80 days of travelling and from day one, I have wanted to start a blog telling every one of what I'm doing and also to remind myself in years to come when the memory starts going exactly where I had been, people I had met, places I had seen however I have put it off. So why now? Detox! After all these weeks of going from place to place, one thing that you can guarantee when you arrive is that someone will ask you the basic travellers questions of 'where are you from?', 'how long have you been travelling?', 'where are you going next?' and then ask you if you need a beer. Too many places where I have said I will start blogging has ended up with me crawling in at 3 in the morning and waking up next day with no will to live. So here I am in Malaysia and I had planned for a while that I was going to spend a week of no alcohol, lots of water and fruit and start my story.
11 Feb 15 was the start point and I knew that I was to begin with the Trans Siberian Express going from Russia to Beijing. However with geography not being my strong point I actually got a flight to Poland thinking that it was next door to Russia, if only I had got that atlas out before booking the flight. Getting off at Warsaw International Airport at 9 o'clock at night was when realisation of what I was actually doing came to light and the nerves kicked in, I was on my own in a strange country with no idea of the language and no clue of where the hostel was even though Poland was a European city and would be the easier of countries that I would visit. A random old man with a car helped my worries and took me direct to the hostel for a fee that was 'less then a taxi' and that was the start of my adventures.
So how do I cover just under 3 months of travelling from Poland into Russia by the longest bus ride, onto Siberia and Mongolia then into China, followed by Thailand, an overstay into Laos then back into Thailand to a lot of islands then here to present country of Malaysia? I knew I should have started this earlier as this entry would go on for pages and days. So a brief outline of what happened and it will be brief, trust me.....
Warsaw was a city that I didn't really think as a place I would be looking round as the big one was coming up, RUSSIA, but I endeavoured to get my travelling off to a good start. The hostel was my first big surprise as I always thought of these places as dirty, unsafe and full of travellers who hadn't washed in days. This place was like a mini hotel and after travelling for so long I find that most are the same with a few exceptions. I shared a 4 man room with a South Korean bloke and a Taiwanese lass who spoke fantastic english. The reception people were all ex travellers who wanted to share their experiences and tell you of their wonderful city, hmmm its Warsaw pet! But I was told of a free tour round the city, not the whole city just the important parts. From that I got what Warsaw was about, destroyed almost completely in the second world war and with not a lot of cash to rebuild after the war had finished, it was dark times and you kind of understand why you hear of the city being dark and miserable. I actually warmed to the place when you hear of what happened and a bit of the history, who knew the Swedish were nasty people! The Jewish Museum, I was told, was another place to go to and even now wish I hadn't. It was very informative, very modern but way too much for the senses. There was information everywhere you looked..... left, right, up, down and sideways..... flashing lights...... lots of screens..... sounds everywhere.... way too much that it has been the only place that I have walked out of and even then that took me about half an hour as it was built like Ikea in that you can only go one way and thats through the whole history. I'll admit that I did stop for a bit to look at the 1930's era but with 2 screens competing against each other for sound effects I nearly ran out the place.
A short stay in Poland was followed by a bus ride to St Petersburg which following my poor geography took over 24 hours and 2 countries, Lithuania and Latvia. With stop off in Riga to swap buses and a lack of English from the bus driver and locals is where total confusion set in, but a hungry stomach came first and with roughly 2 hours stay (lots of mime was involved to work that one out) I found a Latvian shopping centre with a pizza hut and wifi. Life at that moment was perfect and I could at last find out from maps where the hell I was and how far to go. Back on the bus I found I was the only male as everyone else looked to be old Russian women who had gone out for the week to get their food shopping! I knew that the Russian border was not too far away and thats when a proper panic started. We've all seen the Hollywood films with the westerner trying to break into Russia, even though I had all the paperwork I was expecting..... to be honest I had no idea what to expect but the WORST. So at the border at half 5 in the morning, there I was queued up behind the shopping ladies all of who showed their various paperwork and was ushered through, then it was my turn. The border guard was a female in her late 30's with the look of someone that didn't want to be there at that time of the day. Without even looking up she took my passport and realising it was a British Passport she raised her head and looked at me directly in the eyes and said "English?" I replied with a too enthusiastic yes, and she then spent a good 5 minutes flitting through my passport while occasionally grabbing eye contact which made it worse for me. Once the custom stamp had been placed on the visa I knew that I was officially allowed into the country. Big sigh of relief but disappointed not to see lots of guards with guns pointing at me calling me a western pig!
St Petersburg is without doubt a shock, as I had done no research on the place and found the place to be amazing. Historical, friendly and very European in its way, the hostel was a small place ran by 3 Russian lasses who had all experienced backpacking and were so interested in everyone that came into their place. I spent the 3 days walking everywhere, taking photo after photo and just being astounded by the whole city. I found the Irish bars on the first night and became a local, talking to random russians of whom were fascinated in not where I had come from, seems a lot of British go to St Petersburg but of my journey ahead.
