Tag Archive: whytraveloverland


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/

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Photos and map updated

Check out our photos – http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshandluciesoverlandadventure/ – we now have uploaded up to the end of Tibet.

And our the google map of our route is up-to-date – http://maps.google.co.uk/?mid=1293461677

You can always find links to these at the bottom of the main page – just scroll all the way down!

Finally, if you are feeling generous this Christmas, you can always donate to the Bhopal Medical Appeal – http://www.justgiving.com/joshandlucieheadoverlandtobhopal

From Beijing to Xi’an

Pingyao

Our introduction to Pingyao was a little tuk-tuk which picked us up from the train station. Cramming our bags into the front, we were whisked off into the morning air. Almost immediately, our driver was in the middle of the road, honking his little horn. He then proceeded to go the wrong way around the roundabout as we clung to each other behind him. Perhaps this will be like Beijing after all..?

Once we arrived within the old city walls, which are pristinely preserved, we realised that this would be nothing like the hecticness of Beijing. There are even ‘pedestrianised’ (vehicles with two wheels still allowed) areas! It’s a bit of an odd town, although I guess it makes sense from a capitalist perspective – since it’s beautifully preserved, the Old Town comes with a full onslaught of tourist tat and tourist-priced restaurants to match. The biggest downside was that in order to see any ‘historically significant’ buildings you have to buy a twelve quid pass to all of them, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we spent our time wandering the streets, meeting other travellers and making our best investment yet – a flask (with filter to catch the tea leaves). Most of the people we’ve seen seem to carry a flask, since hot water is available almost anywhere – bus and train stations, on buses and trains, in restaurants and tea shops… At first, this seems an obvious way to deal with the fact that there is no safe drinking water here, but in public places in England there are often signs saying that you shouldn’t drink the tap water, but is clean water offered in its place for free? Not normally. So that makes it even better.

From Pingyao we took three buses to Qikou, a tiny little rural town. Here we had properly epic staring experiences… It’s quite standard to get gawped at in the street, but this was next level. When Josh and I sat down to eat some (stupid-Westerner-priced) noodles, a two-deep semicircle of observers gathered around our table. Literally. ‘What do they expect, for us to shove it up our arses or something?!’ demanded Josh, who is becoming ever more intolerant of starers. They gradually lost interest, but then when we stood up again, this was apparently worthy of another gawping session…

A much more pleasant experience of the same ilk was on the bus. The old, toothless man sitting next to us was staring in an amiably curious way, and asked lots of questions (in the local dialect). He compared each of Josh’s layers of clothing to his own, being particularly impressed at the silk thermal trousers, pulled questioningly at Josh’s wristbands asking why he had not thrown them away, and then realised how hairy Josh’s arms are.

‘Bolo! Bolo, bolo!’ he exclaimed. I guess that means ‘fur’. He compared his own hairless arms to Josh’s and laughed. Then he pointed at Josh’s legs.

‘Yep, they’re even hairier,’ Josh said as he lifted his trousers. The man found this completely hilarious. He pointed from his own chest to his feet.

‘?’

‘No, not my entire body! Well, not yet, anyway…’

Lijiashan

From Qikou we headed to Lijiashan, which is pretty incredible. The landscape looks like something from an 80s sci-fi movie, as the hills have been carved into layers to make them more easily cultivable. They’re a bit like a large-scale Gardener’s World wedding cake or something. Beautiful.

We stayed in a traditional cave dwelling, although we’re not sure what the place that we stayed at is called, as we asked our taxi driver to take us to a particular place but instead he just dropped us off at the place to which he was already driving! Either way, it was a fiver for lodging and three meals a day, staying in a room which is carved into the hillside. The only tourists who make their way out there are students from art schools who come out to paint the landscape, so on the first night we were joined by about 20 kids from Inner Mongolia. The next morning they all left, so we had the place to ourselves to wander the sloping paths, pick apples, find dates that had been dropped from the huge harvest baskets, and to stare at the enormous crates of chillies drying in the sun.

