Moving back to the UK from NZ I decided to take the Trans Mongolian from Beijing to St Petersberg then travel by bus, ferry and train to get to London.
Slept most of the flight from Auckland which was good. Transfer at Hong Kong was the fastest I've ever had, lost 5 mins in the wrong transfer queue and got there just in time for the final boarding call.
First impressions of Beijing are that it's much more clean and modern than I expected. The airport, train and views on the way in had me pretty convinced. Actually walking to my hostel was a different story, with the roads and buildings being much older and run down.
Since I arrived in the afternoon there wasn't much to but go to the nearby Jingshan Park. That was quite an eye opener though. First thing going through the gate you see is a temple standing proudly on the top of the hill. After the rundown side streets I'd just been walking through it came as quite a surprise. To make it even more interesting the park was full of groups of older people all singing, dancing or playing instruments. Full of them. Walking around different groups would fade in or out as you moved about.
It was a really pleasant introduction to Beijing
+24/06/2013Temple of Heaven and a lot of walking
Started out by making my way along some winding little back alleys to the Confucius Temple. Turns out GPS on my phone doesn't work here but every street is at a right angle so it's pretty hard to get lost.
The Confucius temple was a pretty quite place and not that busy. The buildings weren't that spectacular and the hostel owner later mentioned it's a copy of the actual temple that isn't in Beijing. Just around the corner was the Lama Temple that was much busier, crowded with people burning incense all over place. A different religion and a very different atmosphere.
From there I jumped on the metro down to the Temple of Heaven which was pretty spectacular. In a huge park there a three large circular temples joined by a large ramp way from north to south. Took some time out to rest my feet among the trees that cover much of the area. They do their parks really well here and there were groups of locals sitting around doing their thing.
Next up was trek northwards to Wangfujing St but I'm not interested in shopping and my legs were telling me they'd had enough so I powered on ever northwards back to the hostel.
+25/06/2013Summer palace and some pandas
It had started raining last night and was clearly in the mood to do so again. I decided to leave the forbidden city to another day and headed to the Zoo which I'd heard mixed reports on. There're a lot of animals in a pretty tight space and a lot of it looked pretty run down. I'm not sure about zoos, the educational benefits sound good but a lot of these guys looked pretty tired and lethargic stuck in their enclosures.
The Pandas were much smaller than I expected and more brown than white from all the dirt in their enclosures. One was having a role around which ended up in a pretty uncomfortable looking position lying on the wall that he seemed pretty happy with. After that I checked out the tigers but there was something depressing on seeing them lie there and occasionally open their eyes to see if something had changed.
After I made my escape from the Zoo I headed to the Summer palace which is huge. And really impressive. They really know how to do things on scale here. I could have spent the day here alone easily.
I entered via Suzhou Street then climbed straight up through a combination of stairways and tunnels built through rocks. Once there I made my down the other side into the Summer Palace and the view out over the lake was pretty incredible. It's a shame it was such a hazy foggy day as with sun and blue skies it would have been spectacular. The palace was an impressive structure climbing up from the lake to the near the top of the hill where the Tower of Buddhist Incense rose up.
I worked my down from the top then along the lake front via the Long Gallery visiting the Wenchang Hall (just a bunch of rooms full of things) and the Garden of Virtue and Harmony which had a number of performances including music and dancing that made a nice break from all the hiking.
After that I headed over to the Olympic Park to check out the Birds Nest but when I exited the metro it had started raining. Got a glimpse of it through the rain and it did look pretty impressive but will have to try another day.
+26/06/2013Forbidden City and Tiananemen Square
After the palaces and parks both of these were a bit humbug. Tiananemen Square is well just a big square with a big square building in the middle for the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
The Forbidden City is definitely impressive and worthwhile visiting but I preferred the parks and palaces I'd already seen. The Imperial Garden at the very end was quite charming.
After these I headed to Beihai Park. This was nice as the sun had come out a bit more and it was pleasant watching sitting under the trees watching the goings on on the lake. Climbed up the temple on the island which gave a good view of the scale of the Forbidden City.
+27/06/2013Great Wall at Jinshangling
I opted for a hiking expedition on the Great Wall in the less visited Jinshanling portion which was fantastic. As it's a three hour drive from Beijing not many people come here and because its isolated there's not much around apart the wall and greenery. Our bus pretty much had this entire extend of wall to ourselves.
