Category Archives: sleeper train

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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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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Vlad and Bong’s starlight express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

Just like the Great Wall of China never succeeded in keeping out the Mongol Hordes (or any foe in history for that matter) – China’s 21st century (fire)wall has failed to keep us from broadcasting our cutting edge travel news – Thanks for the VPN Joan… Still to come: Shocking exposes of what we ate for breakfast and how many times we fell over.

Vlad and Bong’s Starlight Express (Trans-Siberian leg 1)

So, before we started our long awaited first leg on the Trans-Siberian railway, we had to reach Moscow’s Yaroslavsky train station. The Metro (underground) system had previously seemed like a pretty straight-forward experience, follow the coloured lines to the desired station name – easy – however this quickly changes when you’re under immense pressure and carrying your entire life on your back. Indications of what colour line we were on seemed few and far between, and station name signs seemed suddenly became non-existent. Luckily for us we’d met a nice Californian couple (Frank and Lia) at our hostel, who happened to be getting the same train as us. Unluckily for them, they decided to let us take the lead in getting us to the train station. They followed us on a 15 minute trudge to the Metro through Moscow’s harsh conditions, and were all the while simply too polite to tell us how they found our route choice a little confusing, due to there being a Metro station only a couple of minutes away from the hostel in the other direction, and getting on at that station would have taken us straight there with no changes – Oops.

We eventually arrived somewhere near where we had to be. Somewhere near, but not actually there. The strange looks that had accompanied us the whole journey intensified as we frantically bumbled around, resembling four giant beetles, trying to find our station platform. After being mistakenly sent on a circular goose chase by some stern looking but well meaning guards, one of them by way of recompense, actually guided us to our platform. We promptly celebrated by cracking open a few beers, and waited for our train to arrive.

It turns out that the weekly 004 train from Moscow to Beijing is a Chinese one. As a result the staff are all, as you would expect, Chinese. (Apart from the Russian restaurant car, but we’ll get to that later). As far as we could tell, each carriage has two guards who are responsible for, among other things, keeping the place in order, tidying up, stoking the coal fired heating, and occasionally donning a hat and opening a door at a station. Unfortunately our two guys (one of whom we determined to be called Bong), felt that only the latter in that list was necessary. To be fair, they didn’t really have time to clean or keep us warm, as they had a busy schedule of staying up all night drinking, chain smoking and watching loud sci-fi movies. During the day we would often see Bong or his friend trundling about the carriage shirt unbuttoned, hair sticking up, and fag hanging from gob. Bongs diminutive, bespectacled partner in crime also had a charming habit of loudly hocking up and spitting everywhere (usually with impeccable comic timing during a dramatic pause in someones story). They sometimes broke up their hectic day by fighting and chasing each other up and down the carriage, and also spent a lot of time preparing and cooking fresh vegetable noodley type dishes, which made us salivate after days of our instant noodle, tea and beer diet. Despite the small issue of an apparent total lack of regard for their passengers  our two guards were, in truth, great fun. Although we didn’t have much to do with them directly, they constantly made us laugh with their daft antics, and provided many an hour of talking points as we discussed what it would be like, living life on the rails, and how we could turn their story into a sit-com.

Based on our trip so far, and other Trans-Siberian travelers we have spoken to before and since, we would guess that everyone’s Trans-Siberian rail experience is going to be totally unique, as there are so many factors involved: Which route? Is it a Russian, Chinese, or Mongolian train? What time of year is it? etc. The factor that will undoubtedly have the most bearing over the experience however, is the human one. What are your fellow passengers and staff like?

Although Bong and his sidekick could certainly be considered slightly less than professional, they were mad characters who simply added to the experience. The only genuine downside was how cold it got when they forgot to stoke the fire. In addition to these two reprobates another notable character on the train was our resident restaurant manager and chef – Vladmir.

Vladmir was a big, burly Russian, and was a man of few words. One word that seemed to pop from his mouth more than any other however, was “Borscht”… For example: Amy asked “Can I have the mushroom soup please?” To which Vladmir would promptly replied – “Borscht”… I enquired about another item on the menu, and received the sagely response – “Borscht”… It turns out, despite what we may have wanted to select on the menu, Borscht is what we were having. Frank and Lia went twice to the restaurant car, ordering the same dish each time, yet were presented with something different both times, and both times it wasn’t exactly what they had ordered. When Vladmir found out that Amy and I were from the UK, he quickly scurried into the back only to return with a tea spoon, engraved with the words “Akbar’s London Tea Room”. Said spoon was presented to us to admire for an awkwardly long amount of time, and eventually was returned to its, no doubt special, resting place. Also worth a mention is Vlad’s (we were on abbreviated name terms by the end) impeccable knack of creating a perfect dining ambiance. Once all the food had been served, he would proceed to direct his laptop at us, and play super loud techno music with accompanying footage from inside the club. – Truly. Bizarre.

