Honk

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From Beijing West station, you can get the fast train to Guangzhou (24 hours), or the superfast one, 8 hours and a smooth ride at over 300kph. From Guangzhou, another half an hour takes you to the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. The Shenzhen subway takes you to the Hong Kong border, which you walk across through an elevated tunnel over the water. Apparently, the hot item currently being smuggled between Hong Kong and the mainland is baby formula, and strict restrictions apply. From there, you can catch the Hong Kong MTR out to the New Territories.

If you’ve been noticing a theme in my posts lately, so have I, and I think it’s about contradiction and paradox. Hong Kong didn’t break the pattern. What everyone knows is that it’s one of the world’s great cityscapes, and it doesn’t disappoint, an awe-inspiring skyscrapers and neon reflected in the water. What you might not know if you hadn’t been there is that it’s also more than 200 semi-tropical islands, all palm trees, green peaks, jagged rocks, and hidden beaches. In large part due to the peaks, space all over is at a premium, and huge numbers of Hong Kong locals* live in enormous, grim-looking and endlessly repeating towerblocks. This seemed to me to sum up one of the other paradoxes of Hong Kong and China; you’ll be told that the Chinese don’t care how things look on the outside but will maintain the insides of their homes immaculately, but somehow traditional Chinese art always reflects unspoiled, harmonious landscapes of a kind which are not exactly being preserved.

I have a certain strange interest in advertising; I like noticing what’s being advertised to whom, and using that as a cultural barometer. In Beijing, the advertising we were exposed to was mostly prim little PSAs about the correct public transport etiquette and the importance of preserving the environment; Hong Kong brought us back into contact with Western advertising and the vapidity of endless Prada and Chanel. I can’t say I missed that.

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So, Hong Kong. It was great to stay with Louise and Simon, and to spend time out in the bay acting as race timers for the regatta. We did, as always, some of the standard tourist things – ascended the Peak Tram, took the Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui, and walked round Hong Kong Park and aviary, a strange green island surrounded by skyscrapers. On Thursday, we also took advantage of our situation in Sai Kung, deep into the New Territories and out of reach of the MTR, to get to some of the more secluded beaches. We took a sampan ferry to the quiet Hap Mun Bay, and spent an afternoon lounging and swimming in a gorgeous secluded spot. On our last day, Friday, we had lunch with Virginia, a friend of mine from the days of Northeast Iowa Community College ten years ago, who took us for dim sum before our plane. It was then onwards to Kathmandu, via an overnight stop in Kuala Lumpur. Chances are we’re now going off the grid for some time, so next post will quite possibly be in three weeks’ time, when we return from the peaks.

*Loz suggests “Honquistadors”

No More Trains

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I don’t have Photoshop on my tablet

When discussing this trip with friends and colleagues before we left, I always focussed on the first leg – ‘We’re going from London to Hong Kong by train and then on from there’. After just over a month we completed this journey, with only two small breaks – crossing the Poland/Lithuania border by rail replacement bus and walking over the China/Hong Kong border before taking the metro onwards.

I’m writing this post on our first flight – Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. While I’m sure we’ll probably take a couple more trains, by and large major journeys by train are either impossible or impractical for the rest of our planned itinerary.

Some sexy journey stats:

Total distance travelled: ~13,500km
Countries travelled through: 9 (UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Mongolia, China)
Total number of nights on train: 9
Total amount of time on train: ~217 hours
Total amounts of delay: 1 hour (!)
Shortest journey (time): Guangzhou South to Shenzhen North (30mins)
Longest journey (time): Moscow to Irkutsk (~75 hours)
Shortest journey (distance): Sestokai to Kaunas (~85km)
Longest journey (distance): Moscow to Irkutsk (5185km)
Fastest train: Beijing West to Guangzhou South (top speed hit 310kmph, traveled 2170km in 8 hours!)
Slowest train: Sestokai to Kaunas (85km in an hour and a half)
Best night’s sleep: Ulaan Baatar to Beijing (I think I started getting used to sleeping on the train by this point)
Worst night’s sleep: Vilnius to St Petersburg (being woken up at 2am by a severe Russian demanding passports never really helps)
Best quality train: Brussels to Koln (although the Chinese ‘G’ class trains were very nice too)
Worst quality train: Sestokai to Kaunas (honestly wasn’t sure if this was going to fall apart on us)
Best quality station: Guangzhou South (all the new Chinese stations are pretty impressive though)
Worst quality station: Ulaan Baatar (not a lot of information or shops)
Best experience: Beijing West to Guangzhou South – 8 hours to cross almost the whole of China was very impressive
Worst experience: Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar – 8 hours to cross the Russia/Mongolia border was not
Best scenery: Ulaan Baatar to Beijing
Worst scenery: St Petersburg to Moscow (well we left at 23:55 and arrived at 07:00 so to be fair we only saw the outskirts of Moscow)

