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Estonia

Arrived in Tallinn at 6:50 this morning after an overnight train from St Petersburg. My first impressions are very good, it is a lovely compact city with an “Old Town” at it centre, feeling very European. Lots of small cobbled streets and squares filled with cafes and bars with seating out front. It made me realise how long its been since I was in a place small enough to be human in scale; Yangshou in southern China probably 10,000km and one month of travelling ago. The icing on the cake is the clear sky and the sunshine.

I am looking forward to an afternoon snooze; border formalities took 2 hours to complete at 2am, though this is much better than the 7 hours of officialdom it took to get into Russia. The exit stamp is also likely to be the last in my passport for this as I’ll probably be within the EEC for the remainder of the journey home. 6 to 8 countries with no permanent evidence in my papers…..

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Round the World

Leaving St Petersburg & Russia tonight for Tallinn, Estonia. Back into the EEC after all this time (though admittedly Estonia easn’t part of it when I left). St Petersburg is well worth a visit BUT I have found it strange touring buildings, etc again without anyone to comment to and Russia’s visa system kills much hope of a backpacker network. A good weekend break, with company, arranged through a tour agency type of place.

Unless you can somehow score a business visa, Russia is not a backpacker destination, as a tourist visa requires all accomodation to be booked in advance. It is a place of great contrasts and sights, but for the foreseeable future is likely to be dominated by tour groups doing the well trodden trails. Do its key destinations as short breaks. But, I have to say, it is well worth doing. Much more colourful and energetic than the news broadcasts would have you imagine, plus good beer available almost everywhere and tasty, bulky food. Nuff said. Not forgetting the mother of all train journeys if you have the nerve……..

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Moscow

Dad and I are leaving Moscow today, him back to the UK and myself onto St Petersburg. We both found Moscow far more colourful and lively than we expected.

The Kremlin and Red Square are both dramatic and very attractive places. Images from the Cold War had me expecting grey forbidding places but the opposite was true. Unfortunately I am not able to post pictures up at the moment as they will give a far clearer impression. See them soon because when the word gets out the already considerable number of tourist will swell significantly.

We then headed to a couple of shopping malls, the first indistinguishable from its western equivalent and the second in the old GUM department store. GUM is now a very impressive arcade of small shops, boutiques and cafes.

GUM department store, Moscow, Russia

The next day the first stop was the Museum of Cosmonautics. The slight air of decay, the dog spacesuit and the tiny size of the capsules made an impression.

Nearby we explored the All-Russian Exhibition Centre created in the 1950’s and 60’s to show the success of the Soviet economic system. It contains a whole series of wonderful buildings in a lovely set of grounds, however on entering the buildings most of them have been converted into indoor markets selling all sorts of goods from electronics to gardening equipment. It left a strong impression on both of us of how the new capitalist system had taken over the failed communist one.

The afternoon was spent at the Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve where a whole series of historic royal buildings had been preserved and other wooden ones moved here to join them. The weather was superb and the grounds well maintain so it made a pleasant place to potter away the afternoon.

All our transport around Moscow was on the very efficient metro system. Some of the stations are architectural masterpieces and worth a visit in their own right. In addition much of the system was built to act as a bomb shelter so it is very deep and giant blast doors can be spotted in some stations.

This morning was spent at the markets near our hotel. They are gigantic, selling mainly clothes, often in bulk and at a frantic pace. It was all we could do to avoid being knocked down by the porters hauling trolleys piled high with goods. Nearby a huge series of wooden buildings is being finished, done in a very elaborate style. We have no idea what they are to be used for. When the photos go up any suggestions are welcome.

I’ve been impressed by Moscow. Things seem much better here than I had expected and are improving. Many key buildings are being renovated, tourists are here in numbers and the people appear to be doing OK. Its quite a contrast to the scenes of abandoned factories we saw from the train.

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Trans-Siberian Railway

Day -1 Tues Aug 10th

My first job today was to pick up dad from the airport. I was looking forward to seeing him after almost 11 months. The flight was on time and surprising quickly he emerged from immigration. A big hug and it was off to find a taxi back to the hotel. That was easy enough but despite having a card with the address in Chinese, a map and a photo of the hotel the taxi driver headed to the wrong place. Beijing traffic is not the place where you want to go further through the centre than you need to, especially after a long flight.

