Chapter Three: Beijing to Yichang (including you can take the girl out of the posh, but you can’t take the posh out of the girl…..living it up on the Yangtze River)

We left Beijing with a twinge of sadness. As you have read, we loved the city and all it had to offer. The next couple of days were a whirlwind of old town walls, trains and temples!

We decided to try the ‘hard sleepers’ on the next two trains. We opted for the middle (of three story high bunks) bed within the 38 bed bunkhouse on the train – imagine rows and rows of bunks and you are not far wrong! We had read mixed reviews about these sections and so far had avoided them. However we were so pleasantly surprised with the first journey to Pingyao, that we booked the next train in this style too! With our valuables as a second pillow, we felt perfectly safe and slept like babies (on a good night!).

Now I should say booking trains in China is in itself not for the feint hearted. As the Lonely Planet says, the booking system is the “Achilles heel” of the whole train network. You need to buy your ticket at the station or ticket booth, the further in advance, the better (we have met some travellers who have been ‘stuck’ for a few days as their desired train was full). The early bird definitely does catch the worm. Needless to say the ladies at these ticket booths rarely speak English and it is a cash only system for westerners. The odd hostel can do it for you, for a charge, but not many. We had taken to looking up trains, deciding what we wanted and then asking the hostel to write us a note in mandarin detailing our request. We then headed to the ticket booth and thrust this at the ticket seller and hoped for the best. We have got this far so it obviously works!

We made it into Pingyao and checked into our dodgy little hostel for the day and set off to explore. Now the atmosphere here was odd. In the summer it may be more bustling, but it was like a ghost town in winter! The main reason we had come was to walk the town walls – famed for being one of the most intact old city walls in all of China. Quite a statement. We were impressed with what we found, and set about walking the 6km route all the way around them. It took a while with photo stops to look over the roof tops, but it was an enjoyable walk. Our ticket also granted us access to the Confusion Temple and other sites in the city – all worth a wander with the relative sanctuary of being by ourselves.

We finished our stay in Pingyao with a walk round at night. It was beautifully lit up with red lanterns everywhere. It was just stunning – needless to say a few hundred pictures were taken during our short stay! It had been well worth the pit stop. It was time for our back-to-back night train to keep on moving. Next stop Xi’an.

Xi’an surprised us. Both in size, style and sophistication. As we walked the 3km from the station to our hotel (seemed like a good idea at the time and we hadn’t discovered the 10p bus at that point!) we quickly learnt it was a big city! We checked in, and caught the first public bus out to the Terracotta Warriors.

Dad had taken me to see some of the warriors on tour in London back in the 80’s. No doubt the historical significance was a bit lost on me then, and if I’m honest I still couldn’t get my head round the age of these warriors. I can only describe the sight of them (in Pit 1 at least!) as truly amazing. Each one has a different face and lined up in rows they are quite magnificent. What I hadn’t realised was there are still excavating. This was going on in front of our very eyes which was interesting to see. Between us we got some great pictures – something that you are begging to see is a bit of a theme of our trip – photography! It would be fair to say that the Warriors appealed to the history nerd in Dean. Not only how randomly they had been discovered in 1974 but also how they had remained underground for over 2000 years. This was a big thing he had wanted to see and I must admit it is hard not to be impressed. We had read various reviews about what way to view them, and found that visiting the ‘pits’ in the reverse order worked well for us as we finished with Pit 1, the largest of the three and the image you have in your mind when you think of them. An army of warriors in various states of repair lined up in rank and file to guard the Emperor. Quite a sight!

Back to Xi’an and something struck me about this city. I deemed it the ‘Paris of China’ when I walked past the row of Maserati’s and Bentley’s parked along the main street. With Expensive Swiss watch shops and swanky clothes stores it was only when we were up on the old city walls at dusk starring down the Champs Elysees of Xi’an, towards the Bell Tower which was all lit up that this came to me. Have you been to Xi’an? Do you agree or disagree? There was clearly a lot of money in this city (as well as poverty) and the friendly people walked about with style and sophistication in the main. We were once again the focus of intrigue and photo requests. I have never been anywhere where I had been this much of a curiosity! Maybe it was our matching wooly hats!!

We had a great couple of days there going into the Drum and Bell Towers, and cycling around the old city walls. Our top tip is to go up there in the late afternoon then you can hire bikes for when the city is lit up as well as when darkness falls and all the red lanterns are turned on. It was fabulous.

