Wednesday, 25 August 2010


25,500km, 12 countries, 3 continents and four and a half months later and finally I’m back in London.

First I spent a few days in Berlin with Ivan and Sabine, two friends of mine. The sun shines, the tree line streets pavements are filled with tables and chairs as cafes make the most of the weather and Berliners sip coffee in the dappled shade. We wander along the canal, buy cake to eat with coffee later in the day and drink a glass of rose in the sun. I meet other friends and we sip Prosecco over celebratory lunches and dinners.

Having lived here for a few months last year, Berlin feels familiar and welcoming and it seems as if I’ve reached the end of my journey. So when I pull on my backpack for the final leg to London, I’ve already lost some of my traveller vibe.

It’s a six hour journey to Brussels and the train breaks down just inside the Belgian border – unbelievable the first real delay of my journey. Then Eurostar speeds me from Brussels to London in just under two hours. It’s early morning. The sun is shining, the sky blue. I try to feel something as I look at the English countryside stream past outside the window but all I experience is a sense of anti-climax.

Then, too soon, we’re at Euston and I stop two French girls and ask them to take my photo. ‘I’ve just finished a journey from Australia,’ I tell them, but they don’t speak English and just smile and nod vaguely. As I pose, for a moment at least, I feel celebratory. ‘I’ve done it,’ I tell myself, a big smile on my face.

A few minutes later I'm negotiating Kings Cross station in rush hour as I head towards the Tube to travel to my friend Valerie’s house in west London. The Piccadilly line isn’t running, people are staring moodily at maps as they make alternative plans. I squeeze on with my oversize bag, pressed against morose commuters, hot and sweaty, changing in busy Victoria, then rattling for half an hour into the London suburbs.

When I emerge from the tube the weather has changed. There’s a cool breeze blowing and dark clouds scudding across the sky. I walk to Valerie’s house, looking forward to seeing her, to a cup of tea, to finishing.

But the walk leaves me feeling disoriented. London feels familiar but it doesn’t feel like home. I feel at once comfortable and a step removed: like looking through a pane of glass or watching a familiar cityscape on a movie screen. I don’t know if I belong here anymore. I’m already wondering what I’ll do next. And moment by moment the magic of the journey, the freedom of travelling, is slipping from my shoulders.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How long is too long on a train? St Petersburg to Berlin, 36 hours, 1,450km

To be honest I don’t know the answer to the question I’ve posed above. I’ve taken plenty of journeys of 20, 24 and even 36 hours and have always been a bit sorry to step off the train at my destination. My longerst journey (52 hours) was a pleasure from start to finish and I didn’t want it to end.

There is something delicious about the enforced idleness of train travel; a rare thing is this busy life. A train has everything you need: a comfy bed, regular meals, occasional forays into the world outside during the longer stops and a constantly changing panorama outside your windows. You sleep, eat, sleep, watch the scenery, doze, eat, read, write, eat, sleep and that’s about it. Frankly it’s bliss and I’m not entirely sure how I’ll cope when I’m back in real life again.

That’s why I’m making the most of every second of my last long journey from St Petersburg to Berlin: two nights of gently rocking sleep and one last day of train life.

Outside the windows it’s midsummer as we cross from Russia into Belarus. Wheat fields, burnt gold or just harvested and sporting conical hay stacks, roll along on either side of the tracks.

We stop at Orcha for two hours. It's warm, 30c, and I buy dumplings and fresh apples from the babushkas on the platform then sit with the rest of the passengers under a tree near the carriages.

When we get back on board the air conditioning stops working. The heat in the carriage builds and I start to consider that there are times when a train journey can be too long. I doze on my bed then stand in the corridor and stick my head out the window to catch some of the breeze. Eventually I decide to try the restaurant car, where for some reason the air conditioning is still working.

In the dining room, they’re playing Cossack tunes on the stereo: dalitza, dalitza, dalitza, da. I order an ice cold beer and take a big gulp and look out the window; a voyeur, albeit briefly, on lives unknown. The sun is moving towards the horizon and small villages surrounded by newly harvested wheat fields shine golden in the evening sunshine. We cross a bridge over a shallow river – the whole village is bathing or picnicking on its banks; 100 people or more splashing in water or sitting in the sunshine, legs stretched out. A man works a plough in a field and wipes his hat across his forehead as he watches the train go by. Deep yellow sunflowers stand tall against the pale blue wall of a village home and a white horse gallops beside the railway tracks, tossing its head in the summer sunshine.

Before long I realise that I’m back to where I started: there really is no train journey that’s too long to take.

Monday, 16 August 2010

A tale of two cities

Moscow and St Petersburg couldn’t be more different. In part it’s due to the weather – an unfair comparison given that Moscow was blanketed in smoke and heat while I was there, while St Petersburg welcomes me with perfect northern European summer days: sunshine, pale blue skies enlivened with the occasional fluffy white cloud and cool breezes. The light sparkles off the city’s canals and river and I take in big mouthfuls of fresh air.

But the differences between the two cities are due to much more than the vagaries of weather; they have fundamentally different characters and psyches.

Where Moscow is functional and pared back, St Petersburg is all ornate and ormolu. At every corner, along every street, bejewelled baroque gems sit beside classical buildings shining pastel pale in the sunshine. Be it an everyday housing block or palace, it’s obvious that the motto ‘less is more’ has no place in St Petersburg. Even the train stations conform to type. Where the Moscow metro is a hymn to socialism, the St Petersburg version is a Tsarist monument of pomp and glory.

And while Moscow is home to parade grounds and great civic squares of brick and concrete, St Petersburg is filled with parks – shady green spaces with fountains tinkling, flower beds and stately trees. Ironically (given its former name) this is the only Russian city in which I can’t find a statue of Lenin, though there are plenty of Tsars Alexander 1 and Peter the Great. In St Petersburg it can sometimes feel that communist Russia never really existed.

The people are different too. In Moscow, stout workers jostle with kittenish nouveau riche women in high heels and short skirts as they push urgently through the streets in search of business, wealth and work. In St Petersburg elegant couples with immaculately turned out children stroll in the parks in the late afternoon sunshine, eating ice cream and holding hands.

