Working For The Xi’ankee Dollar

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 24, 2010

Xi’an, China

RIDING along with us  – or hidden somewhere in Phil’s bag – is a folder containing pretty much all the trivial (and the odd important) facts we need to know.

Emblazoned on that folder are a variety of stickers, the largest of which reads: “I am not a tourist, I live here”.

We shirk away from accusations of being tourists. We will tell you, at great length after a few beers, that we are travellers.*

Xi'an - Big Wild Goose Pagoda
The sun beats down on the Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But for a few days in China, guided around by Gary and a succession of local experts, we joined the tourist trail for the major sights of the provinces.

It was all a bit of a culture shock.

Used as we are to being a largely self-contained group, informed by Phil’s whirlwind histories of 20th century Europe (“Someone invaded, people died, somebody else invaded, more people died”) or guides he knew before securing their services (the wonderful Anna and Galina in Russia), we suddenly found ourselves among the hordes.

All of a sudden we were one of many buses being delivered to a restaurant – all entered or exited through a gift shop – to join the conveyor belt of tourists, dominated by large gaggles of Americans, to be processed and spat out towards whichever major sight was next on the agenda

Nowhere was this more apparent than the trip to the Terracotta Warriors, which – sadly – ranks as a disappointment.

Our trip out to the warriors followed our overnight dash to the city of Xi’an, right in the centre of China, and the pace never slackened throughout the day.

Whisked away from the station by our diminutive guide An, we were fed a huge breakfast at the hotel and spirited away for a whirlwind tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, which once housed the first Buddhist scripts in China.

Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
Golden Buddha, Big Wild Goose Pagoda

It comes complete with the requisite gift shop and my discovery that being born in the Year of the Dog makes me honest and loyal. I will also roll over and let you tickle my tummy for a treat, but draw the line at chasing sticks.

From there it was off to another shopping opportunity at a jade factory – adding a piece of neophrite to the growing collection of things dangling around my neck – and, via the conveyor belt roll-em-in, feed-em, ship-em-out lunch, onto the Terracotta Warriors.

Built to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin and discovered by farmers in 1974, the attraction is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World (wasn’t that Patsy Kensit’s short-lived pop band in the 1980s?).

And while it is impressive, it just doesn’t really live up to that billing.

What you rarely get told in the blurb is that Qin’s successor ransacked the tomb and wrecked the warriors, meaning most of the many thousand there are either undiscovered (so how they know how many there are, goodness only knows) or broken.

Terracotta Warriors
The Terracotta Warriors stand guard in the elegantly named Pit One

Restoration work continues apace (well, quite slowly actually) and while what is there is worth checking out, it is not on the sheer scale we were expecting – most of the huge pits on view are devoid of warriors.

Underwhelmed by what we had seen, we headed back to Xi’an and, stumbling off the tourist trail for the evening, again fell across a real gem when least expected.

Tucked out of the centre on a main ring road, our hotel – possibly the pick of the trip – was not exactly blessed with too many neighbourhood bars or restaurants, so the usual suspects stumbled down the road to the nearest noodle bar with the express intention of a quick snack and a quiet night.

What followed, once our idea of keeping the ordering simple ended with our table being presented with a whole chicken, complete with head, on a plate of prawn crackers, was a real taste of China and its people – with the odd piece of ornamental fish kidnapping thrown in.

We first attracted the attention of a bunch of young lads who were determined to drink and eat as much as possible, make as big a mess as possible and practise their limited English on us.

Terracotta Archer
Terracotta Archer, sadly without his bow

By the time they had gone, Phoebe and celebrity traveller Marlo were chatting – or attempting to chat with – four older Chinese guys, so as the others left, the easy solution was to join them and finish my beer.

But for the next couple of hours, it magically never emptied – every time our glasses dropped below half full, they were refilled by our hosts, who refused to take a cent from us in repayment.

One of our new companions was the oldest there, therefore he was the host and had to pay for everything – a system worth introducing whenever drinking with Nick for the rest of the trip.

With the help of their restricted English, our even more limited Chinese (you can’t get very far with “How are you?”, “Thank you” and “Cheers”) and the translator on our host’s phone, we stumbled through a conversation – I was “heavy, but with a good soul”, making me sound even more like a Labrador, while Phoebe has “temperament” – until the passing Gary was dragged off the street to help out and a hugely enjoyable evening ran well past closing time.

