A Travellerspoint blog

An astonishing technical marvel and professional rounders...

After finally moving my arse - admittedly only all of 20km - i spent 4 nights a bit further round the coast in a place called Zushi, as guests of two more great American hosts, Casey and Dave.

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For some unknown reason, Yokohama has always had a kind of mystical and exotic appeal and lure to me. Behind Vladivostok (check) and Timboktu (give me time), sure, but then very high on my list of random places i have always wanted to visit for no apparent reason. I think some of it is historical, given its role as the main port for cross-Pacific liners heading off, and my long term idea of going RTW. Which as it obviously precludes any form of flying, would probably entail Yokohama, despite the extinction of Cross Pacific passenger ships that i would ideally use.

So it was with great anticipation that Dave and I took the short journey up to Yokohama. Japan`s second (or third depending upon your point of view) largest city, isn`t hugely well known as it has essentially merged into Kawasaki and Tokyo to ctreate one giant urban mass, generally just known as Tokyo. And whilst not the worlds most stunning place by any means, it certainly didn`t dissapoint my romantic notions as i was half expecting. The city has reinvented itself with alot of new developments since its passing from a major passenger transit point, although it remains one of the worlds largest ports.

The new MM21 area...

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... includes not only Japan`s tallest building, but includes the worlds fastest lift (elevator), a great old dockyard area, what is billed as the worlds tallest ferris wheel (although others also claim this and i can`t be bothered to research if it`s true or not) and an office rip off of Brunei`s famous sail hotel, although in fairness, i haven`t checked which came first.

The dock area is decent to walk around, whilst the cruise ship terminal has the interesting extra of being able to walk all over the grass covered roof for a great view around the harbour. There`s also a fairly large - and on the day we were there, hugely busy, Chinese quarter.

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The MM21 tower itself also has what for me was an amazingly simple technical marvel of the "i can`t belive i`ve never seen that before" kind. I have no idea why it made such an impression on me, but even the simple concept was one i had never considered before. And it is is little things like that which i love Japan for. Don`t laugh. But it was a circular escalator:

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So simple, yet such a new idea to me. It`s great being pleased by such simple and stupid things as it means you never have to set your sights high or get dissapointed!

We also got to witness the ceremony for which i can`t remember the name, but involves shrine touring. Essentially, most neighbourhood`s in Japan have a portable shrine, and once or twice a year, to vast ceremony, all of the men dress up in traditional robes and headbands, get roaring drunk, and then take the shrine on tour.

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The idea being something along the lines of touring the entire neighbourhood to bring good luck, but more an excuse to get drunk, and carry something heavy around in circles whilst chanting uninteligible chants and followed by the old/young and women of the same neighbourhood. Great to watch, although some of the precessions were a tad too unsteady on their feet to ideally be entrusted with carrying a heavy and priceless neighbourhood artefact.

One oddball reason i like this country is this guy:

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The middle of the afternoon, in the crowded centre of a city of 4 million people, and this salaryman has passed out drunk on the pavement with nobody giving him a second look, or attempting to steal his stuff. If you did that in London, for example, you would either be arrested, have crowds of people around you &/or ambulances called, and almost certainly you would wake up without your wallet, phone, bag, and quite possibly, clothes as well.

The following day, we headed back to Yokohama. I am a sports nut, and will watch anything live, and the previous day we had passed the stadium and noticed that it was the middle of a baseball series. And there was no way i could turn down the chance to watch profesional rounders...

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It`s a sport i know little about, except that in the US, some of the players earn seriously excessive amounts of money, and they have a world series* played by entirely US based sides, despite the fact that a large chunk of the worlds best players are Latin Americans, and many of whose sides could probably more than hold their own against the Americans if finances weren`t an issue. An in Japan, excepting maybe Sumo, it`s the biggest sport going, so i wanted to watch a game or two.

The local Baystars against the Hiroshinma Carp was a relatively meaningless game, with both out of running for overall honours towards the end of the season, but interesting for me all the same. One of the most interesting things for me was teh crowd, and i have no idea if that was a standard Japanes thing, or baseball thing, or both. There was no independence at all, with everything being perfectly choreographed to almost be depressing. During the opposition innings, the other set of fans was deadly silent, whilst during their own innings, the crowd followed precisiely the chants and cheers arranged by the "cheer leaders" - a group of late teen guys, who stood aroud the perimiter holding up which signs for which chants should be sung and when.

There was no variety of chants between innings and really, even between the two teams, and no ad-libbing or the like as you would get in the UK or most of Europe. But the most bizare thing to me was that people were paying so much attention to the chanting and singing, that they didn`t actually really watch the game. There was a huge delayed reaction to anything good by tehhome team, and a reaction which only kicked in after a chant had ended, and i found that really odd. I mean,can you imagine fooball fans not cheering a goal under 10 seconds after it had happened, because they hadn`t realised, due to singing `the referee`s a winker (missprint)` or some such?

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Apparently it wasn`t a typical game, with the Baystars 10-1 up after just 2 of 9 innings (somebody got 4 points for hit due to 3 runners, a steeplechaser, the bases loaded and the giraffe hiding in the bushes or something like that). The Carp subbed the sub of the subs - sub pitcher (Cheats - Whats wrong with limited substitutions, or stick with who`s playing and suffer the consequences, a la cricket) and it finished 15-9 - similar to an Aussie batting card during the Ashes, i suppose - and nobody really seemed to care providing that they could cheer and do the duck dance whenever a specific batsman came out. But it was all good natured fun, and i`m glad i made the effort.

I also used Dave and Casey`s proximity to visit Kamakura, another former Japanese capital and one of the alleged `must see`s` around Tokyo.

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It`s a fairly spread out town, containing any number of Shrines and temples (all similar looking to every other shrine and temple in Japan) and gardens, interspersed with assorted other tourist sights and places to try and relieve you of your cash - a Japanese speciality.

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We wandered around a couple of the major temples, and trawlled down the main pedestrian street, with any number of hitherunto unknown and unimagined things for sale and to tempt tourists. Visted a more hidden shrine in the hills, where, legend has it, pilgrims were told to go there and wash their grain before planting it in a Holy spring to ensure a good and bountiful harvest, which would be double the harvest of unwashed grain.

Not ones to miss a trick, the Japanese, at some point some bright spark had pondered whether the multiplication would also worked with other items than grain, and tried washing money. And thus, it became one of Japans leading money washing sites (although different to money laundering, for which you generally need to talk to a Yakuza member or bent lawyer/MP).

Of course i had to partake (why not, i figured?) as one can never have too much cash, especially when travelling, and in an expensive country like Japan, and so i washed some notes. Admittedly i may have tried to push my luck just a little too far by also washing a credit card, but what did i have to loose...

After money washing, we took in Kamakura`s major attraction, the Giant Buddha. Teh second largest Buddha in the world (after the Nara
one i had previously visited), and largest outdoors Buddha. It even had the bonus of being able to climb inside, although in fairness, as you would expect, there isn`t actually a great deal to see or do inside a giant iron skull. Yes, it`s a great head, but to me there`s no comparison to Papa Lenin in Ulan-Ude. Now THAT really is a great head.

Scarily, the huge and heavy Buddha had been moved backwards and off its pedestal by a tsunami a couple of hundred years ago which had demolished the surrounding temple complex. But the fact it is over a kilometre from the coast, and a hge iron structure, and was still moved backwards by the wave shows again the awesome power of a tsunami.
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We finished up with a visit to one of the most picturesque of the temple areas, which includes a shrine for the god of travellers (of which of course, it more or less makes sense for me to pay attention to), pregnant women and dead children. Part of the complex is lined with thousands of small statues and flowers, where grieving parents return time after time to pray for a good afterlife to their sadly departed kids. Whether they have to pay the entrance fee every time, I don`t know, but it really would not surprise me in the slightest.

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The complex also includes some caves, some lovely ponds and garden areas, and a view over the town and out onto the bay. There is also a revolving library, which, legend has it, if you push it round, you will be infused by the wisdom stored within. Of course, i also had to have a push, as i have heard that you can never have too much wisdom, and as i don`t really have any - except of the teeth variety - it seemed a good idea. Again, what did i have to loose?

And after a days temple visiting, and both doubling my cash and credit card bill - in retrospect, that one could backfire on me - and then infusing some much needed (apparently) wisdom and knowledge into my empty cranial cavity, there was only one course of action. A Tofu restaurant. Obviously. And i can confirm that freshly cooked cooked tofu, whilst admittedly warm and fresh, still tastes like, well, nothing really, just as normal tofu does.

Hmmmmm.

And as your all gaining some much needed shut eye (admit it, there`s only one reason anybody would even attempt to read this drivel), i`ll quit now.

I can confirm that I did finally move on, to Nikko and then Central Tokyo, but more on that, including tales of mad yet entrepreneurial homeless people plus choosing to sleep in a coffin, next time.

  • after writing this, my brother (thanks Jeff) informed me that it`s called the world series because it was originally sponsored by a newspaper called "the World". You lean something new everyday. And it proves that i`m not the only one in my family with a recall of assorted obscure trivia which is rarely of no use to anything or anybody.

Posted by Gelli 21:53 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

UNCOVERED -The worlds biggest coverup. Literally.

Adventures (well, not so much adventures as just wow) in the south of Tokyo bay

It`s all one huge, stupendous and incredible cover up. I have no other explanation. 3 weeks in an area where it should be visible every 2 or 3 days at worse, and not a single sighting. Despite some amazingly clear and beautiful days. Whether it is really a projection (this is Japan, after all), on a elevator, so they can move it back into the ground, a moveable roadshow, or some other trick - if it even exists at all - i am unsure, but one thing i DO know is it sure as heck isn`t where the world thinks it is, and the Japanese say it is.

What am i talking about? This, of course:

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Mt. Fuji-san. The most famous and istantly recognisable symbol of Japan that exists. Or rather, does not exist. And i`m not even the only person to have come to that conclusion. I admit to being impressed by the amount of work which goes into hiding such a blatantly obvious and enourmous structure - that David Copperfield and Paul Daniels are involved, i have no doubt - but the fact remains that it isn`t really where it`s supposed to be, and whilst it may periodiocally be there, they must remove it on a roadshow, or for safe keeping or cleaning on a regular basis...

