Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warsaw: 23-24 November

We flew in at midday and by the time we got to Old Town at about 4pm (via a pierogi house for a dumpling fix that made me the happiest woman in Poland, they were topped with bacon bits fried in lard) it was already dark and very cold. The main square is stunning, especially in the snow. Polish hospitality is as hit and miss as the Russians, though smiling doesn't seem to be as much of a social faux pas here.
After a quick trip up to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture (Stalin's gift to Poland, which towers ominously over the city at 231 meters -- how Soviet) for the customary panoramic view:
I headed out to Wilanow to see the poster museum and palace (yes, Kat and I actually had our first day apart in six weeks). Unfortunately, the poster museum was only showing the annual student competition (I've seen many, many student posters) and although there were a couple of good ones I was really looking forward to seeing some famous Polish posters (the theme of 'tolerance' produced some predictable Bennetton-style responses, but the weirdest was a silhouette of a donkey doing something nasty to a man with the slogan 'tolerate this'. The palace, on the otherhand, was terrific -- opulant and grossly baroque, the King and Queen's antichambers were particularly awe inspiring. I could have happily lived as Polish royalty.
The grumpy Grandma's patrolling every room and creeping along half a step behind you can be trying, but they're clearly very proud of the contents of their museum, and protective over the rooms they shadow about in. In most of the larger museums, you have to cover your shoes with blue plastic bags, which is practical considering the slushy mud outside, but it makes you feel even more of a peasant wandering through these spectacular golden ballrooms.
Continuing the meat fest, we dug into some great wild boar and pork knuckle, and also found a jazz and blues club near the hostel where I was served a well made White Russian by a chubby version of Colin Farrell. We perched at the bar and listened to jazz for an hour or two, and Kat got chatted up by a guy who looked like my Uncle Henry and aparently wasn't a big fan of jazz music. He kept asking why people were clapping when it was so bad.
I found a strange little "peep show" place (just keep reading) where you sat on a stool and peered through a "peep hole" to see historical photos of Warsaw, mostly being bombed, burned and ravaged during the war.
General consensus seems to be that Warsaw isn't worth hanging out in for more than a day or two, but I think I could easily have spent a few more there and still not seen as much as I would have liked.

Helsinki and Rovaniemi (where Santa lives)

The bus from St Petersburg to Finland was 9 and a half hours of fantastic scenery, with a firey sunset on one side and snow covered fir trees on the other, it definitely felt like I was heading towards Christmas. With only one day in Helsinki, it made sense to just wander around and get a feel for the place. The short stay was actually a blessing in disguise -- Finland isn't a cheap place to be traveling on the Australian dollar, and there was a lot in the design district that I would have very happily dropped some cash on. A bar on the 14th floor of a hotel provided mulled wine and panoramic views of the city at sunset, viewing the Gulf of Finland from the opposite angle from a few days before in St Petersburg. One more sleep in the world's loudest hostel before our exciting trip north to visit Santa, which was no easy task with the drunken yobs crashing about and a blood curdling wind howling around and banging metal things against the wall. Hostels have an age limit, and I think I've just past it. I did manage to squeeze in a pre-breakfast sauna though, which is always a bonus. What a way to start the day.
Flights were out-of-the-question expensive to Rovaniemi, so a day after our bus Odyssey, we sat for 8 hours on a train. I'm still loving train travel, to my suprise, and am actually looking forward to the future trains in Eastern Europe. It makes me very calm.
The dream for Lapland was to go husky sledding under the northern lights, so it was crushing to discover that the season doesn't start til December this year. You could go to the husky park and pat a dog, but for 160 bucks that sounded lame, as did paying $250 for an hour reindeer sled ride. Instead, we decided to make our own fun and took a bus out to the Ranua Wildlife Park. By the time we got there it was basically sunset (2.30pm) so some of the animals were snoozing, but the polar bears played up to us and all the animals looked like they had enough space and activities to be relatively happy in captivity. I liked the snow owls. Hoo hoo.
It was weirdly deserted, and after being shadowed everywhere through Asia and Russia, it was great to be able to roam about a huge open space without seeing anyone else. Because I'm an adult, I found it infinitely amusing that the only sign of inhabitants we could see in some of the snow-covered enclosures were patches of yellow snow. It was a good two hour walk the whole way around -- by the end I couldn't feel some of my toes and it felt like permafrost had set into my thighs.
As we were leaving the park, we caught a glimpse of the northern lights -- more a coloured stain than a celestial blaze, but we were excited and amazed nonetheless.
The park closed at 4pm and the bus was scheduled to leave at 5.25pm, so we lingered in the chocolate supermarket, which was oddly the only thing open at the park til 5pm, then waited in -12 degrees at the bus stop for 45 minutes (the bus was very late), in a scene that was disturbingly like something David Lynch would stage. We were discussing the likelihood of anyone finding our remains if we were killed hitchhiking back to Rovaniemi when the bus finally arrived.
Our final day was reserved for Santa's Village, at -16C. I never suspected Santa lived in a thinly veiled commercial theme park, but you learn something new every day. Tourist consumerism at its most ferocious, Santa's Village was a collection of gift stores with a small area dedicated to an official post office (if you haven't received your post card, it must have just got lost in transit) and Santa's "office" where you can pay 20 euros to have your photo taken on the big man's knee. The line was long, so we saved some excited kids another five minutes wait and skipped that opportunity. I don't need a fat man in a suit telling me I've been naughty, anyway.
We met a Scottish guy in the hostel in Helsinki who was on his way up for a second season as an elf at the village. He was microwaving a mixture of baked beans and frozen meatballs for dinner and his complexion suggested this might be his regular diet, supplimented with a lot of booze. I guess the elf outfit makes them cute. Despite my cynicism, it was an admittedly magical place, even moreso with fresh snow falling on the already icy trees and huts.
The previous night, I cooked a reindeer stew (which was amazing, if can rate my own cooking) and we had some sliced reindeer meat left over from the bruchetta entree, but decided it might be inappropriate to take reindeer sandwiches to Santa's Village. In the cafe, aside from the regulation burgers and pizza, for a mere $35 you could have a cafeteria tray with reindeer stew. Sorry, Rudolph.
There is a great museum in Rovaniemi called Arktikum with lots of stuffed animals - you can press a button and hear the noises they make. Hours of fun...

