Category Archives: 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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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 bmorenomadic.wordpress.com

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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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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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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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.

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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Praha

… After only 5 posts, I’ve already lost the ability to create a witty title, that leads into the first paragraph, or creates an intrigue which is answered as you read on… So I’m not doing it, so there… This post is about our stay in Prague (Praha).

Our train journey from Berlin to Prague was definitely the best so far. Four and a half hours on a single train with no changes, in 6 seater cabin to ourselves, and stunning views of snow covered hills, towns, and forests along the Elbe river valley.

Arriving in Prague in the evening, with no local currency to buy a tram ticket, our first action this city, was a criminal one. After a short, bumpy, and rather anxious tram ride, we arrived at our hostel. Later finding out that they have plain clothed ticket inspectors who give a roughly £50 on the spot fine for fare dodging. Not sure how likely you are to get done, but we got lucky.

The hostel (hostel ONE) had the best atmosphere of any place we’ve stayed in. It was roughly £30 a night for a room with a fridge, kitchenette, and a balcony. Granted the cooker didn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts… “Ah, your room is on the 5th floor… I’m afraid the lift isn’t working at the moment” explained the genuinely helpful girl on reception. After a slog up to the 5th floor with our gear, I noticed cobwebs on the lift doors, and suspected that the lift hadn’t worked for a very long time… These aren’t real gripes with the place though, you can’t complain for the price (less than £15 each a night each). The young reception staff available 24/7 were all friendly and helpful, and the common room and kitchen areas felt like a proper lively travelers hub. Also – 3 days a week a girl comes in and cooks a free soup for everyone for tea! (you just give a little tip if you liked it).

Prague (or Praha) was our first experience of not being able to understand any written language at all. With our combined minuscule knowledge of languages, and a bit of logic, it was easy enough to get by in The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany – but Czech to our ignorant eye balls was pure, unadulterated  gibberish. There were plenty of signs and instructions knocking about that had English instructions, but also plenty that didn’t.

The Prague skyline certainly deserves its reputation. The Gothic towers and church spires on both sides of the Vlatva river are hugely impressive – and even more so at night.

We were staying in the Zizkov district (missing diacritics), proudly home to what was once voted the worlds 2nd ugliest building (now with added giant babies, see pictures). It was just 15 minute walk to the Old Town, not quite far out enough to be amongst all the big concrete communist tenement blocks – but far out enough to feel like we were seeing some authentic Prague, where locals lived and hung out. It was good to be able to walk into town seeing the place from a different point of view than the tourist trap.

One of the biggest downsides to Prague was the tourist atmosphere.  In comparison, based on our very limited experience, Amsterdam seems to have managed to blend tourism into a fully working, thriving city very well (although it can be a bit much sometimes). Berliners wouldn’t bat an eye lid if all tourism stopped tomorrow – the city works without it. And in Bruges, the tourism trade seems to be strictly managed so as to maintain the medieval integrity of the place… In Prague it’s a bit jarring to see people wearing “Special Offer” signs and handing out leaflets against the fairytale medieval backdrop. This is one of the main reasons why Prague can be a much nicer experience at night.

As amazing as the medieval old town and the castle are – some of the communist architecture is very impressive to behold as well (See pictures of the TV tower and the National Monument). The contrast of historical Prague and the brutal communist buildings are one of the most interesting things about the place – if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Prague like many cities, seems to have bit of a visible dark underbelly. In the places we’ve visited so far, for what ever reason, we have barley noticed a single homeless person or beggar. Here, in the tourist hotspots, the streets can be lined with them, kneeling, faces to the floor, hands outstretched. It’s sad, and it’s hard to know whether they are genuine homeless or opportunistic junkies (After dropping some money into one blokes hand, we looked round to find him walking across the street to his girlfriend and dog and hurrying off down an alley). It’s mix and a bit of both I would guess. Coming from Manchester – which has an obscene amount of homeless people and beggars on the street, we’re not judging, just noticing. We also saw two lads blatantly shooting up, sat in plain view on the grass between the train station and police station. I suppose loads of cities (especially in the UK) have these underlying social issues, it may just be more of a shock against such a beautiful background (A few smack heads are just part of the wallpaper in some areas of Leigh). And it was  more visible here than anywhere else we have been so far.

