An Exploration of Radicalisation Using Digital Storytelling

So in this blog, I’d like to run through one of the interesting projects I’ve been a part of for my MA course on E-learning innovation with the Open University.

This was a project where I’d be working with a geographically dispersed group of people to design a learning artefact on a subject that we had little experience of and facilitating others to learn about that subject through the medium of Digital Storytelling. This is an adaptation of the report I wrote on my experiences. It will be helpful for me to review what we did and it may be of use to anyone reading if they have to undertake something similar.

Situation

We were given the task of using digital storytelling to explore social/cultural/ethical dilemmas and instructed to choose either a professional domain, or a school subject, where learners would need to develop an awareness of a social, cultural or ethical issue and make informed and considered judgements with a view to learning whether digital storytelling could provide an effective educational tool.

Team members:

Name and Profession Responsibilities Technical competencies Location Further notes: aspirations / hopes for project etc.
Bob Bennell –Police Trainer Examine new ways to deliver training, reduce necessity for classroom-based 20 years experience in IT UK Would like to use Google Hangouts and desires to explore storytelling to bring subjects to life
Stephen Penney (Steve P) – Deputy Headteacher Safeguarding SMSC (British values), community/employability links, teaching, and teacher training UK
Huw Davies Works at a private English language school and has a part time job teaching second year students at a university Japan (GMT+9) Doing the module for personal interest. Has no experience of a project of this type and indicated that he’d be working while most were asleep
Steve Bell (Steve B) – E-learning professional Has worked in e-learning across wide variety of levels and contexts Web and software development experience and has high levels of experience utitilising Google apps including Sites UK Has no context in mind for the project but wants to incorporate Google apps into all levels of communication and build
Gareth Davies – Corporate Training Consultant Works in business training, English language instruction, and academic preparation. Has experience of using Learning Management systems, e-learning authoring tools, and minimal use of Google apps Thailand (GMT+7) Expressed an interest in using video editing software in future but no preferences regarding context for the project
Simon Hobbs Working with county councils to develop leadership and management training UK Keen to use e-learning more in professional role

Task

The group members came from diverse professional backgrounds, and a number of the members in the initial introduction thread stated no particular preference for a topic. Stephen Penney raised the idea of radicalization as he felt that Digital Storytelling with the focus of a current social/cultural issue might lend itself to the topic.

Steve B noted that there were two very different approaches available to us in designing a digital storytelling learning design. The first was to facilitate learners in telling their own stories. Alternatively, we would create a digital story targetting specific learning objectives.

Huw said he felt the latter approach would be best. This was supported by Steve P, making reference to an example of good practice by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and adding that an exploration of why people become radicalized or migrate could be an option.

Ultimately, in our second online meeting, we clarified our ultimate goal of creating a learning resource to raise awareness about radicalization in the UK with a target audience of young people.

Roles

Role Name Reasoning
Team Leader Huw A process of elimination left the Team Leader role to Huw
Connector Simon To monitor for connections in our ideas, themes, research
Media Manager 1 Gareth Preference due to potential responsibilities providing desired practical experience
Project Manager and Media Manager 2 Steve B Professional experience as a manager and experience of managing Google apps respectively
Researcher Bob Across the group, members had little experience of digital storytelling, so Bob volunteered to collate research on that aspect
Subject Matter Expert Steve P Steve P was the sole member with experience related to the topic area of radicalization

Actions

Communication

Steve B set up a Google+ community space for our project team. He designed it as to have one central point for communication and resource sharing.

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Links were provided to the project’s website, a shared Google folder where we could upload and store materials and later host our individual stories. There were also links to Google Docs documents for a Project Plan drawn up by Steve B that we could all access and modify, and a contact sheet for all members. Importantly, Steve B set up a Meeting Room for Hangouts which we could use at any time in order to chat about the progress of the project or to ensure that there were no technical issues prior to one of our weekly Sunday meetings.

All meetings were scheduled for 2pm BST on a Sunday by mutual agreement. With myself and Huw in Asia this was an ideal time. The meetings took place on 24/5, 31/5, and 7/6. After the third meeting, communication was solely via the Google+ Community using Google Hangouts.

Obstacles

As media manager, one obstacle I had at the beginning was never using Google sites before. However, with Google and YouTube tutorials I learnt its functionality by making changes while reacting to the needs of the group in the development of the project. Requests and following the progress of the design were made simpler via some of the functionality of the Communities page.

When an issue was raised for specific members, typing, for example, ‘+Bob Bennell’ would send them a notification.

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Also, any post made necessitated it be categorized according to the area of the project to which it was related.

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This made it easy to find information according to the area you were working on at any given time.

Development

Team members’ levels of participation/input seemed to fluctuate, and, therefore, a lot of what we did was not entirely synchronous. A great deal of work was done after mutual agreement in meetings and prior to the next one. However, the Community providing such an easily navigable source of information and easy communication was invaluable.

We created imaginary personas from which were extrapolated factors and concerns to consider in regards to our learning design that resulted in forces that might shape our project and its implementation. The process was helpful in reminding us of the technical, methodological, cultural, and demographic diversity of our potential target learners and it will be something I may use again in future.

However, as was discussed in the second Hangouts meeting, as there was a lack of a unifying theme with most, this diversity indicated that it would potentially be counter-productive to develop our project with such a finite number of personas in mind. We felt that it would be more appropriate to the context of the issue discussed to keep a more open mind and make it as universally accessible as possible in terms of the choices of how we facilitated learning and the subject matter discussed around the topic.

Technical and Pedagogical Approaches

We had tacitly agreed in one of our discussions in Meeting 3 to maximize the number of modes in which to present our stories. This decision was made due to the fact that we were working asynchronously, had differing levels of technological competence, and for the sake of our stories appealing to as broad a range of learners and learning styles as possible.

From our preliminary research we compiled a bank of theoretical frameworks, case studies that shared similar fields and/or objectives to that which we envisaged as our own, and we had a list of potential subject areas to address. We identified that the subject matter was too multi-faceted and complex to be able to cover in its entirety, but we could look at our prototype as the beginning of a larger project with the unused themes being addressed at a later date having received feedback and made adjustments based thereon.

Our digital story was non-linear due to the nature of having these separate stories covering so many aspects of the subject matter which learners could access in any order they wanted, but the central thesis of informing learners about the subject of radicalization ran as a throughline connecting them.

