The trans siberian in Mongolia and Russia

After a good nights sleep we awake to be crossing the Gobi Desert, this is a pretty large desert in the south of Mongolia, we saw quite a bit of wildlife including sheep and deer as well as some traditional Mongolain yurts – it was mostly just scrubland. However there did appear to mostly be mobile phone reception. Also for breakfast some enterprising mongolians got on and we bought a surprisingly large number of mutton dumplings for US$3 each. Even though the Mongolian currency isn’t even in xe.com’s top 85 (which even includes the Cambodian currency which isn’t really in use) they didn’t seem to know how many tögrög’s there were to a US dollar so they asked for US$4 after giving us the food – the food was excellent though and at US$3 a good deal by any standards. As there wasn’t much else to do we headed down to the dining car after breakfast where we had some tea and a chat with the other people in the car.

After lunch in the dining car which was pretty good we arrived in Ulan Baator the capital of Mongolia, where a lot of people on the train got off, we did as well to have a wander around the platform and experience the high temperatures of -10ºC. It wasn’t as cold as I had thought though and like the rest of Siberia the thermals I’d put vast efforts into buying in Xi’An was wasted. It does go down to -40ºC in January though so they’d be useful then. I was surprised at how rich the capital of Mongolia appeared to be, I was expecting to see a country that was poorer than Vietnam and India, whereas instead I saw somewhere much more comparable to the development of China.

After we left the capital we headed north through land that looked similar but more scrubby than the Gobi as we headed towards the Russian border. Like in the Gobi there was also some snow on the ground, though it was a bit deeper than the bare dusting there – that was probably the years rainfall!

The next day we got up and went to the Russian dining car for breakfast, we weren’t sure whether it’d be up to the standards of the Mongolian or even the Chinese dining car, actually though it was pretty good and we had ham and eggs for breakfast. Then after breakfast we soon drew alongside the fairly large lake birkal which we spent about 4-5 hours following the shore of, what made it more impressive was that we only followed about 10% of the shoreline. The lake itself was mostly still frozen however and people were even driving cars over it, though at one point the lake had started to melt. There was still snow on the ground everywhere though it was a little deeper than Mongolia, but not as deep as in the alps for example – of course here it is cold enough that the snow falls and then stays until spring.

After leaving Lake Birkal the line curved around through a couple of tunnels, which were the only tunnels on the entire line, after which the train reached the town of Irtrusk. At this stop we got off the train to try and get some Russian roubles as we’d forgotten at the border, though unfortunately there wasn’t an ATM on the platform, if you’re doing this trip make sure you have enough roubles for the journey – you also may find them difficult to get them in China.

Anyhow after this we headed into the forests of Siberia, where we spent the next three days (well along with the occasional industrial town, and a few open spaces. Now I was impressed by the lake Birkal and I suppose I was impressed by the Siberian forests as well, but really 3 days was too much. The ural mountains also weren’t very exciting and the highlight of that day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk go by. Fun for all of 10 seconds.

UK Democracy still functions

I sent my MP an email on Monday over the chief medical officers plans to introduce minimum prices of £0.50 per unit of alcohol (US$0.70, €0.53) which has been rejected by Gordon Brown (UK Prime Minister) and was pleasantly surprised to receive an acknowledgement in the post this morning.

I’m impressed that he’s managed to read the message and respond to it so quickly, and on that basis I’ll almost certainly be voting for him in the next election.

I sent the email in the first place because the government is wrong to reject the proposal as it makes sense, it also isn’t particularly controversial as its just raising the minimum alcohol price to the same price as it is in China’s supermarkets given purchasing power parity – and the Chinese have pretty cheap alcohol.

China on the Trans Siberian

I don’t have time to write much tonight, but I should at least begin writing some more content. We left Beijing early on the 4th March. First we actually headed south, but mostly west through beautiful mountains to the West of Beijing, unfortunately I was tired so I took a nap – though I should definitely have waited and missed some Siberian trees instead. There were ice rivers and stuff there which was really cool. As we continued on brand new track we slowly but surely made our way to the Mongolian border.

