Friday, 4 December 2009

Xian

We took a train out to Xian which is close to the Terracotta Army which we planned on visiting. Xian is a big city and has a few sights worth seeing, like the Bell Tower where we saw a traditional Chinese music performance and the Muslim Quarter with lots of markets, street food and the Great Mosque. The pollution was pretty bad the whole time we were here, and really bad on the day we left.


Great Mosque, Xi'an
The Great Mosque, a very Chinese looking mosque

Xi'an
A lady doing some cloth spinning


Terracotta Army, Xi'an
The outside of the Army museum, you can see the pollution drifting around at the back

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
Kerry at the Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
Rach at the Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
A clay dude

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
Inspection time

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
A General, maybe

Terracotta Army, Xi'an
Clay horses pulling stuff

More photos here

Next up Shanghai

Beijing

20-28th November

Beijing is a cool place, probably one of the best places we visited in the whole time we've been away. There's plenty of stuff to see and just dealing with the cultural differences keeps you busy enough, mostly it's a bit of laugh but it can also be frustrating. We took in most of the big tourist sights and spent some time just messing about. It was actually the longest time we've spent anywhere in the last 5 months.

The Forbidden City, Beijing
A couple of shaggy, tired looking tourists in the Forbidden City

Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Rach at the Temple of Heaven

The Great Wall, Mutianyu, Beijing
Self Portrait on the Great Wall, about an hour later the sky was thick with pollution

Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Getting down at the Temple of Heaven

Dazhalan Hutong, Beijing
The Hutong where we were staying, bikes are the main way of getting shit done in China

More photos on Flickr: here

Next up Xian and the Terracotta Warriors!

Mongolia

16 - 18 November

After hitting Ulaan Baatar early in the morning we messed about in town for a while and then headed out to a Ger camp for a couple of days.

Ulaanbaator
Buddhist Monastery in Ulaan Baatar

Ulaanbaator
S├╝khbaatar Square, Ulaan Baatar

Ulaanbaator
A Lion, eating a chain

The Ger camp was permanent rather than the usual nomadic camps and was about an hours drive from Ulaan Baatar across some dodgy highways and then snowy fields. It was pretty cold and each Ger has a coal burning stove inside that keeps you warm. Rach went horse riding with the nomads who had setup camp about 1 km away and we visited them in the afternoon.


Elstei Ger Camp
Rach about to ride satan's offspring

Elstei Ger Camp
The dogs sleep next to the doors where all the heat escapes

Elstei Ger Camp
They're not all that tall in Mongolia


The train out of Ulaan Baatar at first was snowy plains and then slowly changed into the barren desert of the Gobi. At the border crossing they lift the entire train off the wheels(with everybody on board) and replace them with the wider gauge for the Chinese tracks.

Mongolia
A Ger camp seen from the train


Mongolia
Desert

On the Train
Here's us looking weird on the train to Beijing

Mongolia
Goodbye Mongolia

More photos here and here

Next up Beijing

Trans Mongolian

The next train was between Irkutsk and Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. We had some trouble as we got on this train, some other kindly people had taken our seats so the cabin attendent moved us somewhere else. However the train is jam packed full of locals carrying heaps of shitty stuff to trade on the way and they took offence at us being in their cabin so after lots of yelling and some pushing, shoving, and so on we got moved into the 1st class wagon. The only difference between Kupe and 1st class is that each cabin is 2 beds instead of 4. The wagon is still full of traders and their gear. At Ulaan Ude everybody piles off the train for 30 minutes with their wares and trys to sell as much of their crap as possible. Even the cabin attendants set up a stall selling silks, it's all a bit comical really.

Ulan Ude Trading
Traders selling their shit in Ulaan Ude

Not much else happened on this train, the border crossing takes about 6 hours but customs and immigration mostly ignored us to concentrate on the traders. After we got into Mongolia and on our way again the carpets in the hallway got pulled up and heaps of gear got pulled out, we assumed this was stuff they didn't want to declare/pay tax on. Everybody must know it goes on but nobody cares.