Monday, November 24, 2008

St. Petersburg

The first phase of St Petersburg marked the end of the Vodkatrain trip, with Maria, who was the best local guide of the trip. Our two-day whirlwind tour took in the Hermitage, a panoramic city view from St Issac's Cathedral, the Political History Museum (which was fascinating but cut a bit short because Someone was grumpy), the Peter and Paul Fortress and many canals, statues and scenic streetscapes.
Kat brushing up on highschool history in the Hermitage. Below, where the dead Tsars live, followed by windows in the impressive Political History museum.

Our last meal as a group was a bit of a sorry state, with general exhaustion and irritability high. Maria took us afterwards to a bar area, and we had a couple of beers in a smoky little pub called Fidel (the Russian's love a Cuban theme) with supped-up Russian versions of everything from The Eagles to Michael Jackson. The last standing - so to speak - were Kat, R and I and we stopped by one more bar where R choked on the ice in the glass of Glenfiddich Kat bought us all (he thought we were doing shots). Waking with violent hangovers (it sounds bad, but it was only our third hangover in a month, which I think is commendable considering we were on the "Vodkatrain") we heaved backpacks on and trudged for an hour to get to the apartment we'd rented for six days with Pam. A good looking man carried our bags, one over each arm, up the stairs into the ENORMOUS apartment and we realised our time in St. Petersburg was about to get much, much better.
Although not the apartment we'd booked and been dreaming about for months (Prince Michael's former pad on Millionaya St near the Hermitage), we all had our own bedroom (bliss) and there was a separate eat-in kitchen, living room with a big TV to watch hilariously raunchy Russian music television (and exercise on the walking machine if any of us felt so inclined, which we obviously didn't) and a bath. Pam's arrival marked a distinct and much appreciated change in pace for the holiday. When we didn't leave the apartment til 1pm the first day, I'll admit to being a bit antsy, but I eased into the slower pace remarkably quickly (for me). Seeing Pam again after so long was a present, and being able to sit around the big kitchen table and talk and feast and laugh was the best thing I could have wished for after four weeks of busy traveling. We did nothing but eat and drink (and damn we did it well) for five days, the only tourist sights we saw were from the street or though windows of cafes and restaurants. One morning, I had caviar and pickles for breakfast, because I felt like it.
Other culinary highlights include the most expensive steak I've ever eaten (but every mouthful was a world of joy and it was as big as my head), bliny (pancake) heaven at a place just around the corner, a drink in 'The Idiot' called Crime and Punishment (accurately described on the menu as "our crime, your punishment"), random dumplings selected from the supermarket freezer section and made into soup (I guessed well on all of them except one which tasted like a sweet cheese, and didn't really go with the pork broth) and our last night, when we ventured to a French bistro for some salmon and wine:
The only blight on the whole fabulous time was en route to dinner on our last night, when we witnessed a Romper Stomper style attack on two guys outside the train station, when five men ran across the road as the lights changed and started swinging steel-capped boots into their heads and ribs with sickening force. Unbelievably, they both got up and made it across the street before the lights changed back. Aside from the ridiculously marked "Mafia Taxis" and occasional homeless person, this was the first real dark side to St Petersburg we'd been exposed to and it was shocking.