A train ride was next into Moscow on a rail service that British Network would be jealous of.... modern, fast and on time. On arrival in Moscow instead of getting a taxi which would have been so much easier I decided that as a true backpacker I should take the metro. The guard at the station spoke no english, neither did anyone else around but with a quick show of the address that was in Russian I was given a directions via the underground map of where to go and where to get off at. 2 hours later I arrived at the hostel to find yet another bunch of Russians who had backpacking experience and perfect English to tell me where I had to go and what to see. Everyone has heard of The Kremlin, Red Square and all the rest of the historical buildings but to actually be there and see if for myself is an experience. The history poured out from the streets, the architecture and the people. A bus tour was taken which gave me a basic idea of where everything was and listening to the commentary showed you how much history was around. Five days was spent exploring the Capital but probably the best experience to happen there to me was getting involved in a full scale protest through the streets leading up to Red Square. All the streets around the route was closed off but for some reason I managed to get through as it was still early and the cafe that I had been using was inside the main route, so a confused policeman just ushered me through when I did the mime for eating. The police was out in force and I did not have a clue what was happening as there were only a few people milling about but over the course of an hour or two, there must have been over 10000 people turn up. The protest was the anniversary of the Ukraine attack by Russia the previous year which I thought was a nice thing, an anti war protest but it was in face against Ukraine as this protest was for Russia attacking and thought that they didn't go far enough! One screen I saw had videos of Obama with devil horns on him and after speaking to a local about the protest was warned not to give any evidence I was from the west! However after being given a russian flag and waving it about I was intrigued enough to follow the crowds. It was only at the end where there was a massive stage with 2 people geeing up the crowds and lots of singing that I thought best to make an exit as there were soldiers with dogs and guns and it looked a little bit scary.
Trans Siberian Express was next and the journey to Beijing was 6 days however I decided to split it down with a stay in Siberia and Mongolia. The train was like something from the 60's in appearance and inside. The compartments were 2nd class and held 4 beds and were comfortable enough to chill and relax while staring at the Russian countryside or reading. I got told by the main guard who spoke no english that it was a no smoking train but after catching him have a sneaky cigarette in his 'secret' area we came to an agreement that I could use it as well. Four days was spent on the first leg before Siberia and had an assortment of Russian people sharing the compartment. The first one was a Russian 'scientist' who read his bible non stop but discovering I was English was gabbering away in Russian to which I later found out through a random woman walking past the compartment was asking lots of questions about where I came from. I tried to use google translate on him but his glasses were not that good so tried miming as usual to no avail, he would be no good at charades. After he left a Russian soldier came in with his uniform and after stripping off into his civilian wear, sat down and again gabbled away in Russian, at least this time he could read my iPhone and google translate and discovering I was English, got a bottle of vodka out and proceed to share it with me. When the train stopped for a scheduled stop he got off very quickly and found more alcohol which he brought on board and a crazy night was had. He seemed fascinated that I was English and why the hell I would want to come to Russia and when he left he gave me one of his books from inside his backpack and signed it 'From Russia with Love' on the inside cover. Not sure if he was a James Bond film fan but it was a nice thought even though there is no way I could learn enough of the language to read the book.
Siberia was my first stop off and into Irkutsk, one of the bigger city of the area and to be honest not an exciting place. I guess after being in St Petersburg and Moscow it was a bit of a let down. It was like going to London, then Manchester then heading to Carlisle, no offence Carlisle. The hostel was full when I got there with a bunch of Chinese under 16 hockey team visiting the area so was given the staff room with a camp bed to stay for 2 nights. Nothing stands out in Irkutsk, even trip advisor lacked information on the area! But it was nice to get off the train and stretch the legs in -25 degrees coldness.
Back on the train and I ended sharing the carriage with a British girl and a Norwegian (Trond) who were both going to the next stop off in Mongolia. We ended sharing lots of alcohol and stories of what we had been up to and what they were going to be doing for the next few months. A day and a half later we ended up in Ulanbatar, the capital of Mongolia and went our separate ways. Mongolia was a bigger surprise then anything, as when you think of a country like that you immediately think of deserts, nomads and camels. Instead was a modern city full of character that I sometimes wish I had spent a bit longer in. The hostel was ran by a lovely family and on the day I arrived it was my birthday and the grandmother on finding out made me a birthday lunch of traditional Mongolian food. That night I found the Irish Bar and celebrated my 46th on my own, which I didn't really mind as it gave me a chance to catch up with emails and messages using the bars wifi. However the next night, Trond had found my hostel and with a few people from his, went back to the Irish bar to help celebrate in style! One of the things that annoyed me most was people's reaction on Facebook on what they called a backward country, especially when I was involved in a 'protest'. I was approached by a group of Mongolians with placards who were protesting against the fact that domestic violence is not illegal so was asking for a change of the law. There was only about 5 people involved but when they saw a westerner in their view, it was an opportunity for photos with me holding one of their signs. With Mongolia being a democratic country, protests are allowed so there was no harm in me getting involved but views of people who had never been to the country warning me to be careful sort of annoyed me.
I think that for my first blog this is enough, part 2 will follow in the next few days as I update it to the present time.........
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