A Travellerspoint blog

Returning to Roman alphabets

It's strange how little things suddenly mean so much. After about 11 months of being in countries with different alphabets or character sets, crossing back into Latvia suddenly meant I was back again in truly familiar ground. And even the EU. Things really are coming to an end with extreme speed.

I'd spent 3 days in Moscow, partly just because I had a little extra time after the Kazan cock-up, and because I managed to arrange my ticket to Riga that way. It was the last possible way that I could have been tripped up and forced to fly (in theory), and even then I had several alternatives.

In Moscow it was heartening to see 90% of people wearing the national costume (jeans, black shoes and leather jackets) and also the requisite number of beer drinkers. I have never worked out exactly why, but i think it must be mandated by law that at least 50% of all Russians must have an open can or bottle of beer in their hands at all times. This applies at any hour of the day or night, and in any situation, with the alleged exception of drivers. Despite having the vodka reputation (vodka generally gets drunk at home and for occasions), Russia is very much a beer country with huge availability and vast variety of Russian - and some foreign brands - most of which are very good. And it is also surprisingly rare with such numbers of constant drinkers to see very drunk people in the streets, which I still find interesting. And of course, the requisite number of Russian stunners out in the sunny weather.

I had arranged to be in Moscow for less than the 72required hours, so visa registration was not an issue, so instead of returning to a hostel I managed to find myself a lovely host at short notice, with the excellent Natasha happy to put me up (the moronic Winston Wu should take note). Unfortunately, poor girl, she is a lawyer at a big firm and works long hours. On my first evening when I went to meet her at 10pm after work, she told me that something had come up and as such she wouldn't be able to leave for another several hours. But brilliantly (and I love this about CS), she was more than happy to hand her keys and directions to me (a strange foreigner she had known about less than a week and had met for less than 5minutes) and told me to make myself at home.

I'm always wary - especially in places where I don't know the language, and with people I don't know at all - about being given keys for the first time, as partly I feel uncomfortable in strangers houses without them, but more that I always dread misreading/interpreting the directions and ending up trying to break into the wrong building, leading to long a long and unpleasant interrogation by the police whilst things are being sorted out. I.e. How long have you known this person? 5 Minutes. Where did you meet? Online What is her surname? No idea. And the like. But happily I managed to find me way through the hoard of tower blocks in Bratislavskaya in the SE corner of the city and got into the correct apartment without being attacked or even queried by eagle eyed Babushka's. It later turned out that poor Natasha appeared at about 5.30. And went back to work before 9am.

After sorting my ticket, i spent a couple of days just wandering randomly, something I love doing in big cities, revisiting a few old tourist spots and doing some chores and bits of shopping. I spent a huge amount of time (and later, money) in a huge toy shop, marvelling over it's size and the sheer variety of stuff available to kids these days - I'm sure it wasn't like that in my day - looking enviously at a life sized fury camel (if I could have afforded it, and also worked out how to get it back to anywhere useful by myself, i would have bought it) which would have almost made up for Erik's sad recent demise and bought a pile of stuff for my god kids and a few others. And picking up other such essentials as a huge wall world map in Russian

The middle day with another CSer, a Portuguese language student and translator (In Russia you go to Uni to do language, meaning it's English and something, but cant seemingly choose the something. Olga had been assigned to Portuguese, like it or not) heading on a day trip to Sergiev Posad. One of the Golden Ring cities, it is one of the most accessible from Moscow and somewhere I had planned to visit on my way East, but failed. In fairness, It wasn't the most exciting place in the end, and the reason for it's golden-ness - the Kremlin - whilst lovely, was half closed to visitors and partly under reconstruction, which didn't help. But we had a good wander, I happily ticked off somewhere that had long been nagging me and Olga was great company and good fun.

Arriving in Latvia was a little anti-climax. No problem at customs, and barely a glance at my strange pile of toys in assorted bags, and I was then back in the lands of cursory passport checks and no stamps. I've acquired a fair few stamps and visa's on this trip and will soon need a new passport. Indeed, the reason that I was coming to Latvia at all is that the direct trains from Moscow to Vilnius all go via Belarus, and I don''t have either a current Belarus visa in this passport or enough space to get a new one. Less than an hour after arriving in Riga, I was on a tram to the outskirts, and barely 5minutes later had managed to find a ride (with a lovely Lithuanian in a huge new BMW on his way home from Tallinn, who even insisted on buying me dinner on the way) all the way through to Vilnius. I'd been in Riga just long enough to post some toys, change a little money so i could buy food and a tram ticket, and then head to the outskirts.

It really is coming to an end now, but despite very strange feelings to be back in Europe (the foreboding of which started before I had left Thailand) I'm still excited. No new places perhaps, but lots of people to see again and in barely a week there is apparently some football-type thingy beginning in Germany which might be quite good...

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Sign near Red Square. Me thinks they haven't quite got teh hang of this yet...

Posted by Gelli 04:43 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trying to avoid becoming an adopted father...

The last long train journey of the trip.

Sometimes silly things annoy me.

I was disappointed not to be able to get a ticket from Kazan to Moscow, meaning that again, I had to drop Kazan from my plans. That's the 4th time that it has happened, and it's fast becoming my #1 must get to destination, just because it's proving so hard. But as I did manage to get tickets through to Moscow from Tyumen, it wasn't the end of the world. It meant that I would still be able to keep other commitments, leave the country before my visa expires and also get there without flying.

The thing that really annoys me is that after being told that there was no space on any train between Kazan to Moscow, the train I got to Moscow went through.... yup, Kazan. So no space on just K-M, but if I want to travel for the 18hours before Kazan as well, I can get a ticket no problem. Grrrrr.

Ah well, that's life I suppose.

