Just Another Brick In The...

There's a Subway at the foot of the Great Wall of China. A SUBWAY. Literally right next to the sign that points you to the top, and there's that insidious yellow and green, with the smell of freshly baked bread hanging heavily in the air, the balcony packed with Chinese people, of all ages, guzzling down 6" breakfast rolls. It's very disappointing.

We'd arrived at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall at around 10AM, with our new group, having battled with Beijing's rush hour for almost 2 hours. There are several sections of the Wall which are accessible to the public, not all of them linked, but Drujal had assured us that the one we were at was one of the best. The Wall itself is not immediately apparent from the parking lot, save for the dark silhouettes of some of the larger guard towers outlined against the haze. The walk to the ascension points is via a bizarre arrangement of shipping containers, fold up stalls and concrete lock-ups that gradually unfurl throughout the day to provide homes for the inevitable local commerce including dumpling steamers, purveyors of amusing Chinglish t-shirts, jewellery sellers and even one retired man dressed as a Chinese general (complete with 7-foot spear), with a smile so wide that the top of his head was threatening to fall off. This sort of rampant salesmanship must be common at any of the world's major tourist spots, but the Chinese do seem to inject real energy into the proceedings and the experience is all the richer for it.

As we neared the entrance to the Wall proper, we were offered a choice - we could either walk up the steps to the Wall (no number specified, rather ominously) or we could take the cable car to the top. I'd half imagined that it would be a cable car contemporary with the Wall itself, some rickety thing constructed from vines and bamboo, driven by cleverly harnessed pandas and a water wheel, which (had it existed) might have tempted me to take the easy option. In reality, the thing looked like it had been stolen from one of Britain's 3rd rate theme parks, so we opted for the stairs. And there were a lot of them. I did start to count, but the combination of the sweltering heat and my ailing fitness levels meant that I could either count or breathe. I went for the latter. It was a pretty climb though, from what I could see at the end of my tunnel vision, all dappled shade and overhanging trees. As we neared the top, we spotted a little clearing with a seating pagoda, so we stopped to admired the view and catch our breath. 

A little further on and we reached the first gatehouse, through which we clambered onto the Wall proper. It's an unusual experience, seeing such a prestigious world monument up close; I'd liken it to the first time I saw the Empire State Building. You're so used to seeing the thing in it's entirety, through the lens of an aerial camera or in glossy coffee-table books, that when you actually stand in front of it the building is almost unremarkable as you're seeing it from such an unfamiliar angle - one that only lets you see a part of the whole. Similar here; your mind can't see the Wall as it expects to see it so you end up focussing on the little things in an attempt to reconcile your mind's eye with the reality. So I noticed how big the steps are - enough to make me struggle and nearly impossible for some of the Chinese tourists - and how well worn the flagstones are. I noticed how basic, but how massive, the construction is and how well spaced the guard towers are. And slowly, but very, very surely, the majesty of the whole enterprise assembles itself in your mind and reveals itself to be... incomprehensible. The Mutianyu section is 22km long, the Wall is, on average, 7-8m high and 4-5m wide and there are twenty two guard towers that are mostly two storey. I still marvel at the ambition of the thing, how the idea wasn't met with raucous laughter and the suggester's beheading for the amusement of the Imperial Court. But the realisation of this insanity is even more mind blowing. Once it had all sank in, I needed to stop for a few minutes just to let my mind process what I was seeing.

I also needed to stop because I was nearly dead. This section of the Wall is built on the ridge of rolling mountain-ettes, so it's extremely vertical at points. It's impossible not to think of what it must have been like to be standing guard in the winter of 1368, traipsing up and down the ice covered slopes and nearly breaking your neck every five minutes. We decided to try and reach the western end of the Mutianyu section (Tower 21) before heading back to take the toboggan (yes, you read that right) down from Tower 6. The route, as the crow flies, is about a 3km round-trip but involves level changes of about 250m. It was hot (with the ever present haze) but we made short work of the first leg. It was about to get harder. 

As we approached Tower 21 we realised that the way up was via a massive stretch of steps, at what must have been a 35-40° rake. As I wheezed my way up, overtaking some elderly Germans who had developed some ill-advised ambitions of their own, it became apparent that the final 20m would be almost entirely vertical - thanks in no small part to the steepest steps I have ever seen. For every 60cm you went up, you'd have to balance on perhaps on 15cm of step. Insane. But once I reached the top, in one piece, it was worth every missed heartbeat. From this high vantage-point the classic image of the Great Wall of China is instantly visible, even through the haze. It was an inspiring moment and a memory that will stay with me for a long time. 

We then set off back down, past the Germans (who, in spite of the obvious, were continuing on their very own Mission:Impossible), and back towards the toboggan. We passed several members of the group on the way, as we'd left them for dust on the outward journey, and arrived at the toboggan. It was exactly the same metal half pipe/school DT project sled as you can find in the UK, and would have been great fun (as it's a massive run), but we got caught behind a middle aged Mexican lady who thought that if she travelled faster than 1mph the air resistance would surely cause her to spontaneously combust. So we crawled down the mountain, listening to the lady shriek as we occasionally hit 1.5mph, and met up with the rest of the group to head back. 

Once back, we decided to head out to the Silk Market, Beijing's premier shipping destination for tourists looking to be fleeced of their cash. On the way through the lobby, we bumped into Carol and Gille, a couple of French-Canadians from the tour, who were looking a little lost so we invited them to come along. The Silk Market proved to operate more or less in the same way as the Pearl Market from the other day, although here there is a greater focus on knock-off clothing, fake watches and touristy souvenirs. We shopped around, gawped at the Chinese ability to embroider anything onto anything else (A&F, Polo and D&G being the things keeping the sewing needles white hot at present), and headed off for dinner with the Quebec-ians. It was a lovely evening, and we got to break the ice properly with at least a small part of the group, so we retired content with the day and looking forward to the next. 

Just before I go, I wanted to share the image above - just for laughs really. Sounded like a good place to go for dinner...



A (New) Red Dawn

Today is a bright new day, I've (sadly) left our old group and the Trans-Mongolian Express and am now facing the bright new future, with new possibilities and new people. I stepped out of the lift, full of expectation and wonder for what the morning might hold, and... ran right into half of the old group. To be honest, most of the TME group are staying in Beijing for a few days, either awaiting their flights or in preparation for further travels, so we knew we'd be saying goodbye in batches across a couple of days. 

After some hugs and goodbyes to the peeps leaving that day, we carried on towards the Metro to visit our destination for the day - the Summer Palace. It's worth saying now that I didn't visit the Olympic Village, so there won't be any pictures. It's sacrilege for an architect I know, but given the timing of our tours we only had one free day in Beijing so we had to make a choice between the Summer Palace and the Olympic Village, both of which are located quite a way outside the central mass of the city and in opposite directions. Big K (Kevin, the local guide) had told us that the Olympic Village, as you might expect, is mostly empty of people and whilst the architecture is obviously impressive, it can be quite a sterile place in between the the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube et al. On the other hand, the Summer Palace is one of Beijing's biggest tourist attractions and the second stop on the 'Beijing Pilgrimage' that most Chinese people try to do at least once in their lifetime, after Tiananmen Square / Forbidden City / Mao's Mausoleum. After that recommendation, and without wanting to subject Kate to a day of following me and my camera around (I can hear Vanderson tutting from here), we went with the Summer Palace. 

