Saturday, 22 May 2010

Ulaan Baatar: City of honking traffic and dingy basements

I'm in Mongolia!

I actually arrived here on Monday morning, and since then, I have explored Ulaan Baatar, taled to many fellow travellers, and made a solitary 2-night foray into the woods with just a bivvy bag and a bag of food. More on that later... (Tempus fugit)

For the moment, here are some diary snippets:

I knew as soon as I arrived (or perhaps I knew long before) that Ulaanbaatar is an amazing city. When I arrived, it was raining. My train companions (2 Germans, 2 Brits, 3 Dutch) told me there was a man stood on the platform holding a sign with my name on. This man took me to a waiting minivan (the preferred method of transport here) and informed us (me and 2 different Germans who had already got to the van) that the rain would stop the next day. And it did.

Straight away there is a sense that I am properly in Asia now. The intensity of big flashy signs lining the streets; everyone seeming very friendly and eager to help; everything down to the design of the pedestrian crossing lights (presumably imported from Japan or Korea) and the doorbell of the hostel; it all adds up to a particularly (East)Asian feel. Maybe the rain helped at first, but the feeling continued.

What an awesome place! What awesome space! The mountains are constantly in view beyond the fast-appearing skyscrapers: both of these imbue the city with a lively young energy. A traffic policeman stands smack bang in the middle of a busy crossroads amongst ferociously honking traffic, either completely in charge or completely out of control.

Crossing the road here is either an art or an extreme sport, I can't decide which. People weave in and out of cars like silverfish.

And the cars stop for them. They honk, yes, but they stop. And the honking is mostly at other drivers - a lot of cutting up goes on here.

Changing American dollars into Togrogs makes me feel rich: I hand over two fifty-dollar bills and am returned a huge wodge of notes - they don't have coins here (as far as I know) and the note denominations go right down to 50T (about 3p).

One of the first things I discovered in UB was...
... a vegan restaurant! Should I drop my preconception that Mongolians eat nothing but meat? In the restaurant (where the most expensive main dish costs just over £2.50), the menu claims that the traditional Mongolian diet actually consists of 8 months a year of vegetarianism. This may very well be a biased view, but apparently there are quite a few veggie and vegan eating places around.

While I was looking for Narantuul, which is alleged to be Asia's largest black market, I accidentally stumbled into a couple of much smaller multi-storey markets, in which the stalls were based in glass rooms. This gave the space a similar feel to an airport duty-free area. Swarms of kids and many other people were busily pushing their ways in and out of the glass doors and up and down the unmoving escalators. This was clearly the place to be on a Monday afternoon. The floors seemed at first to have general themes - fruit, clothing, gadgetry, etc, but each stall held surprisingly disparate items. Washing machines were sold alongside widescreen televisions, and a saucepan seller had a sideline in silk garments - or was that the other way round? On top of the first market was a cinema, which seemed to be closed, and a selection of restaurants, all of which seemed a bit dim and murky.

In the next multi-storey small market, all the lights were off, which presumably explains the non-functioning escalators and unlit restaurants. I went down into the basement floor - fruit and sweets - parts of which were near pitch dark. And lit only by one small candle in each window, the whole conglomeration of enterprises continued its business as usual!

Why, then, was I looking for the black market? Well, one valid reason would be to get pickpocketed - this is apparently rife there (hence no camera, hence no photos). Another reason would be to search for a cheap camping stove (I had been informed these could be sourced there). But the main reason I went was simply to experience it. Narantuul itself centres on two - or perhaps three - huge buildings reminiscent of Victorian railway stations. The first I saw of it, having rounded the corner from the two smaller markets, was a slope going down into the ground below one of these huge buildings. Down there was dark too, but there were people swarming in and out as if it was a tube station. (No tube here.) I got part way down, before deciding it was too dark and so I went up and around and into the side entrance. In and around these edifices are squillions of stalls selling pretty much everything. Words now fail me to describe it accurately: I think it has to be experienced. Suffice to say there are lots and lots of stalls, with lots and lots of stuff. Had I had the inclination, I could have come away with half a cow or a bunch of carrots or bananas or a pile of shopping bags or a chimney for a ger, or anything else for a ger, or a bronze buddha (presumably imported from China), or... I have since heard a story of a couple of Israeli travellers who went to the market and bought two horses and a mule, on which to make their journey across Mongolia. (Most people go by minivan or jeep on tours organized by their hostel or other private companies) The one thing I couldn't find was a camping stove, so I kept my wallet safely tucked away.