After dad had a quick shower and change it was off for a quick lunch in a food mall in the basement of Oriental Plaza. Most of the food outlets here are as you would expect almost anywhere else, but Megabite is a room surrounded by food stalls cooking local food as you order it. I headed for bowls of pork dumplings in sour soup. Beijing was pretty humid that day, Megabite even more so therefore we were pretty sweaty fairly easily. The other task of the day was to buy some food supplies for the train journey as I’d been recommended to in the Lonely Planet and on the web in case the restaurant car was dreadful. This turned out to be juice to mix with dad’s duty free vodka, loads of tins of tuna and a few packs of muesli bars. I had in previous days already bought a case of red wine, a case of beer, a stack of loo rolls and a luggage trolley to carry it all, plus dad had brought with him coffee, tea, sugar and coffee mate. We were sorted.

Whilst dad headed for a wee mid afternoon snooze to kill some of the jet lag, I headed to the Military Museum. The ground floor was dominated by a large collection of tanks, planes, rockets and artillery pieces, all of which are Chinese copies of Russian 2nd line equipment from when the two countries were friendly. Exhibitions upstairs cover particular conflicts and are a source of amusement. Little of what’s in the Korean conflict room is translated but what is blames American imperial aggression; omitting neatly the fact that it was the UN supporting South Korea and had far more international support than the recent conflict in Iraq. Also of interest is the room covering World War II, far more here was translated into English, which provided greater opportunity to see the scale of omission. Admittedly the Chinese had been invaded by the Japanese in 1932 and had fought a resistance campaign since, but it doesn’t excuse the only mention of any other nation fighting being a few sentences referring to anti-fascist forces. Nothing said of the minor part the Americans had in defeating Japan or the atomic bomb, its like the French covering WWII without mentioning D-day; inconceivable.

Military Museum, Beijing, China

That night we headed for a meal of Beijing duck. The original restaurant I selected had a large queue outside and whilst waiting we were approached by a girl offering to take us to another under the same ownership nearby. We were sceptical but there was little to be lost by following her and taking a look. We arrived at a typical Chinese restaurant, all plain walls, tiled floor, plain white tables (the décor you’d select to extract the entire atmosphere from a place) and filled with locals. The number of locals swayed us and we stayed for an excellent meal of duck carved at the table and washed down by local beers.

With an early start tomorrow it was early to bed.

Day 0 Wed 11th Aug

The train departed at 07:40 in the morning and knowing the chaos of your typical Chinese station we aimed to be there an hour in advance. Things went smoothly enough except emerging from the hotel to find for the 1st time that there were absolutely no taxis waiting and having to flag one down. It was fairly smooth going after that with us being allowed onto the platform, and therefore our cabin, about half an hour before departure. The cabin itself looked comfortable enough with two beds, one above the other on one side and on the other was the shower shared with the neighbouring cabin and a chair by the window. Home for the next 5 to 6 days.

With time remaining before departure I headed to a nearby stall to buy more bottled water, some fruit and a couple of pot noodles. Dad and I then took turns to nip up and down the platform taking pictures of the train prior to departure. At 07:40 on the dot we set off on one of the longest train journeys in the world. Being a bit early for a beer we celebrated with a cup of tea, hot water being available from a boiler at the end of the carriage.

After leaving Beijing it’s not long before the train starts to ascend through the mountains via a series of very long climbs and tunnels. The landscape is spectacular and is enhanced by passing close to the Great Wall at a couple of points. Unfortunately the weather is overcast and it saps the colour from the scene. The sights are still great by eye but photos look bland and washed out. It’s not long before it’s time for a pre-lunch aperitif and then we head to the restaurant car clutching the first of our stash of wine. At this point it’s a Chinese run restaurant car coupled only one carriage away from our own. There is no choice, you’re just fed the set menu but it was tasty enough and we managed to get a couple of paper cups for the wine from the staff. I thought I was being a messy drinker until I realise both cups had small leaks.

