Category: On the road


It’s as if, as we left Kosovo behind, we cut loose the black cloud that had been metaphorically and literally following us. So we had gone from Bosnia to Serbia to Kosovo in four days, and on the fifth we headed to Albania. Being in Albania was probably the closest thing to being back in India since we left, in terms of how we were treated as travellers there. When we stopped to ask whether the road we were on was the right one towards our destination, we were suddenly surrounded by an entire circle of curious men and boys – people were attempting to be helpful of course, but in a way where it’s really not providing much help… Hitch-hiking doesn’t seem to be understood, either, and so everyone who stopped for us would ask for some money – one man suggested 100 dollars to go about 100km. We said we would catch the bus! The roads were the next and completely contradictory bizzarerie – absolutely pristine. After the shoddy state of Kosovo’s roads, which were in desperate need of some additional tarmac, these were even more surprising. Holes have been blown in mountains and perfect asphalt has been laid, yet there are almost no cars to traverse it…

We headed to Lake Skodra, half of which belongs to Montenegro – we aren’t sure if there is a borderline down the middle…We spent some time enjoying the lack of stress while gazing out over the city and lake from one of Albania’s many famous castles.

The following morning, we headed off to Montenegro – our 5th country in 6 days. Hitching provided some of the most scenic spots we’ve held a cardboard sign at so far.

Unfortunately we lost patience with hitching after 3 lifts in lots of hours not really taking us very far at all, and we caught a bus for the final leg of the way to Kotor.

Kotor has a magnificent Old Town right next to a beautiful Bay. The crap side of this is that abominably enormous cruise liners land their humungous selves in the Bay in the mid-morning, spewing hundreds of organised tourists into Kotor’s tiny alleyways, as well as trashing the view in the Bay. If you can bring yourself to ignore the latter, you can take yourself off to a ‘concrete swimming platform’ for a few hours. This sounds grim, but is in actual fact quite pleasurable, and the only way to lie next to the bay and swim.

During the day the fortifications cost however much, but once night falls they are free to climb, so after dark we went up the 1350 stairs, shielding our eyes from the flood-lights. The view over the town and bay was worth every step.

We basically spent these fews days relaxing and enjoying the sunshine which finally decided to show its face.

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The bus driver to Tansen (and sorry if any kids are reading this) was a complete dickhead. He initially tried to charge us too much, but that is quite standard practice. We then stopped and I jumped out to ask if there was time to pee.

“No.”

I ignored this and found a loo, which several other men had also found at the same time(!), returning rapidly to a bus which sat stationary for over 10minutes. Lucie was in a bit of a situation as she also needed to pee, but thought she did not have time. As the minutes ticked away frustration grew…

At the next available opportunity, Lucie jumped out, asking the bus driver if there was time to use a toilet. He nodded, so she dashed off. During her pee time (not long), the driver got bored and started to leave. It was only due to my pee companions and myself, that we managed to stop the bus from leaving Lucie with her pants around her ankles!

Then there was lunch.

“20 minutes” we were told when we asked how long this break would be. Enough time to get lunch. However, as soon as our chow mein arrived in front of us the bus started to move. We stuffed our noodles into plastic bags and then waited another couple of minutes for the bus to actually leave.

The icing on the cake was that we had paid to be dropped in Tansen, not the town at the bottom of the enormous hill that Tansen is at the top of. Bastard! Someone could have at least told us this before we started off up the road, oblivious to the huge climb ahead of us.

Once we had huffed and puffed our way up tiny windy paths, we finally reached the actual Tansen bus stop. Tansen is the steepest town I have ever seen (probably even steeper than Durham). At the very top is Shreenagar Hill where there are more great views. Other than that, its almost the lack of anything to do which makes it so pleasant. This is very real Nepali town, with lots of interesting Newari architecture – the windows are covered in ornately carved wood. Being a real town, there are no touts trying to sell you anything, but also no places to eat anything but Daal Bhat, apart from one bakery/restaurant.

After 3 nights in Tansen, we woke up at stupid o-clock and caught a bus to Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha in 563BC. On what is now the site of the Mayadevi temple, his mother (Maya Devi) bathed and suddenly went into labour – it’s been proven that he was definitely born here. Maya Devi is supposed to only have had time to grasp the branch of nearby tree before the Buddha was born in a stance reminiscent of the John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (only more wise).  Since then, it has been decided that Buddhist temples from countries all over the world should be built in the “Lumbini Development Zone”. There are the more obvious ones such as a Japanese temple and a Chinese temple, but then there is also a German temple and French temple…

Lucie commented that Lumbini reminded her of going to visit Legoland as a kid. Many of the rides were not yet open as the site was still under construction, and whilst there were a few exciting things, what she remembers most clearly is the jacket potato she had for lunch. Lumbini may not have been quite the same, but it’s the holiest building site I’ve ever seen. It’s fulfilling the “Master Plan” of a Japanese designer from the 1970s – gradually, as donations come in, more bridges are built, more water features created. Some temples are spectacular – the Chinese temple looks like they borrowed it from the Forbidden City, and the German (!) temple could have come straight out of Tibet (if Tibet had more money). However, the majority of the temples are still in their bare concrete form, which is quite interesting in itself.