I was also surprised to see the level of development in out here though. There were often places where there was another brand new 2 track railway on the other side of the river valley showing that China is still marching ahead towards becoming a fully developed country.

Back in the UK

I flew into Heathrow earlier this evening and am now back at home. The flight was good and the British Airways food was excellent, we also got a great view of London which was a bonus.

I’ve had a great trip and now have a little more blogging to do on the trip covering the last couple of weeks. I aim to do a post a day for the next week so that I can talk about everything without overwhelming you (and of course myself :p).

After the trip is over I will probably continue to make the occassional post on life™ and of course when I travel in the future.

So you don’t have to check my website regularly you can also read the RSS feed of my posts, and if it isn’t clear I’ll get it all sorted in the next few days.

Arrived into Moscow

Very briefly as I only have a few minutes left online, but I’ve arrived into Moscow this afternoon on the train. To summerize there are lots and lots and lots of trees on the way. Lets just say the highlight of one day was seeing the Europe-Asia obelisk by the railway. There were some cool people on the train though and the first couple of days through Mongolia, China and by Lake Birkal were really cool.

The Lonely planet also suggests a shorter tour so for the first time ever the Lonely planet might actually be right :eek:.

Trans Siberian and home

Early tomorrow morning I’m off on the Trans Siberian railway train to spending a few days in Moscow and St Petersburg before I return to the UK in a couple of weeks.

As I’m going to be very busy squeezing everything into only a few days I’m not going to be posting any more blog posts until I arrive back in the UK.

Beijing

I arrived into Beijing on the train from Xi’an at 6am 10am before I made my way to my hotel where i’m staying in Beijing with my dad. After arriving by taxi I headed to a nearby coffee shop to have a fairly overpriced late breakfast while they got our room ready. After checking into the room I went out to try and do my laundry (as the hotel was overcharging.) before heading to the metro to get the train to the airport to meet my dad. Even though I had a bit of trouble figuring out which direction to go on the metro I managed to arrive at the airport at a perfect time – at which point I met my dad and we then returned to the hotel. By this point I was hungry so I headed to the nearby food court to have some Osaka rice dish which was delicious.

After this I met up with a Chinese girl I met in Malaysia and we headed to a traditional Chinese restaurant for supper. There we had lots of excellent real Chinese food (which is totally different from the stuff you get in the UK.) as well as some frankly mediocre spring rolls. We had this at a very popular restaurant called the Golden tile located near the Lama temple. After dinner we walked around a nearby park and some Hutong alleyways that were also very atmospheric before driving around to Tianamen square which was interesting to see at night.

The next day we got up early and headed to the Forbidden city. There we spent about four hours wandering around. The forbidden city is absolutely massive and even the walk from the west gate (which is comparitavely very close to the south of the palace rather than the north.) to the south gate is about 1km. Inside the buildings are yellow roofed and are incredibly attractive. What’s amazing is that even the opening square and the buildings directly around it would make a large palace. Inside we had a wander around and saw quite a lot – we got the audio guide but it was rubbish as it tried to be too clever by half and guess our location rather than using numbers. There were also a lot of exhibitions including some on clocks and some jade and other treasures. After this we then did some shopping in the afternoon – followed by a delicious meal at the foodcourt opposite the hotel. I had some Chinese dish that was great but I don’t know the name of as it was only in Chinese. Then we headed to the Beijing opera which is a colourful show of dance and acrobatics. This was pretty good – though I have to admit I preferred the Shanghai acrobatics which was also cheaper. We also met a good sounding English speaking guide (email: annalovetour hotmail com) at the theatre – she definitely spoke good English.

The next day we headed on a tour to the Great Wall. This left at a suitable 10:30am, and we went to the Mutianyu Great Wall. On the way we had a chat with the guide about Beijing and the wall before we arrived at the wall itself. The part we went to was a well restored part of the wall that I really enjoyed and we took a cable car to the top of the wall, then walked along the wall through 8 watchtowers before coming back down the chairlift on the other side. This was incredible and we got to see great views of the wall and the surrounding snowy mountains.