Eugene, our Moscow local guide, informed us that one of the statues of a horse on Nevsky Prospect had Napoleon carved onto its doodle. We never found it.

On our last morning, we headed out for breakfast and then Pam accompanied me snow boot shopping, as I anticipated Finland was about to get much frostier. I somehow managed to pick a pair up for about $25. It was a little glum saying bye to Pam, but we cross over in Sydney (for 36 hours) in January. Apartment living is the only way to travel. More please.


Stalin, obviously, in Red Square.

Moscow - home to skinny dogs, fat pigeons and creative parking. Arriving in a large city after such a long train ride was exciting, but as exciting as having the first shower in 7 days. Less exciting was the news that Red Square was closed, but luckily only for two of the three days we had there. We managed to get in to see Lenin's mausoleum on our first day (which weirdly wasn't part of the closed bit, considering it seemed to be a Communist convention that it was closed for). Weird, waxy Lenin (short man, small hands) is guarded in his dark, solemn tomb by intensely stern soldiers -- loitering and loud displays of emotion were strictly prohibited, we were shushed and ushered through with haste.
Our first male local guide, Eugene, was a lot of fun. Studying languages at university, Eugene wants to be a musician. He's in two bands at the moment -- the main one is Russian reggae-punk and the other is Hardcore-Emo Rock ... After the drudgery of Julie's company, having someone who was enthusiastic about their city and actually had non-guide book information for us was great.
We went to a ballet in the Kremlin (also permitted entrance then, but only via a side gate) which didn't feel like the three hours, despite the fact we couldn't find a glass of champagne to save ourselves. R thought several scenes were unnecessary to the plot.
A visit to the art gallery (the Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible clutching his dying son, who is rumoured to have been accidentally slain by Ivan's own hand in a heated argument, will stay with me for some time) was topped off when we walked out to a seriously impressive sunset over the Moscova River, the Kremlin buildings and Red Square.
Our last day we finally managed to get into the Square and R, Kat and I lined up for an hour in the freezing wind to get into the Armoury, which was the coldest I've ever been -- how the Russians fought wars in this climate I will never understand. It is an impressive place, as is the entire Kremlin.
On our final day we made a trip to Gorky Park. Despite not being a hub of fun at this time of year(it was like a ghost town), we still had to pay to get in. Rusty went on the roller coaster.
We still had eight hours to kill before our midnight train, and no one was in great spirits after two sleepless nights (a severely mentally unwell American woman kept us awake with bouts of sobbing and typing emails outside our room, with what sounded more like a couple of hammers than hands ... the embassy eventually came and gave her some cash and a ticket home) so logically we took another long walk (the Russians and their long marches...) to an observation point at 'Sparrow Hill'. This, and a long banquet dinner, eventually got us to our last train on the trans-Mongolian trip: an 8 hour overnight to St Petersburg, which was a breeze after the other previous epic legs.
You had to pay these women to use "their" toilets. They stink.