As well as the lovely Californian couple, we also made another good friend on the train, a lone travelling Scotsman – Paul. Paul was (is) currently making his way from Glasgow to Japan without flying, and plans to immerse himself in Japanese life, living and working there for a year – A brave feat, especially for a solo traveler I think. We were Paul’s next-door neighbours and we all instantly got on like a house (train?) on fire. Paul the jammy bastard had an entire cabin to himself for the duration of the trip from Moscow to Irkutsk (he was continuing to Ulaanbataar). I say he had it to himself, but Me and Amy quickly became regular fixtures round there – whiling away the hours playing cards, drinking beer, and sharing stories. We had a nice young Mongolian girl in our Cabin, Normin, but she liked to keep herself to herself, so we commandeered Paul’s cabin as the party cabin. You might think 4 days on a train would drive you crazy with boredom  but we never once felt an ounce of it. You quickly fall into a routine of sleeping, eating, drinking, laughing, and watching the world slide by, and before you know it its time to say goodbyes. We were sad to leave Paul, and our home on rails, but the show must go on. We genuinely wish him all the best in Japan, and really hope our paths cross again in the future, We’ll definitely be staying in touch. He’s also blogging about his travels, so why not have a goose? – paulsadventure.com

Both Paul and (particularly) Frank and Lia are experienced travelers who have been all over the place, so it was really good for us to hear their stories and suggestions, and who knows, maybe one day we’ll be the ones with tons of good advice and cautionary tales to share.

Russia has 9 time zones I think, and from Moscow to Irkutsk, we crossed 5 of them. The changing of time zones over the days is seriously strange as your body clock just can’t adjust that quickly. We continued to live by Moscow time for the entire journey, and it became particularly disconcerting once the level of light outside didn’t correlate with the time in our heads. Incidentally all train times in Russia are given in Moscow time on the tickets and at train stations. This seems weird at first, but does make sense when you consider all the different time zones.

The peculiar sensation of time shifting is just one more unusual factor that adds to this completely bizarre, curious, comical, and unexpectedly amazing experience that is: The Trans-Siberian railway.

Other things we learned about the Trans-Siberian so far:

Classy. There are 3 classes of travel on the Trans-Sib, 1st, 2nd and 3rd (platz class). On some trains there is also Upper 2nd class. We were in ordinary second class, but Frank and Lia found themselves unexpectedly in upper 2nd class. The cabins were still 4 berth but were actually clean, and the whole cabin had a more refined wood paneled aesthetic. Upper second class also had a provenista who kept the place tidy and ludicrously hot, many people in this carriage sported shorts and vests. She also sold a few snacks, and would make you a brew for 30 Roubles (60p). In our carriage their were only 3 occupied carriages out of about 10 for the entire journey, and no new passengers got on, whereas in upper 2nd all the cabins seemed full, and people were doing much shorter journeys, Frank and Lia had new cabin mates almost every day.

Trans-Siberian Leg 1
19/03/2013 – 23/03/2013

As you can see from the dates, the blogs a bit behind (pesky trains and Chinese firewalls). We’ve written the posts nearly up to date though, its just a case of uploading them – so expect a few posts within the next couple of days. Hope everyone is well – keep in touch.

We saw warsaw

We saw Warsaw…

Well, not very much of it to be honest. We only stopped for one night in order to make sure we got the train to Moscow on time. In order to ensure we had seats and at a reasonable price we’d booked our Warsaw-Moscow tickets a couple of weeks earlier and had them sent to our Warsaw hostel.

We arrived at our hostel in the evening in high spirits. We’d had an easy day (only 4 hours on the train from Krakow) and were ready to go and have a couple of cheap beers and sample Warsaw’s renowned nightlife, both of us looking forward to our arrival in Moscow. Our bubble was abruptly burst when the receptionist at the hostel advised that no tickets had arrived for us. Shit. We were in a state of panic, as we had to enter Russia on the dates specified on the visa, or it can lead to problems. – Also the tickets to Moscow weren’t cheap.

So instead of going out for a good time, I hastily emailed the booking agent, hoping they would pick up the email first thing to check the tracking – whilst the hostel told us they would nip to the local post office in the morning to check it wasn’t there. Realising we hadn’t eaten almost all day, and not feeling like partying, we went to the only food shop nearby, a KFC, and drowned our sorrows in saturated fat. To make matters worse, Polish KFCs don’t do chicken gravy – Amy was almost inconsolable. After our KFC comedown, we sat weeping into our box of stale chicken carcasses, discussing all the worst possible outcomes of this terrific ball ache.