The journey itself was somewhat interesting. I ended up opposite a family of mother and 2 young kids. The kids were wonderful and after the initial few hours distrust of the new strange person on the train became extremely friendly. Both kept bringing me 'gifts', at the quiet behest of the mother. I played football and hide and seek (not two of the easiest games to play in a train carriage, i must admit) with the 4 (?) year old boy, and then had a long session of learning Russian and teaching Swedish to the 9 (?) year old girl, with the aid of a Russian equivalent to an etch-a-sketch. I must admit that using an Etch-a-Sketch to make conversations etc on trains when there is no common language is a stroke of genius, especially when coming from a young girl. Admittedly, it overlooks the fact that I can't draw AT ALL, and my attempts at drawing simple objects for the naming in Swedish-Russian game were at best, abysmal.

The mother, whilst not admitting to speaking anything other than Russian spent much of the day watching me with a strange look in her eye that confused me a tad and worried me slightly more. It's a look I try and stay well away from. And it go worse after the kids had started to adopt me.

What I certainly wasn't expecting was that during the night when i was asleep (in Platskartny, or open dorm bunk style carriages), she decided to crawl into my bed with me. To say I was spooked when I rolled over to discover this strange woman lying next to me - on not un-cramped bunk - is an understatement. A mother and a young child, yes, but I have never even seen two people a bunk on Russian train before. Not couples or very close friends or even when dozing during the day. I somehow managed to wake her and to persuade her that she should possibly be lying somewhere else, but suffice to say i was a tad restless for the remainder of the night.

Why do I manage to attract such people on such a regular basis??

By morning, nothing was indicated about it, although the woman (and the man who had been on the bunk above mine) both suddenly discovered the ability to speak some English, and the woman also gave me two pairs of socks as a gift. I have a feeling that she must have been sent by the "good" people at T-K, as they are the only people I can think of who would be worried about the potential imminent return of my holey socks...

When I disembarked in Moscow, I admit to a feeling of sorrow. Not only had I passed from Asia back into Europe - and all that that entails - and made it to Moscow in 23days, but I was also getting off what was the last long through journey of my trip. From here on in, it's Europe where distances are relatively short and journeys faster, and there will be no more 24hour+ trips for me for a while. In fact, journeys of over 15 hours or so are now just a memory (until the next trip) and I wasn't happy by this fact. I really like long, slow journeys, and have grown to like them even more. Hmmmm.

And so, Moscow. Again. But that can wait.

Sadly, to end, I have some tragic news to impart, regarding my very good friend and long time hitch hiking partner, Erik. Erik, as some of you probably know, is a life sized inflatable (one hump) Camel who I have long hitched with for the simple reason that a heck of allot of people stop when they see a camel by the side of road, who would sure as heck not stop for a normal hitch-hiker. Especially when the camel is in Europe and with a sign saying somewhere as likely as 'Vladivostock' or 'Singapore'.

Erik was left in the care of a friend and hasn't accompanied me on my trip, for the simple reason that he is too damned big and heavy when deflated to be worth travelling with when you are not hitch-hiking the entire time.

Tragically, I have been informed that Erik - and he was an inflatable of growing years - has perished. He was being inflated to check all was well before he was due to meet me in Germany in a few weeks, but had given up the ghost instead.

A long time companion, he will be virtually impossible to replace, and in more ways than one.

Posted by Gelli 06:05 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

The tale of the human Trotskyist

There are some things that you don't always expect to see or be part of when travelling. And one of those is going off to celebrate the release from incarceration (2hours previously) of a crazy Trotskyist.

Let me explain.

I had stopped off in Tyumen for a night to visit Masha, my wonderful HC host from my journey over. For those that don't remember her, she is the crazy girl with the most amazing socks you will ever see. And some wonderful multi-coloured wellington boots that she wears.

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Masha resplendent in her trademark socks and boots, and with the Human Trotskyist in one of her less colourful moments

Depressingly, after having so much luck with tickets in Irkutsk, my luck deserted me, and I failed utterly to get hold of a ticket for the Kazan - Moscow leg. I don't believe it, but allegedly all 9 trains were completely full in all classes for 3 days. And I had no time to wait. Instead I managed to get a ticket through to Moscow from Tyumen for the following day, and even p-ex'd my Tyumen-Kazan ticket. It could have been much worse.
And so to the Trotskyist.

It seems that Tyumen has 3 Trotskyists. Admittedly 2 of them remain entirely unknown and probably a figment of people's imagination, but Trotskyist #1 happens to be a friend of Masha and the gang. A week previously, said hero had decided it was time for a revolution, and that action must be taken.

Thus, he took a powder based fire extinguisher and spray painted the exterior entirely in silver. Then donning a silver contamination suit of the style worn by people in environments where getting the slightest contact with anything could kill you, and the inevitable gas mask he headed to a new shopping centre.

And as far as I know, no, he didn't travel there by bus.

Sadly for him, but perhaps not the rest of the world, In the act of setting off his extinguisher he was over powered by 2 security guards, who prevented his deadly chamber of, erm, fire extinguishing foam, from being released over a crowd of shoppers. Showing that his attack wasn't entirely planned to perfection, he was then taken to the police station opposite. Nothing like going to somewhere which the authorities will take time to get to.

Anyhow, his lawyers seemingly managed to argue 'attempted terrorism' down to 'breach of the peace' and he was given a paltry 500rouble (about 10gbp) fine. What happened next remains a bit hazy, but out Trotskyist seems to have objected somehow, and ended up being given a week's prison sentence.

And it was from this incarceration that our glorious hero (?) had just been released and to which everybody was heading to celebrate his return to the real world. I don't get invited to freedom parties for released convicts that often (this is my first in over 12months), so who was I to turn down the chance to meet the man aiming to start the next Russian revolution....?

I admit to being slightly disappointed, although not actually by the grand hero himself, but more by the level of his comrades in almost arms. My favourite part of the whole story is that, somehow, he managed to argue that the items confiscated (one silver coloured fire extinguisher, one chemical warfare suit and one gas mask) were legally his and as such the court has ordered that they be returned to him on his release....