It was one of these concrete temples that housed us: to rival the Chinese temple, Korea (presumably South) is building its own spectacle across the road. At the moment, it is entirely grey – yet to be painted or tiled, the concrete is quite brutal! Regardless of this, we thought that given we weren’t going to be celebrating Christmas, we should do something “religion connected” for the occasion. So we woke up on the morning of the 25th to the sound of the breakfast gong in a Korean Buddhist temple, which rings far too early in my opinion.

The rest of our Christmas day would be taken up by traveling into India. On the way to the border,  in a massively over-crowded jeep, Lucie had the pleasure of having a man sit on her lap, while I was repeatedly offered drugs – not exactly what you want to be carrying when crossing a border..!

So at 2pm on Christmas Day, we entered India. Onwards to Varanasi!

We had picked a perfect time to go trekking – just after peak season so we had the trail to ourselves most of the time, the sun shone every day, and it did not get too cold at night. It being off-peak also meant that rooms were mega-cheap, and there were always spare ‘blankets’ which are actually duvets. Basic comfort levels, check.

The trek was amazing, although both Adrian and Josh suffered quite a bit. Josh at times claiming that he didn’t believe long walks were for him. From the very beginning, the trek wasn’t quite what we had expected as we began by climbing a massive flight of stairs. This was to continue for most of the trek (other than the down bits). The steps up to Chhomrong were pretty ruinous, but the chocolate cake at the top (with custard of course) made it all a little easier.

We had had great ambitions for filling the 10 days with a quicker trek and then visiting some natural looking (rather than just concrete holes in the ground) hot springs. Unfortunately, Josh’s knee screwed him and those plans, so we returned to Pokhara a few days early. Sean made the trip from Deurali to MBC and ABC, but we stayed down, avoided the altitude and knee strain, and played cards and drank hot chocolate until Sean came down.

Adrian stayed with us till the beggining of Chhomrong, but his was a spur of the moment decision to trek and he had only 4 days free so he turned around to go to Kimrong, Kumrong and Ghandruk by himself. This was the route we took several days later.

On the way back, Josh decided that we needed to take it all a little bit easier and stop to enjoy ourselves a little bit more. We stopped at a stream, took off our shoes and socks and dangled our toes in the water. Across the valley there were monkeys in the trees. As we walked along the path later on, there were crashes above us, so we stepped back to let the monkeys pass overhead – slight danger of falling branches.

In Ghandruk, Josh and I decided to celebrate our anniversary by getting some local wine – Raksi. It wasn’t the best of decisions. Totally clear and made from millet, this Raksi at least tasted like watered down vodka.

Some highlights:

The best card game experience was in Deurali where we sat in the corrugated iron and mud eating area warmed by the oil-can stove and joined by the proprietor’s mother

The highest sense of achievement was definately after climbing the steps to Chhomrong. The guide book calls it “a stiff climb”. Understatement!

A close second is climbing over 12,000 steps (down) in one day.

The best pancake (a trekkers breakfast is an omelet and a pancake) was in Ghandruk where it came smothered in chocolate sauce. We ate them on the roof of the guest house with a view down into the whole valley and up to the Annapurnas.

Perhaps the oddest experience was watching the mist roll up the valley and over us as we sat at a table in Deurali.

We won’t be scrambling up and down mountains again any time soon, but it’s definitely not an experience to be missed if you get the chance to go.

We had picked a perfect time to go trekking – just after peak season so we had the trail to ourselves most of the time, the sun shone every day, and it did not get too cold at night. It being off-peak also meant that rooms were mega-cheap, and there were always spare ‘blankets’ which are actually duvets. Comfort levels, check. 

As my mum left Kathmandu, our friend Sean arrived in Kathmandu, though not quite when he intended. He flew with Air India – a very bad idea – and after waiting 3 hours on the plane in Heathrow was told the plane was not going anywhere that night as there had been “technical difficulties” (a problem he also experienced when trying to leave Kathmandu – lesson don’t fly with Air India). So the next day he returned to Heathrow and we met him the same day at Kathmandu airport. While we thought that Sean would pack light, it seemed odd that he had arrived without any bag at all. In turned out that Air India had believed that half an hour was long enough to transfer all the passengers and their bags from one flight to another when they changed in Delhi. However, they had been wrong and so while the passengers had boarded the plane, the bags had not. So the following day, Sean had to go back to the airport to retrieve his bag.