That’s not to say I necessarily prefer St Petersburg. The city is very beautiful, in fact it’s so picturesque that after a while I tire of photographing it. I head out into the suburbs to find something more real but even here the classic proportions are still in place; a little more run down perhaps but still undeniably beautiful.

It’s the same at the Hermitage. There’s so much to see that I feel first daunted then overwhelmed. For the best part of three hours I hold my own with the huge tour groups of American, German and Japanese tourists who are grimly working their way through the entire collection. Then the sunshine glinting on the Neva river outside draws me away and I make my escape, cross the bridge, buy an ice cream and sit with the citizens of the city on the banks of the Neva.

While the locals swim happily in the tea coloured, chilly water I find a shady spot, leaning against the rough bark of a tree, and settle down for a spot of people watching.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Moscow burning

Morning in Moscow dawns hot. By 10am it's 38c and the hair is heavy with acrid smoke. At my hostel, travellers lie in a torpor on their beds or gather in the lounge room. Rumours run riot: the Italian press is predicting that a nuclear arsenal is under threat from the fires; the Poles have evacuated their embassy. I check the BBC, which sets my mind at ease with a restrained piece about the health implications for local citizens. And, as I'm only here for a few days, I decide to brave the weather and check out the city.

The smoke is heavier than the night before. Visibility is low, buildings rear up out of the mist and the streets disappear, dark grey ribbons into the light grey air. Moscow feels utterly deserted. I walk along in the eerie silence until I get to Red Square, where a few other tourists are making the best of a bad lot.

The heat and the smoke quickly wear me down. For the sake of something to do I join the queue for Lenin's mausoleum. It gives me a sense of purpose and lets me stop, drink a huge bottle of water and try to catch my breath. Around me the line of tourists are silent and subdued. Many are wearing small white facemasks. I drink water and try to ignore my itching eyes and scratchy throat.

When I get to the front of the queue I find the Lenin is deep underground in a beautifully cool, dimly lit room. Guards quieten anyone who speaks, so we enter the mausoleum in hushed silence. Lenin is surprisingly small, a short and petite man, his hands, arms and torso visible (he's wearing a suit and waistcoat). The closer I get the more waxy and unreal he looks; the face a pale yellow with smooth skin.

Emerging again into the smoke filled air, feeling my eyes begin to stream, I realise that exploring Moscow is a no go today, so I take myself off to the Tretyakov Gallery. It's home to the best of Russian art from the 17th century onwards and as I walk by lush portraits of Russian nobles, generals, matrons and society beauties I feel a War & Peace moment coming on: these are the people Tolstoy was writing about.

I enjoy their company for three or four hours then I have the inspired idea to escape the smoke by checking out the Moscow Metro. This is not as train-spotterish as it sounds. Moscow's metro stations are a hymm to socialism and marble floors, stained glass windows, art deco lighting and gold mosaics abound. The girl in the picture on the left isn't in church; she's waiting for a train at Moscow's Prospekt Mira metro. The mosaic below is from a roof panel at Krasnye Voroya. It makes London's Underground look distincly pedestrian by comparison.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Travelling with Russians - Trans Siberian, Irkutsk to Moscow via Novosibirsk, 5,185km, 80 hours

Finally I’m on the Trans Siberian, a five day trip that takes me from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and then on to Moscow. On the first leg I share a carriage with three Russians – Ludva, a plump, jovial woman of about my age and Andrei and Ivan, two oil workers, part of the team laying the controversial pipeline through Siberian. They’re in their late 20s and heading home for annual leave.

I quickly discover that the first thing Russian men do when they board the train is request a moment alone in the carriage to change. They emerge after a few minutes wearing shorts. Their legs are starkly white and the shorts are almost uniformly too short and a little on the tight side. When the train halts at the station you can spot the train passengers from those that have just boarded by the bare legs of the former.

We leave Irkutsk at 7.30pm and are soon all eating the snacks and food we’ve brought with us. Ludva whips out a huge bag filled with enough food to feed the entire train. For the rest of the journey I watch with envy as she creates delicious lunches and snacks for herself: dark rye bread with cheese, tomato, cucumber and freshly cut dill (yes, she has a whole bag of fresh herbs in there); hard boiled eggs with chives and onion; dried apricots and peanuts and more.

Ivan and Andrei, in contrast, rely mainly on instant noodles. For one meal they bring out a tin and using a seriously sharp knife, cut the lid off. It’s filled with a kind of fatty beef; like spam but more meaty. They cut it into their instant noodles and eat with relish. To my disappointment no-one drinks Vodka or misbehaves. The men quietly share a large bottle of beer and then go to their bunks where they sleep, almost solidly, for the next 18 hours.

Travelling with Russians is a lesson in generosity. Everyone I share a carriage with offers me a share of their food and drink. Ludva presses fruit, biscuits and all manner of treats on me; the boys share their beer. I offer round my Australian made chocolate biscuit and share my red wine but am conscious as I do so that this isn’t something I do as a matter of course. I make a vow to be more hospitable when I next travel in Europe.

When the others doze off, I’m drawn to the windows in the corridor, watching the beautiful Siberian countryside pass by outside. Occasionally we flash past small rural stations where solitary passengers wait for the next train. At one, a soldier in full uniform sits in the last rays of evening sunshine, feet up on his kit bag; at another two women wearing headscarves and brightly coloured full skirts, stand beside grocery bags full of produce.

Small villages of wooden houses flit in and out of sight from among the birch and pine forests. As the sun sets dramatically in the huge sky the colours wane softly

The next evening I take a rest day from the train in the Siberian capital of Novosibirsk (a busy if uninspiring city of 2million with plenty of shopping and cafes and a fine Lenin statue) where I have a shower and stock up with more supplies.

Then, over the next 50 hours I travel across the rest of Siberia, over the Urals and into Europe proper, sharing my carriage with a succession of Russian women and Richard, an English traveller. First up is Olga, dark haired and dark eyed, she’s heading home to Tuymen. She refuses to believe I don’t speak any Russian and happily chats away to me for a couple of hours. I try to explain I don’t understand but eventually give in and nod and smile at what I think are the appropriate moments. It seems to work, halfway through her chat she whips out a box of chocolates that we share before we lie down on opposite bunks and sleep another night away.