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Archive picture of the Human Trotskyist. If you see this guy wearing a gas mask (although, obviously, if he was wearing the gas mask, you wouldn't see it was him) and carrying a fire extinguisher, don't worry, either Panic, or get your camera ready...

Anyhow, Tyumen more than lived up to it's reputation and memory of my previous visit, and was great fun. A random place to be sure, but some amazing people, and always something different going on. The previous visit was all about Orthodox Churches (long, long story), whilst this was all about the Human Trotskyist. I admit to being hugely intrigued - and I still am - as to why he was being constantly referred to as a human Trotskyist, and not just a Trotskyist. To me, that kind of implies that the rest of them are not Humans, although I can't quite see how a pig, for example, could be classed as a Trotskyist...

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A strange red glow across the Tyumen night sky

Posted by Gelli 02:03 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Back in the mother land

I awoke to a raging snow storm. I admit that this isn't unusual in Siberia, but in late May i was slightly surprised by it. In fairness, so was everybody else, and it was definitely unseasonable.

Spent a couple of days passing through the wonderful emptiness of Siberia. On the Southern edges near to Mongolia and China, there aren't even the trees and spread out shrubs etc that characterise the rest of Central/Eastern Siberia. Instead it's just empty rolling low hills and grasslands (or grasslands covered in Snow as much was). And after China, I loved the feeling of enormous emptiness.

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Passing through Snow covered areas and past obscure Siberian villages in the wilderness on the Trans Manchurian train between the Chinese border and Irkutsk

Passed through Ulan-Ude, but sadly without time for me to visit my favourite head (the huge Lenin head. For details/pics, see my previous entry for Ulan-Ude) and then around Baikal in daylight, allowing me to watch the Lake pass by, and see that the Eastern side at least is still entirely iced over, with people walking over the frozen lake.

Amazingly, I made it Irkutsk without killing or at least seriously maiming any of the aforementioned stupid traders, although it took will power of Churchillian levels to avoid it.

Irkutsk was my next deliberate stop off. Through tickets to Moscow etc are prohibitive in China, and also the through services only have 2nd class Kupe, so I stopped off with the aim of booking my own way Westwards, and saving money by doing it in 3rd class Platskartny. I managed to book myself through to Tyumen on the perfect train, and even then get another ideal service from there through to Kazan.

It's not supposed to be this easy.

After spending a night in Irkutsk, getting my visa registered, and catching up on such missed Russian favourites as Shastlikh (a kind of Kebab in Eastern Russia) and Blini (Pancakes), I headed down to Listvyanka for a night.

I really wish that I had significantly more time to explore the Baikal region properly, as indeed I had wished on my last pass through. It will happen, definitely, but that's for another trip. And indeed, I am opening the floor to anybody else that wants to spend some time around Baikal and cross via the more Northern BAM onto Sakhalin - If anybody else is interested in such a trip, and might want to share ideas or even team up, get in touch. It will be a great adventure, and probably somewhat mad!

All the way down from Irkutsk on the bus, I started getting flashbacks and fond reminisces of my last visit, in company of Ala, Irek and the Polish lot. Even remembering the packed bus and people squashed together sleeping in the aisle on the way down brought a smile to my face.

It was out of season still, and whilst the West bank was free of ice, there were no other tourists around that I saw, and I had the place pretty much to myself. The mountains across the lake were wonderfully snow capped, the sky was blue and cloudless, and the sun shining. It was a glorious spring day, and I loved it. After a visit to our old camping spot (where I had ended up sleeping on the beach until woken by a rain storm around 4am, and had also learnt probably the single cardinal rule from this entire trip [even more so than 'don't carry liquorice through customs" and "beware unmarried Japanese girls], namely NEVER try and drink vodka with a group of Poles. The people, not big sticks) and the half built house where i had later slept in to escape the rain (happily still half built and unchanged), I did nothing except walk.

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The house where i'd crashed to escape the rain on my way across from Europe, months earlier

On an aside, there's an almost funny story, or rather installment, in the travails of the wondrous Kiki and Christian, but I have decided not to regale it here unless requested by (un?)popular demand. It's up to you now.

After being in the chaos of China, and then on a train with stupid warring factions for 3days, it was wonderful to be out in the utter tranquility and calm of the shores of Baikal, in such glorious weather. I walked along the coast, and was quickly into an area of country and more or less utter silence. It was bliss.

With that, the following day it was time to return to Irkutsk, and after a quick wander around some of my favourite attractions (Lenin, of course, and the theatre for Dog shows) it was on to a train for another 50hours Westwards to Tyumen, and, almost, Europe.

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The tranquility of Lake Baikal, Listvyanka village with the snow capped mountains across the Lake in the background, and old and new side beside in the village

Posted by Gelli 00:10 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

And relax... Sort of.

There is no need to go through the at times chaotic and surreal details of my madcap dash through Beijing, but in the manner of Challenge Aneka at her finest, I made it with seconds to spare. 2 minutes later, several Chinese were curiously standing around a white guy sitting on the steps to an office block laughing hysterically, punching the air in delight and waving a small rectangular piece of paper around.

Happy days.

Had two great nights out in Beijing, although sadly due to a technological hitch (f*cking stup1d phone), never hooked up with Phil again for his birthday celebration. It was strange being back at Leo's. Two folks from my previous visit were still knocking around (one of whom, Jamie, I'd bet against with a Danish girl one night, and ended up being so embarrassed by the failure of the Canadian guy who I had backed and seemed unbeatable, that I'd changed my bet to "Random black guy" [this is not meant to be in any way racist]). In addition, Martin and his sidekick Christian, two Swede's we'd met on Don Det at New Year (although neither had any memory of that whatsoever, such was their addled state) turned up as well. In the way of hostels, we twice ended up with damned good groups of 25+ people heading out, and it was a fitting end to my time in China.

I'll really miss this country allot.

And I will return, I hope, very soon.

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Miles. Metres. Meh. Close enough!