It's also pretty steep so the hiking was pretty full on. We had four hours of climbing and to be honest that was plenty. I was the only one who chose not to use the cable car up through a perverse sense of something. It only took 10 or 15 minutes to walk up so there wasn't much difference though you do land at a different part of the wall. And given how steep it is it certainly wouldn't hurt to conserve whatever you can for the rest of the wall. I made it up to the highest tower before heading back. Glad I called it quits there as my legs were turning to jelly when I got back.
It's really hard to appreciate the scale of the wall without seeing it. We were on only a tiny section and you could see it stretching off for miles into the distance.
+28/06/2013Night Food Market
Had a rest day today as my Vodkatrain tour starts tomorrow but did go down to the touristy food market near Wanfujing Street with a couple of girls from the hostel. The vendors assure you everything is "delicious" but they lie. Gave Silkworm pupa a go which were editable but not great tasting and tried a big arse black spider that actually tasted OK. Certainly better than the pupa in any case. Best was a stick of Strawberrys and Kiwifruit that had been dipped in some hard setting candy. You can't go wrong with something like that.
Today was the start of the Trans Mongolian tour. It was an evening start at 5pm so checked out of the hostel at mid day and made my way down to the hotel which was only 2k away. Filled in the afternoon having a wander down Wangfujing and through some of the huge department stores. They looked like different buildings on the outside but were all joined together inside. Also checked out the market off the side which was made up of a few narrow streets filled with nick nacks and the same food as at the night market.
In the evening met the group and we headed out for a meal including Peking duck and bunch of other dishes that Snow, our local honcho, picked out. Was a good feed and the group seem a decent bunch though all 10 of them are Australian.
I headed back to the Summer Palace with Carlo while the rest made there way to the Great Wall. It was a really cloudy day which was a shame for the bunch headed to the wall. I was hoping to see a bit more of the Summer Palace this time but it was even more hazy than last time. Did manage to get around the lake this time which is a decent size, took us three hours to make our way round and check out the island along the way.
In the evening headed to the acrobat show with Bianca, Lexi, Steve and Emma. Pretty damn impressive show. The first act was a girl stacking chairs and balancing on a single hand at ridiculous angles as the stack climbed up to the ceiling. There was a lady spinning umbrellas on her feet, girls climbing up all over a single bicycle going around in a circle, some guys do some pretty damn tricky things with hats passing between them, guys leaping through hoops in every way you could think of, two guys on top of a massive frame balancing one on the others shoulders and then walking up and down stairs on their hands. The grand finale was eight motorbikes going around in a big circular metal cage. Crazy shit. Every time another one came out you couldn't believe it.
Had a good sleep in then stocked on food for the train. Spent the afternoon in the lobby having beers with Dave and Simon who'd just joined. Ryan and Bridget had a long day trying to get a visa sorted for Mongolia before the train left in the morning just managing to get it done in time.
The evening we all headed for a meal down in Hoi Han then out for drinks. It decided to bucket down and getting back involved trying to find a taxi. The first cab we jumped in tried to get 500 yuan out of us so we jumped out and into the next pub before catching another for 100. The others had no probs, 60 yuan from the first cab. Ours tried to up the price when we got back but we just have him his 100 and jumped out.
First time on the train, at last. Headed down to the Restaurant carriage with Dave, Simon and Ryan when we got on just after 8am and drank right through to the border crossing at midnight. Not a recommended method. I ended up holding Dave's head up for the passport inspector so she could confirm his passport photo. And the paperwork was just a joke.
+03/07/2013Arrival in Ulan Bator
Arrived in the afternoon and met our local honcho Aika. Got set up in the hotel then headed to the central square to check things out.
After we headed to the Irish pub down the road where there was some sort of street art affair sponsored by Tiger beer. We proceeded to drink a lot of Grand Khan and get ourselves well and truly drunk.
+04/07/2013Out to the Ger camp
Gorkhi Terelj National Park, Mongolia
In the morning headed out to the ger camp through some spectacular scenery. The roads were close to non existent. Apparently the main road was being worked on, the whole thing from the looks of it, so everywhere we were going down dirt tracks along the side of the road.
When we arrived to the camp and settled into our Ger, Aika took us on a small hike to see Turtle rock. It's a big rock that looks a bit like a turtle. Was an OK walk though just down the side of the road so not exactly adventurous.
