Thursday, 31 May 2007

dun dlun dlun dlun dlun dlun dlun daaaaa

the life ideal
a bit about driving in mongolia

like most of the driving i've found around the world, the attitude to safety and the quality of road surfaces are quite a bit lower than what we got in britland. here in mongolia, when there actually is tarmac it is a cracked and potholed bleached-grey area, tracing a vague line to the next destination. there is no real edge; just a point where the road starts fading to a point where there is no tarmac. without warning the rugged surface may be interrupted by any or all of the following: cracks, potholes, dirt-track, on-coming vehicles, wooden bridges with planked surfaces, no road, and cows.

much of your journey you might spend with your eyes closed, praying that the driver knows the road as well as his driving implies.

let me attempt to take you into the mongolian countryside. first of all - it's beautiful, as though someone has laid a green-brown blanket of crushed velvet over rolling hills. the horizon is soft with pine trees as it undulates to and from you while you travel through the middle. the scenery subtly changes every few minutes as you rise and fall over the hills and into the valleys. driving at speed would be like sitting on a boat - if it weren't for the fact that the roads are completely awful.

the view straight out the front of our gerwe're staying for a couple of days in the terelj region, a little to the east of ulaan baatar. it's far enough from the small city to lose any impression that cities even exist outside of distant memory. the rolling hills on the city borders have been replaced by much more impressive mountains, still covered by the crushed velvet but with tall rounded rocks sticking through holes. we climbed one this morning to find some incredible views across the plains. under a clear blue sky and streaming sunshine we looked out over settlements dotted about, herds of animals edging their way across the landscape. below us our ger (mongolian tent). we are staying with a young family who live here, a couple and their baby living a pretty traditional life. they have a large ger that they live in and a smaller one for tourists. for a couple of dollars they feed us and give us beds for the night. the man of the house (i don't know his name, they speak no english and our phrase books cannot do anything for our unrestrained english accents. we'll call him jack) keeps horses and drinks coca-cola.

our traveling companions on this little jaunt are a couple, clare and jim. they're phd physicists and have been traveling for about 18 months. old hands.

the view straight out the front of our gerjack took us out on his horses. none of us have been on a horse before, but this concept doesn't seem to occur to jack. he's obviously been on a horse since birth in a land where everybody rides a horse from birth. even his baby turns out to be better than us. mongolians invented horse-riding. they were the first people in history to ever sit on them to travel. so for us not to know how to do it must've been a bit odd.

the horses here are physically smaller than those you see doing the grand national and such. 'stocky geldings' the book says. they're strong though. in the times of mongol warlords and marauding warriors they launched into battle wiping out everything before them. today we've spent 2 hours on horseback over pretty tough terrain, all the time jack shouting "tschu!" and getting the horses to go faster, go faster. i worried that i'd sneeze and set mine belting at hyperspeed across the country.

my bum and thighs and knees are killing me, but what a brilliant way of seeing this part of the world. that is when you're not concentrating on desperately holding on for dear life. i named my horse 'alan.' alan was quite an angry horse with rough beige hair and a blind white eye. he kicked jack in the head while he tried to tighten my saddle. the guy proned to the ground clutching his forehead while the rest of us stood gaping with concern, but with no referential knowledge of what to do, if anything. alan later tried to kick me in the head when i tried to mount him. missed though, luckily. when alan wasn't kicking or moaning, he was farting. i currently stink of horse-fart and i'm 16 hours from my next shower. excellent.
small but impressive. and the horse

jack controls the horses with song. it's pretty cool, but it's worrying when he sings because at any moment the horses could hear a certain phrase and gallop forward with us on top, our only thoughts to making sure we stay on. no care for our style or finesse, but just for finishing with our skulls intact. fantastic, but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life, ball-wise.