77 hours on a Russian train: Irkusk to Moscow

The Russians on the platform at Irkusk were a motley crew of rough looking characters. We were joining the Vladivostok to Moscow direct train (which is the trans-Siberian route, as opposed to our trans-Mongolian route starting in Beijing), which we'd heard is used by the military -- the packs of young men with shaved heads and barrel chests seemed to fit this bill. A couple of them were swaggering about bare-chested wearing Umbro soccer shorts and thongs clutching beer bottles (it was -2 C). I gave the one with blood on his forehead a wide berth. Our carriage attendant was a formidable presence, but gave me some comfort - he had a dark scowl and a dragon-tattoo running up his neck.
Our cabins were again slightly rougher than the first ones, but at least there was more space for our bags this time. We walked through what seemed like an endless number of carriages to the dining cart. The hallways were haunted with the ghosts of meals past ... boiled egg, smoked fish and a carnival of processed sausage meats lingered in waiting. The people who'd been on since Vladivostok clearly set up camp like home. When we finally made the dining area, I opted for some chicken borscht, which was unexpectedly good (the cook was wearing an American flag bandanna, Bruce Springstean-style. Our meal was accompanied by a blaring DVD of Van Heilsing (dubbed in Russian). Despite the vampire and werewolf screams, the cabin was charming in a high kitsch kind of way.
On the previous trains, there had been a number of tracksuit clad Russian women. Kat and I thought it would be hilarious to buy matching velour tracksuits in Beijing to 'blend in' on the train -- we'd been told tracksuits were basically uniform, but no one told us we needed a full set of gold teeth as well. On this one though, we seemed to be some of the few woman on the train except for the dining cart attendant, but in the dark, that was a questionable call anyway. This wasn't lost on a group of military guys having beer and juice (?) in the cart. One spoke a little broken English and after a few minutes of awkward conversation at the bar, he said: "We go back now, you will come with us." No thanks, Captain Romance, having just finished reading Anna Karenina, I know all about men like you.
R unwillingly acquired a friend during the journey, Nicholai Augustine, who sported an awe inspiring mullet (surely not military standard?) and constantly had a beer or two in hand. He didn't seem popular with the military guys, which may explain why he kept rambling incoherently in Russian at us, pressing us for vodka, and examining R's tattoos. During one session when he delivered a monologue from the doorway and we did our best to ignore him and continue a conversation, the only English word he understood in about 30 minutes was 'mistress'. Says a lot about a man's character. He followed R into our cabin one night, but we had to kick him out when he shifted from being vaguely amusing to slightly threatening (mostly because he kept kind of dry retching and clutching his hand over his sweaty mouth before slurring another torrent of Russian at us).
As he left, he dropped a cabbage-fueled weapon of mass-destruction in his wake to punish us. A soldier at heart. For the rest of the trip, he stalked the hallway, occasionally kicking things and muttering, and loitering at the door to our cabin -- like a vampire, waiting to be invited in. Luckily, he wore his earphones draped around his neck blaring offensive techno at all times, so we could hear the mobile disco approaching and close the door. At one stage toward the end, we actually slammed the door in his face (he was being particularly creepy) and he stood outside, clinking his bottle on the door. Fun guy.
My main mission on the journey was to try to get our attendant Dragol (so named due to the dragon tattoo) to crack a smile. The situation looked dire, but on the last day he caught us having a giggle in the hallway at the LCD sign that welcomed "worshipful passengers" and wishes us "Godspeed." He tapped my arm and pointed at himself when it named our attendants as the "Eastern District Division attendants." And kind of smiled.

Lake Baikal, Irkusk.

Julie, our blond, heavily made-up and humourless Russian guide, ushered us off the train platform into a minivan and spent the hour drive to Lake Baikal flirting with the beefy driver and ignoring us completely. After 36 hours on the train, none of us were particularly chatty anyway. There was no running water at the lodge, so logically, we dropped our bags and started a six hour walk. As we passed a fire-ravaged house and a single, child-size mitten flapped across the muddy path, Julie turned to me and deadpanned in a thick Russian accent: "It's not a nice day for walking." She wasn't wrong.
The first hour we walked single file along the motorway beside the famous lake, which was blanketed in a fog so thick it was just bleary grayness. Julie's responses to all questions were as cold as the weather, and we trudged along in the sleet with nothing but R's running commentary for entertainment. We spent about an hour in Russia's most hilariously underfunded museum, which, unsurprisingly, was all about the lake. Out of focus snap shots of bored tourists at the museum in the 80s were peeling off the plastic sheets they were glued to, and the stuffed wildlife looked like the taxidermist had a generous breakfast-vodka ... all the heads were wonky and some of them may have arrived as roadkill. The bottom floor had an aquarium of gray fish (the lake is too deep and dark for them to have bothered evolving colour), with one tank of tropical fish to highlight their dullness. It wasn't all drab though - there were some great little (gray) 'vertical swimmer' crabs that propel themselves along in the water then tuck their tails under and free-fall to the bottom, and also a fish so translucent you can read through it. Sadly, the last tank held two horribly fat seals, ballooned out like fleshy blimps. They feed them 4kgs of fish a day and the tank is barren except for a single hoop, which I'm not sure they could fit through.
When we completed the educational component of the day, it had stopped sleeting so we hiked up to a look-out point (yes, to look at the lake) for lunch, but the cafe was closed. Julie said: "It's always open." Clearly it wasn't, so we walked back down. By this stage every one was pretty grumpy -- we hadn't showered for a few days or eaten anything since the night before. To top things off, we had to fetch buckets of water to 'flush' the toilets, which were in our rooms. I know an ensuite is supposed to be fancy, but not in all circumstances. It was probably unsurprising, given the moody climate, that we all got spectacularly annihilated on a mixture of Mongolian and Siberian vodka that night. Except Julie, who doesn't drink.
Rusty, with vodka.

