So it involves vodka?

Any given Sunday As I sat on the fold out chair in the middle of the snow pulling off my inadequate Australian clothing and fearing that the cold pains in my fingers might be causing permanent damage, I wondered if we had made a mistake.

Perhaps I had romanticised the idea of ice fishing in Siberia, and the reality was going to involve the worst six hours of my life as I froze to death or cried and asked to go home early.

A few minutes later however I was rugged up in ice fishing gear and ready to go. This included a set of quilted overalls and jacket, a sexy orange knitted turtleneck, boots big enough for a small giant and a pair of mittens so big that my fingers didn’t even reach the base of the thumb hole.

Second thoughts firmly quashed, we set off across the ice. As we walked out, our guide Constantine advised that this ice was at least 7cm thick, generally considered safe enough to walk across, and that a person would ‘probably’ be okay on ice as thin as 5cm.

It did briefly cross my mind that, wearing clothes that effectively doubled my weight, I was not going to have much chance if the worst was to eventuate! These thoughts were quickly put aside and ice fishing was (fish catching aside) exactly as exciting as I’d hoped.

Ice fishing is a very popular Russian past time and by the time we left in the afternoon, the lake was covered with Russian men (almost exclusively) wrapped up in their warmest and sitting on little stools, huddled over their lines. In November, most of the big lakes are still liquid so we had chosen one of the smaller lakes about 1 ½ hours south east of Ekaterinburg. The lake we were fishing in is home to a small black fish, with a prehistoric kind of face, that apparently are very good for frying up.

Our first step was to drill a couple of holes about 15 centimetres in diameter through the ice (which reassuringly turned out to be at least 10cm thick). From there we set up a little tent to protect us from the wind and it made an incredible difference.

From within our little shelter, Constantine showed baited up out tiny fishing rods (they looked like a Royal Show toy) and instructed us how to gentle jiggle the rods from the bottom to the surface in order to appear the most enticing to the fish.

Fish massacre Excitingly, and predictably, the first catch of fish necessitated vodka all round. From there we proceeded to catch over 70 fish. I felt okay about this for two reasons; 1) The fish were all taken home and cooked up by Constantine’s mother and not wasted, 2)Known as the Russian piranha (because they decimate all other fish species), these fish were certainly no peace loving vegetarians themselves.

Lunch started with the usual question (and my shameful reply), “I hope you’re not vegetarian!”. It was however, delicious… more vodka, tea, cheese, lavosh bread, cabbage salad, hot potatoes, mandarins, and (for those who aren’t culinary lepers) smoked pork fat and sausages.

It really was an incredible day. Despite the popularity, being out on the lake had a relaxing sense of isolation. The cosy clothes and vodka picnic within the shelter of the little tent was also enjoyable in such frosty surrounds.

From East to West The following day we explored Ekaterinburg, first with a guide and then on our own. Ekateringurg is notable for a couple of reasons; it is situated on the edge of the Asian/ European continental border and is perhaps best well known as the site where the Romanov dynasty ended in 1918 with the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The house where the Romanovs were executed was abolished during the Soviet era, but after the families canonisation as martyred saints (recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000), the Church of the Blood was built on the site and includes a recreation of the room in which the family was shot.

After our city exploration which included an incredible Uzbeki lunch and a not so incredible Azerbaijani red wine, we were back on the train for our journey to Kazan. It was on this train that we learned that the definition of sadness is wearing clothes fit for -10 degrees in a tiny train carriage that is warmer than a Russian banya.

Religion for beginners Situated on the famous Volga river, Kazan is the capital of the Tartar region in Russia (closely intertwined with Bulgar history and culture). The Tartars originally started out as a nomadic people but due to other cultural groups were gradually forced into more permanent forms of settlement. The region still has both Russian and Tartar as official languages.

The standout feature of this lovely city is its beautiful hilltop Kremlin. This was made all the more lovely for the heavy fall of snow that covered our visit. Although there have been political and social clashes over religious differences in the region, what is most spectacular about this Kremlin are beautiful Cathedral and Mosque within a few hundred metres of each other.

Mosque in the Kazan Kremlin

Since the end of state enforced atheism during the Soviet era, religions and their houses have slowly begun to rebuild themselves. Our guide Lyba pointed out that despite the fact that many people kept up their religious practice in secret, religion is very new for most people. As she showed us around these religious houses she kept saying “we are learning the Bible” or “we are still learning the Qur’an.”

Today we will continue to explore Kazan before boarding the ‘Tartarstan’ to Moscow!

Next: Moscow

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Cabin Fever

Room for four…

I should preface this entry by acknowledging that it is probably influenced by a pretty heavy dose of cabin fever.  It is 9:45 am by my watch, about 4:30am Moscow time and somewhere in between for local time.

