Archive | June, 2011

UlaanBaatur to Beijing, 1500 miles, 1 train. Bogeys, smog and scorpions.

27 Jun

This final section of my Bere Alston to Beijing journey found me yet again on my own in a coupé. This must be some sort of record – of the 6500 odd miles covered, I must have spent at least 5000 without company. I’m starting to wonder what the agency who booked my tickets must have said about me. “Special dietary requirements : must eat alone”? I mean, this train was rammed full of people: 3, 4 even 5 to a compartment, and there was I, lording it up in glorious solitude, lounging in my pants upon whichever bunk I chose…

This time however, my situation was an advantage rather than a hindrance when it came to socialising because, having friends now, I could invite people round to mine. Hey, why not pop over to my place in carriage 7? I’d say. It’s very roomy.

So I had visitors and we played cards and drank beer and it was very jolly. Again the border crossings took an age, but this time it was slightly more interesting because a) we were drunk and b) we got to watch people “changing the bogeys”. Whenever you enter or leave the territory of the former USSR by train, your entire carriage has to be lifted clear of its wheels, or “bogeys”, so that new ones can be attached. This is because Russian railway tracks are about about an inch wider than everyone else’s. The whole process takes a couple of hours, inside a giant shed and employs a good 30 people for each train.

So, with new wheels (and inexplicably, a new Chinese restaurant car) attached, we rumbled into The People’s Republic of China. The Gobi Desert continued to stretch on for a little while, but before long it was replaced by stunning mountains and rivers and soon we were in the sprawling outskirts of Beijing. I know I’ve already used the word “rad” to honour Moscow in a previous post, but Beijing is, if anything, radder. The food, the prices, the heat, the chaos, the funny signs, I love it all. And Beijingers are sweet, welcoming and disarmingly honest, as shall now be seen.

As you may have gathered, I have a great talent for losing my possessions. This time, somewhere between my hostel and the metro station, my wallet slipped from the extremely shallow and unsuitable pocket of my tasteless pink Bermuda shorts. I retraced my steps but it was nowhere to be seen. I had, of course, just stuffed it with about 100 quid’s worth of Chinese Yuan from the cashpoint, plus there was my bank card, driving license and hostel key – all in all, a nice little haul. I’m quite good at saying goodbye to possessions and not getting too upset about it. After all, if I let it sadden me every time I lost something, well, I’d probably be profoundly depressed by now. So I bade a little farewell to yet another wad of cash and stuff, and went along my way. But barely had I set foot on the metro, than my phone rang. This was partly strange because I didn’t know mobiles worked on the underground, but mostly because I’d only just put a new Chinese SIM card in it, and I hadn’t even noted down the number, let alone given it to anyone.

“Hello?” I stammered.

Hello, My name is Lu PeiWei but you could call me Sam. I have you pick-pocket wallet”

“You pick-pocketed me?!” For a moment I thought I was getting a call from a thief who’d had a pang of conscience.

No! I have you wallet. I think you were pick-pocket”

Ah! Well I was pretty sure it just fell out of my stupid pocket, but in any case, Sam had it and evidently wanted to return it. It transpired that his friend had found it on the street and going through it, had discovered the packaging for my new SIM, which had my new number on it. He then went to Sam, knowing he spoke English, and got him to call me. That’s what I mean about honesty. 1000 Yuan is a serious amount, a good week’s wage for most Chinese people. Sam point blank refused even to take any money from me as a reward, and later that day, when I sent him a text saying thank you again, this was his response, word for word:

“You are our friend and guest, Henry. We Chinese are always pleased if friend and guests come to see us. Have a good tour!”

It warmed my heart.

There are only two downsides to Beijing as far as I can see, and one of these I’m sure I would eventually get used to. This is the fact that rather than wearing nappies, kids run around with trousers that have the seat cut out of them, and do their business literally anywhere. It’s very odd, and although it would be obviously inappropriate to take a photo of a real child’s bottom, I did come across this statue outside a subway station that clearly illustrates the phenomenon:

But this is evidently just one of those cultural differences that take a while to get one’s head around. The thing I might not be able to deal with, long term, is the smog. A few times a week, particularly in the summer, a thick haze descends over the city, so that by the end of the day whole buildings loom up suddenly out of the foggy soup, having been completely invisible until they’re almost on top of you. On our second day we hired bikes and cycled up to the Summer Palace. As Katie Melua so aptly highlighted in her song “9 Million Bicycles…” (which was mockingly going round my head for the whole day)Beijing is perfect for cycling – completely flat, on a grid system for easy navigation, with wide cycle lanes everywhere – but by the end of the afternoon, one of our party had developed a hacking smoker’s cough, another was unaccountably crying, and I was laughing like Sid James (although that may have just been a coincidence).