In the hostel (run by a Mongolian family from the Gobi desert) there is a sense that everyone is either just back from or just about to embark on some amazing excursion - the Gobi desert, a ger-to-ger expedition, a horse riding trip... it is very easy to sit in the hostel and wonder why one isn't out there in the wild having some amazing experiences...

...but now I'm back from my own expedition (which was unlike anyone else's) I sort of feel more part of the whole experience. I intends to post on this soon.

It is late at night. Traffic hums outside, and travelling Aussies breathe in their bunks. Please inform me of various typos by leaving a comment, or using the contact link at the top.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

City of Pine Nut Chewing

Irkutsk is pretty bleak. It is in Siberia, after all. In huge contrast to the heatwave we had in Moscow, May here seems like the duller parts of winter in Japan.

Irkutsk is grey weather, grey buildings, grey parks consisting of the same silver birch groves that make up the majority of this part of the world.
Many of the back streets are unpaved, and muddier than a Herefordshire farm track!
And here am I walking through the middle of it all in my bright green anorak. I get stared at a lot. I make a fool of myself going into shops and not knowing how to ask for anything, nor even quite how to pay for it. Roubles seem to flow away like sand through the fingers. This is apparently the case for everyone here, although melting snow is perhaps a better metaphor, suggested by a Moscovite I didn't quite meet.

Most of the men here seem to be chewing pine nuts from their shells, including the Uzbek immigrants who stopped me to ask if I knew David Beckham. I too have picked up pine nut habit since my chess opponent on the train recommended I buy a bag being sold cheap on one of the station platforms. The technique is to break the shells between the back teeth, and suck or roll the kernel out of the case. This characteristic action is seen all over the place, and is apparently an integral part of Siberian life.

In amongst Irkutsk's tumble-down and burnt out wooden houses and the crumbling concrete blocks, there are a few new glassy office developments, but even these appear somewhat unloved: the cracks and broken paving seem to appear as soon as a new development is completed.

Crossing the road here is like an extreme sport: the traffic doesn't stop, it just goes around the pedestrian. If you're caught in the middle of a long crossing, like this one outside the city hall, it can be very hairy.

There are hundreds of buses, none looking very official, mostly looking like they may fall apart at any moment, and all driving extremely fast, leaving a strong diesel-stench. The buses are generally crammed with people. I keep having to remind myself that I am still on planet Earth (the sky and the gravity are a dead giveaway) and every journey made in every car or bus going past (or staying still) - everyone I see - has a story.

A snippet of one of these stories is illustrated in this spur-of-the-moment film I made at a church (now a museum) near the city centre.

stones throw from Mark Baldwin on Vimeo.

While the carillon played its surreal repetitive melody, two boys who had been throwing stones at the church noticed that they had been noticed, by a man with a long grey beard. Wherever you go on planet earth, boys will throw stones; grown-ups will catch them at it; humans are humans.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Fresh off байкал, the Moscow - Irkutsk train.

I am aware that this is a bit of a jump from my previous post, but I have had little time to fit in any blogging. Looking back at that photo of me sitting in the Cercle des Voyageurs is like looking down a long tunnel into a distant past. I hope to fill in some of the gaps sooner or later, but for now, here is a little taste of the main "Trans-Siberian Railway" experience I have just undergone.

For three whole days and four nights, across six time zones, I have seen almost nothing but silver birches:

My diary has got 23 pages longer - I have got quite good at writing about stuff as it happens - so rather than attempt to replicate or précis all that, I will reproduce here the comment I left in the carriage visitor's book:

Time has a different shape here. The train goes on and gets nowhere.

Where are we? Now here. What time is it here? Now.

The scenery changes and remains the same. I never imagined I would see so many silver birches.

Language also has a different shape here. I never expected that such effective communication could be had by means of a few mispronounced syllables and the odd shake of hand or head.

As the train trundled through taiga, forest and fire, we inside have developed a world for ourselves: a world to and from which people have come and gone, from which no escape is possible but the final place-name on the ticket, but from which no escape is necessary, nor even desired in the slightest.

The endless trips to the samovar, the brief, tentative forays onto station platforms, and the continuous gentle rocking motion of the train all combine into a rhythm that will deliver us, all being well, to our temporary goal:

To all I have met, and all who - thought some may be invisible or unknown to me - have delivered us thus far (like the living, breathing goods train that we are),
балшой, балшой спасибо!