when we are brought food the family dogs try to sneak unnoticed into the ger. one gives up and lays at the door with it's head lolled over the threshold, watching us intently.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

espresso shot of culture

the big city
we woke up pulling into ulaan baatar, the capital of mongolia. a small city for a capital, with one main street, a central square and a big buddhist temple. there doesn't seem to be much else yet, except for a lot of dust.. there are the normal things that a capital city should have; a natural history museum, that kind of thing. but no big distinguishing landmarks. no big ben or eiffel tower.

not to say it's not a cool city. we've experienced a welcome here unlike any other, the people are warm and friendly and funny and don't seem to tire of checking you out and giving you assistance.

the guys at the hostel are basically doing all our legwork to sort out a jeep, driver and recommending a list of places to visit over the next 8 days or so.

come and see genuine recreations of real pretend actual slightly made up culture
they did, though, direct us to a "discover mongolia" culture show this evening. in some ways it turned out to be a bit of bad advice but we thoroughly enjoyed the am-dram kitsch performance by a supposedly professional group of singers, dancers and musicians. possibly the most contrived compacted way of absorbing a culture, a sort of cabaret evening of traditional songs and folk dances. oddly it finished with two contortionists - i always thought that was a chinese thing.

it was sort of a comedy of errors, the first dancer kicked a microphone and stand across the stage where it proceeded to trip the other dancers up no end throughout the rest of the dance. this was all stopped when a ember of the audience got up and tried to sort it out.

they used a projector just about bright enough for a living room (not a 600 seat auditorium) and either the lamp was close to the end of its hours or they weren't sending the signal properly because the image projected was made up of various shades of lime green.
the city of ulaan baatar
the music mix was terrible, i mean really awful, and there was a nasty buzz over one of the channels. it was fun though, funny that in the capital city they were happy to present their traditions in such a badly produced way.

the highlight was the 'throat singing.' this is a skill that mongolian folksmen learn whereby they can sing one melody with a low growl from their diaphragm and throat, and accompany themselves with a top end tone through their nasal passage. it's impossible to explain i words what it sounds like, sort of a cross between some bagpipes and a tractor with a blown exhaust. absolutely amazing though, to see and hear. the first time he added the top end it was like a dentist drill directly into your eardrum, i swear the speakers were moments of exploding from the wall.

i like mongolia so far, generally from the people. and some of the girls are really hot. mongolians describe themselves as having eastern philosophy with a western culture. this seems like a fair description of the society that i've seen today.

some oddities i have seen are the enormous palacial banks with no affiliations. the one we used to change our money had gargantuan gold pillars adorning the front and a restaurant on floor 7. i saw a new mercedes convertible for just over $14,000 (about £7,000) amongst other cars, all retailing for pittance.
sun baatar square
while waiting for a table at a busy restaurant, a waitress came up to us and asked us to follow her. we thought she was showing us to a free table but instead she led us - confused but polite - out of the restaurant, down the road and to a completely different establishment. cheeky lady.

the food here is cheap to the point of being ridiculous. matt and i ate our fill at a cafe this evening. it costed £2 in total. get in. the buddhist temple contained (quite hidden away from the world) an enormous gold statue of buddha, about 10 storeys high and indoors.

it seems like a bit of a nuts place, but great with it. the traffic is worse and harder to negotiate than russia. onward!

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

a day on the track(s)


we are here
on our third train heading towards the border. we've swapped our normal electric train for a diesel engine which is ever so slightly more like the old steam train i'd hoped for. the diesel trains are slower though, and it's a slow 'local' train stopping at all the little stations along the way. we're surrounded by more incredible landscape, another to tick off the box; wide open grassy plains with wide flat rivers meandering through, grey-blue in the morning light. in the near distance on both sides we're enclosed by mountains, a spatter of pine forest a-top each peak. the sun rises promising another stunning siberian day. i'm beginning to become suspicious of this cold, harsh reputation. i've only seen the rich colours of a sunlit world. at most i'd call the climate here "changeable."

