Category: Tips


Katie and Jonny’s overland adventure

For anyone who followed our blog avidly, excited to hear about a trip overland to India and back, I thought I should draw to your attention that a few of our friends are doing a similar thing. Katie and Jonny are headed to India, diverging from the same route as ours by passing from Russia into Kazakhstan, then into China, Tibet, Nepal, India. They intend to volunteer in India at Navdanya, an organic farm and seed bank.

Their trip is centred on the theme of food:

“We are all in some way connected to food and it is this relationship that is, for most of us at least, the most direct and most common connection that we have with ‘the environment’. So it was with food that we felt that we would be able to explore not only the macro but also the micro, food as a topic will hopefully allow us to explore not only the political systems and structures that define and propergate the global status quo that is inequatable access to one of our most basic needs but also the local cultural relationships to food that are enacted on the personal, community and country level. We hope to explore how these relationships are shaping and can inform a more sane connection to not only what we eat but also to ‘the environment’ as a whole.”

Check out their blog at http://wildappleseeds.wordpress.com/

Advertisements

Tips for travelling in India

For a full tıps lıst, also read our tıps on Nepal.

1. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet wıll tell you, you can, especıally ıf you are two or more people travellıng together, budget for well under ten pounds a day. We were averagıng between 6-8. For thıs we would get a double room often wıth a bathroom as well as three meals a day and sıght-seeıng.

2. Bookıng ahead for hostels can be dıffıcult as people for some reason wıll tell you there are no rooms when there are several avaılable. Persıstence ıs the only solutıon – ın one place we turned up, they saıd ‘No rooms’, we lıed and saıd we had a bookıng and lo and behold there were loads of rooms spare.

3. Always agree a prıce before gettıng ınto a rıckshaw, or gettıng any food.

4. You wıll be reassured that thıngs are ‘okay’ or ‘no problem’ a lot, but sometımes ıt ısn’t okay and there ıs a problem, and ıt’s faır to kıck up a fuss or at least ask some more people – otherwıse the chaır you’ve been gıven to waıt ın for someone may turn out to be ın the wrong room or even the wrong buıldıng, and you’ll sıt there forever.

5. When ıt comes to traıns, though, you’re gonna have to waıt. For a long tıme. Unless you fancy takıng a rısk, don’t book more than two traıns for one day. Traıns relıably run late (less than an hour and the announcement wıll be that ‘the ınconvenıence ıs regretted’, more than an hour and ıt ıs ‘deeply regretted’…) and so make sure you have several hours between connectıons. When we were ın Bhopal a traın was cancelled because ıt was a whole 24 hours late…

6. Traıns are more comfortable than buses, but much more hassle to organıse. You can just turn up and get on a bus, whereas wıth traıns you have to endure the tortuously complıcated bookıng process. Once you,re on the traın though, there ıs food and drınk easıly avaılable and toılets are not long-hoped-for stops.

7. As our frıend told us soon after we arrıved ın Indıa, eıther you have to accept that Indıa ıs lıkely to be the most frustratıng place you’ve ever been to ın your lıfe and let ıt go over your head, droppıng the frustratıon, or you wıll spend your whole tıme tearıng your haır out.

8. As another of our frıends poınted out, there ıs a ‘fluıd’ concept of tıme. Fıve mınutes does not mean fıve mınutes, ‘soon’ may not mean soon ın the slıghtest, and ‘tomorrow’ may well become ‘next week’. We made thıs observatıon ın Nepal, but ın Indıa ıt ıs far worse.

9. If you ıntend to do stuff ın Indıa, be prepared for ıt to take about ten tımes longer than you mıght otherwıse expect. If you sımply want to bum on the beach and do yoga, you shouldn’t encounter thıs sort of problem!

10. Always ask at least three people when tryıng to fınd dırectıons – go wıth the majorıty rule.

11. ‘Eve-teasıng’ ıs the name gıven to the harrassment of women – there are women-only coaches on traıns to attempt to avoıd thıs. Every traveller we met had met someone who had been affected by sexual harrassment of some sort. Basıcally, don’t take any shıt. It’s not acceptable, and Indıans who aren’t perverts (everyone mınus a tıny mınorıty) don’t fınd ıt acceptable eıther. If you’re not comfortable wıth a sıtuatıon, don’t accept ıt because you’re ın a ‘dıfferent culture’ and ‘people are more tactıle here’ or anythıng lıke that.