Goodness knows what time the train is running on- Moscow time sort of, (but it in no way corresponds with daylight hours) and, if so, I have no idea when to expect the one meal a day that we are provided with (which was a pleasant surprise to us); dinner time on the first day and morning tea time on the second. I’m sure it will be completely different again today, the general rule seems to be that it will turn up just after you have stuffed yourself to the brim with two minute noodles.

The other exciting development of the time difference is that our 53 hour train journey may be a full 5 hours longer!

Roomies Overall the journey so far has been pretty good and our cabin mates till now, Lena (who got off at about 3:00am this morning in Novosibirsk), a man who wasn’t interested in giving his name (but is travelling to Moscow), and Lena’s replacement (who snuck in sometime during the night) have all been pretty good in the grand scheme of things. They’re not smugglers, they seem to have an appropriate grasp of personal space and general hygiene is not a problem. However, after so many hours and in such small quarters, certain eccentricities are beginning to grate.

The biggest two both concern light. The first issue is that Mr Moscow, my fellow top bunker, does not seem to like reading just by the reading light and prefers instead to leave the full cabin light on until all hours of the morning regardless of the fact that everyone else is sleeping, and for me this requires throwing a towel over my head. Hot, bright and unhappy.

After basking in the full exposure of two full neons until after midnight, I was looking forward to some bat cave style darkness. However, our newest cabin mate also appears to have a dark phobia and insisted on leaving the cabin door partially open all night. Attempts to shut it were quickly countered… so no restful darkness for us!

The landscape is stunning. Quite a few towns, which I guess should be expected since Siberia or not, we are travelling on a major rail line. For the most part it is Siberian taiga; small hills, frozen rivers and snowy pine and silver birch forest.

Exercise Not much to be had.

I set the lofty goal of a full five double unders in a cheeky five minutes spare at a leg stretch stop. I got a full 3 out, lots of messy singles and a few weird looks. In my defence, it was very icy, I was wearing a lot of clothes… and I am not very good!

Also discovered that you can squeeze in a few knees to chest by hanging off the top bunks when your cabin mates are out.

Leisure When we’re not sleeping, a big chunk of the time is spent  watching movies, reading or playing cards.

I have reconfirmed that Diamonds Are Forever is the worst James Bond movie pre-Dalton, once the computer has charged (out here in the hallway where I am typing) we might try and find a Bond movie that indulges in some good old fashioned Soviet paranoia as befits a Siberian rail trip!

Have been ploughing through books; the Kindle is the best invention ever for travelling. Have learned all about entrepreneurial thinking in Things I Wish I Knew When I was Twenty and have remembered that the broad summary of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is much more exciting than actually wading through an entire novel in which the protagonist is a smarmy, self righteous upper middle class white man with no personality.

I finished Theories of International Politics and Zombies which is analyses how different political schools of thought may respond to a zombie outbreak. Full of politics geek humour… worth the read!!!

I was disappointed by The Politics of Star Trek which promised to be more highly entertaining political nerd fodder but turned out the be a veiled attempt to rehabilitate the image of conservatives. Under an entertaining premise, its main agenda was to draw tangential conclusions that suggest that liberal thinking actually leads to right wing results whereas conservative thinking is the most open minded egalitarian and accepting political paradigm to live by. Fortunately it was very short piece of propaganda to read through (and only about $3 to download).

Hoping that Song of the Quarkbeast will see me through to the end of the trip with my sanity intact!

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Smugglers, Buddha & the Old Believers

 

Buddhist stupa and prayer flags

 

Rivalling the Orient Express We boarded train 263# at 9:10pm for a 24+ hour trip across the Mongolian-Russian border, bound for Ulaan Ude.

We had half hoped for the luxury of a cabin to ourselves but were also looking forward to a more genuine idea as to what travelling on the train is like… and we certainly got genuine!

The first little bit of excitement came from the missionary who was actively recruiting for Jesus in a very loud and patronising manner next door. I’m not sure if I was more excited or pre-emptively angry about the prospect of an attempted conversion while stuck in a small space on the way to Siberia. Nothing was to come of this however we were in for a bit more excitement and entertainment from our seemingly meek and unassuming cabin mate.

She was a small lady of Mongolian or Buryat descent who looked to be in her mid thirties. She was very quiet but friendly and tried to help us out regarding what to expect regarding the timing of border crossings etc. She did seem to mention customs a overly much. I didn’t think too much of this until she began removing felt clothing items from her three overstuffed bags and started rolling them up to slip into the sleeves of her jacket, inside shoes and blankets etc. She disappeared into another cabin quite quickly and we mused over having a small time smuggler in our cabin before settling down to sleep.

‘Small time’ may have been an underestimation of sorts. The next morning the Provodnitsa brought another lady to the cabin and indicated, by gesture mostly, that we should move one of our bags off of the spare bunk because another lady (who had been in another cabin over night) would be moving in. What was not communicated here was that for all intents and purposes, it was not the lady herself that was moving in but her stash of illegal imports.

