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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Teach Yourself Overland

Originally posted in London to New York blog, June 5, 2010

APOLOGIES for the lack of updates in the last week, but there has been very little chance to write or file copy as we careered south through Canada and into the United States.

Normal service should be resumed in the next few days, but until then here’s the Unofficial Abridged Overland Dictionary – designed to provide outsiders (see Randoms) with the slightest idea of what we are talking about when they bump into us.

200 metres – Measurement used by Phil to describe the distance from the bus. New Zealand metres are obviously a lot longer as the walk, laden down by gear, is invariably considerably further than 200 metres. 

Bag Explosion – The phenomenon which ensures that, however hard you try to keep your stuff together on the bus, your belongings will end up scattered all over the place, including ones you have never been (see Phebes; see Tortoise Orbit). 

Bag Party – The long-awaited moment when everybody’s main bags are unloaded from the luggage hold to give full access to the stuff you only think you need. Some will not wait for the party and take every opportunity to get their stuff out (see The Oirish). 

Bear – Creatures we have either been trying to avoid or desperate to see (depending on whether we have been out walking or on the bus). Or large, bearded Kiwi. 

Bear Bells – Worn by hikers on their bags to scare off bears – or to irritate their fellow travellers. The same walkers are also likely to carry pepper spray to ward off bears. Local joke is that you can tell black bear pooh because it is full of fruit and gopher fur. Brown bear pooh is lined with bells and pepper spray. 

Bear Bin – Secure metal bin used to store food when camping to prevent Yogi and his mates getting at food. Anything that smells must be kept in the bin when not in use (that’s toiletries and stuff, not my socks, a pair of which were forcibly wedged outside the window in Anchorage). Failure to do so can end in death – either for a camper who has attracted a bear into camp or for Yogi as bears who get the taste for human food are routinely shot. We received a slap on the wrist from Mr Ranger, Sir, for leaving out beer cans. 

Bigger Than Jesus – Nickname for Marlo, the world’s coolest man (inevitably shortened to Jesus). 

Buddy Check – System which ensures everybody is on the bus before we head off. I have to check Mike and Marlo are on board. Nick cheated and picked Phil (tour leader) and Matty (the driver) as we ain’t going anywhere without them. Not sure who, if anybody, is checking I am there. 

Clam – Officially, a type of sea creature used to make a Canadian drink called Clamato Juice (inexplicably drunk by Phil in a pint of lager). Unofficially, schoolboy sexual innuendo.

Crème Brulee – To be said in as posh an accent and loud a voice as one can manage (think Kenneth Williams crossed with Stephen Fry). Ordered by Freddie in such a voice in restaurant in Juneau, just before he got hit by the stomach bug (see What the bloody hell is going on?; see Rothschild). 

Cubby Hole – Only sleeping place on the bus which will not result in somebody standing or leaning on you during a night drive. Underneath the two tables halfway down the bus, originally thought to be dark and uncomfortable, now much sought after.

Cwtchy Coo – One of several contributions from the ‘Welsh’ contingent. In its simplest term, a description of a pretty young lady. In more vulgar form, a description of what would happen if any of us were to get together with said young lady.

Day Bag – Small bags containing essentials, designed to prevent constant raiding of the luggage hold. Supposedly the only things we have on the bus with us. Yeah, right.

Dippy Eggs – Fried eggs with enough runny yolk to dip bread into. Americans would call them Sunny Side Up, although runny yolk should also be available from eggs cooked Over Easy.

Drunken – Early nickname for Duncan, possibly deriving from slip of the tongue. Stuck because it was strangely apt.

Drunken Lords – Early description via Google translate from Spanish to English of Mike, Nick and I on Enrique’s blog. Not sure if the Spanish version is more or less polite about us.

Frangipani – Much-hyped hair treatment at the spa during the cruise. Or nickname for Fran. Not sure how we managed to have a nickname three syllables longer than her actual name. 

Fuck No – Phrase beloved of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he a) spoke; b) joined us for a few drinks (see Fuck Yes; see Marius). 