I love this city. It took me a couple of weeks to get any feeling at all from the country, except curiosity. This is rare for me, as i normally get an idea about a place very very quickly. Moving around so much means you do get very quick, and normally very good - i.e. not indigestion - gut instincts. But i finally knew after taking a wander around Harajuku, Tokyo, on a sunday. And seeing this guy:

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Who was in no way unusual. All the Tokyites come here on a sunday (i didn`t know this in advance, hencewhy it made such an impression) to dress up how they like, in every size shape and form, and an amazing atmosphere. I`m hooked. I just now need to work out how i can conn my Swedish employers and British and American etc customers that they really should let me live and work in Tokyo. Could be a toughie...

But first, a backtrack.

I had intended to spend maybe 5 days-a week around Tokyo, and if you count 23 days as 5 days or a week, I did just that. If somebody had told me a few months (or even days) previously that i would soon be staying with a vegetarian teetotal American girl with a strange name who calls herself "the goddess" and enjoying it imensely, i would have thought they were mad. Admittedly, thats rarely up for debate, but even so. It`s a big stretch. It didn`t happen, of course - i just thought i`d chuck that in for the heck of it.

Strangely, I made it as close to Tokyo as i`d intended on the last day of cheap travel, and without incident, except for an utterly scary and incomprehensible moment when one of the trains was late and we missed a connection. All the Japanese were going mad at the 6 minute delay, as it`s not something they could comprehend. Whilst i`m not still on BRST (British Rail Standard Time), and haven`t been for some time, I still periodically plan on it, expecting at least a few 3 hour delays per day, so wasn`t exactly stressed by 6 minutes. The only real dissapointment was that Mt. Fuji-san was hiding and not going to appear for me as i`d hoped. But i`ve already covered that one, and will come back to it, i`m sure.

I was staying in a place called Chigasaki, near the beach about 30mins South of Yokohama, and a bit under an hour from Tokyo. The vague idea was to use it as a kind of base for the southern part of Tokyo area whilst i got my barings. My first impressions of Chig was that break dancing is back. Oh dear. Assorted kids and youths were practicing their moves on the station concourse, just for the heck of it i think, but very entertaining to the crowd (well, me at least) for the sheer stupidity of it all.

My host in Chigasaki, Soness, was indeed said American girl from the paragraph about teetotal vegetarians, and during my time there i seemed to sadly succumb to vegetarianism, and even more scary, showed at least a vague ability to cook vegetarian food. I need salvation. Please somebody to send me a hundredweight of good steak and maybe some sausages. Two other surfers, a great Irish-French combo of Kevin and Solene were also staying, and I discovered that they seem to have been stalking me the whole way. Not only had they been contacting similar people across Japan and were heading in teh same direction right through Asia, but they had followed me through a chunk of Eastern Europe and all the way across Russia, but they had been on the following weeks boat from Vladivostok - WHICH LEFT, ON TIME AS IT WAS SUPPOSED TO, ON THE MONDAY. NOT THE SUNDAY BEFORE. THE MONDAY. Sorry. - and had actually met a couple of other people on the boat who had missed it the previous week like myself.

Oh well.

Spent most of the week in Chigasaki, mostly milling around and sorting some bits out, and enjoying the beach. Spent one night at a really cool beach beach party, borrowed a bike and spent a happy couple of days just riding around at random, happy to be on a bicycle again after so long, took a day trip to Enoshima, a small island in the bay with a hill to climb and some temples and shrines - that just about covers a description of Japan - where i also amused myself by watching the Japanese navy (either that or the Russians dropping off a hitchhiker) on manoeuvers, some huge falcons and eagles circling around the cliffs, and gawping at some of the largest spiders i have ever seen. One of the most noticeable things about Japan is that all the insects etc are BIG. Spiders are hand sized, bees are hornet sized, butterflies are about the size of a CD case, and caterpillars etc seem to be all at least a foot long.

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Enoshima Island from Chigasaki beach, One of the shrines and it`s guardian, and a view down one of the narrow inlets.

Spent a couple of days down on the wonderfully scenic (and normally with perfect views of Fuji...) Izu peninsula, heading down with Soness one night, a day or so behind Kevin and Solene, and stayed with a wonderfully friendly American, Darryl, who was the only foreigner in his small town, and seemed to spend the entire time we were there either working or playing a chauffeur.

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Oddly designed small fishing boats in Nera harbour (and no, It`s not a perspective view of Oil tankers in the distance) and the view of the village and mountains from the spit across the bay

Izu really is stunning, and definitely a place i want to return for a few days for a bit of trekking at some point, or better still, some cycling, as the hills and hairpins were amazing! Ignoring the discovery and ear bashing i got - after she went home a day early to work - because apparently i hadn`t shut the outside window-doors properly and Nibbles (Soness` cat) had been enjoying herself wandering about outside for a day or two, all was good. Amongst others, had some great - and huge - crab, an astonishingly decent Japanese Pizza and wandered painfully around the "stones of death" (my name for it) circuit of stones designed to do something good to your feet, which went around the circumference of the worlds largest floral clock. This i know because of the Norris McWhirter signed Guinness plaque there. Even good old Norris came here.

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The Worlds largest floral clock, view from Darryl`s balcony (note the flat area on the hills where land and mudslides have wipped out the trees), and an simple warning sign. This is prime Tsunami, Volcano, Earthquake and landslide area, so people always need to be alert

After a quick trip down to Shimoda in the southernmost tip, the place where Commodore Perry and his fleet forced their way into the harbour and "negotiated" with the Japanese to end their isloation from the outside world in the 1870`s, and open up the country - or at least, some ports - for trade, i headed back.

Back in Chigasaki, things started to go a tad skewiff (i love that word, although admittedly i have no idea how the dickens to spell it). I tend to screw up badly in life at east every couple of days, and by my reckoning I had had more or less a solid couple of weeks without incident - baring my wade through Hiroshima - so was well overdue a serious mishap, even taking into account the escaping cat. When i had left for Izu, i only had an hour or so`s notice to get stuff together, do some bits and get to the station (20mins away), so i rode a bike. It was about 11pm, and i figured that parking it with all the other bikes outside a restaurant wold be safe enough, a theory which i was started to doubt as i got off the train to discover no bike in sight.

I`m in allegedly the worlds safest country, and barely a couple of days after being in trouble for trying to get somebody i`d only known a couple of days cat killed, i seem to have lost her bicycle as well.

Ah b*gger.

I had several possible theories (that i`d actually left it somewhere else, although befoerhand i was 100% positive i had left it there; it had been taken away by unknown officials; borrowed by Soness or a friend or moved as part of a practical joke and that like Fuji it never really existed) and though i was 95% sure it had been stole, i spent a good 3 hours trawling the streets and alleyways around the station looking for inspiration in case it had been moved or i had left it somewhere else. Nothing. By this point, it`s 1am, and i figure i need to sheepishly - i am, i admit, good at that - go back and explain that i`d managed to get something stolen in Japan, and enquire what colour bike she would like for a replacement.

Later it, amazingly, transpires that it is unlikely to have been stolen but rather gathered up and removed by the bicycle police (really) allegedly a constant menace and threat in Japan, but one i was entirely unaware of. So the followig day i tramped off in search of the impound lot, and after unsuccessfully trawing through 2 huge bike lots which turned out to be the wrong ones - and having decided to give it up and just buy a new one as the hassle wasn`t really worth it - fell into the right place by accident and found it easily.

For some reason i`m not entirely sure of, i gave them a made up name in cyrillic, an address in a obscure country i have never lived in, the phone number for a pizza delivery company on the Cowley Road and a passport number number taken directly from the title of a Tommy Tutone song (867-5309 Jenny). I really have no idea why, but i did get the bike back without even having to pay a fine, hugely unexpected in a country where EVERYTHING costs money. And then cunningly got stuck trying to work out how to get home again, due to the presence of an uncrossable great big highway.

I also got a probably overdue introduction to the crazy world of Japanese Karaoke as well. As some of you know from sheer horror of experience, i`m not the worlds greatest singer, and don`t tend to get involved in karaoke, rather prefering to sit in the bar and watch, listen and laugh at assorted drunk strangers murdering songs. But in Japan, it`s not like that. Whilst there are a few open places, most Karaoke takes place n karaoke houses, where groups hire individual rooms with a huge tv/song directory, and sing in private. Yup, instead of singing to strangers, only your nearest/dearest and unfortunate friends you`ve pulled along with you get to hear your efforts. The whole concept seemed very strange to me (what`s the point in karaoke if your not singing in public and random strangers cant laugh at your efforts), and also gives you no chance of hiding and ducking out of singing. Oh well, When in Rome - and no, not "the Pronmise" on this occassion - and all that stuff...

Posted by Gelli 04:00 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Madame Butterfly

Movement at a kings ransom in Southern Japan, and more water

I got the night boat to Hakata (Fukuoka, on Kyushu). I could have got the beetle hydrofoil in 3 hours, but I figured why not take a night boat for 13hours. Actually, it wasn’t 13, as they oddly boarded us at 7pm, but we didn’t leave until 12, and then arrived at 6 but we couldn’t disembark until 8. All I can guess is that immigration at both ends didn’t want to be up late/early. I had made it to Japan.

Depressingly, Alphaville, the Vapours and Aneka all went through my head, along with a chunk of the Japan back catalogue. Why me?! I headed straight down to Nagasaki (and by half way there had the Malcom McLaren song going round in my head, hence the title) where my Canadian friend lives. Some of you know her, and some know of her, but she has asked to remain strictly anonymous. So I will use an alias for her. I considered Tetsuji, but decided upon Derek. I haven’t seen Derek for a couple of years and it was great to catch up again after all this time.

My first impressions of Japan were odd. Most places I get a good gut feel for quite quickly and it rarely turns out to be wrong, but Japan I got nothing. Intriguing, yes, and I’m looking forward to seeing allot more of it, but no real first impression. The only things I noticed quickly, were contrasts to Korea. Whilst not huge numbers, I saw a few foreigners in Nagasaki, but they didn’t acknowledge each other in public, and I have yet to have a Japanese person come up to me in street and start talking, which happened to us a good few times in Busan. And the general standard of English was extremely poor. For a country which has been teaching everybody English at school for many years, I was amazed at just how few people spoke any English at all, let alone more than a few basic words.