When Olga gets off, Irena gets on. She’s younger, maybe 30, with hair dyed dark black at the back and a bright red fringe at the front. She plays trance and dance music on her mobile phone and drinks fizzy drinks almost constantly for the 12 hours it takes us to get to Yekaterinburg. Towards the end of her journey she pulls a small bottle from her make-up bag. From her miming I realise it’s nail polish remover and that she’s noticed the state of my toe polish (untouched since China) and that she thinks it’s time I took it in hand. I take her advice and soon my feet are buffed and repolished and to Irena’s high standards.

Russian women make a big effort with their appearance every day (unlike the men who don’t seem to bother at all). High heels, cocktail dresses and immaculate hair and make up are every day wear for girls, both in country towns and in the cities. All the women that share my carriage apply their make up each morning and do a thorough touch up before they leave the train. It leaves me, in full grungy traveller mode, feeling particularly scruffy.

I never get to know the name of my final carriage mate. She joins me at Nizhny Novgorod, eight hours away from Moscow. We pull out of Nizhny at 9.30am. She waves goodbye to her husband and makes her bed as the train gathers speed. Within 10 minutes she’s asleep; lying in a position she doesn’t alter until five minutes before we arrive in Moscow at 4.30pm that afternoon. She lies on her back, hands outside of the blanket on either side, face waxy and pale. It’s a little like sharing a carriage with a corpse.

In a way she’s a fitting companion to this last leg. We’re still 400km from Moscow when the views outside the window start to become obscured by smoke. The haze worsens as we approach the city and when I step outside I’m hit by a wave of heat and air thick with smoke. I draw a breath and my eyes water and throat tickles. The sun hangs in the sky, obscured by smoke it looks like a deep red balloon. I pull on my backpack and walk down the platform; all I can think of is Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic novel, The Road.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sunbathing in Siberia

Siberia is nothing like I expected. Though I’m not entirely sure what I expected (salt mines? fur hats? grey skies?) I definitely wasn’t thinking of 28c temperatures, water glinting in the sunshine and the sand hot beneath my toes as I rub sunscreen on my arms. I wasn’t thinking of flower filled meadows, sun dappled birch forests, lush green fields and a sky that stretches endlessly above, a pale blue bowl occasionally given depth by tall stacks of white clouds. It turns out that in summer at least, Siberia is pastoral and beautiful.

My introduction is Irkutsk, a pleasant town with wide streets. On the high street stand sturdy 19th century stone buildings, today home to a mix of stores you could find anywhere in the world: Mexx, Reebok and Benneton to name just a few. Cafes set tables out under the trees on the pavements and market stalls sell fresh strawberries and blueberries. It all feels very European and somehow very familiar and this despite the fact that Irkutsk is just one hour ahead of Melbourne in time zones and is further east than Bangkok.

After a day wandering the streets and enjoying the sensation of being back in Europe, I decide to head into Siberia proper and spend five days by the shore of Lake Baikal. Baikal is an enormous freshwater lake, some 600km long and 60km wide. It’s the deepest lake in the world (1637m on the western shore) and allegedly holds enough water to supply the entire world for 40 years. In summer Lake Baikal becomes a water playground for tourists from all over Russia. (In winter it freezes over and you can drive your car across it. As the lake thaws in spring it claims around 10 lives each year. Locals risk one last drive across the frozen water and each year the ice creaks, cracks and swallows them up. When they’re pulled from the water they’re often frozen with their hands still on the steering wheel, that’s how cold the water gets. Even now, in August, it’s still only 8c.)

I travel to Olkhon, an island on the lake, six hours drive from Irkutsk. We pass by low mountains, pine forests and meadows that are so filled with flowers the grass struggles to take hold. The driving is erratic and frightening; cars and buses veer in and out at high speed. All along the road are memorials to accident victims and we pass and we pass several accidents, including a distressing scene where a car is stalled diagonal across the lane before the body of a man, bloody and broken on the road. A woman stands beside him, hands to face, crying. Our driver speeds on.

It’s a relief to get to Khuzhir, the only village on Olkhon, with wide sandy streets lined by colourfully painted wooden houses. All around is sky and water and a deep restful silence.

The sunsets here are jaw dropping. The sky flames orange then red then violet pink; clouds are haloed with gold and the lake water, clear as glass, mirrors it all.

I stay at Olga’s guest house, which turns out to be something of a mix between camping and visiting your gran. My room has two small single beds with springs poking up through the bumpy mattresses and two large and heavy looking lounge chairs covered in brown velour. The bedding is bright blue with a pattern of yellow stars and a cartoon rabbit asleep on the moon. The toilets are drop toilets in the back garden and the shower is a camp shower (a barrel of water with a hose attached to the shower head). There’s also an outdoor sink for cleaning your teeth. There’s a communal dining room for the three meals a day that are included. Today we have eggs and fresh bread and jam for breakfast, fish soup (with fish freshly caught from the lake) followed by pork with mashed potatoes and salad for lunch and a vegetable and meat bake for dinner with still warm homemade cake for dessert. I can see I won’t be losing any weight in Russia.

There’s plenty to do on the island. You can hire a bike and cycle to the other side; take a jeep tour to the far north or a day long horse trek. Or, like me, you can layer on the sunscreen, lie on the sand in the sun and read War and Peace.

There are quite a few other travellers here and it’s very sociable. One day I take a hike with Tristan, an Aussie traveller and runner. He’s taken on a massive challenge for himself this year – he’s running 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 40 countries. Last week he ran 100km in Mongolia, this week he’s doing marathons in Siberia and Helsinki. Check out his website to find out more about his challenge or watch his YouTube video. Those of you in Melbourne who are feeling energetic, can join him on his final run on New Year’s Eve.

Another day I explore the town with Adrien, a sexy French aeronautics engineer and on the third day I have lunch with Marco, an Italian photojournalist who is doing a story on pollution in the lake (a controversial pulp mill is threatening the area’s UNESCO status). On the last night the four of us and Cecile, a Belgian teacher, go out for a few beers.

