Tuesday, December 19, 2006

So, this is Siberia?

I found my hostel.
I drank some tea.
I wondered what the hell a man does with himself in Irkutsk.
I fell asleep.

I woke up a few hours later face first on the kitchen table to see a couple of oddly familiar looking girls. It soon dawned on me that I had seen them one night in the restaurant car during the last leg of the Trans-Siberian but never bothered going over to say hello. They started discussing their need to renew their VISAs, and it dawned on me that I needed to too. Fortunately I had picked up some good advice from a lost hippie who was hanging around the hostel earlier that the Hotel Angara in the city centre performed VISA registration for an unlimited period for a meager 200 rubles, whilst our hostel hostess was trying to charge us far more to only register it for the days I would be staying at the hostel. I saw this as the chance to make some friends and get something constructive done so I pounced and the next thing I was wandering the streets of Irkutsk trying to track down the hotel with Emily and Ellie. The three of us wandered from the hostel to get something to eat, having no idea that we had been snared into a strange web that had been spinning around me and everybody I met. A web which would eventually bring me back in contact with several groups of people I had met at completely unexpected points along the rest of my trip. We compared itineraries and it turned out we all had the same plan of seeing what we thought of Irkutsk before heading down to spend as much time as possible by Lake Baikal, it was clear we would be hanging out for a bit.

As for Irkutsk, well, I didn't think much of it to be honest. Like so many historical cities worldwide, Irkutsk is now trying too hard to be a modern city and all the new construction and ubiquitous road works have placed a dusty, noisy mask over what is left of the true charm of the city. The highlight of Irkutsk has to be the wooden Decembrist houses scattered throughout the winding streets. The Decembrists (aside from being a rather good band) were a rebel group of Russian army officers who returned to Russia in the early 1800s, after extended periods in Western Europe, with drastically altered views on how their country should be run. Having experienced the more liberal forms of rule there which existed, and succeeded, with far less Monarchist influence they returned determined to make a change to the Tsarist regime which continued to reign supreme in Russia. When Tsar Alexander the 1st popped his clogs in 1825 they saw their chance to seize control, so in December they marched into Senate Square in St.Petersburg with hundreds of their troops and demanded change. Unfortunately, the powers that were weren't too keen on crazy ideas like democracy, human rights and the elimination of serfdom and on top of those now known as the Decembrists didn't manage the whole ordeal too well, and in the end 5 of the head honchos were eventually hung (in bizarre circumstances) and everybody else sent off to a lifetime of labour as far away from civilisation as possible. In Siberia. Anyway, to cut a long history lesson short, seeming they were stuck in places like Irkutsk for life, they made the most of it and erected some impressive wooden houses.

The houses have withstood a fair few harsh Siberian winters and many still stand (sometimes only just) today. For many of them the history of the buildings is more impressive than the structures themselves, whilst for others are equal in both appearance and substance. To be brutally honest though, despite my initial intrigue I became fairly numb to them fairly quickly. Maybe I missed the point, but Irkutsk just didn't hold much more appeal to me after this. I was eager to get to Lake Baikal, a place I have dreamed about going to for years, so I got down to some research and decided that the best place on the banks of Baikal for me to visit would be Listvyanka, a small port town opposite Port Baikal on the southwest tip of the lake. Located just off of the Circum-Baikal railway, Listvyanka sounded just the way to experience Baikal and soak up the unique lakeside culture whilst not straying too far from Irkutsk where I would need to return to in a few days. Luck was on our side and we were offered some (supposedly) nice accommodation at a small art gallery right by the lake for next to nothing and we got an early night in order to get a bright an early minibus to Listvyanka the next day.

Okay, so we didn't get such an early night and wound up at a horrible Russian Karaoke bar with some Irish lads we met belting back more than our share of Vodkas and I was a bit of a sorry sight at 8am the next day. We delayed our departure a bit and decided we would instead head over and get a group taxi from the Main bus station when we felt up to it. At around 11am we finally set off for Baikal in style; crammed into the back of a minivan laden with backpacks, suitcases and fishermen, nursing the slightest Vodka induced headache. I realized the driver was clearly insane as we hurtled through the busy streets weaving in and out of trams and humans at break-neck speeds and off into the countryside. Once out of the city the road to Listvyanka is as straight as an arrow and lined with beautiful pine forest which I could just about make out as it flew past our window. The ride is about an hour and a half long (whilst traveling at these speeds) and fairly uninteresting unless you REALLY like pine trees. However, as we skidded, tilting around a corner at 1000mph the trees dropped off into the sea to reveal Lake Baikal in all its glory. I was lost for words. For the first time in my trip I wasn't thinking about what country was next on the list, when my next train left or where I would sleep tonight, I could only stare in wonder at the sheer size and beauty of this lake in the blistering midday Siberian sun. Eventually I managed to blurt out something, which considering I was in the back of an over packed deathtrap of a minivan with a suitcase and large backpack crushing my legs, was a little bit daft:

"Right now, there is nowhere else on this, or any, planet I would rather be".

I meant it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Thailand! Elephants! Party! Yeah!

Okay, I'm going to take a short break from recounting the past to talk about the future. I am all booked on another trip (albeit a very short one) to Thailand over the New Years holiday. It's not so much of a traveling experience as a quick holiday, but I am excited all the same. The basic plan is this:

30th December: Leave Hong Kong arrive in Thailand and hopefully go out in the evening for a good meal and some night market browsing. No doubt padded out with several beers and some quality banter.

31st December: The big day. Plans are vague but the general idea is to hit the streets of Bangkok during the day and in all likeliness buy far too much Thai memorabilia and have to find a post office to ship it back to my new place in Hong Kong. Then comes the evening. My plan: throw myself into a sea of people and see where the tide takes me.

1st December: A Write off.

2nd December: Early rise and a boat/train/taxi to Ayutthaya for a day of temples and elephants. Well, that’s the plan anyway! For those who don't know, Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of Thailand and lies slightly north of Bangkok. It is a world heritage site and is famous for is numerous Buddhist temples. Which is the main reason we are going, the other being the opportunity to see those temples on elephant back! After that will be an early night back in Bangkok ready for our AM flight.

3rd December: Back to Hong Kong

That’s right, rushed but crammed full of Thai goodness. I got my flights really cheap on a special VISA card only deal from the mighty Zuji. I am really excited about Ayutthaya, especially if the elephant back tours work out. The elephant camp in Ayutthaya was flooded a few months back and all the elephants evacuated but from my research so far it would seem they are back up and running. It comes highly recommended and they take very good care of their elephants by the sounds of things. This is especially important given the plight of many of the performing elephants in Thailand who are terribly mistreated. As for accommodation I am going a bit up market and staying a proper hotel! It is right on the Khaosan Road (which is, by all accounts, where the NYE party action is at) and seems reasonable in quality and price.

I guess that about sums it up, and I hope some of the above links are useful for anybody planning similar trips any time soon. The only other point of note is that I plan to start my very own one-a-day/project365 photography project on the stroke of midnight '06/'07. The basic idea is that you take a photograph every day for an entire year and keep them blogged/flickr'd. I love the idea of being able to really document what stands to be a very exciting year for me in pictures as well as expand my photographic skills. I just invested in a new digital SLR (a second hand Nikon D70 with plethora of accessories for a total bargain) and I am slowly becoming comfortable with the myriad of settings and features. I figured it is a perfect way to develop my technical skills as well as test my creativity in having to come up with something interesting and attractive every day for a year. Not difficult during the countdown to 2007 in the centre of Bangkok, but probably a bit more so on the average Tuesday at work.

So there you have it, my New Years in a nutshell. Now back to Siberia...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Top Ten Trans-Siberian Tips

Okay, so I was at work this week thinking about the Trans-Siberian railway and I put together my Top Ten Survival Tips. Of course, these are only formed by my experience on the railway and are just a bit of fun, but with any luck they could help anybody who is thinking of taking this amazing trip! Here goes...