12. Sayıng thıs, you won’t avoıd beıng stared at, especıally on the beach. People takıng photos of you ın your bıkını, however, ıs not normal. One gırl reported a man for vıdeoıng her cleavage and he spent a nıght ın a cell.

13. A few places ın whıch you don’t need to spend more than a day to see everythıng – Kanyakumarı, Trıchy. Mamallapuram ıs VERY tourısty, as we already mentıoned, and ıts food suffers as a result. Bhopal ısn’t a nıce place, go there for the Sambhavna Clınıc and to fınd out about theır amazıng work.

14. A few places and thıngs that, ıf you’re ın the area, you should go to/do – ın Kerala, defınıtely do a canoe backwaters tour, don’t just stıck to the bıg boat waterways. In Ooty, pay the money to do a tour of the tea plantatıons, they’re really beautıful – the mountaın areas between Kerala and Tamıl Nadu are lovely, partıcualrly to get out of the heat. There are lovely beaches ın Karnataka whıch are lıke Goa before ıt got lıke Goa ıs now.

15. Carry toılet paper ıf you ıntend to use the toılet.

16. When orderıng from a menu, always have a second and thırd choıce. Often you wıll fınd that whatever you have chosen ısn’t avaılable and neıther are half of the other thıngs on the menu…

IranianVisa.com

While I can’t imagine that anyone’s particularly eager to plunge into the Middle East at the moment, if anyone is planning on heading to Iran, we would both recommend that you consider researching other companies than IranianVisa.com – they’ve had some good reviews, but our experience was pretty bad.

———————————–

From our experience If you need a visa for Iran, think twice before using iranianvisa.com.

We needed a visa and were already out of our home country. We’d heard mixed things about iranianvisa.com from the thorntree forum, but decided to use them anyway.

When we initially contacted them, they were very friendly and responded almost immediately. This encouraged us to use them. However, once we had made our payment, communication became very poor.

To start with, they charged us more than they state as their exchange rate from Euros to pounds isn’t at the current (at the time) rate, so we ended up paying almost an extra ten pounds between the two of us.

When we applied, we were told that we would receive our visa code (which you take to the embassy) within 15 working days. When 15 working days had passed, we got in contact with iranianvisa and they apologised, saying there had been “some difficulties” – of course, everything has been kicking off in the Middle East, so that’s understandable, but they hadn’t contacted us at all. They also told us that some people’s codes had been sent to them already and that it was looking good for us.

Another two weeks later, we still had not heard anything from them. So we emailed again, and this time we were told that “there must be a misunderstanding”, and that it is normal not to receive your visa code until 10 days before you intend to pick it up. That leaves you ten days to book transport into the country! Good luck getting anything cheap! We hadn’t been told this at the start, in fact we were told the opposite, as above.

We only heard back from them 2 days after we were meant to pick up our visa and we had been rejected, which isn’t their fault in the slightest but we should have heard back long before then.

While this may be totally out of the ordinary due to the political situation in Iran, it suggests to us that it would be worth investigating other companies.

 

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.

Tips for travelling in Tibet

Travelling into Tibet is not the easiest of things. In fact, the Free Tibet campaign organisation suggests that you don’t do it at all, since your presence will probably benefit the Chinese government much more than it will benefit the Tibetan people. However, if you really want to go there, or if it happens to be on the way to Nepal when you make your way there overland from China, then here are a few tips.

1) Prepare yourself for the cost, but shop around (and find other people to travel with).

Because the Chinese government doesn’t want you finding certain things out about Tibet, the only way you can enter the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ is with a Tibet permit, and a certified guide to meet you, probably in Lhasa. If you leave Lhasa, you must also have a jeep and a driver for that jeep. You have to pay for all of your personal members of staff, and for their food and lodging while you travel through the country. This is even the case for cyclists, who have to organise for a jeep to drive behind them with their guide! This means that going in a big group is a good idea, as you can split the costs – check out the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum for people trying to find other people: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forum.jspa?forumID=19.