The pub is small and filled with heavy wood furniture and large Russians. To my disappointment they’re drinking beer not vodka but at least the cans of beer they’re throwing back are 1litre in size. The place smells of smoked fish – a local delicacy that everyone else is consuming with gusto – and sea air. Euro-pop bangs from the loudspeaker in the corner.

We sit and chat and drink until the bar staff throw us out at 2am. Outside the temperature has dropped. A chill wind is blowing and I’m grateful for my scarf and wool jumper. We take our final beer and sit outside Olga’s, wrapping ourselves in duvets against the cold. It’s the 31st of July but right now it feels decidedly wintery. And, finally, as I shiver while I sip my 1litre can of beer, I feel a little more Siberian.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Wheelin’ and dealing on the Trans Mongolian: Ulaan Batar to Irkutsk, 1121km, 25 hours

Starting an argument with someone who you’re going to be sharing a small cabin with for the next 25 hours in the first five minutes of meeting them is not necessarily a lesson in how to win friends and influence people. None the less that’s exactly what I do before the train has even pulled out of Ulaan Batar station.

I’ve just stowed my bag and sat down when the first of my cabin mates appears in the doorway. He’s a plump Mongolian, sweating mightily and wearing a pale green hand towel over his bald head. He’s lugging a huge suitcase (almost 1metre x 1metre), which he deposits on the floor with a grunt before disappearing again. A moment later he appears with another suitcase of the same size, squeezes it in the cabin and leaves. A few minutes later he comes again, with two more suitcases and his wife (a tiny woman, well under 5ft tall, with long hair bleached blond and pulled back in a tight pony tail). They all squeeze into the compartment. I am now sitting in the far corner, almost obscured by luggage. To my horror he disappears again and comes back with four smaller bags. It’s about now that I start shouting.

We don’t speak the same language but he gets my point: there are too many bags in the cabin. He starts shouting back. I’m pretty sure he says something along the lines of ‘well where do you expect me to put them?’. I tell him in no uncertain terms and we begin a lengthy discussion that only ends when the conductor appears. He shrugs and says ‘only 35kg per passenger’ then departs, leaving us to it.

We stop shouting and stare each other out. In the end, with more sweating, Mongolian cursing and a lot of grunting and heaving, he moves two of the large cases and all the small ones onto his bunk and his wife’s bunk. That still leaves two monstrosities blocking our leg room and, once the fourth and final occupant joins us with his two bags, we’re well and truly squeezed in.

I mutter and glare but there’s nothing to be done. ‘Are you moving house or something,’ I ask in my most cheesed off voice. He doesn’t understand anything but the tone and we glare at each other some more.

The train pulls out of Ulaan Batar and within 10 minutes it becomes clear that they are not moving house, they’re indulging in some Arthur Daly style wheeling and dealing. A steady stream of Mongolian passengers begins to appear at our door and Bob and Tina (not their real names but they’ll do!) start digging out new jeans, t-shirts, jumpers and souvenirs from their huge cache of luggage. Money and goods change hands and our cabin is a busy as TopShop on a Saturday morning.

Still in a huff, I wander off to take some shots of the Mongolian countryside that we’re rolling through. We’re following the tracks of a wide river. Herds of horses, pine forests and Gers sit bathed in late afternoon light.

I explore the rest of the train and meet a Swiss couple, David and Carole who I first met on the way from Beijing. They’re sharing with an American guy called Dylan and the air conditioning in their cabin has broken down. I sit with them a while and we fantasise about cold beer.

When the train takes a scheduled 15 minute stop, Dylan and I are on a mission for beer. The small store on the platform doesn’t have any but the shopkeeper sends her young son to guide Dylan to the nearest corner store. I stand nervously at the entrance and watching both the train and the road.

The minutes tick by. All the other passengers get back on board. I run to join them. ‘Wait, wait, we’re one short, we’re one short.’ I’m desperately calling to the signalman as I pull myself back on board. I can’t see Dylan anywhere but stand by the open door, hoping the train won’t move without closing the doors.

Two more minutes pass and I’m frantic with worry. Missing trains and planes is a particular fear of mine and being stranded in the middle of Mongolia as the daily Trans Siberian pulls away from the platform ranks pretty high in my worst nightmare list.

Eventually I see Dylan in the distance. ‘Run!’ I call to him and he breaks into a trot. As he heaves himself up to the train the signalman gives me an enquiring nod and I give him the thumbs up with shaking hands. The train wastes no time. A few seconds later it begins moving.

Dylan is laughing – in his hand he’s carrying an ice cold 2litre bottle of beer. We take it back to the cabin and manufacture glasses by cutting water bottles in half. We drink it and eat peanuts and crackers, enjoying the icy refreshment and giddy with relief that he hasn’t missed the train.

As we approach the Mongolian border I go back to my berth. The atmosphere in the cabin is one of tense calm and as we cross the border I realise why. My cabin mates are planning to smuggle their goods into Russia.

We pull up on the Mongolian side and customs give our room a cursory glance, stamp our passports and let us be.

As soon as the train begins to move, a hive of activity breaks out in my cabin. Bob and Tina begin ripping things from their bags, hiding them under the mattress of their beds and underneath sheets and blankets. They dash off with piles of clothes that the give to friends on other parts of the train.

As we approach the Russian border Bob is sweating more than usual, mopping his face and neck with his pale green towel every minute or two. He smiles obsequiously at the border guards, hands over his forms and then dashes off for a restorative cigarette. It’s after 10pm and we’re scheduled to be here for three hours so I lie on my bed and try to sleep. Bob paces up and down. We hear guards walking along the roof of the carriage; a sniffer dog is brought through; the bags are cursorily searched. I doze. Bob smokes and wipes his sweaty palms. Tina whispers instructions to him.

Eventually our passports are returned and with a final squinty-eyed look, Russian border police leave the train. As we begin to move Bob and Tina are wreathed in smiles. They’ve made it through undetected.

Some five hours later I wake to find that I’m in Siberia and have left Asia behind. I know that technically I’m not in Europe until I cross the Urals but one look out the window and it feels like Europe is already here.

