Wow Moment

Lake Baikal Sunset
Wow Moment – The sun sets over Lake Baikal

 A version of this article originally appeared in a travel company’s e-newsletter in November 2010, explaining a concept which became common currency on the London to New York overland adventure – and just some of the reasons travel got under my skin.

IT was the first or second day that the term ‘Wow Moment’ surfaced. We would, we were told, recognise one when it arrived and everybody’s would be different.

Rule number one: Drink it in. Savour it and bottle it away in the memory.

Rule number two: Respect everybody else’s ‘Wow Moment’. Let them get on with obeying rule number one.

As the days and weeks wore on, we all remembered that phrase and those rules as, individually or in groups, we had our ‘Wow Moments’ and began to recognise the signs of a new believer – the fixed grin, the sparkle in the eyes and the way they chattered on afterwards at least one octave higher than normal.

Mine arrived about as far from what many of us would know as civilisation and on part of the trip that had failed to stir my imagination before departure.

Wrapped up against the cold on a headland on Olkhon Island, stuck in the middle of the frozen Lake Baikal in the empty expanse of Siberia, one of those perfect moments appeared.

Four days from Moscow to Irkutsk by train, six hours on less than smooth roads and a two-kilometre walk across the frozen lake was more than worth it.

We’d spent an exhilarating day in jeeps on the ice when somebody suggested a post-dinner stroll to the headland to watch the sun set.

Which is how half a dozen of us found ourselves dotted along the cliff in the peace, watching the sun set over the mainland and shadows fall between the reflected glare from the ice. Quite, quite magical… the perfect example of a ‘Wow Moment’.

Well, it was mine and could have gone on for hours – if it wasn’t so cold as the sun dipped away, forcing a rapid retreat to the warmth of our homestead.

That was my ONE moment, but there were others that produced a similar reaction or gave my travelling companions the same feeling, those places and events to savour as we wound our way around the globe for three months.

The whole trip split into five six distinct legs, divided by a change of transport or geographic switch and each packing in enough highlights and memorable experiences to provide a remarkable trip in its own right.

First up was the European leg and its series of fascinating cities – Bruges, Heidelberg, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn – before crossing into Russia and the twin giants of St Petersburg of Moscow.

There’s plenty of history to explore from St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, the memories of the Soviet Union in Red Square and the horrors of Auschwitz – a ‘Wow Moment’ in its own, macabre way and certainly a day trip which will leave its mark – plus the burgeoning cities of the Baltic States and the charms of Prague along the way.

The second leg began in Moscow when we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway, a travel experience in its own right, which would carry us all the way to Beijing.

En route we stopped off not just in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but also in Mongolia, where we were provided with the friendliest welcome imaginable and another contender for moment of the trip – a night in a toasty, traditional ger in the middle of a national park. The most relaxed night of the entire journey.

A lot of time has been spent trying to explain the third leg of the trip to people. A bewildering assault on the senses – all of them – it provided a completely new dimension to the whole trip.

There is just one way to describe it – China.

From the moment we arrived in Beijing, China started working its way into our affections and never really stopped during our 10 days there.

Beijing provided some remarkable sights to tick off the traveller’s must-see list – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Birds Nest Stadium – Xi’an gave us the Terracotta Warriors, the ancient walled city of Pingyao a taste of old China and, of course, there was the Great Wall at Badaling, not to mention the precipitous Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain and Yungang Grottoes.

But China is more than its sights. To truly experience this magical country, get down the hutongs (side alleys) and into the markets to get among the people, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and the smells.

If arriving in China was a culture shock, leaving it provided another on the fourth leg as we climbed aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship – two weeks to kick back, relax in relative luxury and do as much or as little as you want. With stops in Korea, Japan and back in Russia at Vladivostock thrown in.

Leg five began as we stepped off the boat and onto American soil for the first time in Whittier, Alaska, and another major change – from luxury cruise liner to the Green Tortoise sleeper bus. Believe me, you have never travelled quite like this.