What followed next, and in the hours leading up to the search by Russian customs at the border, was an incredibly flurry of middle aged ladies moving felt clothes, shoes, pants, knitted goods and blankets around and spreading them out throughout the train. Apart from stowing bags and packages of goods; pants, hats and scarves were, not so surreptitiously, hung over every spare rail in our cabin (including the ones on our beds). We each acquired a temporary pair of boots by our beds, as ours were stowed away under the seat, and, just before customs stepped onto the train, our cabin mates arranged themselves as casually as they could sitting atop a small pile of things.

Once customs had checked our cabin and moved on, there was a chain of ladies passing things down the train (while the customs officers backs were turned) at which point our newest roomie would stow them into nooks and crannies in our cabin that had already been checked.

It turned out that apart from us, the missionary and a couple of blokes down the far end, everyone in our carriage, including the attendants were in on it. We were to learn later that groups of ladies will make these trips everyday smuggling over huge quantities of goods and hiding as much as they can in order to avoid paying duty on it.

How not to become a Hungry Demon… In the Buddhist tradition, the hungry demons inhabit one of the six worlds; gods, semi-gods, humans, animals, hell (both hot and cold), and the world of the hungry demons. The hungry demons have enormous bellies and very small throats, they also breathe fire, effectively char grilling everything they try to eat.  They are unable to satiate their appetites.

Ulaan Ude, in the Russian province of Buryatia, has a population of just under half a million people and its most famous claim to fame is a 15 metre tall, 70 tonne statue of Lenin’s head which presides over the town’s main square. The city sits between two tributaries of Lake Baikal, the Ude and Selenga rivers (both currently, spectacularly frozen). The Buryat region  is also home to a sizeable Buddhist population and houses several Buddhist temple complexes or Datsans.

We spent a good part of our two days in Ulaan Ude visiting the Ivolginski Datsan and the Atsagatski Datsans where we were instructed in Buddhist philosophy and iconography. We were told that the most desirable of the six worlds to be born into is that of humans because we have the most agency over our actions and destiny, and as such, the most chance of reaching Nirvana through the human world.

During our time at the Datsans, our guide shared many stories that instructed us how best to generate positive karma in order to ensure that we are human again in our next life and do not end up in hell, or as a terrifying and starving, hungry demon.

Aside from generating good karma, I think the second way to avoid becoming a hungry demon is much simpler… live in Russia.

We have been stuffed full to the brim at every meal we’ve had since arriving in Russia, starting with  a “light” midnight supper when we arrived at our homestay; potato dumplings, sliced meat and cheese, garlic & cheese topped tomato/eggplant rounds, cucumber, bread, sour cream, fruit compote, and tea.

No matter how big your tummy and small your throat, Russian hospitality will see you happily bloated and ready for a lay down after every meal. Despite the fact that the word vegetarian is usually met with the same look as if you’ve told your host that you just tracked mud across their carpet, all our generous hosts have risen to the distasteful challenge of preparing incredible, meat free food.

The Old Believers The most exciting meal we’ve had to date was as guests of three Babushkas in the Old Believers’ village on the outskirts of Ulaan Ude.

The Old Believers are people who resisted reforms to Russian Orthodoxy and hold to traditional practices. The village is comprised entirely of traditional wooden houses that are painted in bright colours.

It is here that we learned that a traditional Russian meal served with vodka (homemade in this case) will involve no less than three toasts. I made the mistake of emptying my glass after the third to discover that this was an absolute bare minimum and was obliged, in the interests of being a good guest, to indulge in 2 or 3 more full toasts.

After lunch, our hosts sang traditional Buryat songs for us which was incredibly touching. They also dressed us up in traditional costumes… we are fairly sure that they also tried to marry us without our consent.

On the train again… Other notable highlights of Ulaan Ude included the chance to try some archery, a visit to the house of crazy Sergei who may have lost his thumb to a tiger while working at a zoo (we were sceptical), drinking stout in a Winston Churchill themed Irish pub, and the fact that our host family had a pull up bar in their house 🙂

The overnight train to Irkutsk was on the whole uneventful and we arrived at 8:00am the next day (in total darkness). From there our lovely guide Lena and driver Igor, drove us two hours out to the edge of Lake Baikal where we were hosted in the traditional fishing village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe.

The Blue Eye of Siberia

Lake Baikal

Known as the ‘Blue Eye of Siberia’, Lake Baikal spans over 600km and is approximately 1637 metres deep. Amongst the endless number of statistics and trivia facts that accompany a lake of this size is the fact that it holds 20% of the world’s fresh water and that the lake could, by itself, supply the entire planet with clean drinking water for 40 years.

I have had a long standing fascination with this area having read several adventure travel accounts of explorers who have kayak and boated along the tributaries in the Baikal region.  I certainly can’t do the area justice but I strongly recommend the following if you are not sure what to read next; Barbed Wire & Babushkas or Five Months in a Leaky Boat.