Painted wooden houses with pitched roofs stand in neat gardens. Behind them is Lake Baikal, a vast blue sea. More wildflowers than I’ve ever seen before fill the grassy meadows with colour.

Mint green pine forests ring the blue of the lake and families camp and cook their breakfast by the lakeside as the train runs alongside. By 2pm we arrive in Irkutsk, the pretty Siberian town that is the stopping off point for travellers like me who want to explore a little bit more of Siberia.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Channeling my inner Genghis Khan

‘This is your horse,’ says Hishgay, the Mongolian groom and guide. ‘His name is SlowGo. He’s a very good horse for beginners, very quiet.’

He’s holding a small bay pony with black tipped ears and a short black mane that’s as thick and prickly as the bristles of a broom. As Hishgay speaks, the horse is shaking its head up and down ferociously, skittering from side to side and twitching all over.

I look at Hishgay horrified but he just smiles, holds the rein tighter and gestures at me to get on. In a daze I put one foot in the stirrup and swing myself over. The horse stops moving for a second then starts snorting and throwing his head with renewed vengeance. Hishgay throws the reins over SlowGo’s head and leaves me to it. ‘Take him for a walk; he doesn’t like the flies,’ he says over his shoulder as he goes to saddle his own horse.

I’m sitting there stunned, doing my best to remember how to hold the reins and sit in a saddle and desperately dredging out memories from the last time I sat on a horse, some 25 years ago.

‘Hishgay, I’ve changed my mind, I want to get off,’ I manage to squeak, desperate with fear.

Hishgay, who can be selectively deaf, ignores me and SlowGo takes matters into his own hands by dancing off to the left and then walking away up the hill. Dear God, why am I doing this, I think to myself.

It all seemed like a good idea some six weeks ago when, with the nonchalance of distance and time, I booked a three day horse trek in Mongolia. What better way to see the country that taught the world how to ride than from the back of a horse, I thought as I pressed the ‘buy’ button on the SteppeRiders website.

I only started to get nervous two days ago when I arrived in Ulaan Batar, the Mongolian capital (a city home to some 1.5million people that feels more like Eastern Europe than Asia with its Soviet architecture, row upon row of pubs and bars, Western dressed inhabitants and a nice line in petty crime and pick pocketing). It was there that I began doing some late, ill advised research, which revealed that Mongolian horses, unlike their European counterparts, are still half wild. They’re left to roam as part of a herd all winter and in the summer are only occasionally rounded up and ridden. They barely tolerate riders but as Mongolians learn how to ride at the same time as they learn how to walk, it usually doesn’t matter. But put a Gringo on their back and it’s a different story, as SlowGo is proving at this very moment.

Last night when I arrived at the camp, the country was captivating in its beauty, with one grassy hill rolling into another, seemingly infinitum into the blue grey horizon and herds of horses grazing contentedly in the evening sun. I slept in a Ger (the tents that Mongolian nomads use when they follow their animals across the steppes).

When I woke this morning it was to see Hishgay riding across the hill, herding the horses into a corral and choosing our horses for the trek. It seemed idyllic, very Mongolian and so far removed from my experience that it was inconceivable I was about to take part in this lifestyle.

But here I am, sitting on a horse that’s bouncing and snorting and heading off up the mountainside. A few moments later Hishgay rides up effortlessly beside me and we’re away. The first two hours pass in a daze. I’m so scared that I can’t see the mountains and the grasslands that we’re riding over. I just concentrate on holding the reins, clinging to the saddle and trying to ignore the pain in my knees that starts within 5 minutes of climbing on.

Eventually I begin to regain my senses. I look around at the pale green hills and grasslands that we’re riding over. I can smell the wild thyme and mint that SlowGo crushes beneath his hooves (a scent that I’m sure will remind me of the Mongolian steppes for the rest of my life) and I can hear the deep silence of the plains, the only sound the horses breathing and snorting and the wind rustling over the grass. In the distance are herds of goats and horses and the green grasslands are occasionally punctuated by a white domed Ger.

We ride for almost seven hours the first day, pausing only to cook noodle soup for lunch in the middle of a grassy plain with not a tree or bush or inch of shade in sight. The sun is high and the sky and temperatures are close to 40C.

This part of Mongolia looks very green but it most resembles a desert: there is little water (no rivers or lakes only the occasional well) and no trees or other vegetation. Mongolian horses prove to be hardy and reliable. They water once a day, eat only the grass they can find but manage to climb steep inclines and trot along the occasional flat. As the heat builds the horses plod more slowly and some hours later I find myself voluntarily kicking SlowGo into a half hearted trot to speed things up.

It is late afternoon by the time we spy our first campsite – a small (and rare) pine forest in a valley between two mountains. We ride the horses into the edge of the forest, thankful for the shady respite the trees offer and dismount. My knees are aching so badly that my legs almost crumble beneath me when I try to stand. I fall in a tired heap in the shade while Hishgay unloads the horses, hobbles them and lets them graze. We set up the tent together then I wash the sweat and dust of the day’s ride away as best as I can with a couple of wet wipes while he cooks dinner (rice and vegetables: Mongolian food is plain and pretty bad). We eat in an easy silence. There’s not another person in sight. The forest is peaceful and the sun filters softly through the trees.

Once the sun sets there’s nothing to do except sleep and I’m grateful for it. Mentally and physically exhausted, it’s all I can do to crawl into the tent and drag off my trousers before I fall into a deep and dreamless sleep. Hishgay sleeps outside, keeping an eye on the horses. He has a heavy traditional coat that he wraps around himself and pillows his head on a saddle.

Living nomadically in Mongolia is a lesson in reduction. There is no running water. We wash at the wells, throwing a handful of water in our faces or over our heads. We’re limited to the water and food we can carry; around 2litres a day for drinking, a little less for cooking and cleaning. There’s a weight limit on our packs too, which means a change of t-shirt and underwear is as far as it goes when it comes to clean clothes. My tent and sleeping bag are the only concession to the west.