it's remote here. very. some of the train stations are simply known by a number, the number of kilometres they are away from moscow.
we will cross the border sometime this evening. i've enjoyed russia but i'm eager to get onto mongolian soil and see what that country has in store for us. hopefully we'll leave russia okay. the border guards have somewhat of a reputation that leaves a lot to be desired. 'corruption,' 'theft' and 'mentally unstable' are words we've heard used about the commandos that guard the edge of the biggest country in the world. fingers crossed that we find ourselves in mongolia this evening, with all our money, passports and possessions still in our custody.


i miss music, good music. i bought my ipod with me, on it a library of music for every mood and emotion. music is important to me and under normal circumstances it'd accompany every waking movement i make. my ipod runs from when i leave the house to work, whereupon it is plugged into the speakers we have in the office and carries on it's duty. i'd even installed speakers into my motorbike dashboard to wish me the odd chord over the whistling wind. there's a great temptation to plug it in on the train and watch the hills roll by with a custom soundtrack. for some reason the opening bars of made up lovesong #43 by the guillemots keeps on repeating in my head.

but i made a conscious decision to absorb only the life and atmosphere of the lands i visit. if i were to fall into the music of my wood green bedroom i'm worried i'll become just another disaffected average british tourist. the sort that get off a plane in a foreign country and immediately seek out the nearest english pub or fried breakfast. or one of those americans with their indecipherable and unique attitude of "we've got everything in the united states, why bother going to other countries?" a notion that i can't even begin to grasp, especially with their opinion of ruling the world. how can you rule a place you're completely unaware of?

am i overtly paranoid?

i'm being very general with my analysis of americans. i'm sorry to those who don't fall into this way of thinking. it's probably the same group that voted for al gore. ahem... i started off writing about music didn't i? basically i've got it with me but i don't want it forming a barrier between me and the heart of russia. the end.


lonesome town
we wait at the border. our carriage - the only one crossing the border - has now been disconnected, shunted and knocked unexplained as we wait to cross into no-man's land. we've been here 3 hours so far, a solitary passenger cart in the middle of a large industrial style station. there's a nervous feeling throughout, probably the impending on-set of the twitchy trigger-happy guards. luckily a package tour from some scandinavian country or other in on the train and their guide speaks fluent russian and english, so he's informed us of why we're waiting and what happens next.

there aren't any turrets or spotlights like you might expect, but there are a lot of official looking uniforms walking about. the guide says none of them really do anything, they just fill job spaces that have been invented to create employment.
pussy cats
we sit and expect burly soldiers with machine guns to jump on and rifle through our bags. a few hours pass. no such luck with the armed troops, instead a red haired girl in her early twenties with a fantastic bottom arrives. she glances over our passports and cautiously filled out immigration forms breathing approving sounds to herself.

"da." she says, and hands them back before moving on to the next cabin.

is that it?

two more women arrive and take our passports and disappear with them under their arms.


they've had them an hour now. i want mine back. i've spent too much unnerving time in russia despite none of it ever coming to anything. i want my passport back and i want the train to start moving again. the heat is unbelievable with no air flow through the carriage. it's really hot again.

a group of mongolians have been loading beer from the local shop into their cabin, presumably to sell across the border. about 10 crates of 12x3 litre bottles so far, and they keep on coming. i guess they don't have the same rules of customs as we have in europe. oop, some more uniforms have arrived, gotta go....


winners of the ‘crossing the border’ competition
we're through! quite a few hours later admittedly, but we're through, we're in mongolia. we can stop chewing on our fingernails and looking at each other in a lost and nervous way. we have passed unscathed out of russia, our money has not been removed, nor our cameras, nor our mobile phones. yet another of russia's sordid reputations failing to appear. a lot of bureaucracy though; one came to look at passports, two came to take them away, two to check cabins another to check luggage and customs forms. it seemed to be without end until two armed guards climbed on our single solitary carriage as a special engine grabbed and took it to the russian border and on into no-man's land.

