January 30, 2009
This was a sleeper train – 2 seats face each other, they become one and the bunk above is dropped down too and there you have our 2 sleeping berths. The attendants put the beds down early and everyone retreated to their berths. I was on the bottom and all night my berth shook violently accompanied by the creaks and clatterings of this elderly train. In not so much a cocoon but a blue curtained claustrophobia , my fractured sleep led to disturbing dreams and uneasy awakenings. I worked out that anyone over 5’6” could wedge themselves into their space but I was tossed around like a rag doll, my aching body getting an unwelcome aerobic exercise. I’d occasionally be teased into thinking we were slowling down to a respectable pace but no…this was an express train and it was damn well going to speed,. Someone nearby had a wet,bubbling snore that was eventually overwhelmed by the backpackers skateboards slamming against each other. I eventually tracked the aggressively whining mosquito (that was lurking at the bottom of my bed and kept me alert and tense for a ridiculous time) to a mysteriously vibrating riveted metal plate… I sprayed it with repellant anyway.
As I tried to go to the loo I discovered that the door at the end of our corridor was locked and on the other side of it the connecting door swung back and forward with malicious glee. I tried to ignore the incessant banging by sorting out my rucksack so that it filled space in my berth and I wouldn’t be thrown about so much…..then sat up with a jerk…the door was locked!!!!…surely that wasn’t right…what would happen when we finally left the rails ?(and it was only a matter of time). The absurdity of my thoughts at this point made me giggle. So I had a biscuit.
I was still wide awake at 4, then I dozed. Eddie woke me up at 6 – ‘”That wasn’t too bad was it?” he beamed.
January 28, 2009
Vientiane, Laos January 23rd-27th
It is so quiet here…quiet and calm and warm. They do have motor scooters but nowhere near as many and they don’t have the urge to announce their presence incessantly. Bliss.
We are in Vientiane, capital of Laos, staying in a quirky hotel which is a mixture of 70s kitsch, art deco and Thai hippy influence. Suits us fine.
Breakfast – in the Spirit House which is part of our hotel – the sun warming us, gentle breeze blowing, freshly squeezed orange juice, water melon, papaya , pineapple, banana and dragon fruit, croissants, toast, coffee – as we sit overlooking the mighty Mekong (well, not so mighty at present as it’s the dry season, but you get the picture.) Bliss again.
We have visited Buddhist temples and made a young monk very happy when he realised his photo would be seen in a school near Manchester. “United” he beamed. We soon put him right.
The people are friendly and quietly religious, they all have shrines at the front of their homes/shops and they give food to the monks for their breakfast so they get good karma. There are so many beautiful golden yellow Buddhas in so many temples ….one has over 6,000 statues and statuettes in little niches in the walls. We had an exciting journey to a Buddha Sculpture Park , we avoided being pressured into a taxi or tuk tuk and made lots of very close friends on a very crowded bus. ….seriously, people are so pleasant and cheerful and the children are absolutely gorgeous.
There are restaurant huts dotted all along the banks of the Mekong (which flooded last year, sandbags still in evidence) they are lit up in the evening and people sit and watch the sunset over the river. Looks lovely. We discovered a wonderful place with excellent, cheap food….we celebrated Eddie’s birthday there with cocktails, vegetable curry and ice cold Laos Beer .
We met a weirdly fascinating/obnoxious/ultimately repulsive american misogynist but I can’t possibly write about him here…. X rated details.
Did you know that there were more bombs dropped on Laos and Vietnam in the 2ndWW than there were on Europe? And that there are still lots of landmine accidents because so many cluster bombs were dropped round here? Nasty stuff. Americans do come on trips back here just like British soldiers go to France , we were told that a lot of secret service men returned as there were a lot of dodgy secret missions setting out from near Vientiane.
So, a pleasant rest but Bangkok beckons and I am a little apprehensive……humid, hot and heaving is my guess!
January 18, 2009
Beijing (January 12th – 19th)
1.Hutongs are the traditional communities in labyrinths of alleyways…they are considered to be the real heart of Beijing…and we are staying in one! Eddie booked us into a beautiful traditional home built round a courtyard with authentic furniture and decorations….. it’s so much cheaper than a hotel, it‘s very central and it‘s warm!
