The continuing adventures of Steve

Sometimes I write things

Whisky in the Gobi

Earlier this year, I travelled from Moscow to Shanghai to visit my brother, taking the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian railroad. This was my first major trip travelling alone and on the insistence of a lovely German woman I met in a Moscow hostel, I kept a travel diary of the trip. I found this to be a hugely valuable exercise, as it allowed me to capture my feelings in the moments of a journey that really meant a lot to me. Now, on the insistence of a friend, I’ve posted my travel diary below, where it may be of some interest. Each entry is reproduced as it was written on the day it describes, during or shortly after the moment (bar spelling/grammatical fixes).

Day 1

Sat next to a Russian pilot on the plane. Arrived at night. Crazy babushka shouting at nothing on the metro. Hostel door locked, almost started looking for another place but it opened just in time. 2 Alexies staying at Hostel. Go figure.

Day 2

Woke early. Reverse jet lag? Went on walking tour. Met Brazilian students on tour and hung out with them for remainder of day. Engineering students studying in the UK, including 2 computer scientists. Lunch at underground cafe near Red Square, then walk to Gorky park. Saw Buran. Crossed a big glass bridge and parted ways. Drank a little with a Russian group at the hostel. One seemed surprised that I was taking 3rd class to Irkutsk and asked “Aren’t you scared of Russia?”. Everything in Russia is done by weight.

Day 3

Saw Lenin. Smaller than I expected. Met Brazilians again at lunch but walked to Yaroslavsky station instead of joining them. Met them again at Kremlin armory show and then cathederals. Grabbed a drink and went with them to the end of the red line. Got philosophical about the real Moscow with the Brazilians, then went back.

Day 4

Went to space museum. Blank stars for future achievements. Poignant. Rode brown circle line around and bought some tea. Talked with Alexey 1 while shopping. Met with Asiya later. Late to the talk I was supposed to meet her at. We wandered around looking for a little bar called дума. Fantastic time with tea and Russian desserts. Later, we took the metro to Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I will miss her.

Day 5

Breakfast at му-му, checked out and said my goodbyes to Matt (who arrived last night and is going to Volgograd) and co. On Asiya’s advice, I visited Partizanskya. Serene. Went to Yaroslavskya and boarded Rossiya. This is a big moment for me. Alone at first. Miles of frozen bog, trees and run down buildings. Decay evident. Sobering. Woman with tablet joined and drinking couple joined at Nizhny Novgorod. Train more crowded now. The sausage I bought is not a sausage. The sun sets as we ride into a dark forest. A dark mood. I turn it at 11 pm Moscow time.

Day 6

It is 1:30 am Moscow time and people are waking. Outside are dark trees and thick snow. Time has no meaning in this place. Many leave at Kirov (1:50am Moscow) the couple and the tablet lady go also. It is 0° outside. New people join me. I help a девушка with her luggage. Stations are the only time here. I wake fully at 8, the snow is thick and ubiquitous, but older than a day. We cross a bridge into Perm at 9. The проводится hacks away at icicles with a hatchet. Time zones change so now it is 11. Around 14:00 the surroundings become more hilly. The day passes uneventfully until we reach Ekaterinburg at 17:30, where I buy a fresh salad. Man has never known a greater feast. Pavel joined here - he is heading home. A man coughs and sleeps all day. Coughing man and the woman in pink leave us at Tyumen when we arrive at 21:50. This is the definition of serenity. He is replaced by a young man and his brother\child.

Day 7

I wake in Omsk but do not stir. I rise at 7 (which the time zone then makes 8) to steppes, marshes and later, decayed industry. Less snow, but much frozen land and swamp between here and Novosibirsk, which we arrive at around 2:20. Old lady smiles and says “goodbye”, the only English I have heard from her. I have ice cream at the station and talk with 2 Swiss backpackers from the next купе. A large group joins our compartment and we begin to drink. One has an Aldo Raine scar. They are either talking about crime or farming. No, it’s farming. Sergey Raibin shares his eggs with me. Sergey Raibin is very insistent that I remember his name. Sergey Raibin tries my cider. He had never seen or drank cider before. He does not like it. Pavel remembers my insulin. We all teach eachother swear words. Great time. They leave at Krasnoyarsk. It is quiet now. I am very drunk.