The next morning saw me run into one of our companions again.

Or, to be more accurate, he nearly ran into me while riding a bike around the ancient city walls of Xi’an.

Xi'an's City Walls
The ancient city walls in Xi’an

The walking option had seemed more appealing, but a group had headed out to do a full circuit on two wheels. Others completed the full 14km loop on foot, although Julie and Gerda paid the price with a touch of sunburn as the Mediterranean-type climate produced a lovely day.

After an afternoon fighting off the salesmen at another market, it turned into a lovely evening back at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, enjoying the spectacular fountain display, before adjourning to the hotel and a late-night, filling street snack which cost six of us the grand total of just over £2.

And that was that for Xi’an, a city which succeeded in charming us during our limited stay.

The third biggest city in China – after Beijing and Shanghai – it has a much more relaxed feel than the capital (unless you are sat in the back of a taxi, where relaxing is the last thing possible) and while you can give directions around Beijing using branches of KFC as guiding points, you get the feeling Xi’an is much more like the old China.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda at night
All lit up – The light and fountain show at The Big Wild Goose Pagoda

But nothing like as old as our next stop – Pingyao, of which more next time.

Coming up: Sharing with The Bear in Pingyao, Redecorating the Great Wall and Norwegian Wood in Beijing.

*NB – The traveller v tourist argument is the oldest in the travelling world. Having worked in the travel industry since this blog was originally written, it is quite clearly pointless and merely a form of snobbery. The whole point of travelling is freedom and experiencing the world around us – how each of us do it is down to the individual.

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Senses Working Overtime

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 22, 2010

Beijing, China

DURING his excellent Googlewhack Adventure stage show, Dave Gorman launches into a string of coincidences and absurdities which have occurred during his attempts to compile a chain of elusive Googlewhacks.

Each tale is linked, in increasingly frantic tones, by the phrase: “It doesn’t make sense”.

Alive or Dead, Sir?
Alive or Dead, Sir? – The menu in a Beijing street market

And after 10 days in China, that is one phrase used more than any other (with the possible exceptions of “same again, please”, “No, I don’t want to be dragged into your market stall to see your range of tourist tat”, “Oh look, another Buddha/ temple/courtyard”, “Who’s clothes were they anyway?” or “What flags have you got?” – explanations follow in the next couple of entries, but the last two must wait until we are out of Chinese jurisdiction).

  • The sheer number of people – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The inability to drive in a straight line or on the right side without an accident every few hundred yards – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The fact all the market stalls appear to sell the same thing, yet they make a living – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The fact we managed to buy pretty much everything for a fraction of the asking price (bar one Irish haggler who started with a high offer and tried to work down) – it doesn’t make sense.
  • That you can stuff yourself silly 24 hours a day for mere pennies, yet the entire population seems to be thin and healthy – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The sheer number of western, capitalist brand names in the high street in such a supposedly closed-off, communist society so proud of its own culture and traditions – it doesn’t make sense.
  • That we went from getting sunburn on Xi’an’s city walls to snowball fights on the road to Datong in the space of three days – it doesn’t make sense.
  • The foresight of previous generations to build all the major attractions on the other side of a gift shop from the entrance – it doesn’t make sense.

And neither does so much more about this wonderful, intriguing, mystifying country.

But throw it all in together, check your western preconceptions in at customs and somehow, taken as a whole, it makes perfect sense.

Beijing Street Market
In the market for a snack – On the search for lunch in Beijing

To the extent that being thrown straight back into the western world – this is being written on one of the many poolsides of the Diamond Princess cruise ship as we sit dockside at Qingdao on our second day at sea – is equally as big a culture shock as arriving in China in the first place.

Admittedly, by the final day in China more than one of us needed an escape from the mountains of Chinese food (or food as they call it in these parts) which were routinely placed in front of us.

Thankfully, Old McDonald had seen fit to build one of his golden arches just down the street from our hotel, causing some frantic backtracking from early scorn poured on those with fast-food habits. Never has a Big Mac tasted so good. Nor been served so politely.

China has treated us well and has moved straight to the upper echelons of places to visit again.

But let’s rewind to where you left us – in our Beijing hotel attempting, without success, to flick M&Ms into Fran’s mouth in the early hours of Day 32.