It’s here that we get to know our fellow rail passengers, all of whom in the restaurant are westerners. The largest faction is a group of Americans on an organised tour and shepherded by the tour leader who tells them where to be and when. Its feeling good to be independent. The afternoon passes quickly enough, watching the landscape change out the window, me reading magazines and dad having a snooze. Before long it’s time for dinner. The restaurant car is busy with the Americans having all arrived en-mass and we end up sharing our table with a couple of European journalists we’d met at lunch. Dad and I are clutching another of our wine collection, but the journalists have to order one of the restaurant’s supply. It’s a red wine and turns out to be sweet. We share ours with them and then after dinner I get out a good Chinese red I’d bought to show them that not all Chinese wines are that bad. Before long our vodka and their brandy has come out.

It means we’re all fairly lubricated by the time we arrive at the Chinese – Mongolian border at around 10ish that night. First of all we stop at the Chinese border post where there is an option to get out and stay in the station whilst the formalities take place. Whilst the Chinese officials go about their business the train is shunted into a shed where the wheels are replaced with those of the correct width for Russian spec railway lines. We have been advised to stay on the train so we can observe this operation taking place, however we find that when in the equipment shed we are locked in the train and can’t see what’s going on very well. Given the amount I had drunk this was probably just as well.

After the wheels are changed we are shunted back to the Chinese border station, pick up the few that had got off the train, our passports were returned and we rolled towards Mongolia. Several people decided the excitement was over and were going to head to bed until I pointed out with weary experience that we had only just been stamped out of China. We still had Mongolian border officials to deal with. Country entry cards and customs declarations can be awkward enough documents at the best of times and even more so late at night after an evenings drinking but we get through it OK and several hours after arriving at the border we entered Mongolia and were able to head to bed.

Day 1 Thurs 12th Aug

After a surprising good nights sleep (I had been so unsuccessful on previous “sleeper trains” that I had decided the description was an oxymoron) we awoke to a glorious day as the train rolled through the Mongolian steppe. It’s fairly flat in every direction meaning you can see for miles and what you see is an empty wilderness, untouched by man and containing only sparse grass. Every now and then will be a small village containing a mixture of wooden huts and the more tradition yurts. Around these will be small scattered herds of cows, sheep or goats sometimes herded by “cowboys” riding horses. I have a small pang of regret that we’re staying on the train and won’t get a chance to explore this area more closely.

The morning passes fairly quickly watching this incredible landscape pass by. It’s unchanging and empty and should be boring but something about its size and emptiness is enthralling, possibly aided by the light cast by the clear skies. We are due to arrive in Ulaan Baator early afternoon so there’s a chance for a last lunch with our new journalist friends. Marion and Gundi are spending 10 days in Mongolia producing a documentary for the TV which will include an interview with a senior UN official. They are concerned about getting off the train OK, as they have a fair amount of equipment and Gundi wants to get filming quickly as she wants shots of other passengers disembarking. Dad & I volunteer as roadies, myself in the condition that the camera is pointed nowhere near me. We arrive at the station on time and all goes smoothly. As we have around a half hour stop here I have the chance to wander out to the front of the station. The city looks fairly small and is certainly low rise. It’s probably the 2nd smallest capital city I’ve been to after Apia, Samoa. A final series of goodbyes and swapping of email addresses and we’re off again. Dad’s slightly depressed that we’ve lost the best friends we’d made so quickly, whilst I’m more used to this by now.

Late in the day the landscape starts changing as we head into a more mountainous region on the border with Russia. Its here I spot a couple of fairly sorry looking fields and realise something that had been entirely missing from the Mongolian vista: no agriculture ???? horticulture! We had crossed through most of Mongolia from south to north including its 2 largest cities and passing by many villages without seeing a single plant being grown. Not a single flower bed, vegetable patch or arable field. It must be based on the Mongolians nomadic heritage that they rely solely on animal husbandry even though most of the settlements we’d seen looked fairly permanent. They still haven’t developed green fingers.

Our companions for dinner that evening are a couple of the Americans, Kathy & Marilyn. Kathy has an energetic personality and organises a lot of holidays for her group of friends. It’s another fun meal of shared stories and experiences, the atmosphere aided by the fabulous embellishment of the dining car. The restaurant had been changed at the border and the Mongolian car was decorated with an incredible display of carved wood.