Day 8

After a rough night, I wake to new berth mates. There is taiga everywhere. There are pictures on my phone I do not recall taking. I sleep until noon. A new girl arrived during the night. While stopped somewhere, a car rolls past with a dead dog on it. I notice the group from last night has left their shoes. We all sit and watch the taiga go by for hours. I go to the restaurant car at 15:30 and have a Tatar soup. Me and Lena chat and look out the window for the last few hours. We share yogurt and pinaple juice. At Irkutsk, I find Nerpa backpackers has closed. I swear loudly then laugh. I return to the station and get a taxi to a hostel. A man outside gives me a commerative Sochi coin for some reason. I book a bed for 1 night, have a shower and crawl into bed.

Day 9

After a comfortable sleep, I get out of bed at 11 and switched to a different room. Took a leisurely stroll around town and found a historical trail. Walked along the Angara for a while and grabbed some food in a surprisingly upmarket shopping mall. Wandered some more, attempted (and failed) to find the bus station and headed home.

Day 10

Rose earlyish to get the bus to Biakal. Got a ticket, grabbed some breakfast and got on the bus at 11. The Swiss guys from the train also joined. We have to move to our designated seats but the man who moved me later gives me a small horse keyring. I join the Swiss guys in Listvyanka, we have fillet of omul for lunch and walk out onto the frozen lake. We then climb up a hill. I dislike the scree slope but make it a good way up with them before we slide down. I buy some reindeer slippers and head north before catching the bus. North of the village is completely serene with mountains rising from the lake in the distance. Beautiful. We return to Irkutsk and I say my goodbyes. I have dinner at a Russian restaurant on Gorkovo street. The waitress is nice and speaks English well.

Day 11

I head to the central market and pick up a few supplies for the trans Mongolian leg. After a stop at the hostel, I walk around town photograph a lock from the western bridge. Wandered back to the shopping center, grabbed some food and walked through the park and back through the market.

Day 12

Tried to get to the old monastery on the far side of the river but failed because the traffic was way too heavy and I could not find a way across. Got chased by dogs on the way back. Wandered near the bridge and had lunch before heading back. Chilled out for the afternoon and headed to the Mongolian restaurant on Gorkovo street. The owner complimented my Russian. I shower and kill time before heading to the station at midnight. The WiFi is free but the toilets cost here. I read for 4.5 hours then watch the Falcon 9 launch and board the train at 5:12. My cabin is full of booze and I meet my Irish cabin mate Jon and a whole bunch of other party people. They are still working Moscow time, where it is midnight. We drink for a bit and Swedish guy and NY girl head off to get handsy. Me and Jon stay up until 8am local to see Biakal from the south. Jon works as an infrastructure guy at Accenture and snores like a broken motor boat. Eventually sleep comes.

Day 13

I get up at 11 ish and grab breakfast with Jon. Maria is there who is organising a tour for a large Swedish group. Ham, eggs and veg are tasty. We stop at Ulan Ude which is huge and slum like. The surroundings are getting distinctly Mongolian. I watch the scenery go by and read for a while. Jon sleeps with his eyes open and snores within seconds of lying down. How is this possible? At first, I thought it was the alchohol, but now I think Jon may genuinely have memory issues. He forgot I had dinner moments after I had it. Our passport numbers are taken and we pass several hours of beautiful hills before we stop and our passports are taken. The Russian exit checks take 2 hours and we leave at 22:00. Time switches an hour backward. A short ride to the Mongolian side and our passports are again taken. An hour later after checks, our passports are hurriedly handed back as the train starts to move. We are officially in Mongolia. I reflect on what a significant journey this has been so far. Plans to drink from now until Ulan Bataar slowly coming together. At midnight a mongolian guy hands out small chocolate eggs because it is now Easter Sunday. We go to the restaurant car and drink until 2.