With him and his bag now in Nepal we began to enjoy ourselves – well, as much as possible in Kathmandu. We got into a lengthy chat with some camping shop worker. He told us how when a stupid rich westerner came in and asked if they had any better quality items, they would go into the back of the shop, get exactly the same as what was at the front of the shop in a different colour, and then charge 4 times as much. He wondered how such rich people had become so rich. An age old question. We then chatted about the difference between relative and absolute wealth, while Sean explained how beautiful the mountains are, a subject upon which he had a tendency to wax lyrical when he was in Nepal.

Unfortunately, bad things tend to come in threes and within 48 hours of arriving, Sean had come down with food poisoning which we believe was gained in a Korean restaurant – I would not like to say whether it was from the North or South…

As good friends should do, after giving Sean lots of water and biscuits, we left him to throw-up and headed for Bandipur.

However, getting there proved harder than expected. Given the load of bags we had, we decided to catch a taxi to the bus station.

“Bus station for Bandipur” we told the taxi driver

So after travelling for a couple of minutes our taxi drivers suggests he could take us to Bhaktapur for a friends price.

“Bandipur, not Bhaktapur” we reply.

So we continue for a another few minutes and then the driver again suggests he can take us to Bhaktapur. A problem seems to be developing. So the taxi driver drops us at what he hope is the bus station for Bandipur, but of course, its not, though buses to Bhaktapur do go from here. Luckily, we meet an incredibly helpful local who takes us via foot and bus to the correct bus station and doesn’t even ask for any money (though we still give him some).

We negotiate a price for the bus to Bandipur (no bus prices are fixed) and set off. However, half way through the journey the ticket inspector asks us for 3 times what we agreed to pay. Another unwanted hassle, but to their surprise we don’t budge.

So eventually we arrive in Bandipur and everything looks a lot brighter for us (if not for Sean). Bandipur is a one road Newari village set in the hills between Kathmandu and Pokhara. While the village caters for tourists, it is by no means a tourist town. The guest-house we stay at is a old Newari building that was built by the grandfather of the woman who now runs it. She insists on calling us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and tells us to call her mother ‘mother’. When I needed to get the key she instructs me to go downstairs and say “Mother, give me the key”. Amazing!

The view from our window is incredible. As far as the eye can see there are rolling hills, while on the other side of the house there are the mountains – quite different from Kathmandu where we could see a building site, although to be fair there were mountains behind that.

One of the highlights of our time in Bandipur was watching the sunset from the hill just above the town. The sunset was so lovely in fact that we ran straight down the hill (after running up it in fear we would miss the sunset) and emailed Sean informing him that he must come here and watch the sunset the following day, which he did.

Now being with Sean, and Adrian (a Dutchman Sean had met on the top of a jeep), we all headed into the jungle below Bandipur to seek out the caves. In my usual fashion, when we arrived at the caves, I argued with everyone that we didn’t need the guide that was waiting at the entrance. But after making 3 mistakes within 30 seconds of entering the cave I changed my mind. Lucky I did to as these caves were massive and unsurprisingly, very dark. Sean, Adrian and I had never been in proper caves before, so the entire experience was new and fascinating. There were enormous chambers (which we climbed to via a rickety ladder), glistening ceilings, pure white rock formations and bats. I don’t think we would have found our way out very easily or with all our ankles un-sprained without our guide!

We left the caves with an appetite and continued down the hill to the village below for veg chow mein. Not wanting to walk back up the hill to Bandipur we tried to hitch a ride and within a couple of minutes found ourselves on the back of a tractor which was carrying massive chunks of rock for a building site. This wasn’t the most comfortable of rides, but was pretty spectacular. We also got laughed at quite a lot my local people as we slowly drove past.

Having had a brief break from city life, we left the over-whelming beauty of Bandipur and headed off to Pokhara, with Adrian becoming the latest victim to food poisoning.

The most dramatic change in landscape occurred in the change from the
Tibetan plains, where dust storms roam the land, to the lush greenness
of the valley below as we reached the border with Nepal.

We attempted to convince the jeep drivers in the border town to give
us a reasonable price for a lift to Kathmandu, but they stuck to their
5000Rs demand (about 50 quid). Given that the bus was only three
pounds, we went with that option. We befriended a Chinese woman and
her American husband, and we bantered our way through much of the
journey.