What followed on the rest of Day 32 – for those of us who eschewed the trip to the Summer Palace – was a rare off-day and a chance to catch up on washing and get a little personal time.

So the day was spent arguing with a tumble dryer (and the French people who kept taking my stuff out of it) and being accosted by over-enthusiastic vendors, convinced new T-shirts, jewellery, handbags, statues of Buddha, Mao’s Little Red Book or whatever they were peddling was top of my shopping list.

Beijing Street Market
People and food – The Beijing Experience

Topping the list of memorable sellers are the bloke selling our favourite snack “sticks” with the constant tab on the go, the guy who nearly set fire to my arm (twice) as he tried to prove his lighters worked and the young Chinese girl who was actually dangling off my arm at one point as she tried to physically drag me into her shop.

By the evening my clothes still weren’t dry – it took an early-morning alarm to chuck them back in the dryer to be ready for packing – and the normal suspects were reconvened for another mountain of food in a traditional Chinese restaurant.

Eight meals, eight sets of drinks, assorted side dishes, decent tip which they insisted on chasing us out of the restaurant with to hand back – 320 yuan. About £4 each.

We then retired for a quiet(ish) evening in our new local, the still flag-strewn Bar 365, which was enlivened by our elder statesmen Duncan and Mary taking to the dance floor and Mike’s perfectly-timed tribute to Roy Keane – one of which was charming, the other reduced us to giggling fools for at least five minutes.

Beijing Station
Which platform is it? – Beijing Station

Mike was at it again the next morning – after we had stripped down our bags with merely enough clothes for our five-day tour of the provinces – when he spoke at just the wrong time during our tour of a silk factory, inadvertently volunteering to eat the by-product of production, the worm.

He had the perfect opportunity to wash it down with something more appetising on our next stop, downtown Beijing’s main, big-name shopping area.

While most of the group scurried around the designer stores, went hunting for much-needed necessities (our hunt for deodorant was still proving fruitless) or, in the case of Irish compadres Dave and Leila, got lost on a single street, our motley little crew found our idea of shopping heaven – a market street crammed with street food vendors.

Not that everything had us licking our lips. Even Phil’s willingness to eat almost anything was not enough to persuade him to try scorpion on a stick or entire baby bird, while the starfish on a stick were priced out of the market.

Having fuelled up on spring rolls, sticks and some weird dumplings whose liquid filling Phil managed to spray all over Mike, we headed to our toughest shopping test of the trip – the Pearl Market.

Night train to Xi'an
Set for a last night on the train – Note spilt beer in tray

It is difficult to explain quite what an assault on the senses this is – a four-storey indoor market selling designer label clothes (of distinctly dubious origin), leather goods, jewellery, electrical goods (of even more dubious providence) and pretty much anything the modern global traveller would want.

But that is only half the story.

Each stall is manned by one or more assistants who are not going to wait for you to have a look at their stock. They will shout at you, physically pull you to their store, block your way and generally get right in your face.

It could be intimidating, but it is, largely, good natured and amusing. The trouble is, if you smile at it, they take that as a sign of interest and double their effort to lure you in.

By the time we emerged, blinking and shellshocked into the sunshine to compare our purchases – and tried to outdo each other on how much we had haggled them down to – we were all a bit exhausted.

For the record, my purchases were leather cord necklace (most of the guys are now festooned with more necklaces than the girls), a shirt of exceedingly dubious taste and a T-shirt, which resulted in me being briefly held captive by three small Chinese women who would not let me out of their stall until Phoebe and Fran turned the corner and distracted them.

What we needed after that was a good rest. What we got was our final night on a train, heading south to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors.

Exiled to the back of the train – 12 carriages away from the rest of the group with only Marlo making the long, late-night trek down to visit in his train-issue paper slippers – Nick’s Bar stocked up for one final time with beer (before any of us remembered we didn’t have a bottle opener), vodka and rice wine and welcomed new resident Dave for his indoctrination into life in the bar.

He instantly made himself at home, showering his beer bottle over Nick’s bed in an attempt to open it using the door handle.

He was in good company, Mike had already soaked Nick’s bed in a bizarre exploding beer can episode.