For the two of us (we couldn’t find anyone to join us), it cost 250GBP each, not including food or accommodation, for only five days! Once we reached Nepal, as is always the case, we found a couple who arranged it for much cheaper . So you could check hostels in Chengdu for cheap options, but I think they ended up flying over the border, which is a bit silly when you can take the train…

2) Think about where you spend your money

If you don’t want to support the Chinese occupation of Tibet, try to make sure your money goes to Tibetans. It is relatively easy to find a Tibetan guide rather than a Chinese one, and it is much more likely they will give you a realistic picture of life in Tibet. Also, if you arrange your tour through the guide themselves rather than a travel agency, it will cost you less and the guide is more likely to get paid more as the agency does not take a massive cut. Get in touch if you’d like contact details of our guide.

You can ask to stay at Tibetan-owned hotels and eat at Tibetan-owned restaurants.

Read http://www.freetibet.org/files/Travel%20Guide2010.pdf for more tips.

3) Decide what you want to do with your trip

This may not necessarily be what your guide wants you to do!While your guide may claim to be tailoring your trip to you, the likelihood is that they are choosing from one of several ready-made trips. If you’re trying to get through Tibet as quickly as you can whilst taking in stuff en route, this should take no more than 5 days.

4) Watch out for the altitude

An obvious point, but watch out for the altitude change on coming into Tibet – Lhasa is over 4000m, which is rather high! Especially given that altitude sickness can start to kick in just below 3000m and from there on you’re only meant to climb 300m a day. On the train you climb over 1000m in under 24 hours, so you’re almost guaranteed to get some of the symptoms.

See http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Altitude-sickness/Pages/Introduction.aspx for symptoms, treatment etc.

Diamox can be useful, as it reduces the severity and likelihood of the symptoms – we met some people in Xi’an who gave us their leftovers, which was handy.

5) Look after your guide

This applies to porters as well, should you choose to go to Everest Base Camp (tip: do this from the Nepal side as it will be cheaper and possibly easier, particularly as 2011 is ‘Year of Tourism’ when I believe climbing to EBC will be free). While you may be amazed that your guide and porter are in flimsy shoes and thin clothes when you have to wrap up, they should have good equipment and if it was available I bet you they’d use it.

6) Check out freetibet.org

http://www.freetibet.org/about/travel-to-tibet

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!

Vilnius and St. Petersburg

Vilnius provided a much-welcomed break from our speed-tourism. It is a very tranquil and beautiful city, with a couple of endearing quirks. The Republic of Uzupis, which was once a neighbourhood in the city, declared itself an independent Republic on April Fools’ Day, 1997. It’s a bit like Christiania in Copenhagen, but completely different – they share in their ‘alternative’ approach to things, but it is clear that Uzupis is not regularly raided by the police…

There is also a bust of Frank Zappa on a tall plinth (which Josh was totally unimpressed by), made by the same creators of the various Soviet leader statues which now all stand in the bizarre Grūtas Park.

Vilnius isn’t really a place I’d go out of my way to visit, and I think I’m joined in that by many due to the total lack of tourists (probably due to the economic crash of the Lithuanian state airline during the credit crunch) but just travelling through was very relaxing.

The train journey to St Petersburg (also known as Petrograd or Leningrad) was an experience. It was easier to find the train than it had been in Poland, but the inside of the train was somewhat unexpected. Boiling hot and with no privacy other than in the toilet (an intriguing affair with an all-70s look other than the extremely modern taps), the train became slightly more unncomfortable when the old Lithuanian couple boarded and insisted on moving our bags so they could put their bags under the seats, and standing on our card game so they could store the rest of their stuff. They then proceeded to sit where we had been sitting as we stood in confusion in the gangway. I don’t know what it is about a lot of the countries we have been through – a considerable amount of the time, the people you don’t talk to are extremely rude, but the ones we have spoken to have been really friendly and helpful. This distinction is clearest with this couple, who were quite friendly once Josh helped out with their bags!

‘Right kiddiwinks, you have to get up bright and early, so go to sleep!’ was the implication of all the lights going out at ten pm. In retrospect, perhaps we should have gone to sleep instantly, since border crossings into Latvia and into Russia involved lights on and foot pinching by sour faced and be-uniformed guards for anyone not awake to show their passports and visas.