Day 14

I wake shortly before Ulan Bator. Jon says goodbye and we part ways. There is a brief hope of a quiet ride to Beijing before 2 Germans join. ? and Steffi. They are starting a world tour. I make some tea and there are more Germans when I return. These ones are also starting a world tour. We share camembert as the mountains roll by. There are at least 6 Germans in this cabin now. Is this an invasion? I watch the scenery for a while, realise it isnt even 9am yet and head over to return Matt’s cup from last night. We chat about Rewired State, engineering, empowerment, language and technology as the steppes roll by. Very flat outside now. How is it only 11? After a stop at Chyort, I have lunch and join Matt and Paul for a wee dram of whisky from their hometown as we enter the Gobi. We stop half way through for almost an hour in a small town, probably the most isolated place I’ve ever been. As I exit the train the silence hits me like a wall. I ponder the importance of this milestone in my journey. Onto hours of desert and reading. We reach the Mongolian border at 7 as the sun sets. A guard on the station wanted to trade cigarettes with us and the train crew offer him rice wine from a plastic bottle. Passport control seems less concerned about pictures here. Long wait at Mongolian border. Cross to China in the dark after a wait in no mans land. Foreboding. Many cameras. Rousing music as we arrive in China. Train staff get dressed up. Customs seem very friendly. Passport checks are very efficient. At 21:25 we are given free breakfast and lunch tickets. We leave at 1:05. We are in China.

Day 15

I wake as we pull into Datong and go for a quick wander before grabbing free breakfast (2 hard boiled eggs, jam and bread). I talk with Dutch and Swedish (?) guys over breakfast, lamenting visas. Chat with Matt, Paul and Jenny afterwards followed by a change of clothes and a ‘wash’. A little reading before lunch where I reunite with Sasha and Swiss friend 2 from the lake (they stayed at Ulan Bator for 2 days and did not like it), plus 2 German travelling students. After lunch the cars are being tidied and we begin to pass through some spectacular gorges. As we pull into Beijing, I am contemplative. A major item from my bucket list has now been ticked off. I am sad but happy. After a long goodbye to Paul, Matt and Jenny we part ways at the station. I grab an ice cream and head to my hostel. A strange lady attempts to organise a date. Nope. Check in is painless and I have the greatest shower ever. I book Hangzhou and Great Wall tickets and help a Russian at reception. Once my photos upload, I make for the night market. I have dog and snake. Dog is good, savory, tough, like lamb. Snake is rich, texture like calamari. I walk around the Forbidden City. It is calm, almost serene. People fish on one side. On the other side, I have an ice cream shaped like a corn cob. Madness. The Chinese police/security give off an aura of bumbling incompetence. One the way back a woman sings loudly at the most and a couple play tennis on a side walk. A calligrapher attempts to sell me things. I resist. I buy some tea and return. My roommates are German engineers studying in Shanghai. They have just returned from the section of the wall I will be going to tomorrow.

Day 16

I wake early. None of my roommates snore. This is the greatest thing ever. After a crap American breakfast we hop on the bus to the wall. I talk with a Leeds sound engineer on the way. On the wall we head right up some very steep steps. On the left route the views are fantastic. Toboggan down is slow thanks to a suited guy in front taking pictures. Lunch is good and we chat with 2 Americans and an Australian family who has lost their son on the wall. As we leave, they are still looking for them. On the way back the driver seems to take a different route and ask for directions a lot. I think we might be lost. Seems he was looking for a route that avoids toll roads. We arrive back an hour late. I eat dinner at a Muslim restaurant in a nearby hutong. Later I wander around the snack street and am accosted by 6+ working girls, including the woman from the first day. I give a homeless guy my ice cream.

Day 17

The Germans leave early and I say my goodbyes. Shortly afterwards, I rise and head down to Tienanmen square. The smog is bad today, but I have a bag of dumplings for breakfast (20p). I find the post office but they don’t sell postcards. Wat. I walk north through the square. Many people. Low visibility. The Forbidden Palace is huge and crowded. At the exit I head north to a park and climb the hill\tower to look back on the forbidden city. I then head west to the lake, acquire a postcard at the white tower and head north along the shore. An old guy has his picture taken with me. His is very happy. I explore the hutongs around the Drum and Bell towers before entering the drum tower and hearing their show. I head back on the subway after being mislead by Google. After a shower, my new roommates are Nepalese. I go for a short walk to the temple of the sun and discover the Russian quarter.