More photos here

Next up Mongolia

Siberia

12 - 14 November

Listvyanka

After arriving in Irkutsk we headed out to Listvyanka which is on the shore of Lake Baikal, the largest body of freshwater and the deepest lake in the world. Apparently it holds 1/5th of the worlds freshwater. It's about 1 hour on icy/snowy roads and was flippin' cold, and snowing. We visited the local musuem and had a bit of a walk around the village before heading for the relative comfort of our heated hotel.

Listvyanka
Listvyanka Village

Listvyanka
They have 1L beers in Russia. You hear that! 1L!


The next day we talk a walk to see if we could get a better view of the lake, it was somewhat successful.

Listvyanka
Lake Baikal

Listvyanka
Rach throwing a snowball.


In the afternoon we headed off for some dog sledding. We don't have any photos of that which is a bummer but it was good fun and exteremely effin' cold.

Listvyanka
This isn't a sled dog, he seemed to be guarding some bricks.

Irkutsk
We stayed in Irkutsk overnight before catching the train into Mongolia. Irkutsk is quite a big city but doesn't have much going for it tourist wise, we visited a museum of some guy who had been shipped out to Siberia for being involved in a revolution in the 19th century. That's how interesting it gets. It was about -18c as we walked around.

Irkusk
The Angora river, the only outlet of Baikal

More photos on Flickr: here and here

Next up the Trans Mongolian train.

Trans-Siberian Leg 1: Moscow to Irkusk (Siberia)

8-12 November

Our train left Moscow late on Sunday night, and it was just starting to rain as we walked up the platform for the train to Irkutsk. We were quite excited and keen to get on the train and get going, but nothing happens without the say of the Provodnitsa (Female carriage attendant), they're defintely in charge.

Russia
Don't upset the Provodnitsa!

This train takes 4 nights and 3 days through Russia and across Siberia ending up in Irkutsk. The scenery is basically snowy forest and man did it start getting cold outside. The train stops every few hours and you have time to jump off and grab food/beer etc. It was -20 at some of the stops, and snowing most of the time.

On the Train

Russia

Russia

We were travelling in 'Soft Sleeper' (2nd Class), which is a cabin with 4 bunk beds, on the 'Bailkal', a reasonably new and comfortable train. Most of the time we lived on 2 min Noodles, cooked in boiling water (which is available on all trains in Russia/China), and copious cups of tea (black and green), soup, and the odd local snack from a station - dried fish, sausage, salmon and potatoes, and at one stop, a local unpasteurised beer. At some stops, we had enough time to dash outside to see old Communist statues and murals outside the station entrances, tho a lot have disappeared recently.

Russia

3 days is a long time on a train, but we got by with a lot of reading, some rather hilarious (painful?!) conversations with our compartment-mate (a Major in the Paratroopers in the Russian Army, who teaches unarmed combat!) and one night of vodka drinking.

Nearing Siberia, we passed into Asia, and started crossing frozen rivers, which was a sign of the cold to come..

Arrived in Irkusk in the early morning, and got picked up and driven out to Lake Bikal, which I'll save for the next blog post.

Russia! St Petersburg and Moscow

4 - 8 November

We had originally planned on getting the train through Belarus to St Petersburg (from Warsaw), but it didn't work out with our visas so we ended up flying in instead. This is a great city, unfortunately we only had 1 whole day to see it. It's not really enough, but we managed to get into the Hermitage (huuuuge State Museum inside the Summer Palace) for free and wandered about in there for a few hours. We spent the afternoon walking around the streets and shopping for a Russian fur hat for Rach's dad - found a nice one at an Army Surplus store, so it's the real deal, including the Soviet Star hat pin!

St Petersburg

St Petersburg

St Petersburg

Our train left at 1am for Moscow, so we pretty much slept the whole way until we turned up at 9am. As part of our Trans Siberian train we had a tour guide show us around Moscow for 3 hours, it was a bit much after just getting off the train but ended up being really good.

We visited Food Store #1 which was the first state food store of the Soviet Union, or so we were lead to believe. It was an amazingly opulent place, we picked up some caviar, vodka, and blini (surprisingly cheap, tho the caviar was red not black).

We walked down the main street of Moscow, past the Bolshoi, and ended up outside the Kremlin in Red Square.