1. Come Prepared
If you are staying on the train for a long stint, bear in mind that you won't get the chance to access much more than pretty basic supplies for most of the trip, so come prepared. Any travel guides you may have will be sure to have a comprehensive list of useful stuff to bring on the Trans-Siberian railway and it is in your interest to pay heed to that. The different numbered trains vary slightly in terms of what you can purchase on board and the facilities offered as standard. Some may have plentiful toilet paper supplies, or provide cutlery and mugs but it's best not to take any chances. One piece of kit you should definitely bring is a plug for the toilet sinks. Nearly none of the bathrooms have these so if you want to fill the basin up for a wash or shave at any point you are going to need one. As for food and drink supplies don't expect anything other than basics along the route, so if you can't go without smoked salmon or quails eggs for a few days then bring your own.

2. Stay Safe
Traveling the Trans-Siberian is like traveling anywhere else and the same safety rules apply. Be aware. Remember that you will almost always stand out as a tourist and, therefore, a target. Just don’t make yourself an easy one. Generally speaking, the Trans-Siberian route is pretty safe, however, it always pays to stay savvy. Keep an eye on your stuff, and even if you get the impression that you are in a carriage with some nice people, you never know if they might be tempted to make off with a little 'souvenir' when they jump off at their stop in the middle of the night. Single women (and men) traveling in 4 berth cabins should be careful too, you may get stuck with some people who you really don't feel happy with. Be sure to make your Provodnista aware if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at any time. It is not unusual for solo traveling ladies to travel in third class on many trains as you will be unlikely to find yourself alone with an inappropriate passenger with the extra people around. When you are off the train, be aware of trackside pickpockets and as ever when traveling keep your money and documents somewhere safe, and preferably with you at all times. Remember also that when you get off the train, anybody else can still be on it so don't leave any gifts on display for them. Don't worry too much about people coming from off the platforms onto the train, though, Provodnistas are fiercely protective of their carriages and will always be manning the door whilst you are catching some fresh air.

3. Keep an Eye on the Time.
All carriages have a timetable on the wall containing times for all the major stops along the route. Keep an eye on these so that you are ready to hop off and mosey around the stations and pick up supplies when you get the chance. Some of the stations have some worthwhile attractions to check out, whilst others are completely featureless. All, however, offer fresh air and, normally, the chance to at least pick up a few supplies. It's worthwhile setting an alarm for early morning stops, and waking up to realised you missed the last stop by an hour and the next isn't for another 6. Late night stops can generally be missed, as the vendors tend to shut up shop and trackside merchants are scarce, especially in the winter. Also, keep an eye on the time zone changes and local times. All trains in Russia run on Moscow time, so don’t be surprised when it is pitch black and the train clock reads 5pm. Also, if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian/Mongolian train, be aware that your ticket will state Moscow times for your Russian departures then swap to local times for your arrivals once you cross the border.

4. Befriend Your Provodnista
Your Provodnista is your best friend on this trip! They are in charge of keeping your carriage in order, often lend or sell useful supplies and are generally very useful people to have on your side. Even if there is a foot thick language barrier between the pair of you try to smile, be nice and avoid irritating them as they will inevitably be the person you have to bargain with if something goes wrong. Aside from essentials or potential problems, having a good relationship with your Provodnista could even give you access to some creature comforts like extra pillows or blankets. They are generally friendly and helpful (unless you are unlucky), but they are unlikely to make the effort unless you do especially if there are language difficulties. Basically, a little effort could go a very long way.

5. Bring entertainment
Books, cards, music, games or even a snazzy little portable DVD player. Despite some dramatic scenery there are only so many trees you can whiz past before the view becomes a little monotonous. At other points of the journey, the view can, frankly, be a little depressing. So what better than trying to explain Uno to a Russian teenager, tucking into a foot thick fantasy novel or watching dodgy pirated Moscow DVDs with complete strangers to wile away those long hours between stops.

6. Watch Your Sleeping Pattern
Whether your cabin mates are trying their best to keep you up, you can't get comfortable on your train bed, you are partying way too hard or you have general lethargy induced by days of not venturing more than a stones throw from the train you spend all day on, be wary of your sleeping patterns. For those prone to napping, it's very easy to find yourself rocked to sleep by the train at three in the afternoon only to wake up at 8pm and consequently still be wide awake at 3am. Added to this is the fact that the Trans-Siberian railway stretches across several time zones which you cruise in and out of seamlessly. Next thing you know you are wide awake at 3am or falling asleep at noon, all the while gaining or losing an hour for every day or so of travel. Not a nice shock to the system when you finally arrive at your location at six in the morning having been wide awake since midnight.

7. Money Issues
Don’t forget to bring cash. You are unlikely to have any access to ATMs except for at bigger stations, and even then don't rely on it. So if you plan to pick up any supplies or souvenirs as you go then bring plenty of rubles. Be careful, however, not to bring too much as you are made to declare all of you cash as you cross international borders and if you have a large sum you could run into problems as the Russian Government are funny about tourists taking money out of the country. Also, it is handy to have some US dollars or Euros for changing with the hordes of money changers that will flood your carriage if you are entering Mongolia. They will also take any left over rubles you want to dump. Never accept the first price you are given for your money from these money changers, and be ready for a good haggle if you want to get considerably more togrog for your buck.

8. Stock up at your stops
And enjoy the evolving cuisine as you make tracks across Russia! The food and drink on the train can be pretty disappointing and overpriced to boot. Unfortunately, the only real other source of hot food onboard is anything that be made with boiling water, available in every carriage. However, as anybody who has ever traveled unprepared on a long train journey will tell you, instant noodles get very tedious, very quickly. On the other hands the trackside Babushkas and kiosks, omnipresent at all the main stops, have more than enough to keep your stomach happy. As you move from region to region what you can buy varies, so tuck into varieties of dried fish from waterside towns to bags full of pine nuts in Alpine areas. Also expect a range of dried meats and sausages and other great nibbles throughout. Aside from food you can also pick up all other sorts of supplies from toothpaste to cold drinks and vodka, a key socializing tool on the train!

9. Don't wander too far from the train!
More of a follow up to the last tip, but important enough to be a tip of its own! Be sure to ask how long you have at each stop if you plan to go for a stroll. Even then, don’t be tempted to stray too far. The best advice is to just to at least to keep the train in sight and be ready to dash back when you notice the platform starting to empty back onboard. If you do find yourself out of sight, then just make sure you are back at the train 5 minutes before you have been told it is due to leave as they normally start getting people back onboard around that time. They will leave without you. That said, don’t be afraid to have a wander, the train is very unlikely to head off earlier than planned.

10. Have fun!
If you can't enjoy traveling as much as arriving, the Trans-Siberian railway just isn't the place for you! The journey isn't a hop from A to B but a completely unique travel experience in its own right. Whether you are working your way across in shorter jumps or traveling several days at a time don't miss the chance to experience Russia from a unique perspective. Take time to meet new, interesting and often completely mental people. Take in the views, which range everywhere from grey, dreary industrial towns to epic forest landscapes, and fill your memory cards to the brim. Make sure you get your Russian/Mongolian/Chinese phrasebook out and embarrass yourself, sample the varying food along the way, have a good haggle and an even better laugh. It’s an amazing journey, enjoy it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Trans-Siberian Banter

It was late and I was a mixture of tipsy, excited, slightly lost and a wee bit apprehensive about the trip ahead of me as I stood on the tiny platform that marked the starting point of the mother of all train journeys. My awe inspiring Russian language skills had got me this far and now it was just a matter of waiting under the announcement board for my train number to come up. I decided that seeming I had already started drinking I would continue, so I headed to a kiosk to pick up a bottle or two of Baltika 7 to pass the time. Standing outside, I spotted two lads laughing and speaking English and as I passed they made a beautifully inappropriate comment about some people they had been traveling with that made me chuckle. As I returned from the kiosk, they were still at it and I decided I had to introduce myself, it was clear they were waiting for the same train as I was, they seemed like fun, and I was eager to establish some English speaking acquaintances on the train as sooner rather than later. The very moment I decided to say "hello", our platform flashed up on the screen and so I used that as an excuse to strike up conversation. It turned out this would be one of the better decisions I would make on my trip.