When we were sitting on the bus, waiting for it to fill up and leave,
some teenagers got on and asked to see our ticket (one between four of
us). We cautiously handed it over, wondering what sort of scam this
was.
‘How much you pay for this?’
‘Uh, 320 rupees.’ Is this some attempt to get us to pay again?
‘Too much. Local price 295. You get money back.’
Rather surprised, the couple we had just met were guided back to the
ticket office where the Nepali teenager argued with the ticket man
until he gave us a refund! How often does that happen?

The first time on a Nepali local bus is certainly an experience –
crammed between people’s sides, backs and crotches, hoping
desperately that your bag isn’t being surreptitiously unloaded at
every stop, as the bus jolts and judders its way alongside sheer
drops… It didn’t help that once again Lonely Planet let us down on
the timings, so we were expecting a 3-4 hour journey and we arrived 6
hours later, dehydrated, hungry and I had pretty bad stomach pains.
The unpleasantness of arriving was increased by our having turned up
in the dark in a madly busy bus park, and Josh was throwing up in a
drain out of dehydration and tiredness.

A confusing phone call with a man whose English was not very good with
my Nepali being nonexistent (fine when you’re face to face but
difficult over the phone!) later, we were met by Tej who guided our
taxi with his motorbike to Aishworya children’s home. We were met by
Ama, the woman who set up the home, who is a big, welcoming but
formidable character. She initially took in two children that she
found as orphas, having taken them to an orphanage but been appalled
at the standards there. They lived in her house, but she realised she
wanted to expand. So she gave up her job as a driving instructor, sold
off her inherited land, bought a big house and started taking in
children. I think there are about 30-40 kids there at the moment,
between the ages of 3 and 16. Pramila, Ama’s daughter, is usually also
at the home, but she was off on a mission at the border of Tibet,
trying to return children from factories back to their families.

The children were amazing – it was difficult at first to really know
how we could be of assistance as they are so self-sufficient. The big
kids look after the little kids (the smallest of whome are called the
banana bunch – they all sleep on one mattress like a bunch of
bananas). It’s quite something to see a nine year old carry two
rucksacks to school so that a five year old doesn’t have to (that’s an
obvious time when you can do something)! One girl and her big brother
were in charge of the kitchen – she would get up at 6 in the morning
to cook daal bhat. That’s the standard food for Nepali people, it is
eaten twice a day. It involves rice, lentil daal, spinach, and then
often curries and pickle. Jack gave us our Nepali names – Josh is Ram,
hero of the Ramayana, and I am Sita, reincarnation of Laxmi, wife of
Ram (I’ve always wanted to be identified as a appendage to someone
else…).

Ama told us that discipline is most important with children, and the
children certainly respected her and did many useful things in the
home. But it made me appreciate how important play is for kids,
however old they are. There were several times when we came downstairs
to find the younger kids all sitting quietly not doing anything other
than occasionally shushing one another, and the older ones seemed to
believe that they had grown out of games completely. More of them got
involved the more we played though! It took a while and some
convincing for us to be able to just be silly and play the hokey
cokey, musical statues and bumps, and ninjas. The longer we played,
the more they taught us games too. Coming to the home, we were
slightly uncertain as to how we could really be of use – we wouldn’t
be there long enough to really get to know everyone and properly help
out, and on the flip side we wouldn’t be comfortable with staying too
long as we’re not sure it’s really good for kids to form real
emotional bonds with people who then disappear from their lives never
to return… Providing an opportunity for the children to just have
fun for a bit was, I think, a good thing.

Another time when we felt like we were really helping out was when we
moved house, which was the most chaotic experience we have had for the
whole of our trip so far. Random stuff simply got moved from one house
to the front yard of the new house, where piles and piles of things
built up and up. Inside, several people were performing the ritual for
new houses, involving building a fire, reading lots of script and
making offerings (I think to Parvati, Hindu goddess of the household).
That day we had a special festival meal with pounded rice and
marzipan-like balls of sweet stuff. Eventually all the beds got moved
in, so we were as finshed as we needed to be – any remaining stuff got
put in the garage.