At least three of us had a good, dry night’s sleep…

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Seventeenth Chinese Brother

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 20, 2010

Beijing, China

“I do hope Berlin’s cafes are well stocked because everybody seems determined to eat out the moment they arrive” – Captain Edmund Blackadder

“Whatever I need, I’ll go out and get it in Beijing” – Just about everybody on the trip

Tiananmen Gate, Forbidden City
The Tiananmen Gate into the Forbidden City, Beijing

THANKFULLY, our cunning plans to restock our kit and refresh wardrobes ahead of 15 days on a cruise ship have proved rather more successful than Blackadder and Co’s plans to eat as soon as they got “sausage side”.

Even with large chunks of stuff left back in Beijing for our return, our scaled-down bus which is currently whisking us from Xi’an (of which more in a later episode) to Pingyao (pronounce as if a bullet is ricocheting off a bucket, Ping-yao) is rammed with bags stuffed full of gear plundered from Chinese markets. And toy swords and cutlasses (again, more later).

It hasn’t always been easy.

Mike and Nick’s search for deodorant took five days before it paid dividends (much to the relief of the rest of us), Phoebe has discovered the Chinese are not all that big on pirate gear (as in Captain Pugwash, not knock-off gear – we know we’ve got plenty of that) and we have all been manhandled, chased and, in my case, physically prevented from leaving a market stall by three small Chinese women hanging onto me (tune in next time for that tale).

Marlo even got whipped by belts from eager sellers, but he lost any sympathy when he went back for more.

Marlo, Tiananmen Square
Coke, Mao and Marlo – Mixing it with three cultural icons in Tiananmen Square (and rescuing one from his adoring public)

But that’s all getting ahead of ourselves, let’s rewind to where you last left us, rolling towards the Mongolia-Chinese border (and the Great Firewall of China which has hampered updates, or would have done if we’’d had much time to write them) on the Trans-Manchurian Express.

It would have been a remarkably quick, efficient border crossing – once they had finally realised it really was Mike in his passport picture – if we had not had to wait for hours while the wheels were changed on the carriages to fit Chinese tracks.

The whole process involved plenty of shunting, banging and moving us into a big shed before lifting us off the ground and onto our new wheels.

Sadly, if you are looking for an informed, educated insight into exactly how such a mammoth task was undertaken, rather than watch on from the corridor window, the residents of Nick’s Bar slept through most of it.

That at least meant we were wide awake for the final approaches into Beijing which included a free breakfast (prompting much jealousy from Nick as he watched one of the staff tuck into one of his beloved dippy eggs), the discovery that my much-maligned railway platform biscuits went well with Freddie’s discarded peanut butter, a free lunch about two hours later (a first attempt at chopsticks for those of us who shunned the use of a ‘spork’) and endless miles looking for the Great Wall which finally stumbled into view on a green hill far away.

Beijing - The Great Hall of the People
The Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square

The sustenance and rest was needed as we rolled into Beijing, which lives up to its billing as one of the world’s great cities.

Having been escorted to our hotel (we are living in relative luxury on this leg of the journey) by Gary, our guide for the circuit of China, we spilled out onto the streets in late afternoon to get our first taste of Chinese life.

And what a taste.

Bang in the heart of the action, with Tiananmen Square and Mao’s Mausoleum at the end of the road, we scurried off down the side alleys (Hutongs) to experience what Beijing had to offer. Or find some deodorant.

It is a frantic, bustling mass of people, noise, smells (not all of them pleasant – even with deodorant) and sights. Nick, Mike and I fell instantly in love with the place.

Yes, it is daunting, yes it is in your face and anyone selling anything is onto you as soon as you go near their shop or market stall.

But it is a thrilling assault on the senses and the people are so good humoured and genuinely excited to try out their English or get to meet Westerners, that we were grinning long before our first encounter with Chinese food.

Crowds in The Forbidden City
The colour-coded tourist groups flock into The Forbidden City

That came from a street vendor with what we originally christened “sticks” – wooden skewers of cooked, spiced meat of occasionally questionable origin – which have become our staple snacks when out and about. Delicious, hot, filling and all for about 25p each.

By then we needed a rest from all this scurrying about, so found a bar down a side street and settled in for a couple of beers, only to add some Beijing Duck, a beef platter and some sweet and sour chicken – complete with obligatory rice – to the order.

It was our first proper taste of what was to come – the most beautiful food served in huge mounds at ridiculously low prices. That little lot, complete with beers, set us back about £5 each.