Our time in Bolshoe Goloustnoe was spent taking lazy walks around the lake and village area, eating (of course), and indulging in traditional Russian banya (sauna and bath house) sans the beating with birch twigs.

And then…We are currently in Irkutsk getting ready for our biggest stint on the train which will start tomorrow evening – 53 hours from Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg.

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Steppe-ing out in Mongolia

Elstei Ger Lodge at dawn

Train 23# Although it may not be the ‘authentic’ experience, we were lucky enough to get a 4 berth cabin to ourselves for the trip from Beijing (8:05am 10 November) to Ulaan Baatar (1:20pm 11 November).

Highlights included copious amounts of tea, 2 minute noodle picnics, lots of scenery gazing, the toilets being in much better condition than anticipated, and the chance to sit back & read, snooze, watch movies on the laptop at leisure.

Lowlights were definitely 1) holy cigarette smoke! 2) total of 6 hours to cross the Chinese/ Russian border. This involves sitting on a very chilly train as the power is turned off, no toilet access and being violently shunted for the best part of two hours while the undercarriage of the train is changed to suit the tracks on the other side of the border.

The steppe You certainly wouldn’t visit Mongolia for the capital, Ulaan Baatar, aptly named the coldest capital in the world. It is dominated by Soviet style buildings with very few ‘sights’ from a tourist perspective. It is home to the most pigeons I have ever seen in one spot and also boasts the dubious honour of being the first place I have ever seen to serve Margarita pizza (tomato, cheese and maybe some basil) with cucumber and not just one but two different types of meat on it.

What you do come to Mongolia for is the magnificent countryside.

Our first visit was to the Hustai National Park, where we spent two nights in a semi modern ger. The odd paradox of Mongolia is that you are either painfully cold out on the beautiful snowy steppe or ridiculously toasted inside your ger hut in which the fire is kept well stoked.

We spent a morning four wheel driving through the national park to visit an ancient burial ground and to look for yaks as well as wild and domestic Mongolian horses.

Mutton free zone Despite the dire warnings of all of the travel guides, we were incredibly well fed here and the entire menu did not consist of mutton! At one lunch we were even fed four full courses, very helpful for building up a winter belly.

Vegetarianism was no problem however our guide, Nasaa did comment on more than one occasion that perhaps I was cold because I didn’t eat meat. She also made it very clear that meat was necessary to be strong and healthy and that if a Mongolian was to miss meat at more than one meal that they would start dreaming about it. All of this anti vegetarian propaganda was delivered in a very friendly way; I’m just kidding, but seriously!

Tether your dog! From Hustai, we moved to the Elstei Ger Lodge where we stayed in a traditional felt ger. Here we had the opportunity to visit a nomadic family and to ride Mongolian horses on the steppe.

The traditional greeting when approaching a ger is ‘Nokhoi Kor’ (tether your dog). This was not required on this visit but we were treated to traditional hospitality including salted ilk tea and freshly made butter with bread. We also had the meat theme reemphasised as we were sat between a gi-normous  hunk of frozen sheep carcass and a bowl of blood. The family were very quiet but we were very appreciative of the opportunity to visit them in their home.

Yak skin coat and felt boots Nasaa rugged us up in traditional Mongolian attire for our horse riding trip and despite the bulkiness, we were very happy to have it on to ward off the cold. Being out on the steppe on the horses was stunning. There was a gently snow fall while we were out and an incredible sense of the vastness of the steppe.

An incredible experience despite the fact that my horse was a fairly truculent and needed to be linked to the horse master and that Ryan’s horse was a little slow and gassy! Otherwise a spectacular experience.

Rugged up for riding!

 

Post script Other notable experiences included learning to play traditional ankle bones games (played with sheep’s ankle bones), trying to CrossFit in subzero temperatures (painful) and the long trek through the snow to the longdrop toilet!

Next: Ulaan Bataar to Ulan Ude

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Clay People and Dumplings

Xian The city of Xian itself is fairly nondescript. It is neither particularly old nor particularly modern, the roads are incredibly busy and it is very hard to get a sense of location or overall character while you are there. It did, however offer some incredible gems.

The first was our visit to Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, or better known as the Terracotta Warriors. The first view of them as you step into the main excavation site at Pit 1 is absolutely breathtaking. They are, of course, exactly how you’ve seen them in pictures but more than worth the visit out to Xian if you ever get the chance to visit China.

Given the widespread destruction during the civil war and Cultural Revolution I could not help thinking how fortunate it is that this site wasn’t discovered until the mid seventies. For a country of such immense history, there is a marked absence of historical sites and buildings to be seen. Some sites, such as the Forbidden City were expressly protected; other surviving sites were protected only by the grace of brave individuals who could not stand to see the destruction of beautiful or significant sites.