We only stayed at Aishworya for one week, which was a big shame. We
had hoped that being at the home could give us a sense of purpose and
something to do that wasn’t indulgent site-seeing for maybe three
weeks or more. But in the end it came down to money – we have been
trying to budget in relation to each country as I personally only had
four grand at the start of the trip to get me through nine to twelve
months. In relation to staying and eating elsewhere in Kathmandu,
staying at Aishworya was prohibitively expensive, particularly as we
had to find extra meals elsewhere to supplement the rice and thin daal
the kids have to live off. It absolutely makes sense that a poor
children’s home cannot afford to have much variety in food, or even
much food at all that isn’t rice, but we wanted to not lose loads of
weight (I don’t have much spare!) and we wanted to save money, and we
were paying to eat there. Maybe it sounds really stingy for us not to
recognise that relatively we have loads more money and maybe we could
afford a bit more, but it put us in a weird position, and that wasn’t
enjoyable. Ultimately Josh and I staying for one week paid a
considerable proportion of the month’s rent. So I guess that’s another
good thing that came out of our staying.

When Merilyn, Josh’s mum arrived, we moved out of the home to hang out
with her and go on various amazing trips.

Hi all, we’ve both been planning for The Future and spending all available internet time frantically making applications to various establishments to set ourselves up for when we return to England. They’re all sent off now, so we’re hoping to get y’all up to date on the news where we are – we’ve journeyed through Tibet to Kathmandu, spent a brief period at a children’s home, explored some beautiful places in the Kathmandu Valley, been spoiled rotten by Josh’s generous mum who came out to meet us, been amazed at Pashupatinath, nursed one another through the inevitable food poisonings (including our poor friend Sean who managed to get ill only 24 hours after arriving in the country!), trekked the Annapurna Sanctuary trail, rowed on the lake at Pokhara… There’s a lot to tell you all about. But first, the more pleasant bits of Tibet.

Fury at the oppression aside, Tibet was a fascinating place. It’s a riot of colour, as almost every available space (the Chinese area of Lhasa excepted) is filled with prayer flags. When journeying through the country, every pass would be decorated, and all doorways seem to be elaborate.

This can particularly be said of Tibetan monasteries, although I must admit that the monasteries we saw in “official” China (i.e. Amdo) were more spectacular, as have been those we have seen since entering Nepal. The buildings are every single colour imaginable on the outside, and elaborately illustrated on the inside. Many contain enormous statues, a lot of them gilded. One of my favourite characters is the protection deity which looks terrifying – it is often portrayed draped in skulls or decapitated heads,  stamping people under its feet. At first I wasn’t so fond of this, but now I understand that it’s a bit like having a seven foot tall skin head with tattoos on his eye balls for a big brother. It’s alright because he’s on your side.

A particularly memorable monastery-related experience was watching the monks debate in the Sera monastery. It was an incredibly theatrical event as debators stood clapping their hands loudly and lunging towards their opponents to emphasise their points.

Tibetan food, on the other hand, is not something I will remember fondly. Agriculture cannot thrive in the harsh climate in Tibet, so food is restricted basically to noodles, potatoes, radish, and yak. By the time we reached Nepal, we were gagging for some real (any) flavour that wasn’t yak. However, you would be amazed at the amount of uses the Tibetans have found for yak. In India, cows are sacred so they cannot be killed. In Tibet, yaks are sacred, so when they are killed, they use every single last bit of the body. Decorations, meat, milk, rope, bone broth, yoghurt, wool, dried cheese(!), leather, I could go on…The one really tasty thing we had in Tibet is sweet tea. While yak butter tea is salty and definitely an acquired taste, sweet tea is exactly what you need after a 12 hour jeep drive. Made by boiling yak milk, adding sugar and few strands of tea, it’s comfort food in drink form.

We were not hit as hard as those who had taken the nearly 48 hour train journey from Beijing to Lhasa, but the increase in altitude from Xining definitely affected us both. Although we thought we were just a bit headache-y and run down, climbing stairs in our hotel (which seem inordinately steep) was incredibly difficult. We plonked ourselves down in our hotel room wondering why we were so out of breath. Apparently, if you were to take a flight to the top of Mt.Everest, you would have a few minutes of consciousness before you passed out and died. Walking:1, Flying:0.

I think we experienced the most dramatic change in landscape so far as we journeyed on our final day towards the border with Nepal. Dropping down from stark and barren plains where dust storms bother the yaks, we were suddenly surrounded by lush greenery. The roads also changed, falling in quality and up in fear factor. Having said that, the road was only recently officially finished (bits are still under construction) – before that it was simply a dirt road which would have upped the fear factor a couple more hundred percent!

We passed some stunning pieces of natural beauty, including a turquoise lake and an enormous glacier. The latter used to be much more enormous, but it has receded from the roadside where it was in the 1990s, right up the mountain. Climate change anyone? We also had several peeks at Everest, which is called Qomolangma in Tibetan – this seems, as far as I can tell, to translate as ‘Big Momma’. Annapurna, incidentally (that’s the trek we’ve been on in Nepal), means ‘full of food’. I think the massiveness of the mountains was the main thing their namers were trying to convey…

So if you forget/ignore the overwhelming oppression and destruction in Tibet, it’s quite a pleasant place to holiday or travel through… The cost, however, is another matter, which we’ll address in another blog.