After yet another amazingly simple Metro ride, forty minutes this time, and we arrived at the station closest to the Summer Palace. 'Closest' is a word I use with some hesitation as it actually took us another 35 minutes to walk to the entrance square. Admittedly, we did walk in the wrong direction - although we had started out in the right direction, but had given up as it hadn't 'felt right' - but the journey started to expose something of the scale of the Summer Palace and it's grounds. The Palace occupies a site of around 750 acres, four-fifths of which comprises (staggeringly) a man-made lake, the excavated earth from which was used in the construction of a 60 metre (that's 200 feet Dad) artificial hill. Say what you want about the ancient Chinese emperors, but they sure did have ambition (and free, unlimited slave labour, an unending help to the ambitious). 

We entered through the western gateway and consulted the map. All of the 3,000+ buildings and parks had delightfully oriental names, such as 'Longevity Hill', 'The Hall of Embroidered Clouds' and 'The Garden of Harmonious Interests'. These names are clichéd but everywhere in Beijing, even outside of the tourist spots, and really are evocative of the places. Now oriented, we set off on a route that we thought would carry us around all the main sights and then around the Lake, back to where we entered, in around 4-5 hours. 

Heading straight for the aforementioned Gardens, I soon realised this estimate was woefully inaccurate. The place is massive, and it took twenty minutes to reach our first destination. It is also immensely beautiful as well. The whole site is immaculately maintained, with the transitional areas almost as pleasing as the 'main attractions'. 

As I drifted past giant pagodas, sweeping rivers and thousands of tiny carvings of Buddha, I was struck at how serene the whole place managed to be. A masterpiece of landscape design in general, it's the pacing of the experience that stands out. Each of the landmarks is expertly separated, with winding tracks, sudden (but gentle) climbs and shady passageways meaning that you never feel the 'tourist fatigue' I've experienced at other places of major cultural expression. It seems sometimes that castles, gardens, museums etc. are so keen to bombard you with what they have to offer that you (or I, at least) get to a point where you can no longer take anymore on board, at least not in any meaningful way. The Hermitage was guilty of this, desperate to get as many Matisse's, Van Gogh's and Rembrandt's under your nose as possible that I almost walked past the Da Vinci's through sheer exhaustion at having seen so many great works without a break. But whoever laid out the Summer Palace understood the value of breathing space and its relationship to the 'main events' so well that just as you're beginning to wonder when this path or track is going to go on for much further, a pagoda or garden appears around the next bend. This pacing adds to the experience significantly, at least it did for me, and makes the place seem much calmer, despite the presence of so many people. 

And what a lot of people there were. Admittedly, we'd coincided our trip with the Chinese National Holiday, the 62nd Anniversary of the Formation of the People's Republic and a Sunday, but as we headed towards Kunming Lake, the place definitely took on a Disneyland kind of feel. Chinese were everywhere, young and old, and there were ribbons and drinks stands and even a place to buy funny hats. The day was unendingly hazy and our walk, which had taken four and a half hours and hadn't even included a walk around the lake - merely along it - had left us feeling weary. We headed back to the Metro station, the right way this time, stopping for a Starbucks (I know, I know...) and then arrived at the hotel in time to get showered and changed before meeting our new group for the Tibet Adventure in the lobby. 

This new group was again 14-strong and comprised five Canadians (including three from French Quebec) and three Australians with the rest from Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Holland. They seem like a good group, although compared to the last lot there seems to be a lot more (and I'm aware of my own readership here) experience on this tour with at least half being over 40. We were also introduced to our new tour leader, Drujal, a composed and incredibly slight Tibetan who seems polite and attentive. We all went for dinner at a little place behind the hotel, and ate pretty much the same food we had the other night, including the seemingly obligatory Peking Duck. It was very pleasant, with people starting to warm up by the end and it seemed like a good, if slightly restrained, start to the next leg of the journey. 

We're all heading off to somewhere very special tomorrow, so it's an early night for me and I'll write about it soon. 

Hope you're all well and take care. 


China Syndrome

One of the most shocking things about Beijing, for me at least, is just how Western it wants to be. Driven by the Olympics of 2008, the Beijing municipalities (at the behest of the omnipresent Chinese government) seem to have taken it upon themselves, in a fit of that beauro-logic nonsense that seems to creep into any large scale public project, that what the world really needs to see when it visits China for Beijing's 15-minute tap-dance in the spotlight, is exactly what they have at home. The City has constructed a near perfect, and beautifully manicured and maintained, simulacra of a major western business district, replete with ludicrous glass & steel monstrosities and wide, tree-lined boulevards that could have believably been spawned by the downtown district of any American city. The great sadness of this, and the depressing irony, is that in order to build this little slice of Metropolis, the government demolished acres of hutongs, those cramped, vital pockets of Chinese life, forcibly evicting the residents and replacing them with that most quintessential hallmark of western progress, the investment banker. Whether it's the loss of the vibrancy of the hutongs or the sheer banality of what replaced them, the Beijing model for Olympic-driven progress stands as a shadowy portent for London 2012; All appearance but no character - much like Keira Knightly.

It's not all bad though. The Olympic Touch as made it much easier for tourists to get around the city, with all road signs, place names and (beautifully) Metro stops now appearing in English. The Metro especially benefits from the makeover, converting what must have been a near-impenetrable experience (given how different Chinese sounds when spoken by the indigenous population - which is to say nothing like the 'Benny Hill Chinese for Beginners' tapes I got before leaving the UK) into a joyously accessible one. Stations, routes and signs are all translated into English, as are the on-board announcements. The staff are friendly and try their best to help ignorant foreigners, and (as previously mentioned) you pay only 20p per journey, no matter how far you're travelling, and everything is spotless (which is to be expected in a communist regime - they employ people to endlessly sweep dust off major highways so I'd expect the underground to be clean).

The marvels of the Metro system aside, Kate and I decided to visit the Temple of Heaven, one of the few remnants of Chinese Imperial architecture to survive the Revolution, as our group went off to see the Great Wall (funny how strange that sentence looks if I hadn't have used capital letters...). We hadn't fallen out with them or anything, it's just that our next trip includes a visit to the Wall - and Kate had heard the shopping in Beijing was good - so we decided to save our pennies. Actually, I might have been hasty to describe the Temple of Heaven as a 'remnant' before... 'Remnant' might imply a paucity of scale (or perhaps some kind of carpet off-cut) when it's actually a 675 acre site containing a menagerie of building types and culturally significant relics. After some initial confusion with the tickets - which was resolved by the lady behind the counter continually shouting at me in Mandarin, at various volumes, until I handed over my money and let her take what she wanted - we started our wander at what turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the whole trip; the Long Corridor. 

