Train through England, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, to China
13 June, 2013
In the nick of time; passport and all necessary visas are in my relieved but slightly sticky, panicky hands.
The adventure begins (continues) tomorrow; St Pancras to Beijing, without a toe leaving the ground.
Off into the unknown, where anything and everything begins again. Perhaps being born is a teensy bit like this; except this time I already have my own full set of teeth, (even a toothbrush), and Google translate.
I love Warsaw, I have an 8 hr wait, so have been cruising around on the top of one of those open top double decker tourist buses. Brilliant.
So far everything is great, except every single train has been late, so there has been much sprinting through stations.
Poland has been particularly poignant, it is blanketed in poppies, and after playing a game with myself of looking for trees and buildings that would have been witnesses to world war 2, I realized that the subconscious reason might be that my father was shot down here. He was 19, and saved by a parachute, taken prisoner for 2 years, escaped, and about 7 years later along came me. I never got the story from him directly, as he departed from my life early, and the only thing I own of his is his prison log book, written while he was somewhere close to where I am now. Life.
UK, France, Belgium, Germany, and Poland in 23 hours. Now the night train to Belarus.
In Minsk, Belarus; I haven't found a single person who speaks English, (ah, so this is how the rest of the world feels), nor have I even seen another foreigner. Wifi apparently doesn't exist, I'm in an Internet cafe, and I do believe I've discovered where my computer from 1999 retired to.
At the Polish/Belarus border, at about 1:00 am it took about 2 hours to remove the wheels from the train and put others on. Apparently the train tracks are completely different in each country. Obviously someone was not keen for someone else to get into their country, and I did hear Hitler's name peppered into the otherwise unintelligible conversation as I questioned what the holy racket was.
In 2 hours I'll be on another 26 hour train journey to St Petersburg.
5:30 am, Monday morning, and I'm sitting in a cafe on the Nevsky in St. Petersburg, waiting for a decent enough hour to descend on the people I'm staying with, (through airbnb). The journey from Minsk was great, especially because I met Irina, the lovely woman who shared my carriage and escorted me to this cosy, wi-fied, hot tea-ed spot. Ah, the kindness of strangers, it's what transforms them immediately into friends.
I grew up in the north of Scotland, so I know about short nights, but I do believe we had about a total of 2 hours of darkness last night. Like a little kid, I kept waking up, lifting the shades and peering out of the train window at the amazing changing shades of the sky.
The White Nights of St Petersburg; can't wait to see what you have your ancient, beautiful sleeves. Very grateful for the historical writings of Robert K. Massie, you have primed me, and now I to get fill in all the colours.
What to do? I've been up since 4:00 am, I've only seen a fraction of this glorious city, just 2 more days left here, it's 9:00 pm and as bright as noon outside, there will only be a little darkness at around 1:00 am for probably less than 2 hours, my favourite thing is to go to bed when the sun goes down and get up when it rises, but here I am where the darned, amazing, glorious, luminous thing is simply NOT going to set.
Day 2: St. Petersburg, spent almost entirely in the Hermitage, one of the oldest, largest, museums in the world. Started to get dizzy from the opulence, (it is glorious but almost unbearably over the top), when I suddenly found in a discreet corner, (of course downstairs), the thing I really wanted to see, a mummified young woman from Siberia. Apparently 9th century and much discussed in the fabulous book "In Siberia", that I'm reading, and even if I wasn't on my way there, what an incredibly well written, fascinating book.
Tonight I take the 00:20 am boat down the canals to the Neva, to see all the locks and bridges open, and to find out whether there actually, truly is such a thing as night-time around here.
Mantra of the moment: It is impossible to see everything. Sagittarius Rising resistant response: Hmmm, we'll see about that.
The guy I stayed with in St Petersburg through airbnb reviewed me as "grate". Have to chuckle at the nuances, peculiarities, hilarities and variable interpretations so often inherent in the English language.
The midnight train to Moscow; how James Bond-ish can one get? Just call me Evypenny.
A personal highlight moment of 2013; watching that midnight train pull into Moscow station that would take me through the heart of Russia and into Mongolia. The trip of a lifetime that by far exceeded any dream, fantasy or expectation.
I LOVE google maps, on my way to the Kremlin, and it will (hopefully) take me. It tells me 43 minutes, but I'm going to race it. Apparently I am staying within spitting distance of some bunker, but I am definitely above ground.
I only have a USB modem here in Russia, and my megabyte per day habit has become a problem, so it's cold turkey for me.
Moscow has been intense, not in a bad way, more in a raw, in your face, exactly as it is, kind of way. Partly because of where I'm staying, (an apartment in not the best part of town), and probably mainly because my 1st port of call was beautiful, magical, other-worldly St Petersburg. Moscow feels like the complete opposite, although there is a lot of beauty here too.