Moscow

In the morning we went out to a flea market to see if we could find a camera for Rach. After some bargaining and failed attempts we were successful and picked up a Russian Lomo 135 M for a pretty good price, which we still don't know if it works properly as nobody in China will process films... maybe in Hong Kong? We're having fun trying to use it - it has both ordinary f-stops and shutter speeds, but no light meter, so you have to guess or use their funny 'calculator' (pictures of weather conditions and scenes you might be shooting) to take a guess at exposures, which is half the fun! This model has a pretty cool 'spring' winder feature, where you can wind it up to take 8 frames in a row, unlike most 35 mm cameras which have to be wound for each frame.

Lomo camera

In the evening we went to the Moscow State Circus which was kind of weird. As we walked in somebody had been mauled by one of the tigers that you can have your photo taken with, we skipped that attraction. The whole show is on an ice rink and was quite good, up until the performing seals voided their bowels all over the ice anyway. No photos of that as you weren't allowed cameras in the theatre, probably for the best. One of the best acts was a Jaguar or Panther (big black cat), that was misbehaving, so the handler just ended up ditching the cat and skating around herself in the end!

In the morning we headed down to the Kremlin and visited Lenin's tomb. This was a totally weird experience, you basically have to walk through the mausoleum following a whole bunch of unwritten rules that the guards will enforce if you happen to break one, like putting your hands in your pockets or stopping to take a look for more than 2 seconds. It was all a bit comical really, and Lenin was looking a bit green as well. It turned out the Kremlin was closed, so we didn't get to go inside which was a bummer. We did go to the Armoury though which contains all kinds of state treasures.

Moscow

Moscow

More photos on flickr here - St Petersburg, Moscow.

Next up, the Trans-Siberian train!

Poland

29 Oct - 3 Nov

We headed off to Krakow (Krakau) in Poland. This is a pretty nice old town, as it wasn't bombed at all during WWII, and we spent a day just wandering about looking at stuff, some cool old buildings and what not. Took a free walking tour around the city and Jewish Quarter, which actually turned out to be totally free, with no hassles for tips or promoting shops etc.

Krakow

We also went out to Auschwitz and visited the concentration camps there. They were really busy with heaps of people taking photos of incinerators and so forth, talking on phones, and big groups of school kids shouting and pushing, which seems quite odd to us. We're not going to say much about the concentration camps, as it's somewhere you need to visit yourself rather than hear about second hand.

We took the train up to Warsaw which isn't as nice as Krakau since it was almost completely destroyed during WWII. They've rebuilt much of the old town in the same style but it doesn't really capture the feeling that Krakau has. It is quite a cool place though, and we had plenty of fun visiting the funny bars and pubs that were close to where we were staying. Went out with some guys staying at the hostel, and ended up with three slightly mad Polish people, drinking in the funny little shack bars just off Novy Swiat (sp?) across the road from our hostel. Madness ensued, which we escaped around 3AM. Warsaw has heaps of stencil graffiti - a lot of it political, some just funny.

Warsaw

We then had a couple of days before our flight to St. Petersburg so jumped on the train down to Lublin, this is a really boring place so there isn't much to tell. Freeeezing cold there, and it took a while to find a pub that actually looked open - turns out all the bars etc look closed from the outside, but head inside and it's almost as cold and dark as outside, but there is beer. We spent a day getting out to Kazimierz which was mostly trying to find one of the crazy mini buses that they use in Poland to get around in. It was also quite a boring place - pretty old market town, but nothing going on as we were in the off-season.

Lublin

Kazimeriz

Back to Warsaw for a night, and then flew to St Petersburg.

More photos on flickr here - Krakow, Warsaw, Lublin, Kazimeriz.

Next stop, St Petersburg (Russia!).

Prague, Czech Republic

24-25 October (we know, over a month ago... oops!)

We've been to Prague before, so not sure why we decided to pass through again as it wasn't really on the way. Given we'd seen most of the sites before we decided to head out to a church which has a lot of human bones on display, about an hour out of Prague in the town of Kutna Hora. Very creepy.

Bone Church, Kutna Hora

Bone Church, Kutna Hora

In the afternoon we messed about in town, not much to tell really. Wandered over the Charles Bridge (which is being repaved, so a total traffic jam to walk over), had lunch and wandered back again. Had a beer in a bar

Anyone got the time? Astronomical clock, Prague


More photos on flickr here.

Next stop, Poland.