Farewell to BNBnow

It is June 18th, 2012.

You have just witnessed some of the best procrastination I have ever accomplished. Failing to not only upload the rest of the video from my journey home, but also failing to write this blog’s final entry in over 2 months is quite an accomplishment. Or lack thereof. Honestly, even I am astounding by how little I get done when videogames are available.

Not that I’ve just been playing videogames all this time (though I would’ve if I could’ve), I’m been hard at work! Finding and then moving into a new apartment – getting settled at my new job – seeing all my friends & family – failing to get dates – etc…. That stuff keeps me surprisingly busy.

In my last entry I promised I would finish uploading the video of the last few cities I visited on my journey home, but I haven’t. The thing is, I’m not sure how long it is going to take and I’m worried that every day I spend away from this blog will make it harder to jump back in and write that final entry. I’ve decided the blog needs to be put to sleep and that the video will get uploaded quietly, with no fanfare, in a few days/weeks. Please forgive me.

Well how do I wrap up this blog? The whole purpose was to keep me motivated – keep me searching for new experiences – while I was living in South Korea. Mission Accomplished. It was so enjoyable for me to write down what was happening and know that I am building a record of my experiences (a very public record – you’ll have to talk to me in person to hear most of the best stories!). I would love nothing more than to keep writing this blog, or start a new one, but who honestly wants to read about me playing videogames and working 9-5?My life is pretty darn interesting to me – I’m basically the center of my own universe – but I guess I can’t you to feel the same way. So now that the excitement has died down and I’m back to my normal life here in Canada, it’s time for BNBnow to say goodbye.

If, however, you are some sort of masochist who just genuinely enjoys reading things I write you can follow my username ‘bnbnower’. Though you should probably seek professional help first. If I ever do discover something that evokes enough passion in me to warrant a new blog, I’ll be sure to keep it under my same username.

Even though I have often referred to this blog as a record of my experiences while travelling abroad I feel that that definition does not quite do it justice. BNBnow was way more than just a journal to me. Knowing that I could instantly share what was going on in my life with just about everyone I know, even though I was so far away, offered a form of support and confidence that I could not have found in any other medium. Knowing that my friends and family were reading about my exploits made me feel like they were really experiencing them with me; it made it all feel more worthwhile.

These days I have a good friend who is applying to teach in Korea and I have been contacted by several other friends and friends of friends who want to ask me about my experiences and what they should expect. To anyone who discovers this blog and is considering a similar journey: Go do it! Do not hesitate. You will never regret it.

Alright well I suppose that is all I want to say in this final entry in BNBnow.

Thank you to everyone who ever read this, whether you know me or not, whether you liked it or not: YOUR readership kept me writing, experiencing, thinking and growing during my time away from home. I hope this blog has delighted, informed, amazed, captivated, motivated and obliterated you.

One last time, here is the link to my youtube channel, where you can see coreesponding video of almost everything I talk about in this blog: http://www.youtube.com/user/Tiddlywinkers88?feature=mhee

So after 73 posts, 5,890 views, 17 months, 10 countries, 1000’s of students and one very unfortunate dog it is time for me to finally say….

Goodbye!

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Homecoming

Today is Easter Sunday – April 8th, 2012.

I have been home from my travels for 17 days.

Let me tell you a bit about what it is like returning home after spending so much time in other cultures. Naturally, I will do this through plenty of analogies and anecdotes. I’ll start with an anecdote.

When I first got home I was still a little amazed by my ability to just talk to any old person I wanted. As I mentioned a few times over the last year, living in Korea was a little like becoming a toddler again. Suddenly I can’t read or write, I can’t speak or listen and I don’t know how to behave or use simple tools. So after adapting to these limitations and living with them for a year I find myself at home and suddenly I can comunicate again! It was a great feeling. One of my first days home in Ottawa I went for a walk down to the Rideau Center (a mall where I used to work and shop quite often). As I explored my old favorite stores I found myself striking up conversations with the clerks! I’d be like, ‘Hey there, I was wondering if you had such and such awesome video game?’ And they’d be like, ‘We sure do.’ And I’d be like, ‘Have you tried it? I heard it was pretty good. Such and such an aspect of it is supposed to be really entertaining.’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, it is so awesome!’ Throughout this whole exchange I would have this big grin on my face, because it was so awesome just being able to chat with a stranger in a store about my purchase.