You see, such is the veneration of the elderly and ancestors (and I think there's a definite crossover between the two given the look of some of the people we saw) in China that they are charged practically nothing to get into the Temple grounds and so - thanks to the pleasant climate - they use the Long Corridor as an informal old people's home. Exactly as it sounds, the Long Corridor is a sort of structural pergola, open on one side and bearing all the aesthetic touches of classical Chinese architecture, but what makes it truly magical are the hundreds of older people who colonise it day-to-day; there are groups of wrinkled, old men sitting round playing unfathomable cards games or scrutinising a nearby game of goh, smoking and laughing whilst the women sit in tight groups knitting, sewing silk flowers or just chatting in the sun. People make and fly kites, there are the inevitable (but still amazing) tai chi groups and we even stumbled into an open-to-all sing-a-long, complete with song sheets, being lead by two old guys whom I can only assume are like the Dean and Frank of the Long Corridor (it's hard to tell as singing in China, at least in this instance, sounded like cats being slowly flattened out by a rusty lawn roller). It was amazing, and made me want to retire to Beijing when I get old.

We moved steadily around the grounds, seeing pretty much everything you can over the course of about 4 hours, and whilst the architecture was impressive and the gardens were beautiful, it was great just to wander at your own pace and enjoy what had become an absolutely blistering morning. Hopping from shady patch to shady patch, sitting and enjoying a cold drink or just admiring the landscape, it felt like Hyde Park or Green Park seen through a lens of finest Chinoiserie - a lovely escape from the sometimes frantic pressure of the group tour and a real-life oasis in the middle of China's smog-blanketed capital. As we left we decided to try out a few pieces of apparatus in one of the urban gyms that have become ubiquitous throughout China - essentially rugged, low-resistance gym equipment, outdoors and free to use in the hope it will encourage people to stay fit and limber. Given that most of the equipment's handles had been worn to a mirror finish and the amount of barrel chested 60+'s that were in abundance throughout the park, I'd say it's working. And as if we'd needed further evidence, we were treated to the sight of a man, around 55 in my estimation, leaping up onto the parallel bars and doing dips with his legs parallel to the ground. Proof perhaps that some of the older Buddhists must feel the effects of their next incarnation before they've truly used all of their last one. 

We left the Temple of Heaven and wandered into the nearby Pearl Market, originally (and unsurprisingly) Beijing's premier destination for fresh water pearls; whilst you can still buy these, the Pearl Market now specialises in all manner of fine electronic goods - all fake of course. Resembling a kinda of dodgy Harrods, tiny concessions pack the floors with young men and women attempting to seduce you into buying iPhones and iPads (which definitely didn't come from Apple - one 'iPhone 4' had keys for crying out loud), memory cards, USB keys and cameras. It was all very interesting but the experience became indicative of Chinese shopping, or tourist shopping, as we later found out. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped in an enormous shopping mall, truly American in scale and presentation, yet another sign of China's ironically unstoppable march towards western consumerism. It's hard to overstate just how western Beijing feels when you're around monuments to disposable income that try so hard to be Yankee. I can't help but think that Mao must be almost screwdrivering himself out of his mausoleum at the thought of what his glorious revolution has become, especially when you compare it to the enduring communist legacies still clearly visible in Russia. Laziz put it very well - 'Russia is a communist country pretending to be capitalist, China is a capitalist country pretending to be communist'. 

Once the rest of the group had gotten back from the Wall, we were offered the choice of a tea ceremony followed by a tour around some of Beijing's oldest hutongs with a local guide, who was called Kevin. I'm not sure how many people know of this quirky Chinese custom, I'd ran into it at school, but it's common for Chinese people to choose an English name for use with English-speaking people, rather than using their sometimes complex sounding Chinese names. Knowing this, and intrigued by his choice of name, I asked him why he'd picked it. He said he just liked the sound of it. Fair enough. The tea ceremony was held in the Bell Tower, another 'remnant' of the Imperial regime and a pin through the heart of old Beijing. The 'ceremony' itself was actually more of a tasting, set, strangely enough, in a tea salesroom (albeit lovingly decorated in the Imperial style) and was good fun. We tried several teas, most of which where unfamiliar, and were given some pointers on the etiquette of tea drinking. The rampant salesmanship we'd become accustomed to did rear it's head occasionally, no instance more strange than when the hostess showed us 'the Magic Cup' - one of those mugs that changes colour when it gets hot, like Hypercolour t-shirts - as if it were genuine magic (hushed silences and all), only to be made stranger when half the group actually treated it as if it was sorcery by theatrically 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing' like the better half of a Paul Daniel's audience.

After a hasty retreat through the tea shop/showroom (some people actually bought Magic Cups - you know who you are), we had a quick walk through some surprisingly smart hutongs, discovering that 'hutong' is actually a Mongolian word left over from Kublai's domination of Asia, and headed back to the hotel to get ready for our farewell meal. I won't go over it in any detail, as it was mostly just laughing at silly stuff and reminiscing about the tour, but it was good to sit down together one last time before we went our separate ways. I'm not sure if any of you are reading this, but to Loz, Marnie, Sheena, Nessa, Shotgun, Doris, Shaffi, Charli, Tom, Clare, Ilya and Håkon, we'd just like to say thank you. The trip wouldn't have been worth writing about without you guys being there. And special thanks to Laziz, for being constantly patient, understanding, helpful and, most importantly, always having the Wifi codes. We'll really miss you all and good luck in whatever you're doing. 

Anyways, seeing as I've written the beginnings of a dissertation here, I'd best be off. The next tour starts tomorrow, so it'll be a new group to go with the new post.

Take care beautiful people. 


Mongolian Blues / Chinese Reds

So we've boarded our last train of this trip, bound for Beijing, and everybody seems a bit melancholy. Perhaps it's just leaving Mongolia, as I think the whole group has really enjoyed the experience, but it might also be that we can see the end of the trip looming and I'm not sure any of us relishes the idea that we'll soon be heading off in our own directions.

It's hard to overstate how well we've all gotten on over the last few weeks. There's not been a single raised voice or falling out, which is pretty amazing given we're fifteen people from massively varied backgrounds, thrown together in what might have been an arduous journey across some culturally complex countries via such an unusual mode of transport. So it is sad to think we won't be taking on the next stage of our trip with these new friends, and I can't help but think that our travels would have been all the richer for being together. 

Anyhow, before I start e-blubbing and lose all of those valuable Man Points I've accrued, the journey out of UB has been pretty incredible. The rolling, patchy green of the hinterlands surrounding the Mongolian capital have given way to the vast expanses of sand that make up the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. Stops have become less frequent and less populated, save for a few brave souls who scuttle out of their hiding places as the train pulls up, eager to sell rapidly warming Cokes, bread that's continually baking in the sun and *sigh* instant noodles. 