After supplying up for the journey, I headed to the station with plenty of time to spare, not wanting another metal detector incident, or to push my luck in the slightest. Although not mentioned anywhere on any station publicity, it was obvious which platform queue was ours. I haven't seen a single Russian looking person in the whole of Beijing, and then suddenly, there is about 40 of them queuing up.
Oddly enough, despite the horror stories, there was no trouble at all, and my bags weren't weighed, and my ticket not even checked until i was entering the train. Got on the train, and we left a minute early. And yes, i was on it. It's now almost 3 days ahead of me to Irkutsk, and I was Finlay leaving China and with enough time to get back to Europe.

Still no planes, and few obstacles ahead. In theory.

I couldn't help but be bemused at my troubles to get hold of a ticket, when i realised that I was out numbered by the provodniks (2-1) as the only passenger in our carriage. Hmmmm.

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It says it's the Vostok, on the Beijing - Moscow run. And it even was. I'm on the way
Late the following afternoon at an obscure Chinese stop, i began to realise why, when the carriage suddenly started to fill in a big way with a large group of Chinese traders. They each had significantly more stuff with them than I own in total (let alone was carrying with me), and before long there was cr*p everywhere. 2 joined my compartment (China - Russia through trains only have 2nd class Kupe places, not the 3rd class Platskartny I normally use) and the remaining berth and all other space in the compartment where other useful things (such as oxygen) could fit were soon swallowed by their cr*p.

Oh well, doesn't bother me providing I still have my berth and enough space for my bag, which I did.

After passing through such delightful cities as Shenyang and Harbin, and spending the last of my Yuan in the restaurant car on a delicious but scarily overpriced (for a Chinese restaurant car) meal - where, impressively, with just a single look, the woman handed me the English menu as opposed to the Chinese, Russian or German ones, at 4am on the third morning, we reached Manschuria.

Manschuria is the Chinese border station. We were locked in our carriage for about 90mins whilst they whisked passports away (after a slight scare when a very friendly and English speaking inspector insisted I had overstayed my visa for a day, and I had to explain that he was looking at the last entrance date on my visa, and not the 30days after I had actually entered date. We then spoke at length about Lijiang - no never been, although he thinks I had - Tie Li, Brazil, Rawney [Rooney] and Sun Jihai before he eventually happily pottered off). No luggage or customs checks at all. Passports returned, and then we had about 90mins to wander the platform and small shop area.

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Manschuria station at about 5am after disembarking after passport control, the welcome sign at station (curiously not in Russian as well) and an almost perfectly phonetic sign

And then the fun started.
A sh1t load of new passengers, mostly Russian, then went through customs and boarded the train. I returned with about 20mins to go before departure to discover a huge heated row going on. It involved everybody else in the carriage, but was centered on my compartment. All the Russian boarders were also traders with large amounts of baggage and you can probably see where this is going...

Anyhow, everybody was being utterly stupid and I made the mistake of uttering words in Mandarin to a Chinese and Russian to a Russian (I think It was "Excuse Me" and "Thanks"). Upon which - and realisation that I was a third party foreigner - I was seized upon as translator extraordinaire. Despite maybe having as much as 100 words of each language, that was about 90 more than anybody else could muster of the other, and led to everybody shouting at me at once in 2 languages I don't speak, and my having to mediate between a group of extremely stupid Russians and a group of even stupider Chinese, who regardless of if they knew each other beforehand had now forged into a Chinese mass and a Russian mass.

Why me?

We went 25mins to the Russian border, in the process going from 7.30am and brilliant sun, to 2am and still brilliant sun, such is the way of Russian railways and use of Moscow Time. It was then 3hours stuck on the train whilst we went through Russian immigration (easy), and customs (easy for me and the Russians, hell for the Chinese). The Russian inspector enjoyed making every Chinese person open every bag and throw stuff everywhere whilst searching for anything vaguely contraband. In such an enclosed space and with so much stuff in it to begin with, it was utter Chaos. What struck me most was the sheer amount of utter, utter cr*p and entirely random rubbish which the Chinese "traders" were carrying. Very little seemed even good enough condition to sell, let alone be vaguely desirable. And whilst admittedly they may make their money on the return legs, I can't work out how they would even break even on ticket prices trying to sell stuff which second hand shops would normally turn down.

After 3hours, we were turfed off the train for 4 more whilst they changed bogie's. Russian Railways are at a wider gauge than the standard gauge Chinese - and most of the rest of the world - meaning time consuming delays at the border as they don't yet have TALGO technology, and I doubt, ever will.

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Dual gauge track at Zabaikalsk station, plus changing the bogie's in the shed from Standard gauge Chinese ones, to broad gauge Russian ones, ready for the trek through Siberia towards Moscow, and, below, Zabaikalsk station with passengers awaiting the re gauged train for re boarding

I spent some time in the carriage shed watching out of curiosity, wandered around the town of Zabaikalsk (and exhausted it's possibilities), got all misty eyed at the discovery that 2 carriages on my train had come through from Pyongyang, North Korea, got some food, did some reading and just farted around.

And then it was, finally, back on board to another 2full days of screaming, shouting, arguing and my needing to mediate as best as i could, whilst mostly swearing in an assortment of other languages and wishing they would all disappear in a cloud of smoke, or at least eaten by wild animals or some such.
As long journeys go, it could have been worse, but I admit that I've had more relaxing ones. Roll on Irkutsk. Or wherever the heck these people are getting off.

I've just realised that for all I will miss about China - and that is allot, even without considering the delights of watching old people ballroom dance in parks (I kid you not, this has become a major hobby of mine) - the hardest thing about leaving China (and everywhere I have been before it) will be learning how to use a knife again...

Posted by Gelli 23:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

It's getting really, really tight...

