A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: dikansu

How it all started


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About two years ago, Pete & I were talking over a drink in Tom Brown's pub. He mentioned that he had an ambition to travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway one day and I said "That's funny - so have I." We agreed that, once I had retired, we'd do it. I suggested travelling on to Japan from China. For Pete, this evolved into continuing on around the world - driving across the States and back home over the Atlantic by freighter!
Many months of preparation began in late 2013 with visas, train tickets and accommodation to organise. Finally, on 12th April 2014, with more than a little trepidation, we were about to set off.
What would it be like? Would we still be sane after 5000 miles and over six and a half days on the same train from Moscow to Beijing? All of our tickets were non-transferable for specific trains - what if we missed a connection? There were tales of variable conditions and food on the train so taking your own essentials such as loo roll, sachets of porridge and tea/coffee were advisable. Pete brought both his Swiss Army knife and Leatherman to cover all eventualities including locomotive failure and cardiac surgery.

Posted by dikansu 07:05 Comments (0)

To Moscow by train

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We had toyed with the idea of flying to Moscow but it felt right to keep to the train all the way. Jenny gave us a lift to Sherborne Station - engineering works on the line from Dorchester South might have cut things a bit fine. The springtime English countywide on the way to Waterloo looked fresh and lush. It was the first of what were to be many varied and fascinating views from trains over the next 2 weeks.
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Having safely traversed London to St Pancras, we were on the Eurostar bound for Brussels then Cologne. There, we had several hours to kill before catching the night-train to Warsaw. We found a brauhaus not far from the station with traditional German food and beers. We were sitting next to an English couple who were fascinated to hear of our adventure. Despite our protests, they insisted in paying for our bill at the end of the meal - how generous was that!
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DSC_5341.jpgPeter's Brauhaus, Cologne

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Safely aboard our 2-berth compartment, we settled down for the first of our sleeper trains. There's something magical about overnight train journeys. The gentle rocking, especially after a few drinks, soon lulls you off to sleep. You wake in excited anticipation the next morning and invariably open the blind on a fascinating scene quite different from the one you left behind. In this case, it was attractive Polish countryside, farmland interspersed with small towns and early morning mist over the rivers and streams. By midday we were in Warsaw Central Station.

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We had four hours in Warsaw before catching the next overnight train to Moscow. We headed for the old town, destroyed by the Nazis but reconstructed in exactly the same way after the war. We had a lovely lunch in the main square and watched the world go by before slowly making our way back to the station for the 16.15 departure to Moscow. There was time for a coffee before looking for the platform number. But on the departure board, the 16.15 train listed wasn't for Moscow. Panic set in. We had difficulty making ourselves understood at the Information Desk. They inferred that the train was going from another Warsaw station several miles away. By this time, it was too late to get there in time. There were no other trains following on that day to the border with Belarus where we might have been able to catch up with it. Aaaaaaagh !
I had previously checked on the internet which station the Moscow train left from - Warsaw Central. What I had failed to notice in the small print was that for 6 weeks only in April/May 2014, it was switched to Warsaw Gdansk Station. Some of you will know that I have a track-record for this sort of thing - arriving at Bournemouth Airport for a flight that was leaving from Bristol? You'd have thought I'd have learnt by now! Pete was very forgiving, saying that things could have been worse. We would still be able to catch the once-a-week Trans-Siberian train because we had built in the buffer of a night in Moscow.

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So it was after an unscheduled night in Warsaw that we made sure we were at Warsaw Gdansk Station in plenty of time the next day! It was several hours before we got to the Polish border with Belarus. The gauge of the railway track from here and throughout Russia is wider than in Europe and so the bogies on all 16 carriages have to be changed. Having been disconnected from their bogies, the carriages with passengers still inside are hoisted up by hydraulic jacks. The old bogies are wheeled out and the new ones wheeled in underneath. After several hours, we were on our way again into the night, across Belarus and into Russia.