In the morning I managed to Skype the travel agent (Real Russia), and they had already been in the case and phoned up the hostel, and were trying to get to the bottom of it. – Full credit to Real Russia for doing this as if they had their proof of postage they could of just said sorry, it’s out of their hands. Anyway, cut a medium length, and slightly dull story sideways, it turns out some cretin from the hostel had signed for it, not made a note on our booking as is procedure, and filed the tickets neatly at the back of a draw of junk. Cheers.

So, after a completely unnecessary night of chicken fueled of anxiety. We were ready for our sleeper train to Moscow. We spent the day (and some of the previous evening) seeing what we could of Warsaw, which as it’s pretty massive, and we didn’t want to stray to far, wasn’t very much. It’s a big, busy, bold and brash city, but feels like there is a lot going on. Despite all the concrete and glass and massive ugly billboards, when your actually there it feels buzzing and definitely warrants some exploring. It’s reputed to be a thriving hub for students and the arts, which I can well believe, and is supposed to have a famously good nightlife (Which we didn’t get to sample this time). With its post industrial, post communist, ugliness and thriving atmosphere, to us Warsaw felt like it shared a few similarities with Berlin. We’ve previously spent a long weekend in Warsaw and can confirm that the old town, although tiny, is very pretty and well worth a gander.

This train was itself an experience. It was slightly different to our last sleeper, as there were 3 bunks on one wall, whilst the other wall has a wardrobe/luggage compartment. As we crossed the border to Belarus, we were first checked by the Polish border guards who looked like serious militia, but were an amiable bunch of blokes and didn’t seem to take the whole thing that seriously – so far so good… Then, after moving what seemed like about 10 metres, enter the Belorussian border guards. These guys (and gals) mean business. We heard the marching of heavy boots come down the corridor  and the carriage doors been aggressively slid open one by one. When they got to us, they gave the room a thorough search (presumably for any ounce of joy we may have be trying to smuggle in) and sternly demanded our passports. After checking Amy’s passport for what seemed like 10 minutes, our thunder faced border guard(ess) had a look at mine. Oh dear… She stared intently at every crease and hair follicle until she eventually decided that I was unacceptable. Shaking her head she left with both our passports, and no explanation. After about 30 minutes she returned, and seemed angry that we hadn’t filled in the requested immigration cards. All the info we needed was on the Passports, and when we apologetically explained this she seemed annoyed that we didn’t know all our details off by heart.

She eventually loosened up a little after we had to keep asking her questions about what we needed to fill in, and she couldn’t explain in English, and so we ended up in a long surreal game of charades with a Belorussian border guard. We eventually got our entry stamp, and all was well.

We got a decent nights sleep, and thankfully didn’t have to do Russian border control, which we thought we would. I guess that the Russians must trust the efficiency of the Belorussians – I certainly do.

Warsaw, Poland 13/03/12 – 14/03/13

– I’ve just done a Krakow post too. Trying to get up to date as per usual. We are now in Irkutsk in East Siberia, so have spent a few days in Moscow and done our first leg of the Trans-Siberian. We are getting back to nature and going staying in a hostel by Lake Baikal for a few days which has no internet, so I’ll hopefully write up the Moscow, Trans-Siberian, Irkutsk, and Lake Baikal posts whilst we are there. (At least the first three anyway). We hope everyone back home is well – we are on a ten hour time difference now so may not be as communicative. Keep in touch. Toodles.

50 shades of grey…

50 Shades of Grey… 

No, not the ludicrously popular piece of chick-porn-lit by E.L. James. This is in fact the answer to the question: What colour is Poland?… From our very brief time there, I would guess that Poland must certainly be in the top 10 greyest countries in the world (of course there is such a list) along with England, Scotland, and I’m not sure where else yet. It’s a list in progress.

We arrived in Krakow from Budapest via the misleadingly named “overnight sleeper train”. Yes, it traveled overnight, and I concede it was, unmistakably  a train. However, there was very little in the way of sleep, sleepers, sleeping, or any other variation on the word. The cabins are all potentially six-berth, but some rooms only have 2 or 4 beds pulled down, it just depends how much you want to pay. Even if you have an Inter-rail pass, you must pay a surcharge on sleeper trains. We paid about £10 each to go in a 4 berth cabin. The “beds” are of the same consistency of any normal train or bus-seat – i.e. wooden, with a couple of millimeters of foam and cloth on top. Writing this now, since we’ve had more experience of sleeper trains, we have realized the experience isn’t really that bad, and can be very pleasant, it just takes some getting used to. The main problem with our first sleeper train experience was that it seemed to spend over 60% of the journey stationary, and was constantly stopping and starting. The chugging repetition of the train as it trundles along is what sends you to sleep, so the stopping and stationary periods are really disturbing. The whole journey took around 12 hours – but I reckon it was probably only about a 5 mile/10 minute journey, and we were just stopped for the majority of it. We probably should of just walked. I’ll have to check it out on a map. (Note – I checked a map – we couldn’t have walked – but you get the picture).