On a tour with BTG F.I.T travel (aka Dragon Bus) booked through our hotel (the Novotel) we then returned to a chinese medicine centre where we were attempted to be sold dubious herbal remedies which mysteriously managed to cost ¥1000! We were also given a foot massage which was apparently paid for by the tour but we were suggested to give a tip of ¥20. As I didn’t think my massage was that good (certainly it wasn’t as good as the full body massage I got in Shanghai.) I offered to give a tip of ¥5 for it which was refused and then I was asked for ¥20 which I refused to give. Frankly for a tour arranged through an international hotel it was disappointing as the only tour that went somewhere more dodgy was the one in Delhi to Agra. Then in the evening we went out with the Chinese girl again where we had some Peking roast duck and other dishes which was delicious. After that we picked up some supplies for our trip on the trans Siberian.

The next day we got up fairly early and headed to the temple of heaven on Beijing’s modern and clean metro system. This is an important temple where the Chinese ask for a good harvest. These days though in the grounds you get to see lots of people doing tai chi in the morning. We also saw the golden temple buildings around as well as an interesting exhibition on Chinese music. After this we headed out the south gate and after about 40 minutes of walking we reached KFC for lunch which even my dad thought was pretty good.

After that we headed to the lama temple which is a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the north of Beijing. It was also blessed by the emporer so it has yellow roofed buildings (other buildings had to have grey roofs.) it was a nice temple and then to avoid the rush hour we returned to our accommodation to get ready for our early trans Siberian departure.

Japanese and Chinese

A joke that is often made about Japanese is that they don’t have a word for no but just say hai in an uncertain manner. They actually do though: ie (pronounced ee e).

Now one of the very few things I’ve learnt with my very limited Chinese* is that the Chinese actually *don’t* really have a separate word for no in fact saying bu shi which translates as “negative yes”. Of course as unlike Japanese, Chinese is tonal which means it is impossible to just say yes directly in an uncertain manner as it could well mean something entirely different. Maybe at one time the Chinese had a proper word for no, it’d be an interesting thing to find out.

* this means I’ve just about made it onto really tough words like yes for example :p.

The most boring place on earth: Xi’An

Note that the title of this post is untrue, Xi’An is actually really good aside from the terracotta warriors, I was worried there wouldn’t be enough to do for more than two days and it’s simply untrue. There are another 3 full day excursions I could have done as well – and I spent nearly 3 days in Xi’An. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough for more than two days entertainment and in fact you could easily spend 5 or 6 days here (though if you see the pandas at Chengdu that is probably reduced to 4 or 5.)

Anyhow to continue my story. After I finished with the terracotta warriors I headed back to town and then with a bus/taxi combination I made my way to the big goose pagoda in the south of the city. I was unsure of which bus to get and for some reason I couldn’t figure out where to pickup a taxi at the station and they therefore kept driving past empty. Then due to the further excellence of my Canon’s battery meter my battery basically ran out at the temple. The big goose pagoda is big and tall and in a fairly interesting temple grounds which I wandered around – I was a bit late unfortunately so I didn’t get to go up the pagoda itself. After this I returned to town and tried to buy some thermal underwear and failed as either noone had it or it was well over my budget of ¥100 – in the end I got two for ¥100 each at the supermarket the next day, I got an OK stealth discount for them from the usual price of ¥149 by being given a different box with what I’m sure is exactly the same goods inside. I got the same kind of “special” discount with some postcards as well as a terracotta statue which apparently both carried a 50% discount because I’m a student* – yeah that’s about as likely to be true as the iPod’s in the market here to be a) real and b) hand delivered from the factory by Steve Jobs himself.

The next day I had a lazy morning as I was unable to go to the pandas which I’d tried to arrange the previous evening and I didn’t get up early enough to head to the apparently great Farmen Si temple complex so at about 11am I finally left the hostel to head to the Beilin museum. This contains a bunch of confucion stone tablets that were OK but I didn’t find them that interesting in a nice temple.