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We finally arrived in Moscow just over 48 hours after leaving home. We had time to explore the amazingly ornate Metro stations built by Stalin to inspire communist patriotism. Red Square was closed for military rehearsals for May Day but we managed to get in to see the Kremlin with its elaborate buildings.
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Posted by dikansu 01:00 Comments (0)

The Russian Railway

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Finding the platform for the train in Moscow wasn't easy. Like all Russian signs, the departure boards were in the cyrillic alphabet and not easy to decipher. Asking various station staff seemed to produce ambiguous responses. After the debacle in Warsaw, we were hugely relieved to eventually find it and celebrated with a beer in the double compartment which was to be home for the next 6 days.
We soon met up with the travellers in the compartments either side of us. Jane & Sue were two English ladies going as far as Mongolia then heading for Hong Kong. (They had brought their own cafetiere with ground coffee which they shared with us every morning - bliss!) Jeremie and Justine were a French couple at the start of their 6 months of travel to south-east Asia. (Jeremie made himself very popular by fixing up a camping shower he'd brought with him in the shower compartment which was much warmer and stronger than the built-in one.)
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Jeremie, chief shower-attendant
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We departed Moscow in late evening in the dark. I woke the in the early morning light to the wonderful sight of frozen lakes and rivers surrounded by snow. We had thought that we would be too late to see the last of the Russian winter but in the early part of the journey, and later in Mongolia, we were treated to many more spectacular snowscapes.

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Several times a day, the train would stop at various stations for anything between 10 and 45 mins to take more passengers on board. As long as you didn't stray too far, it was an opportunity to stretch the legs and view the food on offer from local people on the platform. This varied from grilled chicken and dried fish to dumplings and savoury pies.

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Life on the train was very relaxing. During the long gaps between stops, we would chat, read, or simply watch the world go by out of the window. Even though there were long spells of silver-birch forest with the occasional lake or river thrown in, we never seemed to get bored with something different always catching your eye.
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Meal times were a regular highlight of the day. The food in the restaurant cars was much better than we had been led to believe. The cars changed according to which country we were going through. The food was varied, freshly cooked and relatively inexpensive - certainly a lot cheaper than a bacon butty in First Class on the Caledonian Express.
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Pete tackles a borscht (beetroot soup)
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The waitress tackles our bar bill
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The Mongolian restaurant car definitely gets the prize for being the most ornate

Most of the Russian towns and cities outside of Moscow looked very dour. The roads were often dirt tracks. The wooden houses were often in a poor state of repair. Living conditions looked tough. There were many derelict factories, relics of the Soviet era. In many respects, Russia felt like a third world country with not much sign of optimism for the future.

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After many miles of relatively flat landscape, the railway gradually entered the more undulating scenery of the Ural Mountains. More hills than mountains, they never rise much above 500m. and mark the border between European Russia and Asia.

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All this wonderful scenery can get too much for a fellow
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Many stations had steam engines from the old days on display
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Graveyard
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large_DSC_5893.jpgYou have been warned!
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large_DSC_5966.jpgToast to a honeymoon couple on the train
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On Day 5 of the journey from Moscow comes one of the highlights of the trip - Lake Baikal. It is a rift lake and, because of its massive depth, it contains the greatest volume of freshwater anywhere in the world - about 20% of the earth's total supplies.
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We first glimpsed the Lake as the railway wound down a steep valley towards its southern end. It was still completely frozen and occasionally figures could be seen far off-shore, fishing through holes in the ice. This was at the beginning of our final day in Russia before crossing over into Mongolia - they'd saved the best until last.
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Posted by dikansu 08:16 Comments (0)

