arriving in Australia, we worked a Mango season in Darwin, drove 4000km through the desert, had our first beach-Christmas, bought a 34 year old camper van, broke down, slayed lettuces and rocket on a salad farm in Victoria, broke down, went to Tasmania, spent 3 months squeezing mammary glands on a dairy farm at Wilsons Prom, broke down, got seduced by Sydney, did I mention we broke down? traveled up the East coast, got tick typhus, drove back to Darwin for Mango season number 2, broke down, drove back through the desert, broke down, then escaped back to beautiful Tasmania, where I am writing this with a smug grin on my face, hours after catching my second gigantic Australian Salmon – and we haven broke down for a while either.

So, apart from me developing an uncanny ability to contract any available insect borne disease, both Amy and I are very well, and thoroughly enjoying getting back to nature and living wild in Tasmania, as we begin to contemplate our impending integration back into civilised society. I suppose the prospect of returning to some kind of less nomadic life has prompted a bit of reflection on the past couple of years, hence the urge to continue the blog.

I’ll be adding some more posts soon, and I’ve also got a bit of a side project – STICK NO BILL ( –  a design/photography blog which may or may not be of interest.

Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an

Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an

After such a gruelling and seedy train ride (for me at least), we were glad that the hostel we’d booked provided a free pick up service. We’d encountered free pick up services before, and it usually involved the hostels sending a taxi or rickshaw to collect any customers, whilst also trying to grab any potential customers who’d turned up without a reservation – a sensible system that works well for both parties. We were greeted on the station platform by a young girl brandishing a piece of card with the hostel name on it. She looked about 12 years old, and I thought maybe she was someone’s daughter helping to pick up passengers, but it transpired she was in fact a hostel employee, and was probably about 35 – It’s extremely hard to guess the age of Chinese people – they either look incredibly young or incomprehensibly old, there seems to be no in between.

Anyway, ignorant racial generalisations aside, once she had realised we were the only fish from this morning’s catch, the friendly young girl escorted us to the ludicrously densely populated square outside, and advised us to follow her to where we get the bus. Assuming there must be a minibus around the corner, we obligingly followed, ploughing through the thick field of people, taking care to maim and kill as few as reasonably possible with our huge swinging baggage. After a 5 minute upstream struggle, we realised we were in fact getting the public bus. From previous experience with Chinese city public transport, we weren’t all that enthusiastic about this prospect, as usually seats are rarer than gold dust, there’s nowhere for luggage, and the journey involves standing crushed, holding onto roof handles for dear life as you desperately try to prevent yourself from falling over or snapping your spine in two from the immense weight on your back. Luckily for us, this was the buses starting point so we actually managed to get a seat, and managed to have a reasonably comfortable (but excruciatingly slow due to constant gridlock) journey to our hostel.

The hostel was cheap, modern, clean, and fairly empty. It appeared to be run by a posse of 8-12 year olds, but as I mentioned earlier, they could have possibly been late 30’s. An interesting quirk of the place was that the hostel staff seemed to speak pretty much no English (not a complaint, just an observation, as hostel staff tended to be some of the few English speakers) so when we asked them anything, they would all instinctively pick up a city map of the desk, and with a biro and a learned script, they would explain to us how to get to the Terracotta Warriors. This information came in very handy when it was in fact the terracotta warriors we were after, but when we were seeking info about laundry or the nearest minimarket, it was a tad less than useful.

Of course being in China, these were our linguistic failings, not theirs, but we did have a little help up our sleeve for such situations in the form of a lonely planet pocket Mandarin phrasebook. Granted, people would often stare blankly at our barely audible burbling, as we pathetically attempted to utter phrases, but it could work like a charm when we pointed to stuff in it – a bit of a cop out I know – but needs must.

Incidentally, it is interesting that throughout China, the phrasebook was sometimes no use, due to what we think were two main factors. The first was dialect; there are shitloads of dialects in China, with some apparently sounding as different as Spanish and Italian. Because the phonetics in the book were written in Standard Chinese (similar to “Pekingese”, apparently the purest form of Mandarin), saying the words could be futile, not that we were ever very successful with speaking phrases, even in Beijing. The second factor was that we think many people, especially in rural or poor inner city areas, may have been unable to read. All the places we went were predominantly Mandarin rather than Wu, Min, or Yue (Cantonese), and despite the dialects, written Mandarin is supposed to be fairly unifying, with only a few regional variations in the glyphs. People would often spend a good few minutes staring intently at a simple sentence like ‘vegetable fried rice please’ or ‘how much does it cost’ and then eventually apologetically shrug with incomprehension. Some refused to even look at anything written down and just waved us away. None of this is backed up by any sound (or indeed any) research – just musings really.

After that meandering digression, I’ll get back to Xi’an and mention the place’s ‘star’ attraction – The Terracotta Warriors. Surprisingly we were actually able to get there by public bus, so it was refreshing not to have to feel like such a tourist (even though we were going to perhaps the second biggest tourist attraction in China). The Terracotta Warriors are a vast collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. I reckon the guy must have had to make quite a lot of enemies in order to unify China, and it seems he was seriously worried about all the heinous shit he’d done coming back to bite him in the afterlife. Presumably because it seemed like a winning formula, he approached the idea of afterlife in precisely the same way as he approached the world of the living – He built a f’cking ginormous army to prepare to smash the holy crap out of anyone who might try and mess with him.

So as to save my fingers, and more importantly, not to go spouting dubious half read, half heard information, here’s a brief summary from the reputable and reliable Wikipedia – “The figures, dating from around the late third century BC, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.”

Despite the pricey ticket cost, I would imagine most people hard pressed to go to Xi’an and not go see the Terracotta Warriors. The excavation and the artefacts themselves are obviously amazing to behold, especially when you consider some of the mind blowing facts, like these beautifully crafted figures are well over 2000 years old, and despite what you see, only about 1/3 of the army has been excavated. Having said that, the whole experience is not entirely one of awe and wonderment. Firstly the only way in is through the obligatory gauntlet of hawkers and tat shops. Once you’re through the defcon 5 level security, the whole place still feels like a dull grey Military barracks, which I think it may actually be. Grey concrete is the order of the day, and there are genuine soldiers marching all around the place. The excavation sights themselves are each under what are basically aircraft hangers. I’m sure it’s all very practical, but they could have housed the hangers under something more aesthetically pleasing, and not so obviously modern, at least for my benefit.  It’s like going to see Tutenkhamun’s sarcophagus at an M6 service station, or the Elgin Marbles in Carpet Right – still amazing, but definitely a few layers of sheen removed.

Anyhow, back to Xi’an itself. With over 3000 years of history, it’s one of the oldest cities in China, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, having held the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. It was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and has now recently been named as one of the 13 emerging megacities, or megalopolises, in China. Despite these impressive facts, apart from the ancient city walls, and the occasional impressive old building in the middle of a roundabout, or poking out in between all the concrete and glass, the majority of the city looked typically quite grey, smoggy, and charmless. The well paved paths and roads, and extensive use of privet hedges, did however give the place an ever so slightly more European feel than anywhere else we’d been in China so far.

Maybe because of the Universities and such there, the City did have a notably young and vibrant feel. It seemed like there was a lot going on, and loads of young people seemed to be milling around and enjoying themselves. It also felt like we were much less like visitors from another planet, and even though we didn’t see a huge amount of other westerners in the whole city (apart from maybe the Muslim quarter), people generally didn’t pay that much attention to us, which was nice.

Last but most certainly not least, the real highlight of our time in Xi’an was the Muslim quarter. The sights, sounds, and smells in this bustling network of streets and alleys were a real assault on the senses, but we soon figured out the best way to pop in and out of the river of flowing people and enjoy the snack stalls, hole in the wall restaurants, and general amazing sights. In every shop and stall people are chopping, stirring, laughing, or quite often, beating a bunch of seeds with an immense mallet. The sheer enthusiasm with which this huge variety of foods is both cooked, sold, and consumed is quite infectious. Some streets are a bit touristy but you only need to nip down an alley to get back to people working and living in this genuine community. Groups of men ride or walk to the mosque, sit huddled around Mahjong tables or tending to their little caged birds. Most commonly of course, people are sat eating and chatting together – it seems like it’s what life is all about here. It felt like being transported to a different city or even a different country to see all these Chinese guys with white skull caps, the elders with their long beards (we almost never saw a Chinese guy with a beard unless he was Muslim), and the women with their colourful scarfs and garbs. We spent a good few days pootling around this place, getting enjoyably lost and soaking up the atmosphere. One day we even managed to arrange to meet again with our friends from the US, Xavier and Kristin, and spent a good evening aimlessly exploring the sights, smells, and most importantly, tastes together.

The Chinese Muslims, or Chuslims in tabloidese, are actually called the Hui people, and although they are ethnically very similar to the Han Chinese, they retain some Arabic and Central Asian features, with their whole culture presumably being formed, or at least hugely influenced, by their position right at the end of the Silk Road trading route. Apparently there are ethnic Hui dotted all over China, but the main concentration is around the Silk Road terminus in the central and Northwestern Provinces. From our very brief experience, the Hui seemed to have a really vibrant culture going on in the Muslim Quarter, and everyone we had dealings with seemed extremely friendly and relaxed. It would have been nice to have a chat with someone to learn a bit more about it all, but the language barrier (and my general social ineptitude) made it pretty difficult. I did however get spun around numerous times by a very enthusiastic Hui guy, and he made sure Amy took a photo of us together afterwards, in what looks like a rather strange communist salute.