The Mongolian buffet car

Again around 10ish at night we arrive at a border, this time the Mongolian-Russian one. The Mongolians aren’t in a rush to let us out, but it’s nothing to the time taken by the Russians to sign us in. They also search everywhere, under the beds, in the luggage racks, even shining a torch through the air-conditioning vents. It reflects the trials of getting a Russian visa; their entry/exit system is still that of the cold war. We fall asleep before all the formalities have finished, before even our passports are returned and 7 hours after arriving at the border we start our journey through Russia and are allowed the remainder of our sleep undisturbed.

Day 2 Fri 13th Aug

I’m awake before Dad and head into the corridor to make a cup of tea, stare at the landscape and to try and work out from the mileposts and the Lonely Planet where we are. When Dad awakes he heads to the restaurant for breakfast, but as I’m not a great fan of eggs I have decided that my breakfast will be based on the supplies we brought to the train. For the next few days this will become our routine for the early mornings. Dad returns with the news that the restaurant is now at the back of the train about 5 carriages away. This is a pain as it means passing through over 20 doors to get there. Again the landscape is different with trees covering the landscape, though we had seen the start of these in the Mongolian mountains near the border. The towns also look more permanent, though the streets are normally mud but the big difference is the allotments which use up much of the space cleared of trees. Closer inspection reveals that many of these plots are now abandoned and I theorised that in the days of communist shortages and in Russia’s transition to capitalism these might have been a key source of fresh food, but these days are less necessary. Maybe it’s just population movement away from these more remote areas of Mother Russia.

The scenic highlight of the day is rounding the south end on Lake Baikal. It doesn’t appear until early afternoon, a couple of hours later than expected and probably due to the time taken at the border. It is a vast body of water 636km from north to south, at 1637m the deepest in the world and it contains one fifth of the world’s fresh water – more than Americas 5 great lakes combined. It also very scenic, largely undisturbed apart from the railway carving through the rocks of the south shore. For the first few years of operation the trains of the trans-Siberian railway had to be shipped across the lake by boat, sometime being delayed by weeks as the lake froze over in winter. The final section here was one of the most challenging of the railways construction requiring 33 tunnels and a 100 bridges & viaducts, eventually opened in 1904 linking Russia’s east and west coasts. It also means we are travelling on what could be considered the railway’s centenary year.

Lake Baikal

We role into Irkutsk mid afternoon where the American posse, including Kathy and Marilyn, are leaving the train. The departure empties the carriage next to us and again we are swapping emails and promising to stay in touch. My goodbyes are brief as I am on a mission to get some useful money. At every border I have passed through until this train trip there has been someone more than willing to change your money. I had therefore arrived on the train with a big bundle of Chinese Yuan that I now need to turn into rubles. My miscalculation is that at both borders we have been stuck on the train and therefore unable to check out the exchange options. Here in Russia’s first major station I am hoping for an exchange desk or an ATM, however our carriage attendant claims we are only stopping for 15 minutes. It’s a reasonable run through the tunnels to get to the main station building and nothing there looks hopeful. I eventually find a desk that might be useful but am told to clear off by a guy in uniform wearing a gun. Time is ticking and there is nothing to stop the train departing without me so I head back. Eventually the train leaves around 30 minutes after we had stopped and I still have no useable cash. Fortunately Dad has brought a load of American dollars that the dining car accepts but its shaken me that after 10 months of travelling I’ve managed to make such an elementary mistake.

Day 3 & 4, Sat & Sun, 14th & 15th Aug

For the next couple of days we fall into a pleasant routine. I wake up first, grab a cup of tea and hang out in the corridor working out where we are, checking out the landscape and chatting with the neighbours. Dad wakes, has a cup of tea and heads off to the dining car for breakfast whilst I have something in the cabin. The rest of the morning is generally spent observing the scenery pass buy, reading up on the local area and discussing between us. It was clear how important this railway was as it was tremendously busy, largely with freight trains and was obviously a lifeline to these remote parts of Russia. However it was also clear it wasn’t enough as virtually all industry here looks neglected or totally derelict. The switch to capitalism has obviously hit hard out here.