I spent a week or so in Nagasaki, just relaxing, catching up on things, doing not allot and wandering around. It was somewhat hot (mid 30’s average), and didn’t really cool down at night either. Nagasaki is an interesting and pleasant place. Big enough to have everything you need, but small enough not to overwhelm, and a mix of cultures and histories. As well as the obvious fact it was the (unintended − that ‘honour’ was supposed to go to Kokura, now part of Kitakyushu a couple of hours North) site of the second atomic bomb, for over 200 years under the Japanese isolation period, small international settlements of Dutch and Portuguese in Nagasaki were the countries only contact with the rest world, and it was one of the first places to be opened up properly.

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I indulged in my crazy mountain climbing fetish, by going up a couple of the hills around the city in 100% humidity and 38degree heat as has become a norm. I really shouldnt be as stupid as i am regarding climbing things in the peak heat parts of the day, but i never claimed to be intelligent, and have a stubborn streak which i seem to play to. We spent a morning wandering around the A bomb centre and Peace Park, which is depressing but required. The scariest thing for me was the counters for all of the Nuclear tests and explosions that have occured - the 2 Japanese being the only ones to have been used in anger, but over 1000 tests. And the fact that any number of nukes have been lost accidentally and remain unaccounted for.

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Panorama view of Nagaski

I finally decided to get off my arse and head north.

Whilst i have a rail pass i can use, it was still early september and Seishun Kippu time. Every holiday, there is a special ticket in Japan, where you by 5 days travel for 11000 yen (about gbp 55gbp). Or a tenner a day to travel anywhere in Japan. Its a huge discount and makes a big saving, although the twist is that you can only use local trains. Meaning things take time. I planned to use my 5 days up in getting to Tokyo over a week (saving me about 30000 yen in travel) and seeing some bits along the way.

I first headed to Hagi, on the NW coast of Honshu, the main Island. It was a place i pced more or less at radom, and because i couldn't really turn down the opportunity to visit a Romanian legend. Oddly, my random choice turned out well. Hagi is a cool little historical city, which used to once be the japanese capital, and is surrounded on 3 sides by mountains, and the 4th by the Sea of Japan, and has several local volcanoes. It was mostly raining, but sht happens.

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The following day i headed back to the south coast to Hiroshima and spent a couple of days there. Hiroshima is quite a pleasant place, and felt completely different to Nagasaki. One of the main things that i wanted to see nearby, Miyajima, (a floating shrine and island) had to be dropped due to the weather which added a slight twist to my day. Again i trawled around the Peace Park and museum, and looked at the slightly different take on the tragic events to Nagasaki. I was interested to see that successive mayors of the city have written to the relevant world leader expressing their "dissapointment" at every nuclear test since, and copies of the letters were attached to a wall for reading.

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When i came out from the musuem, with no let up in rain, i started to feel that something wasn"t quite right. For a weekday afternoon, there was a distinct lack of people wandering around, and by the time i reached the main shopping area, i knew something was up. A large majority of the shops were shuttered over, and those that weren't seemed in the process of shutting up. And all had nice Japanese printed ntices stuck to them which i couldn't read. Except for something about the date and 16:00. It was about 16:30

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It`s not always quite this empty...

After pondering this a while, i started to realise that i could be in trouble. There was not a single tram in sight, and at the bus station i discovered that the previously bustling centre was utterly deserted, with not even empty buses in sight. As i came out, and stood in the p1ssing rain pondering my next move, i got picked up by a TV cameraman, who decided to shoot pictres of me standing there getting pissed on which continued my odd trend of appearing on live media on this trip. I discovered that they had shut down the city due to a typhoon, which although not due to go directly overhead (Kyushu got mashed, as did the Western edge of Honshu including Hagi) was close enough for the govt to close up out of basic cautiousness - no idea if thats a really a word, but i like it, so there. And in fairness, in the aftermath of Katrina and the US, a bit of caution and pre evacuation is no bad thing. Except that i was in the centre of Hiroshima, and my accoodation wasn't.

There was only one option, and off i walked. Or rather, waded. A nice 6km splash took me home, and after being utterly drenched after the first 4seconds, the rain was of no great consequence. It wasn't particularly windy and the rain was warm, and as i do actually like rain, i didn't mind too much. Until i started walking uphill through torents of decending water. The hostel staff laughed when i trudged inlike a drowned rat, the only person in Japan who doesnt use an umbrella, and proceeded to wring several litres of water out of my socks.

My shoes were still trying to dry off 10 days later.

I continued my trek up towards Tokyo stopping off in Kurashiki (which has a wonderful little canal district which is rightly raved about, but takes barely 10mins to walk through and then leaves you wondering what to do next), where i combined my accom search with my hill fetish and stayed in a hostel on top of a large hill which you walk through a large cemetery to get to. Kurashiki is also notable for it's Danish theme park, a combination of a Tivoli recreation and chunks of Kobenhavn. It promised an authentic Danish experience, but as it was all shut, I can only assume that it was designed as an authentic Sunday...

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Kurashiki canal area

I spent a bit of time wandering around neighbouring Okayama, home of one of Japan's "big 3 gardens" (everything in Japan is rated) which turned out to be mainly a large grass lawn, which whilst a novelty in Japan wasn't hugely excting to me, and then on to Himeji, home to one of the few authentic castles (i.e. not rebuilt with concrete) left in Japan, and then to Osaka, where i was hosted by a great Kiwi couple, Kent and Amanda, yet more amazing CSers.

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Himeji Castle

I didn't actually see much of Osaka, as i only had a couple of days left to get up to Tokyo on the cheap, but went out instead to Nara, another old capital nearby. I loved Nara. 2000 odd deer wandering without fear around a huge park area which is stuffed with assorted temples and shrines including 8 World Heritage sites and the worlds largest wooden building, which also contains the worlds largest stone Buddha statue. It is an amazing area to just wander around for a day or so, and thats more or less just what i did! Pictures probably work better than words, but i finally felt as though i was getting a bit of an idea about Japan. If anybody happens to be in Japan, go to Nara, thats all i can say.

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Assorted images from Nara, including the worlds largest wooden building, and worlds largest Stone Buddha

With the exception if a great Korean dinner and the bonus of it being 180yen beer night (every 9th of the month, randomly, and a twwo thirds price saving), i did nothing else in Osaka as i had to hurry onwards on the last day of my cheapy ticket. And thus, i tried to go onto Tokyo. But that can come later. And will.

But first, and altogether now "...When your big in japan, tonight Big in japan, be tight, big in japan where the eastern sea’s so blue Big in japan, alright, pay, then I’ll sleep by your side,
Things are easy when you’re big in japan, when you’re big in japan..."

I hate my head sometimes!

Posted by Gelli 21:56 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

And amazingly, i actually left!

Does anybody remember an episode of Friends where Chandler ends up going to Yemen? I think he's trying to escape Janis, and tries to fake leaving, but ends up having to go. And during the closing credits, you can see a plan flying and hear Chandler saying to himself in sudden realisation "I'm going to Yemen" and then to somebody else "When we get to Yemen, can i stay at your house?!". Well that's kind of how i felt on the boat to Korea. I had always planned to visit, and spend a few weeks wandering around on my way between Japan and China, but as that is in the future, i hadn't done any kind of research or got any info about the country, so was arriving entirely on the fly with no ideas.

After the hassle of actually trying to get out of the country, and my fears of bribes and confiscations at the border, it all went surprisingly well. I got to the bus station no problems, ignored the burning bus in the car park which said Zarubino on it, and prayed. Which seemed to work as a different bus appeared. The journey was longer than I had expected (over 5 hours) of which, well over half was down dirt and dust tracks, meaning we got covered in shit and bounced to buggery by the road and psychotic bus driver. Zarubino isn’t exactly the world center to anywhere, and seemed to be a small village with a decrepit port attached. No shops, way of getting money or anything. I got into the unmarked ferry terminal (admittedly the ferry next to it was a clue as to approx where to go) by following asst Koreans who obviously knew where to go past several check points. The terminal isn’t quite up to the standards you expect at an International terminal (it’s a shed), but worked. I even got through customs more or less ok. My bags went through metal detectors, but I didn’t (does that not defeat the object?), my gap in stamps caused no problem, nor did my extra cash – they didn’t bother to check or even get my deklarista off me. My lack of machine readable bar on the passport confused them (as did the fact I was neither Russian or Korean), and led to an ever expanding swarm of officials all looking at it and tutting away. But no problem. And amazingly, I officially left Russia.
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The world class facilities and entrance to Zarubino International ferry port, and loading of cargo

Typically, after the Japan and assorted other Russian boat
extravaganzas, the ferry was late in leaving by about 3 hours, and I kept expecting to be hauled back off the boat and interrogated, but it didn’t happen. The most charitable way to describe the ferry would be well used. It had probably seen better days before the Korean war started, and if Kasia hadn’t stolen my duct tape in Irkutsk, I would have amused myself for much of the journey by sticking the boat back together. There were holes everywhere. There was no bar, café or restaurant (which was open), only a few drinks vending machines taking only Korean coins, and the room I was sleeping in must have had about 200 in it, squashed on thin mattresses on the floor.

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A collection of images from the Dong Chung ferry, The engine died about 20mins later

It was a journey I will not forget in a while, but one that I strangely really enjoyed. I couldn’t tell you why, but the idea of being the only foreigner (and one of maybe 5 white people) on a knackered old boat, which leaked from all angles, lost an engine after the first couple of hours and soon developed a list of an angle which seemed slightly more than one would expect, with no food or alcohol and traveling along the coast of North Korea (at times, barely 500m off the coast) in a typhoon just seemed great to me!
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A daft photo, and admittedly you can`t really tell, but those lights are the North Korean coast, about 500metres away
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Me, the following morning after we`ve negotiated the worst of the storm
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Disembarkation from the ferry in Sokcho

Sokcho, was indeed in South Korea, and we did make it. It’s a resort town place which didn’t do much for me, although it would be a good base for some of the nearby national parks which look very good. I got my first taste of Oriental Asia, by walking the 6 or so Km around the harbour bay in the rain to the express bus station, to be told that express means Seoul only, and I wanted the local bus station, about 100metres from the ferry terminal. So back I went. Headed an hour down the coast to Gangneung for the night. And got huge culture shock. Cheap Russian accom. tends to be, shall we say, basic, and here I am checking into a cheap hotel for about 15gbp which not only had electric everything and all bells and whistles, but included free broadband internet in the room and even a portable fire escape kit, which strangely intrigued me. I even saw the first McDonalds I had seen since Moscow, which didn’t impress me. I was in civilization, and that realization caught me off guard.
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The following day, after deciding that the 9hour, 2 change, 5.30am start to get the train wasn’t worth it) I got the bus 5 hours south to Busan (formerly Pusan). It was probably the most comfortable bus I have ever been on. The seats were huge, leather and reclining, and there was a shed load of legroom. They even showed a couple of English language movies on the TV, whilst the scenery was very pleasant for most of the trip.