The Tortoise, our home from sea to shining sea, whisked us north through the wildlife and dramatic scenery of Denali National Park to the treat of Chena Hot Springs and midnight sun within reach of the Arctic Circle, before turning east into Canada and through the Yukon back to Alaska and a series of ferries down the Inside Passage and to the Canadian border again – all the while focused on the mountains, lakes, rivers, bears and moose which make this such a spectacular place to travel.

The final leg across the Lower 48 States of the USA actually started north of the border in Vancouver before we rejoined the USA at Seattle and crossed from west to east via the quite stunning splendour of its National Parks – the beauty of the Grand Tetons, sheer scale of Yellowstone and desolate wilderness of the Badlands – the charm of smalltown America and bustle of Chicago and finishing point New York.

Throughout all that, of course, was the sheer joy of sharing it all with a bunch of people who turned from strangers to friends, confidantes and a temporary family as we clocked up the miles.

Experiencing all these wonderful places was one thing, experiencing them with these people elevated it all to another level.

This select band of people who understand my love for Chicken, Alaska (permanent population, ‘err… about nine’) and who shared my 40th birthday celebrations in Arcata, California.

And each one of them has their own tale to tell, their own ‘Wow Moments’, their own travel story.

It’s out there for you to write your own as well.

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Feeling Gravitys Pull

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 1, 2010

EVER since this blog started nine months ago, one part of the home page has been flashing orange, asking for one simple piece of information – the date it all ended.

For months it remained untouched because there was no end date. The day we arrived in New York was set in stone, but that wasn’t absolute zero.

That little piece of stamped paper in my passport, obtained after much explanation, a lot of form filling and one endless day sat in the confines of the American Embassy in London (give me a day on the pot-filled road from St Petersburg to Moscow any time), enabled me to stay in the USA until mid-November.

All that, plus explaining it all over again when we re-entered the States in Washington and, fortified by a good few beers, at Niagara, was not going to waste, so the plan was to stretch that final date out as long as possible.

And putting up a date would have been too much like a full stop. The end of this adventure. A bloody great stop sign in this new, much-cherished section of my life. Putting a finishing date up seemed like cutting that off, the end of this life, the return to normality and whatever comes next.

Don’t bother looking for that bit of orange text. It’s not there anymore. Finally, after a couple of weeks back in the UK – having returned just before the need for that infuriating visa actually kicked in – the question this site has been asking for months was answered by the flight home

It’s not as long in the States originally planned or hoped for (the visa will just have to be used sometime before it expires).

If that original plan was still in operation, it would probably have taken me to the west coast again now. Or exploring some small town in the south, explaining exactly where my ‘pur-etty’ accent comes from and why Wales isn’t really a part of England. And almost certainly watching baseball.

But coming home is not the full stop it originally seemed. More of a semi-colon – breaking up one part of my trip and laying the ground for the next part of an ongoing tale.

The next few months could have been spent clocking up even more miles in America, to go with the many thousands clocked up on the bus/train/boat/Green Tortoise in the previous 13 weeks.

But it began to dawn on me, quite early on after branching out from the safety of the trip family, that stretching this single trip out for quite so long would have ended with the largest, most abrupt of full stops imaginable on this odyssey.

The bank balance would have been exhausted, the credit card bill would have been out of control and travelling overkill could well have set in. There would have been little alternative than to return to the daily grind, both for financial reasons and to get some grip on reality.

Not that it has been easy coming back. Still living out of the same rucksack and, with my house still rented out, relying on the kindness of others to put me up, being back has been totally disorientating. It still is.

There’s a strange feeling of being out of place, out of time, out of synch with everything and everybody.

From a world inhabited by like-minded souls, be it swapping gossip and kit on the bus or swapping tales from the front line in a New Orleans hostel, it’s back to a world that doesn’t belong to me any more.

People’s lives are going on at a different pace, in a different direction and it’s hard to fall into place.

The closest is that lost feeling after coming out of a relationship, where your idea of normal has been skewed and there’s a constant sense of something missing. Well, apart from the urge to listen to a load of miserable, introspective music – at least, no more than normal.