Fuck Yes – Companion phrase for Fuck No uttered by Martins (not to be confused with its unofficial brother fuck yeah, which he never said) (see Fuck No; see Marius). 

Green Tortoise – Our transport throughout Canada and the USA and bed for much of the last five weeks. Company formed in 1973 so do not believe any passing hippy who wanders up and says: “Oh man, I rode the Tortoise back in the 60s…” 

Growler – Evidently some form of beer container belonging to Jane which has gone missing on the Green Tortoise. Her constant pleading of “has anyone seen my growler?” met with schoolboy sniggering. 

Has anyone seen…? (also Where’s my….?; also Have you got my passport/wallet/camera/hairbrush?) – Plaintive plea from Phoebe as she attempts to find whichever item of hers has joined the list of her belongings which have been strewn around the bus (see Bag Explosion; see Tortoise Orbit). Followed by looks to Phil, Nick or me to see which of us she entrusted said item to sometime in the last 24 hours. 

Kenny Thomas (abbreviation, Kenny) – Named after obscure singer Kenny Thomas’ solitary hit single Outstanding and used when something (see Dippy Egg) has reached that level. Quite possibly Nick Machin’s finest contribution to the English language (only serious competition coming from Dippy Egg). 

Juggasoraus Rex – Direct steal from The Inbetweeners. Best used to describe when Pam’s cleavage almost caused me to go blind in Vancouver. 

Legal Team – General threat from Freddie, first issued on the Trans-Siberian, to get a high-powered legal team onto us when we were winding him up about plans for his birthday. Only served to make us even worse. Actual legal team believed to be at other end of phone ahead of Freddie’s birthday in Chicago. 

Marius – Alter ego of original driver Martins on the rare occasions when he was able to join us for a few drinks (see Fuck No; see Fuck Yes) and the day after when he was even less capable of speech than normal. 

Night Drive – Form of transport used to get us from one place to the next overnight. First on board should take the beds at the back and work towards the front, leaving the stragglers to fall into bed at the front. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. When we are all on board, Matty (or his successors) head to the wheel, start rolling and await the first request for a toilet stop (normally within the first half hour). 

Ongaru – Ancient, mystical term originally thought to derive from West Wales. Shouted as term of encouragement or pleading for somebody to get on with something. Also worked, albeit just the once, to summon a waiter on the Diamond Princess. 

On Top – One of the least popular sleeping berths (except, strangely, with Mike and Nick) on the luggage racks of the Green Tortoise. Comes with unexpected bonus of being groped in the darkness as people search for bags they thought were on that bunk. 

Phebes – What Phoebe officially likes to be called (see Phoebe Kate; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel). 

Phoebe Kate – One of the things Phoebe is actually called (see Phebes; see Puggle; see Skanky Weasel).

Puggle – A baby echidna (small, spiky, Australian creature). As revealed by Phoebe (small, spiky, Australian creature) in bus quiz in the opening two days, hence earning herself a nickname which has stuck for the rest of the trip (see Phoebe Kate; see Phebes; see Skanky Weasel). 

Randoms – Name given to all outsiders. We may communicate with them, but they will never understand. They weren’t there maaaaan… 

Red Lines – Dangerous shot consisting of tequila, Tabasco and vodka and featuring a red line halfway down the glass as fed to Mike in Vilnius by a strange Icelandic bloke. Resulted in Mike losing much of the next day. 

Rothschild – High-class wine. Entire group left in suspense when Freddie did not attend second wine tasting session on Diamond Princess to find out the answer to the burning question of the entire trip: “How are they going to deal with the Rothschild?”. 

Roy – Strangled shout, initially issued by Mike, as a tribute to former Republic of Ireland manager Jackie Charlton’s summoning of midfielder Roy Keane. In no context to be confused with anybody else of the same name (see Soy). 

Shitfight – Phil’s term for anything that involves a lot of people attempting to do the same thing in a limited space or length of time (used often when loading/unloading bags, entering hostels or – at its best – when boarding a train in Moscow). 