In Busan, I made my way around the subway to a point where yet another lovely CSer stupid enough to host me, Marie, lived. I’m convinced that there must be at least one horrible CSer out there, but I’ve never met anybody who even comes close to that description yet. Even Seb was great until after I left when he just went weird. We headed more or less straight out to meet up with yet another CSer, Emily, and some of her friends (me and 7 girls), to celebrate her birthday. And we went for an Indian. It was kind of surreal, and not exactly a typical Korean dish, but very welcome and despite my proximities to curries when living in England, it was very creditable.

We went from there back across town to the dragon bar, a cool cave like place, where our numbers instantly tripled. It was odd. In 5 minutes, I had met more westerners that I had even seen in the preceding 2months or so, and reinforced the impression is was back on the beaten path. That ignores the fact that they were probably half the westerners in the entire city of 4million (and half of the remainder were in the club we went to afterwards) so they weren’t exactly taking over the city, but suddenly meeting lots of people who were speaking English was a bit strange to me. As well as helping introduce some the Koreans to Tequila, I was given a good half dozen assorted local drinks to try, none of whom I can really remember the name of, but all of which were good, and one delicious. Must find out what the heck it was called.
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Notes from the rest of a great evening should probably be condensed to memories of Emily playing happily with several large wooden penises, several Koreans seemingly trying to marry me off to their daughters/sisters (it’s just like parts of Russia all over again) and meeting the only person I ever have outside of the valleys who knows of Gelli (he’s a Treorchy boy).
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The following day, after being introduced to an interesting dish of Bivenbap (?), Marie and I took a bit of a wander around the city. We looked at some of the markets and ‘dog streets’ where the dogs (and some other animals) are kept waiting to be chosen and killed to eat, around parts of the downtown area and up the hill – of course – to the revolution park and an interesting war memorial (one of the statues seems intent on killing the others) and strange modern scaffold sculpture nearby which after a while we deduced was probably a space shuttle – or thunderbird - launch pad. To top it off, in another surreal moment of my trip, as we waited for the bus that never came, to the amusement/bemusement of the watching locals, in a carpark on top of a mountain in Korea, I was taught how to do the Cadillac line dance.

Although we had barely scratched the surface, I instantly liked Busan and Korea. I couldn’t tell you why, it just kind of seemed right. And I can’t wait to go back and explore properly.

I can’t believe I’ve actually made it to Korea! And I’ve still never been on a plane.

Posted by Gelli 23:07 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

It was just one of them days...

It's only a tale of 24hours, but a long one. So get yourself a drink, and make yourself comfortable.

FOR a few days i had had a kind of premonition that there may not be any remaining tickets for my prefered option, the Monday evening boat to Japan. Luckily, these fears proved unfounded. There are few things that you actually need in order to catch a ferry to Japan, but undoubtedly one neccessity is a boat. This, ideally, would be the same boat that leaves every Monday at 18:00, which boarding notices I had seen on Saturday at the ticket office telling foreigners to meet at 14:00 on the 24th for customns checks, and which i had seen in harbour next to the office on the Sunday following it's scheduled arrival. And the same boat which had mysteriously left the same Sunday evening.

It is vaguely disconcerting to hear several hours before the departure of said ferry from Vladivostok to Fushiki that your options now seem to boil down to flights to Moscow (a 10,000km backtrack), Seattle (at least in the correct direction, if a little too far, and plus visa considerations as laughably, i need a visa to enter the US) and Pyongyang. And to realise that a first class flight to North Korea is actually your best option, despite the numerous inherent issues and problems is both funny and daunting. And that's before you even consider the fact that i don't fly.

I must admit that alarm bells had started ringing on the Sunday evening. On my return to the hotel, i passed the terminal building (also a shopping centre and favoured lookout post) and had seen an unfeasibly large number of people hanging around. They all looked like they were going somewhere, and it was a strange place to wait for trains from the adjacent station, and my ferry was the only one at the dock. They included several groups of identically clad children, and not a single Oriental person. I checked the ticket office (sign still on door, office still locked). I tried asking people, but found not a single person speaking a langauage i did or even happy to attempt a game of pointing and scharades. I waited a good hour or so for something to happen (it didn't), took another look at the boat (not sign of movement or even lights) and with no way to get hold of a ticket even if it was my boat, thought s*d it and around 11.30 wandered back to the hotel.

The sinking feeling turned to vague amusement and questions of "why me?!" on the monday when i went to the office at opening to try and buy a ticket and saw no boat. An English guy who was in front of me in the queue - Reevesie - who had just got off the train from Moscow that very morning had the news confirmed that the boat had indeed sailed the previous night (i later discovered that even the randomly bnrought forward sailing had been delayed by 6 hours) and we weren't on it. Oddly, despite the problem we now had, we both thought it funny rather than anything else, and typically Russian. I wasn't even surprised, 2.5months in the country, plus my continuing foreboding about not getting ferry tickets mean't it wasn't even unexpected. Although whilst being bad for me, visa issues mean't it was a near calamity for Reevesie.

Not only did he have a reservation on the boat and an email confirming it's departure on the Monday, but he'd come across Russia on a 10day visa which ended today, and in addition had to be in Tokyp within 5 days. So he at least, had to leave. The question was how.

With the next boat not leaving until the 29th (i.e. next monday at 18:00 as normal...) we pondered our options. The office of the Korean ferry downstairs had no ferry from Vladivostok until Saturday, although one leaving from a place 40km south today. Which gave us a glimmer of hope, until we discovered there was no space left, and that the options to get there mean't we wouldn't make it anyway. Land options were rapidly dissapearing for me, even though i had another 4 days to play with on my visa. The Russians sure as heck weren't going to make it easy for me to leave.

And so to the airline office. A surprisingly friendly (and English speaking) lady informed us that todays departures were limited to Niigata (which had left 30mins ago) and Seoul that afternoon (business class only). For Reevesie, It was that. Or swim. We went to the Korean embassy, intending to just confirm the visa regs for Brits - getting there and being turned around for having no visa really wouldn't have helped - but true to form, it had closed 10minutes earlier. We then attempted to find a UVIR for visa extension, but failed. With no other options, we returned top the airline office, failed to get a tciket, and then Reevsie dashed off in a taxi for the 50km trek to teh airport, with only 2hrs 30 remianing before departure, and not even having a ticket. Amazingly, he actually made it and is now sitting in a hostel in Seoul preparing to continue to Japan.

I booked myself an extra night at the hotel (the problems i had had finding space to begin with mean't i was sure i would end up on the streets the way things were going, although i loathed paying so much) and then went down to the harbour to start nagging freighter captains and the harbour master for passage to Japan. Or somewhere. Because of the sheer number of Japanese cars which are privately imported, there are a fair number of boats ploughing back and fore, and i hoped to get on one of them by bribery or payment. But that failed. Attempts to get on a Russian frigate failed as well, although an officer of a Nuclear Su that i talked to actually seemed quite amused by the idea of steaming into Yokohama unnanounced and when questioned by the port authorities, saying he was just dropping off a British hitch-hiker. And very nearly went for it. But realistically, it was never going to happen. And besides, i didn't have Erik, my inflatible camel, with me...

I then looked into train availability back to Kharbarovsk, with the intention of attempting my original 3rd choice fallback. Get a Chinese visa in a hurry at the consulate there and then get the daily boat down the Amur river into China. But there were no train tickets for 2 days, and then only 1st class on the 3rd day. So i returned to the airline office, which is where i was given the Moscow-Seoul-Pyongyang options. Whilst there are several weekly planes to Korea and Japan, they are extremely popular with tourists and car traders, and all were full until the following week, past my visa deadline. The only vague option was back to Kharbarovsk on the 1st class train in 3 days time, and mad dash to the airport for a flight to Sapporo. It seemed my only option.

It was at that point that i vaguely recalled that the Korean ferry guy had said that whilst there wasn't a boat from Vladivostok until Saturday, there was one on Wednesday from this random other port, and after reserving a flight to Pyongyang just in case (no kidding), i hot footed it back to the ferry desk. He confirmed that indeed, there was such a ferry. But his office had all sold out. He said i should try a travel agent in one of the hotels (high on the hill) who may still have one. But they closed in 30mins.

So i legged it up the hill through the streets of Vladivostok to the hotel, and got my first lucky break of the day. There was one ticket left, and it was even in the cheapest category, so i booked it then and there. WooHoo. Just as well. The person who came behind me wanted the same thing and was told there was no room left. By inches, i had a plan. Wandering back to my hotel, exausted, it then happened. With temperatures still high 20's and a perfectly blue sky, it started to piss it down with rain. I couldn't stop laughing.

After a bit of a relax and watching a strange concert of Korean-Russian mix on the beach, i decided to take the advice of the woman who had sold me the ferry ticket. She had said that buses were infrequent, and only the first of the day was guarenteed to get there before the start of customs control, and that the Russians often refused exit to those not there at the start. And that on days of ferry running, the bus was often full, and advance reservations were highly recomended. So i got a suburban train North 10km and 3 stops to the "central" bus station, where, with astonishing ease and with my luck obviously changed for the day, i got both a bus ticket and baggage ticket for the correct bus.

I then got on the train back, where after a few minutes i made the interesting discobvery that whilst i could get any local train north for 3 stops, the same wasn't true southbound. The train bore off to the left and i watched the line i should be on drift away to the right along the coast. Using my normal rules of the unknown, i got off a good 15mins later at a stop where virtually everybody else did, after a trip through a long tunnel which i prayed was not an under harbour tunnel.