It’s definitely an odd way to travel as far as we did – but a great way to stop off in so many places. The pace of travel was definitely more pleasant than an airplane (also significantly less cramped and less dry and nasty air). At most we crossed 2 time zones in one day so jet lag wasn’t really an issue, although keeping track of time on the Moscow to Irkutsk train was a complicated exercise.  The train displayed Moscow time and provided all information in Moscow time – apart from the dining car which worked on local time. No indication was made at any point what local time was, however, nor when time zone boundaries were crossed.

All in all, it is significantly less stressful than flying. You don’t have to deal with the hassle of getting to airports, nor the waiting around and regular delays. The Chinese network of trains and huge hangar-like stations is pretty awesome – shows the advantage of being able to build a rail network in the 1990s and 2000s, not the 1890s and 1900s! The Polish network, by comparison is a bit of a disaster area with rolling stock from the 70s.

The ability to travel right into the centre of the city and link rapidly to metro connections, let alone not having baggage claim, overbearing customs and security issues on departure or arrival makes such a difference to the overall efficiency of the trip. When you’re travelling at >300kmph as well it can genuinely be considered to be faster than flying for end-to-end journeys even up to ~1500km (admittedly most countries aren’t anywhere near these speeds yet).

An Interlude in Hong Kong

We’ve just spent a week in Hong Kong at my cousin Louise’s house. It was a markedly different experience from the trip thus far, a lovely apartment with a powerful, hot shower, internet, aircon and tv – and somewhat outside the main city centre and the reach of major public transport. As a result, this was a much more chilled out portion of the trip – with locals able to direct our excursions.

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We spent the first day after arrival on a boat with Louise and her husband Simon as they were acting as Race Officers for a local regatta. Amy and I have been getting more into sailing the past few years, and I really enjoyed the experience – getting to see the tactics and skills from small two-man boats all the way up to a massive near 80 foot professional racing yacht. It really gave me a taste to get back out on the water some point in this trip – hopefully we’ll get a chance in Vietnam!

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Other than this we alternated between some classic tourist trips (Peak Tram, Star Ferry, Museums), some slacking off at Louise and Simon’s (there’s a whole channel dedicated just to rugby!) and some exploration of the local area to their apartment – Sai Kung. We took a small boat out to one of the local islands and found a lovely little beach there in Hap Mun Bay. It was quiet, but the water was warm and was a genuinely lovely way to pass an afternoon. Definitely in my highlights so far!

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The weather in HK was markedly different from trip thus far, we’d experienced low-30s temperatures before, but never with this much humidity. Aircon is almost always on full blast here, with shop doors often open. This makes a walk down the street an interesting temperature experience, and you often go from the warm sweaty blanket of outdoors to ice-cold goose pimples indoors. This was a useful blast to the senses, as we plan to spend most of November and December in SE Asia.

On the trip we’ve tried to keep what we carry down to a bare minimum whereever possible (I’ve got 12kgs in a 35l bag, Amy’s even lighter) – this sometimes means we don’t have quite the right clothes for the temperature. I binned my only pair of shorts in Berlin and hadn’t missed them at all… until we got here. Even light weight trekking trousers are something of a burden. Up in Nepal, we’ll need some heavier stuff for the mountains, but even Kathmandu will likely be 30 degrees so it’s tough to get the right balance. We’ll rent jackets and sleeping bags most likely, and then probably have to invest in some cheap shorts for schlepping around Vietnam and Cambodia. Of course, the major weight for me is camera, lenses and tablet. Those are sticking with me!