When I wake the next day my muscles ache but I’m relaxed and calm. SlowGo looks tranquil in the early morning light and I’m looking forward to the day’s ride. We head up to a monastery, then down again across the plains and back onto the hilly grasslands, where we stop for lunch with a local family.

We sit in their Ger, which is about 4m in diameter. There are single beds on each side of the door and a wood burning oven in the centre. At the rear of the tent is a small shrine with some religious artefacts and a picture of horses at play. Meat hangs from the rafters, drying for winter. There’s a small tv in one corner, powered, Hishgay tells me, by a solar panel. We eat barbecued mutton and drink Arak (fermented mare’s milk that tastes like buttermilk and has a small alcohol content).

I sip it first, then take a big gulp. Hishgay eyes widen. ‘Just a small sip,’ he says nervously. ‘Otherwise maybe you fall from the horse this afternoon.’

Personally I always find my confidence improves after a beer or two so I surreptitiously finish it off and, sure enough that afternoon as we take our first canter over the hills and through the valleys of the grassland I’m finally beginning to channel my inner Genghis Khan.

That night we pitch my tent in a small valley. The grass is green underfoot, herbs lay their scent around us. A herd of horses roam by and, just as we eat dinner, a herd of goats peers nervously at us across the hill top opposite. Silhouetted against the fading light and the pink grey of the sky, they look like an army about to ambush. The sun is setting and it is unbelievably peaceful.

There’s not a sound to be heard. I lie on the grass and look at the sky, which runs far and wide above me. It’s like lying on a shallow green saucer with a deep pale blue bowl cupped above you. After a while I experience a kind of vertigo, falling into the darkening sky and have to prop myself up on my elbows to reconnect with the earth again. As the moon rises I wrap myself in my sleeping bag and only wake when the tent blows over on top of me.

It’s 1am. A storm has blow up and though we try, the heavy wind means we can’t right the tent again. I drag out my sleeping bag and Hishgay lies the horse blankets down as a base for me. I lie awake in the growing storm, praying that rain holds off. Eventually the wind eases and I sleep. When I wake there’s a pale line of light on the horizon and morning of our final day dawns pleasantly cool.

We only have a short two hour ride back to camp so Hishgay takes the chance to show me his horsemanship, riding SlowGo at a gallop and leaning over to pick up my riding helmet from the ground as he passes. Like many Mongolian’s he’s been riding since he was a small child and the communion between man and horse seems effortless; the two are barely distinct beings.

As for me, well although I’ve become quite fond of SlowGo and am happy enough to saddle him up and ride away, I don’t think I’ll ever become a real rider. I’m wary rather than relaxed and, when we arrive at camp and I step down for the last time, what I mostly feel is a sense of relief.

But it’s relief mingled with pride and with awe: pride at having survived the ride and awe at the beauty and isolation and solitary splendour of the Mongolian steppes.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Trans Mongolian: Beijing to Ulaan Batar, 30 hours, 1,500km

The train pulls out of Beijing’s central station precisely at 7.47am. Some of China’s train stations maybe chaotic and crowded but Beijing Central is anything but. Wide clean corridors with sleek polished floors, chandeliers and comfortable chairs are the order of the day here.

The train itself, in contrast, is an old one, painted green and gold and with hard bunks and a rattling fan in place of air conditioning.

It takes almost an hour before we leave the outskirts of Beijing behind and perhaps another hour before the smog disappears and the sky becomes visible again. Soon the engine is straining up mountain sides and through long tunnels, offering glimpses of high cliffs of rock on one side and mountains and rural villages on the other.

By lunchtime we’re in the coal belt of northern China and by mid afternoon in the province of Inner Mongolia. Arid grasslands bleed into dusty hills that fill the horizon. Occasionally I glimpse sections of the Great Wall; sometimes crumbling, sometimes standing firm, winding its way along hillsides and through valleys. The train is peaceful. I'm sharing my compartment with two German travellers, Sonja and Marcus. In the compartment next door, two Mongolian men sing lustily, presumably happy to be heading home.

As afternoon gives way to evening I wander to the dining car with Sonja and Marcus. We drink cold beer and eat tomatoes and eggs, roast chicken and rice and spicy pork with green peppers and watch the Gobi desert begin to slide by outside the window. Whirls of dust follow the train along the empty, almost desolate countryside.

At 8pm we reach the Chinese border. A fierce looking customs official appears at the door asking for passports. I hand him mine and say ‘thank you’ in Chinese. His officious face dissolves in a huge smile and he transforms from a fearsome official to a shy teenager in seconds.

I join the crowd of passengers on the platform where we wait for two hours for immigration to be completed and for the train to be changed to the Mongolian and Russian gauge base. (Mongolia and Russia have slightly different rail sizes to most of the rest of the world). With great clanking and juddering, huge jacks lift the carriages from one base to the other.

Eventually the whistle sounds and we board and I lie, sleepy, on my bunk. I hear music as the train starts to move and, curious, walk to the open window to see what’s happening. The music is the Chinese national anthem being piped through speakers at the station. As the train draws out, all the customs officials and railway staff stand to attention along the platform to see us off. I spot my customs official and smile at him. Once again he breaks ranks and returns the smile.

I find the ceremony surprisingly moving. Yes it’s nationalistic and yes China is a country that has serious issues with human rights. But at a one to one level, Chinese people are friendly, helpful, hospitable and patriotic. I’ve loved every day I’ve spent in the country and as I watch the platform disappear I realise I’m really going to miss it, too.

Half an hour later we cross the Mongolian border. The train pulls to a stop, customs officials board and we wait, this time in our cabins, for another two hours. There’s no power and the cabins are soon stiflingly hot. I fall asleep, only waking as we begin to move again to find my passport has materialised on the table beside me.

When I wake in the morning we’re leaving the Gobi behind us and entering the flat, featureless grasslands. An occasional white domed ger (the large tents in which nomadic Mongolians live)sits in the distance. A herd of camels graze on the sparse grasses alongside a smaller herd of horses. There are no roads, no towns, no houses, nothing. Until finally, at 4pm, we arrive in Ulaan Batar.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Beijing and the Great Wall

I stand on the small hill top looking out over the Forbidden City. I’ve climbed here for the views, which are said to be spectacular. In fact, I don’t see anything. A haze of smog and pollution hangs over the entire city. I can see the entrance to the Forbidden City some 50m below me, but further than that everything disappears behind the mist. My eyes are stinging and my nose is running. There’s a tickle in my throat and I can taste the lead of a million car exhausts on my tongue. Beijing’s air pollution is all it’s cracked up to be and worse.

