Category: Practicalities


If anyone is thinking about going to the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, they should. But be prepared. We have a few tips which might be helpful.

First and foremost, read the volunteer handbook on the BMA website. It’s full of useful stuff!

Getting there. Sambhavna has a ‘H’ after the ‘B’ which you need to pronounce if you want to be understood. If rickshaw drivers and general stand-arounders still give you a blank look, ask for the ‘Peoples Hospital’ on Berasia Road, and turn down the alleyway next to the Reliance petrol station. Or call the Clinic, although mobile phones are very difficult to source when you’re a foreigner in India nowadays.

Don’t think, like we did, that you can walk from the station to the clinic. The map in the Lonely Planet is, as usual, a bit crap – don’t believe its scale! It’s much further than 1km!

When you catch a rickshaw to the clinic from the train station, do not pay more than Rs50. From Pt.6 it should be Rs30. Rickshaw drivers will probably try and sting you (as usual) for up to Rs200.

If you can bring your own laptop, do.  There probably won’t be a computer available during the day, but after 3pm, several become free.

Have patience with the internet, the computers and power cuts. Either you will learn this patience, or you will literally tear your hair out in frustration. Maybe consider taking up yoga…

Because the area is predominantly Muslim and generally conservative, it is frowned upon to wear anything that shows your shoulders. Plus, if you’re a woman, it seems you’re not supposed to ‘reveal’ your bum by not covering it with both trousers/long skirt and long top. I’ve been trying to formulate my responses to this as a blog, I’ll keep you posted…

There is always work to do in the garden. The gardeners are very friendly and it is the kind of job where you can look back in satisfaction at the end of the day and know you’ve completed a whole task (which is otherwise more difficult to achieve).

The water used in the sinks/shower etc is recycled for the plants. Therefore, bring organic body products – e.g. soap and hair wash. You can buy ‘Medimix’ from the local corner shop – but that only works as soap and detergent. It leaves your hair unpleasant.

If you get ill, do not hesitate (as I did) to speak to the doctors. They are more than happy to help. Maybe before that you could consult the gardeners who are a wealth of knowledge on herbal remedies and will surely point you in the direction of various leaves, roots and seeds.

Keep in Shahnaz’s good books! She is a fixer of problems: officially the ‘Librarian’ she does a multitude of things, including coordinating the volunteers. She can always offer work archiving, which is an endless task…

Visit the Union Carbide site. Sanjay can help you out with that for a small fee. He is a very good guide and I would recommend him. Ask Shahnaz for his email address.

If you want help at Sambhavna, you have to ask – otherwise people just assumed you’re getting on with whatever it is that you’re doing. People won’t just offer it, but when you ask there’s usually at least one person who will be able to help. It can be a bit frustrating that no-one really helps, but of course everyone’s busy and if you keep asking someone will eventually have time.

If you have any further questions, post a comment on this with your email address and we will get back to you.

Tips for travelling in Nepal

1. If you are planning on going to India after Nepal, get your Indian visa in England or anywhere but Kathmandu.

2. Again, if you are planning on heading to India, wait until you get to Kathmandu to get your Rabies vaccine. The CIWEC clinic, which is on the same road as the Indian visa place (the one you should avoid) and the British embassy, is probably cleaner than Western clinics, and waiting time is much shorter. Most importantly, the price of each shot is a fraction of the cost in the UK, costing around 22pounds. Since you will need 3 shots, you can choose between just under 70 pounds for all 3 or 50 each in the UK…

3. ALWAYS haggle. Bus fares, hotel prices, or anything else you have to pay for (other than vaccines). Places may even tell you the price is fixed and then put their price down, when you walk out without buying anything.

4a. Some useful equipment to bring: earplugs, plastic sandals (for wearing in less than clean bathrooms), a torch (for during the daily “load-shedding”, also known as power cuts), a bum-bag, a water bottle (you can get these in every other shop in Kathmandu and Pokhara).

4b. Padlocks are handy – good to attach bags to luggage racks and for your hotel door.