So the smog is a bit of a drag, but the rest is pure goodness. On our third evening we went down to a place called The Night Market, that specialises in freaky food. As the heavens opened in a spectacular thunderstorm, I chowed down on skewers of scorpion, snake and monkey. I declined the offer of cat, cockroach and millipede though, as appetising a combination as they might have proven. (I don’t know whether I drew this line on some confused moral grounds -I guess I know a cat or two, but cockroaches? – or whether I’d just had enough weird shit for one night.) Walking home later on with warm rain streaming down my face, lightning forking above my head and scorpions wriggling in my belly, do you know what thought was going through my mind, Dear Reader? Not “Wow, this is a unique experience that’ll I’ll remember for the rest of my life”, or “Gosh, isn’t life profound?”. No, all I could think was “Ha ha, weird food – this is going in the blog.” It seems I am now a slave to this cyber-journal, and that I can no longer have meaningful subjective experiences without first working out how I’ll recount them here. Nice one.

I’m sorry that this week’s only photograph is of a sculpted child’s bottom – I forgot to bring my camera for the food expedition, although a friend did take some film footage, so maybe I’ll stick that up when I get a chance. In any case, next week is song week! So brace yourselves and your ear holes for the second instalment from my as-yet-nameless (any suggestions welcome) album.

Kindest Regards,

Hen x


The Third Leg

18 Jun

From Irkutsk in Russia to Ulaan Baatur in Mongolia is a 30-hour train journey, although at least 10 of these hours we spent waiting in the intense heat at the border. For much of this time you are free to roam around, but for a couple of hours at both the Russian and Mongolian border stations, they take your passports away and lock the train doors to stop you absconding. This time, when all toilets are decisively out-of-action, was the time when my bowels chose to, you know, play silly buggers. No more of the solo coupé for me either: I was sharing my stifling den with three other passengers, nice young French women as it happens, and although I’m sure they’ll never read this, in case they ever do, I’d like to say I’m really, really sorry.

Anyway, enough of that. What I really want to talk about is camels. I used to be a goat man, through and through. I like their beards, I like the way they teeter about implausibly on the edge of mountains, I like the way they’ll eat anything you give them, even paper. But after spending a week in the Gobi Desert (if you didn’t know that was in Mongolia, well nor did I until I arrived in it), I think the prize of my heart has been stolen by the camel. I mean, for a start, goats don’t pull faces like this:

Nor can they survive without water for two weeks, without food for a month, without a bath, well, forever (camels really stink). They call camels The Ships of the Desert, and when you see a herd of them coming across the plains, it’s like seeing a mighty armada sailing to war against you. I doubt whether Frances Drake would have been so casual if the Spanish had sailed camels into battle instead of ships. The sheer stench of their breath wafting across Plymouth Sound would’ve put him off his bowls.

I have now experienced camels from many perspectives. I’ve fed them, I’ve ridden them, I’ve eaten of their flesh and supped of their fermented milk (5% ABV). Goats are still great, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to utter, prehistoric weirdness, camels get my vote. I wonder if they’d enjoy living on Dartmoor…

Camel milk booze. It’s not bitter. It’s sour.

Even without the camels, I had a wonderful time in the desert. I was touring with four lovely companions I had met on the train, and together with our guide and our driver, we bounced all over the desert, climbing mountains, trekking valleys, riding horses (and camels) and hunting fossils (on the last day we found a stash of dinosaur egg shells). Our van got three punctures and broke down no less than five times, but our driver, Dasha, who looked exactly like one of the monsters from Where The Wild Things Are, turned out to be a master bodger, and, spending every spare moment with his head under the hood of the engine, managed to keep us on the road for the whole week. He also taught us Mongolian wrestling, although he didn’t go the whole hog and make us strip down to our pants.

A particular highlight of the trip was a visit to a small museum in the middle of nowhere, where they had a display of some of the shoddiest taxidermy imaginable. That is, I assume it was shoddy – there were no English translations, so it’s possible that the exhibition was entitled Wild Animals That Have Been Punched In the Face. In any case, it was the funniest thing I have ever seen.

