Saturday, 25 February 2017

Russia and Lativa

After a ten hour border crossing we finally made it into Russia, and after our second night on the train we pulled into Irkutsk for an early morning start. A lack of time and the ridiculous temperatures led us to book a tour, which took us through the foggy city to see a few sight before heading out towards Listvyanka. On the way we stopped at the Siberian village museum, where we managed to completely ignore the area's architectural history and spend some worthwhile time on the snow slides and swings. 
Listvyanka sits on the edge of Lake Baikal, the world's third largest lake which completely freezes over in the Russian winter. We spent some time on the ice, with Sammie complaining that her eyelashes had frozen and her feet were numb whilst I saw how far I could slide on my knees. We finished the tour in the fish market, where the taste of the fresh Omul was good at the time, but not worth our clothes stinking of fish for the next few days. 
After a night in the house of a Russian woman who was a little eccentric and more than a little racist, we were back on the train for the longest leg of the trans-Siberian. The four day journey began well, with more beautiful landscapes and our discovery of Russia's litre tins of beer. Eventually despair set in when I was washing three days worth of grime off my body in a sink next to a blocked toilet. This despair only increased after another day of living on powdered smash potato and cup noodles, whilst genuinely worrying that muscular atrophy was withering our legs away. 
Eventually we arrived in Moscow, walking to our hostel from the metro at 5.30am after passing a guy slumped in a corner with a face full of blood. We trekked out through some pretty heavy snowstorms into the heart of the city, checking out the Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral. Sammie was trying to avoid going to another set of unnecessary churches and museums, whilst I was trying to convince her that the Kremlin was pretty essential viewing in Moscow.  We went to the Gulag museum before finding out that it has recently changed location, so we tried again the next day before finding out that it is closed on Mondays. 
After nearly missing our overnight bus to St Petersburg despite arriving at the station four hours early, we managed to make it to our new hostel in the centre of the Old City, surrounded by lavish buildings and churches. We spent the first day here exploring some very impressive cathedrals and sites around the city, before treating Sammie to some traditional Russian canteen food for valentines day. 
For the final day in St Petersburg we walked around the Hermitage Muesum, 399 extravagant palace rooms filled with art and culture. After feigning interest at some of the Picasso's and Da Vinci's on show, we soon lapsed into laughing at the genitals on centuries old statues. 
A night bus out of Russia meant that we had only spent 3 of the last 12 nights in a stationary bed, with that we were both getting a bit run down and sick. We headed to Riga and met Matty and Laura for the weekend, where I considered the perfect antidote to my worsening stomach bug to be a few pints and a couple of cheeseburgers. I spent the next day in bed whilst the other three explored Riga, a city where art seemed to consist of putting human breasts on animal bodies. 
The rest of the weekend we spent exploring a few nice bars and restaurants, before visiting the infamous Riga Hat Museum and heading to a cracking game of ice hockey. At this point we decided to cut the trip a couple of weeks short, with the pair of us a bit run down we decided to save some money and head home. 

And so, with our last big trip finished we headed home permanently for a life of mortgages, careers and mild depression. We've been lucky enough to see some amazing things and meet some amazing people in our time away, and we're hoping we can read back through this in a few years time to relive some of our favourite moments. I hope you've enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


From Beijing we boarded the Transmongolian train, ready for 27 hours in our otherwise empty four bed coupe. The border crossing into Mongolia lasted from 10pm to 3am, with each carriage having to be disconnected and then rammed back together again to change the wheels. It was like trying to sleep through minor car crashes at regular intervals.
The landscape had gradually changed from the sprawl of Beijing, into mountainous northern China before becoming the increasingly empty, snowy vastness of Mongolia. We rolled along for hours without seeing trees or much more than a couple of houses completely alone in the countryside.
Mongolia's capital Ulaanbator has over half of the country's 3 million people, with most of these warming themselves with coal fires inside their homes. This gives the city a dense covering of smoke, a hazy carpet that can be seen well before any buildings.
After a night in the city sorting out train tickets and doing a little exploring, we were up for our trip into some more rural parts of the country. We spent the morning looking through some monasteries and a huge rock that looks a bit like a turtle, before heading for lunch with a nomadic family.  After eagerly using my newly learnt welcomes on the family, the guide revealed she had taught me to say 'I love you' rather than 'hello' to the burly, pretty angry looking Mongolian bloke's wife.
We rode through the snow on some fluffy Mongolian horses before heading to a Kazakh family to spend the night. The local cuisine seemed to be mixing everything with salty milk tea, the main was noodles and milk tea, the dessert was butter and milk tea. The milk tea by itself wasn't even very nice.
We spent the night in our Ger, playing some traditional Mongolian games with sheep's ankle bones. I developed a vendetta against one of the Kazakh family who turned out to be very competitive and a terrible cheat. After a nightlong rivalry I felt slightly embarrassed when I found out he was only 17. I still smashed him in an arm wrestle though.
At midnight it was -35 degrees, the stars were filling the sky and the vodka had been flowing. The temperature was so cold that the toilet, an outdoor drop pit, had frozen its contents into an impressive brown tower. To finish a wonderful night Sammie decided to drop my phone ten feet down into this shit pit. After a fruitless hour trying to retrieve the phone with some improvised poles, the 17 year old lad decided to pull out the floor and scramble to the bottom of the sculpture to retrieve the phone. I let him off for the cheating after that.
The next day we headed around some more beautiful snow covered monasteries and to the giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan that towered over the countryside. Our Mongolian guide and driver had us laughing throughout and after a couple of months (27 years for me) without finding anyone we clicked with, we found a German girl willing the put up with us for a few days.
Our final day was fittingly spent walking round the black market looking for gloves and hats. After this we boarded another train, leaving a lightly snowing Mongolia behind. Our peaceful coupe was short lived, two blokes who struggled to breath quietly when awake, let alone asleep came to wreck the calm. 11 hours later, after a night wide awake contemplating what I'm actually doing with my life, we were pulling up to the Russian border.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hong Kong and China