2.Walking…we needed it after the enforced rest on the train…as we explored the city (which is as flat as a blini …….just checking you are learning new words!), we discovered that along the side of many of the pavements is a kind of obstacle course of exercise machines – they look as if they belong in a children’s playground but they are for people to exercise on…we saw people stretching, stepping, rowing, doing sit ups – who needs gym membership? I’m going to set this up in Mossley.
3.Forbidden City – staggering in size and concept. Colossal walls, a maze of alleyways, Halls with wonderful titles; The Halls of;- Eternal and Earthly Tranquility; Peace and Longevity; Counselling; Harmony; Mental Cultivation!! Roof tiles and decorations are so colourful and individual; lots of dragons on ceilings to guard against fire. Parties of primary children and ‘Out of Towners’ stopped in their tracks when they saw us, pointed, giggled or just stared. Other children were encouraged by their parents to practise saying ‘Hello’ to us.
4.Meeting people…other travellers in restaurants and cafes…serendipity….Chris from Melbourne, we had such a good chat and may meet in Australia,; Ember Swift…check her myspace, she’s a good musician…listen to Pec ; aid workers who had been to Nepal.
5.Skating on a frozen lake. …as we rehearsed for Dancing on Ice, small children glided effortlessly past, an ice hockey game clattered to our right , we didn’t fall down and it was fun seeing the fish swim underneath. (Which of those comments was not true?)
6.Drum and Bell Tower…huge steps up to top – wasn’t exactly Kodo Drummers but it was a good performance.
7.Pandas….loved the Pandas and the work done to preserve them….some hilarious antics, They eat for 14 hours a day and then play and sleep. .The photos showing the work done to help them breed was fascinating…my favourite was the way they tried to make the male take more interest in his new son…they put him in an area where all he could do was watch CCTV of the mum looking after the baby! Loved the pandas, hated the zoo….once we had seen how they put magnificent tigers and other big cats in cages (these animals are soooo huge and powerful) we found it too hard to stay. Though the birds on the frozen lake were cool, hadn’t realized quite how prehistoric pelicans looked.
8.The Great Wall was…..yes, you guessed. Someone should make a Wii Fit game to help prepare for it though..the steps were steep and random, some 5 and some at least 15 inches high, not good for people with short legs. Views terrific.
9.Tianamen Square…..massive, concrete, must have been terrifying. Now there are cars driving on 3 sides and the memorial dominates. There’s a very strong police presence and we saw two family groups arrested and bundled into a police van. Despite passing through security checks several times and silently imploring, Eddie couldn’t get the extremely attractive policewoman to scan and search him. Mao had lots of visitors and there is lots of kitsch memorabilia.
10.Temple of Heaven – beautiful round building in huge park teeming with activities…tai chi, real sword practice, choirs singing, mah jong, chess, karaoke, dancing, line dancing, keep fit and a brilliant game with a feathered, weighted shuttlecock type thingy that you tried to keep in the air with your feet. We bought one and found a quiet place to try it out….an octogenarian wandered past and stopped to advise Eddie on how to kick it…can you imagine!!
1.Accidents. There are zebra crossings and there are green lights to say ‘safe to go’. Sadly, pedestrians come third in importance after cars and bikes and no-one takes any notice of either the lights or the people crossing…its is really dangerous. We have seen several accidents including one where a car knocked a guy over, he got up, jumped on the bonnet of the car , pulled off the wipers while hitting the driver and refused to get off until a 12 year old policeman came to sort it.
2.Scams. We have to be so wary, there are scams everywhere and we have nearly been caught a few times. One very clever guy put on false uniform so he looked like a bus station official and because he could speak a little English and none of the real officials could, he persuaded us that the bus we wanted wasn’t running and we should take a taxi. We realized what he was up to so escaped getting into his mate’s taxi but we still believed that the bus wasn’t running, spent a lot more on an official taxi and then found that we had been conned, we had almost got on the right bus after all. Seems trivial but having to be so cautious is a strain.
3.Food. This really isn’t a problem…we knew it would be difficult for vegetarians (they do have veggie food but they make it look like and have the texture of meat, they even give it names like Drunken Duck and Exceptional Eel!)….anyway we are managing OK but we walked through a night market which you carnivores may have enjoyed……we were offered the following (all preceded by ‘Fr ied’…sheep kidneys, sleeve fish head, pig liver, chicken heart, chicken stomach, silk worm, scorpions, crickets, sea urchins, sea snake and even crispy fried seahorse…seahorse!!!