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Results

From our theoretical frameworks and case studies, we derived design patterns and principles which aided us in conceptualizing and storyboarding our stories. Personally, I had been finding it very difficult to conceptualize what I was to do, but found this process and reading the preliminary research found by others and referring to the ongoing discussion in the increasingly invaluable Google Community space very helpful. Essentially, through a process of researching the topic area and finding appropriate authoritative work that could be explored for our prospective learners, we had the necessary content. Then by looking for similar digital storytelling projects and researching what they had learnt in regards to good practice and potential avenues of improvement and exploration, we found a method of delivering the content.

Finally, we created our prototypes based on our conceptualizations and added them to the site.

The Prototypes

The five digital stories that comprised our overall prototype were:

Radicalization in the Digital Era – A non-linear interactive digital story exploring how people can become radicalized in the digital era created with Twine, an open-source tool for creating interactive, nonlinear stories.

Ask the experts – A video of a Q&A with an expert discussing radicalization from a historical perspective.

Right and Rights – A second Twine-created non-linear interactive digital story exploring ethical dilemmas related to rights.

The Story of Radicalization – An exploration of the history of the concept of radicalization in a Google Slides presentation.

Has the Media Hijacked Radicalisation – A discussion of whether the term “radicalisation” been hijacked by the via a Google Slides presentation.

Evaluation

In writing the heuristics with which users could evaluate the prototype and its individual stories we wanted to ensure that what we had produced met the following criteria:

  1. Easy to navigate and understand for all users
  2. Learner outcomes clearly indicated and measurable
  3. Featured content overall engaging to a high proportion of learners
  4. The material leads towards additional information off site
  5. Materials promote critical learner reflection resulting in building personal strengths relating to understanding the social and ethical goals of the project
  6. Compliant with relevant ethical standards
  7. Organised in a manner clear to learner
  8. Featured interactive stories situate activity appropriately, define goals, constrain actions, provoke thought, and spark emotional responses
  9. Featured interactive stories are compelling by being interesting, immersive, appropriate in scale/length, having a sense of agency ‘being in control’, and replayable

My personal evaluation of the prototype

Heuristic Score 1 = Weak 5 = Strong Reasoning
1 3 No obvious areas of concern. Navigation straightforward but language could be less complex at times. User feedback key in this area.
2 2 Learner outcomes sometimes expressed for the learners but no learner quantifiable outcomes plugged into the design.
3 4 Varied modes and subject matter should equate to higher degrees of engagement in learners. User feedback again of importance here.
4 1 Other than self-directed by the learner, there is no linking to off-site material
5 2 The materials are varied and do attempt to promote emotional reactions and critical thought of complex issues, but there is are no activities or areas for discussion of concepts.
6 4 Much work was done to ensure ethical standards were met and it appears that the materials reflect that.
7 3 Ideally, more pictures and a more distinct site would be used to present the individual stories but clear and concise with short descriptions of content.
8 4 Feedback required but criteria appears to have been met.
9 4 Ideally, there would be more multimedia as to make the pages more engaging but otherwise, while feedback is again desired, the criteria appears to have been met.

Unexpected outcomes

Personally, I had not expected to be creating non-linear interactive digital stories. I had expected to be using video editing software. I also had not considered how much I would personally learn about the topic covered in the overall design too.

Reflections

The Process and the Product

Overall, the process was an excellent learning experience. I have learnt a great deal about what would be involved in the creative design process regarding research and conceptualization in areas I have little familiarity with, and I have a lot more insight into how to work as part of a geographically dispersed team.

I feel that central to any success for the project was the communication channels of the Google+ Community and how that served as a central area for all activity. I fear that without Steve B’s experience and his proactive engagement, our project would have been very different. This is an important point for me. When you’re low on experience, look to leverage the experience of others as much as possible, but always ensure that you make that person aware of how grateful you are and look to reciprocate in any way possible.

However, the group suffered to a degree as a result of a lack of regarding who did what. While a couple of members certainly took the lead, in this context we could not expect someone to be particularly forceful in telling others what to do and by when. Therefore, in future, I would look to ensure that there be clearer roles and assignation of tasks.

Simon Hobbs disappeared shortly after the roles were chosen. He was to be the connector, looking for linkages between ideas and research which possibly serves as a clue as to why there was less cohesiveness in what we were doing. Our work was disparate and individualised. There was little communication and feedback on what was updated to the site. Little feedback was given to the learning designs themselves and no discussion was evident in regards to their being a balance of pedagogy in our designs.

Crucially, there was a failure to think beyond the creation of our individual stories to create a rounded learning artefact with an introductory exercise introducing the subject of radicalisation, the middle section of individual stories, and then final activities or discussion where learners could use and demonstrate their learning which could also provide measurable outcomes.

Personal Contribution

Firstly, I have to again make reference to how instrumental Steve B had been in so many of the tasks that would have been solely my responsibility had he not been in the group. I feel I would have struggled a great deal and would not have been able to set up the integrated platform as he did.

Also, while I attended all of the meetings, I feel I did not greatly influence the direction in which the project went. My story, also, was heavily reliant on the work of others. Ultimately, the conceptual framework I used and the application used to create my interactive story had been found by Steve B.

Nevertheless, the case study material I utilised to ensure the authenticity and ethical and sensitive treatment of the story created was sourced by me and the story itself was an interesting and potentially immersive learning experience.

I feel that as the project developed, I communicated and contributed more. I took the initiative to improve the aesthetics of the site, and reacted to any issues with permissions or the site’s pages.

My Prototype

The research I used to explore the theme of radicalization in the information age was mainly Terrorism, Communication and New Media: Explaining Radicalization in the Digital Age and Radicalization in the Digital Era 

To explore the radicalization of people via digital media, I created a non-linear interactive digital story using the application Twine where the user reads the story in the third person of a protagonist and make choices as to that person’s actions.

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Radicalization Twine Storyboard

As you can see in the storyboard above, the story branches off in various directions based on those choices. The choices relate to decisions made regarding exposure to digital media that may have the effect of radicalizing that character, allowing the user to experience how this might happen to someone. Ideally, I would want the possible scenarios’ journeys to be based on real cases of radicalization but potentially branch off in directions that result in results for the character that are very different to reflect the fact that it is possible that radicalization of one sort or another can happen to anyone.