There is one interesting stop, in a little city (!!) called Choir, which is home to a statue commemorating Mongolia's first and only cosmonaut, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa (try saying that three times fast!). As an aside, and to give you a little more insight into Choir, try looking it up on Wikipedia (or follow this link for the lazy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Choir,_Mongolia) and look at the picture of 'Downtown Choir'... 

Anyways, leaving the manic rush of Choir behind, we make our way towards the Mongolian/Chinese border (which Marnie was convinced was full of Chinese snipers) and another massive wait as we go through customs and immigration. This bureaucratic delay is alleviated slightly as our carriage is detached from the rest, moved into a massive train shed and then raised around ten feet in the air. The bogies are then manually changed, so that the train is ready for the Chinese track gauge, and although I've done a terrible job of describing it, the whole event was pretty interesting and at least took our minds off the fact that we wouldn't have access to a toilet for the next three hours. 

Following a thorough examination of our papers (which stopped just short of a cavity search - the Chinese take their jobs very seriously...), we were allowed into China. We stopped briefly on the Chinese side to resupply, as the food had gotten considerably more exciting - including self-heating beef curry ready meals and vacuum packed chicken's feet - and then got ready for bed and our imminent arrival into Beijing the next day. 

In the morning, as I stared bleary-eyed out of the train window, I was amazed to find that somebody (perhaps Derren Brown) had replaced the sandy dunes and nomadic encampments of the previous day with plunging gorges and mountainside forests - the change really was incredible. Strangely, and perhaps in a fit of psycho-geomancy, the landscape had decided to remould itself into what I'd expected the Chinese countryside to look like, and it was stunning. This train journey has been full of beautiful scenery, but the UB - Beijing stretch topped the lot. 

As we drew nearer to the Chinese capital, I quickly became aware of just how big Beijing is. A city the size of Belgium (but one that proved infinitely more interesting), it took an hour and a half to reach Beijing's central railway station from the beginning of the outlying suburbs. The city's infamous smog is already apparent, and when combined with the heat and humidity of north Asia, it creates a thick haze which smothers us as we leave the train for the final time as a group. *Sniff*

A short walk from the station and we reach the Harmony Hotel, quite a plush place (compared to our other accommodation) and, after a quick shower break, Laziz takes us on the Beijing Metro (which costs 20p per ride - you should be ashamed London) to Tiananmen Square to get our first glimpse of Mao and the Forbidden City (or the Forbidden Planet as Kate keeps calling it - no doubt my geekery is rubbing off on her). 

It's an impressive place, as you'd expect, packed with Chinese tourists eager to take our photo, apparently because one of China's largest annual holidays is about to kick off. This means that hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese travel to the capital and explains why Sarah-Beth (or Shotgun as I call her), our resident 5'11" blonde, is receiving so much attention. Many of these visitors have never seen Westerners, and might never again, so pictures of us white devils (and Shaffie) are highly prized. It culminates in our group photo being hijacked by about fifteen Asian paps, although my suggestion that we say we're the cast of Hollyoaks on tour falls on deaf ears. 

A brief wander through the nearby hutongs (the classic Chinese market streets), which are stunning by dusk, and we head off for dinner in the restaurant district, Beijingxiao (pronounced Beijing-chow, rather fittingly). 

As the night is drawing in, pretty lanterns are strung across the pavements and residents pack the street, eating sunflower seeds in enormous numbers whilst waiting for their dinner. We make our way to an unassuming restaurant which opens up into an amazing double story pavilion ripped straight from the Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill Pt 1. Laziz ordered a frankly overwhelming amount of food including Beijing specialities such as spicy peanut chicken, beef with spring onions and, of course, Peking Duck. It's a fine end to the evening and we all head back to the hotel for some proper rest, Harmony style. All in all Beijing seems very cool. 



Excuses and Apologies

Hello readers. Just wanted to explain why I've 'blog-bombed' you today. Due to the Chinese 'cultural preservation' mechanisms, I've been unable to access Blogspot for the past two weeks. Now we're in Nepal, and therefore my journalism cannot be censored, I'll be doing a few more updates. 

Stay tuned true believers. 


A message on behalf of the Mongolian Tourism Board

Come to Mongolia. 

Seriously. The last couple of days (bedbugs aside) have already confirmed that Mongolia is one of my favourite places in the world. Everybody should come here, it really is a great place for a holiday and you could easily spend a two week vaycay here without running out of things to do. 

The morning after what I shall now describe as B-Day, we were picked up by coach (by an awesome, beret-wearing, aviator-toting Mongolian called Mia) to be taken into the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park for our overnight stay in a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent (our ger is shown above). 

Before we got there though, we were taken over about 100 minutes of the very bumpy roads outside UB, which would have been fun enough anyways, but was made even more hilarious as one poor member of the group, Tom, was suffering after a night on the karaoke (and vodka, obviously) so the road was playing havoc with his digestive system. Loz also unveiled his hidden talent fake retching sounds, only adding to Tom's discomfort, and meaning that Håkon and I had aching sides by the time we arrived at our destination - a 40m high statue of Chingis Khan made entirely from stainless steel. Built on the spot where, as legend would have it, Chingis received his Golden Horsewhip, the statue actually houses a museum and a viewing platform (on the head of the Khan's horse no less) which gives great views over the countryside. The statue itself is incredible, and there's a wildly ambitious master plan for the rest of the site which I don't think has a snowball's chance of reaching completion, but it means the statue sits in an impressively commanding setting. We also got the chance to dress up in some traditional Mongolian clothes (warriors for the boys, princesses for the girls) which was fun. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the museum is also home to Mongolia's largest boot... Which was nice. 

On the way from the Steely Khan (that's a good name for a band...) we stopped at a little tent to try the local liquor - fermented mare's milk. It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds - like a watery, very sour yoghurt mixed with vodka and with an overwhelming smell of grass - so we all tried a little, except for Loz who downed the rest of the bowl. Another 50 minute drive and we were at the ger camp, set right in the heart of a beautiful national park. The landscape has changed dramatically, the rough, sandy grassland of the plains giving way to trees and low shrubs as we enter the valleys. In fact, the whole area is evocative of spaghetti westerns with tall pines and rocky outcrops peppered over a blanket of yellowing grassland. When we arrived at the camp, we were treated to a massive meal of salad, soup and dumplings, all excellent, before heading out for one of the highlights of the trip so far - horse back riding. 

I've never actually ridden a horse, but let's just say that me and 'Rasputin' (my name for my little black pony) got on like a ger on fire. Before too long, we were careening over the plains, even giving Laziz, a natural horseman, a run for his money. It was an unforgettable experience, particularly the sensation you get when the horse changes pace from a cantor to a gallop, and suddenly my trusty steed's muscles become liquid, and the ride goes from bumpy and fun to fluid and exhilarating. 

Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for this part of my memorial tapestry. I think the bad nights sleep, the onset of the group lurgy and the rearing head of my ridiculous allergies pretty much knocked me out for the rest of the day, so an early night in the ger beckoned. I awoke about three hours later with the distinct impression that my head was on fire. Kate had apparently disregarded the local advice and thrown a bundle of firewood into the stove inside the ger (one stick every 30 minutes was suggested) and the interior of the tent had reached near sun-like temperatures. In fairness, this 'sweat lodge' approach might have help my symptoms as I awoke the next day for some archery practice. My status as the reincarnation of Robin Hood confirmed, we headed back into UB for another night, thankfully in a different room - this time devoid of crawlies. 

Our last morning in UB was spent in museums, cafés and doing some shopping before boarding the last train of this trip, the one that would carry us to Beijing. 

Thanks Mongolia, it really was emotional.


Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite...

We arrived into Mongolia in the morning after crossing the Russian border - a lengthy, harrowing experience due to the lack of toilets, the baking heat and the long, suspicious looks of the Russian border guards - and made our way through the certifiable drivers towards our hotel. The traffic is worth going into in more detail as the Mongolians have roads and they have cars and the rest is pretty much negotiable. Red lights mean nothing, pedestrian crossings mean less than nothing and Mongolians aren't afraid of using their horns. It's mental

Other than that, the city has been fantastic. Laziz had freaked us all out on the train by telling us that Ulaan Batur was a hive of scum and villainy comparable to Mos Eisley, but the reality couldn't be further from the truth. UB is amazing, a surprisingly modern, characterful city, full of friendly, open face Mongolians who try their best with English, my terrible attempts at Mongolian and seem genuinely happy to meet you. As is swiftly coming par for the course, we had a quick shower and a freshen-up (I think that's girl-speak for going to the toilet), we wandered into the city and got oriented. Most of us made our way to the Gandan Monastery, a well worn but dutifully maintained series of temples that are the Buddhist heart of Mongolia. We were allowed to listen to the monks as they chanted prayers, and spun a few prayer wheels for good luck (or what we hope was good luck). Without getting too theological, I have to say that Buddhism seems very peaceful compared to other religions I've seen. I know that sounds obvious, but the minute you set foot inside the temple precinct the serenity hits you (rather ironically) like an sledgehammer. There's no hustle or bustle, everyone seems content to let everybody just get on with their own business and even the chanting has a melodic simplicity to it. There's no overtly grandiose ritual (or at least none you're forced into going along with), no finger-pointing sermons and nobody looks like they'd shout if you got things wrong. There's just an air of profound spirituality pervading everything, the people, the place and the wider environment, that's really quite affecting, even to an atheist like me. 

After the temple, we went for lunch in a great little café, Café Amsterdam, where I made a shocking discovery. Mongolian food is awesome. After the dirge that was Russian cuisine, it was so exciting to rediscover spice again. I had a great sandwich with salami, fresh lettuce, tomato and cucumber in a light, savoury roll but the real star was the goat shish kebab that was ordered by Shaffi, but was thankfully shared around the table. Well seasoned and generously spiced, the goat was tender and delicious - thankfully an accurate portent of Mongol food in general. Happy and full, we visited UB's premier department store and had a look at some of the souvenirs available. The craft arts and traditional dress were amazing, but I was less convinced that the 18" bust of Michael Jackson could be classified as a genuine 'made in Mongolia' souvenir. 


We sauntered back to the hotel and got ready to go for dinner with our decidedly less 'soviet' group. Before food our local guide had arranged entry to a Mongolian cultural show which was astounding. We saw traditional dance, including performances from the happiest Mongol in the world, heard folk songs (including some of the most bewildering musical instruments I've ever seen), heard throat singing (which might have killed me if Nick was sitting next to me) and even saw a frankly terrifying display of contortion from a young girl that left me feeling a little queasy. Afterwards, with everyone on a high on Mongolian life, we made our way to the restaurant where the menu was equally exciting and eye watering. Just about any part of the standard Mongolian herd animals was available (including cow, lamb, goat and *gulp* horse) and our end of the table decided to go all Spanish and order a few dishes for sharing. The food was great, tasty and fresh, but I do have a confession to make. I did eat horse. And, what's more, I enjoyed it more than the beef. It's almost exactly the same texture, perhaps a little tougher, but the flavour is stronger, comparable to venison. It was served cooked in a lightly spiced gravy, and was delicious. A few beers and, you guessed it, vodkas later and we were on our way back to the hotel for some much needed shut eye... Alas, it wasn't to be. 

I did get some sleep, but I awoke just after midnight to find the little fella above crawling up my leg. In a panic, I managed to skewer him with the complimentary hotel pen before realising that I had several insects, of various sizes, crawling over me and whilst I gave it my all, like Maximus at the end of Gladiator, I was destined to lose. I retreated to the bathroom, where I slept (in the loosest sense of the word) on the tiled floor until 6AM when I showered, dressed and legged it out of the hotel as fast as my little, lice-infested legs could carry me. I didn't suffer any long term injury, and I know I should have complained (even though it would have been thoroughly un-British), but I thought it'd be another little adventure to add to my collection, even if it is making my feel itchy as I write about it. 

After all that, I still love Mongolia, although I have a little less sympathy for insects now. And that can't be good for my karma...


From Lake Baikal to Irkutsk

We (unfortunately) left Nickolai early the next morning and headed into Irkutsk for a day of sight-seeing before catching our train out of Russia and into the land of the Mongols. 

As Irkutsk has slightly less sights to see than Sunderland, this will be a brief post with my next one being from Mongolia where hopefully they have more to see (and write about) than a statue of Lenin and a 'big square'. 

We should have spent the day at the Lake.


There and Baikal again...

We all shuffled off the train, hissing like vampires in the sunlight, with some of us genuinely suffering from agoraphobia after four days in our metal and laminate wood crypt. We've arrived in Irkutsk, a place I only knew through it's strategic importance in Risk (and yes, I'm determined to wring that metaphor for all it's worth in case you're wondering), but we can't stop as we're piled onto a bus heading for Listvanyanka. Yeah, I'd never heard of it either. Listvanyanka is actually a pretty little village on the edge of Lake Baikal, the largest mass of water in the world (other than the combined oceans before anybody posts snippy comments) and the deepest lake in the world. We've checked into Nickolai's Guesthouse, and Nickolai is the first genuinely happy Russian I've met, so much so that I think he might be a little unhinged. He runs the hotel with his wife and has that kind of wheeling positivity and perma-smile that would probably be called 'eccentric' in England, but he is so friendly that you can't help but smile along. His guesthouse defied my expectations too, more akin to a massive Swiss chalet than traditional Russian houses and we've managed to score a massive room with an en-suite bathroom. It also has a double bed, which Nickolai subtly pointed out before giving me the leeriest grin/wink combo I've ever seen. Like I said, eccentric. 