And now we are off to Hanoi…
January 15, 2009
Sorry about delay in posting..China won’t let us blog (why is that?!!) so have eventually got it to Paul so he can put it up.
We are in China until 19th and then on to Hanoi. Trans Mongolian Express (January 6th-12th 2009) The journey across Russia, Siberia, Mongolia and into China has been absolutely incredible but 6 days on a train (and 5,000 miles) makes for a lot of experiences so I’ve decided to just list highlights with some wonderful moments that just had to have full sentences! Arrive at station Tues Eve Left Moscow in gloom of falling snow. Station hectic. Train efficient, on time. Dark brown wood carriages and compartment…first class!! Samovar in each carriage…hot drinks on tap. Tiny, compact compartment. Shared shower….hand held! Shake, rattle and roll – getting used to the various creaks and groans was hard at first, soon became soporific – we slept really, really well.
Day 1 – Russia Waking to a parade of snow covered fir trees with great tear drop dollops of snow weighing their branches down. Line after line of skeletal silver birches, silhouetted against a heavy rose sky as an orange sun rises. Thick snow flying against small dachas (fairy tale gingerbread houses) deserted for the winter months. Animal tracks clearly seen but not identified! Snowy landscape, I’m in heaven (or a Christmas card). Other travellers…photographer, administrator, intensive care nurse, students, Swiss, French, American, Dutch, German, English living in Katmandu (loved talking to Nick and Gisela.)
Day 2 – Siberia Another magnificent sunrise, followed by more silver birches showing off. Unexpected and occasional signs of industry…oil refineries, factories of an indeterminable but smoking nature and just when we think we are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a city appears…how do cars manage such snowy streets ? Teaching English to Nee-Chin (one of the Chinese attendants), unaware that we were giving him a northern accent until he replied “Thanks very much” in pure Mancunian! Sunset comes early and defies description. Snow is fine, powdery consistency of icing sugar and doesn’t make good snowballs. Fox! Getting used to knowing when train is about to stop for 10 minutes, putting coats on in readiness (it’s anything between minus 10 and 20 out there) getting off the train and walking around briskly/jumping up and down/running on spot etc for the exercise.
Day 3 – Siberia Buying bread, potatoes, piroshki and Russian beer from baboushkas selling them from tartan shopping bags on railway platforms. Legoland crossings, huts (in white, blue and red bricks) and guards wave yellow batons as we pass. Owls. Police beating a man up at the side of the platform at one stop – he limped away. Mile after mile after mile after mile of stunning snowscape. The moon is clear in the sky at 10.30am….we try and balance Moscow time with train time with daylight hour time with the time we will change to in 3 days so we can get the most of the limited daylight hours.. Complicated. Vodka helps.
Day 4 – Siberia – Mongolia Fast and furious snowstorm at dawn. Sunrise over Lake Baikal ( 20% of world’s fresh water, huge…may be bigger then UK!) Jeeps, people ice fishing. Thick, solid ice sculpted shore line. Suddenly, less snow – rivers, streams are white ribbons across golden ferns. Eagles. Plum coloured hills and red sunset. Russian customs – thorough, unsmiling, lots of forms. Mongolian customs – thorough, unsmiling, lots of forms, officials all chewing gum. Dogs and people check for hidden ….. what?
Day 5 – Mongolia Ulan Bator at dawn – snow has returned. Yurts smoking in blue haze of dawn. Thick frost sparkles on snow smoothed hills. Vast, vast space and oh the light! Genghis Khan flies past on a horse. Occasional signs of poverty and open cast coal mining. Children trying to sell lumps of quartz at stations. Mile after mile of snowy flatlands. Animals and birds dotted at intervals – sturdy ponies, cows, yaks, deer, larger horses, eagles, 6 huge vultures hunched round a carcass (really….they looked evil), camels (really…this is a desert after all….they were the most ridiculous, shaggy creatures!) Drinking Mongolian beer as the red skyline slowly receded and a massive red full moon sailed across a deep blue sky. You couldn’t make it up. At the end of the day we moved into China…this involved a fascinating 3 hours of moving our train from Russian to Chinese bogies (?!) We floated in the air which was quite fun but anyone wanting more detail of this spectacularly interesting excursion into railway technique will need to speak privately to Eddie.