Finally it came time to head south towards our next destination, so we checked out, geared up, and hopped on a crowded bus to the train station. After what felt like a few days in the Xi’an traffic, we arrived at the station and settled into our train bunks for the 482 mile, 12 hour ride to Chongqing.

(Update: Since writing this, a young girl from China messaged me to say that the guy who picked me up and span me round wanted to know how much I weigh – apparently some older guys like to bet on how much westerners weigh. So there you have it.)

Xian, Shaanxi Province, China
19/04/2013 – 22/04/2013


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Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues

Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues…

As mentioned in the previous Trans-Siberian post, the scale of construction in China is absolutely mind-blowing. On the route from Beijing to Datong it felt like we were never out of view of a construction site. As we arrived in Datong, a fairly big city in itself, it seemed like a whole new city was being built in and around it with vast cranes and concrete monstrosities populating every angle of the skyline.

The most bizarre construction project in Datong however, is the rebuilding of the old city. A huge swath of the population has been forcibly relocated, and the buildings levelled, in order to rebuild a bigger and better version of the old city, which was not all that long ago destroyed to build the new city. Apparently this is part of a larger new-old trend in China, whereby all the ancient cities and towns that were ripped down during the Cultural Revolution, are now being rebuilt to get in on the exponentially burgeoning tourist trade. Large parts of the new-old town were pretty much up and running, but we didn’t actually have the time to see it. A few people we spoke to surprisingly mentioned that it’s been tastefully done and is actually quite a magnificent site – so maybe there is hope for Chinese tourism yet.

On the subject of Chinese tourism, CITS is the Chinese International Travel Service – something akin to a national tourist information bureau that also sells tours. Sounds helpful, but in fact, in most places in China they are an absolute joke and are just as likely to rip you off as any other dodgy two-bit outfit. Despite this, we’d seen from a few online blogs that the CITS in Datong was run by the helpful and charming Mr Gao, who arranged good quality, reasonably priced tours out to the local wonders (in China, making your own way to tourist attractions often ranges from extremely difficult to impossible, so unfortunately organised tours often seem the only way to go).

As we walked towards the station exit into the raging throng of rabid ticket touts, travel agents, and taxi drivers, stood at the front of the lot, calmly smiling at us, was a slick middle aged man who spoke excellent English as he handed us his business card: Mr Gao – CITS. This was a stroke of luck, we were only coming to Datong to see the surrounding tourist sights and we’d worried about finding the CITS office.  “Just the man we’re looking for” I said ,“I’ve read all about you”. Mr Gao smiled, and didn’t seem at all surprised by this. He must get this all the time – this is ‘what he does’. We told him we wanted to go and see then Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes the next day, so he escorted us around the block to his office. Dubiously, his office was the empty conference room of a seedy looking hotel, down a grubby alley – but due to his trustworthy face, we acquiesced and arranged the trip for the next day.

Next challenge was to find the hotel we’d booked. We managed to battle our way through the mob of obscenely aggressive taxi drivers and get to the bus station. Luckily I had the address of the hotel written in Chinese in an email on my phone, so the plan was to show it to each bus driver to see if they went there (genius, I know). Just as we stepped on the first bus to awkwardly shine my shiny screen in the unwitting drivers face, my thumb accidently caught the screen, deleting the email and presenting said bus driver with an email about discount underpants or some such nonsense. Using a combination of intuition and stupidity, we took a punt on the bus anyway, staring intently out of the window at this alien land, looking for some sign of our hotel. About 500m down the road, the bus chuntered to a stop. It had broken down and was pissing oil all over the road. Brilliant. We lugged our rucksacks off, and went for plan B – wander around aimlessly.

Looking around we quickly realised there was no way the hotel would have a roman script sign anyway, so we needed to retrieve the email with the address. After a bit (lot) of a struggle we found some fabled internet, and with it, the address. It still took another 45 minutes of bumbling around pathetically showing people the address before some lovely young kids managed to guide us to the place – essential an empty, dingy, motel with an air of mould and lots of weird 70’s furniture. We dumped the bags, and headed out for some well needed grub.

Wandering around, doing our upmost to avoid being killed on the insanely chaotic roads, we came to a couple of realisations. The first one is that Datong is a shithole. It’s crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted, massive, concrete, grey and garish. Not that I wouldn’t recommend going there, because shitholes can be seriously interesting places to wander around. The second realisation was that we are really weird. I mean, seriously outrageously peculiar. As we wander around with our rucksacks like lost beetles –  Amy with her massive eyes and super pale skin, and me with my immense height of 5’11” and a scraggly semi-ginger beard – heads turn, jaws drop, fingers point, and gasps and laughs can barely be suppressed. Apart from the new-old town, Datong is not a tourist town other than a one day stop-over for the surrounding sights (most people don’t even stay the night, or stay one night next to the train station). Deep in the city centre where we were, it felt like westerners were anything but a common sight.

The Hanging Temple, or Hanging Monastery, is a temple built into a cliff about 250ft above the ground, near Mount Heng in Hunyuan County, around 40 miles from Datong. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is one of the only existing temples with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – a section of the temple is dedicated to each. It’s quite a sight, and when you’re up there, feeling the whole building creak and sway, looking at the old dried out oak beams, you do wonder how it might fair under a visit from health and safety. The almost incomprehensible age and location of this magnificent building was genuinely humbling, and was still a special experience despite the occasional tour group.

The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near Datong. They are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and are often said to be the most impressive of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China (the others are Longmen and Magao). The stone carvings were undertaken in the 5th and 6th centuries and all together the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. Of the grottoes, only about 20 are well preserved and there are just a few main super-spectacular ones. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with the hanging temple, the photos don’t even begin to do this place justice. I’ve never seen carvings on anything like this scale, and the shear enormity of some statues coupled with the amazing intricacies of the wall carvings really is awe inspiring – and this is in the modern age – imagine the feeling someone would have felt seeing these caves before the age of modern building technology. You could be forgiven for believing that these caves were created by an almighty being (although perhaps not if you were Buddhist).

Another interesting fact about Datong is that it’s the coal capital of China, supplying something crazy like 1/3 of China’s coal (as I type, that figure sounds ludicrous, but it’s what I remember been told by a tour guide, and after a quick flick through Google, I could neither confirm or deny the fact, so I’m sticking with it). Apparently locals are pretty proud of this unconfirmed fact, but I’m not quite sure why. The air is thick with coal dust and after only a few hours on a windy day I was regularly ejecting bits of black gunk into tissues from my hooter. All buildings and cars are dusty and dirty, and the roads outside of the city are completely rammed with almost nothing but coal trucks, with trails of black soot covering the road and floating off into the air. It’s an ominous sight.

That night we boarded the sleeper train to Pingyao. The train network in China is totally outstanding. Fast, comfortable, cheap and punctual. Apart from the odd cultural niggle it is an absolute joy to use, but I’ll write about the Chinese trains in more detail another time.

We arrived in Pingyao around 6am in a bleary eyed stupor, and stumbled into a moto-rickshaw where we were miraculously stuffed in with all our bags and about 3 other people. We hurtled off towards the old town, a mass of flailing limbs and luggage straps flapping in the dusty air. Not having had time to put my contact lenses in, the whole experience was literally a blur to me.

About 450 miles from Beijing, Pingyao old town is undoubtedly a spectacular sight, and unlike the current new-old fad, Pingyao is genuinely ancient. During the Qing Dynasty, Pingyao was a financial centre of China, but its history dates back 2,700 years, and is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the known world. It is still inhabited by 50,000 residents and is renowned for its well-preserved ancient city wall, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lonely planet guide describes it “what you thought all of China would look like but doesn’t”, which is quite apt. Genuine Qing era it is, genuine Chinese life it ain’t. Although many people still live and work in the old town, the largest part of the town caters primarily to tourists. It’s to be expected really, and I’d imagine there isn’t a well preserved ancient town in the world that isn’t now primarily a tourist attraction. Also, the integrity of the town has been kept surprisingly well, with no neon lights or rampant, garish advertising plastered on every surface. The nicest thing we did there was to rent bicycles and pootle around all the little alleys and narrow passageways. Outside of the tourist area it’s possible to catch a glimpse of real Chinese life, which apart from the odd mobile phone and satellite dish, seemed like scenes unchanged from 600 years ago.

Other than a few museums and the city walls (you need a rather expensive ticket which lets you in to everything, there’s no individual tickets – we gave it a miss) there is little to do in Pingyao other than stroll around buying tourist tat. Once we escaped the expensive tourist restaurants, we found a few good, cheap little noodle shacks, selling strange local food that was decent enough, but nothing to write home about. One evening we went out for a couple of beers with two Italian law undergraduates, Francesco and Thomaso, who were having a month’s break in China before exams. Two genuine and funny blokes, who unfortunately ended up eating what they said was one of the worse meals of their life in Pingyao, although being Italian, it may just be that they are spoiled when it comes to food.

Our hostel had a comments wall, which, as one might deduce, is where people scribble notes about their stay and stick it to the wall. We noticed that something mentioned with regularity amongst the scribbles was Mian Shan. There was no mention of it in the guidebooks, but it was apparently a holy mountain, and one visionary wall scribbler even declared “it should be one of the wonders of the world!” Something with such rave reviews, and a chance to see something off the beaten track, not in the guidebook seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

There was a 4 person minimum to arrange the trip, but luckily there was a couple from the US, Xavier and Kristin (who we’d briefly met in Datong), who were also looking to go to the mythical Mian Shan, and so, the next day we departed.

