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.

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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 1 Beijing and Trans-Manchurian

I’d wanted to make a journey on the Trans-Siberian Express for many years. Im really not sure why. I have only a passing interest in Russian culture and as will be seen, there weren’t any specific destinations that I wanted to reach by the route. I can only surmise that it was the journey itself that appealed. Perhaps after the previous 5 years of the frantic balancing of work and study, while still enjoying the social life afforded by one of the biggest party cities in the world; the long days and nights consisting of an almost meditative lack of activity aboard the train held a particular attraction.

However, it’s more likely that it was the factors relating to me as a person that motivated me primarily tied with my life situation at that point.

I’ll disclose early on that I think I would have never been able to plan this journey, nor perhaps even made it, had it not been for the excellent content provided by The Man in Seat Sixty-One website. Mark Smith, the site’s creator, sums it up perfectly here:

“the site aims to INSPIRE people to do something more rewarding with their lives and their travel opportunities than going to an airport, getting on a soulless globalised airliner and missing all the world has to offer.  There’s more to travel than the destination.  It used to be called a  j o u r n e y …”

So, yes, I suppose it was the journey itself and not the destinations that attracted me. I needed to get home to the UK for a specific purpose on a particular date, I had a set amount of time, and I had sufficient funds to pay for the venture. The key phrase there, however, is ‘get home’. The Trans-Siberian alone wouldn’t get me home. Therefore, I considered how I could make the trip back to the UK by train in its entirety. And then I thought why not travel the entire distance by train. That would be a greater challenge again.

Unfortunately, when planning the logistics of the journey, I decided that I didn’t have sufficient time to go overland from Thailand itself. I also thought that that journey, taking in a lot of Thailand and Cambodia by road, followed by the Vietnamese railway north to China would be something that could be done another time.

As a result, I chose to fly the first portion of the journey to Beijing and use that as a starting point.

The journey would go as follows:

A couple of days in Beijing followed by the Trans-Manchurian to Ulan Bator

A little over a day in Ulan Bator and then the Trans-Mongolian to Irkutsk, Siberia

A day and a bit in Irkutsk before taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow

A few drunken hours in Moscow and then an overnight to St Petersburg 

A day or two in St Petersburg (was it only a single night I stayed there?)

St Petersburg to Helsinki and a ferry to Stockholm 

Stockholm to Copenhagen to Cologne to Brussels to London

Some people have questioned the whistle-stop tour nature of the journey, but as I said, this is about the journey and not the destinations. It would have been great to have spent more time in these places but I had a date I had to get back to the UK by, my degree graduation ceremony which I had promised my mother I would have so she could get me in a gown and hat (I successfully resisted the hat in the end) picture to slap on her wall.

Also on reflection, I think that the tight scheduling that was the product of so much incessant planning had laid out a challenge for me. The challenge was to make the connections. To not fuck it all up, somehow. The stopovers at the connection points gave me a little breathing room for any delays, of which, ultimately there were few to none (the rail companies of the UK take note).

And ultimately, this trip allowed me to see as much of the world’s terrain as I could in around two and a half weeks while I was young, free, and had enough disposable income to do so.

Part 1 Beijing and the Trans-Manchurian

First up was a flight to Beijing. As I said, I would have liked to have done the whole route through Vietnam and China, but time constraints culminating in the graduation ceremony I’d promised my dear old mum I’d attend meant it was impossible. So, after a week of work, an away trip to the cement capital of Thailand Saraburi to watch my local team Thai Port, followed by Wales’s victory over England in the rugby and some post-match celebratory tequilas, I set out to Suvarnabhumi international airport having had about 5 hours sleep in the previous two nights.
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I arrived in Beijing late afternoon on the 18th of March. I took the airport link train to connect with the Beijing underground.

The underground is clean, fairly big, but easy to follow, and very cheap. I think a journey anywhere in the city was 2 Yuan (20p). There were maps in English on the way out of many stations, and roads and streets were clearly signed too which meant I traversed the underground and the streets to my accommodation, the Jade Hotel pretty easily even if the hotel was down a rather small side street.
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A statue of Marilyn Monroe with what seemed to be Margaret Thatcher’s face.

My hotel, the Jade Hotel, was a mid-range business hotel close to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

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I got to the hotel after dark and just had some dinner and a few Tsing Taos and went to bed.

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Plenty of people were out cycling to work in the morning.

Considering I really only had one day to have a good look around Beijing, I decided to make my way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City first.