4 hours until I know if i'm forced to - shudder - fly

With Xi'an out of the way, it was back to the trek back. Although it isn't necessarily somewhere i will rush straight to return to, i like the city and am more than happy that i eventually managed to get to the Terracotta Warriors. But I'm in a rush, and after 2 stationary nights for leisure (a day at the Warriors, and a day spent wandering the city with some people including a long trek in the blistering heat around the impressive 14km long city walls), it's back on the road home. And no more Heart.

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View along the vast Xi'an city walls, then two views from the walls, and a brilliant sign on the South East Corner of the Walls, which I don't ever want to translate for fear that it might make more sense!

10 days down, only another 12 or so to go.

I headed back to Beijing, praying extremely hard for a sudden bit of luck, but not really expecting it at all. I've more or less resigned myself to flying. It's either that or go up via the river at Blagoveshenk on the least known and touristed (but actually cheapest surface route between Moscow and Beijing) and be a day or two late returning. Assuming I can then get a useful ticket in Blagoveshenk, of course. It's a possibility

And besides, I had an appointment at the Turkmeni embassy to meet the Ambassador.

I'm not entirely sure why, but things seem to be happening quickly and with an efficiency quite unlike anything I've come across in that part of the world before. The more I think about that evening, the more I'm convinced that there is a hell of allot more going on than I know about, and that is really playing on my mind.

What the hell is the real story here? Somebody? Anybody? Answers on a postcard, please.

4 hours until deadline moment (end of business on Friday, meaning last chance for tickets) and still nothing. I was expecting it to be tight, but 4hours - and i will still have to dash across the city and somehow find the correct building even if successful - is starting to cut things a bit fine, regardless of the confidence of my agent that it is early days yet.

The embassy experience was, erm, interesting, and curious but not exactly enlightening in the slightest. More than that, I won't say for now.

2hours to deadline I get a phone call.

Wrong number.

B*gger.

Fart around some more.

1hour 20mins to deadline.

YIIIIIIPPPPPPPPEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

One very lovely agent has found me a returned ticket, and in the nick of time. But it's too late to deliver it (meaning I didn't have to stay in the damned hostel after all, as the only reason I did was for a delivery address. Bah!). All I have to do is get to their office, in a neighbourhood which i don't know - and I don't actually know where I am myself, at this point - in the next hour to claim the ticket. If I fail, It's all over right at the end and in the cruelest way possible.

This is not necessarily a sure thing under any circumstances.

The race is on (and yes, I have Yello on my MP3. Groan. But at least it's a great track!)

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An odd building sign, in Xi'an. I have no idea what it's supposed to be, but I am definitely intrigued!

Posted by Gelli 21:40 Archived in China Comments (0)

How to get back from the Terracota Warriors, Gelli style

1. Turn down dodgy looking minibuses and opt for tried and tested 7RMB bus
2. Note in amusement that police car in front also stops to pay motorway entrance toll
3. Accept fact in resignation that bus and a tricycle delivery vehicle manage to have an, urm, altercation. Despite the fact that both are stationary in traffic....
4. Watch ensuing argument
5. Start laughing as in typical Chinese style two trucks behind funneling into the one free lane next to us refuse to yield and also crash
6. Watch ensuing argument
7. Accept that despite no obvious damage to either party, bus will not move due to assorted shouting matches
8. Funnel in a mad rush onto replacement (read: bus which departed 30mins later and has now caught up) bus and stand in a contorted squeeze for last 3km.
9. Get on city bus back to hostel
10. Laughter but pain (due to increasing need for toilet) after 100metres when van crashes into rear side of bus
11. Watch ensuing argument
12. Serene resignation and acceptance as another 20mins and 250m later, bus then dies
13. Funnel in a mad rush onto replacement bus and stand in a contorted squeeze for remainder of journey
14. Groan in disgust (and seriously increasing need for toilet) as 100m later, replacement bus mows down cyclist
15. Watch ensuing argument
16. Finally arrive at Bell Tower, and alight bus.
17. Make mad dash to hostel for light relief purposes, almost ignoring the crunch 10 seconds after alighting which signifies that a taxi is now embedded into the front end of the bus
18. Other urgent priority prevents watching the ensuing argument
19. Sigh happily with relief having occurred
20. Resume perch on balcony overlooking Bell tower and roundabout where the previous night 6 accidents were witnessed, and within 20mins, I've witnessed 3more.
21. Watch all of the ensuing arguments, with a well needed cold beer in hand.

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The Bell Tower at night, after all the crashes...

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Chinese style semi Propaganda at the Terracotta Warriors

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Assorted pics of the Terracotta Warriors

Posted by Gelli 23:18 Archived in China Comments (5)

Dashing through the South of China

You can always tell who is Chinese and who is Laotian in Northern Lao. the Chinese are the ones having huge animated "Discussions" with large crowds watching, whilst the Laotian's aren't. So after an hour of arguments between rival bus drivers (groan) we actually left heading to China. After 3 entrances with no problems, i was due an awkward Chinese entrance, so can't really be too surprised. Leaving through Mohan had been fine, but entering took time. And lots of it. All 4 foreigners on the bus had issues, and each of us took well over an hour to process for different reasons.

Yay.

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A sign outside the Luang Namtha Bus Station (no, I have no idea) and loading a bus heading south

But made it to Mengla OK, and lucked out with a berth on the last sleeper bus of that day to Kunming, leaving in about an hour. Was joined on board by one of the the most stereotypical ignorant American surfer dude type people it's ever been my misfortune to meet. Sat for over 3hours at the same spot (more or less) as was delayed on the way down due to roadworks, and had the most stupendous rain storm. My MP3, for the record had excelled itself with a string of China related songs within the first hour or so of entry, followed by such delights as Blind Melon (No Rain) just as the heavens opened.

In Kunming i again lucked out and got a hard sleeper on the next train to Chengdu (Xi'an full, Chengdu an easy alternative) just 2 hours later, and spent a day going through some fantastic remote scenery in the South West of China and Himalayan foothills. In Chengdu I managed to get a useful connection North, giving myself about 6hours to have a quick wander around the city (pleasant, if like all others, under reconstruction) before heading through to Xi'an. I really need to return to Chengdu, and also the area between there and Kunming, but for now, time does not allow it.

