Laughing On The Bus, Playing Games With The Faces

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 1, 2010

Banff, Canada

OVER the past 11 weeks, we have learned to accept a string of new travelling experiences as a matter of routine.

Across Europe, we took long days on the bus and the constant checking in and out of hostels in our stride, across Russia and Mongolia we became seasoned train survivors and on the cruise we accepted the luxury of a freshly-made bed and all the creature comforts we could want.

And since disembarking three weeks ago, we have become experts in living on a bus and embraced a new sensation – the night drive.

Inside Passage
Sun goes down on the rear deck of the Inside Passage ferry, our bed for the night from Petersburg

As we have ploughed southwards through Canada and America to San Francisco (around 4,600 miles according to Matty, who bid us farewell this morning), 19 people crashed out in all reaches of the bus has become something of a norm.

There are five basic rooming options for the discerning traveller, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks. They are:

Up top on the bunks – Essentially sleeping on the luggage racks, albeit slightly wider and with a mattress. Advantage of not being trodden on, but the ever present danger of falling off adds an air of danger to proceedings.

Opted not to head up there with my record of falling off top bunks (drunken incident in Irkutsk) and after all the bunks were filled on the opening night drive, only a few hardy souls have ventured up since.

'Ksan
One of the totem poles at the Indian village at ‘Ksan

On the tables – The other option not high on my list of places to try. They are the two tables either side of the aisle halfway down the bus with the seats lifted up to provide a sleeping platform.

The cubby hole – Originally not fancied as it is a bit dark and cramped down there, but having spent a couple of cosy nights down there, it is now my berth of choice.

Admittedly you are a bit close to the pile of stinky shoes and it takes a bit of effort to get in and out, but it is the only place where you can neither fall off nor be trodden on.

The back area – The mattress-covered area at the back which provides the major seating (well, more sort of slouching and lying down) area during the day, it is certainly comfortable.

But with up to seven people on there it can get a bit cramped one point found me completely trapped with Pam and Dave managing to lie on the opposite edges of my sleeping bag.

Hazleton
Room with a view – Our campsite at Hazleton

The front area – Largely the same as the back with the front benches extended out to the full width of the bus.

My place of choice when we are camping and it is not fully converted, it is a bit of a pain during toilet breaks while driving as you can get trampled in the rush to get off the bus.

It also rules out any chance of a lie-in as it is always the first place to be packed away to let people off and give full access to the food cabinets beneath.

There is a sixth option with the small bench and table at the back which Freddie claimed as his own from day one. Quite why somebody who is 6ft 2in would want the smallest sleeping area on the bus is anybody’s guess, but he seems to like it.

A night drive hits the road any time between 10pm and 4am when the driver emerges from his personal cubby hole and sets off into the night.

Twin Falls
Twin Falls at Smithers – Excellent

The bulk of us disappear off into whatever town we have set up shop in and find whatever the locals do to amuse themselves – basically, an open invitation to sit in a bar until we have to clamber back on the bus and go to bed.

The general rule is that the first on board go to the back and we work forward until the last one on gets the space right at the front.

At least that’s the plan.

In reality, Mary and Duncan obey the rules and head to the back early, only to be woken when the late arrivals turn up to find people sleeping at the front, beds not made up and sleeping bags nowhere near where they were left.

It can be quite amusing to lie back and watch the chaos unfold.

But enough of that, let’s rewind to where you left us with another strange sleeping option looming – a sun lounger on the aft deck of a ferry.

Not too many stuck it out all night on the trip from Petersburg to Prince Rupert and back into Canada as it proved a fair bit colder and less comfortable than the previous ferry.

Icefield Parkway
Mt Fryatt on the spectacular Icefield Parkway

The reward for those who did – and we even let the others join in – were the delights of Prince Rupert which don’t amount to much, so after about 45 minutes walking its largely quiet streets, we jumped back on the bus.

Our destination was the small town of Hazleton, where the first evening in North America where it got fully dark at a relatively normal hour was whiled away playing frisbee golf, cribbage and stoking our addiction to wi-fi whenever it is available.

An early morning trip to the neighbouring Native American museum was followed by a short-ish drive to Smithers (excellent!) and the chance to yomp up to a couple of waterfalls, followed by a much longer drive to the much larger Prince George, our base before driving off into the night.

With free rein to spend all night in the pub, we were fairly restrained in Shooters Bar as we munched on massive portions of food, watched the second game of the Stanley Cup finals and took part, scandalously, in a trivia quiz.

Sad to say, our two teams’ solid performances in the general knowledge section was let down by our complete inability to identify most of the songs in the musical sections – apart from Freddie.

Icefield Parkway
View from the Athabasca River running alongside the Icefield Parkway

His encyclopaedic and surprising knowledge of nauseating modern pop trash and bland American rock ensured one of our teams walked away with the prize – free beer – in the first round.

It was only later that our youngest traveller confessed his perfect score had been achieved with the help of an application on his all-singing, all-dancing, all-cooking, all-knowing phone.

Having gone to bed in Prince George sometime after 1am, we awoke rather late in Jasper National Park at the Miette Hot Springs.

Apart from the delights of swimming, hot springs are greeted with glee as they come complete with showers and, on this occasion, a decent fry-up.

Icefield Parkway
Stutfield Glacier on the Icefield Parkway

The rest of the day was spent on the bus as we clocked up mile after mile en route to our next destination, Banff.

If around seven hours on a bus sounds boring, this was anything but as we glided down the truly spectacular Icefield Parkway, the undoubted new leader in any competition to find my favourite road in the world.

For mile after mile the bus windows were filled with spectacular views of mountains, rivers, lakes, forest, glaciers, icefields and, for a few magical moments, a bear.

Sightings of wildlife in the last couple of weeks have been fairly regular, but this black bear stole the show as he meandered along the side of the road seemingly oblivious to the cars, RVs and big green buses parked up to take his picture.

He was also an obliging soul, saving the day when one latecomer backed his huge 4×4 between us and him, crossing the road to give the Green Tortoise inhabitants a perfect view.

BearA stunning highlight to a wonderful journey and there was more wildlife on view on the banks of Lake Louise.

Whether it was a big porcupine or a wolverine is still up for debate, but he too hung around for the cameras as we decided that Lake Louise does not live up to its billing as the prettiest lake in the world.

Bear
The bear poses for the cameras after crossing the road to give us a better view

It’s pretty, yes, just not that pretty. But it is somewhere which has been on my places to see list since skiing at the resort just down the road back in my younger days.

Those two trips to Canada were based in Banff, so it was with some excitement that, after a whirlwind meal and setting up of the tents, a group of us waltzed into town to see what it has to offer.

Plenty of bars were as remembered – although the Barbary Coast has sadly been renamed and reborn as the Elk and Oarsman and the Rose and Crown was a bit dead – but we settled on one which had previously carried a fear of line dancing, Wild Bill’s Saloon.

Line dancing was, happily, off the menu, replaced instead by a night of karaoke as the locals unveiled a penchant for soft rock, Bryan Adams and country.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

But very hospitable the locals were, even applauding and dancing along to Nick and Dave’s rendition of Sweet Child of Mine.

Strange these Canadians.

Mossie update: Thankfully, we are out of their territory for a few days, although still seem to be finding new bites in strange places.

My hands, head and arms are, on the whole, clearing up, but my legs are now home to some really lovely scabs where my trousers have rubbed the top off the bites.

And how those two huge red welts got on my foot is anybody’s guess.

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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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