In Shanghai we viewed an incredible mosaic fresco inside the dome of an old bank building. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards arrived to destroy it as a symbol of old, bourgeois decadence however a quick thinking architect managed to convince them that it would be too difficult to pull down all of the tiles and ornamentation. Instead he suggested that they simply remove the offending artwork by covering it up with plaster. After Mao’s death, the plaster was removed and the beautiful mosaic was restored to its former glory.

The second highlight of Xian was a bicycle ride along the city wall. The city wall (good but not great) is a 13km fortified circuit around the centre of Xian. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the entire loop, however the almost bird’s eye view of the city and the chance to do some active exploration as opposed to the museum shuffle was a lot of fun.

The day was topped off by a visit to the Muslim Quarter in the evening. One of our group aptly described it as having the atmosphere of a Chinatown section of a city outside of China; lots of incredible street food vendors, specialty shops and dried fruit sellers. The week before this area had been unsafe for western visitors due to riots and protests against American ‘Big noses’.

The foodie highlight of Xian was a local specialty dumpling banquet. and that they serve delicious chilli sauce with everything!

Beijing Beijing is quite different to Chinese cities. Several years ago a government delegation visited Singapore for inspiration on city planning and since then public spaces have been specifically designed to increase the urban aesthetic with a particular emphasis on parks and street trees.

We visited the big five in Beijing- the Forbidden City, Summer Palace (more picturesque lake than palace), Tiannamen Square, Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. Other incredible highlights included a Kung Fu show, Peking Duck dinner, the Olympic District and a rickshaw ride through the Hutong District.

Just a small incident I found Tiannamen Square to be particularly disconcerting. There is still a huge portrait of Mao at one end (he can also be found on buttons, books, key rings and other paraphernalia throughout China) and although it doesn’t appear that people are singing his praises, the Communist Party is still very reluctant to acknowledge the full atrocity of his actions and the incredible damage he did to millions and millions of Chinese people.

Our local guide Stanley was only in his early 30’s and made it very clear to us that, 1) he found it disappointing that the West is so focused on Tiannamen Square, 2) he considers it an ‘incident’ not a massacre at which ‘only a few hundred’ people were killed, and 3) that the students were in fact planted there by Western governments to create trouble and make China look bad.

Later that day in Stanley’s absence, our national guide, in a very PC way, made it very clear that this was not a universal view and that Tiannamen was an incident of national shame. She pointed out that the bodies of the students and guards killed were never returned to their families so that an exact body count could never be confirmed and that the Chinese people at the time and since have been kept largely in the dark.

I think this characterises modern China quite well. There is an uneasy contrast between a desire to be open and a desire to keep control, to embrace the West and to be defensive toward it, and to try and move on from the destruction of the Mao era as quickly as possible.

165cm and 60kg The gardens around the Temple of Heaven are perhaps more interesting than the temple itself. With the retirement age at 55 for women and 60 for men, the gardens are filled with retired adults participating in all kinds of community activities. There are small bands, aerobics groups, Chinese hacky sack games, tai chi and ball & racquet aerobics.

The most amazing group of all are in a large paved square. Adults in their 50’s and 60’s sit on small chairs with a piece of paper in front of them detailing the vital statistics of their 20 and 30 something year old children. The details include height, weight, personality traits and career/ study background. Other parents browse along the hundreds of A4 prospectives and will try to arrange a suitable match for their own children from the options on display. Trying to walk through this area is like trying squeeze through any Australian mall at 4:30pm on Christmas Eve.

Marriage market in the gardens at the Temple of Heaven

 

The Great Staircase Word to the wise, the Great Wall is significantly more ‘steps’ than ‘wall’!! Despite the demand on your quads and hammies this does have the advantage of thinning out the crowds quite quickly. Like the Terracotta Warriors, this really has to be seen first hand. It is mind boggling to stand at the highest point and imagine what an incredible structure the wall is. Cold, hard work, and totally worth it!!

798 Art District This was the most phenomenal discovery in Beijing and perhaps of the trip so far (thanks for the recommendation Megan!). A huge industrial district on the edge of Beijing has been converted into contemporary art studios and galleries. You could spend days and days wandering in and out of these spaces which house work from some of the most incredible contemporary Chinese artists. The area is also full of public space art and sculpture as well as cafes serving delicious Chinese and Western fusion cuisine. Absolute must see!

Next: On the Trans Mongolian…

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While you were working…

Here are a couple of pics from my first week in China. I will jump on and caption them once we’re somewhere without restricted access to WordPress.