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Images of Chengdu, although the bottom one is really beginning to make me think that somebody (Kiki?!) is giving me not so subtle hints

And thus after 8days of straight travel, I had made it to Xi'an, my first rest point on the mad trek North. And even with a day or two free to be a tourist and visit some Warrior type people...

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Xi' an Bell Tower in the centre of the walled city

Posted by Gelli 22:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

Of weddings, rock stars, job offers and Turkmeni's...

I think this entry might just top all previous ones....

Enough people have laughed and commented on the whole Kiki incident (and continue to do so - update: I've been offered employment [yes, paying] to be their marriage councillor) and keep offering questions about whether I have since got married or am about to to some poor unsuspected fool, that I figured i should add a small side story for everybodies amusement.

A couple of weeks ago, Simon, a cheery Aussie we had met in Hanoi, and a few others happened to be on Don Det. This was barely a week after we had left there after New Year. There was a few of them around, and as happens, you pick up people as you go along. One afternoon whilst in a bar on the island, a Danish girl they had met and wasn't entirely free of the influence of chemicals, happened to notice that the menu of the bar included "weddings". Curious, the question was asked to the staff. When told that it did indeed mean that, she was somewhat enthusiastic and said that she was having such a good time that she wished she could get married there and then. Opinion was canvased of the assembled males, and Simon said he'd be delighted do it. After spreading the word in full, the next day in front of virtually the entire islands population of travellers, and a good 30 or so locals, they tied the knot. And you all thought that I got into strange situations?!

For those now sniggering people who actually know my life history, lets leave certain previous incidents out of this, shall we?

Sadly, it didn't work out, and they divorced about a week later.

I love Lao, I really do. It's an amazing country, and despite so many people saying how great and unspoilt it is, it does actually live up to it, and then some. It is great to be back, although I am admittedly somewhat depressed that it is only for such a short time, out of necessity. Better make the most of it.

In Vientiane, I met up with Troy. Couchsurfing's only Lao based member, and somebody who had been highly recommended to me by Kevin and Solene. In a slight twist, since they finally stopped stalking me, I've more or less been following their route and dropping by all the same people that they did. In this case, I'm glad I did. Troy is certainly one of the most interesting and intelligent people I have met in a good while, and I only wish that I could have stuck around for longer. After all, anybody that has lived in Yemen and Azerbaijan is bound to have a tale or two to tell.

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Luang Prabang's Night Market

Travel in Lao, at least North of Vientiane invariably means long daytime bus journeys, and with that I returned to Luang Prabang, 10hours and barely a few hundred kilometres later. It was another one stopper between transport, but entirely randomly and barely 30mins after arrival, I randomly bumped into Chevy (he of the fecked-up beer fish night in Yangshuo, ice hockey in Hanoi and the circuit in Nha Trang) and Mick Jagger (who's an old short guy with a young girlfriend who sings in some band). It was from Chevy that I got the Simon wedding story, and as they were still travelling together, later that evening I heard Simon's version as well. And met a curious Swedish tattoo-ist. I hadn't met anybody I know by accident since I was last in Lao (The French guy from HCMC) so I was definitely due.

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Assorted Tuk-Tuks waiting for passengers in Luang Prabangs North bus station

A good 7 or so hours of standard wonderful Lao scenery the next day took me to Oudomxay. Admittedly the also standard 2hour or so delay on departure meant It was too late for me to continue northwards when I arrived. And I did spent most of the journey being vomited on by an extremely cute, if admittedly slightly sick seeming young child. And being a local bus meant that we stopped once for a guy to get off and buy three large bags of salt, once for everybody to buy courgettes from a roadside stall (although one passenger somehow managed to buy a dead monkey instead) and numerous times just because they felt like it.

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Reasons I love Northern Lao numbers, whatever the heck we are up to now - The gorgeous hilly great mountainside, random roadside markets on the tops of hills in the middle of nowhere on virtually empty roads, and the ubiquitous black pigs that can be seen wandering unattended around every village

Many people get stuck in Oudomxay. It's in no way unusual, despite everybody desperately trying to avoid it. And all known guidebooks offering about a paragraph saying that it's boring, but you are likely to get stuck there at some point. Most of them seem to be German speaking. Those that aren't are either French Swiss, or Chinese. They only ever stay a night. It just is the way that Lao works. And as I discovered from talking to two German's who worked at the tourist office trying to encourage growth (Read: Bang heads against the wall in frustration of not being able to achieve even tiny things), until they come up with a way to take advantage of that, and get the locals excited (meaning they actually prepared to do something, instead of just take free money), that's how it will stay.

We also pondered the fate of a night bus alleged to have disappeared during a night the previous week (but being kept very quiet by authorities) and also an American, Ryan Braben Chicovsky, who had disappeared in Northern Lao a week or so previous. And as it's just one of those fairly mundane and standard travel things that just happen, there's no need to explain how I somehow ended up sharing a (tiny) double bed with a middle aged German lady who's name i didn't (and still don't) know. Not entirely related, I suppose, but more or less at this point my camera died. Grrrr.

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Our Guest House in Oudomxay (Close enough, I suppose...) and early morning clouds over the valley

What follows should probably come out of a work of fiction. In fact, its possibly all just too bizarre, and any author trying to pass it off (Carlie, believe me, i don't recommend it) would have been laughed out of their publishers at light speed. Sometimes, however, truth really just is so strange that you can't make it up.

Some days just defy all logic and expectation and it was simply one of those days. And with the possible exception of one of the days spent trying to leave Vladivostok, it certainly now tops my list of most memorable days on this trip. Curiously, 4 different people have mentioned that my blog is being serialised in a provincial Ecuadorian newspaper. What 4 different friends were doing reading provincial Ecuadorian newspapers, I'm still unsure. And have as yet not been able to confirm or deny these rumours (if anybody comes across an article from here, please, PLEASE save it and post/give it to me as i want to see if its true or not), but if they are oddly enough true, they may like the following. Or not. I don't really care.