The following is my best attempt to describe Mian Shan: A-spectacular-ancient-holy-mountain-natural-beauty- hotel-theme park-dinosaur-water park-hotel-temple-megaplex. If that sounds strange, it is. It’s history goes back over 2,500 years, but it’s basically a huge mountain that was originally covered in various temples, including China’s oldest Taoist temple, and is now a mixture of ancient temples, temple reproductions, hotels, restaurants, gorge walks, picnic spots and swimming parks. The scenery is truly breath taking, as are some of the old temples, some of which appear to be defying gravity stuck to the cliffside. The tacky restaurants, hotels, and big green shuttle buses that spend all day zooming up and down the mountain do take a bit of the shine off things though. And whoever decided what this magnificent mountain needed alongside its riverside paths, was shitloads of massive concrete dinosaurs, I have no idea. Despite (or maybe because of) it’s unparalleled weirdness, we had a brilliant time at Mian Shan, and as long as you have no illusions about what you’re going to see, it’s something we’d heartily recommend . Also, we did have very good company. Xavier and Kristen have been doing a blog about their round the world trip, well worth a read, at

As this place is purely a Chinese tourist destination (we were the only westerners out of hundreds of people) we were a real added bonus for a lot of people, and Amy was particularly fascinating for them. At one point there was a queue of tourists lining up to have their picture taken with her, and once or twice even I was deemed interesting enough to deserve some paparazzi action. As an interesting aside, we think the reason Amy was so popular in China is that a lot of Chinese have a thing about pale skin, they think it’s beautiful, and scarily, nearly all cosmetics from soap to moisturiser to sun cream, claim to have added whitening in them. They would often point to Amy’s skin and give a beaming smile with the thumbs up.

That evening, we geared up and headed for the train station. Having bought our tickets to Xi’an a couple of days earlier, we weren’t anticipating any problems. However, as you might have gathered, there was a problem. Quite a big one. We weren’t allowed on the train.

We thought we were half an hour early for our train, but it turned out that we were in fact about 23.5 hours late. The train was at 20 past midnight, or 00:20. When we were buying the ticket we explained many times what day we wanted the ticket for, and were assured again and again that although the date on the ticket was the 18th the ticket was correct because 00:20 is still really that same day. Bear in mind that both buying the ticket, and finding out our tickets were wrong, involved conversations between people who couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language. We did have a little phrasebook which we could point to word in, and without that we would have been at the very source of shit creek. After much palaver and protestation on our part, we conceded that things get lost in translation and asked to buy another ticket. Typically there was only one bunk bed available, so off I trotted for my first experience of the ‘Hard Seat’.

‘Hard Seats’ are the cheapest tickets (other than no seat) and are in fairly ordinary seated carriages – fine for shortish journeys in the daytime, not so ideal for long night journeys. What’s uncomfortable about them is not so much the seats, but the sheer density of people. In the hard seats at night people sit/lie/balance anywhere they can. 5 sit on 3 seats, people lie under tables and seats and even in the isles. It’s seriously packed. If you are brave enough to run the gauntlet to the toilet, someone will be pretending to be asleep in your seat when you get back, and you have to awkwardly shift them.

This was all quite an alarming experience at the time, and luckily for me I had a guardian angel in the form of a young teenage girl who I think took a little bit of a fancy to me. We’d chatted a few words on the platform, then when she saw me on the train struggling to find my seat, she showed me how empty seats don’t exist, and if you have a ticket with a seat, you simply have to politely drag people out of your seat. As you would expect, I was serious novelty on this train, and people all around were staring in wonder and trying their best few words of English on me. Everyone was friendly enough, but it was a daunting experience. During all this I saw the young girl using a translation app on her phone and writing a note. Eventually she handed it to me… “Don’t worry, we are all very friendly here, welcome to China J”. As we would see time and time again throughout our time there, China’s salvation lies in the young ones.

In a strange display of hospitality, a young bloke and his aged father force fed me sunflower seeds for almost the entire 8 hour trip. The old man seemed to get very anxious when I stopped shelling and eating, even for a moment. I manage to get about an hour or two’s respite when they dozed off in the early hours of the morning. After a long, sleepless, seedy night, we arrived in Xian.

Datong to Pingyao, China
14/04/2013 – 18/04/2013

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Barmy Beijing

Barmy Beijing

The moment we arrived at Beijing Central Station, we were swiftly swept outside by a strong current of humans into the warm, smog filled air, where it appeared that the entire population of China had kindly turned up to greet us. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of them. 1.35 Billion of them actually, with 20 million living in the Beijing Municipality alone. We said goodbye to our Trans-Siberian friends Maarten, Paulina, Megan and Steve, and swam off through the thick soup of Chinese people in search of our respective accommodations.

Looking at the map, it seemed our hostel couldn’t be more than 20 minutes away. Over an hour of trekking later, mainly down the side of a massive dual carriageway (Beijing is built in a vast grid), we arrived. This wasn’t the first time we would underestimate the utterly immense size of this City.  Being British, we have the peculiar habit (especially to Chinese Rickshaw drivers) of walking absolutely everywhere, and this had served us perfectly well so far on our trip. However, after quite a few cases of “Peking Knees”, we eventually conceded that our feeble legs alone were not going to suffice. We also now pay very careful attention to the scale on all Maps.

Beijing’s underground metro system is pretty impressive – if you’re the kind of person to be impressed by such things, which I am. The sheer scale, efficiency, and punctuality were mind-blowing. Being a simple northern soul, I still wonder at the London Underground, which seems to baffle impatient Londoners. After experiencing the Beijing Metro, I can now appreciate that there are better (although maybe not as charming) systems out there. The longest we ever had to wait for a train was about 3 minutes, and compared to our usual experience, this was a major inconvenience. An LED map inside the train shows you where you are and which direction you going at all times, and there are a load of TV screens in every carriage, beaming incomprehensible, mind melting Chinese pop into your trapped and vulnerable brain. We soon found there is very little in Beijing without a screen on it. A ticket for 1 journey (with as many line changes as were needed) cost just 2 Yuan, or 21 pence to you and me. No matter what the time of day the main lines were always totally rammed, and fitting on the train invariably required slotting 2 or 3 Chinese people under each armpit (My distinctly average height of 5’11” made me a comparative giant here, with Amy’s diminutive 5’3″ figure looking about average).

Sinisterly, the Government decrees that the Metro stops service at 11pm every night, which is amazingly effective at basically shutting down the entire city, with unsanctioned large congregations also being banned. The Government also keeps a watchful eye of the population with the aid of hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. Recently the Government announced all cinemas, theaters and music venues in the city are now required to install security cameras, and you can’t look up anywhere, inside or outside, without spotting one. I vaguely remember reading that per person the UK actually has more CCTV than China, I don’t know whether this is true, but the surveillance certainly felt more apparent in Beijing than anywhere I’ve ever been. Maybe we are just blindly oblivious in the comfort of our own country, which is slightly scary. It was also hard to find a major street or tourist attraction without a police or military presence. Anyway, it does seem that the Chinese Government is not without a sense of humour, with their aptly named state television network: CCTV (China Central Television).

Our hostel was a large impersonal affair in the Sanlitun district, but it was dry, clean, and fairly cheap. We were pretty well placed for the local markets and the metro to the rest of the city. A couple of the young female staff spoke excellent English, which turned out to be a life-saver in a city where it seems absolutely no one speaks a single word of the Queens. We often got addresses written down in Chinese so we could get directions from locals or occasionally a Taxi to take us there (also cheap, around £1 per kilometer).

Our first night we had arranged to meet up with Megan and Steve for some of the famous Peking Duck. This was before any of us had truly started to comprehend the sheer size of the city, and the necessity of getting addresses written in Chinese. As is the vogue in modern city planning, in Beijing, the areas of business, retail, food, and leisure frequently merge into one, and after much struggle we finally found this quaint little duck restaurant on the bottom floor of a vast glass office building, in the middle of a huge strange business and retail complex. As we only just managed it with a large dose of luck, it wasn’t surprising that Megan and Steve never found the place, and so the meeting failed. The duck was incredible though, and we did manage to meet up a few days later (outside a designated McDonald’s of course) in order to go exploring one of Beijing’s weird and wonderful night markets.

The night market was good fun, and felt much more authentic than the other one Amy and me had visited the night before, which was just a single long street of stalls, all seemingly owned by the same firm (all stalls looked identical and staff wore the same uniforms) where you were just constantly and unrelentingly heckled to buy all sorts of vile oddities like scorpion, snake, grubs, and most horrendous of all, smelly tofu (more on that later). It was a very bizarre, loud, smelly, unfriendly, tourist conveyor belt – as opposed to the second one we visited which was a jumble of narrow alleys, peculiar sights and smells, and just a much more genuine atmosphere…

Another night we successfully managed to meet with Maarten and Paulina for a surreal and incomprehensible dining experience at an immense 3 story mega restaurant, apparently very popular with locals. Due to our linguistic inadequacies, ordering anything involved a large amount of sign language, random guessing, and pot luck. In the end, we managed not to order anything too horrendous and it all went pretty well.