During the nights we either camped out under the huge sky or enjoyed the hospitality of nomadic Mongolian herder families, who live in things called “gers”. I think you or I would call them yurts, but that was a definite no-no. Yurts are found in Northern Mongolia and look a bit more tipi-like, apparently. Anyway, the families were incredibly friendly. Their gers were very nice too – one of them even had satellite TV, although the car battery that was powering it started to smoke alarmingly, so we switched it off. Our guide taught us how to play a traditional Mongolian game called Ankle Bones, in which you use the ankle bones of sheep and goats as four-sided dice. Whilst it was lovely to get a taste of Mongolian leisure activities, the game itself, being solely based on luck, was rubbish, so whenever she left we’d whip out some cards and play Shithead instead.

Ankle Bones – like Snakes and Ladders but not as good.

I’m afraid that as far as recruiting for my band this week is concerned, I was a little slack. I did, however, keep the rock ‘n’ roll spirit alive, risking arrest and possible imprisonment by sticking it to The Man, who for some reason seems to have banned trumpets in Mongolia.

Maybe I’ll have more success in China, which is where I’m headed now. Mongolia has been an unexpected treat though, and for what it’s worth, I’d recommend it to anyone.

That’s all for now – my battery is nearly dead and I’ve got the whole of the Lonely Planet’s guide to China to get acquainted with. Thanks for all your comments so far – it’s really good to hear from you all.

Lots of love,

Hen x

The Second Leg: 2600 Miles, One Train, Passport Panic and the Making of a Friend

10 Jun

The last thing I want to do is make sweeping statements about the countryside in the mighty Federation of Russia (or to discourage anybody from attempting what is one of the World’s Great Railway Journeys).  However, from the perspective of a train window, after three days and no proper conversation, it can get a bit samey. They’ve got silver birch trees and they’ve got fir trees and they’ve got some really massive rivers. But that, plus the odd open-cast mine, is about the size of it.

Of course it’s not all about the scenery is it? It’s about the adventure, the comradeship forged with other travellers, the vodka. Unfortunately for me, none of these factors really came into play until the very last night. Up until that point I was alone in my coupé, on a train full of people alone in their coupés. There was the slightly sad atmosphere of a Thursday afternoon in J.D. Wetherspoons, only no-one spoke English, and instead of Curry Club, it was Leathery Smoked Fish Club.

That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner right there.

This is not a scenario that any of the guidebooks seem to have considered. This is one of the busiest railways in the world! they exclaim. Each train is choked with tourists and locals who will be fascinated by who you are, where you come from and what on Earth you could be doing on their train! They will want to adopt you and give you sweets. That’s not a direct quote but it carries the gist.

So the first three days were a little tough, and I have to especially thank Bonjela Gannon and Catherine J Russell for stuffing my ipod with enough beautiful music to see me through it. And also the BBC for making Desert Island Discs available as a podcast.

On the second dark night of my soul (ok, I’m over-egging it a bit now), I was attempting to wash myself in the tiny metal sink in the bathroom, but the train kept coming to a halt in stations and the provodnitsa (very stern Russian carriage attendant, standard issue in every Russian train) would bang crossly on the bathroom door. I guessed she wanted me to stop what I was doing, so I would stand there dripping and shivering until the train lurched on again. On one such occasion I had been standing there for a good 20 minutes before I finally gave up, towelled down my soapy bits and went back to my cabin. There I sat, reading and drinking beers for some hours, before I suddenly noticed that my money belt, with my passport and other important things, was not about my waist as it should have been. I realised I must have left it in the bathroom, hours ago.

I bolted up the aisle to the bathroom, but the bathroom was locked. I went back to my coupé and needlessly threw my things around. I knocked frantically on the provodnitsa’s cabin, but nobody answered. That’s it, I thought to myself, Holiday over.  Resigned, I sat with my guidebook and tried to figure out where the nearest British Embassy might be (Moscow, 2 days behind me.)

Then suddenly the train stopped again, and I heard the wily provodnitsa come out of her lair to open the train doors. I ran out and made panicking noises in front of her. She fixed me with her matron’s gaze and beckoned me to her little room. There was my money belt, hung amongst other strange loot, but she wasn’t quite ready to let it go yet – she wanted to tell me off some more, so I let her. She kept pointing at some chocolate bars she had hoarded there, and after a while I realised she wanted a reward. So back to my cabin I went and dug out my secret weapon for such occasions – the Lindt Dark Chocolate Bar (with a hint of chilli), that my sister Poppy gave me for my birthday. This offering more than satisfied her, and the passport was mine again.

After that little melodrama, nothing much happened for a while, and although I craved company, I also became quite territorial about my coupé, my little world. Every time the train stopped I’d cross my fingers that I’d remain undisturbed, so that I could find out just how Nick Clegg thought he would cope on a desert island. But on the evening of my last night on the train, the bubble was finally burst and I was joined by Mikael.

