10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for  hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.

1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin.  They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure.  We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!

2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.

3. Look after your Provodnista

These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.

4. Eat in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!

5. Keep two sets of time

The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.

6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.

7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.

8. Have a bottle of vodka with you

Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!

9. Carry Wet Wipes

While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.

10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.

Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.

6 Amazing Destinations for Christmas this Year

December 1st is officially the start of the Christmas festive period. For many it is a great time to catch up with friends or spend quality time with family. For some, it is time to travel. The weeks around Christmas provide a chance to get away, explore and have a break from normal life.

This year we are doing something a little different, we are spending Christmas at home! Normally around this time of year we have been either on opposite sides of the world, separated by work, or travelling through some far flung land. So this week we are looking at some of our favourite locations where we have spent Christmas.

1. The Holy Lands, Israel and The Palestinian Authority

Why not visit where the stories of the Bible actually took place? Wandering through the ancient cobblestoned alleyways of Jerusalem is an experience you will not forget in a long time. Watching the daily life of three of the world’s biggest religions intermingling also gives you hope that perhaps one day conflict based on different faiths may eventually be a thing of the past.

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Of course that hope is almost dashed when you take a trip out to Bethlehem to where the Christmas story all took place. Situated in the Palestinian Authority, the journey is one of armed guards, tensions and large barbed wire fences. However, standing in the Church of the Nativity is, much like a visit to Jerusalem, an amazing experience.  Thousands of Christian pilgrims make the journey every year, and even if you are not religious you cannot help but be moved.

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

2.Rome and Vatican City, Italy

Thousands of people crowd into St Peters Square in Vatican City every year to celebrate Christmas Mass. The Vatican is an incredible mix of art, religion and politics but should be high on everyone’s travel bucket list. So much of the city of Rome was crafted by the Church over the centuries so a visit to the eternal city is the perfect destination over the festive season.

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

You can walk in the footsteps of the early Christians, former Popes and incredible artists all culminating in a tour through the Vatican Museums. The whole Roman Catholic world turns to St Peters over Christmas, and you can be a part of the celebrations.

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

3. In Search of Santa, Lapland Finland

One of Natalie’s favourite Christmas’ abroad was up into Lapland. A trip north of the Arctic Circle puts you deep into Reindeer territory and the perfect place to search for Santa. In fact the “Official” home of the big guy in the red suit is the town of Rovaniemi right on the Arctic Circle in Finland. The Santa Claus Village sells everything from local handicrafts and toys to the finest leather ware made from reindeer (you now know what happens to them if Santa is late!).

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

A trip to Lapland also gives you the chance to husky dog sledge or perhaps go in search of the magical northern lights! A true winter wonderland.

4. Somewhere Warm

Growing up in Australia meant for me that Christmas was normally at least warm if not hot. A summer  Christmas is a totally different experience than a winter one and could be the perfect change you are looking for. A walk along the beach, BBQ action and a celebratory drink in shorts and flip flops is about as foreign an experience as you could get for many people from the northern hemisphere, but it sure beats shovelling snow right?

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

5. In a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas

Why not immerse yourself in a culture where Christmas is not celebrated? Last year we spent the festive period travelling through China, and while many of the markets surprisingly sold Christmas lights, tinsel and inflatable Santa Claus’, Christmas is not really the done thing. In fact the majority of our Christmas Day was spent sitting around a rather isolated train station in Yichang waiting for our evening train.

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Natalie spent Christmas in Egypt a few years ago (sadly for work not for fun) and again is a totally different experience than being back home. Imagine staring out over the pyramids which were already considered ancient 2000 years ago when the Christmas story took place!

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas' ago

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas’ ago

6. Home

For many travellers your home city is their exotic destination for Christmas. So instead of getting bogged down with the mad rush of Christmas shopping or the stress of trying to catch up with everyone you have ever possibly known, get out there and enjoy your hometown. From Christmas Markets to local Christmas Carols events, there is bound to be something amazing in your local area to help get you into the Christmas Spirit! Even for experienced travellers there is no place like home…

Where is the most random or exotic place you have spent Christmas? Drop us a line and share your Christmas travel stories.