I’ve been in the city for six days and, air quality aside, I really like it. It is a low level city with plenty of green, tree lined avenues. It has a city vibe but not the frenetic pace that defines Shanghai or London. People take time out to breathe. The residential neighbourhoods – or hutongs as the small alleyways are called – are charming. In the evening, neighbours sit outside their homes playing cards or badminton or chatting, kids ride their bikes and skateboards and it feels homely and welcoming.

I’m staying in a hostel that’s in the middle of a residential hutong. It has a small courtyard garden with red Chinese lanterns hanging from the beams and a softly trickling water feature. A fat smiling Buddha welcomes you at the entrance.

At the end of the street is a small park. A row of 12 table tennis tables lines the back fence, exercise equipment fills another corner and tables for mahjong and chess are set under trees. Anytime of the day and right into the deep dusk of evening you find men and women of all ages here, doing their exercises, competing vigorously for ping pong points or watching a game of chess, three deep around the tables.

Small restaurants dot the hutong. One night I eat fresh dumplings filled with pork and mushrooms, another night I savour a dish of spicy chicken with peanuts and chilli.

I arrive in Beijing on a Tuesday morning at rush hour. The roads are busy but no busier than a London rush hour; the bus is crowded but no more than a London bus at the same time. It takes me a few days to realise that the traffic and the crowded bus aren’t a function of the time of day. Whether you’re travelling at 8am on a Tuesday or 8am on Sunday or 8pm on a Saturday, the roads, the buses, the sidewalks are heaving with people.

Tourist attractions are unbelievably busy. Most visitors here are Chinese tourists and they find the foreigners they see as exotic as the city itself. I’m walking down the hutong one night. A man beside me is driving a small flock of geese along but the tourists who are walking towards us train their camera at me, trying to surreptitiously take their shot. At the Forbidden City people are always edging themselves beside me and when I look up I find I’m the subject of another photograph, sometimes with a smiling Chinese person standing beside me in the frame.

After a few days the sheer volume of people becomes exhausting. The Ming Dynasty Forbidden City becomes a crushing, seething mass of humanity that needs to be manoeuvred; the vast spaces of Tianamen Square (think London’s Trafalgar Square multiplied by 10 or Melbourne’s Federation Square multiplied by 50) resemble a paving stone where lines of ants are jostling and bumping and just about finding their way from one side to the other.

I take a breather from the city and take a day trip to the Great Wall. We drive for 3 hours to Simatai, a section of the wall that’s relatively unrestored and with few tourists. We hike up and there it is, a dragon’s tail of bricks and towers running over the hills and mountain tops in both directions. It’s surprisingly steep as it climbs up the edge of the hillside and down again.

We walk for three hours and I keep having to pinch myself at the reality of what I’m doing. ‘I’m walking the great wall of China,’ I tell myself and when the reality sinks in again it makes me laugh out loud with the improbability and pleasure of it.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Panda bears and teracotta warriors

This isn’t so much a blog post as an excuse to post some cute pictures of panda bears. Yes, I’ve been visiting the panda sanctuary in Chengdu and have fallen for these big lazy puddings.

Pandas spend their lives either eating bamboo or sleeping and manage to cultivate a look that says ‘I’m seriously laid back’. They always find themselves a comfy spot and something to recline against seems to be an absolutely necessity. As they chew they occasionally reach lazily behind them for the next piece of bamboo. It reminds me of a person lying on a sofa reaching out for a handful of crisps while watching the telly.

They're so laid back they can hardly be bothered to mate and because they’re dependant on one food source they’re also very vulnerable when that food source becomes scarce for any reason. As a result, they’re an endangered species with only around 1500 remaining in the wild.

The centre here is home to some 80 bears; it’s basically a one species zoo that has been very successful in breeding panda bears in captivity. Conservationists would like to see more effort made at improving habitats and growing wild populations and China is now starting to trial a reintroduction programme too; so far unsuccessfully.

Other than Pandas, Chengdu is another big Chinese city – lots of traffic, lots of people – and after three days in the city I head off to my next destination, Xi’an; home to the Terracotta Warriors and a 20 hour train ride from Chengdu.

Xi’an is all concrete and high rise glass towers. I avoid the shopping malls and instead wander around the back streets, where I find a small market. Everywhere around me are men carrying small bamboo cages; they look like bird cages but are only a little bigger than a matchbox. They gather around an old man with a bicycle that seems to be singing and buzzing. I go closer. From every possible spot – the handlebars, the bar between the two wheels, the back carrier – hangs an impossibly balanced series of cages. The bike is piled 2m high or more with these tiny cages. The buzzing and humming is loud and insistent. I peer into the cages and find they are each home to an individual cricket. Around me men are bargaining hard, buying crickets and transferring them to their own cages. I ask why. They smile widely and mime a boxing fight. The crickets are apparently great fighters and these will be put to the test at local cricket fighting bouts. It’s a fight to the death and only one can be the champion.

Alongside the buzzing crickets, the highlight of my visit to Xi’an is the terracotta warrior museum. The effort that went into building this vast mausoleum is astounding.

Thousands upon thousands of soldiers stand in regimented lines in a huge pit bigger than two football pitches. Each one is unique: unique face, unique stature (some are thin, others sport a beer belly) and each has unique details right down to their hairstyle and the tread on their shoes. So far three separate pits have been excavated; more are still being found.

All of this is part of the mausoleum of Emperor Qinshihuang; credited with unifying China in 200BC and infamous for his bad-ass ways (which apparently included burying the artisans that made the warriors alive so that their secrets couldn’t be revealed). The Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavated. Archaeologists suspect that it is surrounded by a river of mercury (along with a very large cache of precious stones and gold) and they’re still working out a way to safely access it. Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Day 4: a burial and a wedding

The morning dawns clear and sharp. The pills seem to have worked. My headache is nothing but a dull pulse and I can face food again. But at this height, 4100m, the air feels thin and the sunlight has a sharpness to it, even at 7am. I’m glad I’m feeling better because we’ve been invited to witness a local sky burial, which takes place on one of the mountains that stand sentinel around the town.