I wrote that last night, and having got a good nights sleep as we moved into Irkutsk-time, I arrived in Irkutsk this morning, and bade farewell to my fellow passengers (more on them sooner or later, I hope).

I am now in a sitting-room with a Union Flag painted on the floor, and three cats, one of which is completely bald.

I also have a yen (or should that be a Rouble?) to go out into Irkutsk and see if it really is dustier than Moscow, as my first impressions have suggested. It is already after 4 pm here (see how much time blogging takes!), so it's about time I got my boots on!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

People and Life aboard байкал, the Moscow - Irkutsk train

As I boarded the train at something past 11 on a sweltering Moscow evening, it seemed like the hottest, least spacious environment I had ever come across. I had chosen to be in third class, or плацкартны, which is not corridor and cabins, but open plan, with bunk beds along each side of the carriage - parallel on one side and perpendicular on the other. The remaining space was full of people, food, and blankets piled high. It didn't seem like there would be any room for anything else. The first challenge was fitting my backpack and all extra bits and bobs into the space under my bottom bunk. The bed lifted up on a hinge, and one or two people immediately rallied to help me squeeze my backpack underneath. The space was surprisingly large, so after removing my rollmat, my pack fitted perfectly. Everyone else in the carriage was Russian, and all were immediately friendly and helpful and interested.

At the start of the journey, the people in my immediate vicinity of 6 bunks were as follows: In the bunk opposite me on the same side of the carriage was a middle-aged lady who had been visiting family in St Petersburg. In the bunk across the carriage was a tiny, extremely ancient, fairly toothless, wizened granny who was presented to me as "very old". Old she may have been - I guessed probably at least in her 90s - but she was nevertheless very energetic and talkative, and when she wasn't engaged in deep and animated conversation with her daughter or one of us others, she was on her bunk doing situps and leg stretches. I later learnt that she had previously been a top volleyball player.

On the bunk above Granny was a somewhat younger middle-aged lady who turned out to be her daughter. At one point, I saw her grating an apple! This made me intensely happy, as I thought I was the only person in the world who grated apples, and here was a lady doing the same in the middle of Russia as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. All three of these ladies were heading home to Irkutsk or nearby. On the bunk above me was a man who, having asked if I was English when I first got on the train, mostly slept until he got off the train a day later. On the other top bunk was a young girl - presumably the man's daughter - who, as far as I can ascertain, did not speak for the entire duration of the trip, and like her father mostly slept.

I was amazed to discover how much information can be shared with little or no overlap of language, using gestures, maps, place names and a lot of enthusiasm. The lady in the bunk opposite me spoke a fair bit of German, and while I cannot claim to having any proficiency in that language, I can just about manage the sentences "Ich habe ein brüder und eine svesta" and "meine svesta ist im Korea, und mein brüder ist im Canada". When you find an even vaguely shared language, there's a kind of click as minds open up, allowing a flow of information. Speaking limited, bad German was immensely satisfying: I could actually get an idea or two across to someone with whom, a few moments before, I had had barely any mindflow whatsoever.

A somewhat tipsy man wandered past every now and then on his way to have a cigarette in the smoking area at the end of the carriage. He seemed to take an interest in me and once asked if I had a light. I ran through my mental inventory of belongings, and decided that if I did have a lighter or matches, they were buried far too deep in my bag to be worth hunting for. However, when the man later managed to get hold of a chess set from one of the Provodnitsas, I had no excuse not to engage in a game or two.

At various intervals, a lady with a trolley full of meat and potato doughnuts and beer would wander past, saying something like "Soukh? Kartoschke?!" in a soft but persistent voice. "Soukh" may have been a different pronounciation of сок; Kartoschke no doubt referred to the potato thingies. At some time on the first day, I decided to try one of them: there were two varieties, one without meat. It was not bad, but luke warm, a little greasy, and not particularly worth the number of roubles I paid for it. After that, every time the lady went past, she caught my eye and tried to persuade me to buy another kartoschke. Having refused a few times, I gradually noticed that noone else was buying them... The other passengers eventually explained in mimes of approximately the following meaning: "Think about it: the Kartoschke go past on the trolley every day. And they're always warm. You think they cook them fresh every day? No, no, no! These same doughnuts have been with us since Moscow. It's pretty likely, don't you think, that the same potato doughnuts have been going back and forth between Moscow and Irkutsk for goodness knows how long?"