crossing no-man's land was a very solemn affair. weird atmosphere all about. we entered through the shadows cast by guarded towers and razor-wire fences. 40 passengers stood in silence with their faces against the glass, attempting to take secret photos of the soldiers and the scrubland. it felt like the time of anxious expectation at the beginning of a victorian ghost train. guard towers held shadows of large men with large guns. no-one knew quite what to expect. some softly spoken strained jokes were made. the wasteland lay unclaimed, depoliticised, un-policed, rolling beside us. our book warned us "under no circumstances try and get off here. don't even think about it."

we didn't.
guns pointed at us

mongolian customs & immigration was a lot less of a nerve-wracking experience. they took our passports, they brought them back. the whole process and the continuation of our travels would have been a lot quicker except - being a single carriage - we had to wait for a local train to arrive for us to be hooked onto. for two hours we stood, a lonesome truck with no engine, in the middle of the platform at the station on the mongolian side of the border.

in broken russian, matt managed to buy a block of ice-cream and two sticks from a little shop near to the station.
dvar creamo sumfink (and a stick) spa si bar
i wasn't prepared for the poverty i saw on the platform. i hadn't even considered it. at least 5 children played on the tracks, dirty clothes and hands and faces, eyes expectantly watching the slightly confused and flustered westerners herding off the train for a walk. one peered over matt's shoulder, fascinated by his camera.
the kids' playthings were the stray dogs that hung around the trains. mongrels of various shapes and sizes. one a puppy. they expressed an edgy playfulness, wagging their tails but darting away when non-mongolians came near. their eyes bright, but a bit sad.


it is pitch black outside. flames can be seen in the distance, solitary glints of orange light and no way of knowing how far away or how big.

we have drank a lot of beer with our scottish roommates. like russia, in mongolia beer is cheaper than bottled water or coca-cola. i also ate a cadbury's wispa bought from a local mongol shop. whatever happened to wispas? they were awesome...!

it seems i am a bit drunk at 11:49pm.
first glimpse of mongolia

Monday, 28 May 2007

matt just broke a glass shelf with his head

prayer cloths hanging from trees near the datsun
the datsun is a buddhist temple about 3 kilometres out of town. the girls in the tourist office looked very confused and slightly concerned this morning when we went to ask if we could somehow go and see it. they told us later, at 1pm.

when the time came we waited in the hotel lobby joking that they would have trouble accommodating such a small group of 2 on a tour, and we'd end up traveling in one of their cars or something.

at one o'clock one of the tourist information girls came and took us outside to her toyota camry parked in the forecourt.

it was an inordinate change seeing russia through a car window. somehow pleasant and refreshing. it was even nicer having a knowledgeable english speaking person to tell us about the place we're in and answer our questions. i hadn't realised how little we were learning about this country by just being in it. we suddenly began to find out reasons for place names and traditions; some theory to go with our practical.
look at that sky!
the datsun is the centre of russian buddhism, an intricately carved temple and similar other buildings. around them the humble wooden houses that the buddhist lamas live in. walking the traditional clockwise around the grounds, the guide told us the history and philosophy of buddhism, and the meanings of the artifacts we came across. spin them, it makes the world betterin the background a recording of low bassy chanting brought a stillness and a hush over the whole place. it was incredibly still, actually. and peaceful. we span prayer cylinders. even though they were constructing a new pathway and a temple using power tools, nothing seemed to disturb the peace.

in one of the temples two lamas were praying, deep booming voices reading from an endless pile of prayers written in sanscrit. it should've been an enchanting experience but one kept yawning; very funny. the other would occasionally check his watch. neither missed a beat with their chants.

i want to do it nowthere was a german guy there who had ridden his triumph motorbike the whole way on a massive tour. man, i was jealous.

on the way back the guide told us we were the first tourists she'd seen this year. it explains a lot. result.

just as i started writing this entry an enormous crash erupted from the en-suite. turns out matt just nutted a glass shelf while washing his face, and broke it and the mirror above it. the hotel manager thought it was hilarious, he charged us only 600 roubles (about £12). comedy gold and an inexpensive jape.