5a. If trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary, you don’t need a guide (there is basically one path the whole way, and when there isn’t you can ask a local) or a porter (unless you have special requirements).

5b. Go trekking in early December. The weather is  fine, it doesn’t get too cold in the evenings, it is not busy as peak season has just ended, and stuff is often cheaper.

6. You can stay in monasteries. It is often cheaper than hotels, and meals are included.

7. The best parts of Kathmandu are not in Kathmandu. Day trip like a wild thing.

8. If you are inclined to give stuff to begging children don’t. If you still feel the need, still don’t give to glue sniffers in Thamel (a part of Kathmandu) as they will even sell food to buy glue. Giving school pens and paper are really the best option.

9. Antibiotics and water sanitiser can be bought in Nepal for a fraction of the cost of them in the UK. Expect to be ill at least once at some point – this can be alleviated by antibiotics. Tap water isn’t safe, so you have a choice betwen bottled water or water sanitiser in a water bottle. The latter is cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

10. You can get by very easily with English, though it is nice to make an effort to speak Nepali.

11. “Dhanyabad” (thank-you) doesn’t really get said, only when someone goes out of their way for you. If someone gives you a clementine on a bus, thank them, but it sounds weird to Nepali waiters etc to hear “thank-you” all the time.

12. Be prepared for grulling bus rides. Plastic bags (the only thing in the medicine box) are always available for the travel sick, of which there will always be at least one. This is not an excuse however to fly anywhere!

13. Keep hold of your small change. People won’t want to give it to you, but you should always have some for fruit sellers and people who you wouldn’t expect to have much change. You often get people who say they don’t have change, but do really, such as taxi drivers and bus conductors. But at the same time, use some common-sense and don’t expect a taxi driver to be able to change 1000Rs when the fare costs 50Rs. You can change big notes for smaller denominations in money changers if you ask nicely.

The Egg Blog

Eggs. Simple yet versatile. They come in many different sizes, but some things remain the same. For instance, they have a shell. It works and it makes sense: it’s natures way of protecting the soft inside with a hard outside. You can scramble, fry or poach eggs. You would not be surprised to see them hard-boiled on a restaurant menu (depending on the type of restaurant). What might surprise you is when your hard-boiled eggs are brought to you with their naturally evolved shells removed and replaced with shiny plastic vacuum packaging for each individual egg. Ahhh…China.

Our experience of China was…mixed. That is not to say there weren’t positives, but there were certainly negatives as well.

While there was no fresh tap water, there was hot water everywhere. As this water had been boiled it meant that you could get free drinking water almost everywhere, including train and bus stations, hotels and shops. In England there are many places where drinking water is not available, but is an alternative usually provided? Also, hot water is much more useful than cold – although we’d thought we would never look at another pot noodle again, they’re pretty handy train food.

Due probably to the fact the people piss everywhere, there are free public toilets everywhere. You can’t go more than 200m without finding one (at least in the big towns – in the small ones there are simply walls that people seem to go behind). The condition of them is another matter, but at least they are there. However, this doesn’t stop children from pissing and shitting everywhere including train stations. Parents put their children on their knees and away they go…

Once you are outside of Beijing the landscape is generally incredible. “From another planet” as Lucie described it in Quiko. There is a lovely combination of mountains, rivers and greenery. It was a bit odd to get used to the fact that Xining sits against a backdrop of stunning mountains (this happened more and more as we entered Tibet). However, the locals don’t seem to appreciate what they have as far too much of it is being used as a landfill – the beautiful hillsides are often scarred by streams of rubbish.

While Beijing would certainly fall into one of the cons in our experience (although many of the people we met thought it was great), the underground there is amazing. Its reliable, fast and cheap. Plus, since the Olympics were held in China’s capital they re-vamped the entire thing. The stops are announced in English, and there is even a light to signify which side of the train you should get off at! ‘Where’s the fun in this?’ Asked a Dutch guy we met at our hostel. After the bonkers Metro in Moscow (this was incredible for different reasons, as we’ve mentioned), this was amazing. On the flip side, everyone else seems to have also realised this and therefore it is always busy, but nonetheless a positive.

Unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the positives and the rest of this blog, will be devoted to the negatives.

Spitting is incredibly prevalent. Everyone spits, everywhere. In the major cities its not that surprising given the amount of pollution, but this does not detract from how disgusting this habit is.

In Xining we were reassured that not only do you have to have a licence, but you have to pass a test to get it in order to drive in China. Before that, we hadn’t been so sure. Lanes don’t seem to mean anything and neither do red lights. Honking seems obligatory.  As we have written previously, pedestrians have no rights.

The generally shared mentality that, as a Londonite who has lived in China for the past eight years put it, ‘if you get there first you win’, makes a lot of everyday experiences more stressful. This covers the driving (and the tendency for people to simply overtake on roads if someone slows down in front of them, which led to complete gridlock one day when four lanes of traffic were all facing in the same direction – the police had to come and encourage the cars onto the right hand side of the road…), the queuing (which does happen as a standard practice, but it is just as standard to find that someone slips in front of you just as you reach your destination) and the dash for the trains at every station (the queue starts half an hour before the gates open, and then people literally run for their seats. The only reason we could fathom as to why this could be rational is to get there when there is still space in luggage racks). Occasionally people were exceedingly friendly – a man went totally out of his way to help us onto our bus, writing things on a clip board as he understood written English better than spoken, and on the sleeper bus to Xi’an the man in front of us kept offering his food, insisting we partake in cakes, gum and bananas, but these were the exceptions to the rule.

Staring and lack of non-verbal communication have already been discussed and certainly form a negative.

The negative consequences of smoking don’t seem to have reached Chinese lands yet – at least not for men. No women smoke, and all the men smoke. Again, they do this everywhere. Buses, trains, restaurants… Makes you become all nostalgic for those days in the past when we went into pubs when the smoking ban had begun!

Neither of us are keen to go back to China in the forseeable future, but we’re both glad we’ve been. We’ve even gained a T-shirt with pandas doing martial arts. Awesome.

So after writing a rather negative blog, I feel I should attempt to portray the other side of Beijing (with help from Lucie). Almost all the people we have spoken to have said how much fun they had there, so clearly there is something good about it, even if I can’t see it. Although when it comes to seeing and our rather damned trip to the Great Wall, I think we were just unlucky with the weather.

There are lots of nice, or to be less bland, impressive temples. You probably don’t need to see more than 2 or 3, as unless you are a temple geek, they all look rather similar – just like churches in Europe. We went to a Buddhist and Taoist temple. While they were different in many ways, I was interested by how far they both placed gods so centrally. This is most likely my ignorance, but I always saw Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, so I was quite surprised by the amount of statues which people were leaving offerings to and praying to.

The Taoist temple was interesting for several other reasons, though. Firstly, it was one of the few places we found peace in the whole of Beijing. I’m not talking spiritual peace, but more the kind of no horns honking, no spitting peace (although there were still little kids taking pees all over the shop…). The most we heard when sat in the main square was chirrupping sparrows. Bliss.

It’s also fascinating for its idiosyncratic almost ‘bureaucracy of morality’ style of seeing the world. As you walk around, there are many different departments. Each is overseen by a massive moustachioed bloke, before whom are gathered various characters, from weeping women to headless men and grimacing demons trying to cut people’s tongues out. To give you a few tasters of department names, you could hang out with the funky dudes at the department for ‘Official Morality’ , look into ‘Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death’,  or just chill with the rain gods…