The Twine can be accessed here or can be downloaded and opened in your browser here

The story begins with the following question:

Who am I?

The answer to this is can be defined as the knowledge and experiences you possess and the actions you tale. A final component of that definition is the network of relationships we are a part of at any given time. Your friends, family, work colleagues.

How is communication technology changing this?

Communication technology such as the Internet and instant messaging extends our relationships beyond those face-to-face relationships. They extend our reach far beyond the limits set on us by geography. You are about to read a story. In this story you can make choices. These are the choices of another person but in taking this journey with him, you can perhaps appreciate how it is that someone might come to make choices that may seem utterly alien to you and possibly even evil. This story tells us of how someone very ordinary, just like you or I, can become radicalized by the choices he makes tied with the person he is.

The story introduces us to John Roberts. John Roberts is a young man in his early twenties. He lives in a quiet working class village in the midlands. He attends the local college where he studies computer science. His father is an unemployed ex-factory worker while his mother is a carer. He’s a shy and quiet boy with few friends who generally keeps to himself.

John has a decision to make. This isn’t a huge decision. It’s a simple everyday choice. The kind of choice we make every other minute. It’s a choice of what to expose ourselves to. A choice of what we see and read and the legion of cumulative forces that have brought that particular option to the screen or newspaper we are currently training our eyes on.

The choices John makes from here affect the person he is. Ultimately, John has moved from the indirect relationships of this imagined community of people whose connections are governed by their shared political beliefs alone to a direct relationship via electronic correspondence with a representative of a group that moves beyond the action of debate and information dissemination. As the correspondence continues, it becomes clear that the world-view narrative of this group matches that of John’s very closely. John, disenfranchised with the current politics of the ineffectual mainstream parties decides that he wants to prove his dedication to the cause.

Desiring above all to affirm his beliefs with action of his own, John makes a final choice.

Who is John today?

John today is still the combination of the knowledge he possesses, the network of relationships of which he is a part, and the actions he takes. However, all three of these factors have shifted and changed as a result of the choices made, the new relationships that have been fostered and the new knowledge resultant of those relationships. John finds himself now an extreme actor, radicalized by the narrative that was the result of the many other narratives that he came into contact with via social networks, the media, and his family. This is not a condmenation or a justification of who he is today. It is simply his story.

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 7 Stockholm and Copenhagen to London

Stockholm

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I got off the ferry at breakfast time and followed some of my fellow passengers to the Stockholm underground where I took a train to Gamla Stan, the old town. I followed the signs to Ridderholmen and found my hotel, The Malardrottinghen Hotel, a renovated ship…..or is it a boat….maybe a yacht….I’m patently not very nautical. Regardless, I threw my luggage in my cabin before heading out to explore the city.

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Stockholm is a beautiful, modern, clean city. It’s very forward thinking but still very mindful of its past. With its cluster of islands connected by bridges, it’s also a wonderful city to walk around, and I was lucky that day, Easter Monday as the sky was blue, the air was crisp, and there was very little traffic.

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My plan was to get to the Vasa museum a few kilometres away but I wandered pretty aimlessly and got a little lost. Unlike Ulan Bator though, I was happy to get lost in Stockholm as it ensured that I would see a great deal more of the city than had I taken the direct route.

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Stockholm City Hall

For example, I unintentionally found myself outside the Stockholm City Hall, the venue of the annual Nobel Prize Banquet.

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There’s a lot of Turkish food in Stockholm, so I picked up a kebab for lunch.

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A true test of a great city is how good its selection of Adidas trainers in an Originals shop is. Stockholm’s was excellent. There you have it.

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Along the Strandvagen where many tourists walk to and from the island Djurgadsvagen that seems dedicated to museums such as the Vasa and other cultural sites there are moored lots of older wooden boats decorated and furnished with individual character. Sadly, perhaps some of them need a little maintenance as one of them had sunk.

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Two old women on a bridge chatting about stuff

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 Unfortunately, the Vasa was closed for renovation to reopen in the summer so I went next door to a modern art museum called the Spritmuseum. The Spritmuseum is dedicated to alcohol. There was an exhibition of Absolut related art there featuring work by Warhol, Hirst, and Annie Liebovitz while upstairs there were some instillations dedicated to the act of drinking and creating the sensations of drunkenness and having a hangover. I actually had a hangover and if you’d ever wondered whether two minuses make a positive in hangover terms, you needn’t any longer as simulating a hangover while suffering from one makes no difference whatsoever.

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 This above was a dark room where you could lie down and watch a video of a drunken night out through the different stages of inebriation.

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As I said, Stockholm is a great city to walk around. Apart from the fact that it’s so very beautiful, clean, and well-maintained, the pavements are very often as wide as the roads.

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On the walk back to my hotel, I walked through the old town to find a restaurant to get dinner in later. Unable to find any reasonably affordable local cuisine, I had some kofte for dinner. Maybe I would have just settled for the kofte anyway. It was lovely.  

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 I then went on the piss at an Irish pub called Wirstroms. It was pretty good. There was music being played but it wasn’t too loud and it was run by real Irish people so didn’t seem particularly plastic. The beer was savagely expensive though. I paid around £8.50 for around a pint. It was, however, good beer and at 7%, it did the trick.

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Inside Wirstroms

I was going to head back to the hotel, but on the way I passed a live music bar. The brilliantly named Stampen is a free to enter jazz and rhythm and blues bar. That night was the birthday of one of the regular performers there, an American by the name of Brian Kramer. I was going to have just the one beer but I ended up having four or five as the music was so good and the people, a mix of tourists, locals, and muso friends of the singer were so friendly.

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Stampen

So around midnight I walked the five minutes back to my hotel and fell on my arse for the second time during the trip on this ice.

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I woke up and had a marvellous breakfast and set out to get the 5.5 hour train to Copenhagen.

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I took the SJ2000, another wonderfully modern fast train.

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There was a nice little bar/dining area.

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In Malmo station, videos of individual train windows were projected on the walls showing train journeys through a diverse set of sceneries. It was these kind of little artistic flourishes injected into the mundane that impressed me in Stockholm and this attention was apparently that existed elsewhere. It made an otherwise everyday platform into an interesting and memorable experience. If you’re British, reflect on how many times you’ve had a memorable experience in a train station that didn’t involve a homeless person relieving themselves or football fans hitting each other.