In the evening we settled in at the Ger camp to a game of knuckles though Aika got distracted by a friend so as we didn't know the rules it fell to pieces pretty quickly. The bar closed at midnight so we headed into one of the Gers for what Aika called a “Ger party”.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park, Mongolia
In the morning we all tried out the Horse riding. More like pony riding. They were tiny. One of the guides held on to my horse the entire way so it was a pretty pointless exercise for me. Felt sorry for the poor wee horse having me lumped on it, it wasn't a good fit. After the walk I'd had enough but some of the others wanted to go a bit faster and ended up having a great time galloping back. Would have loved to have done that but think I was just too big for the wee things.
For lunch we headed down to the river for a picnic. Sadly it clouded up but Ryan, Simon, Dave and myself still jumped in for a quick swim. Just walked up the bank a bit then floated down to the others. Wasn't terribly cold but you didn't want to stay in for long.
In the afternoon we visited a “local” Ger. Hard to say how realistic it was or not but got to sample the local dairy products which were edible but certainly not great.
In the evening climbed the hill behind the camp with Carlo, Simon, Dave, Ryan, Steve and Bridget. The view was spectacular. You could see all around and get a much better idea of the layout of the land. Easily the best experience in Mongolia.
In the evening it was more Vodka and a good night and though Dave faded early Ryan didn't.
+06/07/2013Ulan Bator to Irkutsk
Left the Ger camp a bit late and had some fun with traffic in Ulan Bator. Made a trip out to a monastery in the rain which was pretty average.
In the evening we had a “Mongolian BBQ”. Don't know how Mongolian this was as the end result was a stir fry but the show they put on was pretty good. You selected a bowl full of meat, veggies, sauces and spices then they cooked it up on a huge pan (two to three meter diameter I'd guess) using these big swords to to dice stuff and flip it about.
We got the evening train but had to say good bye to Ryan and Bridget as Vodkatrain had given them incorrect dates for their Russian visas so they couldn't cross yet. Was a real shame to have to leave them. We almost lost two more, Simon and Dave couldn't find their tickets which we'd been given when we arrived (probably not the best idea that). Simon found his but Dave couldn't. He ended up just having to pay for his ticket through to Irkutsk again but for a while there it didn't look as though they'd let him on even though his name was on the manifest.
We took it easy on the train the first night as we had a border crossing and we'd heard the Russians could be a bit tricky to deal with. Also given the state we were in for the China/Mongolia border we thought being sober would be a good idea.
+07/07/2013Train Mongolia to Russia
We had a full day on the train today. After a quite first night the second was a bit different. Here we met the typical macho Russian guy you'd expect. Simon went head to head with him on the vodka until he tried to drag him into the toilet for a smoke. It was time to stop and get a bit of sleep.
Our local honcho Dmitri picked us up at the train in the morning and bundled us on a bus out to Lake Baikal. Not sure what the scenery was like as I slept the entire way.
We started off our day in Lake Baikal with what we thought was going to be a short walk but ended up taking most of the day. Lunch was good, I lucked out with my choice ordering Omul fritters (local fish) which was the best choose by a way. After lunch we made our way down to the local Museum where we got a good history of the lake then made our way up to the look out point above. If I'd known we'd going to be walking around so much I wouldn't have been wearing jeans.
Dave was keen for a dip in the lake when we got back though by this time it had cooled down a fair bit. I was the only one game for it so we made our way down and jumped off a small Jetty. Brisk. It wasn't as bad as I'd expected though Dave seemed to get bit more of a shock.
In the evening opted in for a “Russian” sauna. This was a nice little sauna at the hostel we were staying at, the Russian part being hit with birch branches. This wasn't as bad as it sounds, it was just clumps of leaves that gave quite a nice scratchy sensation. They were also dipped in cold water and the main impact was actually the heat from the steam they collected.
+09/07/2013Boat on Lake Baikal
We took a boat out on the Lake for a couple of hours heading a bit further North up the coast. Pulled up at a beach for an hour and jumped off the back of the boat into the Lake. God that first dip was cold, struggled to breath all the way back to the beach. After that it was fine but that initial shock was a biggy, much worse than jumping in yesterday though Dave thought that was worse.
The afternoon consisted of more smoked Omul on the beach then in the evening a BBQ up the hill behind the hostel. It took a long time to cook all the food on the tiny fire we had up there, four hours late into the night. At least it stayed pretty light given how far North we were and was a good reason to have a few more drinks.