Adam and Jon turned out to be a really nice pair of young lads from London who were in Russia on a program to practice their Russian whilst traveling across the country. It also turned out they were staying one carriage down from my own and had an almost identical itinerary to my own whilst traveling across the trans-Siberian. What's more: they had a bag full of snacks and vodka and spoke Russian. On getting to my carriage I was feeling very lucky to have met the pair of them and we arranged to meet up and hang out a bit after we left to get settled into our cabins. My luck only seemed to get better when I got to my room to find I have been moved to the Provodnista's cabin which instead of being a 4-berth is made for 1, with a sofa seat instead of a bottom bunk and a bed on top. I dropped my bag and took a photo of what (I thought) would be my home for the next four days.

Soon after I had made the top bunk bed, my Provodnista was tapping on my door, and told me to make up the bottom bunk as that is where I would be staying. Concerned that I might be staying in the same room as her, virtually rendering my chances of partying in my cabin impossible, I cursed my luck and started making up the bed. However, it turned out to be my lucky day and the top bunk was in fact for an energetic teenager who seemed quite good fun, though we could barely communicate. He declined my offer of a beer but invited me to the smoking cabin for a cigarette, which I accepted even though I don't really smoke. Whilst standing between carriages, Adam and Jon showed up and had a chat with the Russian lad who turned out to be called Igor, and was the son of my carriages Provodnista. We went back and introduced ourselves to Igor's mum and then the four of us disappeared into my cabin for the rest of the night armed with some munchables, a pack of cards and a couple of bottles of vodka.

When I awoke, slightly hung over and completely unaware of what time it was, the train was stopped. I clambered off my bed, slung some shorts and sandals on and pottered, bleary eyed, onto the platform. It was a miserable day but the cool drizzle on my face did better for me than a hundred aspirin ever could and soon Igor was waving a pack of cigarettes in my face again. Soon after, the other two had joined us and we went for a stroll to pick up some food and drink. So it continued for the next few days, the four of us hanging out in our tiny cabin or the restaurant car, drinking, smoking and playing cards. We made an effort to get off every time the train stopped to have a little wander or pick up supplies. A few of the stations have some interesting things to see, or an impressive interior or such, but a large proportion offer nothing but a chance to stretch your legs. I could write for hours about the journey and the things we saw and discussed along the way but it would be of no interest to anybody but me. Likewise an exact itinerary of the journey would be a bit of a dull affair. I guess the trans-Siberian railway is a fairly dull affair at its core. I don't know what possible appeal I saw in days and days on a train traveling through the closest thing there is to 'the middle of nowhere' but not for one second did I regret it. A whole host of weird things happened from stealing the key to the rear door of the train and getting photos of us hanging out the back to late night discussions with Russian fighter pilots, but in general most of the time was spent doing...not much really. I suppose 'surreal' is the only way to describe the whole occasion.

Whilst alone, most of my time was spent staring out of my little window, marveling at the enormity of the Russian landscape. All along the way, I was pinching myself. Whether at a decaying Siberian industrial town or making tracks through the beautiful Urals into Asian Russia I found it hard to believe that I was finally here; traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, I was standing on the platform in Irkutsk, saying goodbye. I left the station alone, figured out roughly how to walk to my hostel and set off across a bridge over the Angara River. It was sunny. Painfully bright. In fact, Siberia was damn hot...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Moscow: Heart of the Motherland...

...and a very strange place.
Moscow is a huge, sprawling, beast of a city with a population to match. I read on the mighty Wikipedia that is actually the most populous city in Europe and as such expected Hong Kong-esque bustling streets and an overcrowded city centre. However, Moscow being the behemoth it is, you are never faced with the sense of overcrowding that you get even in cities like London. Either that or half of the 10.5m population live underground or something.

In fact, the most crowded place I did visit in Moscow was underground. The Moscow metro has to be the most impressive metro system around and is a tourist attraction in its own right. The stations are all built adhering to the typical "look how big and mighty we are" guidelines and this soviet scale and style is apparent in every station. However, every station seems to be different from the last as well. The walls, floors and ceilings are plastered with classic communist imagery and you are never further than a sickle throw from a statue of some square jawed chap looking determined or an angry looking eagle.

Above ground most of Moscow is equally impressive with its imposing buildings and countless monuments harking back to days long gone. I didn't get half as much time as I would have liked whilst in Moscow and a couple of days simply aren’t enough. I had a reasonably priced, clean and comfortable hostel in a good spot and could happily have spent a week roaming the streets and checking out the sites. Alas, I had only two days and one night to see what I could so I contented myself with a trip to Red Square and the Kremlin, had a stroll around the epic GUM State Department Store and popped in to check up on Lenin. Having a look at Lenin lying in his mausoleum at the heart of Red Square is definitely an interesting experience but I couldn't help but laugh. Now I know it might seem the wrong thing to do, however, I couldn't keep the laughter in when the guy in front of me turned to his mate and loudly whispered, "He looks like he is covered in butter". When the echoing of my snort of laughter finally hushed over the deathly silent chamber I made a hasty escape under the glaring eyes of some pretty pissed off looking guards and some amused looking tourists.

Red Square and the Kremlin are pretty magnificent but heaving with tourists, Lenin/Stalin look-alikes posing for pictures, crap souvenirs and even a couple of dancing monkeys. Of particular annoyance is the constant presence of Russian police checking VISA validity. Russian Visas need to be registered for every three days spent in a different place; if they are not appropriately registered you are liable to suffer a pretty hefty fine (at worst about US$200) and a lot of hassle. In Red Square (in particular) the number of Russian police ensuring that neglected Visas are found and fined is overwhelming, and in two days mine was checked twice. Of course, being the responsible traveler I am, my documents were all in order but that didn't seem to stop them trying to extract a 'fine'. One guard was convinced that the fact I did not have my VISA registered in Moscow despite the fact I would not be there for three days (and had both my incoming and outgoing train ticket to prove it) still constituted a breach of VISA law. I challenged him on this and muttered an exchange with his colleague in Russia before they both grunted and sent me on my way, but by many accounts some people have not been so lucky and been 'fined' or paid an outright bribe to avoid whatever it is they would have done if you refused. You may find yourself asking, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?". Well, the situation has got to the point where a separate branch of the police are actually employed in order to keep an eye on the notoriously corrupt Moscow street police.

The last thing I did before setting off to leave Moscow was drop by a supermarket to buy some supplies for the next and most exciting leg of my trip. I had been chatting to a lad in Moscow who had just completed the Irkutsk - to Moscow leg of the trans-Siberian in the opposite direction. After listening to some of his stories I figured my best change of finding some people to hang out with should I find myself in a carriage with absolutely no other English speakers was to buy a few bottles of Vodka, because "all Russians speak Vodka". So stocked up with snacks, vodka and shiny new ticket I headed towards Moscow station to embark on the longest train journey of my life.

The 5151km #10 train to Irkutsk, Siberia.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Resuming Transmission

Okay, I am determined to finish this off...

Since my last post I have experienced a lifetime of changes and half a world of places. Briefly summarise it went a bit like this:

When I entered Russia I had a rushed trip in St. Petersburg and Moscow followed by the mother of all train journeys. At no point during this did I manage to get on the internet for longer than ten minutes at a time. After that came a stint in Siberia and Mongolia (with even less internet exposure) followed by a few weeks in China. For the time in China I have no excuses other than the fact the so much had happened in Russia and Mongolia that sitting in front of a computer for hours recollecting this would have deprived me of time spent exploring. Now, however, it is all over and life has slowed to strolling pace. I am behind a desk, fulfilling my role as part of the corporate machine and intend to use that time both recollecting my last little adventure, and planning the next one...

Of course, it would be too much to try and fit this all into one post, so over the next few entries I will be trying to put together an accurate reconstruction of the second half of my trip from memory, before they too fade and I forget where I even went. I realise that few people are probably interested in this anymore (if they ever were in the first place) but I think this blog has become more of a journal for myself than anyone else.

Well, here goes....