I got to Tiananmen Square early and the throngs of tour groups fresh from the Chinese countryside were already everywhere in their tour group caps, mugging for pictures and chatting loudly.

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Tiananmen Square is huge.

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Lovely communism

Some of the handpicked ‘handsome’ soldiers barracked just outside the Forbidden City stood stone still here and there in the very cold temperatures.

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Generally what I do when I’m sightseeing is go somewhere and walk around rather blindly. Just trying to absorb a place’s atmosphere and aesthetics. I’ll read any notices that look of interest, but unless those notices rather frame what I’m seeing as some form of narrative such as those museums that tell stories chronologically as you walk from room to room and exhibit to exhibit, I lose interest. So, initially when I was approached by a tour guide, I resisted, but for some reason, perhaps due to his lack of pushiness and his very good English, on this occasion I relented. I’m glad I did.

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My tour guide’s chosen name was Paul, I think. Sadly, I can’t find my notes as I type this section. Nevertheless, this is his picture above, and if you ever go there and he’s available, I recommend taking him up on his offer.

Paul took me around the Forbidden City grounds and gave me a lot of interesting information about the old Manchurian emperors, the more recent history of the City, some gossip about the murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood and how the political royalty of Bo Xilay and his wife Gu Kailai were never likely to see the inside of a jail cell. Writing this now and reading up on that case, interestingly both husband and wife did go to jail. Bo Xilay was ultimately imprisoned for life in relation to corruption charges stemming from the Heywood murder (The Wang Lijun Incident) and his wife was imprisoned for the murder itself though, ‘After the media published footage of the trial, claims that the woman shown in court was not in fact Gu, but a body double, quickly became popular on Chinese Internet fora, and Chinese authorities attempted to censor them.[22] Experts did not agree: theFinancial Times cited “security experts familiar with facial recognition software” that the person who stood trial was not Gu, whereas a facial recognition expert contacted by Slate was of the opinion that the woman most likely was Gu. The practice of rich people paying others to stand trial and receive punishment in their place, called ding zui, is relatively widespread in China. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu_Kailai

Of course, everything else Paul told me could have been absolute nonsense. It rather pleases me to imagine that there are people out there living out comedy sketches where they make outrageous claims about historical places and events all day and get paid by naive tourists for the pleasure. However, I’m going to take what he said at face value and not worry too much about researching every element if it. That’s not very good practice I suppose, but these blogs will be long enough as it is.

The visitors to the Forbidden City clambered over each other to touch auspicious items, and shoved and wrestled each other to get a view of the furniture inside the rooms that all seemed dedicated to particular functions.

This large gold cauldron was supposedly particularly auspicious and had once been covered with gold but it had been scraped away by colonial powers like the British who’d occupied the city.

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The significance of the figures that adorned the roofs of the buildings was that the more of them there were, the more important that particular building was. This one, for instance featured quite a few so was likely the location of where the emperor would have a bath and consider matters of great national significance, possibly while throwing darts at the help.

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This stair sculpture was apparently made out of one single piece of stone. Marvellous. The opulence of the place was not so much the value of what you could see but the work that apparently went into its creation, the painstaking detail.

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Everything had a particular cultural significance. Stuff wasn’t just there to look pretty. These Qing era Guardian Lions were manifestations of Yin and Yang. The female Yin has under its paw a lion cub and under Yang’s  there is a small globe.

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Here’s one of the aforementioned shove-fests where the rural Chinese tourist groups, often distinguishable by their strange hats, jostled for a view of the dark and rather underwhelming interiors of building after building. I generally just glided by, speaking to Paul about the people that once lived there as opposed to focusing too much on where they kept their pants.

The members of the dynasty that had once inhabited the city and ruled over the country had patently fallen on….harder times since the hedonistic collaborator of the Last Emperor film fled the country. His nephew apparently now does calligraphy in the grounds and you can meet him and buy his art. According to a quick Google search, however, this particular royal is apparently as deft at changing his face as he is with aesthetically pleasing Mandarin lettering. A reasonably pleasant tourist trap and they weren’t too pushy again. The old man didn’t like having his picture taken, I can’t imagine why…

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I left Paul at the opposite end of the grounds to which we had entered. He gave me some quick advice regarding avoiding the rickshaw drivers who would rob me and being wary of pretty Chinese women that would approach me to practice their English over a coffee or a beer…which would cost me a few hundred dollars. Walking down Wangfujing shopping street later, I was pounced upon by a very pretty lady. “Hi!” she said. I smiled and walked past her without a word. She did look rather confused. Maybe she was one of these scammers that Paul had mentioned. Maybe she was genuine and wanted a chat or to try and get me to set up a direct debit for Greenpeace donations. Maybe she simply wanted the time. I’ll never know.