The next day was an incredibly well structured series of punishments for anyone with a hangover (all of us, except Julie). We started with a grueling uphill hike to two different look out points (how many views of a foggy lake do you need?), followed by a trip to a smoked fish market which was seriously fragrant, but when the next activity was a boat ride on the choppy lake, we all pulled the plug.
Unable to stomach the smoked fish (I managed to put a small amount in my mouth and actually swallow it, with about a litre of water), Kat and I opted for some fried rice cooked up in a gigantic wok by the only happy Russian in Siberia, which I think is why we actually decided to eat it. While Kat went inside to pay for it, I watched a pigeon land in the rice. The happy man shoo-ed it away and then, seeing I'd seen, scooped the bit the pigeon sat in out and flicked it on the ground. I was too broken to make a fuss, and he was so happy, that I just shut up and ate the rice, and didn't tell Kat til after she'd finished eating hers. Done with organised activities, especially anything Julie might suggest to hurt us more, we separated for the afternoon and met again in the evening for a sauna - the only truly great thing Lake Baikal had to offer us. To be fair, it was a terrible time of year for seeing a lake town, and there's nothing like a common enemy to bring a group together. Having not showered for three days at this stage (there were buckets of water in the sauna, but I mean a proper scrub), we were all looking forward to the 77 hour train ride ahead.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Train from Ulaan Baatar to Irkusk

We were informed via promotional material for the Vodkatrain that the attendants would be a central part of our train journey. To this point, we've been scowled at, dismissively waved away, and I had a door slammed in my face when one old boot was trying to clean the peephole (into the freezing void between carriages -- not much of a view). Alex waged an ongoing war with one ... every time she passed, she drew the curtain and he stomped out and reopened it. Curtain war, October 30 2008 ... attendant 6, Alex 7.
The attendants are surly and dismissive, the customs officers are a whole now rank of unfriendly. We were lined up in the corridor in our pjs several times in the middle of the night while khaki clad minions in an array of different hats made a big show of poking around the cabin, knocking on walls and unmaking our beds.
This particular train was more old school than the Chinese ride: no personal tv or power points, and a savage draft blowing straight on our heads. We managed to stuff a spare blanket up the crack between the window and blind, with some effort, but when we'd finished it was suddenly apparent the musky funk in the room was coming from the blanket, and it smelled distinctly of human urine. 60ml of hand sanitiser later, we decided the death-wind was more hazardous than the piss-blanket, so muzzled with scarves, we slept. On the upside, we were able to keep some cheese cold by leaving it on the window ledge. 36 hours later, we arrived to a sleeting Siberian morning in Irkusk.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mongolia: Ulaan Baatar and the ger camp

The Lonely Planet aptly describes Mongolia's capital as an ugly scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape. We were met on the platform by our local guide "Flower" (her Mongolian name means Peace Flower, but it's longer than our alphabet and unpronounceable for the Western tongue). Wiser than I expected of a 19 year old to be (though the highly posed Facebook photos and love of Japanese men with coloured hair betray her youth), Flower is studying journalism and was an invaluable fountain of local historical and cultural knowledge. I had little prior knowledge or expectations of Mongolia so it stands out as an unexpected highlight of the trans-Mongolian journey.