My gut reaction on surfacing was to walk downhill to where i was sure the harbour was, and then follow it and i'd get back. But i saw a tram with "Station (in Russian of course)" on the side and jumped on that instead. Shortly after leaving the station, the tram bore gently to the right and started heading uphill instead of sharp right as i was expecting and kind of needed. About 10mins later we got to the end of the line and some random housing estate. Sure enough, Tram 5 does go to the station, but unfortunately in the other direction. And the tram signs hadn't been changed. And i'd just got off the last tram of the night.

So in a dodgy estate high on the hill of a strange foreign city, getting quite late at night and wearing only t-shirt and shorts, I again pondered my situation and it was at around this point that it dawned on me why i really love travelling alone so much. Many people i know, and some i have travelled with in the past, would have long ago lost the plot worrying, be constantly blaming me for everything, in a big huff and swearing constantly at me. It just wouldn't be enjoyable for either of us. Admittedly, some of it would have been justified but that's besides the point. Others i know would have just gone quiet and hidden behind me, praying for a good outcome. Some would have just shot me or kicked me hard in the nuts and stalked off. Very, very few i think would have seen the constant humour of the situation, and the 'that's life' of it all, and remained in un-acusing high spirits the entire time.

As many of you know, i'm quite happy to get get lost, and quite happy to walk. I often do just randomly walk off in odd directions in a city and just see what happens. And whilst many people will out it down to pigheadness, stupidity, pride, just being male, or whatever, i tend to think of it as being easy natured and not worrying - but if i'm not in any great hurry, i will rarely bother to ask somebody if i'm going the right way or not, and will never take a taxi, prefering instead to continue the, urm, adventure and try and solve the problem and find where i'm going myself. Sure it might take a long time, and periodically get me into lots of trouble, but i'm happy with it, and i get to see allot of places very few others ever do.

So I bought a beer and started walking back alongside the tram tracks in the way i had just come in the pitch black. And as anybody that has ever been to Russia knows, walking is perilous enough in daytime, as you never know what your going to step in next, or whether there will even be pavement there and not a gaping hole where the ground has collapsed.
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A fairly typical piece of tarmac in Russia. You never know how big the next hole is going to be...

Amazingly, i didn't fall down a hole. I got back to the place i had got on the tram, and then did what i should have done to begin with and followed my gut in walking. It was a fair old trek but after about a 90min walk (and much longer return trip), i finally made it back to my hotel around midnight, went up to my room and lay down in the middle of the floor laughing, and just waiting for the fire alarms to go off.

Ten minutes later, it did. And that was two minutes after the sprinklers had started to go off...

------------------

So as it stands, for Wednesday 24th, i have a ticket for a 5.20am bus from a place 10km north which will require a taxi to get to, followed by a 5hour bus ride to somewhere i have no idea where it is or have ever heard of, somewhere near the North Korean border. That will be followed by the delights of long winded Russian customs and emmigration, which i'm told will take 5 hours and i'm now utterly dreading, followed by a ferry journey of unspecified legnth (nobody could tell me how long it lasts, even approximately) to a place i've never heard of in Korea, near the North Korean border. And as the ferry companies map shows Korea to be one country, i'm not even certain yet if it's North or South of the parallel....

And that's assuming the ferry hasn't actually left today.

And actually existed in the first place.

Posted by Gelli 22:06 Archived in Russia Comments (3)

Almost time to leave. I wonder where the heck i'm going?!

50 hours on a train, хабаровск and владивосток

I spent a couple of days in Ulan-Ude doing nothing much except enjoying the atmosphere in the centre and wandering at random around the wooden housed streets. Really i should have made an effort to get on one of the trips to the Ivolginsk Datsan (centre of Russian Budhism), 40 odd km away, but a combination of it being tricky to visit independently, being lazy and refusing to pay for a standard intourist trip (at the same cost as i've lived off for 2 weeks) mean't i didn't. In fact the only thing of relevance i acheived was that i got a long desired and desperately overdue haircut, although her idea of short and mine varied considerably, and it took her 7 attempts of trimming before she got anywhere near what i wanted, all the time with hushed and worried conversations in Russian with some Babooshka's, no doubt fearing that i would drop dead of cold the minute i stepped outside.
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After a fun 4.33am departure (Moscow Time can be annoying sometimes when you then translate it to local and realise what time you actually leave or arrive), i was on the train for 2 days through nothingness. Beyond Chita, about 10 hours out of Ulan-Ude, there was essentially nothing for 40 hours except a few small towns and lots of trees and fields. The weather was decent, and the scenery not too bad, so the journey passed by quite quickly.

The last night i finally managed to get the newly arrived people in my open compartment to talk, and a long and lively discussion was had between the 4 of us (2 young girls and a guy) and the 2 Provodniks (both lads of maybe 18-20), plus assorted interested passers by, with only one of the Provodniks speaking broken English. But that, a phrase book and supply of beer mean't all was fine.

And the samovar died. I have never even heard of this happening before, but the 2 guys had real trouble keeping the fire going. It went out 3 times during the day, and watching their attempts to get it restarted were hilarious. If scary. But it mean't a trek through the train to find hot water for food/drinks.
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Views from the train, East of Chita

By the way, a number of you have enquired about news regarding Anna-lise and whether there is any further info or chan ce of a reunion. You may recall that we split up after i made a daft comment to her after her Grandmother had died, and we were in Croatia. I can confirm that it is utterly dead. I had a couple of very interesting (and surprising) conversations/emails with people in the weeks after which utterly convinced me that it is over. In addition, a few of you have wished that i was more concise in my writings. Tough! This isn't for you lot you know?! It's as much (maybe more) for me. I've never done a proper journal before, and as such, have only basic dates and places for the last 10-12 years travels, plus memories, which scramble, fade or just disappear. So this time, i figured i'd try and write allot, so that i have a record myself of exactly what happened to look back on in the future. So there you are.

Kharbarovsk (хабаровск)is an interesting place. I wasn't expecting much - partly i was begining to feel the constant soviet architechture and designs monotonous and was anxious for a change, and having to pay an exhorbitant sum i had had to pay to change my ticket to have more than a couple of hours in Kharb (no Platskartny on any of the 3 later trains, so i had to go Kupe) i felt sure, sod would ensure to be a waste. But i actually liked it. It had a very European feel to it, many of the signs were in English (as well as Japanese &/or Chinese, the later just 30km away). Virtually all the cars were Japanese, and a relatively high proportion of the people were oriental.
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The main square, buildings on the main street and a church in the square at the far end by the river

The sun was sparkling, lenin looked almost like a friendly uncle (hat, a bit chubby and no pointing), the bangles theme tune was by a large newly rebuilt church and a very impressive memorial (lots of people from here died in assorted battles), the fairground was bustling and the main streets lacked concrete, and where it had it, it was in a more sympathetic way (maybe Hamburgy, sort of) rather than the normal Russian way. The city had a prosperous feel lacking in most - no pot holes, freshly paved pavements, and large chunks of the river side area were restored or under retoration, and not falling into disrepair (although guessing they were before the work started). And the people even seemed to care. I would have liked to spend at least a night here, but time restraints mean't i couldn't.
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War Memorial and church

And so on to Vladivostok. Or if you prefer, владивосток.

It was odd, really. Since i was young, the Trans Siberian to Vladivostok has been my single main travel dream (only Timboktu comes close). And whilst i knew i was going to be crossing a fair chunk of Russia on this trip, i wasn't expecting to get to Vladivostok, which would wait for a later trip. It's barely a week ago i realised that i would come here, and as such my brain/emotions are still a bit fuddled.
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Vladivostok railway station. The end of the line after 9500km from Moscow

I have that "i can't believe i'm in fr*gging Vladivostok" feeling. Not the same one as the "i can't believe i'm back in fr*gging Aylesbury" felling though. Amazing. And i'm glad i did. It's one of the worst cities in the world, weather wise (the local saying is that in rains twice in July, once for 14 days, the other for 15) but i had glorious sun and warmth. In addition, people i have met who have been here say that it is nopthing special and a it of a dump, so my expectations were low. I wanted to come, because you just have to go to Vladivostok. But whilst it isn't exactly the worlds most wonderful and exciting city, it's not bad at all.
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A view over the main beach area, the war memorial and submarine museum and a final statue of Lenin

It would be a perfect city to cycle in. Compact, but lots of short-ish steep hills (i know that doesn't tally with most people's idea of a great cycle city, but on a bike, i love hills), means that you get lots of decent view points. The harbour, whilst big and central, feels right instead of overpowering or being offlimits, and the warships and navy boats just lying about and numerous sailors a wandering the city seem normal. There are some decent musueums, and a relaxed beach area with a strange naked stone women standing in the harbour. And being a hilly city, there is of course a hill to climb. Thos of you who followed the earlier part of this quest, will remember that i gained an irrational urge to climb hills near citites. With most of the places i have been in in the last couple of months being on the flat side, i haven't had much chance to keep this up, and so in catch up, I was to climb up to the Eagle's Nest 6 times, and no, didn't ever use the funicular.
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The main problem is the lack of anything vagely resembling cheap accomodation. I weas forced to pay 1600 a night (400 more than my previous highest, and in comparison, in Irkutsk i paid 300 a night. Admittedly 32gbp isn't the most expensive in the world, but it's a chunk, especially when i'm bugetting on 30ish a day all inc.), in the only hotel in the city which had space, accepted foreigners and wasn't going to cost 250usd or more. I know because i visited every sodding last one.
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The most obvious sight about Vladivostok - if you ignore the navy presence - is that it is stuffed full of oriental tourists, mainly in groups, but not entirely. Many are Chinese, some Japanese and Korean, but they are everywhere. And in a city with many Chinese?Japanese signs, and also almost entirely Asian traffic (i may have seen a dozen European cars whilst here, and not a SINGLE lada or Bonsa), so far away from it's own seat of power, i suppose it is more of an oriental city than a Soviet one.
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Unloading newly imported Japanese cars

I had a final cup of kvass (a drink that looks like beer, but is made from bread, and sold from huge tankers on the streets of virtually every Russian city) - a quite reasonable one, and in fairness only the Chelyabinsk restaurant stuff was foul, and one in Irkutsk a bit iffy tasting, had a last Shishlik and saw my last wedding parade*, and did a few bits of shopping and admin before my departure.
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Littering is a bit of a problem in most of Russia

Yes, tomorrow, with luck, i leave Russia. I've loved it here, and my time has been nowhere near enough. Yet again, i have been overwhelmed by the people and their friendliness, and by the variety (and concrete) in this vast and unknown country. I will be back yet again, that much is certain. If for no other reason than i have so many new friends here, and i more or less have to recross it if i ever go back to Europe again.
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I say with luck, for a number of reasons. The first couple of reasons are unlikely to stop me leaving the country, but concern me a bit anyway and could cost me a chunk of money. Firstly i'm abit worried of customs using their 'strict interpretation' of the rules to releave me of a chunk of cash i had hidden away and forgot to declare on entry. The second mobile phone could be fun to explain as well. More relevantly is the hole in my visa registration stamps caused by the Chelyabinsk farce. I'm hoping that either they will not notice the date gap due to the number of otehr stamps i have, and will just let me go, or that i can explain a fake travel scenario to them, and they will speak enough English to understand it, and buy the explanation without ticket proof. But i'm expecting a telling off, and a large fine/bribe.

