I’ve uploaded the final set of photos from the last part of my trip and named them over the past few days. You can view these on my photo page.
I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip and this is the award for the final third of the trip. As well as this I will follow this post with some overall awards which will include some additional awards as well. That post will follow this evening UK time.
The Great Wall, China, the Great wall was stunning, especially seeing it snaking off into the mountains – apparently 20% of the entire Chinese population worked on it at one point, meaning it probably wasn’t the great military success it was supposed to be.
Taj Mahal, Agra Although Agra and frankly the rest of northern India isn’t exactly the nicest part of the world to travel in, the Taj itself is absolutely stunning. Angkor Wat was pretty damn cool as well too.
Hermitage, St Petersburg, although some of the artwork wasn’t amazing a large proportion of the artwork spread over 400 rooms was stunning, the rooms it was kept in were pretty good to look at as well.
Shaanxi Museum, Xian, this museum gave an excellent overview of Chinese history – excellent.
Best tour company
No Winner, all of the tours I have been on in this part of the trip have been significantly flawed though I have to admit I haven’t been on very many.
St Petersburg, Russia, St Petersburg is absolutely stunning to look at and it is great to see a European city that hasn’t been ruined by plate glass like Oxford has for example. The European style buildings that exist throughout the centre are stunning and the streets are wide enough as well.
I thought that Singapore was going to win the best city award as there was enough to keep me busy for the 8 days while I was there, that was until I got to Beijing, which was frankly better as it has two world class sites within its city limits. It was then pipped to the prize itself by St Petersburg. This is undoubtedly the top 3 however.
Best non-Family accommodation
Etour hostel, Shanghai, I was going to give it to the Beijing Novotel but they offered a dodgy tour to the Great Wall so I’m not granting it to them, but Etour hostel was well located behind the JW Marriott on People’s Square. It also had a great lounge with good food and drink – and excellent staff and th
Best food for under US$25
Food court, apm, Beijing, after eating far too much Western food in China it was good to get some Chinese food for a change, and the apm food court in central Beijing was excellent.
Singapore and Malaysia’s foodcourts for being consistently strong and cheap too.
The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger
Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.
Rice Burger @ MOS Burger, Singapore, this was gorgeous, disappointing I had to wait until Singapore before I could understand the menu enough to get to try a rice burger. The burger was delicious too – can we have a branch in Oxford please.
St Petersburg, Russia, because clubs in half finished buildings are cool and the ballet was pretty solid as well.
The acrobatics, Shanghai Centre, Shanghai, this was absolutely awesome and kept me riveted to my seat for 90 minutes.
The Russians the Russians always seemed to be friendly and went the extra mile to help pretty damn frequently, given their limited resources it was great to see.
Best Transportation Company
No Winner, nothing particularly stood out, but China rail, the metros in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and the buses in Xi’An were all pretty damn good.
“Russian” coat from Giordano, ¥299 for a coat that would probably be the better part of £100 in the UK was a great deal.
The tour to the great wall for costing probably 3x as much as just doing it yourself on public transport with the Chinese and then taking us to a dodgy medicine centre on the way back.
The Patrick Levy award for cinematography
When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.
The winner is Milk, a great film on American gay rights – and given the “great” state of America at the moment, maybe it has wider importance to all the other issues in the country.
I will also be having some awards for the last 1/3 of my trip as well as some overall awards – these will follow this post tomorrow.
The second day I was in Saint Petersburg I headed over to Peterhof by train, this train worked OK, but it did have the worlds dirtiest windows as it probably hadn’t had them cleaned since it was built or something! Anyhow after getting to Peterhof station I caught the bus to the castle itself and had a look around. It wasn’t busy at all when I was there (it was a Friday after all!) and the gardens and canal to the sea were snow covered – and so OK, but not amazing to look at. The fountains were also not working. What was incredible was the palace itself, which was absolutely gorgeous and sickeningly decadent with every room having more gold leaf and over the top decoration than the last – the house even has a full sized theatre!
Afterwards I tried to find some lunch onsite, but being Russia there didn’t seem to be any options so I made my way back to St Petersburg via a mothering bus conductor and an hour long wait for the train (as one train was cancelled) while my feet slowly froze. Then after getting back to St Petersburg I managed to quickly locate a McDonalds so I could blow my RDA of fat and sodium and protein by ordering a large McTasty, I got some ketchup with it, though unfortunately they decided I wanted two and I felt this was getting a little OTT. So I reduced the number to one as you had to pay for the ketchup. Clearly the Russians like getting the best possible value as the ketchup isn’t free. McDonalds isn’t the only one though. Pizza Hut also did it with the Garlic bread which you could practically order by the slice.