I was keen to practice my Russian, so with a combination of my phrasebook and copying what I heard others saying, I started each morning by wishing the others доброе утро, and asking как спалнй? Granny took this very seriously, and upon hearing my words would stand to attention, and, with a carefully controlled bow, wish me a slow, steady доброе утро in return. I somehow found out that as well as playing volleyball, she had been a teacher of Russian. I continued practising my previously non-existent Russian with her, and when we passed through a city I couldn't identify on the map, she taught me the word for city, by eliciting the concept from "New York, Moscow, Leningrad..." and told me all about it.

The chess man's name was Dmitch, and we ended up playing chess for hundreds of miles. It was a great aspect of the journey: the bunks that along the side of the carriage converted into a table with two chairs, so we sat by the window with a foreground of chess and a background of endless silver birches passing by. I surprised us both by beating Dmitch in the first game we played. He beat me soundly in the second game, but i managed to win the third. After that, he gave me a meaningful glance every time he walked past.

On Wednesday, i woke up to discover a strange pair of boots below my bunk, and the bunk above occupied by a new arrival, sleeping. When he awoke, he became Ed, who had joined us in the night at Yekatarinberg and was the only other Brit on the train. What were the chances of this? Miles from nowhere and even further from anywhere; the only 2 Englishmen within hundreds of miles, and here we were sharing a bunk! Was there some conspiracy afoot in the train accommodation planning office?

Ed was en route to Vladivostock, from where he was going to fly back to Europe and hike across the Alps (a bit of a funny way around, but that's Englishmen for you...(

Dmitch and I continued our chess battle: after 5 games, we were drawn 2-all with one stalemate. I think i was distracted by the sheer volume of silver birch trees. I spent a day or two reminding (or teaching?) Ed how to play, so that he could join in the competition.... I admit to having a selfish motive: I was hoping that Ed would play chess with Mitch, giving me some time away from the chessboard to explore the train. But of course, we had plenty of time to explore: Ed and I spent a couple of hundred miles wandering between carriages, discussing the (then recent) changes in British politics.

Wandering the corridors

In between carriages

At Barabinsk, Ed and I both got off to sniff the air. I immediately had to get back on to put my second fleece on. Such a contrast from Moscow - it was positively Siberian! (I was extremely glad to be able to use that phrase without exaggeration for the first time ever.)

What a contrast from Moscow! We walked up onto the footbridge, keeping our eyes fixed on the Provodnitsa standing by the open carriage door - we did not want to miss that train! The prov. seemed to make a sudden move, and my heart went into double time. As I ran back down the bridge, my Trans-Siberian handbook fell out of my pocket, scattering loose pages, bookmarks and useful bits of paper away over a fence. I had no option but to climb over and gather them up. As I hopped back over the fence, I found myself looking up into the eyes of a Russian policeman glaring at me. I waved the bits of paper at him, miming that I'd dropped them, and scarpered back to the train, where I learned that the engine was still being changed, and we had a while to wait.

Every now and then, Dmitch would bring his guitar along the corridor, and start playing Beatles' songs (there's nothing like being British for getting people to reveal their inner Beatles' fan..) So we had a good few jamming sessions, him on the guitar, and me on my Jews harp, which, with a completely different tuning, gave songs such as You've Got To Hide Your Love Away and Day Tripper a completely different macabre edge. In between chess games, wanderings and busking sessions, the others on board shared food with us, and I felt very much like my companions were treating me as their guest. It was a homestay on a train.

In retrospect, the 5 days aboard the "Baikal" train are a tiny part of an extremely long journey. But they are a wonderful part. Not only did I cover more ground during those 5 days than I have in any other 5 days this year, but I think I learnt more than ever before or since about the resilience of human interaction - the ability to communicate whatever the linguistic circumstances. I was quite sad to arrive in Irkutsk, knowing that this experience was behind me, and never again would I be able to travel for the first time on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Moscow Map Making

When I first arrive in a place, all I have of my internal map of the area is what I can see, hear, smell and feel, there and then. Whatever is beyond the limit of my personal spatial experience, is unknown and does not yet exist for me as a place. The great block of Unknown builds up behind the wall of my horizon, and can only come to be known by injecting my presence to slice it apart.