Xi’an

Getting from Qikou to Xi’an turned out to be a bit more unpleasant than we had expected. The Lonely Planet guide had told us that it would take 8 hours on the bus. 8 hours after getting on it, we looked out of the window from our beds (on the bus! never had that before…) to see a sign saying that Xi’an was 422km more. 8 hours after that, we arrived. I was so dehydrated that I was wiped out for an entire day, unable to stomach anything more solid than shots of water, sugar and salt…

People only really come to Xi’an, it seems, to see the Terracotta Army. But after weighing up our budget against the mad entry price (the people who run the ticket booths also know that people only come to Xi’an for this), we decided against doing that, instead opting to hang out in the Muslim quarter a lot, surrounded by bustle, kebabs and so much tofu! This was one of the first times we’ve been in a hostel with a big common area, so we finally managed to meet a whole bunch of people, which has definitely been good for my mind. On the Trans-Siberian we met a couple and the woman talked almost constantly. I wasn’t sure whether maybe that’s because she just generally talks all the time, or if it was because she hadn’t really had anyone but her partner to chat to for weeks. Now, given my own babbling behaviour, I am much more inclined to believe it was the latter! Having said that, thanks to everyone for your comments on here, apologies that we don’t manage to reply personally to everyone’s…

‘Friend’s Price’

Josh previously wrote about the incredible gap between starting prices and finishing prices when haggling, but today really took the biscuit. Wandering amongst cashmere scarves, ‘Oba Mao’ T-Shirts (with pictures of Obama wearing traditional Chinese Communist Party garb – the best one in my opinion says ‘I Voted For Obama and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt’) and rip-off North Face rucksacks, we asked how much some cushion covers were.

‘These good quality. Silk. Good design. Good colour,’ said the woman, typing 680 into her calculator. That’s 68 quid!

Josh couldn’t help but let out a guffaw – ‘What are they made out of, solid gold and unicorn hair?’ – and the price quickly dropped, but we thought we’d share what ‘friend’s price’ can really mean. We finally haggled some others down to Y30 – about 1/23, or around 4% (I hope I’ve got my maths right on this one)  of the original suggestion. I don’t think that’s us being mean, either! ‘

One third of the asking price’ definitely doesn’t always work…

We have reached our target!!

Very quick. Having set out to raise 500 pounds for the Bhopal Medical Appeal (www.bhopal.org), we have now reached it. Thank-you to everyone who has given money – whether that was 5 pounds or a hundred, it is all hugely appreciated.

However, if you were planning on donating, please don’t let our success stop you. I have always thought it would look nice to see 110% or more. So if you haven’t already, please visit http://www.justgiving.com/joshandlucieheadoverlandtobhopal

One other update. At the bottom of our page you will see a link to our google map. This tracks all the places that we have stopped at (as well as most the places the Trans-Siberian stopped at). We’re trying to update this regularly.

Hopefully there will also soon be a link to our flickr site with all our photos there – so watch this space (I’ve always wanted to say that).

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…

 

One of the places we’ll be staying on our journey is the Sambhavna Clinic, in Bhopal, India.

Human-caused climate change is increasingly proving itself to be the greatest environmental and humanitarian disaster facing civilisation. Climate change is the reason that we have chosen to make this journey overland rather than by flying. It is the same profit-driven interests which are perpetuating climate devastation which allowed the gas leak in Bhopal to occur in 1984, killing over 25,000 people and affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands. See www.bhopal.org for more details.

The Sambhavna Clinic, situated in the worst affected area of Bhopal, is the only centre offering free and rational treatment to anyone who might need it. The work they do is absolutely necessary and completely incredible.

We will volunteer there for at least a month to offer any help that we can, but we understand that most people do not have the time to offer their voluntary services. Therefore please support us in our low-carbon efforts by donating to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which funds the Sambhavna Clinic.

Check out http://www.justgiving.com/joshandlucieheadoverlandtobhopal

Thanks!