Mongolian magic

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The border crossing from Russia to Mongolia was late evening after dark. It wasn't until we woke the next morning that, as before, we were mesmerised by the change of scenery. Unlike Russia where trees were everywhere, the steppe landscape was of rolling hills as far as the eye could see, punctuated with occasional herds of cattle or horses. In the north of the country, thin snow still coated the higher ground, a truly magnificent sight in the early morning sun.
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Traditionally, Mongolians have been nomadic herds-people living in yurts (or gers). These are circular tents with a wooden frame covered in woollen felt for insulation and waterproofing. Families moved around the huge landscape according to the seasons and grazing conditions.
Ulaanbaatar is the burgeoning capital of Mongolia. Its urban sprawl stretches for many miles either side of its centre. The government has been promoting free market reform in recent years and increasing numbers of people are being attracted in from the wilderness to a potentially easier city life. Old habits die hard however and there was the incongruous sight of yurts permanently sited in car parks or waste ground close to the railway. Settling into a brick and concrete city apartment after a life in a tent must be a step too far for some.large_DSC_6002.jpg
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Quite a few travellers were getting off in Ulaanbaatar to sample the culture. Many stay with families living in yurts out in the wilds for a few days, getting to sample the food (often mutton), trek or ride horses or even camels. The striking thing about the Mongolians was how smiley and content they appeared to be. It's as if, compared to Russians, they feel more optimistic about their future.
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Gradually, the undulating landscape gave way to the famous Gobi Desert in the south of the country. Except in particularly dry years, the sand is obscured by a light covering of grass. Although initially less spectacular than the undulating lanscape further north, the sheer vastness of the Desert was a remarkable sight in its own way.
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large_DSC_6124.jpgA Golden Eagle !
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In all, we were passing through Mongolia for less than 24hours but it made a huge impression on us.
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Posted by dikansu 07:12 Comments (0)

China - the end of the line

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We crossed from Mongolia over the border into China late in the evening. We awoke the next morning to the sight of intense agricultural activity in the fields. In contrast to the Gobi Desert the day before, people were out everywhere. Manual labour as opposed to machinery was very much the norm out in the fields. For all the hype about the rapidly-expanding Chinese economy, many of the rural people, even quite close to Beijing, still live a primitive way of life.
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A huge expansion in high-rise buildings has taken place in the towns and cities of China over the last decade as people from the countryside search for a more prosperous life.
large_DSC_6629.jpg The old and the new China
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A couple of hours out of Beijing, we got a glimpse of the Great Wall in the distance. The railway then ran through a series of gorges and tunnels in spectacular mountainous scenery.
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Finally, after just over 6 days and 5000 miles, we arrived at Beijing Station. There we said goodbye to our fellow travellers and set off to find our hotel for 2 nights.
large_DSC_6681.jpgGoodbye to Jeremie & Justine
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large_DSC_6683.jpgBeijing Station
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The hotel was in a 'hutong', one of the many alleyways which criss-cross the city where people live in ramshackle single-storey brick houses. The hotel was simple but very comfortable, run by delightful young people. Breakfast was in a roof garden. Walk out of the entrance and you were immediately into the street life of ordinary people with old and young sitting around, buying and selling, playing draughts, having a haircut etc. Away from the touristy spots, European faces are still a curiosity to the locals who would often fix you with stare. Although disconcerting at first, smile at them and you would be greeted with a beaming smile back. We were glad to be in this part of town rather in an ostentatious tourist hotel somewhere else.
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Beijing is infamous for air pollution. Obviously, they are trying to do something about this because almost all the mopeds, bicycles and tricycles used to convey goods have been fitted with battery-powered electric motors. It's surprising that this hasn't caught on as much in Europe as yet.
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We spent a lot of time walking around the city taking in the sights including the Forbidden City and the flag-lowering ceremony at dusk in Tiananmen Square.
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Street food is plentiful in Beijing with weird and wonderful delicacies for sale such as scorpions or dung beetles on a stick ! (No - we didn't try them.)
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Spontaneous open-air dancing is extremely popular in China. It has developed as a form of keep-fit and brings people of all ages out into the parks and squares. It's unusual human activities like this which makes travel to other countries such a joy.
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Posted by dikansu 05:07 Comments (0)