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Between Malmo and Copenhagen, the train passed over the 5 mile long Oresund Bridge. The bridge leads to an artificially created island lying in the middle of the strait where the train enters a tunnel for a further 2.5 miles to the Danish island of Amager. It’s a fucking engineering marvel and there’s probably an episode of that Megastructures show about it. There is a show about a murder on the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen where the respective police forces have to work together, doubtless with much contrasting cultures-based hilarity.

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I got to Copenhagen mid-afternoon on the 2nd of April. I had a few hours to kill so I wandered around the station area, had a £7 pint of Danish beer, ate a pizza from a 7/11 and a couple of cheeseburgers while watching the very multicultural Copenhagen people going about their business.

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The taxi rank looked like Brands Hatch.

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I didn’t spend much more than a couple of hours in Copenhagen. It looked rather bland compared to Stockholm from the little I saw but it was as expensive if not moreso. I’d naturally love to return. One thing I have taken away from this trip is that Scandinavia is absolutely a top destination. Beautiful, seemingly well organised. If you love chaos as I do sometimes, it’s not the place for you. If you like the orderliness of the world’s best queuers, efficiency, and a great emphasis on things being aesthetically pleasing or a respite from the regular chaos of 99% of the rest of the world, then it’s the ideal place for you.

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So, from Copenhagen I took an overnight sleeper to Cologne.

The sleeper train was actually arguably the oldest and least comfortable that I’d slept in. My body was simply too long for the length of the compartment. I slept poorly.

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I was sharing the compartment initially with just one other person a Danish/German lady by the name of Britt. She was heading to Germany for some treatment for an ongoing medical condition as she said that in that area Denmark was in the dark ages which surprised me. We spoke about our respective travels and her German grandfather who’d fought with the Nazis in the Second World War. It was a lovely conversation and serves as an example of why travel such as this can be so good.

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We crossed another one of those massive lovely bridges again as the sun was setting. It was marvellous.

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I got to Cologne very early in the morning and said goodbye to Britt who was catching a connecting train almost immediately.

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I had a couple of hours to wait until I caught the ICE fast train to Brussels, so I had a quick walk outside to have a look at the huge gothic cathedral near the station and watch Cologners amble to work. 

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The scenery on the way to Brussels was all very Belgian, fields and fields and a few more fields. The train was beasting along far too quickly to take any pictures. This portion of the trip was all somewhat of a whirr. The fast ICE train and the Eurostar make this part of Europe seem tiny. After travelling so slowly over such large expanses of Asia and Europe up to that point, these short few hours flew by. Something that’s affected me greatly is that nowadays, a three hour journey seems like a trip to the local shop to buy bread. 

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After crossing through Denmark, Germany, and Belgium without a whiff of customs intervention, getting onto the platform for the Eurostar finally featured some good old fashioned British queuing and credentials checking. Unlike what the Fascist Right would have you believe in the UK, the floodgates are most certainly not open when compared to continental Europe.

The Eurostar train was rather underwhelming from outside, mainly as it was so filthy. The train was rammed. Full of Belgians off to London to buy Belgian chocolates from Harrods. 

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I headed to the restaurant car for my last beer of the trip.

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I got to St. Pancras early afternoon on the 3rd of April having left Bangkok on the 18th of March. 

I had a pint in an empty pub in Victoria where I met my sister. She gave me the keys to her flat and I hopped on the Tube to Bermondsey. 

After a few days of hi-jinx in London, including my degree ceremony and drinks in Camden, the Financial Square Mile, and about ten other areas that really compounded my suspicion that the disparity of wealth in the UK between London and just about everywhere else is fucking startling, I took the overground to Watford. 

I watched my football team Cardiff City bag an important draw against fellow promotion chasers and Elton John favourites Watford FC and then caught a bus full of very drunken valley boys back to the South Wales Valleys for last orders in my local in Ystrad Mynach.

Final Reflections

I’d already travelled a fair bit in my life. I’ve gone coast to coast across Australia, travelled up the west coast of the US from LA to San Francisco, and taken buses and trains the length and breadth of Thailand and Malaysia. But at the end of this journey, I felt a genuine feeling of accomplishment. It’s a well-travelled path in points, I’m sure, and maybe for many other more seasoned travellers, this journey might not have been as great an achievement. For me, however, I can’t deny that I felt that sense of pride in completing the journey without a hitch.

From a personal perspective, that, I feel, has been the most beneficial aspect of the trip, planning and making the journey alone. Unencumbered with the constant connectivity of email, mobile phone, and social networks, for long periods of time, I was utterly alone without anyone truly knowing where I was. It’s a great feeling and one that many people who have travelled, particularly in less-developed areas can relate to though I rarely hear or read that aspect of travelling articulated. Generally you’ll be told how beautiful the beaches were, how serene and innocent the native people are, but rarely will you hear them telling of how they felt and how this might have changed them. But that’s why we travel isn’t it? To live in a moment and be changed by it?

Would I have done anything differently today? The journey took two and a half weeks and cost around 2.5K sterling. Naturally, slumming it in 3rd with the soldiers, builders, and fake brand mules would have been considerably cheaper. Also the added frisson of being molested by a drunken train guard or having a lovely violent vodka fight would have added a degree of colour lacking in a trip that might seem rather clinical and overly focused on making connections. 

Some people were surprised at the time of year that I went. Quite apart from the fact that I had no choice in the matter as to when I could make the journey, the cold was an integral part of why it was so special.

I was hardly ever cold. I think that one time, crossing that bridge in Ulan Bator, fighting through a gust of air from Siberia, cooled by the mighty expanses of the Gobi, was the one and only time I suffered with the temperatures. Like Billy Connolly said, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.’ I had thermals and a new double layered Gore-Tex Berghaus coat, a good hat, and gloves which I rarely wore.

Ultimately, the frozen rivers and seas and the snow was part of the reason I enjoyed it so much. You get to appreciate the truly inhospitable climates in which we as a species eke out a living. Travelling through the Siberian tundra, you would see these incredibly isolated small villages where people just had to go about their business. In the UK, if there’s a day of snow, the supermarkets run out of bread and eggs. Five inches of snow and the entire populace turn into extras from a Mad Max film fighting over boxes of Rice Crispies. Here, in five feet, people are living their day to day lives.