Assuming they display in the order they’ve uploaded (and if not good luck!), they are;

1. Bund District – Shanghai
2. Li River Cruise through Limestone karst from Guilin to Yangshuo
3. Goose Pagoda – Xian
4. Overlooking Pit 1, Terracotta Warriors – Xian
5. Cycling on the city wall – Xian

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F*#book and Pandas

APOLOGIES FOR ANY AWFUL FORMATTING- THIS IS BEING EMAILED IN DUE TO BLOGGING RESTRICTIONS IN CHINA (see below)

So flights are flights. They can be really bad, or okay but never amazing. Mine fell into the ‘okay’ category. The usual discomforts were spearheaded on this occasion by perfectly healthy forty year old man behind me who was incapable of standing without a hefty two handed yank on the back of my seat (if you can’t stand up without assistance I know an awesome fitness cult that can help you).

The notable highlight was the flight from Brisbane to Sydney from what I would consider to be a piece of PR genius; by which the Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams performed the safety demonstration video for the flight. Well done Qantas – a guarantee that everyone will watch the safety demonstration at least once. Most exciting was the vague insinuation that Sally Pearson and Ken Wallace may have an eight year old child – whom they dutifully ignored until they had secured their own oxygen masks.

Shanghai We spent three nights in Shanghai under the guidance of tour leader ‘Lin’ and local guide ‘David,’ Highlights included a trip on the world’s fastest train, a tour of the exquisite Ming period Yu Garden, and a night time cruise of the Bund business area to view the light display from the Huang Pu ’Yellow Bank’ River.

A Shanghai local, David’s stories made the visit. One of the interesting anecdotes he shared with us described how Chinese mothers in Shanghai will meet in parks to try to find appropriate matches for their children. There are trees filled with notes describing their children’s virtues and vital statistics in the hope that their love match may be pinned in note form to a neighbouring branch.

David discussed changing priorities of young people in China and told us about a young model who had infamously appeared on a dating TV show and stated that she “Would be crying in the back of a BMW that laughing on the back of a bicycle.”

As a result of the gender bias brought about by the one child policy, China now finds itself with many more young men than women. One line of thinking may bring you to the conclusion that young women, by means of leverage, posses a certain amount of potential power as far as asserting their value and place in Chinese society. Lin however, innocuously painted a somewhat different picture when she explained that she did not think it would be possible for her to visit any of the places her tour group are from until after she is married. It is very difficult for young single women in China to obtain a visa (internally issued) to travel to countries outside of Asia for fear they will marry overseas and not return to China. If a visa is granted, one of the conditions includes the payment of an exorbitant bond or cash guarantee to a bank in order to ensure that the woman returns. This does not apply to men.

Mouthfuls of Heaven From Shanghai we flew to Guilin and Yangshuo. This area is a subtropical region, characterised by its limestone karsts. We travelled by boat from Guilin to Yangshuo along the Li River. This was a spectacular between mountains and past fishing villages. Hundreds of photos were taken, none of which will adequately capture the magnificence of the beautiful mountain area.

The waterfront section of Yangshuo is cobblestoned and filled with market vendors and small bars. At a balmy 26 degrees, it reminded me very much of small towns in Thailand and was far from anything I had expected to see in China.

This is where I fell in love. The first time was with an amazing crepe style wrap that contained “5 grains,” coriander and some kind of deep fried cracker goodness.

The second time (half an hour later) was with a piece of tofu. These were sold every 100 metres or so by vendors with portable barbecues serving only (veggie heaven) marinated tofu served with chilli sambal and a Chinese caper of some sort.

The time in Yangshuo was topped off with an evening outdoor show on the waterfront. ‘Impression’ is directed by the director of the Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and includes 600 local performers (who all have regular day jobs) who give an incredible interpretation of life of the local people along the Li River. Limestone mountains provide a spectacular backdrop and the entire performance takes place on the water with its performers on bamboo rafts and floating platforms.

F*#book I am not talking about the obscene F#*book which spams my hotmail but rather the (not quite apparently) worldwide social media networking site which is very strictly inaccessible in China and a dirty word to even google. This may seem like quite a shallow observation at first- why would you care about missing out on friends posting ‘ironic’ pouty selfies, pics of their puppy/baby/dinner or updates on their hangover when you are overseas? This does however obviously have some quite scary implications regarding open communication and freedom of information. Other blocked websites include WordPress blog hosting platform and ‘controversial’ sites regarding Chinese history.

As above, I can’t currently post directly through the blogging website as it is blocked in China. This is being emailed in which means I can’t check formatting but I will fix it up asap!)

Pandas Not much to say really. I saw pandas and they were adorable.

Generally have an all round amazing time – big love to all at home xx

Next Up: Terracotta Warriors in Xian, the Great Wall and Beijing.

PS. I have no idea where the pics will end up due to the mail in but I will certainly fix them up once I can log in to my blog!

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No more wine thanks… I’m allergic

There are a finite number of phrases that can be squeezed onto a one hour language CD. They aim to make sure you can ‘survive’ on your trip.

I have spent many hours of driving time over the past month enunciating (during the appropriate 3 second pause) yah nee pah nee mah yoo so that I can communicate to Russian people that despite my hours of cramming and the shiny promises of the language tape that I don’t understand. (I would add an apology after that but ‘sorry’ is not on the CD).