After a much needed shower (we had fashioned a shower device out of an old Sprite bottle on the train, but it wasn't the same) we all head out to the Lake for a quick look around the village and a hike into the surrounding hills. The temperature has dropped considerably, but the air is fresh, the skies are turquoise and it all feels like the perfect antidote to the slowly developing claustrophobia of the train. Lake Baikal itself is absolutely stunning, all deep blue with flashes of white as the wind curls over tiny waves. We can't make out the far shore as the lake is so wide, so the horizon is hemmed by ragged mountains and misty clouds. As you might have gathered, Lake Baikal is one of the most beautiful places of the tour so far. 

We had some lunch at a local food market, where I had some greasy rice and what I think must have been chicken knees on sticks, but it was like eating at the Fat Duck compared to those damned noodles. Refuelled and ready to exercise, we hiked for a few minutes along the edge of the lake. Laziz had told us that a swim in the lake adds five years to your life, whereas ducking your head three times whilst swimming results in a quarter-of-a-century bonus. That proved too tempting, and about 10 of us threw ourselves in to water that was around 6degC for approximately two minutes. Hopefully the 25 years I've gained will counteract the 30 years I lost from the effects of hypothermia. 

The hike was awesome, and the hillside was beautiful. Refreshed, we returned to the guesthouse where Nickolai was waiting for us with the offer of a banya - a kind of Russian bathing ritual that starts with a sauna, then a whipping with birch leaves before an icy plunge (in what the girls had really hoped was a hot tub) followed by a thorough rub down with what can only be described as a Brillo pad and another icy splash, this time courtesy of Nickolai's bucket. I have to concede that I'm relaying this second hand as I hate saunas at the best of times and when Nickolai emerged from the banya in his budgie smugglers, I beat a hasty retreat. Kate endured (and paid for) the full experience though, and has scars to prove it. 

Our hosts provided dinner, the focus of which was omul, a fish unique to Baikal Lake. It was hot smoked and served whole, but was tender and quite subtle, if a little boney. We also had what Laziz described as 'the best mashed potato in the world' and if the proof is in the eating then all we proved is that Laziz obviously hasn't eaten much mashed potato before. The atmosphere was great though and Nickolai was a fine host, so we all retired to the living room for a round of 'Iron Spoons' - which worked beautifully, thanks Clare - and some of the inevitable vodka. When we finally went to bed, I think I missed the rocking of the train but I managed to drift off all the same.

'Night all.


All Aboard

Well, we're finally on the Trans-Siberian Express and we'll now be on it for the next four days. Stops are between 2 and 20 minutes long, and it's up to us (and our awesome Uzbek guide, Laziz) to make sure we are in the right place at the right time as the train doesn't wait. We're in a private compartment (i.e. lockable, and shared only with members of our group) that's cozy and comfortable, although I'm worried it could hit sauna-bath temperatures when we actually get going. The whole train feels very 'soviet' - our group's new favourite word (everything is 'soviet' - from statues of Lenin to cappuccinos) - there's a really cool samovar (an industrial looking hot water machine) that's fed by a tiny coal stove that the ever present train attendant has to keep refilling; there are bathrooms, although even after a short while they seem to have taken on a distinctive 'pub loo at closing time' feel. I blame the ladies.

I thought I'd handle this bit of the trip by quickly summarising each day, just to make it a bit more contemporary.

Day One

After getting some food in for the trip, and when I say 'some' I mean enough dried food to survive a substantial trip into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, we got on board the train at around midday and settled into our compartments. We're sharing with Clare and Tom, a pair of friends from London, who are around our age and seem really nice. The compartment is smart but cramped when you account for four travellers, each with at least two items of luggage plus the aforementioned European food mountain we're all carting around. There's a luggage area at the top of the cabin, the width of the compartment and the depth of the corridor, so we immediately tried to fit Kate in there (it was easy). This quickly evolved into seeing how many more we could it in before the ceiling gave way (three). The first girl in did have something of a panic attack, so we quickly ended that game. Laziz has given us a pretty thorough briefing, so we know a little more about what to expect for the next few days, and we've eaten our first packet of instant noodles (our staple food now). Everybody seems just to be settling into their cabins or staring out of the windows for the time being so I'll get back to you tomorr... Wait a minute... I've just heard somebody crack open a bottle of vodka. Good times. L.

Day Two

We had a good night last night bonding over a bottle of voddy, and more instant noodles. The group is really gel-ing now and the train, which I thought might have caused fractures to appear (as can happen when you trap 15 people in a confined space for any amount of time - just look at Big Brother), is actually bringing us together. We totally occupy 3 cabins, and have claimed 3/4 of a fourth, so we all tend to move around depending on what's going on in which room. Laziz has been brilliant at keeping the momentum going, teaching us card games (A$$hole and Richelieu being my personal favourites) and telling us about the places we'll be seeing, so the days are flying by. We even had a conversation about racism, which ended uncomfortably when one of the girls, Charlie, betrayed her public school roots by liberally dropping the P-Bomb and upsetting one half of the carriage. She's so lovely that I think she recovered the situation, but needless to say there were some awkward silences and some sharp looks. Casual racism aside, there's also plenty of opportunities for photos thanks to opening windows in the passages, so I've got some blurry photos of the Siberian countryside. We've also had a couple of stops, so we've been introduced to the Babushkas who lie in wait for stopping trains. Forget the awful Kate Bush debacle, babushkas are local peasants that sell things at the stops, ranging from Coke to homemade snacks. The food is especially interesting and I've tried fresh berries, crisp pancakes rolled and filled with caramel and a doughnut stuffed with, of all things, mashed potato. It's cheap and hot, and can be very tasty, and I'm happy for anything that gives me a break from those damnable noodles. Anyways, someone's just called me an a$$hole so I can only assume they want a game of cards. More tomorrow. L.

Day Three

Seriously, enough with the noodles. The Russians might not do spice but they sure as hell do salt and I'm beginning to think that I've genuinely altered my body's composition so that I'm now only 45-50% water. As a change from anything other than the devil's soba, I opened a sachet of what I thought was instant cous cous; it had a picture of cous cous on the front, and what a delicious looking cous cous it was, so I think I was within my rights to believe that the contents should indeed be cous cous. Upon closer inspection, what I'd bought was in fact instant stock that should be used in the preparation of cous cous, rather than the grain itself. Bah. Loz had also made the same mistake, but he tried to drink it like a cup-a-soup... He's now composed of only 20-25% water. Other than the coronary-inducing levels of salt, the train is still great fun. Loz, Håkon and I, once our sensibilities had been brought crashing down by the ever present vodka, have discovered that we share the same schoolboy sense of humour so we've been keeping each other amused by sharing dirty jokes, funny anecdotes and disgusting euphemisms. I related some of the boarding school fun that didn't appear in Harry Potter, Håkon regaled us with stories from his time doing Norwegian national service, and Loz frankly outshone us all with tales of his navy days; 'Top-Decking' is something I shall have to explain in person. With the girls' eyebrows all stuck indefinitely in 'silly boys' mode, I shall beat a retreat back to the party cabin. We're going to have a 'gypsy disco' - this involves one person rapidly turning the lights on and off to evoke a party atmosphere. I'll let you know how it goes. L.