Food and drink (particularly drink) are very cheap. One night we treated ourselves to a meal each, a large beer, and a glass of wine, in an authentic Czech restaurant near the hostel – for the princely sum of £12. Pork, dumplings, and cabbage feature heavily in most of Czech dishes – great for us on a cold winters evening – not sure if I would be too enthusiastic about eating it through the summer though. For 500ml of excellent Czech Pilsner it costs an average about £1.27 (I know!). Due to this small fact, we may have ended up drinking a little too much during our stay in Prague…

A couple of times we went to a great little bar round the corner from the hostel – FUBAR. Owned and run by British ex-pat, and all round top bloke, Joe. It’s a nice cosy little place, that does all sorts of karaoke and open mike nights and the like – and it just has a genuinely nice, lively atmosphere with a great mixture of locals, ex-pats, and tourists. And you can get ace bar grub (burgers and mexican stuff) any time until closing time – which is, as far as I can tell, never.

One night in Fubar we were sinking a good few beers with Joe, and also occasionally nipping outside to try and get through some of this bag of thai stick that we still have left over from Amsterdam (Prague is pretty laid back about weed)… You can probably see where this is going… After a while Amy whispers in my ear that she needs to leave – immediately  So, helpfully propping all the buildings up as she went, we eventually managed the 30 metre stumble back to the hostel, and I heaved her into bed… It wasn’t long before I heard the Immortal words – “I need to get off this boat, the sea’s too rough” followed more alarmingly by “I’m not going to make it”. She was right, she didn’t make it. Amy leaned overboard, and hurled, into the brown wooden sea.

Some other things we learned about Prague:

Beer is VERY cheap – see above
Amy will never smoke and drink together again – see above
Prague looks better, and has a better feel to it, at night.
Dog walkers are provided with free poo bags!… But in the area where we were, nobody uses them. Bag dispensers on on lampposts on the corner of many streets, however the streets seemed to be absolutely covered in dog shit. That’s the only downside to the otherwise charming and buzzing little area we were staying in. Sort it out Zizkov.
The communist museum is terrible. (We don’t usually go in the museums and such as we are on such a tight budget, but ‘cos I’m really interested in this sort of thing, I unreasonably dragged Amy around, and on a hangover she’d like me to point out!). There are hardly any exhibits apart from the occasional trinket from the era. You just walk around reading from huge information boards. Interesting stuff, but I could of just looked it up in a book or on the net.

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Achtung!

Achtung! Wiener! Schnitzel!.. Just three of the many common words to be seen on signs and shop fronts around Berlin, which for some reason it is almost impossible not to repeat out loud in (an attempt at) a German accent, and smile. Amazingly, aside from general words that sound amusing to our ignorant foreign ears, Berlin had even more to offer…

Before we get to Berlin, It’s worth just mentioning the journey there. In the last post I was papping on about how amazing train travel is in Europe, which it is… However… At our change over in Brussels, we left the train to be immediately engulfed in what I can only describe as, a massive riot. The whole of the train station (which is huge) was overrun by people wearing either red or green coats. There were people chanting and hammering signs, with loud bangs that sounded like gunshots going off everywhere, and small groups of Police occasionally running towards the (still unknown) source of the bangs. Amy has a real phobia of fireworks and the like, and was almost in tears. As if this wasn’t enough, I was wearing a big green coat, and Amy a big red coat… We initially thought there must have been a football match, and were worried that we might both get lynched for fraternization with the enemy. After the sight of a large group all wearing blue coats, we thought shit was about to go really crazy, until we soon realised that all the different colours of people were actually on the same side. After some further investigation we found out that they were civil servants protesting against budget and salary cuts. Anyway, we eventually made it out alive…

Our hostel (Hostel PLUS) was in a great location, right next to the Warschauer Strasse U-Bahn station, on the edge of the up and coming, apparently hip and happening Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg districts. These areas are poor but are habitat to a vast amount of young, arty, alternative types. The area is genuinely buzzing – the streets seem packed 24 hours a day and it always appears that there’s something is going on just around the corner (at different times we saw a rap music video and a documentary being filmed on the streets).

