Location: Wellington, Australasia
Home again! Well slight exageration as I have returned to no home, with the limited options of sleeping under my desk at work or in my storage unit with my travel treasures. Luckily Richard and his flatmates kindly let me stay.
The end of my trip was great and I made the most of my time in Beijing by shopping until I was physically unable to carry anything more! And after a long delay in Kuala Lumpur airport I made it to Auckland airport where once I had explained to the Customs people that those weird looking shoes were in fact Mongolian felt slippers of very high quality - they let me through.
It's been fun returning to summer, even if it is a windy Wellington summer. I've been treated to plenty of BBQs, trips to beaches, lovely wine, sporting events and general NZ "laid back-ness"!
I just wanted to say thank you so much to all those people who I met along the way - my trip would not have been the same without you guys!
Safe travels everyone!
Location: Beijing, China
Irkutsk --> Ulaanbaatar: 1119km
Ulaanbaatar --> Beijing: 1561km
I have well and truly left Europe now. There's definetly no fried cheese on the menus, forks only if you ask nicely, and I have only managed two words of local lingo (hello and thankyou). I'm still learning!
After a few days in Siberia, Russia we hopped on the train to Mongolia. The border crossing between the two countries was something else! Our carriage, which just happened to have all the foreigners on it, was unhooked from all other carriages, the toilets and exits were locked and then, to really show their evil side, the providnitsas (our train attendents) cranked up the heat to 30 degrees. We were left like that for eight hours! Then the actual filling out of forms and showing of passports began. Somehow this managed to take a further two hours. And then just like that we were hooked back up and sent on our merry way. Apparently there was nothing abnormal with this process.
Once we did arrive in Ulaanbaatar we had one night there before taking a bus somewhere in Mongolia where we stayed in a ger and visited a nomad family. While we were there we rode some Mongolian ponies (mine was called something like Hongko and was pretty cold so just wanted to go home). Our last night in Ulaanbaatar coincided with the Mongolian wrestling championships. All that time spent watching tournaments as a kid came into some use - not that Mongolian wrestling was like any wrestling I've seen. I particularly liked the part when before and after the match the wrestlers did an eagle dance around a pole!!
The train leg from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing was my favourite of the Trans Mongolian. It worked out that we had two days and one night on this leg; one day staring out the window at the Gobi desert, trying to photograph the camels, and the next day trying to catch as many glimpses as possible of the Great Wall.
Since arriving in China I have spent two days at the Great Wall. The first was with the Vodkatrain group at Badaling. I found it quite touristy (complete with a roller coaster contraption and Starbucks) but luckily being winter there weren't so many people around. This part of the wall has been completly restored but the views are spectacular. A couple of days later I went to Jinshanling and walked the 10km to Simatai. The majority of this section of the wall is in ruins and quite steep in parts, so the 10km took about three and a half hours. But I didn't complain once (not even going up the hills)!
I just got back to Beijing after spending three days in Xi'an, an ancient Chinese capital about eleven hours away by train. Not only is this a fabulous shopping city (I know have no idea how the zip will close on my bag) but it's also the home of the terracotta warriors and horses. These completely blew me away. There are thousands of them, built to protect Emperor Qinshihuang's tomb (221-207 BC); in other words these things really, really old. Incredibly not only is each warrior slightly different but originally each were also painted!
The Chinese are good at a lot of things (where would the world be without paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass?) but english menu translations do not seem to be a strong point. I think the best (or worst) that I've seen so far has to be "lucky celebrates hunchbacked palm", which turned out to be abalone. A close second is the "fried pimple" available at the nightmarket down the road from my hostel.
I only have a few days left now before heading back to NZ, so I'm planning on making the most of my time here (not to worry, I have prioritised the sights on "Anita's must see in Beijing list" and have made myself a daily schedule).
Location: Irkutsk, Russia
Moscow to Irkutsk: 5172km
Our longest leg of the Trans Mongolian is complete. It's pretty crazy looking at a map at how far we've just come! We left Moscow at 11:30pm on New Years Eve. It was an interesting time to be there - New Years Eve the largest Russian holiday so most things, including the WHOLE of Red Square, were shut. This meant we missed seeing St Basils in the daylight as well as Lenin (luckily we had caught a glimpse of St Basils the night before).
I was told that to avoid troubles with police in Moscow try to look like a Russian. I had no troubles, so I must have blended in to some extent (although I'm not sure how as I seem to be the only person not wearing fur, smoking slim cigarettes and I'm defiently not going to attempt walking across snow and ice in stilettos!).
The train has been a great experience so far. The trip from Moscow to Irkutsk took four nights and three days. As there are four girls in the group we were all squished into one compartment - four girls, each with large packs loaded with Matrushka dolls, ridiculous amounts of clothes to combat the Siberian weather, and food supplies for the train, this was not easy! The weather adds an interesting aspect to the trip - the scenery from the train has been absolutely stunning. I realised when I was looking through my photos that most of them are of snow!! The train stops every few hours at smaller stations for varying lengths of time - sometimes it is long enough to get off. So we bundle up and hop off. It's too cold for babushkas to be out which is a pity as we were hoping they'd be out to sell us snacks. The coldest stop so far was a chilly -31!