I’ll get there, it’s just taking a little bit of time. And I’ve got no intention of shaking off the wanderlust. Not yet.

A few days back freelancing in the old office have helped get some semblance of normality – and helped to pay for the seemingly endless trips to the bar which go with this carefree, not working life – and, hopefully, more of the same will help to keep the bank balance in reasonable health and chip away at the credit card bill.

But the long-term plan is not to answer the oft-asked ‘what now?’, but ‘where now?’.

That earlier than originally planned return from the States means never reaching a point where the desire to travel, explore and generally get to know people and places all over this world was quenched. And there’s still enough money sat in that bank account to pay for another trip. For now.

So that’s the plan – or at least the fledgling part of one.

Having headed out to New York this time, top of the options list at the moment is another epic trip, this time veering south east after central Europe and ploughing on down through Asia and on to Australia, ending up in Sydney.

From there, well…. who knows? There’s always the option to get sensible and return to the daily grind, but we’ll worry about that when we get there. The plan has changed, been ripped up, recycled and tweaked so many times in the last month or so, who knows what it will look like by the time some form of decision is needed?

So top of the agenda, with some form of income needed in the meantime is to work out exactly what comes next.

The first couple of weeks back have been largely looking backward, editing the blog, collating an album of pictures from the trip and a variety of reunions – Nick (who lives here, of course), Mike (who also does now), Julie and Gerda, Dave, Pam and Phoebe (who I’d already been reunited with twice in New York) have all made it to Cardiff in the last couple of weeks.

And while more of that remains on the To-do list (yep, that old pre-trip favourite has returned and is breeding), it increasingly involves things throwing my life forward. Earning money stands near the top of the list. Just below not spending too much of it.

But there are a couple more items of business to settle before this blog gets consigned to the past).

First up is the next entry in which the Green Tortoise gets swapped for a little white Pontiac and I head out onto the wide open roads of the USA.

Then it’s time to sort out another date – the start of the next trip…

Next time: Life In The Furnace with John ‘Cougar Soddin’ Mellencamp

NB This entry originally appeared on the original version of this blog on another website (www.travelpod.com if anybody wants a simple way of cataloguing their own travels), which includes the start and end date mentioned in the opening paragraphs.

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Norwegian Wood

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 29, 2010

Beijing, China

SCALING the first set of steps onto the Great Wall of China at Badaling, you are greeted by the inevitable gift shop.

Amid the panda hats, trinkets and customary tourist tat hangs a series of T-shirts in a variety of colours and designs.

Most of them proudly display the same slogan to tempt in the mass of tourists who flock to this section of the 4,000 mile long structure: “I Climbed The Great Wall of China”.

Great Wall of China
Ancient and Modern – The Great Wall of China snakes past a Beijing Olympic sign at Badaling

Chairman Mao declared anyone who scales the wall automatically becomes a man (even if they are a woman).

So quite what he would have thought about my adventures on the wall is anybody’s guess. There certainly weren’t any T-shirts to commemorate my visit.

Not one reads: “I Threw Up On The Great Wall”.

Those of you who paying attention will remember the previous night’s meal in Datong left a lot to be desired. There wasn’t much wrong with the food, it just wasn’t what we thought it was and stretched our delicate European tastes a little too far.

Great Wall Group Shot
Flying the flag on the Great Wall – The massed ranks of the OzBus take the photo opportunity

And by the following morning, mixed in with another bout of erratic driving from our permanently bemused-looking driver, it had started to have an affect.

But all that is slightly irrelevant when you get to the Great Wall.

Always pinpointed as one of the must-sees of the trip, it is – even crawling in tourists and their related paraphernalia – a staggering place to visit.

It qualifies among the elite group of places – alongside, so far, London, Red Square and Tiananmen Square – for a group picture. But it outranks them as, apart from getting the flags the right way up this time, pretty much everybody hung around to get their own pictures taken on the wall.