I am safe, well and happy, and soaking it all up. And this is what I came for; to move into both the light and the dark heart of wherever my feet should land.
Tomorrow night the Trans-Siberian journey really begins.
Siberia: the name is derived from the Mongol word siber, meaning "beautiful and pure", and the Tartar word sibir, meaning "sleeping land". It is vast, and historically a region of deep mysticism and countless shamans; apparently all lost since it became a place of brutality, exile, gulags, and ever pervasive suffering.
Again, the bitter results of that relentless and ever destructive creeping cancer: war.
Of the many quiet experiences I've had in Moscow, 3 stand out:
1. Navigating the Metro with a foreign alphabet that doesn't translate has meant memorising symbols, (and getting them completely wrong at times). This must be how it feels not being able to read. Very grateful that I can.
2. No, not everyone speaks English, in fact almost nobody does when you move out of the tourist spots. I've learned to spot the young people carrying books, (and then to run over to the poor, unsuspecting souls), then there's a higher likelihood of success. Getting things done means asking for help.
3. Homophobia is the accepted norm in Russia. It is deeply disturbing that a nation that has suffered so much repression, should now repress such a large percentage of their own people. I've only been in one situation where there was an opportunity to open up a discussion about this, and no-one wanted to say anything. And yes there are some brave pioneers, but it seems they do not yet have the public behind them. Very sad to know this.
On the train, it's pristine and comfy, lovely young Swedish couple are my roomies, (and luckily not snorers). I am over the moon excited, another determination coming true.
Yes, there is very sporadic Internet. I could not be happier, travelling through endless forests, the world is certainly getting oxygenated from up here.
The train is really wonderful, I am used to, (and love), Indian trains, so this is super luxurious. None of the guidebooks prepared me for how comfortable it would be, and there is a samovar of hot water going at all times. So it's hot cups of tea and a kindle all the way to Siberia, although we might already be there.
The fact that half the world can still be transversed this way makes me very happy and optimistic.
It's the night of the brightest full moon, and we are a couple of hours from Yekaterinburg, infamous for being where the last Czar, Nicholas, and his family were murdered. It also close to the Urals, where there is an actual line that divides Europe from Asia, and also marks the border of Siberia. It is 11:00 pm and still light, there are no white nights here, and we will have about 3 hours of actual darkness. Even if I don't actually see it, (they don't allow riding on the train roof), in my mind's eye I can already see the pearly orb of the moon beaming down on the actual intersection of these 2 great, multi-faceted civilisations.
What incredible grace to be crossing it at this particular lunation, Sun in Cancer, Moon in Capricorn, and especially going in this direction.
Europe is my roots, but Asia my present.
Exactly halfway between Moscow and Beijing, it's 1:15 am, so I'm going to miss getting a photo of the white obelisk that marks the spot as we zoom by at 50 mph, (besides not having a clue what side of the track it's on), but I am at least awake for the moment.
Lake Baikal... taken from the wonderful book: "In Siberia".
“Lying over the fault-line of two tectonic plates, whose separation is gradually dropping its floor lower, the waters plunge to a depth of over one mile: by far the deepest lake on earth. Its statistics stupefy. It harbours nearly one fifth of all the fresh water on the planet: equal to the five Great Lakes of America combined, or to the Baltic Sea. If Baikal were emptied and all the world's rivers diverted to its basin, they would not fill it within a year.
It is the oldest of all lakes. The sediment of its decomposed organisms goes down for another mile and a half. It is over 25 million years old.
Some 250 aquatic plant types endure only here. But common fish which swim in from its rivers disappear into unexplained extinction. Its waters seem to cherish the strange, but kill the ordinary.“ - Colin Thubron
I'm here in Irkutsk just to visit this lake, I will be there tomorrow.
Six months ago I was strolling the Goan shoreline of the Arabian sea, two months ago I was walking the California beaches of the Pacific Ocean, one month ago I was hiking the cliffs along the Welsh coast of the Irish Sea, today I am walking along Lake Baikal in Siberia, and in five weeks I will floating in the Bali Sea.
Somebody pinch me please.
10:30 pm tonight; catching the train to Mongolia. 33 hours sounds positively short after the Moscow/Irkutsk leg, will there even be time to settle in?
Beautiful countryside, but somewhat grim city, with its Lenin Square, (his large imposing statue looming over all with outstretched arm), Karl Marx St, etc. But to be fair, also many interesting old wooden buildings.