So enamoured were we with our new find that when we met the others back at the hotel – all wide-eyed and talking too fast from their own explorations – we took them back to the same place and, what started as one quick drink, eventually ended with our hosts waiting for us to leave so they could shut up.

In between there was much singing, drumming (Nick led us all in a version of Wonderwall on a drum), dancing (Phoebe led us all, and one slightly bemused young Chinese guy, through several versions of… well, not quite sure actually) and making friends (hello Katie and Rachel from Wolverhampton).

Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven

Which is why some of our number were still up and about for the 2am arrival of Dave – the latest (17th) addition to our ranks.

The rest of us met our second Irish tourist rather bleary-eyed over breakfast before heading out for a day seeing the sights.

And most of China had turned up to greet us when we descended on Tiananmen Square.

Either that or they were waiting, patiently and in co-ordinated hats to designate their different groups, to enter Mao’s Mausoleum.

It is hard to reconcile the friendliness, politeness and air of calm – even with so many thousands of people milling around – with the events which made this place so famous in the west 20-odd years.

Certainly any fears that we would be met with suspicion and doubt were quickly dispelled – as they have been wherever we have gone in China – by the welcome we received.

Feast leftoversBecause so many of the people in the square and the Forbidden City are tourists from rural China, they are not used to seeing Westerners and so we became tourist attractions in our own right.

At times it was surreptitious. You would turn round and find a camera pointing at you and any smile or wave would send the photographer scurrying for cover.

At other times, you would suddenly find somebody stood next to you while their companion took a quick snap.

But the braver ones would come up and, in whatever English they could muster, ask for a photo with us.

Think we all got approached at some point and such was the delight and interest they showed in us, it was a pleasure to help them out.

But nobody had to deal with as much interest as Marlo.

He has been a tourist attraction since we entered Russia and a black man in Tiananmen Square is always going to stand out.

Group Shot, Imperial Gardens
Reinforced group shot in the Imperial Gardens

And once one guy had approached him for a picture, a crowd soon gathered – our Dutch master of cool taking it all in his stride and responding to each request with a smile. He was even spotted signing autographs at on point.

While we were walking tourist attractions in our own right, there was plenty for us to see and photograph as we wandered through the Forbidden City (a trek of more than five miles evidently) and, via an exquisite banquet for lunch, the Temple of Heaven and a rickshaw ride through the backstreets of Beijing.

After all that, you could excuse us an early night but…

Gary came up trumps as we headed out to a district where a lake is lined with bars and restaurants and the bustle of people.

We instantly felt at home and tried out the facilities before retiring to the hotel and a few bottles of Tsingtao bought from reception and downed in the empty restaurant – complete with Mike using Fran’s mouth for target practise with M&Ms.

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Everybody Ger-ts

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 18, 2010

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Four Men And A Ger
Four Men And A Ger – Our home from home for a night in Mongolia

THE United States Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Those of us who took up residence in the back half of the bus have not quite got round to declaring our independence, but we too hold these truths as self-evident:

  • That we will not go out for “just one drink”.
  • That whatever city we are in, there will be an Irish bar.
  • That the Irish bar’s sole concession to being Irish is serving Guinness, which will not be worth drinking.
  • That however organised you are the night before, you will always end up ramming stuff in your bag at the last minute to get on the bus the next morning.
  • That at some point during any journey, most of the inhabitants of the bus/train/minibus will fall asleep.
  • That the places you expected very little from will end up as one of the highlights of the trip.

The last maxim has now come true twice in a row.

Following on from the delights of Lake Baikal – a trip pencilled in as something to be endured before getting back on the road, but which provided a real moment of discovery – came Mongolia.

Ulan Bator - Parliament Square
Parliament Square in the heart of Ulan Bator, surrounded by the mountains

Mongolia was, in my mind, merely a bridge between Russia and China while the prospect of spending a night in a traditional ger after two nights on the train was less than enticing.

But what we found was the best welcome, the friendliest hospitality and the most complete, relaxing break from reality we have found, to the extent that it was with regret that we climbed onto the train to Beijing with just 48 hours in the country under our belt.

Capital city Ulan Bator is far from the prettiest place you will stumble across. It is functional and fairly crammed – one third of the country’s three million population live in UB – and had been given a fairly damning press by people we had met coming the other way.

But it is welcoming and, like the countryside around it, carries enough charm from its people alone.