After waking up slightly freaked (i hadn't remembered that there was an old German lady in the same bed until I was awoken by snoring), i had a strange twist, whereby I couldn't get on the bus as it was alleged to be "full". This is an interesting - and unusual - concept in a country where people and goods can be packed in with amazing skill, and for a bus which almost inevitably would then stop and start picking up more people of the roadside within 200m of leaving the Bus Station. If I'd have thought, I'd have jumped a tuk-tuk to the edge of town and then hailed the same bus and got on without a problem.

But the same delay meant that by the time I got to Luang Namtha, happy to return to the site of my first (and brilliant) Lao experiences, plus some evil looking clouds and thunder noises ahead, it was too late to make renting a motorbike any sense. A shame because in the short time I'd been away, all the the roads which had been dodgy - part of the fancy Chinese financed and built highway running from where the Kunming - Boten expressway will eventually end through Northern Lao and Thailand to Myanmar - had been fully completed and were stunningly smooth and tarmacked, like the stretch in from the border. The Chinese don't mess about. Things happen quickly, and the result is unquestionably the best road in Lao.

Instead I hired a mountain bike. At half a dollar, it was significantly cheaper than a motorbike, i love bikes anyway and in honesty i needed to work out some of the pain in my legs caused by being squeezed on the minibus for so long. I made it to the Luang Namtha museum, which had been shut when Erin and I first passed through, and was happy I did as it has some very interesting stuff especially about the local tribal groups. I then headed out into the country with no plan except just to ride quite hard for an hour or so, see what happened, and then probably turn back. I was on a fairly quiet road north towards the National Park, when what i hope will be the final of my 3 transport mishaps (think Cambodian minibus and Thai pickup) occurred. Without anything nearby, i went over a slight pothole and the rear triangle of my frame snapped. Both at the same time, and sheer. Obviously, the back of the bike gave way somewhat and I landed on the ground in a heap. No damage to me, but It really didn't take long for me to realise that I was about 10km north of the town with an utterly fecked bike. With the storm rapidly approaching. Bah. I hoped to catch a lift, but wasn't passed by anything in any direction for 20mins, so hung the bike over my shoulder and was about to start the walk back towards Luang Namtha.

The reason that I'm not convinced that it will turn out to be the final incident in my accident trilogy is that it was right at that moment that I got the most amazing and stunningly unexpected piece of luck. My eye was caught by movement round the corner, so I stopped expecting a motorbike or something that i could flag down. Instead, 3 elephants with riders came along. They stopped. The lead man got off and in a perfect Midlands accent asked what I was doing. I explained that I had no choice but to carry the bike and walk back to town. He - his name sounded something like Mwaaauy - asked why. I said because no cars or motorbikes have come past that i could hitch with. Mwaaauy asked why I wanted a car or to walk when there was an elephant right there. It took my brain a few seconds to register, and then i believe I may have had a large grin on my face.

Yes, I managed to hitch-hike with a bicycle on the back of an elephant.

And yes, you did just read that correctly.

I've had a lot of great moments on this trip, but it's going to be damned hard to top this. Admittedly, elephants are not quick animals, but no slower really than a pedestrian at Lao speed, and the time passed quickly. And the storm clouds broke off without more than a quick splattering, and thus we wandered under the most amazing rainbow I have seen in years. Deep colour and shine. I can't think of anything better. I was also treated to several gasps of delight and looks of awe from other travellers as we wandered into town. It was great! I was dropped outside the rental shop after agreeing to meet them a little later for food and to buy them a drink.

They wandered off to park the elephants or whatever you do with elephants, whilst i embarked on a long, calm and reasoned discussion with the rental owner. He wasn't overly surprised when I refused to pay him 500usd (!!!) for a replacement, and we continued a relaxed and open discussion as to what to do next. A few others appeared, and things started to get a tad more animated as two of them also got involved and seemed to want a cut of any money for unknown reasons. I had paid a 10usd deposit that I was happy to let them keep, but stood my ground refusing to pay anymore for something that blatantly wasn't my fault. What swayed me into giving them another 25USD was the guy who ambled over to see what the fuss was all about and had a machine gun swung over his shoulder. I'm not overly fazed by guns, but he seemed somewhat agitated, utterly reeked of alcohol, and was waving the gun in my direction, with rather more intent that I would ideally like. Especially when I noticed that the safety was off.

In cards, as in life, always know when to fold. I will gamble with the best of them, and can often bluff my way through, but a drunk guy pointing a live machine gun in my direction seems a good enough reason to fold. I meekly apologised, handed 25usd to the renter, apologising that I didn't have more (if he's have realise I had a money belt, i could have had a problem), and left pronto. I was a good 300metres away when I turned around to see another local waving a large sword in my direction and group of people watching the guy with the gun.

It can sometimes be useful having a good grasp of local geography and being relatively fit, although I admit that being a white guy in town meant I wasn't overly inconspicuous and had visions of the motley duo touring every guest house that evening, demanding to see all white people, and then me being dragged away to who knows what. If you are reading this, it didn't happen.

This is where the levels of credibility really start to get stretched.

I no longer have my passport.

Or rather, I do now again, obviously, but for a while that evening I didn't. Let me explain. Or at least vaguely try, for I'm really struggling to grasp this one as well.

