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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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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It’s The End Of The World As We Know It…

Original posted on London to New York blog, April 2, 2010

Tallinn, Estonia

IT would be unfair to suggest that the inhabitants of the bus don’t pay full attention to Phil when he issues his latest state of the nation address at the front of the bus.

Admittedly we are taking his estimates on how far we have to carry our bags from the coach to the hostel each day with a huge handful of salt (200 metres is obviously a lot longer in New Zealand than it is over here), but on the whole we listen intently as he passes on the information we need about our latest destination. Well, most of the time.

But at no point has he held our attention as completely when he warned us about tomorrow’s trip from Tallinn to St Petersburg.

Four hours to the border and another four hours the other side got us interested, focusing minds to a day bedded down on the bus as Martins clocked up the miles.

But then he came up with his coup de grace – the information that border crossings on this route take between two and 12 hours. TWELVE HOURS!

We are well aware that’s a worst case scenario, but even two hours on the border will add up to a very long day on the road.

Tallinn - Town Hall
Sun shines on Tallinn – next stop Russia

And it has reinforced the growing spectre looming over us as the week has drawn on – the crossing into Russia and bidding farewell to the world as we know it.

Yes, we have faced up to a string of different languages, currencies, food, drink and cultures (and a fair few local brews), but throughout the first 13 days of this trip, speaking English has been all we have needed to get by.

Those that don’t speak it are used to having English tourists around and are geared up to dealing with our inability to cope with even our own language, let alone anybody else’s. We haven’t even had to produce our passports, except on one of the many trips to change money.

But that all stops tomorrow when we – hopefully – cross the border into Russia.

St Petersburg awaits, with a full day’s guided tour around the city, Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace in store for us, followed by a whistle-stop trip to Moscow and then the next distinct phase of the journey – the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Stage One of our railway trip, which rolls out of Moscow before dropping us off for a trip to Lake Baikal, means four nights on the train.

That prospect, coupled with the fears over the border crossing, has seen us running around for the last couple of days stocking up on kit and sustenance for the trip, mixed in with seeing the high spots of Riga and Tallinn.

Tallinn - Old Town Gates
Old Town Gates, Tallinn – Hostel more than 200m on right

Preparations have involved attempts to confirm an agreed set of rules for poker, which style is best and what currency we are betting in ahead of the proposed card school on the train, making sure all gadgets are fully charged, catching up with laundry and constant querying of exactly what food, drink and facilities are available on the train – constant hot water, vodka and what we can buy on stations basically.

There are even unconfirmed reports Freddie has repacked his massive bag, neatly folded and compartmentalised, in case the Russian border guards decide to rummage through it. Not sure whether that’s paranoia or the effects of spending too much time with Marlo drinking cocktails in the Skyline bar.

For Mike, Nick and me it has prompted a few dashes around the supermarkets and markets of Riga and Tallinn to squirrel away as much food that can be prepared with just hot water as possible – plenty of soup, noodles, mashed potatoes and tea bags – and items to cook and store them in. The bus is rattling with dried food and cooking implements until Moscow.

We think we are ready and have even managed to stock up with enough food and drink to see us through an entire day on the bus if necessary, to the extent that the three of us (or, to be more accurate, Nick) are cooking tonight’s pasta meal and saving half of it for the journey.

Whether Phil has any of his newly-created soup with him is debatable.

The Great Soup Experiment, Riga
Braving the great soup experiment, Riga

This culinary delight was invented on our final night in Riga when a group of us opted to stay in for an evening of cheese, ham, wine and other goodies. Discussion switched to how long it would take to brew a decent soup in a thermos flask.

In went carrots, stock cubes, whatever herbs and spices we had to hand, some blue cheese, venison sausage and, for some reason which made sense at the time, a biscuit.

Let’s just say more work is needed, but by the time we get off the train, we should have it perfected. The broth is good, the carrots just aren’t right.

That’s not to say we have spent all of our time in Riga and Tallinn preparing for Russia.

As much as anything, that would be a disservice to two charming cities which are well worth a visit by anyone and provide those willing to get out on foot and see what’s on offer plenty to experience.

Riga’s Museum of Latvian Occupancy is an interesting way to spend an hour.

The inability of several members of the group to spend a quiet night that doesn’t end nearer dawn than midnight also ensured we have seen plenty of both cities after dark.

Tallinn - Back streets
Back streets of Tallinn

With an early departure to Tallinn the next morning, we were determined to keep things quiet in our final night in Riga – right up until the point we were clearing up after our impromptu wine and cheese gathering.

It took just one suggestion of a quick trip out for one drink to use up our Lats and, before you could say “two large beers, a bottle of white and a malibu and coke, please”, Phoebe, Fran, Phil, Mike and I were safely installed in the same Russian bar which had been the scene of the previous night’s shenanigans.

And that’s where it all went a bit strange as our table attracted some unexpected attention from the locals – one who just came over to us, shouted at us in Russian and walked away laughing; another who insisted Phoebe dance with him to the thrash metal played in the bar and, more worryingly, the one who informed our resident Aussie weirdo magnet he had just had a fight down the road, was looking for another and had selected us for the pleasure.

You will be glad to know – but not as glad as we were – he never got his wish before sneaking off into the night.

Having sampled the delights of Riga’s nightlife, it would have been rude not to do the same in Tallinn.

We did see plenty of it in the day – it’s small enough to walk around much of the old town fairly quickly – and we even managed to end the two-week long hunt for a charger for Phoebe’s camera and fit in a sauna at the sister hostel down the road.

Not sure the sauna, tucked in the en-suite of one of the dorm rooms, was built for four, but we managed to squeeze in and – courtesy of a complicated system of knocks and sequenced door openings – managed to enjoy mixed showers without anyone losing their modesty.

The back of the bus reverted to type in the evening with a few beers and a meal in the Hell Hunt bar, followed by a few more beers, and a few more, in the aptly-named Drink bar.

As well as the requisite Aussies from the town’s hostels, we also met John and Sean, two Americans taking a lengthy spell out on the road and, in the case of John, sporting a quite spectacular beard.

It says something about the early stages of this trip that sloping off to bed early having downed another JD and coke at 3am put me among the early leavers.

But when you’ve got the luxury of a single room with a window on this trip, you don’t want to let it go to waste…

And that’s it, for the first time since London, fully up to date.

Tune in next time to find out just how long the wait at the Russian border was and whether we all got across…

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