Occasionally we get the treat of arriving at a station which gives us the chance to get off the train and stretch our legs. I had hoped to do some bargaining with traders for local goods such a smoked fish, vodka and Russian champagne; only two snags that apart from a couple of stations in the far east there were no traders and I had no useful money.

Lunch saw us heading for the restaurant car which was now the Russian one since the border. The person running it was a stereotypical local lady to look at including having gold front teeth but whereas we had been warned about surly service she was extremely friendly. Also part of the crew was a very fit guy in his mid 20’s who didn’t seem to do anything, a lady who cooked, another young guy and an older guy. It was a strange setup with only 2 of them (OK 3 at most) actually ever doing anything. I favourite items on the menu were soup and beef in pot, both of which started out extremely tasty with lots of delicate meaty bits and both of which by the ends were a bit less tasty and using the scrag ends of the meat.

The clientele of the dining car was the few westerners on the train, the Chinese passengers sticking with stuff they made themselves in their cabins (primarily pot noodles). The afternoons & evenings were spent playing cards with our fellow westerners, primarily two card games which any traveller will be familiar, Arsehole and Shithead. The other regular players were: Tom returning to the UK to take up a career in law having spent the last 3 years clearing mines in South East Asia and Africa, Dan & Fleur from Amsterdam, a Spanish/Italian couple and English lad Will. Irregulars included 3 Brits and 3 Aussies who had joined the train in Irkutsk and resided in a carriage added behind the restaurant car. Also part of our social scene back in our carriage was a Russian guy on one side and an extremely slim French lady sharing a cabin with Tom on the other. Throw a few beers into the mix and it was an extremely pleasant way to pass the time and kilometres.

Day 5 Mon 16th Aug

The night before Dad & I brought our remaining beers down to the restaurant, dishing them out to the staff and our friends. It seemed strange that the journey was almost over. In preparation for the trip I had asked Dad to get a travel chess/draughts/backgammon set and to bring a few good books. I had also bought a couple of books in Beijing for the journey. In the end the books never got read and the games set never opened.

The first part of the day passed in a similar way to those before including lunch back in the dining car, the only exception being the young Russian who was totally pissed having started drinking vodka at breakfast. Eventually the train got to the outskirts of Moscow and then before long we had arrived bang on time five & a half days and 7865km after we started. Strange to be back in Europe after over 11 months.

Moscow Station

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Beijing & The Great Wall

Its been a mixed time in Beijing. In the first couple of days the glasses I bought in Hong Kong broke, followed by my camera a day later. Much time was spent in trying to get them repaired in local stores but in neither case was I successful.

Unfortunately the camera broke on the nicest day I had in Beijing, with a clear blue sky, sunshine and cooler fresher air. I had planned to see the Forbidden City and had just started at the south of Tiananmen Square when the misfortune occured. I did get to the Forbidden City a couple of days later and was disappointed. It suffered from the fundamental problem that exists in Chinese museums: a lack of information and explanation. There are very few explanation boards, you have to pay two thirds the cost of an already expensive ticket to hire the audio tour, any maps or leaflets are extra and you have to pay more to enter some of the exhibitions contained within. In addition being at the heart of a large city and extremely populous nation it is very busy. I headed through from south to north, taking a quieter route up the east side of the compound.

To the north of the FC is Jingshan Gongyuan, a park with hills built from the earth and rock excavated from the FC’s moat and the remains of the old palace the FC was built on top of. This was much better as from the top of the highest peak you can look over the Forbidden city as a whole and I found this more impressive than being inside it. As the FC is a large collection of fairly low buildings with limited open spaces you get little idea of the overall scale when inside. From the peak you could see its total extent.

The Great Wall does live up to its name and reputation. I headed for one of the quiter and more dramatic spots at Simatai. Here the wall traces a course along the crest of the hills and then down the sides of a valley as it plunges towards a river. Some slopes have a 70 degree incline and the views are amazing. The volume of work it must have taken to build this entire affair is staggering when you conside the height, width & length of the wall (several thousand km) as well as all the towers along its length and the terrain on which much of it is built. From a pragmatic point of view I can’t help feeling a series of forts would have been easier to build and afforded better defence but that would not have left us with this incredible wonder of the world.

