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April 28, 2007

The Trans-Siberian Railway

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - My journey across Asia has been travelled, amlost exclusively by train. With a few major detours - Korea, Japan and then back down to Shanghai - I've essentially ridden, by rail, from Ho Chi Minh City in the South of Vietnam to Moscow; and I plan to continue via train deeper into Europe. I doubt there is a longer train journey one can take anywhere in the world.

This last leg along the famed Trans-Siberian railway has, however been the longest. Eighty hours after pulling out of Irkutsk we rolled into central Moscow.

I've been here in Moscow for more nearly 3-days already and have been lazy about posting here. It's just that there are a million better things to do in Moscow than hunt for Internet Cafes, which are shockingly rare.

April 23, 2007

Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

IMG_3255IRKUSTK, RUSSIA - Growing up on the Great Lakes one gets a lot of propaganda regarding how big, and how great they are. 'Tis true, they are some of the biggest lakes in the world. However the banana shaped Lake Baikal holds more water in it that all 5 of the great lakes combined. More than 1.6km deep it actually holds 1/5th of the worlds supply of unfrozen fresh water. Surrounded my mountains and cliffs, and in the middle of Siberia it is a pristine natural playground with abundant and unique wildlife - including it's own species of freshwater seal - and crystal clear water with visibility of up to 40m. I would love to be back here sometime other than spring time, as the winter ice roads are closed yet the ice isn't quite off the lake yet.

Other than the lake, I've been blown away by Irkutsk and the Russians in general. Their cold demeanor is really quite easy to crack and we've met nothing but friendly and curious people. With nightclubs that go off every night of the week and fashionable people everywhere, Irkustk is much more cosmopolitan than I'd ever expected from a Siberian town. Perhaps it's just the incredible spring weather we've been having, but I'll leave Irkutsk with a overwhelmingly positive impression.

Next up: Moscow. We've booked our train tickets direct for Moscow. At 4:30 today I'll be boarding the Trans-Siberian railway and won't be disembarking 80hours, and five time zones later. This time we'll be riding 3rd class. I'm not sure what to expect, but it should be an adventure. I know at least 4 other travellers who'll be on this train so at least I'll have some back up and somebody to talk to.

April 21, 2007

Adventures in Siberia

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA - Within 30 seconds of boarding the train in Ulaanbaatar, I was at it again. For the second time in 3-days I was fighting for my valuables.

I should have been a very quick grab and run for him. I'd just dropped all my luggag on my berth on the train and had cleared out to let the others organize their things. I wandered a metre or two down the hall, gazed out the window for a moment, then turned back to my cabin. There I was, standing directly behind a short and fat-ish man with a perfect view of his arm elbow deep in my day bag. I watched for a few more seconds, just to be sure he wasn't digging through my stuff by accident.

Then it was on. I'm not sure what proper protocol is, but I grabbed him with both hands and shook him free of my luggage. It worked well. In the end he got away and only really fought back when I tried to drag him out of the train. Ultimately abandoned that strategy and let him go as I'm not really good at violence and it would have meant me leaving my luggage unattended.

The whole ordeal sort of made me a hero on the train as people retold the story and pointed in my direction in every language but English. Before long, I was being force fed bread, colbasa and other strange meats along with tea by nearly everyone who could get near me. They shared their shower shoes with me and suggested I carry a 'fanny-pack' to protect my stuff (both part of the standard Russian train uniform).

It wasn't long before I was deeply involved with a cheap clothing smuggling ring. In my role as accomplice I stuffed a bunch of tacky jeans into my own luggage for the border crossing. I know, it seems like a terrible idea - it probably was. But I had no real choice after spending the day eating and drinking in a cramped cabin with an Uzbek trader, a Buryat Russian, and Mongol business man. We were all in on it.

In a fit of classic Russian bureaucracy it took 10 hours to cross the border. In that time the Russian soldiers and border guards searched and hassled my travelling merchant friends endlessly while leaving me alone. Once on the Russian side, I returned the contraband jeans and we all shared another pile of sandwiches.

After travelling through the semi-independent Buryatic Republic by night, I've arrived in the biggest town and regional centre of Siberia: Irkustk. There doesn't seem to be much going on as there are only two of us in our Hostel but the snow is mostly melted and I'm in Siberia! Time to explore a little...


April 19, 2007

Spring Time in the Gobi Dessert

Snowy GerULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA - I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of something to write here. It's funny 'cause the last 6 days will probably be among the most memorable of this entire trip. I'd never really dreamed of visiting Mongolia, it just sort of ended up along the path toward Europe.

In the last 6-days we drove 50 hours, none of it on anything that even resembled a road, through one of the most remote regions of the world. Effectively we did a giant loop through the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on the planet.

We slept in gers (traditional felt yurts), we cooked and warmed ourselves with animal dung to fuel our fires (wood is in short supply), we ate nothing but noodles, mutton, camel, goat and maybe horse and drank milk from every one of those animals. At one point we even got drunk from a special bootleg they called 'Camel Vodka' - some kind of fermented camel milk - while performing an elaborate ritual to honour their hero, and the most famous Mongolian: Chinngis (Ghengis Khan).