+10/07/2013Irkutsk then the Trans Siberian
We headed back into Irkutsk around midday to have a look around town for a few hours. Seemed like a nice place but we were just passing time until catching the train in the evening.
The Trans Siberian. This was the proper train. We'd missed the part from Vladivostok to Irkutsk obviously as we'd come through from Beijing and Ulan Bator.
We had four days and nights on the train. The scenery was nothing special. Mostly trees along the side of the rail line with the occasional village and a few fields to break the monotony. And it was flat. I know we passed through the Urals at some stage but it must have been at night as none of us saw them.
We spent a lot of time drinking. Beer and Vodka. I'd say we drank a lot but there were some Russians who'd clearly had more, one being coma'd out in the hallway between two carriages.
We arrived into Moscow in the morning. Again our honcho picked us up and loaded us onto a bus though the hostel we were staying wasn't too far away.
It was a bit of a rainy start to Moscow. We checked out the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basils Cathedral in the morning before having a decent burger in an Irish pub for lunch. I didn't have many expectations for the Kremlin but all we could visit in it were churches which isn't what I'd expected. Red Square and St Basils Cathedral were much more impressive.
In the afternoon headed down to the big cathedral then we split, some going to check out the modern art museum while the rest of us headed down to a bar on the river which had a small stage and DJ set on for free. Was a really nice chilled out afternoon drinking Mojitos on the side of the river watching the world go by.
First up we headed to the Red Square to see Lenin. Bit of a wait to get in but the line moves pretty fast as you don't get much time to have a look. I had my sunnies on and had left my glasses in my bag which I'd had to check in so I didn't have the clearest view. It was pretty amazing how well preserved he looked, the only obvious thing being a waxy sheen.After this our fearless honcho showed us the way to Gorky Park and that was the last we saw of her. It was a bit rainy but we had a decent feed waiting for the worst to pass then checked out the open air Art Park on the way back into town.
We had an evening train to catch and the morning was spent visiting a touristy Market where Lexi, Bianca and Simon all spent a decent amount on those big Russian hats made out of Fox and the like.
After the market headed out to Victory Park with Carlo, Nat, Dave and Simon. The Museum here was actually really worthwhile. It lives in an absolutely huge building which itself sits on these massive columns; these columns actually all contained a panoramic view of different war scenes that curved around the walls with physical props along the ground on the bottom to give you a sense of perspective. It was really well done. The rest of the building was pretty effective too, with walls covered in black and white photos of the war.
In the evening it was onto the last train of the tour, an overnight trip to St Petersburg. The quality of this train was far better than the rest we'd been on.
St Petersberg, Russia
We took the overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg getting there about 9am. Our local honcho was a bit late meeting us at the train but turned out to be the best guide we'd have.
Ryan was at the hostel to meet us. He'd been flown up from Irkutsk as he had a plane to catch so he was up for a few drinks. It was the last State of Origin game and the series was one all so Dave and Simon being NSW boys wanted to watch. We couldn't find a bar so we ended up streaming it my laptop in the hostel and working our way through the hostels beer supply throughout the afternoon which the owner seemed to find highly amusing.
We ended the up catching up with some Adelaide boys from the train, Greg, Freddy and Chris and drinking the rest of the evening away as well. Great fun but my first day in St Petersburg and I didn't see a great deal.
St Petersberg, Russia
My only full day in St Petersburg and only chance to see some of the sights. I really should have tagged a few extra days on the end here as I just didn't have enough time to check out all the sights even if I hadn't wasted a day drinking.
The Hermitage was huge. We took a couple of hours and that wasn't even enough time to get around building fully let alone look at anything properly. After that we met up the rest (who had been to see the museum with bottled foetuses and other oddities which they said was disappointing) and climbed up St Isaac's Cathedral. Vladimir was really good at giving us an idea of the history and meanings of what we could see.
As the rain was getting heavier Vladimir suggested a pub crawl. We went out to a Georgian restaurant then made our way to the first bar passing the Church of the Savior on Blood on the way which is pretty impressive. It was a big night and my last on the tour, tomorrow I was leaving Russia and heading to Tallinn.
Got the metro to the Bus station which was pretty straightforward. The bus was easy and so was the border crossing. Having wifi on the bus was a nice bonus though again I struggled to stay awake which is a shame as from the glimpses I had it was pretty nice on the Estonia side. Eight hours later I landed in Tallinn and walked from the station into Old Town.