After seeing that I then headed south to the excellent Shaanxi history museum. This was surprisingly difficult to get into as the ticket desk was marked “baggage” in English but it was free so I can’t complain. Once inside I picked up the excellent audio guide (a must for foreigners as most of the signs aren’t in English.) which gave a good – though a little lengthy overview of the pieces. All in all I spent two hours here and was impressed. A lot was made of the first emporer and then the silk road which apparently the Chinese discovered. It’s something that isn’t said in Europe but as they generally imply the silk road magically materialized from thin air the Chinese are probably correct.

After seeing this I returned to buy the thermal underwear and have dinner before heading to the train station by bus to get my train to Beijing.

* I actually got a further discount on both and in the case of the terracotta statue it was entirely because the seller messed up the student discount speech :p. It is true though that for museum entry and stuff you do generally get a 50% student discount.

Xi’An and the Terracotta army

After catching the night train from Shanghai I arrived into Xi’An – First I went to my favourite restuarant (McDonalds) for breakfast. After that I made my way down to the south gate to look for some accommodation. I found something right by the south wall which was good and cost ¥40/night. I found later that you could have got a better price booking online on Hostelworld et al. I was talking to some Americans who did this and that seems to be typical for China.

After checking into my hostel I made my way to the nearby south gate and climbed up onto the city walls. These are impressive brick constructions that apart from one segment appear to be in excellent condition. That segment is much more rough and ready but it was definitely still standing and keeping the wall up.

After wandering around the wall for a bit and looking over the walled centre of the city I headed back to the hostel for lunch of some Chinese dumplings before heading north into the centre of town towards the bell tower. First I attempted to get some thermal underwear as it’s freezing here and only going to get colder as I go north. I found a store selling them for ¥100 that contained “cashmere” when they were selling pure wool ones for ¥250 – something wasn’t right there. After this I headed to the bell tower and then to the drum tower which were both OK but not great – they had a musical performance in each as well but to be honest it was awful I even walked out of the second one. To be honest it reminded me of the end of year assemblies at school in goodness. But there you wanted to go home afterwards so I’m definitely biased against them. Then I went to the Xi’An mosque – something I had been looking forward to since I was in the islamic art museum in malaysia. The mosque is especially interesting as it is built in Chinese style so it doesn’t remind me of a mosque at all. There did seem to be practicing muslims in Xi’An as they were praying at the mosque when I was there. On the way back I passed through a Market selling the usual fake designer goods. It even had some fake iPods that had gone to great lengths to copy Apple’s copyright information which I found amusing. After that I went back to my hostel and had pizza which was great, at that point I met some Americans who had had much better luck at avoiding western food so with them I headed out to the muslim quarter to paradoxically have some traditional Chinese food after this I returned to the hostel to chat some more.

Then in the night I awoke to feel the room shaking slightly – clearly there had been a minor earthquake before I left to go to the Terracotta army. Rather than go on an organized tour (about ¥160) I headed out on my own which was fairly easy as you just take bus 306 from the train station. It was also much cheaper as it only cost ¥7 each way. All in all I paid another ¥35 to get in and ¥30 for an audio tour which was quite good and it had clearly been designed by an ease-of-use specialist as it only played each piece on the device exactly once. So if you typed the number wrong you were screwed.

Anyhow I should talk about the greatness that is the terracotta army itself. The whole thing is re-assembled as all the warriors were destroyed before they were found – though there were still some broken warriors left. In my view pits 1 and 3 were the best though pit 1 had most of the warriors with a large series that greeted you. Even though I saw some terracotta warriors before at the British museum this was still seriously amazing. The detail that has gone into them is absolutely stunning.

There is also a museum of some of the works, especially the bronze work which was highly detailed and also chromed to protect them from corrosion – something that wasn’t reinvented until 1937.

After that I left and got the bus back to Xi’An and then my adventure continues but I’ll talk about that in another post.