The scale of Moscow's stubborn grandeur is difficult to come to terms with - as is the general unhelpfulness of the place: even the writing did not initially not fit into my experience bracket. The weather was also somewhat unhelpful: as we got off the train in the early morning, it was a nice hot sunny day, and this heat continued to increase as the day went on.

On the morning of the 8th of May, my horizon consisted of a row of large rectangular buildings surrounding the square outside Belorusskaya station where I had arrived. Not knowing quite where to turn first, having left the directions for my hostel on the internet, I headed for the Metro system, as I had read that this is the best way to navigate the city. The Moscow Metro is a half-buried warren-shaped palace. It it a surreal maze of opulent décor. Unexpected passages lead off in every direction, and each station is potentially three in one, as stations that span more than one line have a different name for each part. милиция wander its passages in strict formation, presumably keeping their eye on things, although their youthful faces belie their human interior.

The милиция presence was especially huge in the city centre, most of which had closed down due to the Victory day parades. All the Internet cafés I had been recommended were within a huge underground shopping centre, which was completely off limits, so I had no access to the hostel directions. The милиция were no help at all, answering most of my questions with a gruff "нет". The most helpful people I met that morning were the doormen of a grand looking hotel, who told me that although the central area was closed, any open coffee shop in a nearby street would probably have an internet connection I could use. This turned out to be far from the truth, and I was without internet after all.

I knew that my hostel was in between two Metro stations, so I travelled to one of them and started walking in the direction of the other. As I went, the map I had seen on the hostel's website gradually came back to me - albeit warped by my memory - and I worked my way to the location of the hostel. Seeing no sign of any hostel in any of the streets I passed through, I concluded that I must be mistaken, and went off to find somewhere to log on.

Refreshed (by a cool fruity drink) and connected (by an intermittent and unofficial internet connection), I found the hostel's access map and discovered that I had already walked past the hostel, perhaps even twice! So I retraced my steps, and found yet again that there was no sign of a hostel there. A large long building with a roughly plastered painted brick exterior was undoubtedly the location, but there were no signs - just a couple of blank doors. I settled for the door on the left, and went through into an apartment building. I started climbing some stairs which looked rather private, thought better of it, and consulted the map and directions, now saved on my computer. The directions said something about pressing the right number to buzz to be let in. While I was sitting on the steps, my large rucksack on the step behind me, my laptop on my knee, an old lady came downstairs. She peppered me with harsh-sounding Russian words, but no mention of a Youth Hostel had any pacifying effect on her.

I apologized, escaped fury and went outside to try the other door of the building. Inside was a numeric keypad as described in the directions, so I pressed the correct number and was let in. Still no signs or anything to suggesting a hostel. I went up three flights of stairs to where a woman was looking confused at a door. She also could not find the hostel, even having got this close. Emboldened by company, we tried the last door, a big heavy metal affair. It opened onto a polished stone staircase with steel bannisters, leading up to a bright modern interior with a big friendly sign saying "Welcome to SHELTER Hostel!"

That evening, I met a youngish chap who introduced himself as George, and said he was originally from Armenia, lives in Russia, but has latterly, "for whatever reasons", been mostly speaking English. He seemed to live at the hostel, and was involved in various English teaching activities. George has a natural inquisitiveness for language, and is constantly hungry for the lowdown on colloquial expressions. He invited me to his English converstation class the following evening.

On Sunday, I indulged in the main reason I had decided to spend more than a day in Moscow: Сандуновские баня. This turned out to be the most opulent (and perhaps the most expensive) bathhouse in the world Despite its grandeur, the place fell somewhat short of my expectations as a bathhouse: there was no hot bath, the only large masses of water were cold. After a sauna and scrub and some delicious fried aubergine eaten in the nude in the leather-clad changing room, I returned to the hostel, where George was waiting for me.

George and I on the subway escalators

He took me via the Metro and through the still closed Moscow streets to a coffee shop. None of his students were there - he suggested the continuing national holiday may have put people off coming. We waited anyway, and two people eventually turned up - they had been out clubbing late the night before, although this was about 6:30 in the evening - so I guess it was a pretty late start. It was all very informal, and we talked of the world, travel, and hopes and dreams. I learnt that lots of Russians and Belarussians (so it seems) want to leave Moscow and go to America.

This does not apply to all Moscovites, however. On Monday 10th May, I met up with Paul, who I had met when working for EF in Minehead in 2003. He is Moscow-born-and-bred, and has an inexhaustible passion for the city and its places and their stories. I felt lucky to know him, as he gave me as complete a tour of the city as I could possibly imagine having in a day.