Having mainly travelled through the cities you I cannot help to have noticed how fast China is developing. There is a lot of traffic with many of the cars being new and expensive, there are a large number of buildings being developed and there are shopping malls with luxury goods everywhere. This is all for a small percentage of China’s population and the bulk of its over 1 billion population will be looking to catch up. This has huge implications for the world as a whole and here are a few to prompt thought :

  • If car ownership in China reaches the same level as currently exists in the USA there will be more cars in China than currently exist in the world.
  • A factory employee in China is often paid less than $100 US per month. As China has 900 million people in the poor rural economy if every manufacturing job in the US and Europe moved to China it would have people to spare.

You can see why global companies are so eager to have a presence in China as it offers both a staggering marketplace for products and a very cheap labour force. The pace of modernisation in China is rapid in the cities, though I expect much slower in the countryside. In some ways the country hasn’t changed. The BBC News website is banned from Chinese internet, as are satellite dishes for the general population. It must be the only country in Asia where most dwellings don’t have a dish pointing upwards. I don’t know how the Chinese population in general feel about Mao but his Mausoleum still sits in Tiananmen Square and his portrait in the centre of Tiananmen Gate. This being the man that drove the Great Leap Forward resulting in death of 30 to 60 million people from famine and later inspired the Cultural Revolution where students attempted to destroy China’s education system, arts and ancient culture. It is probably because the history section of Lonely Planet’s China guide makes this clear that it is not available in this country whilst LP’s for other countries are.

China has been an interesting place to visit but hard work and lonely. If / when I return here I won’t travel alone. Tomorrow morning my father arrives in Beijing and on the next day we catch our train to Moscow. I doubt I will be back on the internet before then. Until then I am off to buy supplies for our week on the train.

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Beijing

Made it to Beijing this morning. The central area is unbelievably huge and as the subway/tube/metro stations are so few and far between it looks like I’ll have to suss out the local buses. Just doing a few odds and ends this morning I must have walked into the double figures in kilometres.

I also realised one thing: that is you are in a Chinese city you never see a clear blue sky, there is always a white haze covering all. You sometimes get stong wafts of exhaust and petrochemicals as well; don’t like to think what the pollution levels are like here.

More later when I’ve seen some of the sights…

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Xian

Xian has proved to be a fun place to stay. There’s a lot to see in and around the city, plus the hostel/hotel where I am staying is very sociable in the evening.

The main reason people come to Xian is to see the Terracotta Army; 6000 lifesize terracotta soldiers made and buried 2000 years ago to guard an imperial tomb. A web journal I had read when planning this trip said that it was a stunning sight and imagining rank upon rank of these soldiers I was looking forward to it. However people I was talking to at the hotel indicated they felt let down, it wasn’t as stunning as expected. Unfortunately they were right, although quite something you never see more than 100 figures in one place, not the endless ranks I had expected. From what is there it is hard to imagine what it must have been like when completed and sealed all those years ago. Also to protect them, and because the wooden components had rotted away the weapons were separate from their “owners”. Not one figure had a restored weapon put back in its hands; why not??? Even worse the exhibit had virtually no information surrounding the reasons for the construction, how it was built or who was buried there. Despite lacking the basic information on how this place came to be, it had a room dedicated to the building of the museum over it!

The city of Xian has a stunning set of walls round most of the centre. They are huge being 14 km in circumference, 12m high, 12m wide at the top and 15m wide at the bottom. Access is provided to the top, but though mostly complete the missing pieces stop you taking a hike right round the city on top of them. Each corner has a tower, with smaller towers regularly along the walls length, a large moat outside and enormous gatehouses in the centre of each side. To be honest they impressed me more than the display of the Terracotta Army.