A driver collects us and drives us to the site, a grassy slope with views across the valley to the mountains to the west. A few local men are already gathered around a fire, brewing tea and chatting. They smile at us, welcome us with 'tashi deleg' (the Tibetan catch all meaning hello, good morning, nice to see you) then sit companionably beside us. All around the views are breathtaking.

The grassy, flower covered slope we’re sitting on slides gently downwards for 50 metres or so, then rises on the other side for another 100 metres. Across the valley that spreads out far below us are more mountain peaks and directly behind us are high mountains and craggy stone cliffs. Up high we spot a flock of vultures, sitting still as stone, barely distinguishable from the rocks they’re perched on.

On the slope opposite us, some 100 metres or more away, lies the body, wrapped in white cloth. Four or five men squat beside it, waiting. After 10 minutes or so a monk, also dressed in white rather than the traditional maroon, approaches the body. The burial is about to begin and the men we are sitting with turn to watch the proceedings.

The monk unwraps the body and removes the clothes. From our distance it’s possible only to see the basic shape – arms, legs, torso – of the person. Then the men assisting the monk gather close around the body and we lose sight of what happens next. But, above us on the mountain top, the vultures take flight and float slowly down, their vast wings open wide to catch the warm currents. They look magnificent, regal even. It’s only when they land and, with their typical ungainly hop, approach the group around the body that they suddenly appear vulture-like again. In total 20 or more birds land on the hillside opposite and approach the group around the body.

The men move back in a wide circle to keep the birds at bay and we can see what it is that’s attracted them. The monk has started to dismember the body. From our distance we can’t see the details just that his small saw is moving over the body.

After about 15 minutes of sawing, at a signal from the monk the men move back and the birds descend. The body is obscured by a flock of birds, squawking and fighting for position. Wings flap and birds waddle in and out of the fray.

It feels unreal to be watching this. Some part of my mind knows this is a burial, a human body; another relegates the spectacle to nothing more than a performance. Writing now, the description sounds shocking and macabre, but actually the whole ceremony is remarkably tranquil. The men sitting with us are calm and more relaxed than people are at Western funerals, and the soothing sound of their voices and the beauty of the surroundings takes away from the violence before us.

Another five or 10 minutes pass then the burial party move in and scare the birds away. One bird drags meat with him; an attendant chases him off and brings the remains back to the body.

This time the monk has a small axe. He gathers together what remains of the body and begins to chop. He chops for the best part of an hour; it’s important that everything is crushed and that no distinguishably human elements remain. I watch the axe rise and fall and can hear a soft chunk as it makes contact. It has a mesmerising and, from this distance at least, almost meditative effect. Once again an aura of disbelief descends on my mind.

Up on our side of the hill, the fire is restarted. Food is brought out, tea is brewed and bottles of Coca Cola and Sprite are passed round. We squat in a circle around the fire and eat flat unleavened bread and dip our chopsticks into a communal dish of potatoes and peanuts. We chat about where we come from and ask about their families. A few of the men joke around; it feels as if they are letting off steam, as if a hidden tension within them is being dispersed.

After about an hour the sound of chanting drifts across the valley. Most of the men stand and wander over to the burial party on the other side; a couple stay to keep us company. A saffron cloaked monk has arrived to bless the final element of the funeral. He sits and chants and the friends of the deceased (relatives do not usually attend this element of the funeral) sit in a semi circle around him. Behind the monk, as respectful as a church full of worshippers, perch the vultures, in a semi circle of their own. For the next 10 minutes or so the birds ignore the other monk (who is still chopping away) and it seems as if they too pay their respects to the deceased.

When the ceremony is over the funeral party again gather in a circle around the white robed monk. He mixes barley in with the remains. The birds return. The funeral party steps further away from the body and then breaks the circle, allowing the birds their final feast.

It may seem like a grisly ritual but sky burials make sense in a mountain environment. Trees don’t grow at this height so there is little in the way of natural fuel for cremation and, particularly in winter when temperatures dip to -20c, burials in the ice covered land become impossible.

Still, as we leave the burial every detail around me – the colour of the sky, the small white clouds, the wind whispering in the grass and the bright wild flowers – seems heightened and in technicolour.

Our driver drops us back in town. There’s a wedding going on, he tells us, and it seems we (along with the rest of the population) are invited. When we arrive the bride and groom stand in front of a monk who is blessing them with rice. They’re obscured by a crowd of well wishers and family. Young men are laying crackers in a wide semi circle around the group and, at a signal from the monk a great shout of joy rises from them. Streamers fly in the air and the crackers are lit; soon the couple and their families are surrounded by smoke and a cacophony of loud bangs.
As the smoke fades the entire audience pushes joyfully into the village hall; brightly decorated and filled with tables covered with food. We’re ushered to a table and cajoled to eat steamed dumplings, fried pork, chicken and sweets. Yak milk tea is served, along with coke and water.

Everyone mills about shouting Tashi Daleg to each other. After about half an hour of feasting groups of the younger men and women form and tour the tables singing to those still seated. They sing beautifully; in tune and clear and from the heart. I find out later that they are singing songs in search of love. As they sing to our table we’re told to stand and salute them with our yak tea and, at the end of the song, toast them with the inevitable Tashi Daleg.

Naturally everyone is dressed in their best clothes and the bridal party are spectacularly dressed. The groom wears a heavy gold brocade wrap around jacket and bright pantaloons of maroon. His hair is pinned up and his hat is also gold. The bride wears a dress so heavy that attendants have to help her to the toilet.

Usually both men and women pin their hair up but for this occasion the women have their hair plaited but hanging down, rather than pinned around their heads as it usually is. The younger women have hair so long that it falls to their knees.

After an hour or so we quietly take our leave; awed and inspired by the hospitality and openess of the Tibetan people of Szechuan.