After some wobbly Scooby Doo-esque time-travel transition I found myself at Helsinki station at some ludicrously early hour of the morning. Despite the early hour, I was still late for my bloody train but managed to negotiate the station with European efficiency (possibly the last station on this trip that will be easy to navigate what with Russia, Mongolia and China ahead of me). I proceeded to fall asleep almost instantly, and it wasn't until I was rudely awoken that I got to enjoy my first ever experience in Russia. I must admit my first Russian experience was rather hairy one (in both senses of the word) being awoken by a classic James Bond style border official armed with all sorts of scary weaponry and his equally scary dog. After pondering for a while what they do if the dog decides it need to 'go' mid interrogation I opened up my Trans-Siberian Lonely Planet guide, for this was the first stage of my trip where it would come in handy. The train pulled into Finland station, St. Petersburg, and armed with a few handy phrases and a rough idea of where my hostel was I stepped onto the platform to a rousing patriotic anthem and felt Russia concrete beneath my feet for the first time.

My stay in St. Petersburg was rather uneventful to be honest and I recall my arriving my more vividly than the actual stay. The weather was good to me, the city was beautiful and the people surprisingly friendly. I saw the main tourist’s sites as usual, but you should all know by now that I never really spend much time writing about those things as any guide can give more information than myself on the matter and in most cases the actual visit to the sites in pretty standard. However, no account of St. Petersburg would be complete without a little about the Hermitage, one of the largest collections of art and historical artifacts on this fair earth. However, as intriguing as the contents of the buildings is the buildings themselves. The complex is enormous and many of the rooms within the building are so lavishly decorated they border on tacky. The best example of this being the doorknobs. I know it may seem odd to visit the Hermitage and comment only on the door handles, but the inner metal-head in me couldn't help but love the fact that they are all dragons’ claws holding onto massive plastic 'rubies'. There is also so much gold paint/leafing on the ceilings, walls, doors and even floors of the place that Gaby (a lovely German girl who fancied a trip to the museum) and I developed a new categorisation process for the rooms.

After rating the rooms anything from 'too much gold' to 'distinctly lacking gold' we headed off for a night out in town. Successfully avoiding the mental Russian who lived at our hostel we had a nice night out on the town with some other English girls we met and wound up outside some monumental club disputing whether or not to go in and witness the greased up Russian bodybuilders in g-strings dancing to techno. Despite being assured this wasn't a gay club and there were many 'beautiful women' inside, I decided against it as I had a night train to catch and I didn't fancy navigating my way to and through Russian train stations completely destroyed.

Of course, all this time I got pictures, so go check them out:


For now I will leave it at this, but expect another update soon with details of my stay in Moscow and onto the Trans-Siberian railway!


Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Well, as it went the journey from Bergen through to Helsinki was surprisingly easy and even relaxing in places. The train ride from Bergen back to Oslo was even better this time round, the same scenery but with better weather. My afternoon in Oslo was dull but restorative and consisted of using the internet and watching some happy clappy band sing songs of praise at the station. My afternoon is Stockholm was lovely but not of particular note. The sun was out and I cruised around all of the central areas with my big old backpack on. Sweaty back and shoulders but nice sightseeing. I didn't get up to much particularly adventurous, just meandered my way from the main train station in the north of the city to the ferry port in south stopping at most major tourist locations and trying to sneak in for free. The ferry ride was good fun too and had all of the classic/rubbish activates to get up to i.e. quiz on the top deck, bingo, duty free booze and a couple of games of waste-your-money-in-the-casino. I met a nice couple whilst admiring one of the best sunsets of all time from the back of the ship and spent the rest of the evening playing cards and drinking beer with them. Next stop, Finland...

There isn't much I can write to explain just how enjoyable my stay in Finland was. The city of Helsinki is much like any European city and by now, as I mentioned, I was becoming a bit blasé with regards to the European capitals. There is always a nice building here, a nice church there, a few big roads full of McDonalds and normally a big park in there too. However, staying with people who really know and love the city they live in is an infinitely rewarding thing. Jyry and his friends were the warmest and most fun group of guys I have met in a while and remind me a lot of my good friends back in London which turned out to be just what I needed. Every night of the week, whether they had work, or not they would be happy to walk or bike down to the area of town known as Kallio or invite us over for a beer, which surprised me since Jyry's description of average young male Finns was that of a generally insular bunch who drink too much. It struck me that this could possibly be said of me and my mates and maybe thats why I felt right at home once the ice was broken. The mid-week though was just a precursor to the weekend to come. Plans had been made for a weekend visit to Jyry's cabin in the countryside.

It was immense...

The cabin itself was an old-as-time log cabin about as close to the edge of Lake Lojha as you can get without being ankle deep. In fact, the only reason it is allowed to be so close to the waters edge is because it was built long before regulations were brought in 50 or so years ago stating cabins must be built further back from the shore. I guess the easiest way to describe it is to appeal to the romantic vision most people would have of an old log cabin nestled snugly where forest meets lake in the Finnish wilderness. Easier still is to just go look at the pictures! The night consisted of the manliest activities one can imagine short of spearing a wild moose and eating it raw. We roasted countless hunks of meat over an open fire, fired up the traditional Finnish sauna (of course!), cooled ourselves off in the lake and listened to hour upon hour of Finnish power metal...all the time drinking about as much beer and vodka as it is possible to without causing permanent damage. It was nothing short of a perfect night with the lads done Finland style and one I am unlikely to forget. Soon enough though, it was time to leave and after saying my goodbyes and inviting everybody in Helsinki to come stay with me in Hong Kong when I get my own place I was on a train to St. Petersburg, Russia. More interesting stories ensue but right now I simply don't have the time! Another update tomorrow...

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Nor-way Jose!

Oh yes, the greatest title yet!

Right... I'm having a somewhat lazy evening in Helsinki and thought I would use a bit of free time to post a bit of a catch up on my Norwegian exploits.

I arrive in Oslo at around 8AM after my overnight train from Malmö, Sweden, only to find that my hotel had an even more outrageous check in time (4pm) so I had the best part of the afternoon to check out the City. I picked up a few guides to give me some ideas about things to do and hit the streets. A backpackers budget guide to Oslo which warned me straight off about how expensive Oslo is, a comment I didn't pay much attention seeming that I am used to pretty expensive cities having lived in Hong Kong and London. In reality Oslo makes London and Hong Kong look relatively cheap. Being a traveler, I'm not really concerned with taxes or the general cost of living as a resident but instead the backpacker essentials such as food, entertainment and beer. After paying nearly £6 for a sandwich and some orange juice for breakfast (from a 7-11 no less, hardly Michelin starred service) I decided I would do well to watch my wallet very closely. As such I decided my best bet would be to rent a bike and simply look around for the day and try my best not to buy anything unless I was starving to death.

The bicycle rental system in Oslo is clever and surprisingly cheap; you pay 60Kr (around £6) and you receive a smart card which works on bicycle racks which are scattered across the city for 24 hours. When you put your card in a rack, a simple bike (4 gears, two wheels etc...) is released which you can ride around for up to 3 hours before having to replace it at any of the other racks in the city. Using this cool little system I just pedaled around seeing the typical tourist’s sites. The most impressive of these is probably The Vigeland Sculpture Park. I don't know much about the artist in question but the park has hundreds of cool sculptures in a picturesque setting. Otherwise, I have to admit that Oslo didn't provide a great amount to excite me. Maybe it was because I was feeling a little down. I'm not totally sure why. Maybe I was just being a big girl, maybe it was because I miss my little puppy Chili or even just because I am a tight bugger and spending so much money was stressing me out, but either way Chelsea losing 2-1 in the last minute to Mark-Bloody-Viduka-Boro didn't help. Fortunately, I was heading to Bergen the next morning and it turned out that it was exactly what I needed (even though I didn't know it yet...)

Before heading on this trip I had heard that the Oslo to Bergen railway is one of the most impressive in the world. It is. Only an hour after leaving Oslo the first signs of a leaving the city and entering the great outdoors are apparent. Then suddenly, the fairly standard issue countryside lakes and forest scenery are swept into the darkness of a fairly long tunnel. When you emerge, the world changes. I don't know what sort of odd portal we went through, but the next 4 hours were spent with my face/camera stuck to the window devouring the epic landscapes along the route. It's easy to forget that the world outside the frame of the window is actually there and as countless lakes, mountain vistas and even Glaciers pass it would be easy to become desensitized (in a television violence kind of way...). However, I can honestly say it was the first long train journey I have taken where the traveling was more enjoyable than arriving. Pictures fail to capture quite how amazing it was, but I tried to take some none the less. The town of Bergen, though, turned out to be a quite a match to the train journey there.