But mainly, i say luck because i have no ticket and don't yet know where i'm going. Yes, of course, I have an ideal scenario, but over the last few days have been getting ever increasing feelings of impending doom. Added to my vast luck with boats in Russia (i even tried to take a harbour tour of Vladivostok, but that failed as well) and the short time frame, i'm not in any way optimistic. I'm not even optimistic of getting 'lucky' and being able to escape by paying supremely expensive first class rates. If my ideal fails, a number of factors come in to play, and things start getting potentially very tricky, and almost certainly anyway, expensive. I have a couple of other potential options, but both has its own problems and issues, and failing that, i may even be forced to fly out (at great expense, even if possible at all).

The only thing for certain is that i have to have left Russia by Saturday, or i'm in big trouble visa wise. And Russia is not a country you want to be overstaying your visa or having problems with it. Next update and news of how i managed and where will come when i'm in my next country.

And (unless i'm forced to fly back towards Europe) the exciting - for me, anyway - news is that it will be the first new country i have visited since Morocco a couple of years ago, and the first new one on this adventure.

Have fun all.

  • In Russia, it is customary after the ceremony for the bride/groom and a few close friends to tour all of the main city sights and have pics taken, before they head to teh reception, and i must have seen hundreds of "happy couples" in my time here. In some places (near the Kremlin in Moscow as an obvious example), its sometimes possible to see a dozen different wedding parties, almost in a queue system for the specific photo sight.

Posted by Gelli 03:33 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Улан Уде - God damned it, i love that head!

Despite the fact that my plans and ideas had fallen flat on themselves and i was going to miss the bits of Russia i had been most looking forward to, it wasn't all that bad. I now had a definite reason to come back except in transit, and a vague idea of a plan for next summer already. Or maybe the one after, as it is after all Germany 06 next summer. I REALLY want to see Sakhalin, and the BAM area, and i should be able to spend much more time there then. In addition, i'll be able to spend a chunk more time doing the bits around Baikal i wanted to, and also filling in the Krasnoyarsk gaps. Any takers?!

But as i had to scrap that, i had to go East by land and as such, had the opportunity to get to Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic, and somewhere i had been dissapointed that i would have to miss on this trip. Ulan Ude is the centre of Buddhism in Russia, and a large chunk of the people are of Mongol (well, Buryat) extract, giving the place a very different feel.

My plan of a day train from Irkutsk had worked reasonably well - the weather (annoyingly after the previous few days) was excellent, and for 6 or so of the 8 hour trip, the views of the Lake and scenery were definitely worth loosing a day over. Unfortuantely i happened to be in a train with no openable windows, and teh outsides were filthy, meaning that photos weren't a major option, but it was worth it all the same.

I liked Ulan-Ude immediately. I arrived in the late afternoon sun, and after a short walk to the centre, things took a turn for the better. I had stumbled into a large free concert in the main square, and i am a sucker for any kind of live music. And then i saw the head.
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Yup, the main reason for my visit was a head. After the previous few weeks exploits and ongoing fascination with Lenin statues and their positionings (the guy that made them must have been in almost as bad state at the fall of communism as the guy who used to do the Gerry Adams voice overs), i couldn't really leave without seeing the head. Ulan-Ude's main kind of claim to fame is that it is home to the worlds largest Lenin head. I belive it beats the one in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch by a few cm's. Regardless, it is an impressive head. Slapped bang in the middle of the main City square, and at this moment with the base covered in concert goers, all looking not entirely unlike ants, or Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, i fell in love. I should try and dig out some dimensions or something, but as i doubt many of you have a local Lenin head to measure with a tapemeasure for compariosn purposes, i won't bother.

I spent a happy evening listening to a surprisingly decent concert of Russian acts, enjoying the feel of the crowd and just gazing at the head. Even the discovery that we'd lost to Spurs, looked dire and were bottom after the opening of the Prem season couldn't shake my mood. The last band in particular were very good (and popular), although for the life of me i couldn't understand what the constant images of Gabby Batitsuta scoring for Argentina, which were being shown along with the singers head on the big screen, had to do with anything.
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It was odd, but prior to the last band, standing there with the concert and head, i was suddenly struck by the desire that I wished I wasn't alone. I have no problem with solitude and being surrounded by foreigners who i can't really communicate with, and I'm generally a solo traveller - and have been for most of my travels - yet have enjoyed myself imensely. And yet all of a sudden i wished i could share the experience with somebody. I don't actually know whether i was craving a partner, friend or random travelling stranger (more of the later i think - somone like Gary or Shan from a previous trip, who kind of worked with my warped brain and i could bounce stuff off), but there was a hole there. I came to the obvious conclusion. I'm getting old.

And besides, i wasn't alone for long. For reasons which are complex, surreal and mostly unknown even now (and a very long story which will not be recounted here), within 20minutes i found myself on stage as a 'lucky' winner, in front of maybe 20000 people having to sing along to some random Russian track. Which everybody else in the entire city obviously knew. And i'd never even heard before. And the only words they could find were in Russian. Which is in Cyrillic. Which I can't read. You get the picture. It wasn't pretty, but i did somehow manage to escape without being stoned or pelted with rotten fruit, which i considered a near miracle.

Yes, i'm in love with an inanimate object.
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Posted by Gelli 23:45 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Boats just don't like me. Confirmed. Plus lots of Poles.

Новосибрск, Красноярск, Иркутск and Озеро Байкал

(((Apol, but struggling with letters P and K on this board, and I isn't great either)))

I left Tomsk at the ungodly hour of 3.35 (MT - but the local time of 6.35 was bad enough) on the solitary train to Novossibirsk. Sent much of the day wandering around aimlessly - it's somewhere i've been before a few times - without any reason except killing time. I took in the Tiny Church in the Central Reservation, allegedly built in the centre of the country (when it was much larger), Lenin of course - this time with other people, which is unusual - and the huge Opera house one of the largest in the world and who's constructon was completed mostly by untrained women and children, after the men had all b*ggered off to war.
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Novossibirsk Opera House, Lenin and `friends` statue and the church in the centre of the country

The following morning i arrved in Krasnoyarsk. I felt strangely contented, as i had finally broken new ground. Whilst some of the places i had visited, especially recently, were new to me, they were stll on a trac that i had been several times (as i've been to Novossibirsk several times) and therefore, even the brand new ones ddn't feel like i was truly into the unknown. But now, 10 hours East of Novosibirsk, i truly was.

Unfortunately, time constraints (more later) mean't i only had 1 day in Krasnoyars, which was annoying as there were 2 day trips that i wanted to do, as well as see the city. And it just turned into one of those days.

My choices were Stolby, a Nature reserve to the North with large Granite pillars (some 100m+ tall) which have been weather beaten into strange shaes and even people's faces, and Divnogorsk - A 45min hydrofoil ride up river to a large damn on the Yenisey river which apparently has a very unusual mechansm for lifting boats over the dam, a kind of huge bucket escalator. The nerd in me decided that this was the most interestng/unusual option, so that's what i did. Or tried to.

I only new that the boat left every 2 hours. So dumping my stuff, waling nto town and grabbing food, i went straight to the pier and discovered that I had lucked out. The days first boat left at 11, and it was now 10.40. The mostly emty hydrofoil left on time, and for 5mins all was great. And then some cluning noises, and it stopped. This repeated itself, and although from then on it sounded OK, we returned to the pier we had left barely 20mins before. I didn't need to understand the Russian announcements to realise that there was a mechanical error and the boat was cancelled. Oh well.

I used the interlude to check into a hotel (extorsionate) and returned for 1pm. There was a huge crowd of mainly ids who got on first and then lots of peole got on and straight back off again (i hadn't got near the boat) and the boat left. I had no idea why. At 3pm I got on the boat, but was unfortunately the first person unable to fnd a seat, and - astonishingly - they were following safety rules and not allowing any standees. So off i got. Wth the following boat 5pm departure leaving me only 15mins in Divnogorsk before the last departure (and seeing my days luck, i wouldnt get on it anyway), i reluctantly opted out.

I will make it to Divnogorsk one day.

By then, of course, it was also too late to visit Stolby, so with both of my must-see's blown out of the water, i wandered around town. I managed to avoid being interviewed about some building on radio, but this is becoming a disturbing trend that i ee being approached lie this. I like Kras. It is on the river, surrounded by hills and has a thriving feel to it. The centre has some lovely old and wooden buildings, and the people seemed happy. Even Lenin seemed to have a grin on his face.

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Krasnoyarsk church, quirky restaurant entrance and the view from my hotel room

The following morning i got yet another early train for the 18hour journey to Irkutsk. I hadn't deliberately choosen the only one of 8 trains which didn't run over night, that was done for me. The plan was to meet up with Ala (for any of you who have been stupid enough to read all of my inane warblings, you may remember her as being my host in Wroclaw) and a few of her friends on their way through to Mongolia, and head to Baikal for a few days together. She had sent me the train #, so it is entirely her fault i had to crawl out of bed at 5am.

And oddly, it did actually work. A few hours later i wandered down the train to meet up with Ala, Kasia (who i'd also met in Wroclaw), plus Ike and Eliza, 2 other poles they had met on the internet and were travelling with. And 2 more Poles. Kryzs and ??, they had randomly met on the train, in normal fashion. With the exception of Michel/Mjeh, who doesn't really count, they were the first non Russian/Soviet block people i had had contact with (or knowingly seen) since i left Moscow, and it was a bit odd to suddenly be back amongst people i could easily communicate with.