ulan ude - pronounced "ooh-lan ooh-day"

fun with lenin
the train station announcement system always begins with the opening bar of "we wish you a merry christmas" but the '-mas' bit dissolves into static like the batteries have run out.

we scored a neat little soviet designed hotel with proper beds and an en-suite and everything. ulan-ude is slightly confused by our presence. we've been stared at a lot on this trip, but not so much as here. one guy - dressed as neo from the matrix - actually stopped and studied us as we passed by either side of him.

it took ages to get this shotthe biggest statue of a head in the world is here, in this tidy, quiet, unassuming little city. lenin's head in dark metal stares out of a square in the centre of town. and it is huge. another one of the soviet constructions that you can't help but laugh. it's a real tribute, an amazing piece of art. his dismembered head sternly casting shadows over the concrete.

i don't think you've really lived until you've heard the opening speech of the a-team in russian. we sat in a cafe with a coke watching communist cartoons from 1971 on a huge korean plasma screen. then suddenly that shot of an american helicopter flying over 'nam comes on.
"is it?" we thought.

it was. the a-team in russian. brilliant.

В 1972 блок commando отказа был послан к тюрьме военныйа трибунал для злодеяния, котор они не поручил. Эти люди проворно избеубежали от максимального stockade обеспеченностью к Los Angeles ОН нелегально. Сегодня, все еще после того как мне хотели правительством, они выдерживают как воины удачи. Если вы имеете проблему, то если no one else могут помочь, и если вы можете найти их, то возможно вы можете нанять-Komandu the a-team

the new a-team vanthe best part of it was all the voices were done by one man. he must've just sat in a studio and read a script; no emotion, no intonation, just one voice for the whole thing. we sat there for the whole episode, probably about 2 hours including the ridiculous amount of advert breaks they have here. like in the u.s. when it takes an hour to watch 40 minutes of tv.

and nothing to show the end of a part. one second you're watching mr. t shouting at murdoch then the scene cuts to a woman on a train with a bad body odour problem.

i love it when a plan comes to *margarine

i miss the bbc and the unique way it is funded...

Sunday, 27 May 2007

the 32 to ulan ude

close to the lake
we're on a train again, a local service that we're taking to our next city on the other side of the lake. most of the route runs alongside baikal.

we share our cabin with two russian "man's men" dressed in chelsea football club tracksuits. they warm to us when they find our we're londoners. they've just gutted and eaten raw omul they bought from a lady on a platform. this train stops more often than the last one, a slow service. we also bought omul thinking they would be cooked and gutted like the ones we had by the lake. not so. ours still lay on the table, wrapped tightly in plastic, looking at me.
the prosvenitzas are playing the oddest selection of music on this train. when we boarded they were blasting out noisy euro-pop happy house tracks. but we've spent the last couple of hours listening to what sounded like the 'annie' musical with none of the original songs crossed with the story of alice in wonderland. in russian. like plus-tech squeezebox meets a soviet disney.

one of our chelsea supporting companions sings along. his voice is like the wind whispering through a thousand cigarette butts.

like a mirror
we're traveling through the most beautiful scenery i will ever see. i can tell this already. the tracks pass metres from a sun-drenched lake baikal to our left, flat as a mirror, a light mist in the far distance. we take photos through the smudged window knowing they won't get near to doing justice to the incredible sight to one side.

occasionally the smooth water is disturbed by birds resting on the surface. they dive now and again, and even though they're 40-50 metres away the water is so clear i can watch them swim down to the bottom to grab a fish. further out as the water deepens it soaks up all the blue from the sky. it looks like expensive silk.

the view is equally stunning to our right. acres of untouched luscious pine forest in every shade of green, broken every so often by a silvery river in the foreground. your focus moves up, following the expanse of tall thin pines as they ascend into snow-peaked mountains, for as far as the eye can see.
work of art
everything else is rich blue sky; i think i've seen 5 clouds today. words and cameras will not get close to how beautiful this small piece of the world is. not even the fresh recurrence of europop is spoiling the view.