After this I then headed to St Isaac’s cathedral as I just had time to fit that in. St Issac’s cathedral is the main cathedral in St Petersburg and is absolutely massive and very beautiful – jaw-dropping at every opportunity. I also took in the great view from the rooftop of the surrounding city which was well worth seeing. After that I returned to the hostel to sleep. Fortunately the Russian smoker had left, unfortunately some French who wanted to stay up all night arrived. They weren’t that bad, but they did talk all night which given the paper walls in the hostel was pretty annoying.
The next day I was woken up bright and early by the French and so I got out and headed to the Hermitage, it wasn’t yet open so I went to a nearby branch of McDonalds to have some Blinis (traditional Russian breakfast) and use their free WiFi (the Russians seem to love the stuff) before the museum opened.
At 10:20 I then headed back to the museum. There was a queue and there also appeared to be lots of people standing around at the end of the queue with large gaps between them and the queue itself. So I “pushed” past them and joined the queue into the museum itself. Inside the museum I also picked up another photo taking ticket (£4 – though I’m sure you can get away without paying it if you aren’t too bothered about taking photos.) and the audio guide (£6). The audio guide was excellent however.
The museum itself was amazing and kept me entertained from 10:30am until 4:30pm, the building itself is also stunning in many places. Highlights included Rembrant, Monet, Picasso, a couple of Da Vinci’s and more. Obviously though as the museum was absolutely massive – having 400 rooms – not everything inside was amazing. The Hermitage also owns a few other buildings with art in them around town – including the General Staff building opposite the main museum which is housed in the Winter Palace. I didn’t have time to see this though.
After this I went to have an early pizza supper before briefly returning to my hostel to drop off my bag. At this point I only had 50 minutes before the ballet performance I’d booked to see at out the Mariinsky theatre. So I tried to catch a bus to the theatre. Unfortunately the first bus I saw with the right number didn’t seem to be going there and I couldn’t see one for a while so I ran down into the metro system and got a metro train for one stop. Unfortunately at that point I came up a different exit from before so I was a little lost until I asked at a stall where it was. So I then ran off through the streets to the ballet (as I didn’t trust the taxis) and arrived with about 1 minute to spare. After arriving I left my coat and got some opera glasses (crap – a waste of money unless your eyesight is really bad) and settled into my seat high above the action in a decently priced seat. Unfortunately I’d picked my seat too well – it was right in the centre but there was some theatre decoration straight in front of me, so I stood up before it started which amused the people behind me who *really* had to stand to see. Its a learnt lesson that generally you have to sit a little away from the centre if you’re sitting in bad seats in case there is some moulding right in the middle!
Then I sat down and the ballet started. The ballet itself was really good and was the first performance I’ve ever seen as well as being the first performance in the 9th international ballet festival at the theatre. There was a break in the middle and I got a cup of tea, surprisingly this was reasonably priced and I needed it as I hadn’t slept much. After this I saw the second half. As its ballet there is no spoken content but I could still understand a definite story – here is a link to the synopsis (I have to admit I didn’t pick up all of the plot though :p).
After this I returned to the hostel and on the way in I met up with some other people from the hostel and we went to my favourite restaurant again, followed by a pub for a “cheap beer” and followed by a Russian club inside a half finished building near the hostel – it was a really cool club inside however.
I will also be having some awards for the last 1/3 of my trip as well as some overall awards – these will follow the second St Petersburg post.
First I want to talk about some details I missed about the Trans Siberian. One thing that seemed to happen every night is that snow blew from the track inside the carriages which was very amusing as you don’t often get to see snow inside and it was a strange site to see.
The other thing I missed was that the carriages are heated by coal so that they are still heated even when the wheels are being changed as you go from China to Mongolia (as the Russians/Mongolians use slightly wider track, this was done so the Germans couldn’t invade along the railway line from Europe which is the same width as Chinese track. This also helps when the engine is being changed as happens fairly regularly along the line.
On Wednesday evening I made my way into St Petersburg and then took the metro for the one stop journey to my hostel. The journey was fairly uneventful except that it was much slower than necessary due to the train spending large parts of the trip travelling very slowly – so in that respect it was like the Trans-Siberian which probably did it’s slowest average speed over the last 250km which it did on the last day.
My hostel was in an excellent location in a nice part of town. It was next door to a branch of Loius Vittion. One of those international brands that I see everywhere except Oxford!
I then went out to my second favourite restaurant – KFC for dinner before returning to the hostel to sleep. This was fine except I was joined in my room by a crazy Russian who seemed to think that even given the signs and my polite requests it was OK to smoke in the room. I suppose you just get used to the western attitude of smoking being banned practically everywhere. It’s even banned outside at Oxford train station which I think is just a little bit harsh.