Moscow is a complete mix of different architectural styles, ranging from the solid "Don't mess with us" former KGB headquarters to the floating golden and coloured domes of the churches, monasteries and cathedrals.

Moscow seems somewhat like a dustier version of a cross between Paris and Barcelona with different famous bits. It is lively in parts with quiet backstreets, and all framed by 4 or 5 concentric ring roads and 8 huge towers, each of which serves a different function. The one we got closest to is one of the biggest, and houses something like the Foreign Embassy. These huge structures make me think of Orwell's government buildings in 1984 and Huxley's rocket towers in Brave New World.

Paul also showed me a selection of the most impressive Metro stations, one of which has statues on every corner (and about 20 corners per platform) depicting idealized images of humans in various roles: Sportsmen and women, factory workers, writers, farmers... Truly the Moscow Metro was - and still is - a palace for the people.

The tour finished with the two of us running up a grassy ski slope to a viewpoint in front of the University, which itself is housed in one of the impressive scary towers. It was too dark for a decent photo, but we could see right across the entire skyline of the city, counting all eight towers, and also spotting the Kremlin, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and St. Basils. My internal map of Moscow is now fully structured - with just a few more details waiting to be filled in if I ever visit again.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Köln-Moscow Sleeper diary gleanings, Part 3

The time-zone changing, combined with anticipation of non-existent midnight border controls, is having a strange effect on me. I woke up with the light, at about 3:15 UK time, saying "Good Morning" and apologising to the non-existent unknown person I assumed had taken up residence in my compartment. The Belarus Russia border was as non-existent to us as your average European border: it appears that Belarus and Russia have some agreement on immigration and customs.

So, here I am, in Russia for the first time ever. Like Poland, there seems to be a lot of space. By now I have relaxed into my space on the train, and almost don't feel ready to leave.

It is only a few hours now before we arrive in Moscow. Passing through the outskirts, we see churches with bright golden domes, and castle-like appartment buildings.

What Moscow will be like, I still have no idea.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Koln-Moscow Sleeper diary gleanings, Part 2

It is now a little after 10 am, and we are rocketing through Poland.

Many of the concrete shoebox appartment blocks (presumably communist leftovers) have been painted with bright coloured patterns.

In Warsaw, we had a wait of about 3 hours, being periodically shunted back and forth.
The railway lines around Luków are similar to those near Crewe, albeit with more flowers growing in between them, but the buildings could be in France! It is a bit stifling in the train, although the temperature's ok. The train trundles on and on and on... it's bizarre to think that I will be on it for another 24 hours! Outside the train, Poland seems to have a lot of space, and what little air I can glean through the toilet window smells of fresh hay. Outside the train the landscape changes. My internal landscape also changes. The compartment stays the same, but I am feeling more at home there. I have actually been very lucky: I have a 3-person compartment to myself, which is just as well, as I have a tendency to spread myself out in my space:

The Polish passport control officer at Teresepol saw the €10 note I had tucked in my passport case, and warned me to keep it hidden from his Belarussian counterparts on the other side of the border. Was he simply less trusting of his counterparts over the border, or is there a good reason for his warning?
Over the border, there is a marked change in architecture: we pass a cluster of closely packed low wooden buildings looking almost like a shanty town. This must be the edge of брест.

The train pulls briefly into a station-like area without a name, and several ladies get on, carrying shopping bags full of goods. For half an hour or so, they wander up and down the corridors: even as we are being shunted around the yard, they get on and off the train, selling a variety of beverages and edibles. Beer and chicken (presumably fried) seem to be the most popular seller, but when I express no interest in these, I am offered a bottle of mineral water, a strange box of unidentified сок with a picture of a catkin on the box, a big bunch of radishes, and a box of what may be milk, which I am promised is delicious.

A man selling big baskets that he claims are from the Ukraine doesn't seem to be having much luck.

The mineral water tastes strange: sweetish, almost fruity, but it is a life-saver on this stifling train. The сок is still mysterious after tasting: it is a clear, sweet drink, with the slightly syrupy density of unshaken pineapple juice. (I have since realized that it is probably based on the sap of whatever tree bears the catkin depicted on the box.) The radishes are pleasant and refreshing, although I have never eaten so many in 24 hours. The milk turns out to be drinking yoghurt which is, indeed, creamy and delicious. Had I known how good it would be, I would have bought two. (Update from Japan, over a month later: I have since searched in vain for a drinking yoghurt that comes anywhere close.)