As Christmas approached it was time to move on and try and sort out our Christmas trip. We took an overnight train to Chongqing with the sole aim of getting on a cruise boat down the Yangtze. We were open to offers…. Although secretly we both had a bit of luxury in mind!! We arrived at a hostel with a good travel desk and set them on the case. This was on the 22nd. They quickly came back with the options – we either left on luxury 5*+ cruise that night or we literally missed the boat (and Christmas) until the 27th. Working out the comparisons with a Chinese boat, we decided it represented far better value to ‘posh it up’ for a few days. Hostels in China had been great, but we were at the end of a three weeks stretch without hot hot water and we were in need of a good scrub. We paid our money (a bargain price) and killed the afternoon in Chongqing. It was a bustling city with a mass of building activity going on. From what we saw we weren’t sorry to be leaving later that night! I bought a “cute” (according to the boat staff!) Santa head band and armed with our stuff we walked down and boarded the boat.

This was the start of an amazing four days / three nights – wow. The Chinese dragons danced as we got on board and we were met with the glistening atrium on the Century Emerald, complete with Christmas decorations galore. I had died and gone to heaven compared to the last few weeks’ accommodation. Now the older I get the more I seem to aspire to this type of accommodation!! I blame Dean…. I mean I have been lucky enough to stay in many a posh hotel with him, so it is what I’m quickly becoming accustomed to!! We went up to our room, complete with River View balcony and lounge area and made ourselves at home. We put up our Christmas decorations and put our £5 secret Santa pressies for each other under our Russian tree and ‘de-backpackered’.

The next few days for us involved several cocktails and watching the Yangtze go by. We had three included visits along the way which we made the most of including the ShiBao Zhai Pagoda (which clung to the rock for dear life), Shennong Stream where we switched to a smaller more accessible dragon boat and the Three Gorges Dam which was interesting, sad and fascinating all at the same time. Out of 200 people on board, we were seated with one South African and six Australians – together we had such a laugh. We could not have asked for a nicer group of people to spend Christmas with – culminating in the boys and girls each singing Karaoke like locals on Christmas Eve! The weather was typically cloudy and misty for this time of year. That didn’t matter. I wanted to be on the Yangtze for Christmas and it was everything and more than we wanted. Backpacking is amazing, and I wouldn’t do trips like this any other way. Sometimes, just occasionally, you appreciate a little holiday from it, and this just totally recharged our batteries and made us raring to go again.

At the end of the cruise, we said our fond farewells and took our night train from Yichang to Chengdu, sharing a cabin with a Buddhist monk no less – what a way to spend Christmas, but it was time to look towards the Great Pandas….. More in the next chapter!

– Natalie

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Thank you for your support

After the most amazing time in Mongolia (more about that in the blog to follow) we are really sad to leave this special place, but are looking forward to boarding our train to Beijing in the morning.  Internet access is likely to be a bit more ‘few and far’ between, and social media quite restricted, so we wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you!

Sending stories back about our trip has been different for us this time round.  In the past we have sent big round-robin emails, but this time we thought we would blog and see how that went.

I have heard numerous comments from people in the past (not always positive!) about people always putting things on Facebook and Twitter about their travels, so we thought the best thing to do would be to start up ‘The Smart Way Round’ Facebook page.  We invited all of our friends to ‘like’ the page, that way people could either opt in or out of our travel updates.  At the time it all felt rather self-indulgent and like we were promoting ourselves which was not the way it was intended at all!  In short, we were blown away with the response we got so maybe more people are interested in our travels than we first believed!

So above all this is just a big THANK YOU for your support both before and during our journey.  We will continue to post blogs were we can, although it may not be possible to post these on Facebook.  You can always sign up for email updates via ‘The Smart Way Round’ blog page, or alternatively we will be back on Social Media as soon as possible (Dean can’t be parted with Twitter for too long)!

For now, thank you and see you in China (you better pinch me as it doesn’t seem possible)!

– Natalie

From London to Irkutsk – The First Chapter

As we travel on the Trans-Siberian train its day two, there is a blissfully perfect wintery snowy scene out of the carriage window and its time to turn our thoughts back to all the amazing things we have seen and done on this adventure so far.  As we look back we find ourselves reaching for the brake pedal – slow down its going too quickly!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

The last few weeks before we went away were a whirlwind and before we knew it, we found ourselves on our first overnight train (just!).  For those of you that read Dean’s earlier blog you will know that it was a close calls that testing my ability to run with my backpack from the offset!!  Good job we had packed light!