Day Four

Last night was not a good night. Kate, perhaps inspired by the Soviet heroes of old or maybe embracing the equality central to the Communist movement, tried to drink quantities of vodka that would keep Lenin embalmed until the next millennium. Seeing as she weighs all of eight stone, it went to her head somewhat, and she stumbled into the carriage at about 1AM having somehow made her way back from the dining car where our group was having am impromptu par-tay. Using my uncanny boyfriend senses, I'd already seen the iceberg approaching earlier in the evening so I'd retired to prepare for the worst. Without going into too much detail, I spent the night sitting up with Kate, making sure she wasn't ill in the carriage. Despite her best attempts, we managed to keep everything neat and tidy although Kate was less than fresh when she woke up and has spent most of the day in bed. I've spent the day writing and playing with the rest of the group, some of whom are equally soft-headed, so it's been a slow but nice day. We have one more night before we arrive into the place only Risk players will appreciate, Irkutsk, before we head up to Lake Baikal, so my next post will be from the world's deepest water mass.

Take care all.


Home Thoughts From Abroad

As the image of St. Basil's Cathedral might suggest, we've made it to Moscow. We're staying in a hotel complex that has been constructed from the remains of the old athlete's village from the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This comprises four gigantic tower blocks which together house over 5,000 (!!) rooms - none of which have been refurb'd since they were built seemingly. The rooms are outstandingly soviet, with showers so powerful they actually strip the skin from your back and decor taken entirely from Stalin's personal Habitat catalogue.

Soviet-era hotels notwithstanding, Moscow has been pretty cool. The weather has been abysmal, but seeing the Kremlin and the 'Tetris Cathedral' has been worth the sleeting rain. We also joined up with some Russian friends of guys in our group and walked through 'Old Moscow' to one of the coolest cafés I've ever been to. Tiny, packed with Moscovians and serving excellent coffee and cake, it really was the greatest way to see the city, much better than just trotting around the tourist sites with the crowds. We also visited the flat of Kirov, one of Russia's great storytellers (apparently) and looked blankly at Cyrillic information tags that meant nothing to us. But it was interesting all the same.

So. I've now seen two of Russia's major city's and I feel that affords me the opportunity to outline a few of the major cultural differences between the ex-USSR and dear old Britain that I've observed thus far.

  • Russian men seem to believe that a man should smell like a man, but only when that man smells like he's been rasslin' a bear for an hour and then bathed in the sweat of more bears before being stuffed in a sauna overnight, so they can really get a sweat on. Seriously.
  • Conversely, young Russian women are well dressed ALL of the time. This means dresses, leather jackets, smart trousers, full make up, hairdresser standard hair and heels are essential at all times. In fact, if you dress in a way that means you couldn't survive being dropped into a nightclub at a moments notice, you are underdressed. Needless to say, Kate and her yellow rain jacket have drawn quite a few looks. The heels, in particular, are quite staggering. Given the height of the heels and the poor state of many Russian pavements, a cobbler here could be a millionaire inside 9 months.
  • Cabbage, in Russia, is still disgusting. You'd have thought that after all the years they've been dealing with it, they'd have found a way to make it taste of something other than gym socks. But they haven't. In fact, food in Russia in general is pretty terrible. Almost all of the meals we've had have been blander than Davina McCall, with even a Red Thai Curry tasting like some kind of coconut gravy. So far, Russia's greatest culinary invention seems to be a pastry (not dissimilar to a doughnut) filled with mashed potato. No wonder Jamie Oliver hasn't done 'Jamie's Russia' yet then.
  • Russians, in general, don't give away a smile a easily as their western counterparts. People here will very rarely smile at a stranger, and often just stare blankly at my attempts at disarming British charm. Whilst initially this made Russians seem somewhat stand-offish and rude, I've found it to be one of the more charming local customs. It's a nice counterpoint to the casual disregard that you get in the UK, most often on display in SportsDirect or JJB, where people genuinely couldn't give a flying who-hah if you live or die. In Russia they seem much more binary, either love or hate, and it makes both emotional responses all the more rewarding for their honesty.

After an average meal (par of the course it seems), a quick pint in an 'English' pub - a bargain at a mere £7 per beer - and then finding out in the bluntest possible terms that Chechen people really don't like English people, we retired to our steel cots to grab some sleep before what might be the most epic part of the journey - the four day train ride from Moscow to Irkutsk.



Rush’n Attack

Sooo... We've hooked up with our tour group, and they seem great. Admittedly we've only had one night together, but after the initial (and inevitable) awkward few minutes everyone seems to be getting on famously. We're a mixed bunch, fifteen travellers from all over the world, with people from Malaysia, Israel, Norway, Canada, Oz and New Zealand with everybody else from the UK.

We met up at the Hotel Suvorov, the guest house of choice for Gap Adventures in St. Petersburg, and it's just this side of rinky-dink. The young lady at reception confirmed that the steely resolve that got the USSR through the Cold War is still alive and well, whilst the room serves as a reminder that Russia still flips off the EU and it's smoking ban on a regular basis. Super Kings-flavoured room aside, Kate and I did spend our first few hours in the room with phantom-itches, as a Trip Advisor review claimed the Suvorov was home to bed bugs, and once you've got that idea into your head you can't help but scratch. I leapt into action, with a method for bed bug removal that I'm thinking of patenting; this mostly involves blasting the little biters to oblivion with the searing heat of the hotel's 20W hairdryer then shaking the sheets a little to finish them off. That's the end of THAT chapter.

Anyways, we then met Laziz, our tour guide, who's from Uzbekistan and speaks an amazing SEVEN languages. I'd later argue with him that Uzbek and Farsi don't really count as languages, but that was later, and over vodka, so he didn't take offence. After some cringe-worthy introductions, the best being Charlie's - she joined late as she'd fallen over walking out of the airport arrivals lounge and hospitalised herself - we all went for a traditional Russian dinner at, appropriately enough, the Russian Cafe. It made a massive difference to have two Russian speakers, and dinner was great. I had 'Monastery Stew' - described as 'meat served in pot' - which was rich and filling so thanks to whichever animal went into it. The food was made even better by the free vodka that came with every portion, and it really helped break the ice.