This particular route I came to realise as I took it, had the unexpected effect of giving me a greater appreciation of not just the terrain and the people thereon but the slow yet distinct changes in culture and appearance as the land was traversed. From the still very alien culture of the Chinese and their distinct features, travelling east to west, cultures and facial features slowly, mile by mile, became more familiar and relatable.

There were the short glances of connections where culture and language made interaction impossible and possibly undesirable on the parts of the locals in Beijing. Then there was a degree of shared culture which helped me bond with my Russian companion on the Rossiya train but where interactions were limited by our lack of a lingua-franca. And then aboard an overnight train from Copenhagen to Cologne there was the long conversation with someone that could have been a lifelong friend yet whose grandfather had fought on opposite sides to my own during the Second World War seventy years earlier.

Seven years ago, I was (looking back) depressed and going nowhere in life. As a response, I decided to move to live and work three quarters of the way around the world in southeast Asia. I really think that I was a very different person then. These past seven years, making that new beginning with no friends and family as a direct support network and building that new network while working and studying towards a degree and then an MA have, at times, been difficult. Anyone that has ever made this move should tell you the same thing but it makes you so much stronger and more independent.

Who someone is can be defined as the knowledge and experiences they possess and the actions they take. The final component of who someone is can be the network of relationships they are a part of at any given time. Their friends, family, work colleagues. When you live and travel extensively abroad, most of these factors undergo change, particularly the latter. The actions you take that might differ to what you did or didn’t do in the past can exemplify this transformation.

Can a journey define you? I’d like to think yes and no, but I’d really like to think that this journey at that particular point in time defined me and how much I’d achieved in seven years. Arriving in London and meeting my parents for the graduation ceremony in the Barbican there seemed a perfect culmination to the trip. Pity Cardiff couldn’t have gotten the win at Watford though.

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 6 Helsinki to Stockholm

Helsinki to Stockholm

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Took the high speed Allegro train to Helsinki. The journey takes 3.5 hours and it is a lovely train. I had lasagne from the restaurant car and wondered how much horse meat had found its way into my meal. It was nice anyway. There’s free wifi, a children’s play area, and currency exchange on the train.

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Passport stuff was all done on the train with portable passport reading machines. There are stops along the way but passengers aren’t allowed off at certain points. It was….so friendly…so efficient….Russia and Mongolia felt a long way away already.

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It was nice being in the EU, comforting. It was great to be able to speak to people in English again as I asked for help getting to the ferry port. I was told to get the tram which turned out to either be free or I didn’t understand how to pay. The port was very near, I was disappointed that I hadn’t walked, especially considering the fact I could have used Google maps seeing as Helsinki has free wifi. Everywhere. I got to the port a couple of hours before my Silja line ferry was due to leave.

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The Silja line ferry leaves Helsinki in the late afternoon and arrives in Stockholm in the morning of the next day. This was to be my first ever cruise experience and having had some bad experiences on shorter trips to and from France and in the Thai islands, I approached this portion of my trip with some trepidation. Happily the sea was like a pond and the ship was so vast that it rarely felt like you were on water.

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My Swedish friend in Bangkok had referred to the ferry as the Chlamydia Cruise and so I had expected a rather rough and ready affair full of drunken scandies but what I found was a lot of families and couples on duty free shopping trips. I had been upgraded as they were reasonably quiet and I found that I had my very comfortable compartment to myself.

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Breaking through the ice as we left the harbour was epic. I had a beer in the pub at the stern of the ship and watched us leave Helsinki behind.

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As it got darker and we entered open water, I had a wander around the ship. There was a lot of duty free shopping being done on the lowest level while Irish Titanic jigwankery entertainment kicked off in the central promenade. Surrounded by ice, with this Titanic theme and a nightclub by the name of Atlantis, I couldn’t help but feel that fate-tempting of this magnitude could only ensure that this ship would never end up at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

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I got drunk and watched a pretty good solo singer in the pub as well as an ice hockey game before losing some money in the casino and suffering the workmanlike Black Eyed Peas wannabe band and daddy-dancing for a while. As the number of people watching and dancing dwindled and it all started to look rather pathetic, I went and found the other club above the pub. I was impressed by how clean, polished, and well lit the interior of the ferry was. I would imagine that it could be a good lads night out experience there were it busier.

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The club was dead but a few persevered, including myself it would seem as I’d gotten pretty drunk, but it was that nice inebriation that fits so well with new experiences. I wandered through the now empty ship to my room and collapsed into bed.

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I woke up early to watch the ship creep through the fjords as we approached Stockholm. There was a thin film of ice sitting on the sea. The sound of it cracking softly in our wake was wonderful and the scenery was stunning. I was hungover and quite possibly still quite drunk and it was actually all rather emotional after having travelled so far. It was very possibly the highpoint of the trip that morning.

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The ship glided smoothly into port in Stockholm.

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Part 7 Stockholm and Copenhagen to London

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 5 St Petersburg

St Petersburg

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St Petersburg is stunning. From the moment I got off the train at the end of Nevski Prospekt, the main drag that runs a couple of miles up to the Neva river and the Winter Palace that sits on its bank, everywhere you looked there was incredibly beautiful and well-maintained architecture. It naturally has a fascinating and long history but there also appears to be a marvellously diverse nightlife and social scene and the people are confident and interesting.

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I got to my hotel, The Nevsky Central Hotel a short walk from the station on Nevski Prospekt, around breakfast time and was told that I could check in after lunch, so I stored my bag and walked to the Hermitage museum.

On the way I had a coffee in KFC. This man was sleeping in his suit, obviously worse for wear after a night on the times in one of the 24 hour bars or late closing nightclubs that dotted Nevsky Prospekt and its side-streets.

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This is a fucking Burger King

I didn’t eat here but simply had to go in to look at the layout of the place. It’s a Burger King. A. Burger. King. Every facet of the city seemed to want to maintain the tasteful, classical styles of the larger historic buildings.

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The Hermitage is incredible. From all the art that had been stolen from all over Europe by the Nazis, to the exquisite decorations of the Winter Palace, and the hall full of portraits of military leaders that fought against Napoleon. Then there’s the Egyptian collection and the Jordan Staircase. Much like the city itself, it’s difficult to walk ten metres without wanting to take pictures.

I was hungover and rather respectful of the hundreds of old men and women whose jobs seemed to consist of sitting in the corners of rooms and looking disapprovingly at people wielding Nikons in the directions of the paintings.