Whilst I am a big fan of the language CD or the phrase book, I have come to two conclusions, 1) The people who select the essential phrases have likely never travelled 2) That the phrases were not selected based on any rigorous quantitative analysis of travellers’ conversations or interactions.

Communication was tough but we got there…

ESSENTIAL PHRASES Yes, absolutely essential. Hello, thank you, excuse me etc. Love this section, rate it. Wish it was repeated three times over on the CD.

MONEY I am ambivalent about this section, although I do not have any British pounds to change into roubles (and I think many first language English speakers travelling in Russia may also, in fact not be from Britain!).

GETTING AROUND Are there any discounts? You are on holiday cheap skate. If you manage to rote learn this I commend you and your frugal priorities.

Getting Around: So you take the first left and then walk uphill for three hours…

EATING OUT This is the section that first prompted me to question the sage wisdom of the ‘essential language experts.’ As a vegetarian, I realise that this is informed by a strong personal bias however I would assume that it may be of value to many people to be able to enquire whether a particular dish contains X, Y or Z ingredients.

For the sake of the person with the life threatening nut allergy, perhaps some phrases around I can’t eat or May I have it without and then a list of common food types may be of more value than Can I have another bottle of wine? … I’m sure that if you managed to obtain one, you are capable of obtaining another by means of friendly smiling and pointing (with a please thrown in for good measure).

ROMANCE I would question whether this is an essential section for a one hour CD. It is my experience with travel that language is no barrier to ‘romance.’ Similarly, no romance I have ever been involved in in Australia (and I hope no romance ever) has ever actually begun with May I buy you a drink?

POLICE I have lost my child! Really? How often do you lose your child if you feel the need to commit this to memory in another language!? Perhaps you should turn off the CD and go check that your child isn’t playing in traffic.

Managed to communicate the gist of the message regarding the dress code for a toga party… the details were obviously sketchy

So these are just a few of what I would consider a redundant use of brain space but I will certainly be paying attention and trying to work out what would be more useful! In four weeks, I will be in Russia and who knows? I may be kicking myself for not making the effort to remember how to ask if I can park my trailer for two nights…

(Photos from International Gold Event – Mauritius)

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4 Week Countdown and Experimental Blogging

4 Week Countdown…4 weeks today will see us three days into our first stop – Shanghai. Although I am a fairly relaxed traveller, there is a little bit of panic starting to brew in some areas… How will I get 9,000 words of thesis done before 28 October? Have I budgeted enough money? Can anything else go wrong with the visa applications? (I’m sure it can so my fingers are firmly crossed). I’m also frantically trying to make sure that I am caring about all of the things I won’t care about once I am overseas. For example, my work will release parking permits for 2013 while I am overseas so I have crafted a cunning plan involving multiple reminders and relayed emails from work colleagues to me to Mum and Dad (I’ll fill you in later Mum). I figure that failure to do this before I leave will lead to a ‘parking-schmarking’ attitude once I am ensconced in a Ger hut in Mongolia but that I may come to regret when I have to cough up for daily parking or trek from the other side of campus for the duration of 2013.

I think we’ve only faced the usual kind of hiccups so far despite ‘best laid plans’ and all that. The intention to blog once a week for the three months leading up to the trip to ensure that I am across all of the tricks and tips has obviously not occurred with the anticipated regularity… but here I am squeezing a couple of paragraphs into the last five minutes of my lunch break so that’s good enough I reckon (especially since the first draft of this was a 6 week countdown!).
So my trip and non-trip related priorities over the final couple of weeks include;
TRIP SPECIFIC GOALS
1. Organise ipod… do not get stuck doing this at 4:00am on the morning of departure.
2. Learn Cyrillic or at least most of the letters (at the moment I know that cyrillic P is R, cyrillic P looks like an N and C is S… not sure how far that will get us).
3. Contact overseas CrossFit boxes to arrange drop-ins. Very excited about the idea of visiting boxes like Shanghai’s CrossFit Iron Dragon (I challenge you to find a cooler box name).
4. Do not squeal with excitement in public…especially when alone. I know it freaks people out.
OTHER GOALS
1. Not to be so pre-trip frugal that I don’t buy vegetables. I know I should be super health-ing it up as the first six weeks will see me eating a lot of noodles and rice…maybe some borscht if I’m lucky.
2. Finish thesis – sad face – ’nuff said.
3. Fit in lots of CrossFit in case trip goal 3 doesn’t work out (and to try and pre-emptively counter the above-said noodles).
…experimental blogging
So this is experimental becuase I am trying out the ‘Post by email’ function of the blog. So apologies in advance if the formatting etc has become revolting.
The email option includes uploading photos via email so I have attached an old travel photo from New Zealand to test it out. The tenuous link to this trip is that this is my cold face and I expect that it will be out a lot in Siberia!
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The Perfect Traveller

The “Perfect Traveller” for many of us conjures a picture of a hardcore guy or girl; they’ve braved 40 countries in one pair of underwear, their clothes are stained with the dust from the Mojave to the Sahara, they’ve clearly shunned the razor as an unnecessary 50 gram burden in their pack, and their signature dish is now a secret fish recipe learned directly from the Greenlandic Inuit.

