Saturday, May 17, 2014

The wheels on the train go round and round...

Our cosy home
Apparently one of the great train journeys full of rewarding experiences (Lonely Planet guide), the Trans Siberian Railway was our primary form of transport for two weeks. I'm not sure who considered it rewarding, surely nobody who has travelled from 2nd class down. Four to a cabin, trapped for up to four nights (or more) in a tiny roughly 2m x 2m room, dining car optional, no showers and no forms of entertainment except drinking vodka, playing dominoes and assorted card games, reading, and writing blogs. Excitement consisted of knowing the three or so times per day when we would stop longer than 20 minutes so that we could stretch our legs and go hunting for a decent shop to replenish food supplies (normally only snack food available: chips, Coke and the like). This is more of an endurance test than a rewarding experience.

Changing the bogies
Other exciting moments occurred during border crossings. The switch over from Beijing to Mongolia required a change of wheels because the track width changed, so the train was jacked up several metres and then dropped back down to the platform with us in it. The 7 hour plus night time transition between Mongolia and Russia involved being unceremoniously woken and ordered to stand up and produce passports by uniformed figures standing ominously in cabin doorways. One of our number had partaken of a little too much vodka and was getting up too slowly for the border guards who started raising their voices, making me a little apprehensive. In the morning we stepped on to a station platform to find our carriage completely by itself on a long lonely track: no engine, no dining car, like an alien spaceship on a foreign planet. We hopped back in the carriage and a passenger asked if we had a dining car...hmm, perhaps you should step outside and have a look for yourself.
Umm, where is the rest of the train?

Finally, the number one exciting thing to do on the train? 20-30 minutes before a major stop staff would lock the toilets and not open them again until 20 - 30 minutes after leaving. Depending on how long the stop is this can mean an hour and a half without access to the toilets, unless you want to race along the platform looking for a toilet, that will normally be charged for, and get back before the train leaves.  So it became a cat and mouse game to try to use the toilets before they were locked. Several times she would be at the door just as you arrived, turn the key while looking at you, and when you politely used sign language to request one more chance be given you got a stern look and the very forceful 'nyet'. No ifs or buts. I think it was the part of their job they enjoyed the most.

Demi plies?
I'm lying here in our cabin on Day 3 of our trip from Irkutsk to Moscow in the early morning, watching Elizabeth doing demi plies off the curtain rod in the passage. One day still to go and Elizabeth has regressed to her childhood ballet classes. Another weird thing: Russia's trains run on Moscow time and that's really hard to get used to. Even in Irkutsk where there was a 5 hour time difference from Moscow, all of the times on the station noticeboards were 5 hours early. On the train the 'real' time seems to be dependent on who you ask, our one free meal per day seems to come whenever they get around to it (the choices being 'do you want it or not'), and I've been changing the time on my phone one hour per day but need to remember how many hours I've changed to calculate the times at stops as they're all in Moscow time. Getting stuck at a station in Russia because I thought we had 25 minutes when we actually had 12, and with my passport on the train, would be my own special version of Hell.

New friends
This mode of travel does give you the experience of the vast size of the country, the changing climate, the variable scenery and the different styles of architecture throughout the countryside. It also allows you to hop on and off along the way. For instance, although our train trip is from Beijing to St Petersburg we stop off for several nights at Ulaanbaatar, Irkutsk and Moscow. Well, time for another cup of coffee in my plastic cup, a muesli bar, and my dreams of a hot shower and a decent walk in Moscow.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The nomadic life goes Mongolian

Our Trans Mongolian/Siberian Railway journey started in Beijing. The train left mid morning heading towards Mongolia. Scenery on the China side of the border was pretty tame when pollution haze obscured more distant views, but impressive when the track ran right next to rugged mountains and dams. We slept that night on the train, four to a cabin. When we awoke in Mongolia it was all semi desert scenery with beautifully contoured sandy coloured slopes. The pollution was gone and we could see clearly into the distance. By early afternoon we reached our first destination on this stop start journey, the capital city Ulaanbaatar.

The long steps to salvation...
Our lunch cafe
The next day we went to a ger camp, stopping to see a Buddhist monastery and a huge rock formation called Turtle Rock. Lunch along the way was in a ger hut, at which time it started snowing quite heavily. By the time we arrived at the camp the snow had set in so we stayed inside our cosy stove warmed gers. These are ingenious tent like structures big enough to hold several beds and a wood burning stove. The Mongolians traditionally had a nomadic lifestyle and gers were easily transportable homes.
Hearty lunch
What our ger camp looked like on arrival
Warm and cosy in our Ger
Typical Mongolian dinner
We were surprised to be greeted in the morning by a glorious sun filled sky. We went trekking with our tour buddies in the local hills and saw snow capped ridges and wide windswept valleys punctuated by silver birches glowing white in the sunshine. There were granite boulders everywhere plastered with lime and orange lichen, and purple flowers that paled to mauve when they fully opened. Wonderful weather persisted all day and dinner that night was a traditional barbeque meal of goat meat and roasted vegetables. In this cold country the focus is on meat, and lots of meat, to help people's bodies stay warm; vegetarianism will need to wait. That night when I took a comfort break I found the camp surrounded by horses, but by morning they were all gone.