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The next morning I took the underground to Peter and Paul Fortress over the Neva from the Winter Palace. While waiting for my train. The doors of the St Petersburg underground are very unforgiving. Once they start to close, that’s it. You’re either in or you’re out and for a few people in the picture below, that was particularly bad news. The doors closed with a very young child on the one side while his family screamed in panic on the other. The look of desperation on the face of his mother and the sound she made as the train pulled away was horrible. I have to imagine that it is something that happens regularly, and they therefore are used to dealing with such situations. I hope everything was OK anyway. I felt particularly useless there at that stage, unable to offer any realistic help.

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Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the island stronghold built by the tsars, was home to a good number of attractions, primarily Peter and Paul’s Cathedral where the empire’s leaders’ bodies were all laid to rest and a certain Mr Tolstoy  was banished.

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The main lot were all laid to rest here, inluding Alexander and Catherine the Great who was put in the casket next to the brother she assassinated in order to claim the throne.

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People in tour parties were given the opportunity to climb the tower with a few of the active priests that wandered about the place. I was shouted at for taking this picture and wrongly identified as a member of the Italian tour party. What an amazing adventure.

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Visitors can exit the Nevsky Gate where people were sent for execution and walk around the frozen periphery of the island. I did so myself, noticing on the way Russians taking a load off here and there to relax while enjoying a view of the Neva. While frozen it must essentially look very much as it did a couple of hundred years ago. In the warmer weather it’s probably crawling with oligarchs’ yachts.

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Having done a circuit, I checked out the Naryshkin Bastion, the prison on the island that had been home to very many political prisoners including Trotsky, Lenin’s brother who would be later executed and a great deal more in addition to a good deal of members of the establishment after the revolution.

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Here and there in the more tourist parts of the city, people wandered around in period costume ready for photo opps such as these two newly-weds.

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St Petersburg wasn’t free of the panpipe menace.

This was a rather striking mosque

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This was a rather striking old ship

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And this was the rather stunning Church on Spilled Blood built on the spot where Alexander the 2nd had been assassinated in 1881.

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Inside, I was compelled to say the most inappropriate/appropriate ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’ since I’d visited some of the grander cathedrals in Italy.

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This is the precise spot where Alex Part Deux was forcibly shuffled off his mortal coil.

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Naturally, there was religious tat for sale to appease the angry God of capitalism.

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I left the church and walked back to the hotel, checking out the sights as I went.

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This was a lovely knife and gun shop I came across.

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This was a club shop for Zenit St Racistberg fans that were probably regular customers of the aforementioned shop (I’m sure this is an unfair reflection of the majority of Zenit fans).

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Below my hotel there was a bar/internet cafe establishment by the name of CafeMax. I went here to have some food and a beer before retiring for the evening. It was a Saturday but still surprisingly busy. I was informed that this was a city wide meeting for different ‘Mafia’ clubs and they were having a tournament that day. This was the kind of stuff I loved seeing, locals interacting and doing stuff that I could both relate to and which rather mystified me.

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The game seemed to be a sort of roll-playing game where they took it in turns to shout at each other. At the beginning they all wore blindfolds while an invigilator shouted more things I didn’t understand in Russian. Loud rock music played over the shouting. It was marvellous.

The players were animated and passionate, genuinely delighted and despondent having won or lost respectively. I sat there watching those that were waiting to play while drinking more strong Russian beer. These were to all intents and purposes what would be deemed nerds in the UK/US but they weren’t socially inept. In fact, probably buoyed by the heroic volumes of caffeine and sugary cakes they were ingesting, they were confident and talked animatedly.

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The women were fucking absurdly attractive as well. Russian women were by and large very attractive. Not so much because of their features, Russians resemble British people. They have a poise, and a knowing sexiness that they exude in the way they fix their stares on their partners and the way they walk, stand, sit, and slouch. The staff in the hotel in Irkutsk, for example, all had athletic bodies and the aforementioned poise. Like gymnasts and ice skaters that had had to take on more mundane professions to pay for their husbands’ alcohol abuse issues.

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All in all, I loved my very brief couple of days in St Petersburg and recommend it to anyone. However, Scandinavia was waiting.

Part 6 Helsinki to Stockholm

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 4 Moscow to St Petersburg

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Moscow to St Petersburg

I’d read two and a half books by the time the train reached Moscow and watched the scenery change from what eventually became the tedium of snow and taiga trees punctuated by dramatic blizzards and colourful wooden houses in impossibly remote villages into the large often jauntily coloured apartment blocks and well-to-do houses of the more moneyed Muscovites. Moscow looked to be a vibrant and impressive city through the window of the train but around the train station, as it seems to be almost everywhere in the world, it was a little more grim.
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I had intended to put my large bag in a locker and take a walk or short underground trip to Red Square to compare it with its Chinese equivalent Tiananmen, but I couldn’t find any lockers, probably as Leningradski Station was being renovated. I decided instead to just get pissed in the train station for a few hours and do some people watching until my overnight train to St Petersburg was leaving a little after midnight.

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I got myself a souvlaki and a beer in a 24 hour cafeteria around the corner from the station before going back into the station and buying a few Baikal no.7 beers which had become my weapon of choice on the Rossja. The souvlaki shot through me within an hour leaving me dashing drunkenly to the public toilets. While there I realised I’d left my large bag there in the cafe unattended and so dashed drunkenly back to the spot to find it still there. Maybe I have terrorism to thank for that stroke of good fortune.
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I really was rather drunk by the time I got on the train. I’d again foregone what some people might say was the unmissable sight of a world class tourist attraction in the Red Square and decided to simply drink beer and people-watch. I don’ remember much of it to be honest. I think there was a pickpocketting gang operating in the area. There was an Artful Dodger type with a Bill Sykes handler walking back and fourth, eyeing the foot-traffic. They may have just been lost or huge train station interior enthusiasts, but those thoughts didn’t entertain me nearly as much.

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Anyway, I got leathered and woke up in St Petersburg in a compartment with two old cooing Russian sisters and a hot Russian girl that I chose to believe was a ballet dancer.