Day 6 – China Wanting to be in Beijing now…no snow, flat landscape, everything looks brown except the lakes that are frozen solid..more fishing and ice skating. Line of frozen washing with a plucked chicken hanging on one end. Solar panels on roofs of the most unprepossessing of houses, even on street lights in tiny villages. Another sunny day -we realise that we have been incredibly fortunate with the weather. Contemplating best parts of this journey – the snow, ice, different landscapes, animal sightings, Mongolia, the changing light, sunrises and sunsets.. Magic. So now we leave our cosy cocoon for the undoubted chaos of a big city – how will we cope?
went to a snow covered, cold sculpture park today …. there amongst many heads,torsos,shapes, were some remnants of days gone by … Marx wrote, ‘workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’…. the chains are much looser now but old habits die hard. These 3 days in Moscow, (apart from averaging -12) have revealed few smiles … especially shop workers,metro ticket sellers and attendants,fast food outlets and others, Dyllis reckons it must be related to the cold weather and the dark days of winter. We are smiling … Moscow has provided many highlights, the metro itself – splendid service and some amazing stations, walking the streets in the cold ,which is how my mum remembers it in Poland, dry,crisp and a very pleasant feeling when you go into a cafe for a black chai, some great examples of pre and post soviet architecture, even Stalin’s ‘palaces’ have a certain charm to them, amazing variety of lighting in the streets and on the metro … somebody should reproduce the metro escalator lights … xmas and new year decorations … trees, fountains, in all manner of inventive movement and light …, parks in unexpected places, some fabulous wrought-iron work on the bridges, statues of heroes .. artists, writers, poets,kings,( one of Peter the Great on an island near the sculpture park was magnificent, dominating the landscape, one of Dyllis’ favourites) and in one of these unexpected parks one of a writer called Sholokov who wrote ‘ And quiet flows the Don’, a book which I couldn’t get hold of in the UK and just happened to mention to Dyllis a few minutes before we came across the statue … and the juxtaposition of Macdonalds and the Kremlin … Lenin has probably turned several times. So why are there so many russian workers spending hours standing/sitting in huts/cubbyholes/kiosks/toilets?. .. and still not smiling!. Capitalism has arrived with a vengeance … there are many rich people here, the signs are everywhere … cars, shops,restaurants,hotels ( 1 night at the Ritz Carlton £800, and you don’t even get breakfast),the sale prices of western goods are higher than non-sale in the UK … so what are the proletariat doing? Marx again, ‘Sell a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish, you ruin a wonderful business opportunity’ …. GUM used to be a magnificently built store with nothing much to sell, now it sells things that most of us would not want to buy (Cartier,Dior,Louis Vuitton,Moshcino, etc …) …a different kind of opium, an alternative brainwashing, or is that just me?
tomorrow we leave on the trans mongolian, 6 days on a train … Dyllis is really excited!
January 4, 2009
St Petersburg – Moscow 02-03.09
Last day in St Petersburg was the coldest yet, minus 10 plus a bitter wind. We kept warm by walking very fast and stopping for hot drinks when it all got too much. Little stalls sell lemon tea for about 20 roubles (50p). The Battleship Avrora , which tradition says started the Russian Revolution (as if you didn’t know) was surprisingly interesting and free! We didn’t learn a lot as all the info was in Russian but the pictures were fascinating. Next the Onion Church again, this time inside – it was amazing – every inch of space on the walls was covered with mosaics made from tiny, tiny ceramic pieces and every inch of the floors with fantastic marble. They used to grow potatoes there in the war and there was a picture of Jesus obviously holding a spud……or perhaps it was the loaves and fishes story. Still freezing, so on swiftly to the Idiot Café……. the Dostoyevsky influence may have been a bit overdone but the complimentary vodka was more than welcome and you could read (and take away for free!) any of the books that people left. I was in my element – vodka, pot of tea, chocolate cake and a free book!
We took the overnight train to Moscow – it was clearly on loan from the Harry Potter Movies – it was red, polished and looked as if it should be steam powered. It’s what I am hoping the Trans Mongolian looks like. Attendants in amazing long bluecoats with big brass buttons checked tickets and there were gold tassels on the curtains at the windows. I kept waiting for Hercule Poirot to appear !