not a bad old place to live, if you like pretty thingswhen god made this bit, he made it for the sun, and he was showing off. i would love to return in the bitter siberian winter though, when the lake freezes over and the train runs over it. i'm beginning to think that the train is the only way of properly crossing this land and enjoying it, meandering slowly through the middle, laying on a bunk with your nose pressed against the window. 200 kilometres this will go on for. 200 kilometres of unblemished, daydream landscape. you couldn't think up anything better.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

the best lake in the world

your new favourite lake. baikal
we awoke to the sounds of two germans and a scot who went out, got drunk and missed their 5am alarm to get them up for a 0630 train. they jumped out of bed, a german shouted "I DON'T CARE! I DON'T CARE!" at his friends trying to hush him down, and carting what must've been pretty nasty hangovers out of the door at 0615. maybe they still made it.

listvinyanka is a little shore side settlement on the edge of lake baikal. like a little fishing village on the north sea, but on a lake.
they do a lot of fishing here
it's a bit more than just a lake though. it's the biggest body of fresh water in the world. it contains a fifth of the planet's fresh water. it's large. my favourite statistic is that if you emptied it and then diverted every river in the world back into it, it would still take over a year to refill.

that'd be hard to do though.

on a map is doesn't look anywhere near as big as the american great lakes, but it's volume is in it's depth. the usa lakes are paper thin compared to baikal's bulk of water.

it's also one of the clearest areas of water in the world. you can see metres and metres down. divers have been known to suffer from vertigo as they look down into the blue depths at fish swimming far below.

ask for it in a chip-shop near you “omul”we ate whole smoked fish (omul), fresh from the lake. omul is native only to baikal and it is deeeee-licious. it looked at me as i chewed on it's belly, i think i enjoyed the meal a lot more than it did.

the out of place aquarium had seals in it. weird ones. they looked like round water monkeys. inquisitive little chaps they were with expressive faces surrounded by a beach-ball of fur.

we climbed a hill/mountain to the top of a defrosted ski resort. they look weird without snow and skiers on them. sort of... crap. lots of unexplained heavy equipment sits halfway up hills covered in dry tarpaulin flapping in the breeze.
worth the climb for this view
climbing to the top was the first time so far i had realised my lack-of-fitness level. to explain, in the weeks leading up to the holiday there have been 2 factors key to my enormous weight gain:
1. i broke myself doing motorbiking and ash has disallowed me any kind of physical exertion at work, trapping me in a static desk job in my office.
2. i was coming to siberia and (stupidly without enough research) assumed it was going to be absolutely blummin' freeeezing, so i purposefully ate more than usual thinking i could i could do with a bit more insulation.

i managed to add 2 stone to my already impressive bulk. i would've been proud of myself (i am actually) but i've been in russia and siberia for a week now and it's yet to dip below pleasantly warm. bugger. so now i'm just a fat guy on holiday.
the chair lift ride down again
we took the ski resort chairlift back to lake level, for a giggle. ambling back towards the minibus/taxi thingy we paddled in the lake. local folklore says that if you come into contact with baikal's water the spirits will give you more years on your life. but it's only recently finished thawing from the winter. in winter they sometimes divert the train over it, laying down tracks on the glacier-thick ice. it was pretty much the coldest water can get without actually being solid. so cold it hurt. i could feel the blood in my veins beginning to frost up. actual pain, so it better work.
so cold you wouldn’t believe
if you bathe in it you get an extra 25 years. no chance.

the local shamens also hold a rock that rises out of the water in high regard. they say it has sacred powers, we read before we arrived at the lake. we saw it, rising a mighty two feet from the water's surface. hang on, 2 feet?! pathetic, it might as well have been a bored shark. we didn't even take a photo.
this is what a phantom limb feels like
if i'm honest, i'm not holding out for that extra year or two. but i've bought a coke bottle of baikal water back, it might come in handy, in my death-bed or something.