Part 5 St Petersburg

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian

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The train got into Irkutsk early in the morning. Emptying out the fake brand goods mules that spoke animatedly into their mobiles as they schlepped their bundles of fake Diesel jeans along the platform. It was around -30 and I walked out of the station rather bleary-eyed and confused, taking the first offer of a taxi that presented himself. Unfortunately that happened to be a rather ratfaced and dodgy looking gentleman that led me to an unmarked black car. I settled into my backseat and as the buildings got more and more eastern bloc hellholish, I became resigned to the fact that I was about to get robbed and that Irkutsk was almost as much of a shitheap as Ulan Bator. Happily, however, Irkutsk is very much a city split in two by the Angara River with the older more salubrious areas in the south of the city. The taxi driver also kindly dropped me at my hotel, the Baikal Business Centre Hotel without murdering me.

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I took a shower, and got another cab (as the hotel was a fair way south of the centre) to Karla Marksa the main shopping/eating drag and proceeded to have a very nice walk around the ‘Paris of Siberia’.

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Irkutsk really was a nice place. Russians love a nice walk too, and they were all over the place enjoying the clear blue sky and crisp fresh air.

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After walking around for a few hours, I had some dinner and then a few pints in a decent Irish pub near the bus station. I noticed there something that I’d notice again and again and that’s that Russians love a good handshake. Everyone that walked in the pub shook everyone else’s hand, and they’d repeat the process upon leaving.

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The train was leaving early evening the next day. Sadly, the train to Irkutsk had passed alongside Lake Baikal during the night, so I had planned to take a bus there before leaving on my second day. But at this point all I wanted to do was get on the train again. I was enjoying the journey itself so much.

Also, outside the train, travelling on my own, I felt that everything was rather chaotic and just waiting to end in disaster as all of my connections were so closely timed. While on the the train, there was order to my universe. Timetables, scheduled stops, conductors, and the knowledge that you were heading in the desired direction. I had essentially become institutionalised, much like that sad old man in The Shawshank Redemption that kills himself because everything moves too fast now that he’s out of prison. So while I was drinking in the hotel bar the evening before, I decided to just get drunk, wake up late and head straight to the station.

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Though neglecting to visit Lake Baikal might sound a tremendous waste to most people, I suppose it does to me still, I’d like to stress that I really enjoy people watching. Observing the dynamics of people in very new places. Noticing the kinds of behaviour and how people interact. The hotel in Irkutsk was essentially very much a business hotel though the bar was filled with a handful of people that seemed to be familiar with the place. Sitting there, getting nicely toasted and watching these people just go about their regular lives was likely as fascinating to me as seeing the largest freshwater lake (by volume) in the world. Though it’s naturally much less of a photogenic activity.

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Solyanka is delicious

In Russia, the tickets can be picked up directly from the stations with a printed copy of payment confirmation. I picked up the ticket and almost shit myself as I read that my 1st class Rossja ticket had left at 1.15pm as opposed to 6.15pm as I’d been led to believe in the copies of the itinerary that had become as much a part of me as my wallet and passport. I ran around the station to find someone that spoke English, to no avail. I was convinced that everything had indeed been fucked. However, I finally found someone willing to at least try and communicate with me who informed me that in Russia, all the trains ran on Moscow times so my train was to leave in a couple of hours. Calm now, I headed out into the blizzard outside to buy provisions for the 75 hour trip to Moscow.

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There were a few people travelling the same route as me. The couple from the previous leg, some Australian retirees, Michael and Vicky who were doing everything on a planned tour type basis including dog-sleighing in Siberia, a German girl that was riding the train all the way to Moscow without getting off before taking a connection or two to Munich, and a French girl that was cheaping it to Moscow in 3rd class and being molested by one of the train guards for her trouble. He would unlock her empty compartment and stroke her hair while saying he loved her at night. She took to tying the door closed from the inside with some string.

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I booked the Rossja no.1 train in 1st class for the longest leg of the train journey and found myself sharing with Alex. He was a Russian from somewhere south of Vladivostock who smoked a lot and spoke around three words of English, ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ and ‘Sorry’. We would initially try to make polite conversation such as:

Me: It’s cold (pointing out the window)
Alex: No……warm
Me: Cold (pointing out the window more animatedly)
Alex: Yes

But he seemed a nice sort and after a while we became like an old married couple, content in each others’ company without having to talk with each other. I think he was a plain clothes security guard as he just seemed to be travelling on the train all the way to Moscow with very little luggage. He also seemed to be on excellent terms with the conductors and the restaurant staff.

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I gave Alex some of my beer. He liked that.

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The food in the restaurant car was better than the Mongolian fare but still overpriced and the staff seemed to systematically overcharge by adding charges to the bill for items such as chips that were described as part of the meal in the menu. I ignored it the first time, but on the second occasion raised it with them to immediate apologies by the restaurant manager who looked like Putin’s younger and far less successful brother. The restaurant staff seemed to try and get ever so friendly with some of the Russian diners and would tart themselves up after the kitchen closed. I found this rolling community rather fascinating.

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I woke up to find everything was white. The snow in places was waste deep out the window.

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This communist mural was outside the station in Krasnoyarsk where the train stopped for twenty minutes allowing me enough time to snap a picture of it. Trying to find some more beer to drink on the next stretch, I walked into the station building from the back entrance. Inside, a very officious and stern looking female railway worker started shouting at me in Russian. I made my apologies and started to turn around, but she didn’t seem happy with that and continued shouting in Russian. Envisioning  the train rolling away with all my luggage still in my compartment, I…ran away and back onto the train. Again, the outside world had seemed to want to scupper my plans via its inherent chaos.

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The three days and nights on the Rossja to Moscow passed understandably uneventfully. Longer stops in some of the larger cities such as Yekaterinburg and Perm served as opportunities to stretch legs and buy food at the little kiosks on the stations.

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In 1st class there were TVs in each compartment playing DVDs that you could give to the guard. For the first 2 days there was a kind of Muscovite Men Behaving Badly series played on a loop. For the last day and a half there was a low budget Russian Band of Brothers about a resistance force fighting the Nazis in a forest not too dissimilar to what was passing by outside. Finally, continuing the Second World War theme, we had a pirated copy of what looked to be a fairly recent film depicting Nazi war atrocities in a besieged city. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in one day.

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Part 4 Moscow to St Petersburg

Beijing to London by Land and Sea – Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

Part 2 Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian

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I arrived in Ulan Bator early afternoon on the 21st March having slept pretty well on the train. I found the lilting of the carriages accompanied by the metronome click-clacking of the rails helped me drift off…with sufficient beer.