The next morning
The view from the trek
Interesting choice of exit
The trip back included a stop at the Chinggis Khan statue, a monument built only a few years ago that's one of the biggest of its type I've ever seen. We stumbled up a long flight of stairs and burst unceremoniously out of Chinggis's groin to absorb the view from his horse's head. I wondered if this was supposed to symbolise that the prodigious increaser of global population was still producing children. The next day was spent visiting the main sites of Ulaanbaatar, in which nearly half of the country's three million people live. I was pleasantly surprised to find Mongolia a more beautiful country with a more modern capital city than I expected.

That night we boarded the train to take the next leg to Irkutsk in Russia, a day and a half away. This was going to be an endurance test.

A Buddhist temple stop

The Beatles were one of the first western bands
to come here

Parliament house at night

Umm Dinosaurs were found here?

The lunch cafe on the inside

War Memorial

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Trekking in Nepal

Our one month tour comes to an end

The bus trip to Kathmandu was long; a 9 hour travelling day stretched to 10 when a car crash brought traffic to a standstill for an hour while we waited for police. Within minutes of the crash locals carrying all manner of sweets, water, pastries and the like were wandering past the cars and buses selling their wares. Once in Kathmandu we organised for a flight over Everest and the Himalayan range. If we weren't going to trek it then we should at least see it. This was the end of our Tucan tour, we were on our own. We'd decided against trekking to Everest base camp due to how busy it gets now, our issues with cold and my issues with altitude, and considering the small window of time we had available. This ended up being a good decision as we would have been there during the recent avalanche. Our thoughts go out to the brave sherpas who died up there.

Kathmandu at that time of year was not my cup of tea, as it was too polluted and noisy. (Elizabeth went with the tour group girls to the old city, Bhaktapur, which was much nicer.) A fellow traveller had facebooked me about a homestay just outside of Kathmandu and we decided to go there for the 10 free days we had. Homestays are a brilliant idea: you spend time with a local family in their home, eating home cooked meals and exploring the nearby area. We had a great time with Babu and his family, and the meals were delicious and varied (still a lot of dhal bhat but different dishes in it). We were there during their Hindu new year and went to the local lake to join in the festivities for New Year 2071.

Babu's place
Babu had trekking options available and we decided to do some trekking. A new one Babu had created and that only seven other groups had attempted was for five days and called the 'Hidden Nepal' trek. Babu organised the guide and porter (sherpa) and after a couple of days relaxing we set off on our longest trek ever.

True to his word this trek was in areas where most trekkers and tourists never go. The locals would stare as we walked past, as fascinated by we strange people as we were by them, and slightly suspicious. We would smile and say 'Namaste' (roughly Hello) and their faces would start beaming and they would put their hands together and 'Namaste' us back. Our gregarious guide Nil stopped and chatted to many locals on our travels and relayed to us their interesting stories. In the whole five days we only had one child ask for something.

Sherpa House lodgings
I won't bore you with a blow by blow of the five days but try to give you a feel for the trek as a whole. Distance wise the first day is a killer at 28km, mostly steeply up or steeply down, climbing over a km and then descending 800m. In total 88km were trekked. Only basic accommodation was available. This meant no Western style toilets were ever seen, only the Eastern squat type, and only the first night's accommodation had a working shower (albeit cold). One town had no running water that day and one hotel, Sherpa House, only had an outside tap (so 'showers' those days were bucket jobs). On our last night we showered under a waterfall in an icy river.

mmmm Sal Roti
Lunch and dinner was dhal bhat each day but breakfast had a bit of variety depending on the speciality of the area. One breakfast offered was corn porridge but it turned out to be a very solid lump of polenta with a vegetable curry; another time it came turned into a soup with freshly picked curry leaves. Once we had boiled eggs with a fried potato and bean mixture, and universal in all areas were my favourite fried doughnuts (sal roti).

We met the most wonderful and genuine people and saw some of the most fabulous scenery, and had a brilliant time with our guide and porter. We even met an Australian who basically lives at Sherpa House and was very interested in catching up on the current goings on in Australia (not that we are that up to date). We both agree it was one of the most favourite things we've ever done, and we had the good news when we arrived back at Babu's house (which he did not think important enough to impart earlier) that we were the first group to complete the whole trek from his house and back on foot, doing the trek as designed in five days. Others had taken a taxi to the furthest point they could on the first day to complete the trek in four days, or caught a bus or taxi back on the fourth day and other combinations.

Please don't skip the last day if you do this trek. You will encounter the most untouched forests, reach one of the highest points of the trek, and get a marvellous panoramic view of Kathmandu (best time Oct to Jan) just before the 1km altitude drop completed almost entirely by stairs. After five days of wear and tear on the old bones this is an experience of its own.

I think I might let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Sorry for how many there are, I just had so much trouble choosing...

Bush restaurant

The town's only water supply

The town's flour mill, powered by a stream that
flows underneath

Mmm, is that a plate of Sal Roti I spy?
Don't know what they were,
but from plant to mouth they were delicious

We found a working pool table and taught our
guide and porter how to play

So cute

In my bowl as a soup only half an hour later

Having a break to enjoy the

An Australian living at Sherpa House

88 years old and smashing rocks to sell by the
side of the road as gravel

We visited a small Buddhist temple and were
treated to Fanta by this friendly lady

She thought it very funny that
we were all the same age

Us, our guide Nil and porter Raj