I’ve already babbled too long, so I’ll just do a brief run-down of our activities and observations from 9 days in this mental city…

– How to ruin a tourist attraction. Beijing gave us an introduction to the immeasurable ability of the Chinese to suck the life out of almost any tourist attraction. We visited all the main crop of wonders: The forbidden city, The Tiananmen (gate of heavenly peace), Tiananmen square, Jinshanling park, the Temple of Heaven and various other things. The inclusion of large plastic signs, chrome railings, neon lights, digital ticket booth signs, and mammoth tour groups of Chinese pensioners in matching neon baseball caps (and guide with a megaphone) makes visiting these places, to put it lightly – a strange experience, especially the more ancient sights, most of which date from early (14th century) Ming dynasty.

– The sea of hats. In China, you quickly realise you have to learn to embrace the above mentioned tourist groups, otherwise they will drive you completely and utterly mad. Each group is like a giant, marauding, neon hatted entity, feeding on the despair of other tourists (particularly avid photographers) and generally hoovering up the last drops of authenticity from any experience. However, once you learn to appreciate the power and comic brilliance of these bizarre groups, life becomes much easier (and funnier).

– Avoiding the Paparazzi. It turns out there are not as many western tourists in Beijing as you might imagine, and for many Chinese the sight of one is quite an amusing experience. This seems due to the fact that something crazy like 1/3 of the population of Beijing at any time are actually Chinese national tourists, for whom a visit to their capital is the most exotic of holidays. Because of this, it was pretty common for Chinese tourists to approach us and ask for a picture with us. The shyer amongst them would try and covertly (and it has to be said, poorly) take snaps of us strange foreign beasts from a distance – something that certainly takes a while to get used to. It’s also interesting to think how many remote Chines mantle pieces and photo albums Amy and me will now be gracing.

– Park life. Probably one of the most endearing parts of Chinese life is their park culture. Despite the immense hustle and bustle of Beijing, it was surprisingly easy to find peace and tranquility inside one of the many city parks. In the parks locals enjoy themselves however they fancy with a totally charming lack of embarrassment of self-consciousness – taking part in group dancing, tai-chi, Jianzi (Chinese hacky-sack with a shuttlecock type thing), meditation, kung-fu, or whatever else they enjoy doing. The parks are just full of people genuinely enjoying themselves. It is interesting that the idea of letting nature run its course seems unheard of in Chinese culture, with nature being something that needs taming and controlling for purpose. Nearly all parks are spirit level flat, symmetrical, orderly affairs, usually arranged based on Confucian principles of symmetry, constraint, and order, or the Taoist balance of Yin and Yang. When done well, in combination with the stunning architecture and ancient Cyprus trees, this type of park can actually be quite an amazing sight.

– Hutongs. One of the highlights of Beijing is the Hutongs. These are the network of little alleys that form the capillaries of the city. Apart from the odd one which is window dressed for tourists, these are the genuine lifeblood of the city, where locals live and eat. Some of the best and cheapest food we ate was at little street stalls and ‘restaurants’ down the Hutongs. Although amazing for us tourists to see, I’m not sure what life is life for the actual residents, who often seem to live in small, cramped, overcrowded conditions, sharing public toilets and water access. Whether the state manages to maintain any control, or whether they are just run by slumlords I also don’t know. Regardless, some of the happiest looking units of family and friends we saw eating or playing together down Hutongs.

– A wee revelation. An unexpected bonus of the Hutong life for tourists is that you are never more than 5 minutes away from a public toilet, due to the fact that toilets are shared by Hutong communities. This was an absolute revelation after the miles trekked and millions of pounds spent finding and using public toilets in Europe.

– Asleep on the job. Everyone. Despite all the crowded commotion of the city, it seems that most people in Beijing are employed in the service of snoozing. Security guards, Rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, stall owners, police and generally everyone seem to be contractually obliged to nap time. It also appears everywhere is ludicrously over-staffed. Small shops staffed by 18 teenagers, tiny car parks manned by 4 sleeping security guards, or newspaper shacks staffed by 2 or 3 daylight slumberers are all common sights.

– Rickshaw rip-offs and scams. The list of scams targeted at tourists in Beijing is pretty endless. Even writing this far into South-East Asia, I don’t think there has been anywhere as ‘scammy’ as Beijing. The Rickshaw drivers are by far the worst culprits though, and we have found this to be true pretty much everywhere we have visited since. One guy took us less than 1km, told us it was 3 Yuan (a fair price), then dropped us down an alley near a group of his dodgy looking pals and said it was in fact 300 Yuan (about £30). We managed to walk off pretty quickly after he realised that he couldn’t threaten us (I’m about 3 times the size of the little guy) but he did stalk us for a while looking pretty sinister. Another time we jumped in a Rickshaw, and driver said he was splitting the hard work and the fair with his friend, so we were put into separate Rickshaws, and then predictably we were dropped nowhere near our destination and they demanded two fares. You’ve just got to be firm and walk away. Even some of the official yellow cab drivers will try and scam you by saying there is a surcharge as well as the metered price, or by refusing to put on the meter. Other common scams involve very well educated, charming, English speaking student types approaching tourists and offering to take them to a local tea house or art gallery, where they will then disappear and be replaced by a couple of heavies claiming the bill for the tea is a few hundred dollars. We got approached by a few of these hucksters but never got sucked in – although they’re so charming and convincing I could see how people easily do. If you’re sensible and keep your wits about you though, it’s not too much of an issue.

Beijing, China
05/04/13 – 14/04/13

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Worlds worst blogger…

OK, it’s been a while since our last post. This is just to let people know we are still alive, despite the crazy Chinese and South East Asian roads, and the best efforts of the bastard mosquito that gave me Dengue Fever.

Since our last piece of online burbling, we have battled our way through China, barely made it out of Vietnam alive, and are currently bemusedly bashing the keyboard in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The blog was never intended to be an up to the minute commentary on what we’d just eaten for breakfast, or our latest #MEGALOL, but not posting anything for over a month is taking the piss a bit.

Like Ed Snowden, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and countless other whistle-blowers and revolutionaries before us, we know how vitally important it is to let people know the truth, whatever the personal sacrifice.  To this end, I have decided that this fountain of truth has been dry for too long, and must continue to flow. Despite the very real risk of repetitive strain injury (especially when typing in bed), we intend to bring the blog up to date with where we actually are, whilst of course providing world class travel journalism and earth shattering revelations along the way… Viva la revolution.

Still to come: A lot of Chinese people in China. Vietnam is hot. Pissing off an ancient Turtle. Suicide Asian Chickens. And much, much (or at least slightly) more….

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Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

For the final leg of our Trans-Mongolian train journey, we were to board another Mongolian train. This meant that we would complete our “Trans-Siberian Railway” trip without once getting on a Russian train. At least we’ll have the memory of the shabby Russian restaurant cart from our first leg, with good old Vlad the Impaler and his Borscht.

Another turn up for the books, which we discovered when comparing tickets one night in a Gerr, was that our new friends, Maarten and Paulina, turned out be our cabin mates for the remaining to Beijing. As we’d been living in eachother’s pockets in Gerrs for the past few days, what was another 30 hours between friends eh?

In the cabin next door were couple from the UK, Meg and Steve, who we’d seen before briefly at Lake Baikal. They’d come a similar route to us so far – through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and now into China. Also like us, they were heading for South-East Asia, but then of to Nepal and India I think. We didn’t know it at the time, but these 2 would turn out to be good friends, who we met up with at a couple of places in China, and as we arrived in Vietnam.

All 6 of us chatted away and enjoyed a few beers, many laughs, and the odd game of cards, and shared stories of our misadventures so far. It was a really pleasant trip, with the only downside being that Maarten and Paulina decided to try out the Mongolian restaurant car, and got stung for a hefty bill for food they didn’t even ask for. The shady looking restaurant Manager gave them menus, asked if they wanted lunch, to which they replied yes. He then promptly took the menus back before they’d had half a chance to look at them, and disappeared into the back. A while later he proceeded to bring out 3 courses of mediocre food, and charge them $50 for the privilege  It’s a bummer, but these things happen, and we all agreed it wasn’t likely to be the last time that any of us fall victim to such scams.

The major difference about this leg of our train journey was that this was a… wait for it… A modern train. The heating wasn’t coal powered, it was clean, there were LCD screens in the cabins (which didn’t appear to do anything, but still), there were digital signs in the corridor showing what station we were arriving at, how fast we were travelling, outside temperature and all that palaver  We even got free tea bags and cups of tea. We were seriously high rolling.

The most annoying/surreal part of the journey was the Chinese border crossing and gauge changing combo stop. The stop in total was over 8 hours, and for at least half of this, it frustratingly felt like absolutely nothing was happening. The gauge changing was a very strange experience to say the least. The purpose is to change the bogies (wheelsets) from Russian 5′ gauge to the standard 4′ 8½” gauge used in China. The train is shunted into a shed, and then the carriages are somehow uncoupled and lifted, until many are side by side, rather than tip to tip. The carriages are then raised up high and a bunch of noisy, busy people, with hammers and machines do something or other, than gradually put the train back together again. If I read correctly, all this gauge changing monkey business is purely because the Russians decided to use a different width of train track, so that if they were ever invaded, at least the invaders couldn’t use their own rolling stock on the Russian rails. After being invaded, knowing the aggressor was unable to use their own trains on my rails would seem like quite a hollow victory to me… Anyhow this lasted for a few hours, and the Chinese passport and cabin inspection lasted the same. What was happening the rest of the time I have no idea.

Once passports were checked, as we were just sat at the border crossing, we were able to get off, go to the station shop and use the bogs etc (Train loos were still out of bounds when stopped, which suggests that even on this swanky modern train, they are still dropping shits onto the tracks). The strangest thing however, was that during this stationary period, during the wee hours past midnight, huge speakers on the platforms were blaring out very load, and very poor quality martial type music, and every song was followed by canned applause – no doubt supposed to be the jovial tidings of the vast and completely unified (of course) Peoples Republic. Unlikely though it sounds, I’m pretty sure they also played an instrumental Michael Jackson number, and a piece of Mozart.