The hostel was absolutely massive, with I think about 500 rooms. Its not the sort of cosy intimate place where you’re going to sing songs around the fire with new friends – but that’s kind of appropriate for Berlin. The rooms were large and clean – and amazingly for a hostel, there was even a swimming pool and sauna, but we didn’t use them. It did the job and I would recommend it for the location alone. Plus the actual building itself was pretty mint – Apparently a 100 year old neo-gothic building (maybe a hospital or factory) with large stone staircases and corridors – all decorated by local artists…

East Berlin as a whole is fucking cool. You have to say fucking, because cool just isn’t enough (And the Germans love to say fucking – a lot). It’s also beautiful – in the way that the peaceful death of a relative after many years of suffering could be considered beautiful. Or a bulldog. It looks like a sprawling post apocalyptic waste land, where society is just starting to rise again from the ashes. Every single available surface is full of graffiti  or posters, or graffiti on posters. Despite the above description, and the general feel of lawlessness – Berlin never felt threatening or unsafe – even late at night. It just feels genuinely buzzing.

Central and west Berlin is also very impressive – partly just for the sheer scale of everything from the streets to the buildings. On our first full day in Berlin we did the obligatory walk through Mitte – along Unter Den Linden – taking in the centre of the city and all the most famous sights – from Alexanderplatz and the TV tower, to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and various things in between. We finished of with a mooch and some dicking about in the impressive Tier Garten (Park).

Next day we visited the East Side Gallery (right near the hostel) which is the largest preserved section of the Berlin wall and is covered in graffiti paintings from international artists. At the end of this stretch of wall we found what is possibly the coolest bar of all time – YAAMAICA! This reggae bar is a little ramshackle hut in the middle of a colourfully graffitied courtyard – playing top notch reggae. In the courtyard there are toilets which also double as a shop – selling munchies and rizzlas, and a hut selling jerk chicken. What more could you want? There’s also a stage area for concerts, 5 aside, and a kids play area. Apparently Yaamaica is not just a bar – but a genuine community hub, operating its different functions according to the relevant time of day or week. (Yaamaica is the whole set up, it turns out that the bar within is actually called the cool runnings bar – which was even more appropriate as we were sheltering from a blizzard).

This night we had a good few drinks out in East Berlin and ended up chatting to a couple of young British lads who were also currently travelling Europe. I think they’d just come from Nuremberg, and as their next destination was Salzburg, they expressed a concern that their trip was unnervingly starting to look like a Nazi tour (It definitely wasn’t). Anyway – All the best Alex(I think)  and mate (sorry, shit with names and was a little wobbly anyway) and have a good time in the states.

…We stayed in Berlin a total of 4 nights…

Other things we learned about Berlin:

– The Holocaust memorial is inappropriate – hang on, I’ll explain. It’s basically a huge expanse of steps increasing in height from the edges to the middle – which creates a kind of maze of corridors around the centre. Our issue is that the piece as a whole encourages physical engagement – jumping from step to step, running and hiding through the maze. (It’s full of people doing this, and them pretending to look solemn when they run into other people who are doing the exact same thing). This would be perfectly fine – if it wasn’t a memorial to millions of murdered human beings. Its an ace sculpture – maybe not fit for purpose though. It is great how Berlin openly acknowledges and discuss the past – and is looking firmly to the future. In my opinion the Neue Wache (Memorial to sufferers of War and Tyranny) is much more powerful – A large satue of Kathe Kollwitz’s Mother with her dead son, sits in the large empty expance of the Neue Wache – lit by a single hole in the roof. Seriously eerie, sad, and thought provoking.
– Berliners HATE milk. We couldn’t get anything other than UHT type stuff. What’s all that about?
– All the food in Berlin is incredible. We only ate from junk food places and street stalls but its all in a different class – Even the Kebaps.
– Currywursts are not disgusting. The specialty street dish of Berlin seems to be the currywurst – smoked sausage chopped up and smothered in ketchup and curry powder. Sounds disgusting? It’s not, its well nice – along with all other street food.
– Like the Amsterdam(ians?) – the Berliners love a good sausage dog – they are everywhere. Just hopefully not in the sausages.