We were whipped by sand storms and worried about heat exhaustion one moment, then bogged down in a metre of snow the next. We helped nomads milk their goats, rode camels and refueled in tiny forgotten specks of Soviet civilization littered with rusted out tanks, crumbling buildings and bleached animal skulls. For six days we didn't see another Westerner.

In other news, I survived my first ever attempted mugging last night. It's a classic story of two of us walking home from a pub and choosing a darkened, out-of-the-spotlight alley as a shortcut. Two guys approached us (there were two of us) from behind. I was on to them right away, their initial friendliness was transparent and to make a long story short, there was some threats - 'Give me your money' and 'I kill you, I kill you' type stuff. The main problem with the heist was that they were only pretending to brandish a knife. The lead crook was pretending to stab at us. After some feeble attempts at diplomacy, both parties resorted to grabbing, pushing and pulling until Fredrik (my trusty Swedish sidekick) and I broke free and fled into the main square for the protective hustle and bustle of the city. In the end we were left with some pounding hearts, a heavy dose of adrenalin and some stretched out, mis-shappen t-shirts.

I've just booked a train ticket to Siberia ($32 USD for a Hard-Sleeper, 2-days). Irkutsk to be exact...

April 12, 2007

Ulaanbataar - The Coldest Capital on The Planet

ULAANBATAAR, MONGOLIA - The oppressive pollution of China is fading away to a distant memory as I've really started to move again.

I've just rolled into, Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia via the Trans-Mongolian railway and already and have already experienced, snow, rain, and sunshine. As I speak the skies are blue and the mercury has risen high enough to be comfortable outside in a t-shirt. 4-seasons in a single day; actually 4 seasons in a couple hours.

People don't come to Mongolia for the cities - They are ugly and dirty - they come for the rugged wilderness that defines this place. Ulaanbataar really has a middle-of-nowhere feel to it.

We've put together a crowd of 5 intrepid travellers and are leaving tomorrow (with a car and driver) for a 6-day journey into the heart of the Gobi Dessert. Because it is spring here (the unpredictable season) I'm told to prepare for sand storms, snow storms and even intense heat and sun exposure. We will be bringing along extra water and blankets but will spend our time eating mutton, drinking fermented yaks milk and warming ourselves by 'cow-patty' fires (there is no wood).

For a more detailed description of what my rail ride has been like have a read here. It's similar to my experience except I shared a 4-berth cabin with other backpackers and maybe drank a little too much before crossing the Mongolian-Chinese border, which sprang up unexpectedly at 1am.

I should be back here in 6-days or so with some stories... I hope.

April 07, 2007

Back to Beijing - Russian Visa in Hand

The Biggest Little City EverBEIJING, CHINA - The haze cleared to reveal what I'm certain is the worlds most amazing skyline (especially at night) around the same time that the Russians issued me a visa. For a few brief, shining hours in Shanghai, all was right in the world. After more than two months of waiting: I'd gotten what I was looking for. Within a few hours I was on another overnight train bound for Beijing.

I'll remember Shanghai has the city with the most spectacular skyline on the planet. It's astounding how quickly the city is growing. The entire skyline - the one that I neglected to take a picture of at night - has been built in the last 15 years. A super modern city has sprung up on the opposite side of the river of old Shanghai - a crumbling 1920's version of the future. It's like two worlds separated by 100m of water. I can't even imagine what this place will look like in 5 years, let alone 50. The development is happening at lightning speed.

I'm now back to the exact position I was in late January. What I've done since then is essentially a giant clock-wise loop of the Far East. My sights are firmly set now on continuing this train journey into Mongolia and Russia toward Europe.

First thing Monday morning I'll be lining up at the Mongolian Embassy. Once I have this last visa, the jigsaw will be complete. The entire Asian continent will have opened up to me. Half the world by rail. The Gobi dessert, Siberia and everything else that lies in my path.

April 02, 2007

A Slow Boat To China

Hazy DaysSHANGHAI, CHINA - The Ferry from Osaka took more than 50 hours but went without incident. Our accommodation was comfortable and clean and I was lucky enough to have a handful of other English speaking passengers. The crew put us all in the same dormitory style cabin which made the trip pass faster than my previous crossing from China to Korea. With very little English language entertainment on board, the few foreigners were a lifesaver.

It dawned on me as I stared out at the rolling waves from my cabin aboard the ferry bound for China that I was looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Either the Pacific Ocean is huge, or I haven't made much progress at all on this round-the-world voyage. After all it was October of 2005 when Brian and I first encountered the Pacific. I've been flirting with this Ocean for more than a year and a half!

In the spirit of moving on and seeing something other than the Pacific Ocean, I've started playing my usual games with the Russian Embassy. I'm banking on the rumour that the Shanghai branch is more manageable than the Beijing one.

I'll post more about Shanghai itself in a day or two. For now the haze here is obscuring my view of nearly everything including the skyline (pictured), despite me being close enough that if the buildings fell they could land on me. It's another one of the worlds biggest cities...

*I won't be posting my usual links to either the BBC or Wikipedia as both of those sites are blocked by the censors here in China. I will however continue to report the hard hitting truth from theroadislife...