In my travels it has become very clear to me that there is a certain desire by many to be the ‘best’ type of traveller; the most authentic, the most immersed, the most hardcore. Only then will you have really travelled. I think this is baloney. While there are many things that I think you should do or should not do when you travel, travel is a personal experience and it will vary from person to person. If you travel to another place or culture and are so completely absorbed in being nothing but a sponge with no opinions of your own and with no interest in acknowledging or sharing who you are, what you like or where you are from, you are not travelling, you are doing anthropology.

So, with that said, I have listed some of my personal advice on being the Perfect Traveller or the best traveller that you can be (cue warm fuzzy feeling and look for the motivational tapes to come, haha).

Probably not serious enough for a ‘real’ traveller… Dubai

1. You can use the flush toilets This could also be titled, It’s Okay to be Comfortable Sometimes (or all of the time if that’s what makes you happy). I was in a queue with a friend at some public toilets in Thailand that had a mixture of squat toilets (trough in the ground and bucket ‘flush’ by hand) and Western style flush toilets. A cubicle became free and the American lady in front of us waived us ahead with a condescending sneer and said, “You can have that one. I prefer to squat.”

Now I am pretty sure of two things; firstly, that this lady was not squatting on her toilet at home (and if hygiene was an issue she could have hovered much more comfortably over an actual toilet) and secondly, that her experience of Thailand was no more ‘authentic’ because she chose to shun Western style toilets in favour of the ‘real thing.’

2. Macca’s for lunch? Food is one of the most exciting parts of travel for me, most exciting part of most days actually, and I get very excited about trying local foods. I think it’s so important to try as much as you can. That said, if you are spending, a month in Malaysia, you don’t need to live on sayur lodeh three meals a day, seven days a week. It’s okay to get something you’re craving, an old favourite, or something that’s just convenient and familiar with even if it’s a dirty ol’ cheeseburger, (or as I discovered at Thailand McDonalds, fries with the disgusting plastic cheese melted over them, so delectably awful, loved it.) Moral of the story, you can have chow mein in Rome and dolmades in Delhi, the world won’t end and it doesn’t make you a terrible traveller.

On the food vein I also recommend that when you find that local deep fried bit of heaven-on-a-stick from a street vendor, the perfect sticky rice, or life changing haloumi; get two, go back for more, have another one. You will lose the holiday chub but you will never be able to find the right recipe or replicate it just the same at home.

3. This is me in front of the thing I never saw… Easy. Take the picture and then put the camera away. Look at the thing, touch the thing, experience the thing. Don’t spend all your time setting up your tripod. Thousands of pictures are great but make sure you see what’s outside of the rectangle of your view finder or display.

Although this seems contrary to the less is more approach… take a picture of the sign post, the display board, etc It takes two seconds and costs you nothing with a digital camera but is infinitely helpful when you are trying to remember the name of that statue, church, river etc for your diary or once you get home.

4. (Day and) Night at the Museum Churches, temples, museums can be beautiful, interesting, informative and provide a great insight into the history or culture of the place you are visiting but chances are that if gothic architecture doesn’t float your boat at home, then you don’t need to see 5000 examples of it as you travel across Europe.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of doing what you think you should be doing and seeing all the ‘right’ sights and doing all the ‘must do’ things. I think some of the best trips are when you think about what you enjoy or are interested in at home and incorporate them into your trip. I am a super nerdy English history buff and would happily visit every castle from York to Sussex but it’s because it’s what I really love… if you don’t love it, stop at the third, fourth or fifth museum/church/castle and go find some other thing to see, do or explore.

5. Relax- don’t do it. It’s okay for Frankie Goes to Hollywood but doesn’t need to be the mantra for your travels. There seems to be, in some circles, a stigma attached to holidaying versus travel. If your idea of great travel includes lots of fancy restaurants, beach time, and a clean hotel room instead of a 12 bed mixed dorm that’s fine and is perfectly legitimate. That said, if your idea of travel is golfing on an exclusive course that has been built over a formerly world heritage listed natural reserve or spending every holiday in south east Asia with 25 of your closest friends with a bucket of cocktails strapped around your neck for a fortnight straight, I may judge you a  little (or a lot).

In a nutshell… Travel as much as you can. See. Explore. Touch. Talk. Listen. Get involved. Do what you love and look after yourself. The world is shrinking, changing, evolving- get out and see it for yourself, form your own opinions and make your own stories.

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