When we woke the next morning we have travelled through three countries – from the UK through France, Belgium, Germany, and finally into Poland.  I remember Dean remarking that in many ways Poland was like the UK – full of Costa’s and Tesco’s!  I can’t deny there were definitely similarities, yet it had a character all of its own that was an amazing introduction to the trip.  Our day and night there would prove to be the first day where we walked our socks off and racked up the miles.  As we got off our train, we walked out of the station and were greeted with the mighty sight of the Palace of Culture – a big imposing building that welcomed us.  We discovered the ‘singing’ Chopin benches (that’s right – park benches that play Chopin music!), explored the buildings in the old own square, walked the Old City Walls, had a Costa coffee (why change the habit of a lifetime?!), dashed down to see the Jewish Ghetto Memorial as the sun was setting and eventually toasted our arrival with a Polish beer –  Nasdarovje!

The beautiful old town square

The beautiful old town square

Our next journey was by bus (double axel as Mum spotted in the pictures!).  It was possibly the poshest coach I have been on and came complete with cheesy chick flicks and aeroplane style entertainment system.  True to form I chuckled away at a naff film!!  After an 8 hour journey, next came Vilnius and our journey into Lithuania.  I had received many reports of what a pleasant city it is and it certainly lived up to that.  Our hostel was just outside the old city walls, so a short walk and we were down in amongst the beauty of it – you can certainly see why it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.  Lacking funds we had our first taste of noddles for dinner.  We had a full day to explore and again we walked and walked.  If this trip doesn’t tone my legs nothing will!!

The Green Bridge

The Green Bridge

We walked up the main shopping street and down to the river where we meandered along the banks and came to the Green Bridge.  Built in 1956 this is the only bridge in Lithuania that has statues on it.  Given the adornment of statues on bridges in other cites this fascinated us!  We then carried on and walked up the hill and went up the Gediminas Tower which gave us a brilliant view over the city.

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

All too soon it was time to leave.  On the way back to the hostel we came across this little local bar.  It was basically park benches outside, and I convinced Dean that it would be good to have a drink with the locals.  I was the only woman in there (apart from the lady behind the bar) but we paid our 50p and got our ¾ pint of beer.  It was so good that we thought we’d invest in the economy and have a second!!!  When we got on the train a couple of hours later, we were greeted with red velour beds and animal print blankets – it was almost like something out of a 1970’s dodgy film!!

Using up our last 50ps

Using up our last 50ps

It is fair to say that crossing borders on a night train doesn’t make for a very restful night’s sleep.  First our stop in Latvia and the Latvian border control where Dean got a stamp, and then an hour later came the Russian side.  At 4am we handed over our passport and hoped for the best.  To pass the time we had a midnight feast and tucked into our big bar of chocolate – bought to use up the last of our Lithuanian money and a great investment!  Finally we were stamped in and rolling again, and next came awesome St Petersburg.

Our cabin for the night

Our cabin for the night

We spent the next three days exploring everything from the Hermitage to St Peter and Paul Island, St Isaacs Cathedral, The Church of the Spilled Blood (my first introduction to the ornate frescos), Udel Naya flea market as well as going to an Ice Hockey game – go SKA!  We had planned to go to Swan Lake, but as it was too late in the season this made a nice alternative.  We ended right on the edge with the opposing team so we had to keep cheering for SKA so there was no confusion as to who we were wiling on!  It was no wonder the seats were both cheap and still available – no one else wanted them!!!  It was a mammoth couple of days full of taking LOTS of pictures (both day and night).  I couldn’t get over the amazing architecture everywhere – the buildings were just stunning and I was blown away.  Definitely a city to come back to!

In the Hermitage

In the Hermitage


Our last stop was Moscow before the journey onwards.  It had a lot to live up to for me as I’d loved St Petersburg.  We took one of the German built express trains between the two cities, and arrived into Moscow at lunchtime.  There is no denying that seeing St Basil’s for the first time is one of those real ‘I have made it moments’ and I was amazed by what I saw.  It is the most stunning building and really does stand up to every expectation you have about it.  We went inside and this amazed me too.  I expected a big wide open space in there, instead it’s essentially lots of smaller chambers with the most beautiful frescos and artwork.  Wow.  The next few days were spent paying our respects to Lenin (I was the first of the day in there and had it all to myself which was very eerie!), going round the Kremlin, visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, riding the Metro (Dean was amazing at navigating and we managed to sneak a few pictures) and going out to the old Communist All Russia Exhibition Ground.  There was a really funky memorial to the Russian Space exploration out there which was quite unique.  We loved our afternoon out there exploring lots of the old buildings and architecture.

Wow!

Wow!

So as we got to the first of the ‘big train’ train journeys there was a small amount of sadness that we were saying goodbye to these amazing cities.  It had been the perfect start to our overland adventure, and we were well and truly on our way!