– Merry Christmas, Dean

The 7 Wonders of the World and Travel Checklists

The few wonders of the world only exist while there are those with the sight to see them”

– Charles de Lint

When groups of travellers get together comparisons of adventures are often made and countries visited and other numerous checklists are ‘ticked’ off. Sit in any backpacker bar around the world, or hostel common room and there is always one conversation between travellers trying to out do each other. On the seventh of December this year, a new list to compare will be announced.  The ‘New 7 Wonders Cities’ list, the top seven cities from around the world as voted by us, the citizens of the world!

Travel lists are nothing new, in fact ever since ancient times there have been travel ‘bucket lists’. The seven wonders of the ancient world, (not ancient to them), was probably the first must see travel checklist. In 2007 a new ‘7 Wonders’ was released, again voted for, by the world’s population. While when we travel we are definitely not ‘list tickers’, our overland adventure from London to Melbourne included a visit to several of the 7 Wonders, and for me, it meant a chance to have visited them all.

So in preparation for the release of the world’s top seven cities, this week we are looking back at our visits to the New 7 Wonders of the World, (in no particular order!).

1. The Colosseum: Rome Italy

The home of Rome's mighty gladiator battles and one of the symbols of the ancient city

The home of Rome’s mighty gladiator battles and one of the symbols of the ancient city

When you think of Ancient Rome, you instinctively think of the Colosseum. I first visited the Colosseum in 2004 and still vividly remember it. Exiting a relatively modern (by Rome standards) Metro/Underground station and there straight in front of you is this enormous imposing ancient structure. The Colosseum has been ravaged by earth quakes and pillaged for its marble throughout the centuries but nothing screams out, ‘I am in Rome’ more than a visit here. Word of advice, steer clear of the guys dressed as Roman soldiers offering to have your photo taken with them. They will use your camera and then charge you for the privilege!

Nothing says Rome quite like the Colosseum

Nothing says Rome quite like the Colosseum

2. Machu Picchu: Peru

The must have photo of Machu Picchu with the mountain of Wayna Picchu in the background

The must have photo of Machu Picchu with the mountain of Huayna Picchu in the background

I had built up Machu Picchu so much in my mind I didn’t expect it to meet my expectations, but in honesty it far exceeded them! My trip to South America was all a little last-minute so I was unable to get my hands on a permit to hike the Inca Trail. Instead I caught the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes and spent a full afternoon and most of the following day exploring this incredible site, and I am so glad I did. I was one of the first into the site before dawn and sat and watched the spindly fingers of fog draw away and finally unveil the ruins in all their glory. It felt like I had the entire area to myself.  After dawn broke I was able to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu which only allows a limited number of people to ascend every day, for a different perspective of the ‘Lost City of the Incas’. The dramatic surroundings and incredible history made for one of my travel highlights from around the world.

Looking down of the 'Lost City' from the peak of Waynu Picchu

Looking down of the ‘Lost City’ from the peak of Huayna Picchu

3. Petra: Jordan

Approaching the Treasury  of Petra from the 1.2km long Siq

Approaching the Treasury of Petra from the 1.2km long Siq

Ever since seeing ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ I had wanted to visit Petra. I knew very little about the Rose City until I visited, thinking that Petra was only the Treasury (the most famous building) but quickly discovered it was a huge sprawling settlement that was not discovered until 1812! The highlight was definitely the walk through the narrow and winding 1.2km gorge called the Siq, a natural phenomena that not even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could have imagined.

There is more to Petra than just the Treasury

There is more to Petra than just the Treasury

4. Christ the Redeemer: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer towering over the city of Rio

Christ the Redeemer towering over the city of Rio

Like a beacon of hope, the statue of Christ the Redeemer towers over the city of Rio, arms outstretched embracing the City of God. A major drawcard for visitors and locals alike, Christ has been looking down on Rio since 1931. Stunning views of the of the city, beaches and surrounding hills including the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Looking out towards Rio below

Looking out towards Rio below

5. Pyramid at Chichén Itzá: Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

This Mayan Masterpiece is astronomically perfectly aligned

This Mayan Masterpiece is astronomically perfectly aligned

Chichén Itzá showcases just how advanced the Mayans were when it came to astronomy. All the structures in the complex perfectly aligned with the stars, the moon or the sun, none more so than Pyramid of Kulkulkan. During the spring and autumn equinoxes the fading sun lights up what appears to be a serpent descending from the top of the pyramid (there are some great YouTube videos showing this). There are also a number of other very impressive structures all linking up to the Mayan fascination with the universe.