Day 18

Small lie in. Leave at 9:15. Sent postcard at reception. Walk south to Temple of Heaven. Beautiful architecture and greenery. I reach the station and have some overpriced fried rice before boarding. Imposing towers at Tienjing South. Every city we pass through seems to have countless high rises being raised. The man 1 seat to my right is speaking on the phone in his outside voice. The girl next to me is giggling at Mr Bean as we pull into Jinan. After this, we pass the first small hills of our trip. Actually, this is a mountain range now. Loud man is rubbing and banging a small wooden bird against his tray table. Now he is stamping his feet. Quarries before Zao Zhuang. The man behind me chews loudly. We pass through Nanjing after night falls. At Hangzhou, I find the McDonald’s and Dan Li but Ben has gone searching for me. When he returns we search for and (eventually) find a taxi. Sleep follows.

Day 19

Lie in. Ebike with Ben to grab breakfast, coffee in a tiny shop, then ebike to West Lake. Skype with parents then Ben heads off to work. Dan Li takes me to buy a ticket and then I go for a wander. The Tescos here has live fish, shrimp and frogs. Back at Ben’s, we watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes then prepare to go out. Drinks at the first western bar I’ve seen in 3 weeks. Mediocre mojitos. Good people. Drunk.

Day 20

Wake with headache. Lie in. Beef, peppers and rice with Ben for breakfast. Ebike home to photo documents for Dan Li. Ebike to big buildings. Find a waterfront walk and mall. Observe 2 weddings. Crazy polluted. Sushi as a snack then back home to chill for a bit. Dinner, shared platters. Deep fried duck. Original restaurant closed. No power upon return. Play tech support for a bit then sleep.

Day 21

Say goodbye to Ben, finished packing and left. Taxi to Hangzhou East where I have breakfast. The air is cleaner today. On the train (4 berth sleeper) the pollution sets in again. A long subway ride and misadventure later I find the hostel. Very calm for Shanghai and lots of cats. The Bund is very commercial. The air looks like pea soup with a lot of mud mixed in. The waterfronts tiles are slick in the rain. I take the metro to peoples square but there can’t see the Bund as Ben claimed. Someone tried to scam me with the traditional tea ceremony. At least it’s not hookers this time. Food at a place just round the corner from hostel. Yangzhou style rice and Beijing style beef plus strange waffer things that were probably edible. I return and read on the balcony. A guy plays with the cats near me for a while.

Day 22

Didn’t sleep well and several snorers in the room. Messaged early to find my flight has been delayed 6 hours. Yay. Fun times searching for compensation laws. Turns out this hostel has 3 kittens. Checked out and after difficulty finding a place to eat breakfast I have a beef brisket thing. Maglev’d it to PuDong and checked in early. Baggage had to be checked. Sent postcard from airport. Slow wander around and read to kill time. Some Chinese at the gate are very angry about something. Boarded and ended up next to a family with a baby and a young child. We were all moved to a new row. Away from window, but aisle, extra legroom and near water dispenser and port holes. Score, I guess. The family spends 6 months out of 12 in Cornwall and the remainder in New Zealand. Someone behind me is singing the praises of jquery. Even here, it haunts me. Turbulence about an hour into the flight. Tannoy asks if anyone has puritin and cabin crew walk past with a first aid kit. Dinner/lunch (dlunch?) was good but the salt was in the pepper packet and vice versa. Guy next to me tells the story of Bob Wescott who apparently found a 1 injection per year solution for diabetes before big pharmaceuticals stopped it. Madness. Watched 12 Years a Slave. Despite occasional screaming children, a pleasant flight. Upon landing, we find out that we cannot claim compensation and I have to get a £100 taxi back. I am home now.