Also in town is the acclaimed Shaanxi History Museum. Unfortunately it has the same problems I have found in almost every Chinese museum; no background information on the time or the people of the exhibits. The museum has relics from each of the major Chinese eras, largely pottery and bronze artifacts. At the start of each era the entire background information on the period was contained in two sentences. Two sentences to cover all the social, economic and political features of eras covering hundreds, if not thousands of years! Despite most of the exhibits being pottery or brass not one bit of information is given to the process of manufacturing the pieces displayed. This is not a history museum, it’s an art museum. What is frustrating is that this lack of information is apparent at almost every Chinese historical display, the notable exception being the Museum of History, Kowloon, Hong Kong which is excellent. I have learned more from the 10 pages of historical information in the Lonely Planet than I have from my time in the country itself.

It is worth a stroll round the Dayan Ta (Big Goose Pagoda), a 64m tall pagoda surrounded by other temples and a lovely set of gardens. Only negative feature is once you have paid to get into the grounds you have to pay more to climb the pagoda. Its better to stroll round the far edges of the gardens where you can find peace and quiet amongst the greenery. Out front is a huge controlled fountain that apparently puts on a display to music. Not running whilst I was there maybe I will return this evening.

Dayan Ta, Xian, China

Tonight is my last night in Xian before getting the sleeper to Beijing tomorrow. Just chance to have another conversation with Nathan (from Manchester) over a couple of beers on music, the city, the venues, the trendiness of Chorlton and the quality of Abdul’s kebabs.

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Fahrenheit 9/11

I managed to see this film in Yangshuo by buying a pirate DVD and getting it played in one of the local cafes. I thought I might have been the only person interested but every English speaking person there was hooked, hanging on every word.

This is an immensely important film. It shows another side to the buildup to the Iraq war that was never properly shown by our “independent” media; they were too busy presenting government statements as facts, never bothering to ask the obvious and important questions.

I would encourage all of you to view this film. It can’t hurt and you can disagree with it if you are so inclined, but to not see it is to put your head in the sand, to cover your ears and shout “not listening”.

Michael, if you read this blog, I promise to buy the genuine DVD when its released in the UK. Keep up the good work.

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Yangshuo & Three Gorges Dam

For several days it rained cats & dogs in Yangshou. Once it stopped it was unfortunately hot and really humid. Despite the wonderful countryside it was too uncomfortable to explore many of the surrounding peaks. From those I did I got a superb view of the town wedged in between the almost vertical peaks. Though the countryside is beautiful, the town is as ugly as any Chinese town built in the last few decades. Simple straight sided concrete structures, many tiled with tall narrow white tiles like an inside out public toilet.

I caught the bus back to Guilin and then the overnight sleeper to Wuhan. This is another city of around 6 million people with a very spread out centre. With no public transport apart from buses and no way of finding out where the buses went I had to resort to using taxis. Generally this is something I have avoided as it’s too easy and shuts you off from the place, but here I found no option. Next day it was a 5 hour bus journey to Yichang (several million people again) from where I could get to the Three Gorges Dam. The Lonely Planet listed a couple of buses but they no longer seemed to run from the places mentioned. With no Tourist Information booth and virtually no-one speaking any english I had to resort to a taxi for the 40km each way trip.

The journey there took some time as for some reason we could not use the main highway. It seemed almost deserted except for trucks so maybe it’s limited to construction traffic. On getting there a regular tour bus took you round a few vantage points. Its a stunning engineering effort being 2.3km long and 185m high. Along side there are two sets of 5 locks to handle ships up to 10,000 tons up and down and a ship hoist capable of raising and lowering a 3,000 ton vessel. Politically this dam is controversial as it has a lot of side effects, displacing 2 million people and affecting the environment.  It will however generate an immense amount of energy and limit some regular and very damaging floods. Standing there the sheer scale of it is hard to take in.

After a couple of nights in Yichang it was another 5 hour ride back to Wuhan to pick up the overnight train to Xian. As the train arrived at the platform it was clear something was wrong. On the train it was incredibly hot and some of the staff were remarkably sweaty. The air-conditioning system wasn’t functioning. I decided I couldn’t stay all night on the train if it stayed broken and kept my luggage on the platform. As the carriage was designed for AC there very very few windows that open at all and even then only a very small amount. Fortunately they decided the problem had to be fixed so we waited for over 2 hours on the platform whilst they found a new engine and attached it to the train.