Channelling the powers from above, El Castillo as it is know to the locals

Channelling the powers from above, El Castillo as it is known to the locals

6. The Great Wall of China: China

The Great Wall, the largest of the 7 Wonders

The Great Wall, the largest of the 7 Wonders

For as long as I can remember I wanted to set foot on the Great Wall. Maybe it had to do with the history or perhaps just the pure scale of the project but the wall has always amazed me. Easily accessible from Beijing and packed with both foreign and local tourists alike there are numerous sections to explore and hike this mammoth structure. Or perhaps just find a quiet (if you can) section and look out as the Wall snakes over the surrounding mountains.

There are literally miles of Wall to discover, but trying to get a quiet section is not easy!

There are literally miles of Wall to discover, but trying to get a quiet section is not easy!

7: The Taj Mahal: Agra, India

It is almost impossible to take a bad photo of the Taj Mahal

It is almost impossible to take a bad photo of the Taj Mahal

Perhaps we saved the best to last but words cannot describe what it is like to lay eyes on the Taj Mahal. It is such a contrast to the hustle, bustle and humanity of surrounding Agra, but as soon as you enter the compound and gardens it is like some serene peace descends on you, despite the mass throng of tourists. Considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time is definitely one of those wow moments that don’t come along that often!

One of the most beautiful buildings in the world

One of the most beautiful buildings in the world

Do you have a travel bucket list to check off or do you think that there are other sites around the World that should be part of the 7 Wonders? Let us know what you think.

– Dean

Time to start planning our next travel bucket list!

Time to start planning our next travel bucket list!

SPECIAL NOTE: Before you all ask, the Pyramids of Giza were given honorary status as they are the only still surviving of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World. This was very controversial in 2007!

Chapter Five – Breathtaking Tibet.

Tibet.  A region of the World that sparks so much passion, support, angst, anger, controversy… I could go on.  The history here is so recent, and most people are aware that currently it is not a Country in its own right – rather a region controversially under Chinese rule.  Before I start, I should add that this is probably the most difficult of all the blogs we have written.  Not because of our experiences (in fact it is one of our favourite regions to date) but more that we didn’t want to say or write the wrong thing as the situation in the whole area is so delicate.  We did the ‘paper, rock, scissors’ as to who would write it – and you got me!

There really are two trains of thought about visiting Tibet.  Some people firmly think that you shouldn’t go, for fear of supporting the Chinese regime, thus boycotting for Political reasons.  Others think you should go to support the local people and learn more about their culture, which is incredibly different to that of the Chinese.  We chose the latter – choosing to support the locals and make our own mind up.  Even this decision of ours was met with some negative re-tweets of some of our Twitter posts – proving how emotive this region is.  There is so much to say about the political situation, but that’s not what this blog is about.  Slowly (actually very quickly) Chinese development is encroaching on the traditional Tibetan ways, and for us it was a privilege to visit and see things as they are now.  Leaving the politics aside, this is a land of big skies, beautiful landscapes and incredibly incredibly warm hearted people.  So this is our account of a beautiful part of the World.

You will already have read Dean’s tales of travelling to Tibet by high altitude train.  It had been nail-biting waiting to get our permits.  Currently Chines rules state that you must travel through the region ‘in a group’, ‘with a guide’ and ‘with a permit’.  We might have been a group of two, but that still counted!  So as we got off the train, we were met by our guide Tashi.  Tashi was, quite simply, one of the best local guides we have ever had.  He greeted us with welcome scarves and pressies and settled us in.  We knew instantly it was going to be a good ten days.