russians don't know how to make shops. we just discovered an amazing shopping centre, but from outside it looks like a warehouse. a locked up warehouse at that. they've even tinted the windows so you can't see in from outside. not the overly welcoming "come in and spend your money on stuff you don't really want and really don't need" construction that i'm used to.

i still haven't mastered crossing russian streets.
the clearest lake in the world

sometimes my mind wanders when i go for a long walk

 the boat crane that inspired the character that inspired the kids tv series that inspired the motion picture, coming to a cinema near you
boat crane!
the magic of a crane on a boat that lives on water.
boat crane!
"i can bring stuff out of the sea and so i oughtta,
i got my dandy lion men, a tractor friend and a long weekend,
i'll always do next day delivery;
'cause i can travel through time in russia, you will seeeeeeeee....."

boat crane's arch enemy is "bear" who is a bear. he wears a bandanna and can dismantle and rebuild an AK47 in seconds. unfortunately for him but lucky for us mortals, he is confined to a cage. however, he does have an army of riot potatoes who do his evil work, rolling around in razor blades before launching themselves from a trailer-mounted trebuchet.


Friday, 25 May 2007

at last, a shower!

resting on solid, unmoving land. it felt weird after so long on the train
we're right in the middle of nowhere, it seems. irkutsk, the heart and industrial capital of siberia. alighting the train this morning at some ungodly hour we hadn't been accustomed to for some time, a lit-up temperature display told us 2 degrees C. that's more like the siberian weather i was hoping for - icy winds slashing at our faces, and such. chatting to the girl at the hostel, it's hit about 16 degrees in the last few weeks, but generally it's been snowy and cold. hurrah!

russian sugar cubes are like their statues. big, I meanlook how british i am; getting excited about the weather. bad weather at that.


they say irkutsk is 'the paris of siberia.' thank god i've never been to paris, and now i know not to. it's a perfectly okay town, lively, bustling away, new born puppies are sold from cardboard boxes on the street (slightly fresher than we'll find in china i suspect), there is no way of working out the traffic flow and ensuring safe passage across the four lane street.

it reminds me a bit of canberra in that there are plenty of official looking buildings, lots of people... but absolutely nothing to do. it's one of those it's-a-good-place-to-get-to-other-places-from places. entering a slightly frightening hostelthere's no running cold water in the hostel. a dead dog falls to pieces on a street nearby.

maybe this wouldn't have been a place we'd have come to if we'd had sight beyond sight.

but i'm still glad to be here. i wanted to see the country, and no country is completely bells and whistles, or whistles and flutes, or whatever. the people are nice, the river is impressive, it's 28 degrees (sorry). global warming anyone?

we followed a random path today and found ourselves on an island filled with 16 year olds in traditional costume. at one point we seemed to have ended up in a school's grounds, but a school with a train station in it. nobody seemed to mind us, out of place, lost, in a primary school... although it was a bit eery. we stared at each other, unsure, quite a lot. but we didn't get arrested so i guess it was fine.

monument to the trans-siberian railwayand we met a real life vietnam vet today.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

siberian welcome

passers by
today is completely different. we've lost the weather and now the train ploughs through cold air and thick rain. it seems to have subdued the passengers, there is a hush over the train only disturbed by a party of about 30 french on a package tour who exodus to the restaurant car like clockwork at very definite times in two groups, all noise and shouting and dressed in their best clothes. marie-eve tells us they are moaning about stupid things as they pass us. it's a notable oddity in this otherwise relaxed life.

the changed weather has pulled away all the energy. amelie has literally slept for a solid 18 hours. marie-eve plays an electronic sudoku game and matt reads. i've also slept more than i thought possible, curled up in a ball at the bottom of matt's bunk.