A short flight on Christmas Eve took us to Hong Kong, where we were expecting an elaborate airport welcome from our holiday host Dave. Once again we were disappointed. There were no banners or flowers, we had to wait half an hour until he even turned up.

After two years of pretty grim Christmases away from home we were treated by Dave and Yoonji to a proper holiday experience, with a house full of people and a full Christmas dinner, including potentially the best parsnips ever made. Sammie looked pretty contented with her glass of wine and Christmas hat, I was just happy we had agreed not to buy presents.

After the festivities we started to explore Hong Kong, a maze of crowds, big buildings and expensive shops. We viewed the skyscrapers from a distance across Victoria harbour and atop the Peak, then spent an afternoon travelling through the centre on a double decker tram. We couldn't miss out on indulging in the height of Hong Kong culture, sampling the local trampoline park for an hour of flips, sweat and being 20 years older than everyone else in the building. The rest of our time was spent hiking, eating and playing an unhealthy amount of FIFA.
From Hong Kong we took a train into mainland China, stopping overnight in Guangzhou. With only half a day to explore, we headed straight for a romantic walk down the river. Here we spotted 21 dead fish, a dead cat and a bloke skinning alive a snake he had just caught, all this was seen through foggy smog so thick that you couldn't see the skyscrapers a hundred feet down the road. We had arrived.
After the delightful Guangzhou we took the train to spend some time split between the cities of Yangshuo and Guilin. In Yangshuo we rented bikes and rode out of the city to the River Li, where vertical mountains dotted along the misty river, perfectly replicating how we imagined rural China to look. This tranquility soon ended when we were back in the city down West Street, where neon lights surrounded western restaurants and an excessive amount of strip clubs.
We ventured out to have a look around the exotic fruit and veg in a local market, which was going well until we hit the meat section and saw the cages full of cute little cats and rabbits, with their mates already skinned and hung up. It was all pretty inhumane, they could at least have some decorum like in England, and do it on an industrial scale behind closed doors.

Our main reason for being in Guilin was to see the Dragon's Backbone Rice terraces, which we were told would have looked like an endless panoramic view of staggered stairs of rice flowing down mountainsides. The fog made it hard to see our feet, let alone the view. Our strict budget was seeing the usual successes and failures, with a lunch of delicious noodles and dumplings for 20¥, before a Haagen Daaz ice cream for 71¥.

After Guilin we went on our first overnight train, 26 hours on triple decker beds surrounded by people who didn't seem even slightly embarrassed about passing wind or groping their partners. Our destination was Chengdu and as soon as we got there we headed straight for the panda breeding center to spend a day watching some funny little bears rolling around. The next day we headed to Leshan, to see the 70 foot 1200 year old giant Buddha carved into a cliff. A few attempts to get a picture of the two of us in front of the Buddha left me questioning the Chinese's photography ability.

As a birthday treat for Sammie I'd arranged a two day, 64km hike up a 3099m mountain in -11 degrees weather. The first day we hiked 17km up continuous steps to stay in a Buddhist monastery with no heating and some fairly aggressive monkeys who took a real shining to our backpack. The next day, despite hiking 47km, was probably the best day of the trip so far. We were all alone walking in a snow covered winter wonderland, with the moon lighting up our path. By the top we were above the clouds, overlooking outcrops of mountain peeking out from below. I even treated Sammie to a snickers when we were back at the base.
From Chengdu we took an 11 hour train to Xi'an. Here we explored the Muslim Quarter, where craft markets were serving up jewelry, fresh fruit and sheep's heads. After visiting the city's encircling walls and pagoda we headed to see the Terracotta Army, where warehouses were filled with rows upon rows of warriors built to protect an Emporer's tomb from the equally sizable rows of pushy tourists competing for the best selfies.
After Xi'an we spent a couple of days wandering around Shanghai's skyscrapers, markets and dragging an insolent Sammie around a museum. We then headed on a 350kmph bullet train to our final stop in China, the capital Beijing.
Strangely enough the quietest spot we found in China was also the most famous, a group of 8 of us hiked 7km along the Great Wall, only passing about 4 locals. The wall meandered endlessly over the distant mountains creating a beautiful scene. Surely we need more leaders willing to invest in beautiful border walls like this.
The Forbidden City truly lived up to its name, with our two attempts to enter both resulting in failure as the 80,000 person daily capacity had already been reached. This was after queuing for hours in wind so cold that people were actually walking down the street backwards.

The rest of the time in the capital was spent eating some amazing food and visiting markets and palaces. Chinese New Year was an interesting experience, with kids down every street lobbing firecrackers about and setting off fireworks which were designed for loudness rather than looks.

After a worrying start China turned out to be pretty easy to get around and full of friendly people. After being warned off by so many people, the country more than exceeded our expectations.