While this is meant to be a positive blog, I can’t help but criticise the Forbidden City. Don’t go there. It’s full of tourists, costs loads and is just one palace after another. Once you’ve seen one you have basically seen all of them and there are over 50 in the Forbidden City…
If you are going to the Great Wall, make sure you look around and maybe think of getting there independently. Most the tours will bump you and some sections of the wall can be reached for Y10 and on one bus. Also don’t get taken in by ‘we will take you to a secret part of the wall’. They aren’t any secret parts, that’s just a secret kept from you.
In Beijing there are lots dingy, but cheap and tasty places to eat. Just look for the places that are covered with spit and cigarette buts on the floor. We found a a place next to the hostel that did 10 dumplings for Y10. This was compared to our hostel which charged 3 times that for a “continental” breakfast. And don’t go paying 20yuan for a beer, either. Instead check out the joints which look like the equivalents of workers’ cafes – there a beer shouldn’t be more than Y4. In one of these we had some incredible hotpot which had initially worried us by the amount of tripe just floating around, but eventually uncovered some tender beef (you just can’t be vegetarian here…). We’d not opted for the lamb’s spine or sheep’s tail versions!

On the subject of food, there is street food market just off Wangfujing Street, which in itself looks like the Beijing Oxford St equivalent. A level of bravery is required to eat here though – knowing what you are putting in your mouth isn’t ever a certainty. We had deep-fried crab – which you eat shell and all. Then there is something called smelly tofu – basically what its called, but also really salty. You could also try snake, eel, or scorpion – these are still alive when they put them on the sticks and you can see them wriggling about for quite a while after being skewed.

After subsequently visiting quite a lot of over-priced and generally not that great places, I now have a much greater appreciation for the National Art Museum of China. Costing only Y20 its a bargin with 3 different floors of art, in a beautiful old building. The upper floors are less interesting, one has an exhibtion on Italian futurism and American print making, but the ground floor had some amazing Chinese art, ranging from the blurry lines just about looking like a human, to paintings which you had to study intensely to realise they weren’t photos. Some even combined the two, with the ‘traditional’-looking broad brushstrokes refined to incredibly detailed faces in the same painting.

The markets in Beijing were also great, though not if confrontation and stubborness aren’t for you (I was in my element!). We went firstly to the Pearl Market – 2 floors of absolute mayhem and then two floors of pearls, which Clinton apparently visited. The rule of thumb when haggling is ‘pay about one third of the price they start at’. No such rule here. At worst or best (depending how you look at it) we paid around a 10th of what they first asked for. Lucie bought a scarf which they claimed cost Y300 for Y30. The techniques they use to try and get you to part with your money are classic. ‘I give you friend price…’, ‘you think I crazy, no way!’, ‘don’t tell anyone but you can have it for ___’, or ‘let me go check with my “manager”‘. I think the only rule when haggling is pay what you feel its worth, taking into consideration the context of where you’re buying it and how much the seller probably originally paid for it. Our best buy though must have been two pairs or leather, fur-lined (goat not panther) gloves for Y90. Putting mine on is like a little orgasm for my hands…

I think that kind of balances out my rant – there were some great places, although the stress of simply existing in Beijing means that I probably won’t ever return. I left with a twitch, which could only be cured by the application of a beer to my lips.

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!

So we figured that we’ve already accumulated some wisdom from the amount of preparation we have already done, so here are a few hints and tips if you’re planning a similar trip.

*Visas*
Obviously you need lots of these to go through as many countries as we intend to.

Getting a Russian visa was the most nightmare-ish of any of our experiences (well, for Josh it was, I got off pretty lightly as I’m still a student, or was when I filled in my visa… Not that I’m encouraging visa fraud in ANY sense, obviously *STANDARD DISCLAIMER* but they didn’t check my status as a student, although my life with Oxford University officially ended a few weeks later). They don’t tell you this until you try to give them your application, but if you are unemployed or self-employed, you officially have to bring in stamped bank statements for the past three months which demonstrate that you have £100 for every day you are in Russia. I suggest that you tap some rich friend just for the occasion – get them to lend it to you for the period of visa processing. In some Kafka-esque ‘horror of bureaucracy’ scenario, it turns out that you don’t need that money when you actually get there, just for when you apply for your visa!