My hostel was conveniently located right by the fish market in the center of town, and after checking in (finally a hostel with a sensible check in time!) I headed out to see what I could see. Bergen is small, but what it lacks in size and things to do, it more than makes up for in charm and beauty. Instead of wondering what activity was next on the list I was more than content just walking around and looking at things from the port and fish market, to the old wooden buildings to the tips of the 7 mountains surrounding the city. One thing I did notice about Bergen that day (aside from the fact it wasn't raining, which it supposedly does 90% of the year) was the number of metal head touring around the city. Though I fit right in with my At the Gates t-shirt and general attire I couldn't help but wonder why I had seen more pasty arms and legs, dodgy black t-shirts and even dodgier black hair today than in the rest of my trip combined. The answer was only a beer away. As the sun spectacularly set on my first day in Bergen (see pic above) I decided to find a place to have some food and some fizzy golden travel fuel and on the advice of a girl in a rather fetching Morbid Angel t-shirt I went to a bar called the Garage. It was Hole in the Sky festival. Tonight, under this very bar, would be a metal-stravagaza with bands such as Necrophagist and Morbid Angel playing. What's more is that this would continue for 2 more days with Celtic Frost, Witchcraft, Satyricon and even Atheist playing. As I tucked into a horribly overpriced beer and complained that I couldn't find a ticket and American accent beside me muttered "Hell, we are playing tomorrow night and we can't get downstairs". Turns out even if you are in one of the headline acts you couldn't get in if you weren't playing that night and so began my evening of drinking with the guys from Atheist.

I awoke refreshed by a night of beer and death metal, and determined to conquer one of the mountain peaks surrounding Bergen, however, the famous Bergen rain was to dash my hopes for now. The highest peak (Ulriken) was engulfed in clouds and they didn't look like moving. I waited the day out to see if it would clear up but by lunch time it became clear that I would have to settle for visiting Floyen and small peak closer to town. I can't imagine what Ulriken was like because the view from the top of the Floyen funiculaire was spectacular, but I had my sights set on a long walk up to a higher peak. Armed with a bottle of water, jacket and MP3 player I headed through the rain up a 3km trail to a nice looking lake. A few hours or so later I was still walking and couldn't seem to figure out if I was still on the right trail. What I did know though is that I was heading up, and that was good enough for me. The weather was deteriorating, but I couldn't bring myself to turn back as every corner revealed a new perspective down the mountain to Bergen, a nice lake or some forest older than time itself. At this point, I may have already seen my original lake (there were so many it was hard to tell which one was the right one) and I abandoned my quest replacing it with a newer one. To make it to the top of this wall of rock if it killed me. Never in my life have I been happier to be tired, wet and hungry on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

I came back down a new man, the slight sadness of the previous days was behind me and I didn't even care that I didn't have enough money to eat a nice meal when I got back down. I was exhausted. I bought some supermarket pasta and sauce, cooked it at the hostel and fell asleep almost instantly. Tomorrow was to be the start of a busy two days of traveling in which I would make my way from the west of Norway to Finland by means of train, bus and even a ship. Sleep was just what I needed then, and it is just what I need now.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pictures online now!

Hey guys, got to Finland safe and sound. Staying with an old friend from Hong Kong who has an incredible computer setup and I have been able to finally get some pictures online. Go have a butchers HERE!

Or for a more interesting perspective on the pictures, go here!

My Norwegian adventures will be summarised when I have a bit of free time but right now I'm going to tuck into the bottle of duty free vodka with an old buddy. Happiness and silliness ensue...

Peace and Unity!

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Invisible Maze

Don't ask me how, soon after I wrote my last post I found myself in an invisible maze. I had to memorise the route (which changed day by day) and navigate my way through a big empty room without hitting the invisible walls, which would cause my head to vibrate. But first, a bit about Denmark...

My first day in Copenhagen was a bit of a damp squib. Whilst waiting for the rain to calm a bit back at the hostel I started chatting to a Brazilian guy. I told him that I was going to see a few sights and then find a pub that would be playing the Chelsea match and then try and get in touch with a friend of Bjorn’s for something to do in the evening. He liked the sound of that plan and the next thing I knew we were out cruising the town together (when the sun decided to make a cameo). Over the next two days we walked about the place, took in the sights and sounds and talked a lot about football and complained about prices and weather a lot.

Copenhagen is a cool city fully equipped with impressive architecture, a rich history, Vikings, a teeny weeny little mermaid on a rock and loads of people on bikes. I wanted to rent one of these contraptions to aid me in my sightseeing, but unfortunately the deposit was more than the maximum payable amount on my debit card so I had to settle with my trusty feet (sadly, attached to my not so trusty knees). I must have walked well over 1000 miles over the days and the old boys held up well. I was there and saw all of the old buildings and tourist sights, saw Chelsea open up a frosty tin of whoopass on Man City and even went to the erotic museum. The museum starts basically as a surprisingly interesting summary of eroticism (basically old pictures of people getting at it) throughout different periods in history. From here you are taken through to the present day via a maze of artifacts and narrated videos (and even Denmark’s first 'real doll') with a particularly detailed section on Copenhagen's prostitution. This section holds the single greatest museum exhibit I have ever seen. In one corner is a little window with a curtain you are instructed to peek through to get an idea of what a prostitute’s bedroom would have looked like circa 1850. To cut a long story short, it is a few bits of painted cardboard with two shop-window mannequins (nipples and pubes drawn on) moving mechanically to and fro on top of each other with the occasional grunt or groan over a speaker system. I have never laughed so hard. I thought they might throw me out. Sadly, they didn't.

Later, the Copenhagen National Gallery to see a French Master Drawings exhibition (which strangely included Picasso...who wasn't French the last time I checked). This was great, and the Copenhagen national gallery is a wonderful building. It was here that I had my experience with the invisible maze, the basis of my little allegory at the start of this post. You figure out what it means, it was something about traveling but it seems so long ago now the moment is gone. Copenhagen was fun and even though Bjorn’s friend never showed up I had Bienardo to hang out with which was cool. The city was stunning when the sun finally decided to shine, there was no end of cool stuff to do, but eventually I had to leave and it was another goodbye, and onwards to Oslo. I swear by the time I have finished this trip I will have a sofa to sleep on in every country on Earth! I am currently in Oslo having already spent a few days in Bergen (in the west of Norway) but I am rapidly running out of time and as usual I have far to much to say so I guess this is another post cut short. By Sunday I will be in Helsinki at a friend’s house where I may finally be able to get some of my photographs online for you all to see and also finish my Scandinavian adventure!

Now where the hell is the bus to Stockholm?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Heading East Part.2

Why is it that hostels all have the most nonsensical check in/out times? I arrived in Copenhagen today at 8.30AM, went to my hostel only to be told I can't check in until 2PM which irritated me greatly. The place is in a great location though, right in the centre of town, so I can't complain I suppose. Last night was an interesting night, I got to Berlin hoping to be able to easily booking myself a couchette on the Euronight Express from Berlin to Malmö (in Sweden, but only 20minutes from Copenhagen) but wound up having to pay €30 for a proper bed as the couchettes were sold out. It hurt my bank account, but it was nice to have my own room with a nice bed and even a shower in the hall. When the conductor came around asking for my ticket he also asked me to sign a boarding card for a boat telling me that about 3AM we will be setting sail. Just what I needed; having to wake up mid-slumber to climb onto a boat. Much to my surprise, the train actually pulls onto a boat, sails for a few hours and pops back off in Sweden without us having to ever leave our cabins. I didn't even know that was possible! I sincerely hope they made the peasants in the second class couchettes wake up and pull the train on board manually.

Anyway, Prague...