Arriving in Krakow at 6.45am, after only a couple of hours of sleep, we were glad that our hostel was just opposite the train station. Typically for us, it still took about 45 minutes of trudging around with all our gear to find it (we located it just in time, as Amy was seconds away from hurling herself herself in front of a tram). It wasn’t that it the location was misleading, we walked past it about 3 times, it was just that the only indication it was there was a small weathered A4 piece of paper above some apartment doorbells.

This minor hiccup can’t detract from the fact the our hostel, Greg and Tom’s, was overall the best hostel we’d stayed in up till now. It worked out about £22 a night (between us) for a private room, shared bathroom, and access to a fully equipped kitchen/dining area. Upstairs there was a 24 hour reception with amazingly friendly and helpful staff. Also, included in the price were 2 meals a day (morning and evening) served buffet style, all you can eat, along with snacks like fruit and popcorn throughout the day if you wanted them. So, we had a nice place to stay, with a good atmosphere, free wifi and computer use, and 2 meals a day, for £11 per person. Not bad.

Despite the general Polish propensity for monochrome, Krakow in fact has a broad pallet of fetching pastel colours to accompany its greys. Krakow is Poland’s ancient Royal capital, and although much smaller, in parts it’s as elegant as Prague or Vienna – although it does win the award for most externally ugly castle of the trip so far so far. The old town is charming in appearance, but was surprisingly (to us at least) one of the most touristy city centres we have seen it terms of the amount of street leafleters and guides in little buggies selling tours. Thankfully , this touristyness is concentrated to the very centre (Market Square) and the odd street connecting to it, so it was very easy to escape and feel like you were in a real town again. The edges of the old town, Kazimierz the Jewish district (Krakows hipster hub) and the area between that and the centre were particularly interesting to walk around.

For our lunchtime meals we ate at local Mleck (Milk) bars which are simple self service cafes where locals, workers, and students eat. They serve traditional Polish fare which tastes a lot better than it looks, the vast majority of stuff being anemic, squidgy, and slimy looking. A favourite combination of many seemed to be a red or white borch to start, and a plate of pirogi  It’s really satisfying after a freezing cold trek around town, but I would imagine stodgy things like pirogi getting quickly wearisome if eaten regularly. (White borch with sausage and spuds in was my favourite, and I’m hoping to learn a recipe for making this).

As we only had 2 nights in Krakow (we wanted 3 but had to spend one in Warsaw in order to get our train to Moscow) there is a lot we didn’t see and it would be great to come back here with more time. We lost a bit of time because of having to catch up on our sleep after the “sleeper” train too.

On the last day we went for a long walk through town and along the river (Vistula) and came across Schindlers enamel factory, of Schindlers list fame. It’s now a tourist attraction you can walk round, and although it wasn’t particularly expensive (about £4 each) we didn’t bother going round as we’ve both seen the film, so we get the gist. (We thought the exhibitions just covered the events of the film – there were stills from the film hanging on the wall all over reception). At the time I thought it was bizarre as you got the impression it wouldn’t be a tourist attraction if it wasn’t for the film. We’ve since found that its supposed to be a great exhibition about the general history of the city under Nazi occupation, and it is just housed in Schindler’s enamel factory for context, so we regret not going in now. On the plus side, there was a free toilet. At first I was worried that having a dump in Schindler’s enamel factory might be a bit disrespectful, but when you’ve gotta go you’ve gotta go… (Those that know Amy will know this especially well, as she regresses to 5 years old when nature calls… “Why didn’t you go before?” – “Cos I didn’t need one then” – “well, hold it in” – “No I can’t” – “Sigh…”) <<< Potential script from movie offshoot, Schindler’s Piss?

Other things we learned about Krakow:

All hail his excellency. Pope John Paul II in a big deal here. There’s an entire street dedicated to him. There also seems to be more Nuns and Priests per square mile than anywhere else we’ve been. Seemed to be one on every street.

Bakers Dozen. Well, dozens of bakers in fact. Ranging from people with carrier bags in the park, to people with tiny little stalls on street corners, to big market stalls. There seemed to be a person selling unknown bread type things every few steps – its a saturated market.

Krakow, Poland  11/03/13 – 13/03/12

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