Eventually the train set off we tried to grab a few hours shut eye. When we awoke, the change in scenery was remarkable. As we trundled through the quarries and ravines of the mountains of Northern China, we began to see the first signs of the truly unbelievable scale of construction that is happening in China. As we neared Beijing and the terrain flattened, vast half built cities seemed to appear on the horizon every few miles. Huge clusters of 20 or 30 high rise apartment blocks were everywhere – some built, some half built, many seemingly abandoned half way through construction. It’s as though things are popping up so fast, they forget to finish one project before they start on the next. I’m pretty certain some of what we saw were China’s infamous Ghost Cities. Apparently China builds something like 12-14 new cities a year, and then the wealthy middle class buy up all the real estate (Government laws don’t allow the Chinese to invest overseas), thinking of it as a safe investment, then no tenants can afford the rent, so entire cities stand empty. Madness.

As usual, I digress… Around 2pm, after about 170 hours of sitting/lying down on a train, a few days of stop overs in Siberia and Mongolia, and 4,735 miles from Moscow, we finally arrived in Beijing.

Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian) Leg 3
04/04/2013 – 05/03/2013

(PS – the previous post was about our time in Mongolia in case you missed it, feel free to take a goose. Hopefully a fair few more posts to come in the next week or so to bring us back up to date)

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Munching Marmot in Mongolia

Munching Marmot in Mongolia

As we arrived in UlaanBaatar in a freak blizzard, we were glad to have taken advantage of the hostels free pick up offer. We were greeted by a short and bubbly Mongolian lady called Bogi, and what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in Jolliness, making us feel instantly at ease in this strange new place.

After a precarious taxi journey through the snow we arrived at our hostel, the Golden Gobi.  In terms of atmosphere, this was one of the best hostels we’ve stayed in. A family run affair with a large common room/kitchen which, during our time there, was often filled with (mostly) friendly and interesting travelers exchanging adventure tales.

After catching up on a few hours sleep, we went for a mooch about town. It’s hard to describe UlaanBataar, but I’ll have a bash – Ugly, crowded, noisy, bustling, and seemingly surrounded on all sided by snow capped mountains. Rampant consumerism has really taken hold here, with aesthetically inconsiderate advertising shouting at you from every direction, and scores of teenagers buzzing around in all the latest fashions – headphones blaring. These kids wouldn’t look out of place on the trendiest streets of Manchester or London. It’s a stark contrast from the simple nomadic and village life still practiced by so many on the steppes surrounding the city. One really bizarre sight, right on the red square, surrounded by mega flashy glass high rises, was an outdoor showroom – appearing to sell sheds and garages. On closer inspection, we realised what it was: An upgrade-your-outdated-Gerr(Yurt)-and-get-with-the-times showroom. Here, Mongolians were being encouraged to forget about their ancient traditional way of living, and plant some roots with a nice shiny fibre glass shed. (If you were the sentimental type, you could even get one in the shape of a Gerr… Thoroughly depressing, and after we spent the next few days experiencing life in Gerrs – it seemed even more so.

Despite all this, UlaanBaatar wasn’t an unpleasant place to be. It seemed to be thriving, with big groups of friends and families all around, smiling, laughing, and appearing extremely laid back – All of this was quite surprising after we were just getting used to the seriousness of Mother Russia. It is possible that the city does not always seem this welcoming, as we caught the tail end of a weekend long festival promoting healthy living, with streets closed to cars, bike rallies everywhere, and various stalls and attractions all around. (It turns out the idea of fruit and vegetables has only just reached Mongolia, a country with virtually no arable land, that has historically been built on the meaty carcasses of anything that moves).  Anyhow, our later experience of the huge lawless roads in the city does leave us to suppose that everyone isn’t always in such a good mood as they were during our visit.

We only spent one full day and one evening in UlaanBaatar itself, so these are all first impressions really. It’s definitely an intriguing place that would well warrant a bit of time and exploration. As well as the imposing Sukhbaatar’s Square, and massive modern glass office blocks, there is also a huge Ancient Buddhist temple in the centre of town which we unfortunately didn’t get to see. By all accounts its pretty special though, as it’s huge, and is still a working temple where visitors are welcome to go and watch mourning/evening prayers.

Although we wanted to go and see some of Mongolia’s famous countryside, it depended on how expensive it was going to be. Luckily, the Golden Gobi offered good deals, and we were offered to join a Dutch couple on a trip they had booked which would lower the cost for us all. For £90 each, we got the chance to go out to the nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and spend 3 full days and 2 nights in Gerrs with some genuine Mongolian (and Khazak Mongolian) families, eating, drinking tea, hiking, horse riding, and visiting a surreal Genghis Khan monument.

The morning after we arrived, we met with our driver Ishka, and our guide, who turned out to be Bogi, our jolly friend from the train station. We got on instantly with our Dutch travelling companions Maarten and Paulina, and having good friends to travel with made the experience all the more enjoyable. They had also come on the Trans-Siberian and their plan was now Mongolia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, South East Asia (and possibly India I think). We hope to stay in touch and particularly look forward to hearing about Tibet, Nepal, and Burma, as these are place we would really like to go (maybe on the way back).

Anyway – off we went in our rickety but robust little Russian mini van, taking in the wild wide open vistas of the Mongolian steppes. I could write for pages about this trip and all the things we saw, but I haven’t got time, and nobody wants to read any more waffle than is absolutely necessary anyway, so I’ll try and be brief. As the van trundled along, we were a bit concerned about what the trip was going to be like – the whole notion of “authentic cultural  tourism” is a bit strange as it is, and we kept passing things signed as Gerr Tourist Camps, which were little clusters of Gerrs fenced of with shops and western toilets and the like. Thankfully, we quickly went off the beaten track, and were swallowed by the vast Mongolian wilderness.

As far as we could make out, the families involved in this tourist scheme were genuine animal herding families, living semi nomadic lifestyles, who supplemented their income, by letting foreigners stay with them for a few days. There may well be arguments against it, but to us it seemed like a win-win situation for both parties. We get to see a totally different culture, and they make a few extra quid by just letting us stay there, feeding us, and getting on with life as usual. The families probably thought it was bizarre that people would pay to come and see the hum-drum of their day to day. We’ve been wondering how we can get people to come and pay to watch our daily grind when we get back.

The three days we experienced were basically a Mongolia taster session. The first family we visited actually had an electricity line to their Gerr, with a fridge and a television. They were still semi-nomadic, in that they moved locations every season, but they would rotate between the same 4 locations every year, and instead of loading up their homes onto horses and camels, they used 4x4s. The Kazakh family were much more remote, with no power line, but they had wind and solar generators, and on the steppes, wind and sun are in abundance. The Kazakhs rounded up their herds using motorbikes and dogs, and also had an ancient television, but they were so busy working this seemed to get little use. Around cities, this modern tinged, semi-nomadic life seems quite normal. It makes sense too, unless they were actively shunning modern technology like the Amish, there is no reason why they wouldn’t use cars, have generators and mobile phones etc. Apart from a few pieces of technology however, their ancient culture and way of life seems well preserved.

One of the main things we were all worried about was not adhering to the traditional customs. If you read the guide books, there are huge lists of things – like always accepting the snuff bottle with your left hand, not pointing your feet at the fire or the door, sitting in appropriate positions according to gender and seniority, not slapping people round the chops, etc… For us it was all worry for nothing, our hosts were very accommodating to tourists and didn’t mind our cultural faux pas, and I reckon much of the rules and regulations would only be observed and the extremely remote and rural nomadic families.

When we arrived at the first Gerr, our family weren’t home, so we stopped by a neighbours  who promptly fed us and gave us our first taste of Mongolian tea: Milk from various animals (sometimes combined) and stewed with some particular grasses and sieved  It’s kind of salty, milky and herby. I was dubious at first, but after about 3 cups I was hooked, and I still miss it now. We went for a trek to a local Buddhist temple, and then came back to meet the family we would stay with. They must get a fair few tourists, as they had a separate Gerr for us to sleep in, with actual beds in it (We thought we would be sleeping on the floor a is normal, and as we did at the next place). They stoked the fire so well before we went to bed, that Amy woke up in the middle of the night, practically on fire, and had to hurtle out into the snowy darkness, practically in the knack, to cool down.

Next day, after a stupendously surreal visit to a ridiculous Genghis Khan monument, we set off to the next family we would be staying with. They were Kazakh  and apparently there are quite a few Kazakh nomad families in the area. Although they are nomadic and live in Gerrs in Mongolia, there were many differences in culture. For example they were Muslim  whereas most Mongolian nomads follow Buddism or some form of shamanism. The journey over the steppes was amazing, and with no roads or apparent points of reference it was amazing Ishka knew where he was driving. When we arrived we were greeted by a traditional dressed old lady, who looked approximately 200 years old, with a dress soaked in blood, and a lamb under her arm. She waved at us and pootled off with said newborn, and we didn’t actually see her again for the rest of our stay. Due to the time of year, animals were popping sproggs out left right and centre, so our hosts were extremely busy. In the evening we were treated to a bit of music by the son of the elder, who had an amazing singing voice and can make a beautiful sound with the simple but haunting 2 stringed Dombra (a lute type thing). Playing music and having a sing song is also a big part of Mongolian tradition, and Ishka and Bogi joined in with the singing instinctively without any restraint or reserve. Annoyingly, every Mongolian seems to have a wonderful singing voice, and they then wanted us to let loose a little ditty for them, but we politley declined, due to having the combined vocal talent of a cat being throttled by a noisey goose.