On arriving into Praha my first destination was Dejvicka (pronounced *David's Car*, later to be known simply as The Car) to meet Colin at a pub. Now I was incredibly happy to see Colin again because the last time we parted ways we didn't get much of a chance to say goodbye properly as we had been out that night and a series of events led to me standing on the street alone at about 5AM whilst my him and my other housemates were already on the night bus. I didn't get home until ages later, everybody was tired, went to bed etc etc.... This time we could have a proper send off and we went about it in style. The first night was pure Prague party carnage. Again, accounts are not necessary; anyone who knows me and Colin will pretty much get the idea. Sadly, this left the next day as a bit of a write off, however, sticking to my rules I refused to waste a day and about 9PM I headed out alone to see the City by night leaving Colin and Neva to watch a film on my portable DVD player at home. I decided not to get too adventurous and just headed up Prague castle which I had heard had its ground open until 11PM each night.

Let me say beforehand, if you ever visit Prague and do not visit the castle by night, you may as well have not bothered going. Of all the things I did in my 5 days here, this is the one thing that will stay with me forever. Climbing the old castle steps I completely neglected to actually look behind me until towards the top, an Australian couple about to stroll back down commented on the beautiful view. I turned around and uttered a brief poem which I felt summarised succinctly my emotions at this exact moment in time and space. I like to call it, "Holy Sh*t". Fortunately the couple found this as amusing as I, and I continued to climb until I reached the gates. At around 10PM the castle and grounds were near enough empty which made for an almost ghoulish atmosphere as wandered through the small 'village' that is the inner castle grounds. At the centre of the grounds lies the single most impressive religious structure I may have ever seen. As I turned the corner to view the front of the St. Vitus Cathedral my earlier poem ran through my head but didn't seem to do it justice (plus I doubt Jesus would have appreciated it much as a poem). Standing by the base of the entrance I felt dwarfed in a way no building has made me feel before. I mean I grew up in Hong Kong, so I am no stranger to buildings far bigger than this, but St. Vitus has a presence that makes you feel completely powerless and humbled. Maybe it is a religious thing.

I must have been there for the best part of an hour before some armed guards started to usher me away to close the grounds. I went back and tried to put the place into words but felt it best if we just went again tomorrow by day. We went back and it didn't seem to have the same aura. Maybe it was the hordes of like minded tourists or the lack of dramatic lighting but it simply wasn't the same. We spent the rest of the day doing the usual tourist route over the Charles Bridge into the old town to watch the Astronomical clock chime the hour, I bought a copy of The Trial at the Franz Kafka bookshop and we had a few beers in some nice bars and restaurants.

The rest of my stay passed in much the same way, chatting away the days in the sun with Colin and Niva, enjoying the finest Czech Pilsner, accidentally finding ourselves in the nudist section of the local swimming lake and that sort of thing. I have to say, Prague is one of the greatest places I have been in the world, and one I would jump at the chance to back to any time soon but after 5 days I had already blown my chances of seeing Berlin and didn't want to do the same with Scandinavia so off I went...

...and now, here I am. Copenhagen is calling me and I only have 3 minutes and 12 seconds left on this account, hopefully the sun has tried to shine whilst I have been in here otherwise it could be a damp day, but either way I am sure it will be fun.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Heading East Part.1

Its interesting how you come to learn the way in which different cities across Europe work in comparison to each other when you are jumping from place to place. For example Vienna's heart is contained within the Innerestadt, contained within a circular ring road. Prague on the other hand is broken up into numbered districts, with the two main areas connected by the spectacular Charles Bridge (which I continuously seem to call the George bridge). Once you understand this, in the same way you soon learn that London is in fact one enormous amorphic blob which seems to have landed on the planet with a smoggy splat rather than ever adhere plan, you find the cities that bit easier to navigate and you can finally begin to get around with minimal difficulty. I suppose the City I have got to know better than any other on my trip is Prague because I have been here for twice the time I have spent anywhere else. But that would be getting ahead of myself, last time I checked we were still in Vienna...

Reading my last post makes me chuckle a little, because soon after I wrote that I might "take it easy" that night, the room was invaded by a horde of partying Irish-folk who force fed me beer and made me go out and party until sunrise. "Ce la vie", I muttered as I left the hostel at midnight to Vienna's famed 'Bermuda Triangle' (the name is pretty self explanitory, but for the slower of you it is the official party district). "Zut alors!" I was slurring as I was forced to check out of the hostel at 9am and somehow find my way to Slovakia.

Fortunately, Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in the world and are only an hour or so apart by train. Even more fortunate is the fact that Bratislava was the end of the line because no sooner had I put my bag on the rack had I fallen asleep and was awoken by an amused looking couple at Bratislava station, god knows where I would have wound up otherwise. I went straight to the hostel and went asleep again and woke up about 2PM and refused to waste a day and hit the streets.

Old town Bratislava is a maze of cobbled streets and alleys and is easily the smallest city I have visited on my trip so far. The weather was awful but that did nothing to take away from the charm of the place, though sad as it may sound charming old town centres with with winding streets and the odd church here and there are becoming the norm in my travles so far, which is why the castle looming over the old town provided a unique perspective on things in more way than one. On visiting the castle during my second afternoon (a far sunnier day) I gained an entirely different perspective of Bratislava. A 360 degree view from the castle mound revealed a cascading view to the beautiful old town to one side with the castle gardens to another. However, the river lying north of the castle acts as a swelling border between two very diffferent eras in history. Rows and rows of communist block housing stretch as far as the eye can see on the opposite bank of the river and to one side of these, equally endless fields of wind turbines. Try as I may to get a picture of this startling view, the limitations of the camera simply do not do it justice, though it is not something I will be forgetting any time soon, it's just a shame you can't share it with me!

By night Bratislava is good craic. Back at the hostel I met some keen partygoers and the usual shenanigans took place, all of which aided by the fact it was a Saturday night and the Slovak locals were all out as well. They don't take too kindly to you chatting up their women though (of whom 75% are ludicrously good looking), which I found out from two guys who simply told me, "these are our women, stay away". They turned out to be nice guys though (successfuly) trying to wind me up, and they took us out for the night and showed us how the Slovakians party....very hard. I won't go into details of the night out, but the dinner we had before heading out is worth commenting on primarily for the quality but as much so for value for money. The simplest way of putting it is that a 0,5L glass of nice beer here sets you back less than a bottle of water, a glass of Coca Cola or even a pack of chewing gum and the food (providing you chose your location carefully) is not much more. Six of us all ate a traditional Slovakian main course and had a couple of beers each at a local restaurant recommended by our hostel receptionist and the entire bill came to just under 15 pounds for the lot. I ate Bryndzove Halusky, the Slovakian national dish, which is esentially potato dumplings in sheeps cheese, but in reality is possibly the greatest and tastiest stodge unde the sun. Ideal for soaking up those 30 pence beers and tasty to boot! Others had Goulash and other local dishes which we all shared around and it was a surprisingly civil and sociable experience compared to rest of the night!

All in all...go to Bratislava, it is great!

Right now I am in an internet cafe in Berlin, waiting for my overnight train to Copenhagen. This post, however, is becoming very lengthy and I haven't even got going on Prague yet so I guess I will have to call a close to part one of this entry before my time runs up and hopefully I will finish it off tomorrow morning in Copenhagen before I go out to meet up with some friends of Bjorn's in the afternoon. Hope everybody at home is doing well, and get in touch to say hi if you can! Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

So far, so very good

Only 6 days into my trip and I feel like I could happily go home tomorrow and remember this as the trip of a lifetime. Its hard to cast my mind back to Hardelot (in the North of France) because it feels like a month ago already but here goes nothing.

I left Kilburn at 6 AM on the 5th, and I got to Hardelot at about 6PM which seems ridiculous as it is only an inch away on a map, but the trip was good fun. On the eurostar over I started chatting to a girl sat next to me who turned out have left from the very same road in Kilburn as me that morning. She was an artist on her way to Normandy to do some 'collaborative art' with a friend of hers on the beach. The conversation eventually lagged over into a Parisien coffee shop 3 hours later where we realised we would have to part ways which was a shame. We swapped e-mails so that she could send me some photos of her work when it was done so I am excited to see if that materialises but if not, then never mind.

Hardelot itself was magnificent. It's a nice little town that you would never visit if you didn't know someone there but the beach, few bars and large group of really friendly guys made it all the better. We drank, we sang, caught shrimps in the sand and acted like we felt...never without a beer in hand. It was great to see Julien again and we really had fun with each other, he is working in Singapore next year so we made plans to meet up somewhere in the east.