Booking the train
Before we left we had a massive dilemma as to how to book the train. Should we book it when we get there or through an agent? If we book it through an agent, what agency should we use? The advantage of booking at the station is that it’s cheaper – potentially a lot cheaper. The disadvantage is the language barrier and the potential that the tickets will be sold out. In the end we went through a travel agency called Svezhy Veter, who are a Russian travel agent and (as travel agents go) are quite cheap. The man at Seat61 suggests RealRussia, but they were more expensive. Retrospectively if we could have overcome the language barrier, we would definitely have booked our tickets at the station. So if you are travelling in the off-peak period we would suggest booking once you arrive in Moscow (probably with some written help from your hostel) as it will be so much cheaper.

Food
The singular most important thing to remember when planning is that there is constant free hot water. With this in mind, you should consider more than we did how hot water can be used in various different ways within a six day period (if you don’t get on and off the train but head straight through to Beijing as we did). Do not fall into the Pot Noodle Trap, as it is a harrowing and flavourless experience. When you start to enjoy the taste of unspecified-flavour instant noodles, you know you are nearing the end of your tether… Your thoughts will be as good as, or probably better than, ours on what would be good – various different tea bags (there is no drinking water that is not boiling and mugs are provided for free), couscous and accompaniments such as pesto… A lot of this stuff isn’t readily available in Russia, so you need to think ahead!

Local people often meet the train at the station (more often in the smaller towns where there are no kiosks) offering a variety of different foods including bread, Russian cabbage-filled doughnut things, sausage, dumplings (so many dumplings) and ocasionally even fresh vegetables and salads. However, the food isn’t amazing – the fabled ‘ignore vegetarianism for this fish’ Lake Baikal fish sadly made no appearance for us… Also, definitely haggle with these people as they will obvously try to charge a massively increaded rate as they know they’re the last stop for another half day.

Food on the train is really expensive for those on a budget – about 8 pounds per meal which are not big nor particularly tasty. However, when you enter China (after 4 HOURS of crossing the border and changing the wheels [the ‘bogies’] from Russian size to standard size!) you are given free breakfast and lunch tickets – most likely so that they don’t have to rush you straight to hospital due to malnutrition when you arrive in Beijing…

Entertainment
The reputation that the Trans-Siberian has as a ‘party train’ does not come to the fore in October, it seems. For the first three days there were only eight people in our whole carriage out of a possible thirty two! Half of them formed a little impenetrable clique of Scandinavians, so our vodka reached the end of the journey largely untouched. We relied mainly on chatting to a few people, playing cards, listening to a few Podcasts and ploughing our way through books. For anyone who either believes or wishes to refute the claim that the turn of the twentieth century was the ‘Golden Age’ must read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Troused Philanthropists, anyone desiring a whistle-stop tour of the radical developments of the fifties, sixties and early seventies should try Granny Made Me an Anarchist by Stuart Christie (or Anarchists Ate My Granny, as Josh’s mum brilliantly calls it), and for those steeled to face the brutalities of the creation of Israel, check out Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Scenery
We took the Trans-Mongolian route (route 4), for those considering the Trans-Manchurian or the others…

The first few days in terms of scenery, until you get close to the border of Russia/Mongolia, is nothing to write home about. There are lots of silver birches. However, from there until you arrive is breathtaking. The train skirts around Lake Baikal, which was formed by a rift in tectonic plates. The two plates are gradually separating and will apparently eventually become the world’s fifth ocean. Until then it’s the world’s deepest lake – 1637 meters – containing one-fifth of the world’s fresh unfrozen water. There we found stunning views both of natural beauty and of ramshackle villages – corrugated iron rooves, cows wandering the dirt roads or on long pieces of rope attatched to a post, and satellite dishes (obviously…)! Within Mongolia there is of course the Gobi Desert. While ‘Once you’e seen it for two minutes, you’ve seen it for two days’ is basically true, that doesn’t detract from the awe-inspiring vastness of it. Plus we saw a whole bunch of camels at one point, which was pretty good. The scenery changes dramatically once again as you enter China – from the flat, dry expanse of the Gobi Desert you are now surrounded by the immense lushness of the mountains. The views are sporadically interspered with periods of darkness as the train passes through those same mountains!