We spent the first four days acclimatising in Lhasa.  At well over 3000m its high and an assault on all your senses!  Whilst the air was thin we were rewarded with amazing BIG blue skies.  There was plenty to do in Lhasa so it really was no hardship to be there.  On day one we headed out to the Jokhang Temple.  This is the key central site in Lhasa, and the site of great pilgrimage for Tibet’s largely Buddhist population.  As it was winter time we were assured it was a great time to see the Pilgrims as they had travelled far and wide to be there (something that they don’t do as much in summer as they are busy with their farms).  Together, day and night, they walk several ‘Kora’ (circuits) around various sites and religious buildings in the city.  The Kora around Jokhang Temple was just over 1km long and fascinating.  As soon as you walked up to it you couldn’t help but join in, and before you knew it, you had walked several circumnavigations of the site with the locals!!!  Tashi took us into the temple.  On the way in he explained what all the people were doing outside.  Quite simply it appeared like they were repeatedly throwing themselves on the ground.  This practice of ‘prostrating’ is a form of prayer, and is done repeatedly and really showed their dedication to their religion.   Later on we would even see pilgrims prostrating alongside the road, all the way from a-b on journeys that would take up to a year.  That really is dedication!  Most of the people we saw outside would do this all day.  Like all the Temples we saw, Jokhang was quite fascinating inside as well as our and was very powerful, with the many images of Buddha.  What struck me, and was almost moving, was to see the locals queuing for hours on end to make their offerings of money, barley, and most importantly yak butter milk (poured into big candle like vats that burnt away silently).  Although Tashi said in Buddhism you are not supposed to have favorites, mine was clearly the Compassionate Buddha.  An image that I started recognising everywhere!

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The Kora around the Jokhang Temple

The next day took us out to the World famous Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama.  Many hope and pray he will one day return, but for now he lives in India.  The Palace visit was the first time we had really exerted ourselves.  It involved climbing 13 floors up over uneven steps but we were rewarded with fabulous views.  This doesn’t sound much but at over 3000m it makes you feel very unfit!!  The many rooms in the Palace were well worth the effort and it was just such a wonderful building.  Like with the Jokhang Palace the day before, perhaps the best bit of the experience was getting out and in with the locals and seeming them on their pilgrim trail making their offerings.  There were so few tourists there, it felt like a real privilege to be part of their experience.

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

Overlooking the magnificent Potala Palace

The third and four days were spent exploring other temples.  I won’t go into every one as you will be asleep, but needless to say we had our first experience of crossing a high mountain pass.  Here it is traditional to hang prayer flags over the road.  As we crossed underneath the red, blue, white, yellow and green flags flapped in the breeze, bringing luck and fortune to all those who had strung them and protecting those who passed beneath.  They were to become a familiar site and one we would never tire of.  In fact we even have some to bring home!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Prayer Flags over the road!

Soon it was time to leave the city.  With Sonamdorje (or Dorje for short) at the wheel, Tashi, Dean and I were in safe hands!  We headed out of the city and started our journey along the famous Friendship Highway – last stop the Nepalese border.  What a journey it was going to be.  We were greeted with one of the highlights of the trip – views over Yamdrok-tso Lake – which translates into ‘Turquoise Lake’.  The colour of it was certainly that and it was just stunning.  We first saw it as we went over the mountain pass, but we then dropped down and followed it round, even dipping a finger in at one point.  Sorry Mum – I didn’t paddle as it was freezing (and it’s sacred so no swimming allowed)!!

Yamdrak-tso Lake - stunning

Yamdrok-tso Lake – stunning

The next few days were spent visiting several temples and sites in Shigatse, Gyantse and the surrounding areas.  Each and every one was different and we didn’t once tire or get ‘templed out’.  Each had their own appeal and style and between us we have some amazing photos.  In Gyantse we visited one called the Gyantse Kumbum which is very like some temples that are found in Nepal (with the eyes) so it was a nice introduction.  After that we took a wander through the back streets of old town Gyantse, where you find the best examples of traditional Tibetan life.  Again the generosity of the people shone through as one man invited us into his home to have a look around.  It was fascinating, but we didn’t dare look round the corner where the goat heads were hung!  We then carried on walking down the street, dodging the ‘doggy bombs’ on the floor and walking past the cattle ‘parked’ outside each resident’s house.  The style of the houses was beautiful, and even though it was dirty in parts, it had such character.  On our journey we also went to Samding Monastery – a nunnery on the banks of Yamdrok-tso Lake (the Turquoise Lake).  The ladies were busy at work and I would argue it was cleaner J  Nuns and Monks are on the same level in Buddhism, they just can’t stay together.  If I had to be a Nun then I would pick there!