Skanky Weasel – Yet another nickname given to Phoebe after four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway with no access to a shower and limited range of washing facilities. Variation: Cranky Weasel 

Soy –Variation of Roy in restaurants in China (see Roy). 

Terrible – Mike’s verdict on any act or phrase which he deems inappropriate. Most often used after something he has done or said himself. Often followed with the phrase: “I think I may have got away with it”. 

Thank you my friend – Term of address used by Mike. The rest of us were using it without realising within days. 

The Oirish – Easy catch-all name for Leila and Dave. Find one, the other is not normally far away. 

Tortoise Orbit – The strange void into which belongings vanish on the Green Tortoise, only to turn up (hopefully) in a completely different spot from when they were last seen (see Bag Explosion; see Phebes). 

What the bloody hell is going on? – To be said in the poshest possible voice (as only normally heard in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster) when woken during the night on the boat by rolling into the wall (see Crème Brulee; see Legal Team; see Rothschild). Late variation: What the fuck? – Used when Freddie was prodded in the arse while asleep in Vancouver, accompanied by leap and full turn in the air. 

Whiffy – Spanish for Wi-fi. Invariably Enrique’s first question when we arrive at a new destination (see Wi-fi). 

Wi-fi – As much as there may be plenty of sights to see and experience in our new destination, the one thing guaranteed to get half the bus excited is the presence of wi-fi access. Laptops are reached for far quicker than maps, guide books and cameras (see Whiffy). 

Wow moment – The times that make going without showers, changing clothes or much sleep worthwhile and the reason we are all doing this in the first place. 

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If You Go Down In The Woods Today…

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 27, 2010

Pingyao, China

“He’s going on about Ming, Ding and Hot Wings, I don’t know what shit is going on” – Marlo

“Don’t share with The Bear” – Ancient trip saying

THIS trip is full of contrasts as we tick off the countries, cultures and assorted accommodation.

The cramped, smelly and uncomfortable days on the Trans-Siberian, where food was limited to what we could buy on the platforms and cook with boiling water, are a million miles away from the luxury of the Diamond Princess, with an army of staff waiting to serve us an array of food available 24 hours a day and look after our every need – even if four blokes sleeping in one room is still a bit cramped.

And the differences between China, Russia and our early destinations through middle Europe are many and varied.

De Je Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao
The main entrance, De Ju Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao

But rarely have we swung so rapidly as the relatively short hop from Xi’an to Pingyao, which marked the start of the return loop to Beijing.

Whereas Xi’an is a modern, bustling city where you want for little, the ancient walled city of is very much hanging onto its past.

Tower blocks, new buildings and wide highways are replaced by narrow, car-free streets and single-storey shops and guesthouses, while our sparkling new hotel was replaced by an old-fashioned guesthouse.

And a charming place it was too – at least the guesthouse was.

Guesthouse courtyard, Pingyao
Open to the elements – Snow storm hits the courtyard of the guesthouse in Pingyao

Pingyao itself, once the initial charm has worn off, does not have that much on offer.

It was also the place I ignored the acknowledged wisdom of the trip and shared with “The Bear”. And what’s more, did it in a double bed.

For double bed, read huge expanse of mattress and duvet which provided more than enough room for the two biggest blokes on tour to enjoy some of the most comfortable conditions of the trip, as well as sprawling large chunks of kit all over the bed.

At one point we had four people on the bed and it was not in the least bit crowded – although one of them had to be asked to leave for eating biscuits.

Downtown Pingyao
The mean streets of downtown Pingyao

As for “The Bear”, that is the nocturnal name for Phil, all 6ft 4in of him and my only serious rival for the title of biggest snorer on tour (although we are not as far ahead as some others would like to think).

He reckons my snoring’s not actually that bad. Wish the same could be said for him. My iPod and headphones came in handy.

Away from the sleeping arrangements, Pingyao did throw up a few moments to remember – not least biting wind and sudden snow storms, little more than 24 hours after wandering around Xi’an in shorts and sunglasses.