Hygiene
Given that you are on a train for 6 days the state of the train is quite good, though your own body might not be. There are no showers, but there is a drain in the floor of every toilet. The level of hygiene you wish to maintain given these restrictions is up to you. Lucie devised a system of washing and drying each limb individually so as not to get cold. If you bring a flannel or a sponge it’s much easier. Sandals or flip-flops are a really good idea, as going into the toilets with bare feet is not something to be desired (the same applies to most night trains in Russia).

Remember to bring quite a lot of drinking water. As mentioned ealier there is a constant stream of hot water, but no safe cold water.

Money
The obvious really applies here. In Russia they accept Russian money, in Mongolia, Mongolian money and in China, Chinese money. They also accept dollars anywhere, but remember to bring low denominations. The exchange rate offered by people who board the train at the borders is rubbish so avoid this if you can. In the six days that we were on the train we spent around 40 pounds between us.

 

Shit, we’re now in China…! We got on a train in Europe and now we’re in China!

The hitch from Wrocław to Kraków

‘I’m not sure I really like hitch-hiking,’ Josh decides. ‘I mean, I’m not sure whether I like the person who finally stops more than I focus on the ten thousand people, most of whom are by themselves with four spare seats, who drive past without even looking at you. What is it you really feel when someone picks you up anyway? Genuinely appreciating the experience of being in their car, or simply relief that someone has finally picked you up?’

Whilst sometimes I would be more inclined to agree, our ride most of the way from Wrocław to Kraków really does fit into the ‘bizarre and incredible experience’ category.

We were stood at the petrol station, sipping the coffee that the attendant had kindly handed to us on the chilly afternoon, when a car roared up. Out leapt a man – ‘Kraków? Tak! Vamos, vamos!’

He tired different languages on us, since Polish doesn’t get us very far – ‘Deutsch?’ German? Sure. I definitely speak more German than I do Polish, so let’s try that.

‘Meine Frau, she has eine Kinde, ein Son! 1 this morning!’

‘Congratulations!’ We shake his hand and he bundles us into his car.

Suddenly he has second thoughts – ‘Was Sie trinkend? Drink? What?’ We shrug our shoulders, ‘We’re fine, no worries!’

‘Vodka! Celebrate? Kein problem!’ We are bundled back out of the car, and find ourselves standing at a counter with this very excited man, wondering if we will survive the journey, as he demands of us what sort of vodka we like.

When we’re finally on the road, we are knocking back shots with orange juice chasers at 3 in the afternoon as the joyous new father beamingly demonstrates how fast his little Fiat can go, and how enormous his son was when he was born, through the sugary bouncing beat of Polish disco. He then promptly fell asleep.

Luckily, ‘Ich habe eine Driver!’ He slaps the shoulder of the stocky man at the wheel. So our mangled remains didn’t need to be extricated from the Fiat’s crumpled wreck after some brutal drink-driving accident. Which is good. The driver did seem to spend a remarkable amount of time in the middle of two lanes on the motorway, but I guess that’s just his style…

 

Hitching to Berlin

Hitchiking on a Saturday is not, it seems, a simple task. Well, not if you’re headed to Berlin instead of Hamburg, as we were. We got quite excited that the hitch looked so simple on HitchWiki – there’s a bus all the way to the nearest service station. However, two and a half hours later, we had been offered many lifts but none going the right way.

For the first time, we tried asking people, rather than simply standing at the road side. It quickly became apparent that I’m a much better candidate for the job than Josh, since at least people will actually speak to me! Unfortunately, whilst I would love to put this down to my inherent charm and witticisms, it’s definitely because I’m a woman. I developed the tactic of first asking, ‘Do you speak English?’ since if they’ve already said ‘Yes’ to one thing, they might be more likely to say yes to more… However, most cars were full or Hamburg-bound or both.

Even more frustratingly, another person turned up, also trying to hitch to Berlin, and got a lift before us! Nonetheless, at the average speed (of 100mph even in the pouring rain) we travelled at, we may even have arrived before him…

Eventually we picked up a lift with a BMW-driving (‘I’ve had this model three times already’) mistress-pursuing Frenchman whose car glided to 100mph with ease. This experience was certianly more calming than sitting in the MG (with spoiler) of an English engineer who insisted on driving unbelievably fast even when the visibility on the road was almost nil.

‘What, might you say, would be the stopping distance of a car like this in this weather?’ Josh asked.

‘I’ve no idea, but don’t worry, I just changed the brakes on this car.’

Apparently he had time targets to keep – London to the border to the Ukraine in eighteen hours with only Red Bull to keep him awake. This all made sense when he explained that he had a date with a bottle of vodka at 10pm that evening…  Luckily, I was too preoccupied with the sensation of crushing from the rucksacks, suitcases and day bags on all sides to truly fear for my life.