We finished the night in a very unexpected manner. I'd assumed that with it being our first night, we'd all get an early night to hit the city like committed tourists. But we ended up finding a Russian rock bar and spending the night with the locals until around 2AM. The music was eclectic - the DJ actually found a way to segue neatly between Cyprus Hill's Insane in the Membrane and The Smiths' This Charming Man - but the young Russian rockers seemed happy and friendly. So friendly in fact that the girls found themselves encircled by steely eyed Daniel Craig-a-likes as we were leaving. The bar was pleasingly smoky, taking me right back to my early days of uni, and forcing me to have an early morning shower before getting into my bed. Just as an aside, smoking is amazingly cheap here - 20 cigarettes are slightly more than a pound - and so it seems like most Russians have taken to it like bears to baiting. Everybody smokes and it was like a window to the past to have smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants again.

We're off for Ukrainian food tonight, again as a group, so I can't wait for the taste sensation that is borsch - beetroot and cabbage soup for the uninitiated. Delightful.

Perhaps I can get them to serve it 'with meat in pot'...


P.S. Extra blog points to those that 'get' the title of this post. L.

From Russia, With (Much More) Love.

So, we've had our first real day in Saint Petersburg. And it's been great. All the fears I mentioned in my last post seem to have been totally unjustified. We've had no run-ins with any criminals, the hotel is lovely - clean and spacious rooms with friendly, English-speaking staff - and the city itself is stunning, essentially a weary-looking Paris by way of Amsterdam. The photo above is taken from one of the major bridges that crosses the Neva, and gives some sense of the development and heritage that's everywhere in Russia's second city. Rampant and ostentatious Imperialism is undermined by poor maintenance, but isn't destroyed by it - the city really is beautiful.

We've had a great walk around the Fontana (the focal point for the imperial architecture), about 6 miles by our reckoning, and seen a few of the sights, photos of which will follow. Most noteworthy was our visit to the Kunstkammer, a museum established by Peter the Great to display his collection of ethnographic artefacts. Peter, as the few English language labels told me, payed well for everyday objects from indigenous people, so there's an impressive selection of weapons, tools and religious paraphernalia from most of the world's major civilisations. Interesting stuff, but I think our understanding was hampered by the Cyrillic labelling leading to us having to guess at what some of the weird and wonderful objects actually were.

This rather pedestrian (if interesting) collection was offset by the other major offer of the Kunstkammer - Peter's hall of 'Grotesqueries'. Apparently Peter was a reformer and he was keenly interested in the progression of science, particularly anatomy, to battle Russia's religious superstitions relating to humanity and deformity. He thought the best way to combat this, and contrary to the typical Russian response to reform (a bloody revolution), Peter employed two Dutch scientists and their assortment of pickled infant foetuses (seriously), to drive forward the study of anatomy and enlighten the citizens of Russia's new capital. Unfortunately, this room is one of the creepiest places I have ever been in my life. I appreciate the contribution these 'specimens' must have made to anatomy and science in general, but the sight of over one hundred infants and their various body parts staring blankly out of brandy filled jars is the stuff of nightmares and I can't help but feel that, although under the guise of intellectualism, this gruesome exhibition was developed as a guilt-free freak show that allowed Peter to indulge his fascination with the weird (it's worth mentioning that Petey also employed a giant he met in Paris to attend his court and, upon his death, the Tsar ordered his skeleton, heart and *ahem* penis to be preserved. The first two are still on show in the museum, the latter is in storage - out of a sense of decency presumably...).

Pickled baby foetuses aside, we've also visited some amazing churches and Imperial buildings, pics of which will follow. All in all it's been really interesting and, surprisingly, very hot; when it wasn't raining stair-rods, that is.

A city of contradictions then.


Hello, Cruel World

Well, here we go. I'm sat on the plane heading to St. Petersburg (via Stockholm) after however many months of preparation and, in all seriousness, I'm a little nervous. Maybe I'm not approaching it right, or maybe I'm just giving in to a bout of uncharacteristic pessimism, but the thought of Russia, which had once seemed so full of wonder and intrigue - I'd pictured broad nosed man-bears in fur hats pushing through crisp, white snow and downing vodka whilst saluting faded and rusting statues of Lenin - has mutated into thoughts of skinny, shaven headed street punks who're waiting like wolves outside the airport for fresh faced travellers carrying an ill-thought out array of fine consumer products and ripe for a good ol' fashion mugging. It might be baseless stereotyping, but I can't shake the idea that the first person I'll see upon arrival into the Motherland will be in the style of Viggo Mortensen's anti-hero from Eastern Promise, all quiet menace, gangland tattoos and loosely caged violence. Needless to say, I think I will be avoiding any bath houses whilst in Russia...

I think these feelings have highlighted just how sheltered my travelling has been thus far. I've travelled in my life, almost exclusively west of Britain, and although I'd like to consider myself worldly I'm patently not. Almost all of the countries I've visited have been mostly developed, or if not actually first world then close enough to it that some of the basics of civilisation have rubbed off, and even if they haven't, then the rough edges are hidden just out of sight, presumably available to people a lot more worldly than me. It's disappointing to realise what I take for granted - I usually rely on hotels to not have bed bugs and to employ staff who won't think a quick rummage through your bag whilst you're out is a given, I've always assumed that police are people who are there to help in the prevention of crime, rather than 'shake you down' over fake visa discrepancies and that the water coming out of the taps won't contain quantities of heavy metals only found in T-1000's. 

All of this has made me desperate to join up with our first tour group, which we join on Friday (hopefully as soon as possible). It might seem cowardly, and not in the spirit of the endeavour on which we've set out, but I'm longing for the camaraderie and security that will come from being in a larger, and partially guided, group. We've been staying with Kate's sister Vicky (who might now be a mum!) and whilst walking around London, I'd noticed the large amount of tourists that were participating in organised group tours and I'd wondered why they'd bother paying to be shuffled around London's most cynical and banal tourist-traps, persistently in danger of being sold bears dressed as beef eaters or told that this cafe really is the best in London (nah love, he's not my uncle or nuffin'). But after a bowel-loosening hour with the Rough Guide for Sainty P (which is either being uncreatively honest with truth about St. Petersburg or is the worst piece of character assassination in the history of city marketing) I'm craving somebody to share a little of our responsibilities with, in exchange for sharing a little of theirs; An extra pair of eyes on the lookout for pickpockets (which comprise 87% of the population if the Rough Guide's to be believed), another man to prevent the girls from being sold into sex-slavery if I have to spend a kopek, somebody to look blankly at Cyrillic street names with... I think it'll make the whole experience richer and more rewarding, sharing triumphs and doling out apprehensions, all in it together and having each others backs. 

So that's probably why I saw 30 Spanish tourists taking pictures of the entrance to the Bank tube stop. They're probably like me, all nerves and apprehension, thinking that any minute the cast of Lock Stock is going to come bounding round the corner to give them a much more intimate portrayal of street culture in Britain, leaving them bloody and bereft in the heart of the City. Or perhaps they just enjoy being with people that are going through the same things they are, exploring new things knowing that there's a inherent safety net in the unlikely event that something actually goes wrong. 

Anyways, I'm off for a sauna and a gang tattoo. Well, if you can't beat them...