Anyhow the next day I got up fairly early and headed off to try and do my washing as my hostel didn’t supply a key ingredient – washing powder. Though I shouldn’t complain too much as otherwise it was free. On the way back though I went inside the gothic and dark looking Kazan cathedral which was very graceful and beautiful inside. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos. One thing worth remembering about Othodox churches is although if you are a man you are supposed to uncover your head if you are a woman you’re supposed to cover yours – consistent I know!
So after seeing that I headed back to the hostel to dump the washing powder and breakfast stuff I also picked up before heading out to try and go to a blockade museum describing the 900 day seige of the city by the Germans in WW2 (it was known as Leningrad at the time.). Unfortunately according to the tourist information map it seemed to have closed but then I rounded the corner to see the epic Church of the saviour on the spilt blood. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite 11am when it opened so I contented myself with a look at the outside before heading down the street to the nearby Russian museum. This is a huge collection of Russian art from a more St Petersburg perspective and it was excellent – especially the early icons and the stuff from the St Petersburg academy of art. After seeing this I headed back to my hostel to hang up my wet clothes (as it was free there was no tumble dryer.). Then I headed to the Peter and Paul fortress on the other side of the river for the rest of the afternoon which was OK. I then headed to look at Palace square and the breathtaking Hermitage and General Staff buildings around it.
We arrived into Moscow on Monday afternoon, arriving into a busy city was great. First we wanted to get to our hotel and as we had a fair bit of luggage we thought we’d get a taxi. Unfortunately aside from the dodgy guys who offer you a taxi on the platform itself there didn’t seem to be an official taxi rank at the station. So we went on the metro instead. The metro itself has very attractive and expensive looking stations with rickety old trains and even wooden escalators. This leads to be bit of a contradiction actually. Anyhow after making our way to our hotel we settled down and I read a copy of the London Times, which seems to be a total joke these days. Before settling down to dinner in the hotel. The dinner was excellent and the food was well worth the price – so it wasn’t £100 for a small omelette or anything like that! After that we went to bed early and it was nice to be sleeping in a real bed rather than on the train for a change.
The next morning we got up bright and early at 7am and after breakfast we made our way into the centre of Moscow. At this point we first tried to get into the Kremlin, but it was too early so we headed up to Red Square to see if we could have a look at the stuffed Lenin as you have to do that early in the morning, unfortunately like Mao in Beijing he was undergoing “refurbishment” so we had to give it a miss. Red square is an interesting site however with the Gym (Gum) shopping centre on one side, the Kremlin on the other and St Basil’s cathedral at one end – now that is surprisingly small more on that later on.
Anyhow as Lenin was shut we made our way back to the Kremlin and after leaving our bags we made our way into the armoury to look at some of the arms and armour and other gifts the Russians had been given by various ambassadors as well as the stuff they’d used themselves which was very impressive as well as looking at the cathedrals around the Kremlin itself. These were fairly opulent Orthodox cathedrals that were well worth looking at. We also tried to look at the bell tower, but it was unfortunately “shut for lunch”.
After this we headed out of the Kremlin to see if we could get some ballet tickets, but they were a little more expensive than a cliched small omelette at about £60 each so we decided it was too expensive and gave it a miss, so we instead headed to a nearby mall to have some pizza for lunch, this was excellent until they brought the bill which seemed to take absolutely ages. And they also bought a fake 100 rouble note with it as the paper felt wrong. I of course asked for a real one instead. On the way we saw the one and only official taxi in Moscow, it is surprising that there are so few that even hotels like ours which wasn’t exactly a hostel didn’t even suggest the possibility of using one to get anywhere – even the airport.
After lunch we went back to Red Square and looked at the Gym shopping centre briefly which was good before we headed to St Basil’s cathedral which was nice, but actually pretty damn tiny. There is no large worshipping space inside the cathedral itself which was a definite surprise. It is very tall inside however.
After this we left and as we had a few hours and weren’t heading to the ballet we instead went to Tretyakov Gallery which had a lot of Russian art which was interesting. We saw the top floor which is about 30 galleries of good art before getting bored. It did seem that much of the older Russian art on display was quite constrained as it was all commissioned by the imperial family and the newer stuff was definitely better. After that we headed to a tastefully themed Russian restaurant for some dinner, I had some Salmon caviar but it wasn’t actually that tasty, but the main course which was another traditional Russian dish was great.
The next day I had to help my dad get to the airport and get to St Petersburg myself so I didn’t really manage to do any more in Moscow.
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.
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:.
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.