On a different note, we managed to extract from him the fact that, from an engineer’s experience and knowledge, biodiesel is ‘complete bollocks’. He also had a similar opinion on climate change, but we’ll forget about that for the moment.

Three lifts took us all the way from Hannover to Berlin, and having only set off from the original service station at 1.30pm, we arrived in East Berlin in  amazing time – before 5!

Utrecht and Hannover

The journey started with a good dose of British racism. Security at the check-in desk at Harwich questioned 3 black passengers travelling together and asked to see in their bags. When one of the 3 asked whether they were being searched because they were black, the security responded by saying they do not profile like that and went on to make a loud point about searching the white man behind them. This effort was subsequently undermined when the 3 were stopped again at the passport check.

Now that we have got rid of the racist section lets move onto the Netherlands which has never been accused of being racist…but certainly does have a lot of water. Over half on the Netherlands is at or below sea level, a lot of this is in “polders” which have been reclaimed from the sea. Instead of hedges, they seem to have strips of water between the fields.

Utrecht

We arrived at the Hook of Holland port which, other than the windfarms, is nothing to really remember and made our way by train to Utrecht, where we were met by family friends. Utrecht is not somewhere I would go out of my way to see, but is a useful stop over point between Britain and the rest of Europe. There is about a day’s worth of stuff to do and if you’re lucky you might even get the chance to pay 25 cents for the McDonalds toilet. Surely it costs them more to employ someone to enforce than they make in revenue? You could instead use the toilet in the 5 star hotel across the canal for free.

The lonely planet Europe on a shoe string guide list 3 sights in Utrecht, all of which cost 7 euros or more. Even though we didnt look around much or go to the tourist office we managed to find quite a few free things to see, including the Cloister Gardens (next to the Cathedral). We were also told that there is a great view from the top of a department store, which unlike the Dom, does not cost 8 euros.

The canals in Utrecht are lovely and definitely worth a visit if you end up there, while the food is not as bad as expected. The same can not however be said for the service. This isnt some snobby British standards and ettiquette view point: the waiter simply tried to steal our change through the powers of awkwardness. Our meal cost 17 euros and we gave him a 20 euro note and he never returned for with our change. As Lucie was standing up to go and talk to him, he came over to us innocently asking “did my colleague never bring your change?”. Cheeky bastard!

Oh, and there are cats everywhere. It seems to be a symbol of status or something, maybe homeliness, to have cats (real ones that is and alive) sleeping in shop windows.

Hannover

Hitching to Hannover was relatively easy. For the first time ever I stood at an official hitching spot, with a big blue sign with a thumbing hand. This spot is located here –
http://maps.google.de/maps/ms?oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Utrecht,+Niederlande&gl=de&ei=tyieTPacKYeRswb0xoDnDg&ved=0CB8Q8gEwAA&hl=de&msa=0&ll=52.081906,5.144284&spn=0.006039,0.013797&z=16&msid=117990639020912851794.00049118596f93d16fc43

Another first for me was that there were other people already there trying to hitch. They complained that this must be a slow morning, something to do with the bad weather they thought, as in the 30mins they had been standing there only 3 people had stopped for them! They ended up giving up and catching the train to their destination and we caught a lift within 30mins of them leaving.

Again another rarity was that quite a few women stopped for us and the person who eventually picked us up was also a woman. We managed to convince her to give us a lift after we told her we were going overland to India and she told us that her friends from Bradford had recently done exactly this trip.

Later in the day we caught a lift with a guy who worked for a shipping company and told us that if we ever got into trouble, we should call him and he would get “his people” to help us out. He later added that if he didnt pick up it was our loss not his.

We arrived to a drizzling Hannover and made our to our Couch Surfing host. However, upon arrival at her front door it became apparent that no one was there. After failed attempts to get in contact with her, we headed off for food, leaving a note for her. We returned after dinner and still no host, so we headed off in search of an internet cafe. Along the way we asked a man in a leather waistcoat if he knew where we might find such a thing. When we explained why we needed it, he tried to call her, swore repeatedly about her and asked us if we would like to stay at his place instead.

“Im going drinking for the next few hours though.”

So we found ourselves in a smoky bar, being bought numerous drinks by a man who turned out to be from a splinter group of Hells Angels (but would have to kick us out of his house at 10am as he needed to pick up his children). Many beers and bars later we arrived back at his house which was a mix of Burgundy leather sofas and childrens football toilet seats.

In the morning he took us to the best pastry shop and when we tried to give him this blog address  he refused – his generosity was about him repaying the amazing treatment given to him when hitch hiking through France as a teenager. “Nothing personal,” he said.