They are generally a very austere, un-smiling, seemingly unhelpful people, mostly they scowl and wave you away if you ask for help. But just because someone don't respond in a familiar way, does it mean they are uncaring? I don't know, but this is a place where I would not want to have a serious crisis; getting help could be horrendous. And having said that the people in the hostel where I'm staying are fabulous.
I am leaving Siberia, and in truth all of Russia, informed but not really any wiser, and far more curious than I was when I arrived.
Of all my friends, it is an irony that I should be the one on my way to Mongolia, (in a matter of hours we arrive). It is the land of horses, the ratio to humans is 13 to 1. There is a population of 2 million people, and 26 million horses. And of a dozen or so of my close, passionate horsewoman friends, I'm the one no-one has ever seen on horseback. And it's quite likely that as I managed to cover the breadth of Russia without a sip of vodka or a taste of caviar, I may do the same in Mongolia, and NOT be seen leaping onto the back of some wild steppes pony.
We shall see.
At Russian customs, so far been here for 4 and a half hours, finally have my passport back, but we still aren't moving. Next stop the Mongolian side. I was wondering why it would take 33 hours to go 300 miles (Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar), now I know.
In Mongolia, in my charming guesthouse, within minutes of a shower, and best of all truly back in Asia. No shoes indoors, beautiful details, illogical designs - to sit on the loo you have to perch sideways or the door won't shut, I LOVE it.
I wanted to see Russia, but I wanted to be in Mongolia. It called to me, and now I've arrived.
I'm seriously happy.
Yesterday was a day of kindness, I could write a small book on all the things of this nature that happened to me over a mere 12 hours. From the Mongolian woman who randomly gave me a lift from the train station to my guesthouse, (through whom I then found the group I'm going to visit the reindeer people with), to the diplomats from the Turkish Consulate on their way to a picnic, who gave me yet another lift, to the young woman who turned on her heels and walked with me for 5 minutes to where I needed to go, after she found me looking forlornly at my paper map. Yes, it's true, I get lost a lot, but now I have my iPhone all Mongolia 3G-ed up, so Google maps and I are trucking once more.
I am wary about comparing my Russian experience to this new Mongolian one, it's too easy to get absolute and critical. I have a new American friend, a professor of Russian, who is staying in Siberia for a few weeks and just flew to UB, (what the locals call Ulaanbaatar) for a couple of days, so we met up and she explained to me, (over the most excellent Italian food in Mongolia), some of the idiosyncrasies that complete escape those who don't speak the language.
So fully acknowledging how much I misinterpreted/missed in Russia, I am still so much more relaxed and at home here. It is even a relief just to be able to smile at people again - and actually have them respond. And once more I'm stunned by the character, richness, beauty and complexity of a city I couldn't even pronounce or spell just a short time ago. The mix of modernity, with of course the generic parasites like KFC and Cinnabon, (haven't seen McDonalds yet, but I'm sure it's lurking somewhere), contrasting with the exquisite old Buddhist temples and the looming evidence of Genghis Khan and his conquests, is all quite magnificent.
Today I go to a national park for a couple of days to stay in gers and do some hiking. This body will be very grateful after all the train lounging and pot noodles it's been indulging in. Then on Thursday I head north for 12 days to see the reindeer people, I'm very lucky to be here for 2 of the yearly festivals they have. I'm being discouraged from my quest to see the areas of Genghis Khan's birth and his sacred mountain, because apparently it is stiflingly hot this time of year, with mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. I'm not sure this will keep me away, but I definitely want to go into the Gobi desert after this trip north, and whatever else I can fit into this way too short month. Much is still to be decided, which of course always makes things more fun. Right now Mongolia is my oyster, may its pearls spill forth.
Just a couple of days ago I was wandering down Karl Marx Street in Irkutsk, Siberia; now here in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia the main road I've been perusing is named Peace Avenue.
In our group leaving tomorrow is a young Englishman who has just ridden his bicycle from the UK via Scandinavia through Russia and here to Mongolia, taking 15 months. He wants a rest and a change of pace so has parked his bike and will be travelling in a car for the first time. Those quiet, pioneering, warriors, still finding frontiers to forge in this seemingly shrinking world. It's always so wonderful to run into them.
In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog’s master whispers in the dog’s ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. Then his tail is cut off and put beneath his head, and a piece of meat or fat is cut off and placed in his mouth to sustain his soul for its journey; before he is reincarnated, the dog’s soul is free to travel the land, to run across the high desert plains for as long as it would like.
Slept in a tent through a wild Mongolian thunder storm, with some huge owl hooting in the background, (apparently there is one with a 5 ft wingspan and a head the size of a man's). Now we are on our way to the Reindeer Festival. Reindeer polo, anyone?