Bogi and Ishka really made the trip for us, they were a great team, always laughing and joking with each other. Ishka couldn’t speak a word of English, but was such a laid back and friendly guy, always having a little nap anytime he could. It was a suprise to find he was once a high ranking officer in the Mongolian Soviet Army. Bogi worked as a tour guide around UlaanBaatar to pay for her brothers to study (they lived with her too). Her first love (as with many rural Mongolians) was horse riding, and in the high season she got to work as a horse trekking guide back home in the west near her nomadic family.

If you have the time, and the balls, you can attempt a really amazing way of travelling around Mongolia and the Ghobi desert – Gerr to Gerr. In the West and South, out in the desert, away from cities, genuine nomadic families still exist without any connection to the modern world – other than maybe a mobile phone. It is possible to travel around Mongolia, by car, motorbike, or horse and simply stop at every Gerr you find on the way. No matter what time of day or year, you will be welcomed in, and given food, water and shelter. This isn’t a myth either. This hospitality is deeply ingrained in rural Mongolian culture due to necessity. Before a train and rail network it would of been virtually impossible to travel the vast barren expanses without it. Apparently, its totally OK to arrive at a Gerr, and even if no one is home, enter it and treat it as your own home. It is said that the rural Mongolians don’t understand the concept of privacy, and if you were to pitch a tent near a Gerr, you could well expect them just to walk in without announcement to see what you were up to or offer you a brew. From our short experience of Gerr life, we can certainly believe it – there is no room for privacy with families living in such close quarters in big round tents.

The journey home was pretty mental, our driver Ishka nearly failed to stop at a toll booth, but didn’t, and was then extorted by the police, who threatened to make serious trouble for him if he didn’t hand over some cash. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on a road (most of the time its just open plains and dirt tracks) its serious bum clenching time. As we arrived in the city at rush hour we saw many cars bumping into one another, until we then crashed into the back of someone. It was only minor, but this seemed like something to be expected daily on the roads here.

Other things about Mongolia:

The sky at night. Out on the steppes, the night sky is easily the most impressive we’ve ever seen. It feels like the whole universe and beyond is visible, and is really quite humbling,

My mate… Mar…mot... With the first family, we got to try the famous Mongolian hotpot, made by shoving hot coals in with the meat and potatoes and giving it a good shake. Like the barbecue in western cultures, this is a man’s domain, while all ther cooking and housework seemed to be primarily done by the Women. Hotpot this evening was made from a freshly caught Marmot. Through our guide, the man of the house explained how in the winter, the marmot is whipped out of its hibernaty-hole by hand, and still asleep, it is placed by the fire to warm up and get the blood flowing to its tasty little muscles. It then begins to stretch out and yawn like a little baby, and is promptly offed… Sad, but the little fella was undeniably delicious.

Mongolian whispers. The reason we got to try the hotpot was that the head of the Gerr also had a business partner from China staying with him, and he wanted to try the local specialty  (Apparently they were in the paper trade together, but I’m not sure how that worked from a remote farm in the Mongolian wilderness). The Chinese guy spoke Chinese to his interpreter, who translated to Mongolian to Bogi, who translated to English for us, and then our Dutch friends also had an inner interpreter. It was an extremely strange experience, but Mr Chinese-paper-man was a lovely bloke, and had apparently never been with so many foreigners before and wanted a picture with us all. Madness.

Chinggis Khan to the Mongolians, or Ghenggis to you and me, is still a popular national figure. Recently, a company sinisterly calling themselves the Genco Tour Beurau have built an immense statue of him in the middle of the Steppes. Currently its just the giant statue, with a museum inside (and the worlds largest leather boot, as the concierge proudly explained), but the plans and model inside show that intends to become a vast complex, with gerr hotels and the like. There are to be 1000 warrior statues built outside, and it comes to light that Jackie Chan was a big investor in the project, and so one (or all, we’re not quite sure) of the statues are going to be built with Jackie Chan’s face. Yes that’s right, Jackie Chan. This seems like the crazy hair brained project of an eccentric billionaire, and it may well be. It looks like nothing else is being built around the statue, and the place itself, only built in 2008, is already in a state of disrepair, with flags stones cracked and crumbling steps. We were the only visitors when we were there. – The museum was interesting though (A private collection of Mongolian artifacts through the ages.

life and death on the steppes. After our horse ride, we got to have lunch in a local families Gerr. Inside on a tray was the full set of gizzerds from a sheep, which was being eagerly devoured by all present Mongolians. Next to this on a table was a large bowl of what we think may of been afterbirth. Behind the table were many new born baby goats and sheep – very cute. In the entrance was the head and spine of freshly slaughtered sheep. It was poking its tongue out at me so I flicked it. It was weird.  Outside we saw some little goats popping out the back of some bigger goats. It was gory, but at least we finished on life instead of death. One goat decided to headbutt another in the side, which almost popped the kid straight out. I’m not sure that it was being intentionally helpful though, it looked pretty mean.

“How did they get up here?” Amy asked as we climbed up the slippery rock into the cave – The cave is known locally as the 100 Lamas cave, due to 100 Buddhist monks (lamas) hiding in it during the Soviet purges in the late 1930’s – “How did who get in?” asked Bogi, our guide.”The animals” Amy replied. “No animals” said Bogi, rather confused. “The Llamas” insisted Amy… I eventually understood where the confusion was, and we clarified that it would of indeed been very difficult for 100 of the small humpless camel type beasts to climb up and hide in the cave, but it was sitll impressive that 100 monks hid out there for so long. (Almost 3 years I think, but eventually they were found and many were killed by the Soviets)

UlaanBaatar and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
31/03/2013 – 04/04/2013

PS – It’s been a while since our last post, and as is evident from the dates above, I’m a bit behind with posts. China was a bit hectic and I’m too pedantic when it comes to uploading stuff… I’m trying to train myself to be less so, and to be a more efficient blogger, but its a slow process. Hopefully I’ll do a few posts soon to get more up to date with where we actually are. We hope everyone back home is well – stay in touch.

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Mongolian banana smugglers (Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

Mongolian banana smugglers..
(Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2)

The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was about 77 hours. This next leg, as our train veered South from Siberia into Mongolia, was a paltry 30 odd hours. Nothing for battle hardened rail pros like us… we thought.

The train was a Mongolian one. Rather unshockingly, the staff were also Mongolian. Instead of our scruffy jack the lad Chinese carriage guards, we now had carriages staffed by a battle* of smartly dressed, diminutive, and severely efficient Mongolian ladies. *Unsure of collective noun for female Mongolian train guards.

Our carriage was totally packed with rowdy Mongolian blokes, we guessed maybe returning home for the weekend (Work can apparently be scarce in Mongolia these days). When we showed the guards our tickets they began to swear and fret amongst themselves, and seemed pretty unsubtley annoyed with us. After some heated debate they shoved us through the throng into our room, where we immediately gathered the cause of their annoyance. We had the tenacity to have prebooked beds, which happened to be in the cabin the staff seemed to have commandeered as an extra chillout room. The table was full of tea flasks and various train guard paraphernalia  and the under-seat luggage storage was full to the brim with boxes of Bananas (Yes, we were puzzled too). We attempted to shove our luggage where we could and were just about to get settled in, when the guards burst in and began pleading to us in Mongolian, whilst starting to collect our bags and coats. We gathered they wanted to move us, but we were slightly reluctant and tried in vein to explain (reasonably in our view) that we wanted to keep the beds we had paid for, with the numbers printed on our tickets. By using a mixture of bafflement and bribery (we gathered through mayhem that they were trying to assure us we’d have the new cabin to ourselves), the whirling guards somehow managed to get us into another cabin.

So, bruised an bemused, we once again began to settle in, this time without interruption  Our Mongolian matriarchs were also (almost) true to their word, and we did have it (almost) to ourselves for the duration. Bizarrely  half of our luggage space was still full of fruit. It seemed that a couple of the blokes on the train were traders, and had some sort of dodgy deal going with train guards – It did cross our minds that we may get done by customs for trying to smuggle in fruity contraband, but thankfully the border crossing went smoothly.

The border crossings on Trans-Siberian/Mongolian trains are still something we are yet to make head or tail of. The train is checked by both countries on their respective sides of the border, and there is a huge amount of time where absolutely nothing happens, and nothing is being done by anyone. Our total Russia-Mongolia border took around 8 hours, and apart from a bit of crawling and shunting, we were stationary for nearly all that time. Passports, Visas, immigration and custom forms are all checked, and rooms and (sometimes) bags are inspected. This happens on both sides of the border, and usually only takes between one and two hours each side… What’s going on for the remaining 4-6 hours is total mystery (apart from when they change the undercarriages to fit the different gauge of track when trains enter or leave Russia).