Just realised how long this one is – oh well, apologies for the piffle – hopefully there’s sumet in there worth a goose.

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On the road again…

On the road again…

This highly appropriate but rather dull Willie Nelson number (click the link above if you must) has somehow become the anthem for days when we are on the move… Once we are all packed up and ready to go, Amy will invariably try and start a little sing along with her glorious *ahem* silky velvet tones.

Seeing as we are on an actual journey, I thought we’d do a little blog about the traveling side of things – Getting about, modes of transport, and how we’re living on the cheap etc…

If you’ve looked at the pictures, you may be wondering why Amy appears not to understand the concept of a BACKpack. In truth, we both wander around looking this ridiculous. Our backpacks (they call them travel packs) are designed with travelers in mind, as apposed to hikers or adventurers, so they zip all the way round for easy access to you stuff, and they have a separate 10 litre day sack that zips and straps on to the main pack, piggy back style. This little pack can also be clipped on to the front, which despite how ludicrous we may look, is an absolutely cracking idea. All the stuff we want easy access to all the time goes in the day sack, so when we are getting trains, we put the big packs up on the racks, and keep the little ones with our essentials in with us. Also – we are going a fairly long way, for a fair old while, so our packs are heavy. Putting the little one on the front improves weight distribution massively and substantially reduces the amount of times you nearly kill yourself by falling off balance onto the train tracks.

We’ve had quite a few strange glances as we both stand fully packed up, staring blankly at the train arrivals board trying to decipher it, slowly spinning around in circles, bashing into each other like a pair of strange, slightly ill beetles… – but its worth it.

So far we’ve got: a train to Newcastle – a bus to the ferry port – a ferry to Imujdlik – a bus to Amsterdam – 3 trains to Bruges – 2 trains to Berlin – and a train to Prague…. And touch wood, it’s all been unrealistically easy so far. The train network that we’ve experienced in Europe (and the general inner city pubic transport) has been amazingly punctual, efficient, and easy to use. Trains are regular, and always seem to run on time, up to date electronic information boards are everywhere – and – there is leg room – something us Brits are not used to. The international and intercity trains (ICE and IC) are particularly luxurious, with large comfy seats and plenty of room. But even the smaller inner city trains all seem to be great – although it can get a bit mental in rush hour… – Unfortunately we may have been responsible for death (or at least severe annoyance) of quite a few commuters as we spin around in train stations bashing things with our immense rucksacks.

We are managing to stay well fed and watered whilst on a budget. At hostels, breakfast has often been included in the price, but where its isn’t we just buy cereal and milk (we have mess tins, and as its winter – window ledges provide a free fridge!). For lunch we shop at supermarkety type places, buying sticks of bread, cheese, tomatoes, meat, hummus etc – and this keeps us in sandwiches for a couple of days. Some places have pretty cheap food stalls too. For tea we tend to eat in cafe’s or from food stalls. There’s a big difference in cost from country to country, but roughly we can keep well fed and watered with the occasional coffee for an average of about £20-£25 a day (between us). This average may well start coming down as we get further into eastern Europe. (Just arrived in Prague and its mega cheap). Obviously if we’re having a few beers, thats when things can get expensive – so you just have to be careful.

We’ve just arrived in Prague (the scenic train journey here from Berlin was by far the best to date), but we’ll upload some pictures and some inane wafflings about Berlin first. I’m also pathetically trying to grow a travelers beard, so the pictures of this may be a laugh for some.

In Bruges…

Ashamedly, Amy and I admitted to each other that we’d never heard of Bruges until we saw the 2008 Martin McDonagh film, In Bruges. Surprisingly  a lot of other people hadn’t, and tourism in Bruges has boomed since the release of the film. Our hostel even did a tour of the city based around the film. The film certainly wasn’t made by the local tourist board, as Colin Farrels character ponders the towns merits: “If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t”.

Apparently, this is the second time Bruges tourism has had a helping hand from popular culture. In 1892 Bruges la Morte (The dead city of Bruges) was published by Belgian Author Georges Rodenbach, describing the city as ‘dark, poor, and ugly’. Locals weren’t to happy, but some people saw romance in it, and tourism boomed.