Also, a tourist visa is up to 30 days. If you actually WANT 30 days, you need an invitation for that entire time. Our invitations were for the 10 days we planned to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow for, so we had to change our plans and leave a week earlier as the Trans-Siberian takes an extra five days in Russian territory after it sets off from Moscow. So don’t get an invitation from your hostel, get one from http://www.realrussia.co.uk, particularly because it’ll probably cost you less!

None of the others were really that much hassle – Nepal is by far the easiest, and you can top-up that visa whenever you like. The Chinese system isn’t nearly as complicated as you might expect! We are yet to try to get visas for Iran, we’re going to try this from India, we’ll keep you updated on that.

*Vaccines*
Some GPs are nicer than others and offer lots for free – we bummed Hep A, typhoid, diphtheria and tetanus. Basically, go to the nurse at your GP and ask for a travel clinic to discuss where and when you’re going – they’ll talk you through it all. Make sure you leave about three months before you have to leave when you do this – some treatments take at least 28 days to administer.

As we were paying for some of our vaccines at NOMADs in Russel Square, a woman informed us that Superdrug are doing an offer with 25% off all vaccines after your first one. However, allegedly Superdrug are involved in funding oppression in Burma, and they’re implicated in Tar Sands (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/FreeBuyersGuides/traveltransport/Petrol.aspx) so you’d need to decide what’s more important there…

*Money*
Check which European countries haven’t joined the Euro. Just in case you weren’t aware, Poland and Lithuania still have their own currencies, although both are intending to switch to the Euro soon.

Dollars are useful in a lot of countries, not just the USA.

*Trains*
http://www.seat61.com rocks my socks. The website is jam-packed with information, and the man – Mark Smith – has been really helpful, replying to various questions we’ve had. He does often point out that the information we’re looking for is hidden somewhere on his website though, so have a good look before you ask him!

If you want to book the Trans-Siberian before you leave the UK, do some price comparisons, but according to our research your best bet is with Svezhy Veter (www.sv-agency.udm.ru), though RealRussia are a more reputable company who are UK-based rather than SV who are Russia-based.

Thomas Cook European and Overseas timetables are amazing – they include every train, most buses and most ferries for the countries involved. With both these books you can work out how to get from London to Indonesia if you want! It shows when your trains are, how long they’ll take and where you need to change. Prices fluctuate, so they’re not included, but other than that it’s basically an all-inclusive guide!

*Hitch-hiking*
If trains aren’t your thing and you fancy hitching some or all of the way (we’re hitching to Lithuania most probably), if someone tells you that ‘no-one hitches any more, you won’t get picked up’, ask them when they last tried to hitch! Our experience has been that every time you get picked up people tell you that, but they’ve just picked you up, proving themselves wrong!

http://www.hitchwiki.org is a brilliant resource, mapping good and bad hitch spots out of all the big cities in Europe and probably worldwide (I haven’t checked that).

Once we got really stuck for hours and hours in the arse-end of nowhere (in the Midlands), and the veteran hitcher who eventually picked us up said to always go by service stations. This has been a revelation – people can check you out, decide you don’t look like a mad axe murderer and then offer you a lift if you wait by the petrol pumps. That’s much more thinking time than is offered to someone who zooms past at however many miles per hour.

Take road maps of the countries you are going through. AA ones are good as they have service stations marked on them. Michelin ones (at least for Germany and Poland) are a bit crap as they don’t have these little ‘S’ diamonds.

*Boats*
We’re currently investigating how to get by sea away from India, to various potential destinations, with Turkey as our nearest European destination. We’ve just found this website which seems pretty useful – http://www.freightertrips.com/bookings/index.html
You fill in a form and they send your details to booking agents to see if anyone can deal with your requests. We’ll keep y’all updated on how this works out.

*CouchSurfing*
This is obviously a much cheaper way to travel than from hostel to hostel, although you do not get to meet as many people this way as you might in a hostel bar. Join the community! http://www.couchsurfing.org/

Right, I’m wisdom-ed out for the moment…