Our Russian part of the border crossing was in Ulan-Ude. The station is in the middle of nowhere but we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs and use the toilets – train toilets are out of bounds during stops, and 30 minutes before and after. This makes timing toilet visits one of the foremost concerns of the entire train journey… Anyway, at Ulan-Ude the train was split, most carriages carried on across Russia, but one carriage was left to enter Mongolia. Because of this, anyone who was destined for Mongolia from the other carriages were all quickly bundled into our carriage, and so a couple of Mongolian students promptly sat on our beds and cracked open the instant noodles. We left them to it and went for a potter around the train station. As we ambled around taking pictures and enjoying the leg stretch, we noticed a train engine couple itself to our carriage, and slowly begin chugging away. Our brains were telling us that there was no way the train would just leave without us, without any indication or signals at all, but our eyes told us a different story. In the true British tradition of running-for-a-bus-but-trying-not-to-look-like-you’re-running-for-a-bus we briskly walked after the train politely trying to get the guards attention who was hanging out of the back door. He made an indiscernible hand signal to us, and the train carried on into the distance. After we realised our power-walk-pursuit was futile, we stopped and stood in silence watching our train shrink in size, as is the nature of perspective. Just as the shocking realisation that all out bags, money, and documents were heading off without us, we noticed the train actually stopped shrinking, and then began to look as if it was growing again. Initially I thought this must be an optical allusion, akin to that when a wheel looks to be spinning backwards at a certain speed, but low and behold, it was really coming back towards us. It was of course, just changing tracks. We slowly turned around, only to see groups of locals chuckling to themselves on the platform. The train reversed passed us at an agonizingly slow speed, as more locals peered out of the windows, laughing at the numpty tourists who thought their train was leaving without them. We pretended not be embarrassed  but the colour of our faces may have suggested different.

The Mongolian border crossing consisted of stopping just outside a remote ramshackled farming village, at a small hut with the words ‘Mongolian Customs’ spraypainted on the side. The train was saluted by a row of smiling soldiers and then the standard border crossing procedure began. Our cabin door slid open, and we were strangely saluted by a tall Mongolian GI Jane. She didn’t seem too friendly and proceeded to almost take out cabin apart, taking of roof panels and all sorts.

Considering all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, and sit there for hours, eating and drinking tea, border crossings are a remarkably stressful experience. They also do an amazing job of shattering romantic Trans-Siberian notions. Because you can just sit there and chill out while it all happens, it’s still slightly preferable to the cattle market treatment you have to go through when flying, it’s just the length of stationary time that’s the main downer.

Although it has the lowest average temperature (over a year) of any capital city, UlaanBaatar apparently has clear skies most of the year round. We arrived at six in the morning, to a -6 degree blizzard and a good few inches of snow. Of course.

Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Leg 2
30/03/13 – 01/04/13

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Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

Lake Baikal – a bit nippy…

After a bumpy one hour drive in our ancient Korean minibus, we arrived in Listvyanka, on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal. We arrived on a particularly clear day and the views were incredible. Across the vast desert of frozen lake we saw the imposing belt of the Zabaikalskie (I think) mountains on the opposite shore. As we were there for 4-5 days I thought we’d plenty of time to snap some pictures, but typically the mountains remained hazy under a distant mist for the rest of the time we were there. A little annoying, but it did give the impression of the lake simply being a vast, endless, frozen ocean.

I can’t accurately describe how breathtaking the lake and the surrounding scenery was, especially with the winds howling and the ice creaking, and the pictures don’t even nearly do the place justice – but hopefully they give a better sense of it than any feeble attempt of a description by me. Listvyanka however, is a little bit of a stain on Baikal’s majesty. Its essentially a 4 mile road along the shore, stretching from the Angara Eastwards, dotted with faux-Old-Siberian houses, hugely tasteless pink Kremlin style second homes, and the odd souvenir shop. In places it was quite charming, with genuine little fish markets and a nice village atmosphere. Further back from the shore there were authentic little pockets of real Siberian village life, with wooden houses and the like, but mainly everything was geared towards the tourist trade. The place seemed sparsely populated, with very few tourists due to the off season, so hopefully we saw a bit of natural local life. I imagine it’s quite a tourist trap in the summer.

Its a small world, as we found out when we bumped into Frank and Lia by the lake. Their Californian bones were suffering in the biting wind and double figure negatives (as were ours) and they were on their way back to Irkutsk to get the train to UlaanBataar. We also met top German bloke called Mo. He’s a serious solo traveler  into hardcore day and week long treks and the like. When we met he invited us on a 4 day trek along the lake. We politely declined due to timing issues. We bumped into Mo a few days later as his trek was cut short by some tracks being impassable in the winter weather. So, he joined us in our hostel in the evening for some pasta and beers. Being an experienced traveler, we got a lot of good advice about China and on-wards,  as he’d just come from that neck of the woods, and was heading in the opposite direction. Next day he set of on a disappointingly meager (to him) two day trek along the Ice.

Our hostel (Baikler eco hostel) was pretty amazing. A purpose built log cabin set up that was extremely cosy, with a friendly and laid back manager named Natalia. It wasn’t as cheap as we’d of liked, but still cheaper than much of mainland Europe. (We later found many locals have bed and breakfast signs outside their houses, you can’t book in advance online, but by far the cheapest way to stay is just to turn up and find one of these. Plus, if you’re lucky you get more of a taste of the local culture). Worth a comment is our hostel’s dubious use of the word ‘eco’ in it’s moniker. Apart from a couple of solar panels, and water pressure equivalent to being dribbled on by a parched tortoise, there seemed to be very little ECO about. No recycling bins, and electric panel heaters everywhere, all seem like things conducive to a decidedly un-eco hostel.

In the hostel we met a spiffing British couple called Richard and Susie, who have quit their jobs to travel the noodleier parts of the world in the East. Like us they’re trying to avoid flying. Their blog is very funny and worth a gander:

From the hostel we could arrange various activities like dog sledding and snow mobiling, but these were a little out of our price range. One attractive option was to take out the ‘Ice bikes’ with studded tyres, and ride along the lake for the day. We were really looking forward to this, the lake is only 40km in width at Listvyanka so we maybe could of ridden to the other side and back in a day, or at least up to the next village, only accessible by Ice (or water in the summer). As is our luck, one bike had a puncture and they couldn’t fix it in time. Oh well.
You may think cycling on the Ice sounds like a crazy idea, but the majority of the lake is frozen a metre thick until summer. The locals use the frozen shoreline as a temporary road for driving to nearby villages. Vans, 4x4s, and old rusty soviet saloons are a regular sight on the Ice. We even saw cars driving right along the edge of the ice (where the frozen lake releases the flowing Angara) from Listvyanka to port Baikal.

During one of our many foot based excursions onto the ice, I heard a muffled thud behind me, only to discover Amy spreadeagled on her back looking rather dazed. She had incurred yet another head injury (she is prone to these, and blames a long history of head injuries on her terrible memory). After a reasonable amount of sympathy, I then discovered the shocking truth that during her fall she had been holding our digital camera. Inconsiderately  the camera wasn’t her primary concern as her legs disappeared from under her. Luckily the camera still works perfectly, apart from the the LCD screen. There is no viewfinder. This means we can only blindly take photos by pointing at things, then checking what they look like on the computer later. Based on this, we’ll just be using our camera phones from now on. (I don’t think the LCD is broken, maybe just disconnected inside, if anyone has any suggestions please throw them this way).

A famous local inhabitant of the lake is the Omul. Omul have the unfortunate characteristic (for them) of being amazingly delicious, and the local humans whip them out of the lake by the bucket load. Smoked Omul is the local specialty  and it is easily the best smoked fish I’ve ever tasted. Colourfully dressed old Siberian women sell the fish at the market, whilst the blokes our out on the lake boring new holes into the ice for the next days catch. When we bought our fish, we wanted to keep them warm till we got back to the hostel, so being the enterprising sorts that we are, we stuffed them inside my insulated skiing gloves, and put them in my bag. On the way home, we stopped at the shop, and as we were sorting out the shopping, a pair of gloves dropped onto the counter, and out flopped the heads of two fish. The girl in the shop paused, looked at us, looked at the two dead fish poking out of a mans glove, and strained a smile. Amy tried to explain by doing a mime of shivering, that we were trying to keep the fish warm, but unsurprisingly this just wierded the girl out even more. We laughed awkwardly and headed for the door.

Our last full day at the lake we decided to head to the apparently beautiful local viewing point, situated high up on a hill at the source of the Angara. Possibly the Listvyankans want to keep this spot tourist free as, although it was on the map at the hostel, finding it involved meandering down some nondescript tracks, with absolutely no signage, and we were just about to give up until we turned the corner and found… a ski lift up the hill. Never ones to pass up a go on a ski lift, we hopped on. The views of the lake and surrounding area were brilliant, I’ll avoid the corny description, but have a scan of the photos for some idea.

When we reached the bottom we decided to nip into a cafe for some borscht  only to discover my wallet was gone. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sinking feeling. All my cards, driving licence and cash were in it. In a hurried game of charades and telephone translating, we managed to explain our predicament to the lady in the ticket booth, and she let us get on the lift for free, with the aim of us looking on the floor on the way up, then hopefully locating it. There was no sign of it on the way up, and we spent a long time searching for it at the top. We were absolutely gutted, I hadn’t planned on an eventuality like this.

Suddenly, like the voice of an angel, one of the lift operators shouted me over, holding something proudly aloft. I felt like giving everyone in sight all the cash in my wallet, I was that glad just to have the rest of it back (I didn’t though, I’m not mental). Apparently it had been hanging of one of the seats precariously and had done around 3 or 4 laps of the ski lift. This type of luck doesn’t usually befall us two, but the relief was almost indescribable. Needless to say, I now only carry certain things in my wallet, and have emergency cards and cash elsewhere. Most people are probably clued up enough to do this from the start, but if not, it’s one of the few pieces of advice I could give.