Then it was a mad dash up the wall. Followed by the immediate drop in pace as we realised how steep it can be, followed by the first of many stops for breath.

Great Wall
It gets steep up there

And as others headed off into the distance, the combination of trekking up the hill and my less than perfect state of health all came to a head and left my mark on the Great Wall.

Or rather over it.

Only later, refreshed by something a bit simpler to eat and a more comfortable ride from our original, far more sensible Chinese driver, did we come to the conclusion it was over the wrong side – opting for the Chinese side rather than into the land once occupied by the Mongols it was built to keep out.

Obviously disappointed not to get as far up the wall as possible, it was still a remarkable experience and will rate as one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip.

What followed – via a trip to the Ming Tombs – was one of the social highlights of the trip as we welcomed our latest arrival, and met up with some old friends, in spectacular style.

Ming Tombs
Emperor Dongle at The Ming Tombs

From the Ming Tombs, last resting place to most of the Emperors from the Ming Dynasty, we rolled back into Beijing and a return to our previous hotel just south of Tiananmen Square.

As well as being reunited with the gear we had stored ahead of our tour of the provinces, we were also introduced to Pamela, the 18th traveller.

To mark her arrival, virtually the entire party decamped to Bar 365, the hostel bar which had become our local on our previous stay.

Even more local was the hostel housing our lovely Norwegian friends Mari and Sunniva, who first crossed our path in Irkutsk.

Sunniva
Sunniva leaves her mark in Beijing

They trumped my tale from the Great Wall in some style, managing to shed a lot more than me to mark their visit (if you are reading this ladies, you can always send the photographic proof of your antics to my e-mail or Facebook – your story definitely needs checking closely).

With our numbers bolstered by Mari and Sunniva and residents of the hostel above the bar joining us over a few beers, by the time Nick was lured into a reprise of his bongo heroics to a rousing rendition of Wonderwall, virtually the entire bar and staff were involved in a truly international session of singing, dancing, drinking and acquisition of flags.

What followed as the Tsingtao beer flowed at about £1 a pint is a touch hazy and it needed the now traditional trawl through each other’s cameras to discover exactly what happened (which also taught Leila never to leave her camera unguarded in a bar).

Several questions remain unanswered: How did drinking for that long produce a bar bill that low? Where did Duncan get that fruit from? How did Phoebe lose the dance-off rematch with one of the waiters? How did Barry get into just about every picture? And what countries are some of those flags from?

Bird's Nest
Racing not allowed – The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing

But two questions stand out above all else: Who was that in the gents toilets? And did she get all her clothes back?

Sadly, the question which had been occupying many of us for the previous few days was not answered the following morning at the Birds Nest, home of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

It reminded me a lot of Edgar Street, what with the rectangular patch of green surrounded by stands. It’s just a lot bigger, far more spectacular and had far more people milling around just to have a look than bother going to watch Hereford on your average Saturday.

Unfortunately, the athletics track was declared out of bounds and our planned 100m race had to be cancelled.

For the record, my money was very much on Marlo to beat Freddie, while there remain serious doubts over whether many (or, indeed, any) of us would have made it that far in the veterans race.

Bigger Than Jesus
Getting arty – Marlo lives up to his nickname (Bigger Than Jesus) in an impromptu art installation

From one of Beijing’s must-sees, we headed off to one of those unheralded surprises this trip keeps throwing up, the 798 Artists Village.

My art knowledge is roughly the square root of bugger all, but this rambling former factory site turned art commune proved a fascinating stop with some extremely interesting photo galleries and one eccentric, if challenging (see, picked up a few phrases), modern art studio complete with a room full of pink gas.

We even tried our hand at an art installation of my own involving Marlo and a statue of Jesus rising out of a coffin.

China’s obviously had an affect – or was it just the sun?

Pink Gas
But Is It Art? Portrait of the Artist In Room Full of Pink Gas

Either way, that was it for Beijing and China as the trip wandered off into a completely new direction – two weeks at sea on board the Diamond Princess.

Of which more next time…

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