None of them more charming than the crew of the Golden Gobi hostel and tours, who whisked us from the train and steered us through their country with oodles of pride, abundant good humour and an obvious feeling that absolutely nothing was too much trouble for them.

What faced Bob (the boss), guide Khishgkee and their team when they met us off the train just after 6am was a pretty sorry-looking mob.

Having finally rolled away from the border crossing from Russia nine hours after arriving, Nick’s Bar opened for one final blowout to get rid of the final bottles of vodka.

Genghis Khan, Ulan Bator
Genghis Khan stands guard outside the Parliament Building in Ulan Bator

Packed to capacity, seven of our crew were joined in our carriage by George, the poor soul who shared with Phil for two nights and got dragged into the last-ditch attempt to down all our booze.

We proved a little too good at it and ended up scurrying around a late-night stop for a few extra supplies, which then had to be downed and left various people embarking on early-morning life in Mongolia in less than pristine shape.

But our hosts ensured we were son back on our feet, ferrying us off to a bountiful breakfast – created by a brigade led by Bob’s mum – and a hurried shower (something which is met with increasing delight) before whisking us off to see their country.

After a tour of the highlights of Ulan Bator, we headed out of the city and into the wilderness of the Terelj National Park and our home for the night – a traditional ger.

Inside Our Ger
Our ger before it was turned into a sauna

What had been largely approached with trepidation proved to be the most comfortable, most relaxing night of the trip.

The pillows – which are becoming one of the first things we check out when arriving at a new destination – may have come second to Lake Baikal, but the whole package was just superb.

At least in our ger. While others shivered in the sub-zero temperatures, Freddie’s fire-starting skills ensured our room turned into a sauna.

Not only did my sleeping bag remain unused, but we actually resorted to opening the door for much of the evening to let some of the heat out.

View From The Meditation Centre
They may have been shut, but the climb was worth it for this view

The overall feeling of relaxation was helped by some stunning food and an afternoon’s yomp up to a Buddhist spiritual centre in the mountains.

The occupants may have been out, but it was well worth the trek up the slope and 108 steps. Climbing up them, it is said, cleanses you of your sins. Several of our number contemplated a second assent to make sure.

Refreshed from our night’s sleep and another wonderful breakfast, we headed out into the wilds of Mongolia – first to visit the giant, and I mean giant, silver statue of Genghis Khan and then to have lunch with a nomad family.

The trouble with nomads is they tend to move around and when we eventually tracked them down, it was on the other side of a river beyond the paddling abilities of our bus.

There was much discussion, phone calls and suggestions – among the Golden Gobi crew that is, we were making our own entertainment and playing Dodge the Pooh with the only things that came to hand – about how to solve the problem.

No problem, we simply descended on another nomad family without any warning and as we persuaded Fran that she had to hand the baby goat back, they plied us with their version of tea until Bob’s mum rode to the rescue with oodles of food from the original nomad family.

Personally, if a coach load of foreigners knocked on my door asking for cups of tea all round while somebody commandeered my kitchen, the response would not have been with such grace and abundant good humour.

One of many differences between Splott and Mongolia.

Golden Gobi Group Shot
The masses ranks of the OzBus and Golden Gobi

After all that, there was just one thing left to do – head out into Ulan Bator for a Saturday night out.

The Guinness in the Irish bar was, as expected, pretty awful, but the Tiger beer rolled down well, the band spent ages setting up, played a set of eight songs and then headed off and Paul Scholes settled the Manchester derby with a 93rd minute header.

An excellent night and a fine way to bid farewell to Mongolia.

China here we come…

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Adagio For Skinheads Bowling

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 15, 2010

Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia

DAY 26 on the trip and, fresh from a game of Russian Roulette in a station café on the Russian-Mongolian border, time for a condition check.

Put briefly – a bit battered and bruised.

Nothing of any great concern, but nobody who knows me will show any great surprise that the last few days have produced a few knocks, courtesy of one spectacular slip, a couple of collisions with door frames, an uncomfortable bed, being repeatedly catapulted into the roof of a van, an early-morning (translation: after a few vodkas) fall from a top bunk and, least surprisingly of all, a sports injury.

And a cold.

But as we are shunted around a railway yard waiting to cross the border, all is – pretty much – well as we have a bit of quiet time to recover from and reflect on one of the undoubted highlights of the trip so far.