‘Cos I’m hazy (ahh-ah-ah-ah), I’m hazy like literally all day everyday

As I mentioned in the previous post, Beijing was the first place on this journey that I’ve actually been to before. Nearly a decade ago, it took me a couple of days to get used to it – and it was the biggest culture shock I’d been through, but after that I really bought into it. This time the culture shock wasn’t there – lack of novelty combined with maturity, change in Beijing and the trains through Russia put an end to that.

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Beijing has definitely changed, a far more comprehensive metro exists and we found it pretty easy to get around. Every metro journey costs 2 yuan (around 20p) which is fantastically good value and we could could get pretty much everywhere we wanted to go on it. There has also been quite a bit of development/gentrification around some of the hutong (alleyways running between the more main streets). As well as some of the major bar/boutique tourist areas, we found a superb little hutong near us with a couple of superb  coffee shops and, gloriously for Amy, an excellent vegan restaurant. So far, Amy’s veganity hasn’t been *too* major an issue – she’s pretty practical and will eat fish/eggs if needs be – but it was definitely good to find a specific place.

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Originally we had planned to just stay three days in Beijing and then head down to Guilin, but booked out trains prevented that from working out. The result is we stayed for six days and will take the super-fast (>300kmph) train to Guangzhou and on to Hong Kong. This was a blessing in disguise as it gave us much more time to relax into the city. We’ve quite rushed our way across Europe and Asia due to a deadline heading to Nepal, but this was a definite wake-up call in terms of enjoying ourselves. Two days here and there is quite knackering – and while necessary at time (6 months really isn’t that much time to see what we’re trying to see)  it’s great to get a week occasionally to put down a few more roots and recover.

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My top three memories of Beijing from before were The Forbidden City (a bit eh), the Summer Palace (lovely) and the Great Wall (well, pretty great). All these impressions were fully confirmed, the Forbidden City is rammed with tourists and not that interesting. Even if you start imagining that you’re in an RPG walking around an ancient city looking for a smithy. Which, errr, maybe I did? We eschewed the closer sections of the Great Wall (apparently full of people) to take a 3 hour trip out to the Jinshanling wall. We then got a lovely quiet 3 hour hike along ancient (and in certain cases slightly crumbling) sections of the Wall. We also had a hike around the lake at the Summer Palace – shady and breezy, pleasantly relieving the heat.

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On top of these, we also went to a cool art district – Area 798 – a couple of museums and parks and finished up with a trip to the Peking Opera. The Opera was a fun, albeit screechy, display of dance, song and martial arts.

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Our constant companion, however, was the haze. On a couple of days it appeared the Sun might burn through, but not even a major thunderstorm really cleared the air. Even as we hurtle across the Chinese countryside we’re still surrounded by mist and funk. It’s a very odd experience. While you don’t get a great view of the stars at night in London, there must be a generation of Beijingers (and beyond) with very little views of the celestial ceiling. Maybe the air clears more during other seasons, but it was definitely a surprise that it remained post an almighty storm.

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Anyway, a week in Hong Kong beckons. We’re taking the fast train to Guangzhou, connecting to Shenzhen and then walking over the border. Should be interesting. It’ll be good to get full internet access back as well – WordPress and Facebook have both been blocked here, but more irritating is Feedly, which both Amy and I use heavily for our daily net consumption.

Trains and Mongolia

**Slightly delayed due to firewalls**

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I’m not quite sure what I expected Ulaan Baatar to be like, but certainly not what it was. I have odd recollections of reading ‘Long Way Around’ by Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Lastname and they talked about visiting the city and being shocked by the poverty and the children living in drains. Most likely we just weren’t anywhere near those districts, but what we saw of it (in the 24 hours we spent there) it felt vibrant and youthful. There were lots of new buildings, a surprising amount of English – and a lot of friendly faces. We had to wander to a random apartment block to pick up our onward train tickets and felt no compunction just walking around. Actually we’ve done a surprising amount of walking around the cities we’ve visited – mostly at day, but also at night – and I haven’t yet felt even slightly threatened.