On to Japan

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In planning our adventure, rather than finish in Beijing, we had decided to go on to Japan. It was a five hour trip south by Chinese bullet train to the ferry port of Qingdao on the East China Sea. It felt more like low-level flying than rail travel with speeds of over 300kph (190mph)
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Qingdao is the Weymouth of China in that it was the sailing centre for the 2008 Olympic Games. With hundreds of high-rise buildings and further expansion going on apace, there any similarities ended.
Along the sea-side promenade, another popular Chinese sport was taking place - kiting.large_DSC_7042.jpglarge_DSC_7046.jpg"Which one's mine?"
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After a night's stay, we got a taxi to the port. Although he couldn't speak any English, our friendly taxi driver entertained us by singing a traditional Chinese folk song. In return, we sang him the only English folk song we could remember at the time, "Men of Harlech"!
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For some unknown reason, we had to check in at the ferry terminal five hours before it was due to depart. Our vessel was the optimistically-named "Utopia". We had booked a double cabin and were surprised when we presented ourselves at Reception to be given the key without having said who we were. It soon became obvious that we were the only Europeans on board! The majority of passengers were a large group of young Chinese going to work for a year in Japan. large_DSC_7085.jpg
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Although getting on in years, the Utopia was very comfortable. The entertainments hall showed films and on Friday night there was karaoke. Not wanting to be party-poopers, we put our names down. We decided to go for Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise". When our turn came, we went up to the front and were immediately greeted by enthusiastic applause from the Chinese youngsters who obviously thought we were being good sports. We gave a reasonable performance and, for the rest of the evening, were inundated with requests to have our photograph taken. We had finally made it to the big time!large_DSC_7068.jpglarge_DSC_7082.jpgJapanese Quarantine Officer checks all passengers' temperatures before disembarkation
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After 38 hours at sea, having rounded South Korea, we arrived at the southern Japanese port of Shiminoseki. From here, we got the Japanese bullet train to Nagoya, 400 miles away.
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At Nagoya Station, we were met by Yugo, a neurologist from Japan who I have known for 7 years. I first met him in Yokohama at a motor neurone disease conference and we have stayed in touch ever since. He took us to stay at the house of his daughter, Yoko, who lives nearby with her husband, Susumu, and their delightful 13 month old son, Ryo.
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After a wonderful Japanese meal including raw fish and octopus, we slept in a traditional Japanese guest room with sliding screens made of paper, no beds but futons on the floor - extremely comfortable!
For the next two days, we were hosted by Yugo, his wife, Nobuko and Yugo's mother at their house in Ise, 3 hours away close to the Pacific Ocean. While Yugo and I went to a local motor neurone disease meeting, Pete was shown around Ise by Nobuko, several retired dentists and representatives of the local Tourist Information Service keen to improve their English. He must have felt like royalty!
large_DSC_7320.jpgYugo, Nobuko and Yugo's mother
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Our hosts were overwhelmingly hospitable - more wonderful traditional meals finished off with green tea made from powder, mixed in a bowl with an exquisite whisk fashioned from a single section of bamboo. Being able to stay in the house of friends in a foreign country and learn about their culture and way of life is a real privilege.
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All too soon, it was time to leave, but not before Pete & I were taken by Yugo to a traditional Japanese sento, or bath house. With just a small towel to cover our modesty, we sampled several communal pools of various temperatures and mineral content before going outside to lounge in a warm rock pool, watching breaking news on a wide-screen TV placed on an island in the middle - typical Japanese mixing of traditional with modern.
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We headed on to Tokyo on the final leg of our joint venture. After a few hours looking round, Pete and I bade each other a fond farewell at Tokyo Station. Pete was flying across the Pacific then driving across the States and I was heading home the next day. It had been an amazing journey which had exceeded all expectations.
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Posted by dikansu 00:46 Comments (0)

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