Now when you travel for any great length of time, there has to be ups and downs.  We have loved travelling in winter.  It has been cold, but largely we have been rewarded by being one of few tourists in the area.  However we were about to stumble across our first big disappointment and downside of travel through the region at this time of year.  We had heard that Everest Base Camp (on the Tibetan side) was closed, however the Government had granted us access on our main permit, so we were hopeful we could get there.  In Tibet, to travel you don’t just need one permit, you need many!  When we were 90km from Everest Tashi and Dorje went off to apply for the necessary main Base Camp permit which had to be done locally.  We were all geared up to go when there was a knock on the door.  Tashi telling us that sadly it was indeed all closed and there was nothing he or the company could do to get us there.  There simply weren’t the Chinese guards on the checkpoints, and as we had learnt checkpoints are everywhere and there is no way through them except with the right paperwork.  It was disappointing but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had at least seen Everest from a distance that day, which was better than nothing.  Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t work out as planned but that night it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow.  It has made us vow to come back sooner rather than later to trek to Base Camp on the Nepali side (and maybe visit Tibet again!).

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

We picked ourselves up and enjoyed the rest of the journey.  Throughout the trip we had, for a large part of the time, felt like we were driving on top of the World.  There were mountain ranges (both snow-capped and incredibly dry) for most of the time, even surrounding the cities.  Tashi duly pointed them out and gave us manageable amounts of history and information.  Meanwhile Dorje gave us two of his CDs as we loved them.  Tibetan generosity at its best.  As I’ve said before (but it’s worth mentioning again!) the Tibetan skies were just so huge.  You could almost see the curvature of the Earth! We loved watching the view change out of the window and the last day was no exception.  We stopped at the top of a pass over 5000m and then slowly descended down a zig zag of switchbacks and passes.  Slowly the trees began to appear again.  We felt less and less like we were in Tibet, but were excited about our next adventure.

There is a wonderful quote by Mother Theresa, “Peace begins with a smile” and the Tibetan people sure know the meaning of this.  We were a fascination everywhere we went.  People looked at us inquisitively, and then we simply had to say ‘Tashi Dalek’ (hello) and they would break into this almighty grin.  They were so pleased to welcome us and this made the decision to come all the more worthwhile.  There is a sadness that extends over the Tibetans, but underneath they are such beautiful people and we fell so lucky to have visited now.

I have never ever had a guide that has made me feel so privileged to be able to travel.  Current Chinese Policy states that Tashi, as a Lhasa resident, has to wait until he is 60 before he can even apply for a Chinese passport and even travel within China (without passport) is severely limited with lots of clauses and restrictions.  It’s just the way it is, but he was so very well read and versed on other Countries in the World.  There we were travelling the World and our wonderful guide isn’t even able to travel freely within China, never mind venture out into the big wide World that he is so desperate to explore.  There is nothing more humbling than that.  One of those moments that makes you feel very lucky to have been born where we were.

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

With the wonderful Tashi at over 5500m

Tibet – you are simply amazing.  Thank you.

–  Natalie

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border

Dorje, Dean, Me and Tashi just before we crossed the border


Chapter Four: The World’s Highest Train Journey: Chengdu to Lhasa

Bleary eyed we stumbled off our overnight train from Yichang and arrived in the economically booming town of Chengdu. It was to be our base for the next five days as we waited for our Tibetan Travel Permits to be granted.

Chengdu is famous for a number of things, its spicy Sichuan cuisine for one, (which was the subject of our last blog entry), its legendary tea houses and most of all one of the symbols of China, Pandas! This was going to be a fun week.

Our first day was spent exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, the Manjusri monastery. It was an enormous complex, very colourful and was great for photos. We had an interesting conversation with an elderly local gentleman who reeled off numerous statistics about Australia after I told him where I was from. This was followed by being invited in to what looked like an enormous assembly hall. The young girl who invited us then told us the man speaking was from a new wave Buddhist movement. It was like a Chinese version of the TV evangelical preachers you see on American comedy movies, needless to say we didn’t stick around long.