While it was raining when I arrived it turned into a beautiful sunny day. Old Town in Tallinn is very picturesque and even more touristy. It was a nice place to chill out for a few days though, wandering through the windy streets and sampling the local beers and restaurants.
Caught up with Greg and Freddy on the second night then later with Ryan who had just arrived in Tallinn to start travelling with one of his mates.
+23/07/2013Ferry to Stockholm
The ferry to Stockholm was a nice way to travel. So much more luxurious than travelling by train with bars and even a sauna on board.
I was rooming with a Georgian, Russian and German. The guy from Georgia was travelling with his wife but when I met the other two the Russian was well on his way to getting drunk. He ended the night unable to stand and fell out of his bunk sometime early in the morning. And boy could he snore.
I really like this town. Probably helps that it's been sunny.
I checked out the Old Town in the afternoon after I arrived. It was cool wandering around the windy small cobblestone streets. Caught up with Arved, the German from the ferry in the evening and had a few beers.
On Thursday met up with Arved again and we got a tour of the Royal Opera house from a guy working there we'd met the night before. After that checked out the Vasa Museum which was really well done before going for a wander around Djurgården gardens. Was meant to catch up with Arved in the evening but the flu caught up with me and had to call it quits.
Friday disappeared on me. Was still feeling run down so I ended up in the hostel all day sorting out laundry and making use of the first decent internet connection to catch up on all the things I've put off for the last five weeks.
Unfortunately the Swedish rail site is down so having trouble booking a ticket to Copenhagen where I'm meant to catch up with Arved tomorrow.
Managed to book a ticket online in the morning though failing that suspect I would have got one at the station easily enough. The high speed section of the train was really good, on time and beautiful scenery flying past the windows. Lots of Lakes, Forest and farm land. Was just lovely. For the last bit I had to change onto a local line and things didn't go so smoothly there. We ended up sitting outside the station at Copenhagen for half an hour before being let in, always so frustrating when you can see the end in site but get held up.
So by the time I had to walk to the hostel I was steaming. It was a Saturday afternoon so there were lots of people out and about all walking as slowing as possible. And humid, it was very humid. I was feeling pretty grumpy by the time I got to the hostel.
Arved had arrived the day before but went out for a few beers and a chilled evening on the town. Was just what I needed. Ended up the night watching a local band at a Kayak club on the river before getting a decent sleep.
+28/07/2013More chilled out Copenhagen
My first impression of Copenhagen yesterday wasn't the best. I'd hit the busiest part of town with all the restaurants, bars and clubs and it didn't appeal to me all that much. This time I got a bit further out into the Parks and Canals and the Christiania district which is really alternative/hippy. This all appealed to me much more and the city started to grow on me more.
I wouldn't have minded a couple more days here now but I've booked a train to Kiel tomorrow - as Arved's offered me a place to crash - and I'm not that sad to be going.
Personally I definitely preferred Stockholm, I think I like the more ordered clean nature of it and as it's built around the fiords it has a really natural feel.
I dropped into Kiel on the way South as Arved had offered me a couch to sleep on. Kiel wasn't a town I'd have visited otherwise but having a local host was great. Tried a few decent bars and on Tuesday headed out to Plön where Arved has some cousins and had a dip in the lake. The water was actually really warm, not at all like my last dip. Headed up to Laboe and checked out the war memorial there as well as an old u-boat which was pretty neat. On the last evening dropped into Arved's band practice then headed to his local to have a few.
Arved gave me a lift down to Hamburg which was only 90km from Kiel. Got in mid afternoon and checked out the waterfront and the Red light district though it was a bit early for much to be going on. Caught up with Arved and a couple of his friends later in the evening for a meal then went for a wander. Midnight isn't the best time for a site seeing tour but the old car bridge under the river was really cool. It used lifts to lower/raise the cars to/from the tunnel beneath the river and has now been converted to a pedestrian tunnel.
Decided to drop into Arnhem to visit Mark and Sandra as I'd already arranged to drop into Utrecht to catch up with work. Train ride was OK but I'm starting to get tired of travelling that way. Had a few delays on changeovers and a girl stole my seat on the last trip. Grr :)
It's nice to be back in a normal environment though so might try and stay a couple more days. Feels very nice and relaxed.