i turned my phone on to text mum that i'm still alive. i got a text offering me "a free samsung upgrade with 1800 minutes and 180 text messages." those guys even follow you to the centre of the map.
town on a slope
the siberian landscape is now covered in the expected siberian weather. assisted by the overcast sky it looks cold and barren and unwelcoming. small wooden villages spread now and again over seemingly impractical spots; on a steep hill, next to a stagnant pond. probably a wise old logic has placed them there. they look like borat's town in kazakstan in the film. this morning matt saw a cow chained up in an auto-mechanic's garage, presumably awaiting a new leg or something.

wild dogs sniff around the tracks hoping for thrown scraps. mosquitoes are the size of birds. when the train slows down we sometimes see ancient local people watching us intently through thick clothing and beards. men and women.
we would like to see a bear, but have resided to just imagining a bear's head on the dogs. it is not entirely the same thing.
sit and wait
mysterious smells waft up and down the carriage, fish mixed with vodka and a hint of coffee and pine. i drink very sweet coffee, but i'd kill for an ice cold coca-cola.

i finished the time traveler's wife last night. a really well written book i could hardly put down. i read it in about 5 sittings. it's a heartbreaker but i do wish someone would write something i couldn't predict the end of.

i'm going to sleep more i think. or try and find out why we've stopped and haven't moved in 15 minutes. and why the driver has just appeared outside the train with two oil-covered engineers.


i guess it was nothing, we moved off 5 minutes later.

there are clues that people manage to inhabit the endless landscape. even far away from villages you'll see tyre tracks through mud, bio-degrading wooden planks forming a perilous walkway across a swamp, a rotting goat-head with sharp looking horns skewered on a stick watching the trains go past. i'm serious. i can't help but play "dueling banjos" from deliverance over and over in my head.

my heroespart of the inspiration for this trip came from ewan mcgregor and charlie boorman jumping on motorbikes and following a similar looking route across eurasia. the entire journey took them about 4 months, but was edited down to a 10 hour documentary series. it was hard to get a true idea of the scale of some of the tough terrain they fought across, each chapter edited down to about ten minutes of footage. until now. we're traveling much much faster than they did and this impossible stretch of muddy land has been beneath us for nearly two days.

the series also inspired me to finally get a motorbike license, which i did. currently they are on bikes again riding from the northern tip of scotland to the bottom point of africa, so i wonder where that's going to lead me (thinking about the jeep i'm planning on buying when i get back home).

matt goes mental and attacks jon with a camera flashi wonder if me and matt will get sick of each other living in each other's pockets for so long. i've known him about 14 years and lived with him for 3. we know each other's histories and quirks. so we will see. i think he's the best person i could've done this trip with, we're just about the most easy going two people i know and there's never been a problem between us. but we're both homely guys; we like the warmth and comfort and security of our house in norf london. we are a long - scratch that - a very very very long way from that, although the uncomfortable feeling of "what the hell are we doing?!" has long subsided and now we're just living it.

it's good this is. and my beard is getting big and bushy.

5 days down, 23 to go.

the ramblings continue

passing the hours along
by all accounts we should be bored out of our tiny little minds. our entire universe consists of a small cube with 4 beds in it and a table covered in snacks, a corridor and an assault course to a pokey little restaurant car.

trans-siberian pastime number twoafter three days you'd think that we would've got to a point where we had written a new language or dabbled in cannabalism, or something. but nope. somehow the time is going quickly and there is always something to do; look out of the window for a bit, read, play cards, look out of another window.

our room-mates amelie and marie-eve (as i discovered she is actually called today. oops) brought with them a canadian delicacy: maple syrup solidified into a substance with a similar consistency to kendal's mint cake. they brought it as a conversation starter or bridge builder in case they'd ended up in a cabin with someone odd or russian, or both.

matt & i had bought two large bottles of vodka for the same reason, so logic dictated that we should try combining them.
we created a sweet vodka drink removed of it's harshness with a long, warming, lingering syruppy aftertaste.

that killed an hour.

the train part of this journey is everything i hoped it would be, from the expansive rolling scenery to the old russian women selling homemade sweetbreads on train platforms. and still another day to go.
old russki ladies