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After our brief stop, it was back on the train – now to Beijing. This was a slightly more modern and clean train, albeit not helped by one of the two loos on our carriage being broken. The provodnitsas remained grumpy regardless of nationality. More than any other train journey we’ve been on (including the 4-day transsib) this overnight trip had biggest variation in scenary. From rolling green pastures and lakes just south of UB, to scrub desert toward the south, and finally stunning river canyons when we were over the border in China. The border crossings weren’t quite as painful as the Russia/Mongolia ones, but still took the best part of 4 hours. We changed bogies on the Chinese side, a process that involves hoisting the carriage on a hydrolic lift while shunting around beneath it. It was surprisingly smooth, and slightly unnerving.

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We’re now in Beijing for a week, before taking the fast train down to Hong Kong. This is the first place on our trip that I’ve actually been before (visited about 9 years ago thanks to my cousin Louise’s help) it will be interesting to see how it has changed.

Beijing Stasis

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeijing is a sensory assault. Smell of diesel fuel, incense, sewage, the ubiquitous, dividerless public toilets. Narrow hutong alleyways that suddenly widen into courtyards, markets and astonishingly good restaurants. Beggars with crippled feet and congenital dwarfism. The low-hanging Great Pall of China, in your throat and in your lungs. Constant honking, the gluey-sharp sound of Mandarin. Fortune-tellers, Buddhist monks, old men playing Go. Endless press of humanity, dizzying walls of light. I want to photograph everything and I don’t know where to start.

We’re staying in an honest-to-god hotel (with ensuite! And air-con! And a bar!), albeit a very reasonably priced one – arranged round a covered courtyard in Dongcheng district. I still get surprised every time at the difference between how overwhelming a city feels when you stumble off a train into the chaos of a large international railway station, versus a few hours later when you’ve successfully navigated the public transport system, found your hotel, maybe even consumed some food. The vista when you emerge from Beijing Railway Station is no picnic – a huge crowd, hawking, sleeping, spitting, hustling, dragging luggage, under the eternally smoggy sky. Six days later, though, the city had crept under my skin, as they do.

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We didn’t manage much that first night, as ever – for all you’ve just spent thirty hours on a train mostly lying down, it tends to create an intense desire to lie down some more. Our wandering in search of dinner took us into a hotpot restaurant where the only word we had in common with the staff was ‘beer’. Once we had each managed to order a pot of bubbling stock (in itself a bit of an error), the endless plates the restaurant kept putting in front of us – from tofu and spinach to raw squid and sea-urchin – were eye-popping. We loved the hutongs, though – the narrow alleyways that riddle inner Beijing and that hide all kinds of compelling cafes, boutiques, restaurants, and street stalls. We planned to do the basics first – the Forbidden City, Tian’amen Square – but we’d overlooked that the former is closed on Monday, and the Square is just a big anonymous Soviet space, where you stare at flags and visualise students being mown down by tanks. I managed to come down with a nasty temperature on Monday night and retired to bed for the next 24 hours, but things looked up on Wednesday, where the sky came close to clearing and we spent the day in some of the more tranquil corners of the Summer Palace. In the evening, we visited Donghuamen Night Market, the street stalls where you can buy any kind of food on a stick deep-fried, and then went for dinner to the neon-and-lantern-lined Ghost Street, where the restaurants stay open 24 hours and you can order whole steamed turtles, duck heads, deep-fried scorpion. I was feeling mildly smug at our assimilation and our status as the only Westerners in the crowded restaurant, and said as much to Loz. At this precise moment, our waitress silently removed the chopsticks from my hand, repositioned them, and corrected my rice-eating technique.