People live in that hole. The hot water pipes to our hotel (violently green building in background) run through there, so people camp down there for warmth. Weirdly, the couple who emerged looked like regular punters, not homeless people. She was even wearing make-up.

We were only in Ulaan Baatar for a night, then drove an hour or so out to the ger (pronounce 'gear') camp in the country-side, authentically built for tourists. Our camp was called "Guru Camp", which was a slightly less awful name than one we passed called "Midori". The surrounding area was vast, snow-covered steppes cradled by mountains.
The camp itself was small collection of white felt huts, each containing four beds surrounding a fire-stove, necessary as the nights hit -12 degrees C, though we seemed to have stoked ours a little hot the first night and actually had to leave the tent to the sub-zero outside to avoid being baked alive. There is no privacy, at all, in a ger. The point of it being built in a circular formation is that everyone faces each other all the time. Which is probably not as weird if you grew up with it, but a little unsettling for those of us used to having our own space. On the last day, Flower took us to a traditional ger where a family had set up camp for the winter, and our place was actually very similar to the authentic thing, minus the snuff bottles (which are kept wrapped in silk and tucked into the tunic over one's heart) and dehydrated milk nuggets. We were served salted milk tea, which I thought was fine, but not such a winner with the others. Nomads move 3 or 4 times a year and can dismantle the structure in half an hour - an unimaginable feat to me. When a couple marry, the groom's side provide the ger structure - collapsible wooden frame and floor - and the bride's family supply the furniture inside - 3 beds, stove and fabric for the walls.
We took a four hour walk (hike - there seems to be a translation difference between these two words in each country) to 'turtle rock', which predictably looks like a huge turtle:

A couple of local stray dogs joined us for the spiritual journey. To get to the rock, we had to cross a frozen swamp, which turned out to be not so frozen in parts. Rusty put his foot through trying to navigate his own way, then walked directly behind me on the cracking ice, easing my growing panic by suggesting it was actually much deeper and colder than it looked. At the top, after a dicey scramble up (my cowboy boots were perhaps not the most appropriate footwear for scaling ice-covered rock formations in outer Mongolia - the old girls took a bashing and I had a few heart-in-mouth moments) we forced ourselves through a very small crevice for a spectacular view. Our spiritual journey complete, our dog-guides disappeared and we walked back the safe way - along the dirt road, rather than 'frozen' swamp.
I confirmed that I don't like horses or horse-riding with an hour trot on a mangy mule, which made me feel less bad about having eaten a horse steak the night before. As we made our way along the steppes, our Mongolian guide whistled a traditional tune and I was treated to a private singing serenade as he rode behind me on our way back, forcing my obstinate, flatulent horse forward as it refused to take any direction from me. However, the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon moment was somewhat tarnished when his mobile phone rang. But even the monks in the Buddhist temple, where we heard an incredible chanting ceremony, were covertly text messaging, which was in distinct contrast with the human telephone boxes ... guys on the street holding a tray of cigarettes and a wireless telephone circa 1993.
When we returned to Ulaan Baatar before our night departure, Flower had her Mum meet us to visit the black market, just outside town. It was staggering - I've never seen so many shoes in my life. The whole thing is almost a suburb, with rows and rows of stalls selling everything conceivable - I actually saw a guy leaving with a kitchen sink. The meat section was confronting, hacked chunks of fatty flesh were as cheap as $2 a kilo, but they looked like they might be fit for your last meal. Even Rusty admitted he'd never seen anything like it. Chenggis Khan is heralded as a national hero (and, as everyone is quick to repeat, voted Man of the Millennium by Time magazine) and his mug graces everything from hotels to bottles of vodka, which we picked up for the next leg of the train.

This bus stop above was near the turtle rock ... ie the middle of nowhere. We didn't see any buses, at all, in three days, except the one that drove us there. Below, the gers iced with early morning frost.