Wrestling - they have to wear clothes that reveal the breast area, so women can't sneak into the competitions in disguise. Mongolian women seem incredibly strong, and have historically been known to be great warriors.
Another luminous morning, we are right here, at another beautiful lake, and today is the day I spend on a horse. It has to be done, there isn't a soul here who doesn't. When in Mongolia.
On the 2nd day of riding, nothing I say could do it justice. Half of the 1st day a Mongolian herdsman had me on a lead rope, then he set me free. We rode 7 hours total, and I actually had to be lifted off the horse at the end. Slept like I was in a coma, but woke up ready to do it again, and this time it is so much easier. Amazing place, amazing people. Life is at its most splendid, even without a hot shower since arriving in Mongolia. I'm serious, there were none in UB, apparently the heating is completely centralised and turned off in July for cleaning, and and there has not even been any electricity anywhere since we left the city
About to fly to some town in the Gobi desert that I can't pronounce yet. The last overland trip was great, but after 24 hours plus on unpaved roads getting back, not quite ready to do it again.
I found myself in a supremely suspicious and seedy Gobi desert hotel in the way, way back of beyond. No doubt about it, it’s a brothel. And as tacky as cliches are, I am slap dab in the middle of one, with hookers literal with hearts of gold. My hour and 15 minute flight back to the capital has been delayed 12 hours, (more grrrrs to that annoying trickster Mercury Retrograde), but they are letting me stay for free until this evening, fussing over me, walking me to the supermarket, bringing me hot water. Wonderful kind souls in the dirtiest, creepiest place imaginable.
Last few days in Mongolia, (train to Beijing on the 27th), and heading east to Genghis Khan territory this morning where there are apparently zero tourists, and even less infrastructure, (not sure how that could be possible?). But the gods were with me, and I managed to gather a group of 3 other "road least travellers", (another Brit, an American and a Belgian), so we have a car, driver and guide, and I won't have to travel solo like in the Gobi. I asked about horse back riding, but apparently the horses are wilder that direction, so was advised not to. Very, very excited.
Just back from 4 days in Eastern Mongolia, and as I guessed the best was indeed yet to come, despite all the discouragements. Loved the Gobi and the North, but I knew I wanted to go east, even although the warnings were all true, there were thick swarms of flies and mosquitoes everywhere, but only because there are hundreds of miles of glorious wildflowers. A very small price to pay.
No paved roads, no signs, but with our most excellent driver and guide we still found:
Deer stones - bronze age burial markers engraved with deer as they believed they went to heaven on the backs of these creatures.
Just in front of the deer stones, a marker stating that this was exactly where Temujin (Genghis Khan) met his best friend/future enemy.
As we are looking at it, in the near distance we heard drumming. We had chanced upon a 9th generation shaman who had never met westerners before, (even our guide and driver are blown away at how we come across him). He agreed to us visiting with him in his ger, and he called down his spirit and went into full trance. He put his hands on me but his spirit recoiled as we westerners are so completely unfamiliar. Nonetheless, we still experienced something incredibly powerful and once back from the trance he spent a lot of time answering our questions, (translated through our guide). There is not one iota of doubt when in the presence of the real deal.
We tracked down Genghis Khan's wall, (about 60 miles long), which Mongolian rumour says he built to separate himself from an annoying daughter-in-law.
Found rock faces covered in his personal seal - a horse's hoof print.
Went to the sacred Blue Lake, where Genghis Khan was married to his first and favourite wife, Borte, and was pronounced mighty Khan and the head of the whole Mongol Empire. Climbed Black Heart Mountain behind it - and from this vantage point it was easy to imagine hordes of Mongols converging from every direction.
Visited a Buddhist temple, that housed 5,000 monks for centuries, but was vandalised by the Russians... it is partially rebuilt, and we received a blessing from one of the 3 monks remaining.
Stayed with local families along the way, it is the Mongolian way to offer hospitality to anyone passing by, and we were never turned away.
This wonderful Mongolian horseman/guide took us to his winter camp, where they spend about 8 months of the year with their herds, in truly brutal weather. One of our group gave him his iPod to listen to, and it was his very 1st time... he offered to give our group member a horse in exchange for it.
My co-travellers were wonderful.
We returned dusty, dirty, pong-y, exhausted and happy.
Our marvellous Soviet chariot that took us deep into the wilds of Mongolia... it forded rivers and practically climbed over rocks. Don't know how the Russians built such a basic, simple but thoroughly rugged vehicle, but it was very impressive. They did however forget to add suspension.
Mongolia is one of those places that after seeing it you then have to reconcile yourself to missing it for the rest of your life.
Packing for China... and I'm taking some tea. Those goofy little things that so amuse the solo traveller.