I received a free transfer from the train station to LG Guest House hostel. It was only 400 metres from the station but I was to learn that that was a real stroke of luck that they offered the service by email prior to my arrival. It was a shithole around the train station and a shithole around the guest house. In fact, with the exception of a few gentrified, newly built newly moneyed Mongolian condo areas, and the area around Sukbhatar Square where the government buildings and museums are, it’s pretty much all a big messy shithole. There’s wifi on the buses but no street signs, not even in Mongolian.

Nevertheless, I’d be remiss to mention the following. This was a couple of years ago now and there appeared to be a lot of growth and development. The rate of that growth, with the yurt slums around the outskirts, seemingly indicating a migration into the city by people that still preferred the traditional Mongolian mode of housing and/or that they couldn’t yet afford the nice new condominiums being built in different areas of the burgeoning metropolis.

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I went for a walk to pick up my ticket for the next train from an agent in an office near Sukhbatar Square and got lost almost immediately, even with the big map kindly provided to me by the lady at the hostel. Generally, I don’t mind getting lost. I feel getting lost lends itself to really discovering a place and getting to know it as you have to truly have a good look around. On this occasion, with the strong icy winds slashing at my face like a gang of Glaswegian teenagers, and the fact that there was almost nothing of any note to look at save horrible communist era buildings and rubbish, it wasn’t a nice experience.

Walking across the bridge below, for the first and actually only time, the cold worried me. It worried me physically as the wind on my face and hands seemed to cause an excess of adrenaline. It was as if my body was confused by what was happening and thoughts of being swept head first down onto the frozen river filled my head.

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Across the bridge, I found one of the nicer aforementioned affluent areas with a university and a bank and some bars and restaurants. No one could speak enough English to direct me to Sukhbatar Square which is akin to a Korean tourist in London failing to get directions to Leicester Square.

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Nazi Bank

I finally walked into a bank, changed some dollars into the baffling local currency Togrog and asked the pretty English speaking teller for directions. I was apparently miles off-track and I was directed back over the bridge of death and….right. I finally found Sukhbathar Square, a central area dominated by a large government building fronted by a statue of Genghis looking grimly determined while having a nice sit down.

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The above was where I picked up the tickets, and is a fair representation of how uninviting almost every commercial building’s facade looked from bars that looked as if they should be called Knifey McKnife’s, Salmonella R Us restaurants, and shops you wouldn’t want to buy a box of matches from.

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Mongolian cuisine another chance and headed to the Modern Nomad restaurant. Here, I chose a plate that according to the menu gave a good selection of all the Mongolian favourites. The best I can say about it was that it was edible, but never has a national cuisine cried out more for some kind of sauce. A dollop of ketchup would have tripled the tastiness of the meal. But there was wifi in the restaurant so that made everything OK.

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After dinner, I found a bar that looked like I could have a drink without getting my throat slit and took the edge off while working out the route to walk back to my guest house.

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Unfortunately, the guest house was in the wrong place on google maps leaving me totally disoriented and again lost in a city devoid of signs.

Ulan Bator in the daylight is just an eyesore. People allow their kids to take open air shits along busy roads but at night there’s a more dangerous edge to the place. Public drunkenness is rife, muggings where victims are held from behind while an accomplice rifles through their pockets are, according to the guidebook, one of the more popular crimes and attacks on foreigners and mixed-race couples are also supposedly commonplace. I was walking near the main shopping centre, the State Department Store, when one of a pair of rather burly looking Mongolians veered directly towards me to give me a ‘Do you fucking want some?’ shove to my shoulder. I thought better of it, shook my head and marched on.

After wandering into what seemed to be an open air drug market and failing to get a taxi for a while as most Mongolians seem happy to just flag down random unmarked illegal cabs that will either take them to their destinations or perhaps rape them in a car park, I buckled and walked into a largish hotel and asked them to call a cab for me to my hotel.

Back at the hotel, I drank some beer, watched Deuce Bigalow Male Gigalow in Mongolian and went to sleep.

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I was leaving Ulan Bator late in the evening, so I had almost a full day to take advantage of the little that the city had to offer. Knowing now that the city wasn’t great for walking I looked into what buses I could take to get me back to Sukhbatar Square and the museums that were adjacent to it.

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I got to the square on the cheap bus and headed to the Mongolian National Museum.

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There were lots of pictures of Putin on the ground floor. They appear to like the Russians as much as they dislike the Chinese.

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In the main area upstairs there were loads of examples of the traditional dress of the multitudes of different tribes/ethnic groups found in Mongolia. Fascinating.

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To be honest, the only things worth looking at there was this Mongol horde warrior in full battle getup and a yurt.

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The National History Museum was better though still in dire need of smartening up. This vulture was the size of an eight year old boy. There was a decent dinosaur exhibition there. Still nothing to write home about.

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I saw a few different Beatles monuments in the ex-communist areas as if they were the embodiment of everything they’d been missing.
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It started snowing outside. It seemed to snow every time I was leaving somewhere. I doubted that the snow would be able to prettify Ulan Battor, however.

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Leaving the Mongolian capital, I reflected that Ulan Bator simply wasn’t ready for tourists or at least were someone to go there, they should arm themselves with transfers and guides to take them to wherever they want to go and that can only really be to stay in a yurt in the Gobi desert as far away from the city as possible.  Am I glad I went there? Definitely. Much like being a supporter of a football team that isn’t Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United, you’ve got to know the lows to truly appreciate the highs, and travelling is certainly no different.

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It was dark and still snowing when I left Ulan Bator for the 29 hour trip to Irkutsk in Siberia. I had bought a range of different beers to try. I found myself in a 2nd class compartment with Charles and Kate who I’d met on the train from Beijing and were up to Moscow on exactly the same itinerary as me. They had been working in IT and law respectively in Hong Kong for a year and were taking the train back to London. They were very nice and I was lucky to have been roomed with them for the two nights we were going to spend on the train.

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The scenery was as one might imagine, fairly sparse. The stations were rather bland in comparison with what was to come in Russia. The trip would be shorter than the previous one, but we would spend 6-7 hours going through the good cop/bad cop routines of Mongolian and Russian passport control.

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I went to sleep, knowing that I’d be waking up in Siberia.

Part 3 Irkutsk and the Trans-Siberian