I arrived in Xian yesterday morning having had little sleep for various reasons so spent the day sleeping, reading and pottering around a little. On the way back to the hotel I found more evidence that the quality of Chinese taxi drivers varies hugely. Many if shown a name in Chinese take you there quickly and efficiently (as traffic conditions in any Chinese city allow). Unfortunately over a third aren’t of this standard. Some don’t want a journey that short, some presented with a name and address in Chinese haven’t a clue where it is and just shrug. The worst will drive off in completely the wrong direction as happened again last night. Fortunately I have developed a reasonable sense of direction backed up by a compass in my watch. In China, as in Phnom Pehn, it has proved invaluable in stopping me being taken to goodness knows where. Travel tip for China and Cambodia: make sure you do have a sense of direction before getting in the cab and take an active interest in the direction your taxi is heading!!

Tomorrow the plan is to head off and see the Terracotta Warriors and maybe some mountains east of here the day after. After that and maybe another day in Xian its the train to Beijing, seeing the sights there and preparing for the trans-siberian run. Travelling in China is very interesting. The culture is very different to the west and with almost every city I head to having 6 million people or more the scale is tremendous. Its clear the place is changing fast and becoming remarkably more commercial. It’s hard to imagine what it will be like in a decade or two, nor of its influence on the world as a whole.

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Round the World

Yangshuo

Guangzhou doesn’t have a lot to for the tourist to see and do but a temple and a pagoda that were near to each other seemed worth a trip on the subway. The temple was nice enough and very busy with locals all burning incense sticks as the prayed. Unfortunately the main building was being restored and you couldn’t get near it. The pagoda promised to be more spectacular but when I arrived at the ticket window they were looking to charge me 11 yuan when every one else was paying 1 or 2. I don’t like blatant rip-offs so I just left.

Whilst most of Guangzhou is fairly chaotic, especially round the main train station, the subway is new and efficient, however I was amazed at the trouble the locals had using it. Many of them seemed to have real trouble with the ticket machines despite being wonderfully simple (you touch the station on the map you want to go to and it tells you how much the fare is). Even stepping onto the escalators seemed to give several significant pause. 

Between my hotel and the nearest subway station stands Peaceful Market. One of the first to spring up when China first implemented some market reform it sells fresh dried produce like nuts, fungi, fruits, etc. Apparently for a few years it was the place to buy endangered and exotic animals before the authorities stamped out the trade. Always busy and an effort to get from one end to the other it reminded me that many of the locals, even when in a bustling crowd, seem to dawdle when walking. Still slowing down you got to see more of what was on sale and looking back I can’t believe I didn’t take a photograph.

After a couple of nights in Guangzhou I caught the overnight sleeper train to Guilin. Unfortunately two of the Chinese gentlemen kept talking with their lights on until well past midnight. By that time I was angry and frustrated and struggled to get to sleep. On getting to Guilin I jumped straight on a bus to Yangshuo. The journey should have taken an hour, but took nearer two by the time it circled the town looking for passengers.

Yangshuo is a tourist town stuck in the middle of some dramatic peaks. It promised to be a bit of a backpacker haunt where I might meet a few fellow travellers in the evening. I spent much of the day I arrived catching up on lost sleep before heading out in the evening. Although this started out as a backpacker ghetto it is now very much a destination of choice for busloads of Chinese tourists. Foreign tourists would have been lucky to have made up 10% of numbers that Sunday night and many of those appeared to package tourists. That has brought several unattractive features to the town like insistent traders and numerous brothels; many of the hairdressing places during the day put out the pink fluorescent lights at night.

I was looking to get more done on Monday but it rained very heavily all day. Luckily I still had my brolly from New York so could get out and about for some food. An email from Hong Kong today told me they had a level 8 typhoon warning and had the day off work. I take it our rain was the edge of this typhoon. 

It’s midday tuesday now and I’m still trying to make up plans for the next few days and weeks but have been in a lazy frame of mind.


For those of you who knew my ex-girlfriend Catherine she is getting married this Saturday. Congratulations in advance to them both.