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Ike, Kasia, Eliza and Ala on the train to Irkutsk

With a delightful 3am local time arrival in Irkutusk, we farted around the station for most of the night. The only moments of interest being repeated attempts to stick Ike (the only one who slept) to the bench with duct tape, and when Ala, Kasia and I took a wander to change some money and encountered a suicidal man trying to jump off the road bridge into the Angara. The odd thing was that the police were there, but hadn't stopped the traffic or pedestrians, and were actually sitting in their parked car in the central tram tracks shouting at the guy, whilst traffic and pedestrians went past between themselves and the jumper. It just seemed a tad odd.

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Ike asleep on Irkutsk station, shortly before the duct tape incident

That afternoon, after a bit of a wander around one end of Irkutsk, and somehow acquiring a couple of new friends - an English girl, Sofia, and an American, Chad - we piled on to one of the few buses to Listvyanka. The bus was predictably late and falling apart, limited room for luggage beneath the bus meaning we had to lug stuff on with us, and despite us having reserved seats, was hopelessly overcrowded, meaning that the 3 Polish guys and I got to stand/sit in the aisle. And the journey was a combination of break neck down hill sprints and sharp corners followed by snail pace up hills (literally at 3 or 4mph). We got stopped by the police, and an elderly drunk guy kept fondoling Ike's legs, but we got there.
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Cramed into the bus to Listvyanka. Note the 2 asleep Poles behind Ike

Listvyanka is a small port at the mouth of the Angara river on the banks of Lake Baikal, about 60km from Irkutsk. Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, and with a couple of exceptions, the water is completely safe to drink, and could easily supply the entire population of the Earth with it's drinking water for 40 odd years, even if every other source was to dissapear tomorrow.

Mainly due to Lake Baikal, Irkutsk is the one place on the route of all 3 Trans-Sib routes which is stopped off at by virtually all TS travellers, and hence has a more of a tourist feel/focus. and when in Irkutsk, virtually all visit Lake Baikal. Which means Listvyanka.
The village itself was a ribbon along the lake, and although containing a fair splatterings of lovely old wooden houses, was nothing special, and obviously very touristy. The central square was full of tourist stalls, and coach parties of daytripeprs from Irkutsk(inclucing large numbers of orientals) were much in evidence. It was odd that after seeing no foreigners at all for weeks, i was suddenly seeing them everywhere in a small village.

The weather was still wonderful, and after the amount of farting around and indecision that always accompanies a large group with no one leader (and the loss of one American), we walked along the coast out of the village and set up camp on the beach. Followed a few hours later by a group of about 10 poles, 2 of whom actually knew Krysz and his friend. Why is Baikal full of Poles??? A great evening of doing not allot except relaxing and drinking, admiring the scenery, failing miserably to keep a fire lit for more than an hour or so and eating Omul (a wonderfully tasty fish, found only in the Lake) was had by all (except Ike, who went to sleep in the eraly evening and wasn't seen a again!). The night was perfectly clear as well, and we got a fantastic stary night. There is very little i enjoy more than being in the country/middle of nowhere, with no artificial lights, and a clear sky, and just gazing up at all the stars. I get mesmerised by it, and can spend hours doing it, and this was probably the finest sky i had seen since my nights in the Sahara a couple of years previously.

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Lake Baikal, near Listvyanka

I did get a timely reminder of something i tend to peridocally forget though. Despite my proximity to the worlds biggest vodka factory, i'm not a vodka fan. I can drink some, but not lots, and especially when tired or haven't slept much, my drinking vodka is, how shall we say, not pretty. At some point i wandered off, and probably after making a huge fool of myself and a being a drunken idiot (i'm waiting for the first people i have to pay off to come forward), lay down and half fell asleep and half star watched whilst ignoring everybody else. In the early hours as things were winding down, i was handed my sleeping bag, rejected the offer of tent space (we were already over capacity after we gained Sofia, and i love sleeping outside, so never had any intention of agreeing, although possibly the vodka had clouded my judgment. And the sky) but swiftly abandoned my original plan of heading up the hill a bit to sleep in favour of lying on the beach.

And so it was that i awoke at around 5am in the pouring rain. Most of you know that i have no great problem getting wet, and rarely even carry waterproof coat etc. In addition, i'm sure most of you are aware that i have a habit of sleeping in odd places etc anyway (sometimes by choice, but often not entirely - such as in the famous cases of Hoor station, the Odense hedge, Czech burnt out car and many others which assorted of you will know about), and don't carry a tent with me. But i'm not necessarily always a huge fan of lying asleep on the beach in the pissing rain without any sort of shelter. My sleeping bag was still dry inside, so for a good 30-45 minutes, i just lay there getting wet, pondering developments and what i should actually do about them.

Being the hardy (read: stupid) idiot that i am, there was no way i was going to admit defeat and sheepishly crash a tent. So i climbed the hill to the place i was originally going to sleep before vodka and stars won over. But the trees didn't give the cover i'd hoped, so i ended up cheating (or depending on your point of view, using intellect and quick thinking. This is admittedly unlike me, but everybody else subsequently thought it was), and head back towards teh village. In every Russian resort etc, there is a half built hotel, normally now sitting vacant and not still under constructon, as ideas &/or money have run out. And at the edge of Listvyanka, barely a half Km from where we had camped, there was such a structure which i clearly remembered. So i wandered to it, clambered inside, checked the area for brown lumps and smell, and then settling on a pile of straw in my sleeping bag, fell fast asleep.
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Camping by Lake Baikal

The following day, the damage was assessed. Sofia was long gone, and most people were wet. It finally let up raining a bit, enough to pack up the camp (although Kryzs and ? were satying on for another few days), and we repaired to the village for coffee - Ike had cunningly woken up after about 16 hours and his first major act had been to kick over the boiling water, Mr Bean style - and freshly smoked Omul, amd to kill time before the return bus. A few of us took a wander around the village and up one of the side roads/valleys, which was quite pleasant with wooden buildings, but still felt touristy and the weather still wasn't great.
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The Listvyanka fish market, back street with typical housing, Poles asleep after a night on the vodka and after pictures of coloured cows, i figured its time for some real ones

Back in Irkutsk, said fairwells to Ala, Kasia, Ike and Eliza who were only on a transit visa, and had to head to Mongolia that evening, and with the weatehr now (typically) cheering up, i went off to find a ho(s)tel. Frustrating to say the least, and took me 3 hours before i found one that (a) was still a hotel and open (b) had space and (c) accepted foreigners. And even then i got lost trying to find the building with my room in it, as they sent me back out of teh hotel and across the square! But i did. It was dingy, but only 300rbl a night (6 gbp), so can't complain. Although my visa registration cost more than a night in the hotel.

I spent 2 more nights in Irkutsk, and frustrating ones they were. Despite being a pleasant city with enough foreigners and influence around to make it feel Un-Soviet, It rained virtually the whole time, meaning that sight seeing wasn't as much fun as it could have been, although there were a few interesting things to see. And there was no real point returning down to the Lake as i'd hoped to. I also discovered that a combination of factors (high amongst them being no useable boat) mean't that my plan came unravelling at the spine.
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Irkutsk - Church near the bus station, Cathedral, Lenin statue, Tomb of the unknown soldier, Monument to the Trans-Siberian railway workers and the building which if it was larger, in Sydney and an opera house, would be the Sydney Opera House, but is instead used mostly for dog shows

I'd long intended to get the boat up Lake Baikal, and then cross through the BAM region, get the ferry to Sakhalin, and spend a couple of weeks on thge island before heading on the ferry into Wakkanai, Hokkaido, the northern most Japanese island. In fact, the stretch Irkutsk - Baikal - Sakhalin - Wakkanai was the one on my entire trip/outline idea that i had been looking forward to most. But logistically, i had to conceed that in th eremaining visa time, it just wasn't going to happen. It might be pysically possible (just), but would be very tight and requiring allot of luck. And mean't i wouldn't see anything. So reluctantly, i had to scrap it. And come up with a new plan.

I wonder where the heck to go next?!

Posted by Gelli 23:44 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

In search of a womble. A specific one.

НОВОСИБИРСК and ТОМСК

Some places you go to just because of the name. It is for this very reason that amongst many others, i have visited Hell (the road to Hell is a 7km long virtually straight downhill tunnel, if approaching from the East, anyhow), climbed Wank, and done the Fucking to Condom journey. And so it was that i just could not resist the temptation to visit another Womble.

I actually now have serious plans in the not too distant future to specifically travel and then write a book about visiting the Wombles. Just think of the places and extremes you would go to. It has to be done. I'm open to possible companions if anybody can say why they should accompany me. And if one of you steals me idea, a fate worse than picking up Rubbish awaits you.

If you have no idea what i'm talking about, this link may help explain...http://www.wombles.easyweb-solutions.co.uk/pages/fmain.htm

And so it was that i headed to Tomsk. I had planned to go straight through, but after a 16hour trip through to Novossibirsk, Russian beaurocracy and service got the better of me and after being shuttled between different ticket desks without ever finding the correct one, mean't i missed the connection, and by the time i found the bus station (not where my book said), i had just missed the last bus, and the only alternative was a minibus arriving at 1am and which would cost me an extorsionate 1000rbl (he'd seen a foreigner and trebbled the price). So i stayed the night. It was absolutely sweltering, and despite having had a shower, after going for a walk at 10.30, i was already drowning in sweat and as smelly as before within the hour. I also got to hear one of the very worst (but funny) bands i have heard in ages from the hotel window, and it took me a good 20mins to actually realise they were trying to play Pink Floyd songs..

After chickening out and hidding from a rain storm, i got the bus and made it Tomsk for 160rbl without incident except an interesting armed check point where guards came and wandered down the bus looking for whatever, but not checking papers. I tried to look Russian (or at least not Polish), and it seems to have worked.

Tomsk is an interesting place. The towns officials specifically wanted nothing to do with the Trans Sib when it was being built as they thought it would affect their trade monopoly on the Post Road. Sure, it did, but not in quite the way they were worried about, and by the time they realised this fact, it was too late. The tiny hamlet of Novo-Nikolayevsk (now Novossibirsk) which grew up just to house workers on the Ob bridge supplanted it, and Tomsk despite being relatively large still (about 500k), has a kind of strange off track backwater studenty feel - i think there are 6 universities, and a 5th of the population are students.