So what have we learnt?  Successful travel as a couple is much easier if you a:  tell the other person when you are hungry, b:  tell the other person know when you are tired, and c: tell the other person when you are struggling!  Follow these simple guidelines and you can’t go wrong!

Above all, in the words of an advertisement in Warsaw…. ‘Life’s Good’!

Life's Good!

Life’s Good!

–  Natalie

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean

Best Laid Plans

This was supposed to be the easy part. London to Warsaw, a couple of train changes and a nice easy introduction to training across the world, the perfect introduction to get us back into that travelling mindset.

Well, Day One of our adventure was more a baptism of fire than a nice leisurely break into solo travelling again.

This is how the day was supposed to pan out. After farewell champagnes with Natalie’s parents we caught the Eurostar to Brussels. In Brussels, granted, it was a short turnaround of twenty minutes, but then it was the German ICE train straight to Frankfurt and forty-five minutes to then board our overnight sleeper train to Warsaw.

Everything started well, we said goodbye to Natalie’s folks and passed immigration and security with plenty of time for the Eurostar. We had learnt our lesson from our honeymoon where we cut timings very very fine to make our train. The Eurostar pulled out on time and everything was going great, our adventure had begun, all the planning, the reading and researching was finally a reality.

Then we were thrown one of those travelling curve-balls that everyone experiences at one time or another. All your planning, all your research goes out the window and your travel experience kicks in.

We arrived at Brussels Midi station and had what we thought was an easy two platform changeover to the ICE train. However, when we got there the information boards were flashing red wording in both French and Flemish. While not fluent in either one of these languages, the translation was easy – ‘Leaves From Another Station’.

What?! This can’t be! We managed to track down a local attendant who told us to find the German train information desk. Running through the station, watching the minutes tick down until our departure we finally managed to find the Deutsche Bahn info desk to be told there was a problem with the train and now we had to catch a local train to Liege and hopefully a connection to Frankfurt from there.

We raced to the platform and jumped on the train to Liege (literally) as the doors closed and the train pulled out. The next hour and ten minutes seemed to drag on, we poured over possibilities, would we make Frankfurt in time for the sleeper train, could we meet it somewhere else or worst case scenario what to do if we missed it.

Upon arrival into Liege the conductor informed everyone that the ICE train would be departing from an adjoining platform, and would begin from Liege to Frankfurt. We had made it! Or so we thought.

We boarded what turned out to be our scheduled train, rail problems between Brussels and Liege had caused the rescheduling last minute, but now the train was departing over an hour late, and due to arrive into Frankfurt six minutes after our sleeper train was due to depart. I managed to hunt down the conductor and in my best German explained the situation – we just could not afford to miss that train. ‘Oh you will be fine’, he replied, ‘I think they will wait for you’.

Frantically doing some calculations

Frantically doing some calculations

As we hurtled through the night at over three hundred kilometres an hour watching the minutes tick by we became more and more nervous we would miss the train. Another visit to the conductor and this time less reassurance than my previous visit did nothing to calm our nerves.
As we pulled into Frankfurt station the conductors voice blared out over the speaker system, ‘Those passengers going to Warsaw your train departs from Platform 1 and is waiting for you, please hurry’.

Now this is where there is a little blurring between fact and fiction. I like to imagine that mad dash for the train to be like a scene from an action movie. The doors popped open and Natalie and I bolted out the carriage, down the stairs and through the tunnel accessing the platforms. 15, 14,…..4,3,2 and finally Platform 1. In front us now looked like what was the world’s largest stair case.

We scampered up as quick as we could to see the train slowly beginning to move, a conductor leaning out our carriage entrance calling for us to run. As we came up alongside the open carriage door, the train picking up pace, we threw first our day packs and then our rucksacks to the conductor. First Natalie, then I were dragged onto the train. Lying there exhausted, panting and out of breath, we looked up to the smiling conductor who slapped us on the back and thrust a bottle of vodka into our hands.

Sadly however that’s not exactly what happened. We ran down the access platform the stairs and finally made it to our carriage, literally we jumped on, the doors closed and we were met with the disdainful look of the female conductor, who muttering something in Russian under her breath, showed us to our sleeper cabin. We collapsed in a heap onto the bottom bunk and just looked at each other, we couldn’t believe we had somehow made that train. Surely the entire four months were not going to be like this.

A stressful Day One to our adventure, but a timely reminder that it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how much research you have done, things change at a moment’s notice, and it is these experiences we will never forget and can laugh about later on.

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

However, I really do hope we don’t have to run for any more trains!

Dean