There’s not that much to see – most of the streets blend into one after a while – but our softly-spoken guide managed to find a few places to visit, although if any of us had realised just how close we were to the guesthouse for much of the tour, he would have found it even harder to keep our attention.

Taoist Temple, Pingyao
Taoist Temple, Pingyao

He led us around the city walls in a bitter gale, an old bank, the historic local government offices, complete with prison, and (most interestingly) a Taoist temple, but the real high (and low points) came from our food and drink outings.

Our hosts treated us to a noodle and dumpling making lesson. Several of our number joined in with contrasting results, before serving up the results – and some they had made earlier – in possibly the finest feast of our Chinese leg.

It was given an extra frisson of danger by a sudden gale which blew down the ramshackle wooden scaffolding on the building opposite, although that was rather less exciting for those of us sat in the window as it clattered down inches from us.

An afternoon diversion into a tiny, sign-laden bar by Phil, Nick, Phoebe and myself (ostensibly to escape another bout of winter weather) produced another unexpected gem. Once, that was, we had discovered we weren’t meant to balance our drinks on the uneven tables, but pour them into bowls and drink from there.

Pingyao Bar
Leaving our mark in the bar in Pingyao

We left our mark with an addition to the signs which decorate the walls and while we are proud of the alliteration, we apologise for the language.

But from there it all went downhill, a disappointing meal back at the guesthouse followed by an even more unfulfilling trip to the Pirate bar around the corner, which not only failed to satisfy our growing pirate obsession (all will be explained), but has earned a nomination as the worst bar any of us have ever been in – which provides plenty of competition.

Empty, cold, black and with just a few Pirates of the Caribbean posters to suggest any pirate link, we also had to endure the eccentric landlord playing guitar to us. At least that was a break from the dreadful music we were subjected to.

Pirate Bar, Pingyao
Warning signs – The Pirate Bar in Pingyao

Duncan’s assessment (“Let’s wreck this joint”) was met with support until we realised it looked like somebody already had.

Things did improve at our next port of call – but only just. Not only did we have to put up with sporadic power cuts, but a visit to the toilet entailed walking through the middle of a foot massage parlour.

Sadly, nobody was too reluctant to hit the road the next morning, although our 6.30am departure was heralded by my opening words to Phil which, tidied up for family viewing, were: “Phil, it’s twenty past ***%$* six”.

Latest travel tip: Don’t leave setting the alarm to your roomie.

Going out in a bit of a rush and missing breakfast was not that bad an error as having no food in my stomach proved a blessing for much of the day (particularly considering the next day’s events).

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
‘We’re going up there?” – The Hanging Temple

A fairly terrifying drive on, for large chunks, the wrong side of the road, was followed by the climb up to the Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain.

Composed of places of worship for Taoists, Buddhists and Confucius, the temple is built halfway up a cliff face with sheer drops off narrow wooden walkways and the path up to it is treacherous in the best of conditions.

In the snow and ice which greeted us, it was even more so, leading both to snowball fights and one or two people looking less than enamoured by their precarious position at the high point.

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
Long Way Down

There was more Buddhism at the Yungang Grottoes, a series of caves containing thousands of statues ranging from 2cm to 70m tall.

Very impressive it is too, but to echo Marlo’s immortal summation of the situation, our guide bombarded us with so many names and dates, it all became just a bit too confusing and we were reduced to using the caves for shelter from the biting wind.

Listened a bit more would have paid off as Gary struck me with an impromptu quiz on Buddhism. Not was expected when asking someone where the toilet is.

Thankfully, we were well sheltered from the wind when we reached our hotel in Datong which – apart from the first bath of the trip – was notable mainly for most of us not leaving the premises in search of a drink.

Yungang Grottoes
The largest of the thousands of Buddhas at the Yungang Grottoes

Sadly, it was also notable for the worst ordering of the trip and left four of us trying to down a bizarre collection of fat, gristle, bones and red-hot chillies. Well, three of us, Duncan opted to throw most of his over the tablecloth as he tried desperately to show off his new-found chopstick skills.

It all added up to an early night, but it was to bite back in some style the next day.

Of which, more next time…

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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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