Several of the monasteries are surrounded by reconstructed hutong, or old Chinese alleyways. They were filled with souvenir stalls, street side restaurants, vendors selling various chilli concoctions and tea houses. We loved the Chengdu tea houses, you could walk in, buy a cup of leaf tea for around one British Pound, and then were given a thermos full of hot water. If you managed to finish the thermos, you just went to the counter and grabbed another one, free of charge. What great value!

 

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

The following day was time to visit the Pandas. Somehow we managed to make two connecting local buses to reach the Chengdu Panda Research facility, which was a mission in itself. It involved trying to find a bus line that didn’t exist and thanks to several very helpful bus drivers we reached our destination.

I’m not sure if we were shocked or surprised, but I guess we were almost expecting a big nature reserve similar to some of the reserves you see in Africa, with Pandas living as close to a normal life as possible. In reality what we entered was a Panda zoo. Huge enclosures holding anywhere from one to around five Pandas, all with bamboo feeding stations in the primo location for visitors to take photos.

After our initial surprise/shock/disappointment, we loved the Base. The Pandas were like big, goofy teddy bears, stumbling around and play fighting, but our favourite was one guy stuck up a tree. We must have watched him for around 20 minutes as he tried every which way to scale his way down the tree which he had obviously managed to climb. All his efforts were fraught with disaster and followed by mad scrambles back to the safety of the fork in the branches. We left him to it but returned about two hours later and he was still stuck in the tree! We were lucky enough to see him try several more ill-fated attempts before eventually falling to the ground flat on his back. The Research Base does do some amazing work protecting and breeding future generations of Pandas, and is even preparing to release some of them back into the wild. This day was a real highlight for both of us, but we both agreed we love to come back one day and try and trek out to see them in the wild.

 

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Because of the amount of time we were spending in Chengdu we had decided to break out time up between days exploring the city and a couple of day trips, (the Pandas being one). Today it was time to explore several of the city’s parks. As we mentioned in our Beijing blog we loved the parks there and were hoping Chengdu’s parks would live up to our expectation. We visited another monastery, the newly built hutong surrounding it and experienced our first tea ceremony. Really it was a show to make you buy the shops tea, but we did enjoy a couple of free cups. The best part of the whole experience was the shop assistants puppy dog eyes and look of “if you don’t buy my tea I will get the sack” look. The huge People’s Park was another great place to spend a few hours, and it was here I had one of the more unique experiences of our adventure, I had my ears cleaned by an ear master.

The ear masters walk between tea houses in the parks wearing head torches and carrying numerous instruments that look like they belong in a horror movie. They proceed to pluck, scrub and clean your ears as well as dislodging any nastiness using what sounds like tuning forks. The whole process was a little unnerving and I can’t say it was my favorite experience, but the after the little massage at the end my ears did feel amazing. While Chengdu’s parks had totally different feeling to them, our love affair of how the Chinese people used their public spaces remained strong.
Our final day trip took us out to the town of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of Buddha. What was supposed to be a two hour local bus ride turned into the best part of a five hour marathon as the motorways were closed for one stretch due to fog, and then traffic halted due to an ensuing accident. However it was totally worth it when we reached Leshan.

The Giant Buddha is 71 meters tall carved out of the rock face overlooking the confluence of two rivers. The project was conceived by a local monk who believed the statue would calm the ferocious merging of the rivers some 700 years ago. Now days many historians believe the confluence was calmed by the amount of debris cast into the river during the construction rather than any magical powers of the Giant Buddha. All in all this truly was an impressive construction back in the day and a perfect way to finish off our time in Chengdu. It would also set the scene in many ways for what was to come.

 

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

The following evening, New Years Eve, we boarded our 44 hour train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa. The train journey itself is one of China’s proudest engineering feats, and believe us they have many, but also was incredibly controversial, something we would learn went hand in hand when visiting Tibet. The 3360km journey heads into some very remote landscape, isolated towns, and 80% of day two was spent in excess of 4000m! While not pressurized, each train cabin, and every room in the cabins had vents pumping in oxygen to help you aclimatise.

The scenery was nothing short of stunning, from rocky gorges to flat desert and then the barren expanse of the Tibetan plateau as we ascended above the tree line. The highlight was definitely topping 5000m as we crossed the highest point of the journey and began to see numerous snowcapped mountains surrounding us.