Anyway, back to our trip. We are aware that some people might have picked up on the small fact that by going from Amsterdam to Bruges, we are actually heading in the wrong direction to get to Oz. We had originally intended to do a bit of a wiggley journey through europe in order to sight-see, but we never intended to actually go back on ourselves. We were going to go via Brussels or Antwerp rather than Bruges, but we had trouble booking hostels, so that’s how we landed up in Bruges (Also, as we have bought the inter-rail passes, the route we take makes no odds really as we can get on pretty much any train in Europe without extra charge).

It is a decision we have absolutely no reason to regret, as Bruges is a pretty amazing place. The photos we’ve taken can’t even come close to doing it justice. Some of the worlds best beer, waffles and chocloate combined in the one of the worlds best preserved medieval cities, what’s not to like?… Yes, we have come off season, so our opinion might be different if we had come in the Summer, and it does feel like a bit of toy town, but after a couple of days you realise that in some aspects it is still a thriving, working town, with a genuine priest school, nunneries, and big bi-weekly markets.

As you might imagine, we don’t have as many tales of drama, drugs, and debauchery as we did in Amsterdam. We’ve had a lovely time eating delicious chips, chocolate and waffles and drinking top notch beer, and just mooching around the city marveling at the streets and buildings, but it doesn’t make for particularly interesting blog material, so we’ll just mention a few things that have made our stay here ace:

One thing that helped us really engage with the town is a Belgian scheme called USE IT by Tourist Info For Young People. TIFYP produce illustrated fold out map/guides for Belgian cities that are free to pick up at hostels. They are made by local young people, for young people, so the information inside is priceless, mentioning local people their establishments by name and noting things you would simply never find without it. It’s a scheme they are trying to spread across Europe and seems like a top idea.

The hostel set up was pretty decent too. It’s called the Bahaus, but has been taken over by the hostel chain St Christophers. Even though it’s a chain, St Christophers do the hostel thing very well: Large, comfy, clean, rooms, helpful staff and reception. Wi-Fi, common room and Laundry. Free breakfast, and reasonably priced, cosy wood and brick bar and restaurant two doors down.
We saw loads of interesting stuff, churches and general history and the like. I won’t bore by going on about it, but I’ll just say that we saw plenty of class stuff, and we were well unlucky with the amount of things we wen’t to see that were shut for renovation or closed because of unforeseen circumstances. For example, Jesus’ blood (seriously, they have a vial of it they reckon) was unavailable to see as the church was shut Wednesday afternoons…

Things we have learned about Bruges:
– Still no public toilets anywhere, and they have the highest weeing on the street fine in Flanders, 152 Euros!
– Bruges is fairly expensive, waffles with choclate and cream cost between 5-10 euros, but a pint is about 3.80euros, so cheaper than Manchester at least. Bottled beers in the shop are well cheap though.
– Monks are piss heads. All the Trappist beers (brewed by monks at monasteries) are ludicrously strong. Some are proper nice, but they’re a bit hit and miss. I reckon once you take a beer past 10%, it’s impossible to make it very enjoyable, it’s just rocket fuel. (Bruges Zot was the nicest and cheapest local beer, actually brewed within the walls of Bruges. It’s not a Trappist though)
– Loads of stuff shuts on Wednesdays, we missed a few things we wanted to see cos of this…
– Everyone should go up the Belfry. It’s good fun, the view is amazing, and if you have seen the film In Bruges, you can act out the chase scene with Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, like we did…

We are now in Berlin, so these blogs have a bit of a time delay on them. We intend to do a mini interim blog just to mention what the actual journeys are like, and how we are living for cheap on the road etc, just cos we thought some people might like to know…

We hope people are enjoying the blog, I realise I can waffle shit a bit (Amy is going to start writing soon, some might be relieved to know). We do really appreciate hearing what’s going on back home, so we’re very glad of comments on here (and whatsapp etc). As we are on a shoestring budget, we can’t be out galavanting all the time, so it’s nice to keep in touch during our downtime.

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