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Thursday was devoted to the Great Wall, trekking along its steep and ragged surfaces from Jingshanlin and attempting to avoid the flock of souvenir-sellers and ‘guides’ who descend on each tour bus with a truly worrying intensity and stalk you along the Wall. The thing I most looked forward to was our trip to the 798 Art District on Friday – the semiderelict East German factories that have mostly been taken over by studios and exhibition spaces, where we could see some contemporary Chinese photography and I could indulge my enthusiasm for street art. (As an observer, Mum.) We also dropped in on all six floors of the Silk Street market, where you can have a suit tailored or buy fake designer everything, but I hate the chivvying, the constant shouts of “You want handbag? You want watch?” The Peking Opera show we ventured to was, as expected, thoroughly strange and stylised, but with a certain hypnotic grace. It clearly draws more heavily on dance than Western opera and reminded me, in many ways, of the fight sequences in House of Flying Daggers.

Only eight hours more on a train and our rail odyssey will have come to an end, for now. Beijing was hazier than ever as we left by train on Saturday morning, looking like a ghost city of skyscrapers as we crept away.

Ulaan Baatar – Mirror Images

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The guidebook will tell you that Ulaan Baatar is one of the ugliest cities in the world. To me, though, it’s at least two cities, superimposed on top of each other. Downtown, steel and glass high-rises are going up; at the edges of the city, concrete apartment blocks are frantically being built. Dotted throughout are the tents of the still-nomadic majority of the population, bleeding out to a messy sprawl at the edge of the city. The signs and advertisements are a haphazard mix of Mongolian Cyrillic and English, with Korean and Chinese seasonings: J-pop, karaoke bars, neon trim on bus wheels. There is desert in the air; by day the air is hot and dry and plasters you with dust, by night it’s sharp with frost. A mountain is framed in the end of every street.

Boarding the train at Irkutsk, we were surprised to find that everyone in our carriage was an English-speaking foreigner, in sharp contrast to our Moscow to Irkutsk stretch. It rapidly became apparent that this is because only tourists are dumb enough to cross the Russian-Mongolian border by train. The train stops for five hours at the tiny, desolate Russian border town, where cows wander the streets and occasionally threaten to steal the produce sold under tarps by the inevitable few babushkas. Our main source of entertainment was the troupe of puppies belonging to the station dog, who spent hours batting around a dead pigeon while our carriages were attached, detached, shunted into new formations. Then once the border is crossed, a further two and a half hours are spent trapped on a stuffy train in the fading light at the Mongolian entry point, with the window closed against mosquitoes. Once finally on the move again, we toasted our progress with neat vodka in aluminium travel mugs.

Our companions for this leg of the trip were Charlie and Eduardo, Aussie and Portuguese, two paedatric cardiac nurses in the process of moving from London to Sydney. Sharing a small compartment for thirty hours with strangers is an odd experience; you talk, share food, drink, travel books, sleep and change together, and then go your separate ways. Like most people, Charlie and Eduardo planned to spend considerably longer in Mongolia than we were, and to take a tour to the Gobi Desert or do a homestay with a nomadic family. But we’ve got Hong Kong to reach, and then Khatmandu by September 20th

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Our 24 hours were not action-packed, but they gave us the chance to reset and restock. Stepping off the train in a chilly dawn, we endured the inevitable few hours’ wait at our guesthouse before being able to get a room. Our definition of luxury has already shifted; being picked up at the station, and having a tiny and shabby ensuite bathroom attached to our room, were rare privileges. Even more luxurious, for me, was the range of fresh fruit on offer, and ordering from a restaurant menu without blank looks of incomprehension. After two weeks in Russia, being somewhere most people understand at least a little English feels almost too easy. We picked up our onward train tickets from a tour office in central UB, then spent some time at the Gangan monastery, which is in fact a complex of Buddhist temples on a hill in the centre of the city. Services were in progress in two; we listened to the chanting, the drumming, spun the prayer wheels, and looked up the full twenty metres of the golden statue. Old women sell bird seed at the entrance, so moving around the complex incautiously after someone has thrown a handful is like walking through a storm of pigeons. 

We have a new set of companions for the next 30 hours of watching the landscape change; two young Germans, Katrine and Julia. Our Chinese train is not notably more luxurious than its Russian counterparts, but it is equipped with a shower and spotlessly clean. Dispatches from China for the next week may be delayed or absent due to Internet filtering, but we’ll be back online by Hong Kong.