Just before we are shunted into a large railway shed all the remaining ladies get off the train.
In the shed, the carriages are treated like a commodity on a production line: we are separated, raised up on big yellow jacks, and we spend some time standing on air while the wheels are taken from under us, and replaced with a set that will fit the rails from here to Mongolia.

It seems amazing that while the workmen who perform this transformation stay here and perform a similar feat on every train that passes through, those of us on the train are being whisked across continents to distant lands.

Although the wheel change itself takes less than an hour, we then wait around in sidings for an hour or two. I spend the time walking the length of the train and get very confused, since the majority of the carriages look identical to mine. We are eventually shunted to the main station platform, given a new engine, and sent off towards Russia, passing ladies with shopping bags as they make their way home alongside the tracks.

Time starts to take on a strange shape. My alarm clock, still set to UK time, reads 20:20, but it seems much darker outside than it should be. I am pretty sure that local time is either 22:20 or 23:20, but I am not sure which. No matter, though, because the only time that will matter from now on (as far as the trains are concerned) is Moscow Time.

The train thunders into the night, and the track is neither as smooth nor as straight as those in Western Europe.

In the middle of the night, the train stops and I wake up. From the window, I see that we are in минск - the capital of Belarus. The station is huge: the buildings are as rectangular as shoe boxes, towering into the night sky.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Köln-Moscow Sleeper diary gleanings, Part 1

"I have just had my second major culture shock, and this one's HUGE and composite!"

After waiting on Köln platform 7 for a while, and being passed by a few trains of various shapes sizes and destinations, the train labelled on the screen as MOSCOW KOBENHAVN WARSAWA PRAHA pulled in. This took a while, as it was a very long train, and I had to run along the platform for quite a distance before I got to my carriage. I got to the door where an American couple were trying to convince the stocky проводнйца that they had paid for first class. When I arrived, the prov. was saying, "tickets to me" and she took from me all the tickets I was holding.
Deticketed, and leaving the Americans to fight their (possibly losing) battle, I climbed up onto the train - and into a different world...

I'm not sure which hit me first: the smell or the colour. It was like walking into how I might imagine 1960s Eastern Europe: all grey-green plastic with slightly rounded edges and a sickly sheen, with the plasticky smell of an anti-nuclear bunker - like a mixture of plasticene, gloss paint and nostalgia that wishes it could be forgotten. Along the narrow corridor and into the box that would be my home for the next 36 hours, where I found a cyrillic menu on the wall (better start learning quick!) and chunky light switches which make a loud CLUNK but have minimal effect...

Sitting down to write my diary, I felt so excited, with a disarmingly similar feeling to how I felt on my first cross-channel ferry voyage at the age of 2. (How I remember that, I don't know, but it just hit me!)

A one-legged man on crutches hobbled past my cabin, then the American guy popped his head round the door and accurately pointed out, "we're not in Kansas any more".

Indeed we are not in Kansas. Nor are we, any longer in Köln.

Now we are in wuppertal... unterbarmen... dortmund... hamm... neubeckum... bielefeld... wunstorf... seelze.... feeling..... sleepy......

The train moves slowly into the night, through many dark towns...

First inklings of Culture Shock: Dom und Deutsche

In Köln, I had my first major culture shocks: linguistic and architectural.

The first architectural shock was the station itself. It is a massive thick chunky iron structure, which looks like a statement of sheer German Imperialist power. "Look at our big gristly iron station" it seems to say: "Show that to your puny Victorian cast-iron prettiness."

From somewhere (perhaps Seaton's diary of a similar journey and a recommendation by Alasdair) it has entered my awareness that the Cathedral is the thing to see if one has an hour in Köln. Remembering just in time that "Dom" is German for Cathedral, I exited the right side of the station into the rainy evening. I was hit with such a visual force as to stop me in my tracks in disbelief.

I had seen the the towers from a long way off along the railway line, so I knew the cathedral was coming - but i had no inkling of quite how magnificently huge it is. It is like a large bat or raven, just landed, wings furled, ready to pounce back into the sky having devoured as many mere mortals as it can glean. In the post-dusk darkness it sits there, filling half the sky and shouting magnificent gloominess down into the small square below.

This is without doubt the house of a God to Fear.