After that I headed on a sleeper to Munich from Paris, where I hung out with some guys from a chorale who were off to Salzburg to sing at a cathedral and I agreed to go see them in Salzburg when I got the chance. I never did. Munich itself is a great city, beer is a national past time and I found out all sorts of interesting beer related facts whilst visiting. The city is beautiful and my trusty guide got me to most of the major sights and sounds from the major cathedrals, to the best beer gardens and just around the general old town centre. Of significant importance is that I made the decision to put my vegetarianism on hold whilst I travelled. Now this might shock some people who know me better but I stand by my decision. I genuinely felt that I couldn't experience the cities of the world without being able to sample all of the food and whilst sitting in the 'Chineser Turm' biergarten with my new found buddy Brian feasting on bratwurst and slugging back Munich's coldest and finest I realised how glad I was that I decided to do so.

Brian is an American longshoreman (dock worker to us brits) from California and we have been hanging out for the last few days and travelling around together. I guess if there is one thing I have drawn from travelling alone is that you have to speak to anybody and everybody or you will find yourself on a pretty lonely trip. I have met some great people and have some phone numbers to ring in different cities but Brian and I have been pretty much inseperable for the last 72 hours, and have not once run out of things to say or beers to drink. He had been hanging out in Sweden for longer than he had planned and was determined to get the most out of his pass before flying back to the US, so I told him a little about where I planned to go for the next couple of days and it turned out we both wanted to go to Salzburg.

Salzburg is beautiful and probably the highlight of my trip so far. Standing on top of the Festung Hohensalzburg, Bavarian alps surrounding, looking down onto the old city is a moment I won't be forgetting any time soon, especially because I have about 100,000 pictures of it. The weather wasn't great but the misty mountain tops and occasional streak of sunlight thorugh a break in the clouds only stood to add to the atmosphere of this fairytale fortress. We grabbed some food and saw some of the other sights before heading off to Vienna. Brian came along to Vienna with me on the grounds it is a better connected city than Salzburg and would give him more chance of reaching his goal of making it to Italy, where he is going to tonight. We arrived in Vienna late and with nowhere to stay but found a place, had a few beers and hit the hay for the night.

Today was spent roaming the streets of Vienna, another beautiful city it would take a lifetime to see all of. We did the usual tourist routes seeing Parlament, Rathaus and Hofburg. The climbed the Stephansdom tower at one point which was a terrible idea that left us sweaty, dizzy and in need of immediate Shcnitzel based refreshment. The highlight of the day, however, was our discovery of this great little indepedent art gallery on the bank of the Danube which was showing a great exhibition of original H.R.Giger work. The gallery itself (http://www1.kunsthauswien.com/english/mainindex.htm) is an amazing building which actually has a Giger statue as part of the permanent feature. The exhibition was incredible and had everything from sketches through to the full scale concept models for the original Aliens, but the centrepiece had to be the full Harkonnen furniture models originally made for the film Dune.

After this we headed back to the hostel where we are now and Brian is just organising the last bits and bobs before his overnight train to Venice. I on the other hand sat down to write this, and wonder what tonight holds. I might take it easy as we have been hitting the wallet quite hard what with all this wonderful German/Austrian beer we have been working through, but you never know, I guess I will hang out at the hostel for a while and see if I pick another drifter or join a group of guys perhaps. Tomorrow morning I head to Bratislava for the weekend and then hit Prague on Monday which stands to be pretty savage seeming Colin has booked tickets to see me there. Anyone who knows us knows exactly what that means...

Bring it on

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Locked, Stocked and ready to rock...

A triumphant day

The booking of my travel insurance today marked the final pre-trip purchase before departure. Yes, I left it pretty late. I am picking up my tickets and VISAs on Friday 4th for a 5th A.M departure so had I gone to book my VISAs a day later I would have been in a bit of a pickle. However, it would seem fate is on my side for once, and with any luck my lack of organisation will be more that compensated for by enthusiasm and luck. Here is a quick breakdown of what I been doing for the last 2 weeks:

Trans-Siberian Ticket

After consulting my Lonely Planet guide to the T-S Railway it became clear there are a few ways you can get hold of ticket for this mother of all train journeys from booking through a local agency to pitching up in Moscow station and asking nicely. Though I tried to meet cost and risk half way I wound up paying slightly more than I could have in order to insure all of my tickets are in the right places at the right time. In other words, I booked my ticket through a London based agency. Regardless, after all was said and done I had not spent a horrendous amount (I don't think) which I will weigh up in a bit.

When I talk about a trans-siberian 'ticket', I am really referring to several tickets. The trans-siberian railway is not simply a single train line from A to B but a combination of several trains which travelled on in different orders can take you to one of a many places with dozens of potential stops in between. Now I am not going to present a list of every train combo available (that is available here) but my particular itinerary looks like this:

#10 Train : Moscow - Irkutsk ('The Baikal Express')
This will be the longest train journey I will probably ever do, lasting the best part of 3 days and 4 nights. It will drop me off in Irkutsk, not far from Lake Baikal. I am going to spend 4 days here, and spend my time visiting the lake which astounds me. Aside from holding 1/5th of the worlds fresh water (more than all the great lakes combined) and having a frozen surface alot of the time it is pretty damn epic (see above) and has big piles of cool wildlife.

#364 Train: Irkutsk - Ulaan Baatur
This overnight hop saves on a nights accomodation and of course takes me to Mongolia. I have heard mixed opinions about the charm of Mongolia and whilst some people love it, others have described it as the ugliest place they have ever been. I am going to go with an open mind and spend 2 days getting the most I can out of it!

#24 Train: Ulaan Baatur - Beijing
Another sleeper and I am in Beijing! From here it is single tickets all the way back to Hong Kong so my plans can be as flexible as I want (or as my funds can take me).

Of course there are a whole host of other routes I could take. For example I could have skipped Mongolia all together to save money on another VISA, but it turns out my Hong Kong Identity card has more than one use!


Again there are two ways your can sort these out, through an agency or independently. To do it yourself you simply need to get yourself along to the relevant consulate or embassy, fill out the right forms, pay, then wait. I have provided some useful links for UK residents to the relevant embassies in my links section. On the other hand, you can have an agency do it for you and save the queuing up and other hassle associated...at a cost. In my case I decided the cost was a worth while one to endure and booked through the same agency that did my tickets, essentially allowing me to pay all in one lump for everything and not have to worry. Now this was not entirely laziness; the price of travelcards to make two seperate trips to the consulate/embassy in the centre of London paired with the inevitable extra costs of these trips (lunch in town etc) basically accounted for the extra £25 or so I am being charged for the service. Plus, I don't have to queue up in the Russian consulate from 6AM only to find myself turned away at the last minute (I have been told this isn't an uncommon occurence and I was shrot on time).

The Cost
The full price I paid for all of my VISAs and tickets was £720.

Yes, I know, its a huge amount of money on travel, but breaking it down takes the hurt away a bit. Besides, this price includes 7 nights accomodation I won't have to pay for as I will be sleeping on the train (the same also goes for Inter-rail). Also, a ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow is included in this price as it worked out easier to book that way, and of course there was the VISA charges in there too.

Okay, if you know your stuff you will see that this is still over the odds and the reason lies behind a big mistake I made. I simply left booking my VISAs too late. As a result I was forced to pay for express VISAs instead of the standard price and this is a significant increase in price. So in reality if you were not as daft as me, your price could be as much as £100 or so cheaper than this, but then of course there is the fact I didn't have to buy my Mongolian VISA as a Hong Kong identity allows 14 days of travel in the country at no cost (British passport holders must pay a fee). All in all, it hurt, but it was a neccessary pain.

So after a quick tally:

+ £720

Again, it looks like a huge sum (and it is) but in the end, all things considered, for 2 months of constant travelling and the sheer distance I will be covering its actually a fairly reasonable price to pay. Or at least I will keep telling myself that...