The slight awkwardness of having no language in common lasted twenty minutes or so, until I got out my last two warm beers, and he, in turn, got out his absinthe. We had such a party. The last few days faded from my memory as we gave toasts to one another, drew strange pictures of what we were trying to say, and tried on each other’s sunglasses and hats. My trans-Siberian experience had swung into action. Finally!

Formal Introductions.

The international language of shades.

Early the next morning I stumbled out of Irkutsk station, bleary-eyed but happy. Mikael had got off somewhere in the night, leaving only his illegible scribblings in my notebook and two passport-sized photographs of himself by my bed. What a guy.

Irkutsk was lovely, although I only stayed there one night before I got on a bus to Olkhon Island, which is on Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the oldest, coldest, deepest, cleanest lake in the world, so I lay down next to it for about three days.

In the evenings we gathered around and ate omul, a type of fish only found in the lake, and listened to this fella playing Slavic folk songs on the accordion. He was like the Chuckle Brothers’ dad and had some great banter. He didn’t want to join my band.

“To me, to you” went his little hands.

There’s no song this week I’m afraid. I’m letting them out monthly, so as to drag this whole charade out for an entire year. However, I might let you have one next week, before I go beyond the Great Firewall of China, where blogging is bad, like killing a swan or weeing on the Alamo.

I’m on my way to Mongolia now, where I intend to spend a week in the desert drinking fermented horse milk. Speak soon.

Lots of love,

Hen x

The First Leg – Bere Alston to Moscow, 1600 Miles, 5 Trains, No Lunch

2 Jun

Hello, here’s an update on my adventure so far….

Train 1 – Bere Alston to Plymouth. Part of the scenic Tamar Valley Line, this journey took me just under half an hour, as it had done the hundreds of times I’d taken it before. Still, it definitely felt more poignant on this occasion (yes, even Dockyard station can be poignant in a certain light), as I sat amongst the morning commuters, staring wistfully at the familiar scenery as it slipped by for the last time (in a long time).

My farewell-ing had been so protracted – a “goodbye London” gig, followed by a camping weekend/sports extravaganza in my Mum’s garden, followed by a goodbye/birthday meal, followed, for good measure, by a tearful waving off of my family at the station – that saying goodbye had almost become a way of life, and I was slightly shocked to finally find myself on a train, on my own. I needn’t have worried – when my Plymouth to London train arrived in Paddington I was met by my friend Llinos, who had made me a delicious birthday ginger cake and very kindly agreed to watch me drink my Last Pint of Ale, a special moment I had been rehearsing for vigorously over the past few weeks. And the goodbye-ing continued still, as my other lovely friends Angela, Sati and Toby ferried me across a congested central London and then packed me off with goodies for the journey, including cupcakes with rude icing and cider.

Goodbye Family!

Hello Paddington!

So at last I was headed for Europe. Gnawing thoughtfully on a penis- shaped piece of icing as we shot into the channel tunnel, I quietly said my very last goodbye, to England – a place that, it suddenly occurred to me, I actually quite like.

In next to no time we had whizzed through France and Belgium and arrived in Köln, Germany, where I had time to gaze at the cathedral and eat a kebab before catching my first Proper Train (as in one that I would sleep on). It was huge, a creaking, clanking, lumbering beast, which had wheezed its way here from Amsterdam. All the train staff were Russian and seemed annoyed, and for the first time I felt a bit nervous. As far as I could make out there was no restaurant car, so for the next 32 hours all I had to eat was a hunk of birthday cake that Llinos had packed me off with and some tinned herring my sister gave me. It was a bit of a weird journey.

But then I was in Moscow, which is, for want of a better word, RAD. My friend Bea took me to a biker bar on the edge of town where they have a saxophonist and a balalaika player soloing dramatically over euro-techno beats, on the bar, WHICH IS ON FIRE. When is this shit going to catch on in the UK? The only slight downer is that it might have been a Nazi biker bar and we didn’t notice. For that reason I won’t be asking Sergey Sax and Balalaika Boris to join my band.

Techno (possibly Nazi) balalaika on a flaming bar

Saxual healing, baby

Appropriately enough, the song I’m making available today, the first from my little album, is called Sax Pest. It has no lyrics you’ll be glad to hear, just sweet layers of synthesized sax. Enjoy!

There is lots more to tell but I don’t want to waffle ( or should that be blaffle? Aha ha, Thank you) on my first proper post. Next time I’ll be updating you on my adventures and band-starting attempts from the shores of Lake Baikal, so see you next week for boating and gloating.

Ta ra,

Hen x

Henry Clark – Sax Pest