We arrived in St. Petersburg and started our Russian adventure by watching the Prince of Persia on the big screen TV in our hostel when waiting for a free room! When we turned up, there was a note on the Reception desk with a picture of the Terminator saying ‘I’ll be back!’. We sat and waited, and a few phones rang, until one of the crumpled figures on a sofa stirred.

‘How long have you been waiting?’ asked Andre.

‘About half an hour,’ we answered.

Since he was supposed to have been on reception, our thirty minute wait paid off with free coffee, soup, pastries and the entertainment of the Donnie Darko actor prancing around in a loin cloth bouncing off walls and celebrating the Persian Empire. After that, we were told that unfortunately we had been moved (free of charge) to a double room instead of the 7-bed dorm we had booked. What a shame…

We later found out that the 7-bed dorm no longer exists, as the hostel has changed location since we made our booking. As a result, almost nothing that we booked was available, and we had a late evening adventure to another hostel to use their kitchen (!) because Andre was so insistent that we be able to cook our pasta.

Later on, the hostel was completely silent by about 10pm – no music, no people in the bar. Unnerved by the eerie atmosphere this created, we drank the Crazy Duck beer quite quickly. We found out that the reason for this lack of entertainment was that the rest of the entire hostel (including a sofa in the bar) had been booked out by some Russian Orthodox Christians, who seemed to have demanded silence…

St. Petersburg itself is a spectacular sight. Filled with grandiose buildings covered in gold and bright paint, it is a treat simply to walk around the city. We luckily found time on the one day when the sky was clear and blue to head up the colonnade to have a 360 degree view of the city.

We were directed to the Russian equivalent (and originator of) the milk bar, where you can get very cheap canteen-type food. Both here and in Poland they serve a juice drink that seems like they have boiled red fruit in some sugary water. It’s pretty tasty! Another cheap but much tastier eating spot is Stolle, which sounds German but is a pie chain found throughout St. Petersburg. Real pie here – the mushroom is simply jam-packed with mushrooms, none of this creamy nonsense, just mushrooms and garlic. Yum.

 

Berlin Part 2

There are many other things to write about Berlin, so here are a couple. Lonely Planet’s ‘Europe on a Shoestring’, it seems, has little shoestring-y about it. We’ve been collecting stuff to do that’s free or really cheap that they inconveniently missed out…

While some may go to Berlin for the banging techno raves, we were already becoming exhausted and had the weight of recent history on our shoulders, so stuck to tamer activities.

The Topography of Terror (which perhaps does not have the tamest of titles), which Josh mentioned already, is an incredibly detailed examination of the growth and eventual fall of Nazi power. What is possibly most mortifying about all of the facts presented is just how many high-ranking Nazis went on to have high-ranking positions in West Germany, and how many basically got away with everything. There are reports of people getting 7 years in prison for involvement in planning the murders of tens of thousands of people. Moreover, they generally only serve a few of those years, mainly because they were brought to trial when they were about 85… It’s heavy stuff, but well worth checking out. Plus it’s free.

The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime is very near the Jewish Memorial  and has a similar aesthetic. Check it out – one concrete block just a bit further up the road, look inside!

Walking tours run from outside the Starbucks near the Brandenburg Gate every day at 11am and 1pm. They’re about 3 1/2 hours long, so be prepared for the cold if it’s September (unlike some sorry looking Brazilians, one of whome ended up buying an awful synthetic Soviet hat at Checkpoint Charlie because he was just that cold!). I’d assume they vary according to your guide, but ours was pretty damn good. I also had Josh giving me the more radical (or simply more accurate, as some may say…) interpretations of the same events (e.g. it wasn’t the Communists who burnt down the Reichstag, it was the Nazis as it gave them an excuse to seize power) as a sort of constant undercurrent! The ‘free’ tour works on tips, so it’s up to you whether you pay or how much.

Out by Warschauer Strasse station, there’s a brilliant oldschool black and white photo booth, the kind you don’t even see in colour in England any more, where you have four different photos. Not free, but not expensive, and totally excellent!

Obviously there’s always the East Side Gallery, as well.

We were staying in Kreuzberg, which is a Turkish area, so we were surrounded by loads of different pastries, kebabs, falafels, pizzas, tea…