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Opposite the back entrance/exit to the Forbidden City is Jingshan Park which connects to Beihai Park. Walking through the former and up the hill affords you a view of the Forbidden City below. All over the parks, there are locals dancing, exercising, running around with those long ribbons swishing around behind them. It’s absolutely marvellous.

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Walking down the hill towards Beihai Park I could hear singing and came across a large group of people in a clearing singing heartily. The songs, utterly alien to my ears sounded…patriotic perhaps. Likely songs about the sweet pleasure derived from hard work.

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Leaving the throng belting out songs about scrubbing potatoes and the weeding Politburo gardens, I found the large lake in which Beihai Park was an island.

The Swan-headed pedalloes sat in a long dejected line, unused. It was no surprise though, it was freezing. It was around -5 to -10. Fairly warm compared with what would come later on the journey, but certainly not weather you’d venture into a lake on a craft of questionable seaworthiness.

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It’s around now that it started snowing. The snow was full of….smog. Overall, the smog hadn’t seemed to bad. Certainly not as horrible as reports had suggested, but one might imagine that it gets worse as the weather heats up.

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The visitors to the park didn’t seem to mind that there was dirt falling from the sky, however. I came across a large group of gaudily clad dancers getting down a little way past the water.

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Buying tickets in advance for the train journeys as opposed to the cheaper but obviously more risky option of buying them at the stations in country means that in China and Mongolia both, I needed to pick them up from agents. The agent in Beijing was somewhere in the vicinity of Beijing Train Station where I’d be getting my connecting train to Ulan Bator.

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While there, I saw a woman getting arrested. No idea why. Naturally, she was unhappy about it but she really did let everyone know about it. She didn’t seem afraid, just really bloody angry. This was a trend that I noticed though in many situations. The Chinese would shout at each other a lot. And those being shouted at oftentimes didn’t seem to notice or care. In the UK, if someone is shouting at you, you’ll engage with them. Likewise in Thailand where it’s very very rare. In Beijing, on the other hand, there would be government workers screaming at their inscrutable colleagues, tour group members yelling at oblivious looking friends. It was my first reminder, and something that would occur to me more and more, that, quite simply, there are people in the world that are the product of vastly different cultures going back hundreds of years. We, and I include myself in this, are constantly guilty of this cultural relativism of judging other people’s actions by virtue of the norms of our own societies, but when you’ve really seen a lot of the world, it’s simply not fair or rather judicious to do so. Different strokes for different folks as the philosopher Gary Coleman probably never said.

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I headed to Wangfujing and its snack street for a late lunch.

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The turkey kebabs were very nice. I can’t say I’ve ever been partial to squid on sticks and dry sugary snacks, however, so I didn’t really partake of anything else. It was wonderfully busy and colourful though.

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Lovely socialist market economics.

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I decided to head to an area where Beijingers and ex-pats go to eat and drink to see what the vibe was like and whether Beijing was a place I could ever live. I headed to Nanluogu Xian which is a slightly larger than average hutong a twenty minute walk from Beixinqiao underground station. It’s an 800 year old hutong which was home to Beijing’s glitterati before that word existed. There are loads of cafes and restaurants and shops selling things no one wants, so it’s patently awfully trendy.

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Dog

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It was a nice area. Very quiet but there were a few nice bars, some of which doubled as bookshops and art shops. It’s certainly a place I’d go back to and recommend other people checking out.

I headed back to the hotel and had a very nice dinner over the road with some meatball sour and sweet and sour chicken.

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I woke up and there was snow everywhere. I fell on my arse on the way to the subway.

But the good people of the People’s Republic of China are tireless

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I liked Beijing. It wasn’t that crowded, the smog was not bad while I was there though nor was it exceptional that it wasn’t that noticeable according to an American businessman who helped me with directions. It’s an organised place with good public transport and a lot there to be discovered in all the areas I didn’t get around to visiting. There are countless hutongs that criss-cross the city to be explored some day. I’ll be back for that, and the Great Wall and the Summer Palace, and Ghost Street and all those lovely opium dens and dog restaurants that perhaps only exist in our imaginations nowadays.

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So, I got to Beijing Station in good time for the 29 hour overnight Trans-Manchurian train to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator.