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

Before we had even left Blighty, what seems an awfully long time ago, the phrase “Wow Moment” had fallen into common parlance and mine came on an island cliff top, overlooking the frozen Lake Baikal at sunset.

Silhouetted across the skyline were the small band who had made the trek up the hill after dinner, each lost in our own thoughts as we sought to keep out the piercing cold with whatever we felt fitted best with the moment on our iPods.

Lambchop and Massive Attack came close, but Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, reaching its crescendo as the sun finally dropped over the mainland, was spot on.

A truly perfect moment and a new entry right at the top of my most amazing things seen chart.

Wish it had been met it with a “wow” or something profound, but my choice of words owed more to our former driver Martins, but think Fuck Yes captures the magic just as well (there was certainly plenty of swearing as we realised just how far below zero it really was and pelted back to base).

Lake Baikal Sunset
… and another one, the sun drifts below a tree

But let’s rewind to where you last left us – a while ago admittedly, but we have been out of range of wi-fi for some time – and how we ended up freezing our bits off on the edge of a frozen lake.

Back then we were already cold, clean (we’ve been away from showers as long as we have internet access) free from bruises and about to hit the town in Irkutsk.

Or we would, if there was much of a town to hit, so the bulk of us went bowling at the request of Mary, our oldest tourist.

And a good time was had by all, although Mike was less than happy our two hours ran out just as he was on a run of five strikes in six attempts, but by then my shoulder had become the first part of my body to succumb to the rigours of this trip.

The London Pub – about as London-related as the rest of Irkutsk – was followed by the restaurant and a stumble back to the boys’ hostel, for the first time our party was split up overnight, and a quick nightcap.

Irkutsk - Lenin
Lork’s a Lordy – Statue of Lenin in Irkutsk

Or it should have been, were it not for a few bottles of vodka with our new Norwegian friends, the lovely Mari and Sunniva, which went on until well into the morning – just before I dropped my phone off the top bunk and followed it quite quickly in my attempt to retrieve it.

The effects – of the vodka and the fall – were all too aware as we struggled to pull ourselves out of bed, gather our kit and climb into minibuses for the six-hour drive to Lake Baikal.

It was a journey to be endured on roads which only barely qualified as such, but it was only the start of our trek as all but three of us, who got a rather less treacherous second leg of the journey, were deposited on the banks of the lake.

Lake Baikal contains 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater and is around a mile deep in places, making it the deepest lake in the world.

It is also, in mid-April, still completely frozen so the final 2km to Olkhon Island was completed on foot over the ice.

Lake Baikal - Walk over the ice
The walk over the frozen Lake Baikal to Olkhon Island

What followed was a mix between a Ray Mears survival show, a documentary on oversized penguins and an episode of It’s A Knockout On Ice as most of our group scurried across the snowy bits and slid/pigeon-stepped across the glass-like surfaces.

Fran took the prize for most falls with “around five” which made my solitary tumble look quite good, if only it wasn’t accompanied by a crack of the back of my head on the ice which produced an instant flock of cartoon tweety birds.

Another bone-shaking ride followed to our home for the night, which was akin to a wild west stockade, only more homely and with more confusing toilet arrangements.

A quiet night was followed by a return to the ice, only this time we were out in vans or, in our case, an old Russian army ambulance with a driver who took every opportunity to show off to his colleagues and his captive audience with a string of 360s and controlled skids on the ice.

No matter how skilled he is, there’s little he can do to stop the poor sod at the back of the van being launched into the roof every time he hits a major bump.

Olkhon Island
The northern tip of Olkhon Island meets the frozen Lake Baikal

So – travel tip coming up – take it from me, if you are out on the Lake Baikal ice, don’t sit at the back. It hurts.

Despite the bruises, it was a fantastic day in the most beautiful surroundings – topped off by that post-dinner stroll up to the headland for the sunset.

Or it would have been if we hadn’t decided to mull over what we had just seen with a few vodkas and beers… hence a few of the normal suspects being less than perky for the long return journey back to Irkutsk and our second long train journey to Mongolia.

Which is where you find us, sitting on the train waiting for the customs guys on the border.

Thankfully, we have managed to get off and find a café which produced much amusement among the locals that we were wearing shorts while they are still well wrapped up and the game of Russian Roulette – ordering from a menu which could bring you anything, a brave move with no toilets available on the train for several more hours and another night on the train to come.

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