In terms of sights, the city is nice without being packed of must see's. Last year had been the cities 400th aniversary (celebrations cancelled due to Beslan), so allot of the buildings had been renovated, and money spent on new things which helped. There is a great Chekov statue, the inevitable Bangles song, Glorious leader statue and theme park (as in every single Russian town and city - it is a long held search to find one somewhere which doesn't have at least 2 of the 3. I figure there must be 1 town which they forgot about if nothing else), plus theatre and university buildings, plus some wonderful wooden buildings, although a number of these seem to now be falling into disprepair and several have apparently burnt down in suspicious circusmstances if they happened to be in prime locations...

I was staying with 2 HCers, the Pakulevs of Alyona and Evgeni, plus Nora a smaller than usual but still scarily friendly dog. Two lovely people and great hosts, and no problems despite Evgeni's lack of English and only basic German. Scarily, they had the most un-Russian appartment i had seen. It was all perfectly decorated, everything worked and was wired correctly and they even had running hot water, things i had begun to regard as vague memories.
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Evgeni, Alyona and me outside of one of the few remaining mint condition wooden buildings in the city

It is at this point that i must mention the biggest travesty of the entire trip. Neither Evgeni or Alyona, nor anybody else i was subsequently to meet in Tomsk had ever even heard of the Wombles. I kid you not. People in Tomsk have never heard of Tomsk http://www.pennyhapenny.com/catalog/images/harroptomsk.jpg

What could have been a huge tourist and money draw for them, and obviously should have been a huge statue in the town centre, the good people of the city had no knowledge of it's existence. Education. I am now on a crusade to educate. And if anybody can locate a large stuffed Womble (of course Tomsk would be best, but any would work), please please let me know. I have some friends that i need to send it to...

I know i waffle on lots and so this thing is a good dozen times longer thanb it needs to be, but as i've said before, nobody is forcing to you sleep in front of it.
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The War Memorial and standard eternal flame

On the second day, it was Evgeni's birthday and as all the family were coming around, and none of them knew about HC, it could be hard to explain the presence of random foreigner, so it was agreed that i would disappear for a while whilst the family was entertained. I was going to wander off alone (in search of wombles, naturally), but Alyona had otehr ideas. And thus i met Albert (and his friend Marina), a businessman with Chinese interests who was a newly signed up HCer in and was more than happy to lose an evening showing a foreigner around, and practicing his English. We wandered around the city a bit, saw the founding stone of Tomsk, and the rebuilt Kremlin areas and some of the centre and after dinner at a strange aborignal place we retired to the Siberian pub.
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The rebuilt old Kremlin

Now i don't want to give the wrong idea about the Siberian pub, but from the moment i entered teh door i sensed that my ideas of what a Siberian pub would be like would be a tad off the mark. I'm not sure if it was the obviosuly Siberian artefcats of a life sized Beefeater, pictures of Lady Di or framed front covers of the Telegraph and Times which gave it away first, but in fairness, the White Hart on days when the fire is off is more like my idea of a Siberian pub than the one in Siberia. oddly though, they had no British beer on draught.

The following day was the real birthday celebration for assorted friends and a good 20 or so crowded into the flat, including one poor chap in a wheel chair (only 2nd floor) after a climbing accident a couple of months previously. In normal fashion, i was again the only foreigner in a group that in general spoke little English, but it didn't bother me at all. It's strange how you become used to being at parties/gatherings where you can only really talk to a small number of the people there, and normally end up just sitting there listening to assorted converstations in foreign without having the faintest idea what's going on. I think that's actually part of the fun, as your imagination works away to try and work out what they might be saying, and add your own translations to it, whilst being carried along anyway. I actually now find it really strange to be at a party etc where everybody is speaking English and i understand everything. Most odd. Suffice to say, a great time was had by all, and i even managed to coax more English out of some later on as the numbers dwindled.

One otehr thing to add - to my list of fast food and beer munchies that i think should be brought into Western Europe as soon as possible (see earlier thoughts on the subject), i must add Russian beer snacks. These guys know all about drinking beer and have come up with a number of excellent (and cheap) altenatives to crisps and nuts, including calamres strings, dried anchovies and what are approximately fried flavoured croutons. None of that does them justice, but they are all damned good.

And to top it all off, Carlie and Steve gave birth to their second daughter, Jessica. Congrats all around.

Posted by Gelli 01:26 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Papa Lenin and the farmers in Tyumen (ТЮМЕНЬ)

From Tobolsk, I took a late afternoon train back to Tyumen on the main Trans-Sib route (pron Tooo-min or some such) on which i was the only passenger in the provodnika's carriage, so on discovering i was also foreign, decided that i was worthy of full attention and lots of free food and drin, although she spoke not a word of anything I did.

In Tyumen - a city of 600-700,000 which is on the Main trans-sib route so passed through by lots of tourists, but none have ever heard of it or stopped off - i was met by my welcoming committee of Masha, Susha and Kostya, although sadly without the promised welcome poster. Masha is a HC member who wasn't able to put me up, but had said we could meet and grab a drink and show me around and find me a hotel. And that very afternoon, via a complicated sms convo (thanks Vaida!) with my arrival time confirmed had suddenly found a friend (Kostya) who was happy for me to stay, although he subsequently found a friend of his who... but i'm getting ahead of myself as usual. Time is so constricting being linnear. Has anybody else ever felt that?

I spent a good 3 or 4 hours amazing them that my English was so good until it dawned on me - and as those of you who are aware of my mental prowess will know, this is not a quick process - that they thought i was actually Swedish. Doh! They were 3 wonderful people, and i felt instantly happy in Tyumen, which is kind of odd as it normally it takes me at least an hour or so to adjust to people i meet and feel fully comfortable with them.

Although i got there quite late, I was promised the grand tour, and got it, but for reasons and ways which will only really make any ind of sense at all to those who were there, it didn't really work like that. It's amazing how many jokes and how much fun can be made out of Russian Orthodox Churches, Aquariums with no fish, Knives in nightclubs, Beyond the river 1 and 2 (actual districts and postal addresses) and stunningly lit Tyumen versions of the Golden Gate Bridge which wasn't Golden or even lit. And some of the most amazing socks ever seen by mankind. And for me to make such a claim is heady stuff as anybody who has seen what i walk around T-Kartor in will know. These were serious socks.

It seems that it was only lit until 1am or the bulbs had been borrowed by somebody to light a fountain, or some such. Susha insisted she couldn't stay out late due to an iterview the next day, which we assumed was morning but later discovered was 4pm, which kind of killed that. After paying homage to Papa Lenin, unusually, in Tyumen he wasn't pointing or even with an arm outstretched, and finally getting Susha home (to this day, i have no idea how the interview went), we got a bottle of winewhich is of no relevance except that it came with its very own corkscrew, something none of us had seen before. Yes it broke the cork and didn't open the bottle, but even so. Progress is a wonderful thing.

We then took Masha back and got a taxi out to a lovely concrete block (about 4am) to the house of DJ Sasha, Tyumen's #1 club DJ, and another to add to my musical collection of the trip, who was the friend of Kostya who had indly offerd to put me up. The 3 of us had a couple of drinks, talked randomly and listened to a selection of his discs into the morning. As i've possibly noted before in the strange case of Juste's mother becoming vegetarian, HC (and CS) are scarily powerful tools/communities. Within 12-15 hours, the friend of a friend of a member who had never even heard of the HC previously was happily hosting a visiting foreigner. And it didn't even really seem strange.

The thing which to me was most noticeable about Tyumen (and this trend continued as i went further East) was the sheer number of Japanese cars in the streets with the steering wheel on the right - Russians are on the left - which seemed kind of odd, as its not as if Japanese firms don't make LHD versions. Why i always notice useless little cr*p like this and not relevant things like the huge s*d off pot hole i'm about to fall into (except in Tyumen which was astonishingly lacking in them), i don't really know.

The following day, after being adopted by yet another large and drooling dog - Masha's - and with Masha limping like mad and Kostya falling asleep, we went on a daylit tour. Again the bridge was not lit, the ocean had no water and the aquarium no fish, whilst Orthodox churhes continued to abound, the socks were different but of the same high standard, the famous balcony was viewed from inside after the previous nights out (that no church was visable was dissapointing), and we took a 2 hour trip to try and find a huge anchor which we never found and which neither Kostya or I believe ever really existed. The one thing of note about Tyumen in the book i had - 2 huge pipelines going through the town - was also conspicuously absent, but i again got the Bangles going through my head, and got to see the very first stone laid in the town (although they seem to have forgotten to build the rest of the building around it, so it wasn't really a helpful stone), Siberia's first ever settlement. Just the idea of Siberia has mean't so much to so many and caused untold suffering and deaths that to visit the place where it actually started (as Russian Siberia - obvioulsy the land existed beforehand) and one which was just kind of there instead of covered in tourists or having a big deal made over it, like Auschwitz, was strangley moving.
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Masha with the first stone, literally the building block, for Siberia

Tyumen's other claim to fame is that this is the town where the glorious leader Lenin's body was hidden during the war so that the German's couldn't get hold of it. I admit i hadn't realised that the entire WW2 was a smoke screen for Hitler to get hold of Lenin's body, but it wouldn't really surprise me. So for many years, randomly, enin lay in a classroom in the basement of the Tyumen Agricultural Institute. I don't know why that idea amused me, but i must admit i can't really see Maggie Thatcher's body being secretly moved and then cared for by a team of experts in the Bridlington farmers institute during WW3...

I would also speak about our plans for Tyumen's future rise to tourist superstardom, an idea for the begining of a huge postcard market and an incredibly stunning plan for a Lenin Statue in odd positions exhibition (with an afro/mohican, on the toilet, standing on his head, doing the riverdance and in Karma-Sutra positions amongst others), but we have fortunes to made before i can spill the plans and besides, the chances of any of you having even the faintest idea wtf i'm going on about is remote. So i won't.
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Me and Masha at the station. Scarily, neither of us had touched alcohol in a good 20 hours, although there`s no way you could tell!

Posted by Gelli 00:38 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

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