After a very pleasant couple of hours with the elephant guys in a locals restaurant, they took their leave and headed off. With a few kip left over, and not enough to make exchanging it worthwhile, I decided to have another beer. An hour or so earlier, a very strange group of people had entered and occupied several tables near the back. Two were quite polished looking and white (i pegged them as Russians) and sat alone in the middle table, whilst those around them were locals but a tad ominous looking. But as they left us alone and I had my back to them, i had ignored them. About 30minutes after Mwaaauy and his friends had left, one approached me and asked in thickly accented English if I would like to join them for a drink. I politely refused, saying I was about to leave (I was as well) and had no money (also more or less true). He, erm, "suggested" that it might be rude to decline their hospitality and that I should at least stay for a drink. Looking back over my shoulder, the local guys seemed a heck of allot more ominous than I had remembered. So out of a lack of reasonable options, and in fairness, with absolutely nothing better to do, I accepted.

I discovered that my Russian guess wasn't entirely correct, and they were actually Turkmeni's. And allegedly not irrelevant ones either, although how true this is, I don't know. Turkmenistan is somewhere few people know much about, and fewer still visit. Having said that, I have actually been there in the past on more than one occasion (long story), and know a bit about it. In a nutshell, it can be characterised by Saparmurat Niyazov. Mr Niyazov is the President and essentially Turkmen dictator and is generally known as "Turkmenbashi the Great". In 2002 (i think), he renamed the month of January after himself, and amongst many other idiosyncrasies has also come up with a new system for dividing people's ages (which are not, as you may possibly guess, children, teens, adults, middle aged and elderly, or words to that extent). He's an interesting man leading an interesting country.

Oddly, they seemed to know at least a bit about me, which was a bit freaky and unnerving (especially as I had now quickly cottoned on to the fact that the ominous looking people were the heavies/security detail) although i am fairly sure that they had just overhead the previous conversations I had been having with Mwaaauy. Anyhow, one thing led to another and whilst I am aware that nobody will believe any of this in the slightest, but there I was in a locals bar in an obscure town in Northern Lao, being offered the job of chief strategic and planning officer to the Turkmenistan army and presidential advisor on foreign affairs.

..... I need time for that one to sink in, let alone you .....

I've always said that life is never boring.

My passport was whisked away for some kind of check of some description (i don't believe that there is a Turkmen military attache to the province of Luang Namtha, but on the last few days experiences, i really wouldn't bet against it) without my having any say or choice in the matter, whilst all manner of business was discussed. I believe that I managed to decline on the grounds that I already have a commitment to my current employer (Sten, the things I do out of loyalty to you and the company. I really think that I deserve a large pay rise for my loyalty here in the face of adversity....).

Long story cut short, but a couple of hours later, my passport was returned. They thanked me, i thanked them, they said they would be in touch, and I took my leave, wandering straight out of the bar and into two guys loafing against one of 3 jeeps who just happened to be the guys with the machine gun and sword from earlier. They gave me a drunken grin and wave. I started walking in a random direction at a fairly high rate of knots whilst desperately trying to work out what the f*ck had just occurred.

I am expecting an email from somebody at work within the next few days asking some very strange questions about why I am consorting with such people, and what the situation is. Plus potential correspondence from assorted Turkmeni's.

I have a feeling that this one is could run and run, although I doubt Kiki (or any of my normal crazy bet and strange situation - and that is one I'm not even going to try and explain to all those that have no idea what I'm talking about, except to say that these guys are so good that I once spent 8months trying to prove that I wasn't married. Which sounds easy enough, but when they can produce a wife, photos, and even get assorted random friends and family members swearing it was true and had happened, you get the idea that this is not an entirely conventional betting ring - group) is involved....

Despite being perhaps slightly unconventional by many peoples terms, and this pass sadly only being 4 nights, Lao has more than lived up to my memories, and I leave with it still being a top my list of favourite places on this trip. It's been utterly amazing, and on this brief transit, stupendously surreal, unlikely and just plain weird. I like that.

It's a wonderful country, and I really can't wait to return.

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[i]Taking a nap at work during the midday heat[i/]

Posted by Gelli 02:04 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

And so it begins...

... and from the Heart album, the Road home, no doubt! (possessed MP3 player in-joke)

Pained but alive and on my way, I left Thailand. Leaving Bangkok (on my first Thai train) for the last time was really strange for me, and not only because i was under the influence of assorted drugs from the hospital. I had a kind of sadness I don't usually have, but not simply because I was leaving Thailand, which if you remove the people I met (most of whom I already knew and was just catching up with) I could more or less give or take. Whilst in no way over - and months before i have to return to work - from here the journey is back. I have only about 25days before I need to be back in Europe for some commitments, and with i think a theoretical minimum of a 16-17day (on a pre-planned and pre-booked perfect scenario journey) trek from Bangkok to Sweden ahead of me, It means I don't have much room for manoeuvre.

In addition, with few exceptions, all of the journey I now have to undertake I have done beforehand, so there will be little new and really exciting stuff for me. And I don't yet know how I am going to get back. I have an idea of how things will go and how to do it, but I am gambling heavily on getting lucky in Beijing. I may yet have to insert a flight (believe me, I'm working on avoiding it) in to this trip, simply due to a lack of spare time to play with on alternative routes - of which there are many - if my gamble doesn't pay off. It's an all or nothing roll of dice, and only time will tell if I'll hit the double sixes.

Although my neck still hurt like heck and i had a general stiffness, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt waking in the morning. I had expected to be feeling effects of my high speed tumble onto tarmac and rolling in broken glass and spilt diesel allot more. I crossed back into Lao (Really great to be back, Wish i had time for a much longer stay here) via the Friendship Bridge without incident and even got myself a cheap and rare (in SEA) dorm room in Vientiane, possibly as life compensation for the previous afternoon. I don't want to get cocky though, as I will be needing all the luck i can get in the coming 3 or 4 weeks, for both logistical reasons, and because i will be more or less living on buses and trains doing a number of long journeys, and with my 3rd strike of "things come in 3's, such as accidents" still to come...

And so, back to Lao and onto day 2 of the Road home

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A sign to strike fear (or alcohol poisoning) in the hearts of a certain couple of TPers after New Years exploits waaay back when...

Posted by Gelli 02:58 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

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