Later I got my hair cut and found myself chatting away with the hair dresser at Magicuts – something that is very rare for me as usually I just glare at them disapprovingly and silently judge their hair cutting technique.

There are other things I’ve had to get used to as well, but they are all pretty insignificant. For example, I had forgotten how spacious grocery stores can be. I also found I was amazed at how fresh the fruits and vegetables are. I also totally forgot how utterly insane people are. Maybe they have always been crazy and I just couldn’t understand what they were saying in the countries I have been to. Or maybe it is just that I’ve been in Ottawa and Peterborough which, between the two of them, must contain more crazies per capita than any other industrialized (or, hell, even third world) country.

The most surprising thing about coming home though, is how quickly everything has gone back to normal. I can’t believe how fast I have fallen back into my old routines, how quickly the novelty of it all has worn off. When I went to Korea I was thrown into a huge culture shock situation. I was in the honeymoon stage for months. Months of everything being awesome and unique. I would notice even the smallest details and remark upon the differences between it and Canada. I’ve heard all about reverse culture shock and people saying how weird it feels to go back home – so I guess I was kind of expecting something similar to moving to Korea when I returned home. It really isn’t the case.

Let me hit you with a few analogies to illustrate my point. I feel like coming home after a year abroad is a bit like driving into a brick wall. Only instead of a speeding vehicle you have my life for the last year and instead of a brick wall you have normalcy. It’s like all the crazyness and newness and awesomness has come to a screeching halt, and I am back to normal very, very suddenly.

Here’s another (I think slightly better) analogy: Going to Korea (Ie. culture shock) was like jumping into a hot tub. At first it feels great. It’s all warm and nice and you are having a great time. Then, after a while, you start to overheat. All that warmness and niceness is now making you sweat and it is a little hard to breath (I am referring to the ‘rejection’ phase of culture shock, which I definitely went through). But, finally, if you stay in the hot tub and don’t get out your body will adjust and then your breathing gets easier and the hot tub just becomes normal. This is how I felt at the end of my year in Korea. I was used to it. It was all normal, all run of the mill – just regular life for me.

By comparison reverse culture shock – coming home after so long abroad – is like jumping suddenly into cold water. It’s a big shock, your body is thrown for a loop and you are like; ‘Ahhhh! Get me out! Get me out!’ But as anyone who has ever jumped into a pool or a lake knows: even though it is cold at first you get used to it very quickly. Then before you know it you are swimming around normally, having a grand old time. That is what coming home was like for me. A quick little ‘Ahhhhhh! Everything is so crazy!’ Followed by settling back into the temperature, so to speak, of normal life.

Man, I am SO good at analogies.

So things in Canada are proceeding normally. I have been fulfilling each of the cravings I have had for the last year one at a time. Eating a box and a half of Kraft Dinner was heaven on earth. Drinking a crisp, cold Molson Canadian is just like I remember it (that is to say, a little disappointing). Playing hours and hours of Playstation has never been better (seriously – going 13 months without Playstation was one of the hardest things about living in Korea – right up there with not seeing my family). I’ve started my new job (which is great!) and am gearing up for a summer of frisbee, rock climbing and Canadian exploits – camping, hiking, swimming in a lake, bonfires, cycling on bike paths – basically all of the things I really, really missed doing in Korea.

With all that said here is a short list of things from my travels:

The best things I did in Korea:

The sunrise hike to the top of Jangsan Mountain was by far one of the best experiences of my year, possibly my life.

The Boryeong Mud Festival is an absolutely awesome must experience event!

Gwangali Beach – beach combing, fireworks festivals, frisbee and just hanging out.

The DMZ. Probably one of the most interesting places on Earth. No visit to Korea would be complete without a visit here.

Starcraft tournaments. Watching professional video game players play against each other for thousands of dollars is a must see event, and not just for video game players – it is just super unique.

Jeju Island. If you get a chance, go. It’s too awesome to explain here, just go do it.