You put your bags inside spaces under the seats and turn the seats into beds. We shared the compartment with 2 computer analysts on their way to a holiday in India (sounds like another Agatha Christie plot line to me). They were telling us that winters now bore no comparison to the ones 20 years ago which were regularly minus 40. Minus 40!!!!
Despite the apparent opulence the beds were somewhat hard but we slept and arrived in Moscow at 8am.
Let’s not talk about the taxi we took to the hotel because it was definitely not public transport but it might not have been legal. Then Red Square…it was SNOWING and we were in Red Square!! Lenin was asleep but has invited us to visit tomorrow and we took some pretty photos with more onions behind us. We then spent a lot of time in GUM keeping warm as it was now minus 14…ouch. We decided that Gum should be renamed Glum cos the assistants continue to perpetuate this myth that they are all miserable souls.
Had a fantastic last meal with Becca and Chris who followed us to Moscow from St Petersburg (not in a sinister way!) they found us a lovely veggie restaurant….who needs meat to enjoy themselves? They return to work in Houston/Boston tomorrow …their company has been great fun and very helpful – they have said they will follow our blog.
Managed to speak to and see Paul and David – Skype is soooo clever. Did I mention it’s still snowing?… Moscow snow squeaks when you walk on it.
January 1, 2009
HAPPY NEW YEAR !!!
So….the coldest new year celebrations yet. We delayed until 10 before venturing out into the bitter wind. There were 4 different stages in the Hermitage Square and 4 rotating entertainments….how lucky were we? Well, not a lot it turned out , as we watched cute Snow Flake dancers, a vastly inferior Gogol Bordello troupe, an egocentric middle aged guy with 3 scarves directing ‘It’s a Knockout type games’ and best of all…a Swing Orchestra all dressed as Donnie Darko rabbits – fantastic.
We had made the mistake of taking the vodka instead of the champagne. First the police presence was phenomenal and there was no chance of us getting through to the inner ring without any one of several thousand young army officers frisking us and confiscating our alcohol. The Paddy wagons (or Dimitry Wagons as we seasoned travellers decided to call them)were like tanks and parked in sinister fashion on every corner. Large groups of young men circled them warily.
Second, everyone else took champagne and fired the corks at each other which looked like fun.
Pairs of elderly women with gold teeth and fur coats strolled arm in arm looking like a Beryl Cook painting.
Babies were swaddled in so many layers that they were splayed out like star fish (or Maggie Simpson, depending on your cultural reference).
At midnight there was a serious speech from an unrecognizable politician, the Kremlin clock on the big screen struck midnight and we drank a vodka toast to all our loved ones. Then we watched fantastic official fireworks which exploded over the river…the finale of silver and gold was just wonderful. After that it was every person for themselves as people set off fireworks at random, often nearly decapitating each other with rockets and exploding at the feet of unwary couples who were snogging passionately to celebrate the new year (thoo they do seem to do thaat a lot here, perhaps it helps them keep warm).
It was fun though we felt like observers rather than participants. As we headed back we passed a huge circle of men …. “aha, a fight” think the ex teachers (‘ex’!!!) and then I clearly see the man in the middle is holding up a gun. A gun. We assume he is about to start some sort of traditional New Year race and depart quickly.
This morning we met our American friends again…Jack and ‘M’ (clearly a Maths teacher will be a code expert and can be ‘M’ to his Jack. A Film with Bauer and Bond springs to mind) who are really Becca and Chris have given us useful info about Moscow and we are going for a drink with them tonight.
We had a fantastic walk round St Petersburg today. We walked on the frozen river. The river is solid except for a strip that the ice breaker has opened. The ice at the very edge is like tiny crystals and they shatter with a tinkling noise when you stand on them, further out it’s thicker and different shades of grey and then you get huge shards (like in the ice cave in that Superman film) they look amazing. The snow is great too, it’s crunchy and creaks like the proper snow we don’t see enough of in Mossley. We found the Literary Quarter and worshipped at the house of Dostoevsky, we had coffee and cake, we briefly visited a winter market with stalls and a stage….but when the stage came alive to dancing rabbits and silly games, we sensed a bit of déjà vu and left…..it had become far too cold and you can’t blow your nose with 2 pairs of gloves on …… moscow next.