We have just returned to Irkutsk after spending a few days in a small Siberian village on the shores of Lake Baikal. Apparently we are experiencing unseasonably warm weather and the "warm" -10 degrees mean that the lake hasn't frozen yet. Our stay in the little village was a lot of fun - we were given options to dive (although to my disappointment the dive shop was shut), dogsled, ski and snowboard, hire a snowmobile, go tramping, enjoy a traditional Russian banya (sauna) as well as go for a cruise on a boat. A highlight for me was dog sledding which was so much fun! I was much too cold to handle the responsibility of driving and was happier huddled in the seat being a passenger! The dogs were gorgeous and so happy to take us out for a run!
Tomorrow night we hop on the train again for a further 36 hours or so until we arrive in Ulaanbaatar. I can't wait for Mongolia! We are spending a night in the city before heading out to a Ger camp, which no doubt will be an interesting experience!
Till next time
Location: Moscow, Russia
This is just a short message to say hi before I get on the train for approximately 80 hours nonstop on our way to Irkutsk.
The tour is going well so far. I managed to fit a week in St Petersburg beforehand which was great. It was a fabulous city. I spent a whole day at the Hermitage, another whole day learning about the seige of Leningrad, and visited a large number of museums, palaces and galleries.
We caught the train from St Petersburg to Moscow on Wednesday night. I'm hoping our train tonight is of the same standard as that train was lovely (we were even supplied with packed breakfasts). We've had 3 days here in Moscow enjoying some sights, however we've arrived in the midst of preparations for New Year, which is the major Russian holiday so a lot of tourist attractions are closed. Today Red Square is closed! So I missed seeing Lenin and the inside of St Basil's (I'll just have to come back I suppose).
Yesterday we headed up the hill to the Kremlin. I'm not sure what I was expecting but it is actually quite a large area made up of 5 catherdrals and Putin's parliamentary buildings (and no, I didn't see Putin - although he may have driven past us in any one of the shiny black BMWs, all with tinted windows of course)!
More news in the new year!
Location: St Petersburg, Russia
Believe it or not but I've actually made it St Petersburg. And what a fabulous place to be - it is so beautiful! I arrived late yesterday afternoon and spent most of today at the Hermitage, which is the most amazing place! I could go back every day that I'm here just to look at the incredible rooms and beautiful art.
Since I wrote last I've made my way up through Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, with a brief visa-related visit to Helsinki. I spent five days in Warsaw (also visa-related) at the start of my visit to Poland. The old town was almost completely destroyed during WWII so they've completely rebuilt it. There was quite a lot of snow while I was there, which at the stage was still a novelty, so needless to say I took lots of snow related photos! Krakow was my next stop - also had a lot of snow and rain but even through the bad weather it was a beautiful place. I arrived just in time for the start of the christmas market - lots of mulled wine and sugar roasted nuts! While I was in Krakow I went to Auschwitz. I don't know quite how to describe it - it was the most horrific place I've ever been to and definetly an experience I won't forget.
After Krakow I headed up to the coast of the Baltic sea to Gdansk, an old shipping town where I saw, wait for it, the largest medieval crane in Europe, from the 15th century. Of course it's been rebuilt at least three times - the bombing of Gdansk (or Westerplatte) by the Nazis was the start of WWII.
Unfortunately problems finding places able to issue a Chinese visa meant that I had to rush the Baltic countries more than I would have liked. As well as visiting Vilnius, I managed to get to the Curonian Spit in Lithuania - very beautiful, very isolated and very cold! It is famous for the huge sand dunes but I was more interested in the frozen sea! The great news for me was that each place I visited had it's own christmas market - more mulled wine and roasted almonds! Aparently Riga in Lativa, was the first town which recorded decorating a Christmas tree - I'm not sure if this is true but the 500 odd years of practice seemed to pay off and they had some quite impressive trees!
From Riga I caught a bus to Tallinn and a ferry to Helsinki in order to get the chinese visa. And yes, there was another Christmas market! If only Helsinki hadn't been so expensive (5 euro for a beer) I could have gone crazy with the shopping! Finally with the stamp in my passport, I headed back to spend some more time in Estonia. In Tallinn there was another Christmas market, which meant more souvenirs, wine and almonds!
And now, I have made it to Russia. I've stocked up on packets of noodles for the train, been studying my Russian phrasebook and purchased some large Russian novels. I'm ready to go!
I hope everyone has a very Merry christmas and a happy new year. And in the new year I shall have tales from the Trans Mongolian!
PS I can recommend a hairdresser in Estonia if anyone is interested (not a mullet in sight!).