We were sad to leave the peace and quiet of the lake behind, especially knowing we had to deal with the mayhem of Irkutsk one last time. Eventually arriving at the train station, we had a couple of hours to idle away, and as per usual, we instantly attracted the local nutter. A Buryat guy and his girlfriend. Buryatia is an autonomous state in Russia (On the Russia-Mongol border, its capital is Ulan-Ude) and its inhabitants are the real ethnic Siberians (they look Mongolian in appearance). Although they speak Russian, and would hold Russian federation passports, I think they see themselves (reasonably so) as purely Buryat. I believe there are quite a few autonomous states similar to this in the Russian federation, with ethnicities different to the standard slavic white Russians (these all arrived in Siberia as the railway was built). It stands to reason with the vast size of Russia, but never really crossed my mind before… Anyway, this guy was a laugh at first, but he could barley speak a word of English (or Russian to be honest, he was that pissed). I gather he instantly fell in love with Amy, and may well of offered her his hand in marriage, his girlfriend certainly didn’t seem impressed. After about an hour of the same 30 second conversation repeated again and again “What names? English or Deutch? Me Buryat. I English very bad. hahaha” we found an alternative way of conversing – through the medium of English premiership football team and player names. The system involved taking it in turns to mention a player or team, whilst the other then nodded and smiled, mentioning another team or player somehow related to the previous. Surprisingly  this became tiresome very quickly. As luck would have it, they eventually got kicked out by security (We guessed that they weren’t waiting for a train, and used the heated station waiting room as a hang out spot, to drink and baffle tourists).

After a brief moment of calm before the train arrived, we moved onto Trans-Siberian (technically now the trans-Mongolian) Leg 2…

Other things we have learned about Listvyanka, Baikal and East Siberia:

Rural hospitality. As is probably the case in most places in the world – the more rural – the more hospitable people tend to get. In Irkutsk we were stared at and whispered about, and people wen’t all that friendly, even for Russian standards. By the lake, everyone was much friendlier. We even saw quite a few smiles! I guess they see more tourists there, but it was nice to buy fish from smiling old ladies and to get the occasional (only occasional) smile on the street.

Its Cold. Yes, you heard it here first. Its absolutely brass monkeys in East Siberia. To the locals, the measly -5 to -15 temperatures we experienced were but a joke compared to their -30 to -40 winters. These are the kind of temperatures where one might see the apocryphal frozen wee stream. (I’m still doubtful about whether that really happens).

Techno Techno. Siberians, and Russians in general it would appear, are rather partial to a bit of hardcore techno. We thought our bizarre dining experience on the Trans-Siberian may have been a one off, but we were sadly mistaken. Sit down in any type of establishment to eat, and the default ambient music is techno, regardless of whether its fast food joint, or a quaint local cafe. Even our little local shop on the shores of the lake curiously had speakers on the outside, and blurted hardcore techno music across the frozen wastes. It was very unnerving to stand out on the frozen lake, looking at a seemingly uninhabited village, and be serenaded by a wall of techno.

Listvyanka and Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russian Federation
26/03/2013 – 30/03/2013

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Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

Domestic Bliss in East Siberia

We arrived at Irkutsk train station at 4.30 in the morning. Not only were we slightly alarmed to find out that there is more than one 4 o’clock in a day, it was also rather bracing -15 outside. Although it didn’t feel amazingly cold initially due to the lack of wind, in terms of numbers, this is the coldest temperature either of us have experienced. We were soon to find out that to the Siberians, this is practically shorts and t-shirt weather.

After around a ten minute walk we found our hostel – only to be stood there for 20 minutes ringing the bell with no reply. 24 hour reception my arse. Just as hypothermia was about to set in, we made the executive decision to go back to the train station waiting room and wait there for a few hours. Frank and Lia were still their due to their hostel not allowing them to to check in, or even dump their bags or wait in the common room, till midday. All four of us had had our first taste of the famous Siberian hospitality.

We tried our hostel again at about 8.30. After about 10 minutes of ringing the bell, we were about to give up, when we eventually got buzzed in by our bleary eyed host. Turn’s out they were in all the time – just heavy sleepers apparently. The hostel was basically a nice 3 bedroom flat (1 dorm and 2 privates) that belonged to our hosts Dasha and Anton. We later found that during peak season, they just employed a couple of girls to run the hostel and lived elsewhere, but off season, they closed down the dorm and moved in themselves, just renting out one private room. Dasha was the one who sleepily and apologetically greeted us, sitting us down and feeding us a nutritious breakfast of various home made birthday cakes. It was their little girls birthday the day before, and the whole hose was strewn with balloons and cake. I would hazard a guess that the reason for our difficult entry was that Anton and Dasha had overdone the “birthday cake” at the party.

Our hosts were really affable, and made us feel instantly comfortable in what was essentially, their home. They gave the impression that you could totally keep yourself to yourself, or sit with them bending their ear all day, and they wouldn’t mind either way. Although they were very nice to us, we did detect some very fraught underlying tensions in the relationship  It turns out Anton runs his own adventure tour company Baikal adventures ( He was born and bread in the region and you could tell that he was bound inseparably to his work and the great outdoors in which he thrived. Anytime we ate or passed through the living area, he would show us some of his promotional videos, laughing to himself as he watched and always pre-empting what was about to happen, by telling us, what was about to happen. In these situations, the couple would constantly bicker in Russian, smiling falsely  hoping in vain that we may think they were just convivially discussing the weather or something. We’re pretty sure the bickering was around the fact that Anton spends half the year away taking tourists on adventures, only to spend the rest of his time at home, watching videos of said adventures. Anton we guessed was responding with something about being the breadwinner, or putting food on the table… They may of just been arguing about who’s turn it was to put the bins out, but is was a good game to play nonetheless, and I’d put a few quid on our assumptions being correct anyway. Anton and Dasha also had a lovely  but rather weird dog that like to slowly and submissively crawl up to you for a stroke and a tickle. (Note – Anton’s videos on the web and youtube are worth a look, he does everything from Ice climbing to kayaking – pretty amazing work if you can get it. Tours are expensive but would be great to do one day)

Irkutsk itself was an experience. And at times, not a particularly pleasant one. As we walked into the city centre from our hostel – we were initially greeted by what looks like a thriving, modern, 21st century city – situated on the big, healthy looking Angara river. What we soon found as we got under the surface was quite a large rich – poor divide, and what appeared to be a serious general alcohol problem. There’s a University in Irkutsk, and at times the place had a fairly buzzing student vibe, but then just round the corner there would be groups of haggered drunk looking guys, and dodgy looking folk trying to sell various dodgy items on street corners. At one time we were sat down checking the map when a drunk guy came up to us, shouted something grumpily in Russian, and then proceeded to have a massive wee all over the floor right next to us.

You’d think they would see a fair few tourists in Irkutsk, especially as tourism at lake Baikal grows every year, however you’d of thought we were walking around naked with the amount of stares and whispers we got mooching around town, even without all our rucksacks. It was strange, as we couldn’t think what looked so strange about us, as we are white and western looking like most of the population (apart from the Buryats and Mongolians) and our clothes didn’t seem particularly outlandish or different. We obviously stuck out like sore thumbs though.

The modern developments in the city were all pretty ugly, whilst there were some impressive Soviet era government buildings (The two main streets in the city are Karl Marx street and Lenin street). The stars of the show were the traditional Siberian wooden buildings. It’s a shame the most of them seemed to be falling apart, but the wide dusty streets and wooden buildings gave the place a bizarre wild west feel. The mix of streets lined with disheveled  once masterly crafted, wooden buildings, bookended with concrete hotels and restaurants was a very strange sight to behold. We wanted to visit the Taltsy outdoor museum of Traditional Siberian wooden architecture, but couldn’t find it and ran out of time. The rest of Irkutsk’s tourist trade seems to be solely based the cities claim to the title of ‘tea capital of Russia’. Up until the mid 20th century, nearly all tea imported into Russia from China along the tea roads, came through Irkusk, where it was distributed around the country. Surprisingly (to me at least) we have found during our time there, that the Russians are as big, if not bigger, on tea than the English. They love a brew, although they are prone to doing weird things like plopping jam in it.

Irkutsk was an interesting place to visit, but I can’t say we were too sad get on our minibus to Listvyanka and lake Baikal. Little 20-30 year old Korean minivans seem to be on of the primary methods of public transport around (and out of) the city. There are certain points n the city where they hang out, with a little sign in the window denoting destination. They wait till all 8-10 seats are filled then shoot off recklessly onto the apparently lawless roads and highways.

Other things we have learned about Irkutsk:

Sardines. Sardines in a can to be precise  No matter what time of day, the various minibuses, buses, and trams that hurtle around the city always seem to be packed to bursting with all ages, grumpily bashing into one another. The trams are particularly bone shaking.

Goodbye cruel world. I don’t think the locals are that fond of Irkutsk, as one of them indicated quite strongly by hurling himself off the bridge into the Icy Angara. We saw the emergency services zooming towards some kids playing under the bridge. We thought this seemed like an extreme response to kids having fun, until we saw them putting a very damp and cold guy in an ambulance. We then saw witnesses showing the police where he flung himself off the bridge.

Rush hour 5. The level of danger and carnage on the streets at rush hour make the perils encounters by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, in the ludicrous 90’s blockbusters of the same name, seem comparatively pedestrian.

Irkutsk, Siberia, Russian Federation
23/03/2013 – 25/03/2015

See previous post for the first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey

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