 

Approaching 5000m on the World's highest train journey

Approaching 5000m on the World’s highest train journey

We also saw some truly remarkable and bizarre things as well. The one that puzzled us the most was during one stretch of perhaps 20 km at regular intervals there would be a Chinese soldier, standing in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around him, saluting the train. There was no rhyme or reason for it, truly bizarre! On another section we saw three men lying prostrating on the road near the train. We would later find out they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa, praying and prostrating themselves all the way from their home tome to the capital. Some of these journeys can take up to six months, crossing several quite dangerous mountain passes, (like our 5000m one) and being subject to both extremes of both cold and heat, truly remarkable.

So our new year had been ushered in on the train, (celebrated with a bottle of Great Wall Red wine no less), as was the first day and a half of 2014, rather appropriate really considering how far we have travelled by train so far. We finally pulled into to the final destination, one that polarises opinion, stirs various emotions and promised a very special experience, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet….

– Dean

Dinner with Tang Jun – Chinese hospitality at it’s best

Catching up with friends, work colleagues, or local contacts is one of the real highlights of life on the road. Whether it is something pre-arranged or a random coincidence it gives you a feeling of normality that constant travelling often lacks. So when we arrived into Chengdu we were both quite excited about meeting up with Tang Jun.

First things first, neither Natalie or I had ever met Tang Jun before, but we were put in contact with him by one of our close friends and one of Natalie’s work colleagues. Tang Jun also helps out Natalie’s work, Oasis Overland, with organising things in China for their huge Silk Road overland adventure. We had swapped several emails and had decided to meet up on a Saturday night to go out and experience real, local, traditional Chengdu Hot Pot.

Tang Jun and his wife Wendy picked us up from our hostel and we drove down to a street filled with restaurants, “Look for a full restaurant and you know it is a good one”, Tang Jun told us. We pulled up out the front, Wendy ran in and quickly from the doorway waved us all in. With one table left there was no waiting time, a rare occasion in Chengdu on a Saturday we were told.

As we walked in, it was almost as if everyone stopped and stared, Natalie and I were the only non-locals in the whole restaurant, and this was definitely somewhere off the beaten track. We sat down, drinks were ordered, we made a toast (the first of many!) and then Tang Jun explained what traditional Sichuan Hot Pot was all about.

The town of Chongqing is most famous in China for its hot pot with Chengdu a close second. It is basically a silver bowl full of chilli, black peppercorns, several different types of oil, and even more chilli. As it boils away you then put different types of meats and vegetables into the broth and cook them to your liking. Each person has a small bowl in front of them that you fill with sesame oil, chopped garlic and coriander. The sesame oil we were told stopped your stomach getting ill from so much chilli. “You must understand, hot pot is not the healthiest meals for you”, Tang Jun laughed.

Now this is where things got interesting, a huge simmering cauldron full of a bubbling red hot liquid that looked that it had come from the bowels of hell was placed in the middle of the table. In the center was a smaller pot of clear liquid that appeared to have a full fish inside it. Natalie is without doubt one of the most intrepid travelers I have ever met, but there are a couple of things she doesn’t deal with too well. One is dead animals, two is overly spicy food, (China has helped her change her tune a little), and three is random off cuts of meat. So it was hard not to chuckle when first the pot came out and all you could see was chillis boiling away and a dead fish in the middle, but this was followed by a procession of plates of various meats and vegetables to dip into boiling bubbling broth.

Tang Jun emptied a few plates into the broth and told us they needed a little longer to cook than some of the others. He then said to me, “Try this one Dean”, “What is it?” Natalie asked, “Ha ha I will tell you once he has eaten it!”, Tang Jun responded. It was actually pig intestines and I must admit it I quite liked it. We were then treated to pig’s throat, ox stomach, meatballs, beef, what looked like spam and several types of vegetables. As the broth continued to boil away the colour got deeper and the taste got hotter.