Enthralled, I donned my head camera and wandered towards it, up the thoughtfully landscaped concrete steps, past the illuminated gift shops and around to the other side. The structure is clad in close, careful, fine ornamentation, and seems to have layers that fold over and over, the next layer up bursting out of the lower ones in an ascension of cold stone, causing the upper pinnacles to tower impossibly in the air like the castle in Magritte's painting Le Chateau des Pyrenées.

My shaky, excited, fish-eye-warped photos hardly do justice to this apparition - after all, how can anyone condense centuries of labour and this vastness of height and volume into a few mere megapixels? It may have been the weather and the time of day, but it seemed to me that this cathedral does not sit serenely, as does, say, Durham, nor does it have the warmth of colour and friendly octagonal tower of Liverpool - it towers, somewhat menacingly... waiting as we run in circles around our petty little lives....

The Cathedral was closed, so I walked back down to the station, turning every now and then to convince myself that what I had just seen was real. Just inside the station, a man I had trouble understanding eventually made it clear in broken English that he had just come down off a big drug trip, and asked "Can you put on me some amphetamine or crystal meth?" Not knowing quite where to source such exotic substances, I politely declined, and ironically went off in search of a pharmacy. Then occurred the first major linguistic challenge: trying to buy some wet wipes. The pharmacy was easy enough to find - Apteka is quite clear in meaning to anyone familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet - and the snake symbol on the sign was easily recognized, as my friend Dan keeps reminding me of its importance. But once inside, I was confronted with a plethora of packaged items. Were these wet wipes, or some other kind of sanitary product that I would have no need for? With the help of one or two helpful but very-little-English-speaking shop assistants and a bit of miming, I narrowed my selection down to two packs, one which seemed to be drier than the other. I opted for the wetter, heavier ones, and also a little bottle of anti-bacterial gel.
The wet wipes turned out to be facial refreshment wipes, which, coupled with the gel, serve well my intended purpose for them as well as providing a good supply of German refreshment for an over-travelled face.

In my bag I have phrasebooks for Russia, Mongolia, and 14 languages of China, but little did I think that the first stumbling block would be so comparatively close to home.

Je ne poursuis pas mon chemin, disait-il souvent, c'est mon chemin qui me poursuit.

It is lunchtime in Brussels, and I am having a chèvre chaud in the Travel Arts Café at the Cercle des Voyageurs. This is appropriate, since I am currently en route to Beijing (by train), and can therefore legitimately consider myself a Voyageur.

Having exercised my democratic right by post, I have fled my native land while the system sorts itself out. Meanwhile I am travelling around the world in an attempt to discover experientially how it all fits together psychogeographically, and how I fit into it, if at all.

In my passport I have visas for Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, China, and Japan. I also have Canadian citizenship, a sister in Korea, and a brother in Canada, so it seems that I am well set up for a voyage.

In my concealed travel pouch I have rail tickets as far as Beijing:
Thalys to Cologne,
2-night sleeper 447 to Moscow,
5-night sleeper "Baikal" to Irkutsk,
overnight train 006 to Ulaan Baatar
overnight 004 to Beijing.

I set off from home yesterday morning, having spent most of the previous night packing. As I left home, I felt strongly that I was wrenching myself from my roots, and suspected that I may have been sharing some of the feelings that Neil Armstrong & co. felt as they lay in the top of Apollo 11 waiting for takeoff:

"What the GLOM am I doing? I'm going to... where?... Beijing??! / The Moon??! (delete as applicable), What do I want to go there for? I'm not ready for this!"

The thing to remember, of course, is that I am not yet anywhere near Beijing, physically or psychologically. And despite not yet feeling ready to be in Moscow (let alone Ulaan Baatar or Beijing), at each stage of the journey I will be ready for the next stage. Yesterday morning, I wasn't ready to be in Brussels, but I was ready to get on the train at Ludlow, and by the time I got to Shrewsbury I was ready to get on the train to London and pick up my visas before visiting Jo and Tom in Wood Green.
This morning, Jo sent me off with the leftover Pasta sauce and a "Gordon Brownie" (prepared for Tom's election night party, along with Scotch Cleggs, David Macaroons, and perhaps some Nick Tiffin or Caroline Licorice). Despite another early start, I was ready to pop down the Piccadilly line to St. Pancras and get on the Eurostar, and now, after a brief foray across some flat fields, here I am in Brussels!