Location: Warsaw, Poland
I wrote the message below two days ago and it seems I won't need to waste much time wishing for snow as it has hardly stopped snowing since! And it's not even officially winter!
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
And the way things are going I might just be in luck! It's been getting colder and colder for weeks and I had my first snowfall of the trip the other day in Berlin.
Carrying on where I left off last time - I left Bratislava to spend a couple of days tramping in the Vysoky Tatry. I happened to bump into some great people outside the (shut) information centre which made it so much more enjoyable! About a year ago a massive storm came through the area - it ripped up trees and tore down houses, leaving an aboslute pig sty in its traces. It took about an hour for us to walk through the mess to get to what is left of the forest, but once you got past all that it was absolutely stunning!
I headed further to the east of Slovakia to meet up with a family who I lived with for 3 months in 1995 (which was great)! I was planning to head straight for the Czech Republic, but I was having a great time so stayed for a few more days and checked out some castles and churches (just for a change!).
My first stop in the Czech Republic was Brno. Not much was happening there so I moved on to Cesky Krumlov. The old town centre has been turned into a tourist haven - complete with a pretty castle tower to climb and numerous pizzerias! I had a bit of a nightmare leaving Cesky Krumlov (OK so I have to admit that I was waiting for the bus on the wrong side of the road, and even worse I was an hour late and hadn't realised - but I can laugh about it now)! After that minor disruption I needed a drink which is when I hatched my new plan and went to Plzen where Pilsner beer is originally from. Of course, once I was there I just had to go to the beer museum, where I learnt many things not least of which that the world underwater beer drinking record is half a litre in 12.66 seconds!
On my way to Prague I briefly stopped in Karlovy Vary. It's kind of a cross between Prague Castle and Rotorua. There are twelve natural springs in the centre of the town (all housed in incredibly ornate buildings) - everyone promised me the water was healthy and anything that tastes as bad as that water did must be good for you!
Prague was beautiful (if not a little chilly) and thanks to Rich's friends Mike and Sylvia, I had delicious home cooked meals for the first time in months! I just spent the last few days in Berlin, catching up with Jane and Tans from Wellington. Berlin was so much fun! The city is so full of history - we "museum-ed" ourselves out!
But already I am in Warsaw where I need to sort out my visas for Russia and Mongolia to prepare for my big train trip (everything so far has just been for practice)!
PS Thanks for all your concern about the mullet! It's finally looking less "mullet-like" now!
Location: Bratislava, Slovakia
Can you believe it? After 10 years I've arrived back in Slovakia. I had this naive thought that I'd hop off the train from Budapest, my feet would touch Slovakian ground and my Slovak language would come flooding back to me. It's been three days and I'm still waiting!
I've been enjoying the sights of Bratislava for a couple of days before planning to head east, aiming for Kosice where I lives a long time ago. Bratislava appears to have had an extreme makeover since I was last here and is now a beautiful, charming city. I spent one day cramming in as many museums as I could, which left me yesterday to relax a little more and wander aimlessly around the old town and the castle area. Today I ventured to Trencin, two hours by train, to admire the castle. It was, unsurprisingly, really old!
My meals have been interesting. Since I left Budapest, vegetarian meals seem to be limited to deep fried vegetables or fried cheese served with chips and a dollop of tatare sauce. On one hand this is great as cheese is a favourite of mine, but on the other it isn't exactly healthy eating. I'm sure I'll survive though - mainly because the hot chocolates are absolutely delicious. I could, in fact I am living on them (I admit this is also not healthy eating).
My two weeks in Hungary were fantastic. I found Budapest so enchanting it was difficult to drag myself away. I did manage to eventually - I went on a great day tripto Szentendre on the Danube Bend with some Australian girls from the hostel. We came back in the evening by ferry and were greeted by beautiful city lights. I also visited Szeged (almost back in Croatia) - a sunny university town, built around a huge cathedral. Another Hungarian highlight for me was Eger with its hundreds of wine cellers built into the side of a hill. One dl of wine (a nice taste) cost less than 30 cents! I also spent a lot of time while I was in Budapest relaxing in the baths - one of the only places I could get away from the cigarette smock.
Desperately in need of a hair cut I braved a Hungarian hairdresser. An interesting experience to say the least! She didn't listen to a word I said (ok so she didn't speak english but there was another girl translating). She hacked at my hair; the end result is a mullet any Spaniard would be proud of! Unfortunately I am not so happy. But it will grow back ... by which time I'll probably be in Estonia or somewhere looking for another hairdresser! Something for me to look forward to!
Tomorrow I am thinking of heading to a national park, the name translates as Slovakian Paradise. I haven't been there and obviously with a name like that I have high expectations. It's a little difficult to travel around because, as in Hungary, the only hostels are in the capital city, but I enjoy seeing a bit more of the country, so bear the extra cost of staying in a hotel (cheap of course)!
Till next time (should have more photos then),