Credit where credit is due Natalie tried everything that Tang Jun presented her with and didn’t bat an eyelid (even the fish which she hasn’t eaten for years and was more of a challenge than the offal). Even as the broth got hotter and hotter Natalie kept going, at one point I turned to Tang Jun and said, “You have made my wife do things tonight I could only dream of!” I was a very proud husband to say the least. Perhaps the spiciest little beast was the cauliflower – somehow it absorbed every chilli and spice in the pot and left even me reaching for the water!

It really was an amazing meal, all the dishes tasted great and true to form, the sesame oil negated some of the nasty effects of seriously hot and spicy food. Sadly Tang Jun was not feeling the best that night but promised to be on better form in a couple of nights time when he insisted we go out for drinks. Wendy drove us home and we reflected on our awesome local dining experience.

Two nights later we got the call to jump in a taxi and meet Tang Jun at his favourite bar, The Traveler Bar, owned by a close friend of his Mr Liu. We began with a few local beers and were introduced to the Chinese art of cheers-ing. In China you seem to cheers for everything and everything, I think it is an excuse to get drunk as quick as possible.

We were joined by a couple of his work colleagues, a young girl called Candy who had just joined the business and then his work partner or boss, we never did work it out, Mr Liu (yes another one but no relation) arrived and then the party really started. We upgraded from reasonably low alcohol Chinese beers to extremely strong Bavarian wheat beer, the best you can get, we were told.

We toasted to just about everything, new friends, old friends, the two of us being married for eight months, to China, to Tibet, to Oasis Overland and everything in between. We learnt that the host will always clink his glass lower than yours as a sign of respect, and when someone fills up your glass you tap the table with closed fist, imitating a sign of respect to the Emperor when he was in disguise travelling around. As we meet up on the 30th of December, and we were spending New Year’s Eve on a 44 hour train ride to Tibet at midnight we then toasted to ‘Happy Last Day of the Year’. For us this night was our New Year’s Eve.

When we were sufficiently drunk to our hosts liking they piled us into a taxi back to the hostel. We may have only spent two nights with Tang Jun but by the end of it we felt like we had known him for ages. His hospitality was amazing despite our pleas he would not accept any contribution towards our dinner or our night of drinking, we were his guests in his city and country. We have been lucky to do so many amazing things on this journey already, but our two nights with Tang Jun will live on in the memory for a long time to come. As I said at the start, meeting up with friends, old or new, during your travels is always a highlight.

– Dean

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Chinese ablutions

Now being British, we like to think we are very polite and we go out of our way to queue and not make impolite noises in public. Any inappropriate noise is either met with eye rolls or generally a look in the other direction as if nothing happened!

Something has baffled me since we have been in China. The ladies seem to have such high standards of personal hygiene, yet they still make such awful unladylike noises and spit everywhere. That’s just the ladies – I won’t even go there with Deans stories of what he has seen and heard!!!

Now forgive me for the topic of this blog, but I wrote this on a long distance bus journey. Shortly after getting on the bus I was nicely tucking into my pastry for breakfast. Yum…. That was until the bus driver started making stomach churning noises followed by repeated spits out the window. All of a sudden breakfast did not seem so good!

Now this behaviour is not endemic to China – indeed I think it was actually worse in Mongolia and I know from experience that it reigns supreme in other Asian countries too.

We have been staying in budget accommodation with shared bathrooms in a lot of cases. This means you witness (or hear!!) the morning ablutions of your fellow travellers. As its the ‘slack season’ as they call it, the hostels have been full of young Chinese travellers or temporary residents. In the morning it is quite common to see them literally standing in a washing up bowl cleaning their feet while vigorously scrubbing, slapping or wiping their faces. One could say this cleaning ritual means they are far far cleaner than me – not to mention a lot braver as you would not get me stood in a cold bucket of water on a -5 degree day!!!

Once you leave the hostel you run a gauntlet of spit as you walk through the streets, ducking and diving as you go to make sure you are not in the line of fire – ok I exaggerate slightly but you get the drift! Apparently during the 2008 Olympics there was a ban in place on this type of behaviour and fines were handed out to those caught in the act. I can’t help but wonder if this act of ‘throat clearance’, as I like to call it, helps or merely creates more to spit!

However far be it from me to judge a nation when I am a guest in their country. However I for one will not be adopting the ‘hoike’, spit and noises that are heard here!

– Natalie