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I had chosen to take 2nd Class for this section of the journey. I thought that I could live with three Chinese rubber salesman laughing at me over their instant noodles or three backpackers talking incessantly about the spiritiuality of the Orient for a day and night, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself alone in my compartment. Free to throw my underwear everywhere and lounge decadently in the nude. In fact I could have ran up and down the carriage in my birthday suit as everyone else on the train were either slumming it in 3rd class or lording it in 1st.

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I resisted the urge to do so though and watched the scenery while taking my first opportunity to snap some pictures through dirty and, on this occasion, wet windows.

The coating of snow made the more central areas of Beijing very beautiful. However, it didn’t hide the ugliness of the more industrialised areas.

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In many areas, looking out the window, I was often reminded of the South Wales valleys where I grew up before the stains of the coal industry were mopped up to be replaced by…err…grass…or bigger roads so that people could drive through those areas more quickly.

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Oh, this is me. Hi.

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Almost immediately after you’ve left the city limits of Beijing, the train goes through a number of tunnels. Each time it exits, you’re faced with another stunning landscape of mountains, rivers, lakes. I found myself bounding from one side of the carriage to the other to not miss anything. In terms of natural beauty, probably the second most impressive part of my entire trip and certainly a highpoint.

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Toilet

1st Class carriage. It was warmer, there and it was more flammable, but it was older and arguably on that basis less comfortable.

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Coal was used to warm the compartments.

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The landscapes got…browner and flatter as the train travelled north. Here and there, you could see old bits of a big wall. I have wondered whether it formed a part of the Great Wall that’s a little less…impressive.

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The trains’ carriages aren’t uniformally the same. They’re often a hotch-potch of different carriages from different lines and of different ages.

The Chinese restaurant car was probably the best of the three I experienced in China, Mongolia, and Russia in terms of food, prices, furnishings, and the likelihood of being ripped off.

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This was a beer dedicated to the American heroes of the Second World War. One of my favourite parts of train journeys is drinking beer and reading. Don’t get me wrong, I take a moment every now and then to gaze out the window, but beer and an appropriate book for wherever you are, is fantastic. At this point in the journey I was reading Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux which details his travels through China for a year in the 80s a few years after the Cultural Revolution.

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After the dramatic landscapes just outside the capital, the scenery became very changeable. Snowcapped mountains changed into rural backwaters of ancient looking single-floored redbrick semis with cracked walls and broken tiles surrounded by crumbling fort walls, before the train entered Gobi-like expanses of desert replete with ethnic Mongolian goat herders and on to towns that seemed to have been entirely deserted or given up to being landfills for huge industrial urban eyesores that loomed out of the wastelands such as Datong, the Newcastle of the East. Travelling through some of the towns, you’d get glimpses of social interactions that would leave you wondering what the fuck was happening there. For instance, shortly before arriving in Jindang a large group of men clad in what appeared to be the de rigeur garb of the entirety of this part of northern China regardless of ethnicity, black leather jackets and jeans, seemed to be surrounding and manhandling another man that from the brief look I got looked terrified. That’s one of the great things about train travel. You see so much. However, the drawback is you often then see so little.
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I quickly made the place feel like home. You ca see three of the hero beers there. That was a continuing theme. Beers from the different areas I visited, drunk while watching the scenery glide by.

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Then we arrived in Earlian, Inner Mongolia.

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Erlian is the end of the Trans-Manchurian route and where the Trans-Mongolian begins. The Mongolian and Russian lines run on different gauges so in Erlian, the train compartments have to be given new under-carriages which is done in a big warehouse where the carriages are lifted individually with passengers in them before the Chinese and Mongolian undercarriages are exchanged. It was all very interesting.

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I went to sleep shortly after we rumbled out of Earlian Station.

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I woke up in the Gobi desert.

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And there were some new carriages including a new Mongolian dining car.

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I think the weapons on the wall for when customers took umbrage with either the food, the prices, or the fact that the manager’s idea of giving prices in alternative currencies constituted her picking arbitrary figures out of the air that pleased her.

A plate of meat Mongolian style.

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A plate of meat Mongolian style = A plate of meat

Some coal.
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Probably more edible than most Mongolian food.

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The landscape essentially looked like this…everywhere. We got to the very gruff passport control. All very Cold War. All very grim. I snapped a picture of the building at the checkpoint and was instructed to delete it immediately by a Mongolian soldier. I’d taken two though. Gareth 1 Angry Mongolian Border Guard 0 .This rather unwelcoming beginning was very much a foreshadowing of what awaited me later in Mongolia and Ulan Bator. 
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Part 2 – Ulan Bator and the Trans-Mongolian