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 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