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Rough European Itinerary

Thanks to the wonders of the interweb in no time at all I have become the proud owner of a 30 Day (all zone) inter-rail pass. More importantly, this act symbolises the transition of this idea from bar-side dreams and statements of intent to a reality. I mean, I can’t turn back now, I just spent the best part of three hundred quid!

Anyway, the booking process is a doddle, no different to buying any other train/plane/concert ticket from the web and should be with me shortly. I’m still not 100% sure how you use the ticket to dictate which trains you can get on and when, but I haven’t had to specify anything except a start date as yet, so I will find that out later. I have also received a very useful e-mail from a travel agency in Moscow with full details of all of the trains I will need in order to complete that leg of the trip.

Though I am pretty certain of the route I will be taking from Russia onwards, and will cover that soon enough, I’ve still been being typically indecisive about Europe. No longer however! Behold; my European route v 1.0.

As I mentioned before, my inter-rail ticket doesn’t kick in until I leave my country of origin so a quick ferry/train to France and I will be on my way. I’m not going to hang around in France too long as I have been plenty of times and it’s never far away, however, I may go visit ambush a good ol’ mate who has been hiding from me for a while in Ardelot (sp?).

“Why?” I hear you yell at your monitor! “Because I’m going to go visit another friend!” I yell back at mine. In reality we wouldn’t hear each other, and this transaction would be pointless, much like this visit would be if she wasn’t there (which may happen), so this is still a ‘maybe’.

Beer & steckerlfisch galore. I make my first visit onto German soil in this city I have heard great things about. With any luck this leg won’t turn into an extended Biergärten visit, it’s a shame they can’t win the world cup now, otherwise they might still have been partying when I got there!

A friend of mine who will be there should be able to show me a good time in Vienna. On top of that, I might hire a bike for a day or two and see the sights and sounds of the city with a sweaty bum.

Only 40 miles from Vienna these are the closest two capital cities in the world, so it would be a sin not to pop over and have a gander! I will also see if I can find myself a couple of beautiful Slovakian women at a hostel, though I will be ready to do a runner on the off chance they try to drug me and sell me off so that some rich nutters can torture and kill me…

With a legendary reputation for scenery and partying, Prague seems to be on everybody’s checklist of places to visit. It’s on mine too and I won’t miss the chance to stop here for a few days and take it all in.

After a long haul I’ll be getting ‘hyggelig’ with my homies! Another city where I have some connections and maybe even a place to crash and no lack of things to do.

Stand on a rock, assume the claw position and release a blood curdling wail. Also, get the highest train line in Europe over to Bergen where it rains a lot and maybe pop up the fjords and see some whales and waterfalls.

However much I would love to stay in Stockholm for a while it is likely this will be a whistle stop tour of Sweden this time round as at this point I will be pressed for time to make it to my final Inter-rail destination.

Under the guiding hand of a good old mate I will check out what the finns have to offer and be conveniently located for a quick jump over to Russia to continue the journey after wards.

It’s a lot of places in a short period of time and realistically in most places I am looking at only staying 2-3 days at most. In the end I suppose, Europe is the ‘easiest’ part of this journey, and the real travelling starts from Russia onwards. However, there are plenty of things left to do, and though this is a solid guideline I am trying my best to ensure it is flexible enough for me to pop over to some random city on a whim.
Also, as I have spent the first taxable penny of this trip so far, I thought it may be useful to keep a running counter of the total money spent as both a guideline for anybody interested and a useful tool for keeping an eye on the balance myself!

So that’s it for now, but there is still much to do before the fun bits, like thinking up what to do in each city, begin.

Total Spent so Far:

+ £290 (Inter-rail 30-day All-zone pass + booking fee)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Early days and Inter-rail

Well, the hangover has finally gone away after a few weeks of celebrating the end of my university degree and though there is no plan to finish partying any time soon I figured I would use this temporary clarity of mind to post an update.

Though I haven't spent a great deal of time getting anything done, I have spent lots of time wondering what cities I want to visit while I am out and about in Europe which not easy when you are so spoilt for choice. With Inter-rail I can go just about anywhere in Europe over the course of a month. For those who don’t know, Inter-rail is a Europe wide pass which allows you to travel anywhere within the continent within a given time period. Sort of like a 1-6 Tube Travelcard, but for all of Europe. It is available to any European resident and gives access to 29 countries divided into 8 zones.

You can buy a 1 Zone - 16 day pass, 2 Zone – 22 day pass or (my likely option) Global – 1 month pass, and price varies with age. Travel within your own nation is not permitted, so I will have to pay my way over to France before the Inter-rail pass kicks in. More details for your own pricing band are available here if you are interested, but it looks likely that my under-26 global pass will set me back around £285, not bad considering you can spend close to that amount on a monthly return from London to Portsmouth. Non-European residents would do best to look at the Eurail pass, which I gather is much the same but for people outside of the continent.

I mentioned earlier that I am on a tight budget for this trip, so I have to make my choices of city conservative. My main battle will be accommodation, which stands to devour most of my cash. Hostels are all good for a cheap(ish) place to lay my head but I believe there are far more economical ways of getting across the place short of kipping on train station benches. I am going to have a more detailed look at the absolute zero-budget approach to getting around later, but first I am faced with choosing where to go. So now you see why I can’t make my bloody mind up. I know I want to go through Scandinavia for a large part of my trip, and I also want to head east, maybe as far as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Heading south would be nice, but would make my goal of spending plenty of time in the far north unrealistic. So a likely route would be an arc curving across France and Germany into the beginnings of Eastern Europe, whipping up north, completing my Scandinavian objectives, and gliding to a halt at my friend Jonas’ house in Helsinki, a few hours from St. Petersburg. The individual cities I will confirm at a later time after I figure out if I know anybody I can visit along the way, but this is the plan for now!

From Helsinki, the journey is a lot more direct with one way tickets being the order of the day. I am awaiting some e-mails which will clear up the fine details of this leg of the trip so I’ll leave that until I know what I am talking about.

(I promise soon this time, not another month from now…)

Friday, April 28, 2006

An Introduction

About This Blog

How to begin?
I have been delaying the commencement of this blog for quite a while now simply because I had no idea how to begin. I suppose a personal introduction would be appropriate.

I am Joe, London based student and general global citizen. I am just about to go on a trip across a good part of the world. "Oh great!", I hear you say, "another scruffy-tax-dodger-off-to-'find-themselves' blog, just what the internet needs. I suppose part of this is true: I am scruffy, I haven't paid council tax (ever) and I am heading off on my own for a journey which could prove mildly life altering. In this blog, however, I hope to create something that nestles snugly between these egocentric ramblings about my own worldly experiences and a factual guide of the ins-and-outs of getting oneself across the route I intend to take. With any luck this will give an opportunity for people to hear about the channels and technicalities that inevitably have to be overcome in order to get there as well as some reflection on the places I visit and the accommodation, surroundings and activities I sample along the way.

The Route

Put simply, I plan to get from London to Hong Kong using only trains.Hardly a Roald Amundsen effort I know, but the longest trip I'll be taking for a while and I'll be taking the long way there.

I don't intend to take the most direct train route there either, I'm not in a rush and will go as far as my funds take me. Of course I will be keeping a close eye on the bank balance in this blog for the wallet conscious student travellers (as myself) amongst you who might be considering a similar trip.

The final itinerary has not yet been decided, but I do know that Scandinavia is a must. France, Holland and other European countries closer to home do not concern me all that much, I have been to France 2 or 3 times in the last 12 months and want to focus my efforts on the countries I am less likely to be visiting again in the near future. Norway and Finland hold particular interest with me; not least due to my love of black metal (the potential of getting corpse-painted up and holding my guitar aloft a snowy peak is irresistible). Of course later on I will have to choose my stops along the inevitable trans-Siberian route well and then there is the matter of navigating my way through China before I return to more familiar surroundings again. All of this planning, however, comes later.

So it begins...

As it stands, I know next to nothing about how on earth I am going to do this trip and I have about 3 months to find out, get my act together and get out there. As I have mentioned I am pretty certain of several locations I will be visiting and even where I will stay, but the fun (often in retrospect) of travelling is all the in betweens and unexpected things that pop up along the way. Everything I learn: how much money I am spending and any problems I encounter will be resolved and faithfully reported for all to see.