Look how BIG that thing is! He was out for his morning constitutional when we were heading back to Ulaan Baatar from the ger camp and the driver happily stopped and had a cigarette while we oogled it.
Mongolia's answer to John Wayne. He wouldn't let me take his photo so I had to snap this and run. He was doing something with a pouch of money outside one of the temples we visited. Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Beijing - Ulaan Baatar train

Our Beijing hostel was conveniently located above an all night karaoke bar, with the added bonus of the room next to ours being used as some sort of drug haven for the desperately drunk, so we started our first leg of the train journey a little bleary-eyed. The four-berth carriage was Alex, Kristina, Katherine and myself. Rusty valiantly offered to go it alone and ended up with a Mongolian family next door, but they didn't speak English so he squeezed into our cabin for much of the day so he could talk. Otherwise, the train has been great so far, a welcomed break from the intensity of China and the hectic week and a half of travel. The train itself is surprisingly comfortable, but the butch attendants look like direct offspring of Ghengis Khan and have the attitude to match. They do, however, keep the toilets cleaner than anything since Japan, which is almost joyous after the hygiene abominations in Beijing. It feels like I've been gone months, perhaps largely because it's impossible to not live directly in the moment; I have to focus to not fall over, get lost or miss all the newness before me.
The border crossing between China and Mongolia took hours (somewhere between six and eight) including a stint where we were locked into Erlian station without our passports. The small supermarket/duty free shop was like the Boxing Day sales, people yelling and clawing their way to boxes of fruit and booze, with local travelers re-embarking under boxes of groceries stacked impossibly high (not expecting much fresh food in Mongolia, then) and one guy got on with four car tires. At the second customs point, he didn't have enough to pay the duty on them, so one lonely tire was left on the platform. The scenery looks like a telephone pole graveyard, the barren steppes planted haphazardly with new and rotten poles, held in by ice and snow. Our American comrade drank all night with his Mongolian cabin-mates and got rip-roaringly drunk, which put me off vodka in a serious way, which is possibly for the best at this early stage in the program:

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Beijing: Part 2

When the estimated time to complete a 10km walk along the Great Wall of China was 4 hours, it probably should have twigged that it wasn't going to be a stroll in the park. Simatai, the section we chose to do included several stretches of near vertical sets of stairs between 30 watch towers. It was hard going, hands and knees at times, and not helped by the pollution, despite a storm the previous night significantly clearing the air (we actually saw the sky for the first time in four days). My legs were jelly by the time we hung a flying-fox down to a restaurant at the bottom. The Wall was definitely a highlight so far, incredible thing to have seen.
Kat, on the flying fox. Our "guide" gave us these directions: "when you to the bottom you will be somewhere, then walk for two minutes and you will see a bus. If it's not there, just wait. The driver is short and fat."

Kat and I were united with our three fellow VodkaTrain companions the night we arrived back in Beijing. Alex (a 3rd generation vegetarian from Brighton, with a great photographic eye and a habit of wandering off in search of the perfect shot) and Kristina (from Dresden, with characteristic Germanic bluntness, though not in a bad way) met working at a cafe in New Zealand and are on their respective ways home for Christmas. And Rusty.
Rusty was born and bred in San Diego, is 5'8'', used to wrestle until his knee gave out, works as an orthopedic technician and has full sleeve tats of a random collection of Hannah Barbara, Disney and Pixar characters. Rusty has been to every place I've ever been and may want to visit, twice. If you can imagine Chopper Reid playing Uncle Buck, you're in the ball park. All of the raw data of Rusty's life appears to be stored in list form, organised by numbers and quantities, which allows seemingly unrelated sets of information to be linked in an endless, uninterrupted narrative stream. For instance, anything that happened in 2005 is a continuous data stream, but that stream can be interrupted if a number is reached ... say -5 degrees ... then the narrative switches to the path of data categorised by having occured in places at that temperature. Non-numerical sets are also evident, like food and drink, but alcohol also belongs to numerical sets (for instance, Rusty can consume 27 shots in under four hours, which he does every year on his birthday at the Silver Fox bar). Ultimately, all data streams link back to Pacific Beach, San Diego. It promises to be a fun 21 days.
One of our first group expeditions was a trip to the (in)famous food street, where I ate ostrich on a skewer, an array of dumplings and two deep-fried scorpions. Despite Kat's expression below, they were a treat compared to the snail, which still makes me unhappy to think about.

In what was a suitible metaphor for our general reception in China, we were forbidden to enter the Forbidden City, because last tickets were sold an hour before closing time, and our information was incorrect about when that was. Here's a happy snap from outside.

I love this man. Practicing his calligraphy with water outside the Temple of Heaven. There were a whole line of them ... calligraphy as a spectator sport, who knew?