Night time SCUBA diving.

The things I would do differently:

Thankfully, there aren’t many. I would have gone to Thailand for longer. My life will not be complete until I have gone back to that country for a reasonable amount of time (at least one week).

Gone to a casino. This was on my list of things to do since nearly day one in Korea. I have never been to a casino before and there was one at Haeundae beach – maybe 25 minutes from my apartment. Gambling is illegal for Koreans so you have to show a foreign passport to get in. They even give you $20 in chips for your first visit. Now, I’ve never been to a casino, but I’m pretty sure I could have played that up to a few hundred in no time 😉 Somehow, sadly, I totally forgot about the casino and never made it out there.

Shark diving. There was an aquarium near Haeundae beach where you could go shark diving. I really, really wanted to go do this. I tried for months to get a group of people together to go with, but getting 5 people together at the same time who are also willing to pay $150 bucks is a challenge anywhere. I never made it for a swim and it is another thing that I failed to cross off my bucket list – for now.

After a year of living in Korea I’m pretty proud that those are really the only regrets I can think of. I tried really hard to make the absolute most of my time there and I, unmodestly, think I suceeded spectacularly.

My challenge now is to maintain that spirit of adventure and seeking new experiences for as long as I can now that I have returned home to expensive old real life.

That’s all for now, but stayed tuned for one final, farewell blog entry in a few days. Over the weekend I am going to be editing all my Europe video and posting those on my youtube.com account. I’ll write up a final send off blog and post the final link to those videos once they are all online. Please, shuffle back away from the edge of your seat if you can, because it will be a few days before they are up.

Tom out.

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The wonders of Paris

Well I am back! I made it home safe and sound to Canada yesterday afternoon.

It is now March 24th, 2012 and I am about to tell you about Paris!

Paris was an awesome city. I have to admit that I was struggling with a bit of travel burnout by the time I had reached Paris. You know how when you go for a run or do a set of push ups or situps the final few reps or kilometers are always the hardest? Even if you know you can do more or go longer? It’s kind of a mental thing. If you say you are going to do twenty pushups you start to feel tired at 15 and the last five are gruelling. However you could do 25 pushups and not feel tired at all until you hit 20, then its the last five that are difficult. I probably could have kept travelling for another month and I would have been just fine in Paris, but since it was the last stop, the last 4 days of over 13 months of travel, it just seemed much harder than it should have been.

This is not to say I did not enjoy Paris – quite the opposite in fact. I did, however, spend more time thinking about the following weeks and getting excited to board that final flight home than maybe I should have, considering I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Despite this, mental and physical fatigue I accomplished, probably, more in Paris than any of the other cities I have visited so far. That might be because thereis more to do and see in Paris, or it could have been the fact that I had four days to explore rather than the habitual three.

Like my last few entries, I saw so much and learned so much in Paris that I am not going to go into detail on the places I saw or the stories I heard. I will be more than happy to relate those to you in person of course! On day one I took another excellent free tour. It covered most of the major sights, although Paris is so spread out that sometimes the guide would just point to the site off in the distance and tell you a bit about it (these tours, after all, are intended as introductions to the cities – you need to seek out the major attractions on your own for closer looks). That first day I saw Notre Dame, la Ponte-Neuf (New Bridge, which was hilarious adorned with sculpted likenesses of over 300 drunk 16th century Frenchmen), the Louvre, L’Arc de Triumphe, the Egyptian Obelisk, the Grand Palais and Pettit Palais (the big palace and the little palace) and many more.

That evening I met up with the group of travellers I met at my hostel in London (they were studying abroad in Paris) and had several drinks with them at a bar near the Bastille Opera house. On day two I decided to do a closer inspection of some of the more famous places. I started with Notre Dame, which had free admission (unlike some other churches in Europe I know *cough*westminster abbey*cough*). Notre Dame absolutely blew me away. During high school trips to Montreal and Quebec city I saw many large churches built hundreds of years ago. They were always fairly impressive; high ceilings, stained glass windows, attractive art and sculptures and so on. But after years of school trips I am ashamed to admit that I had adopted a bit of a ‘you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’ attitude towards old churches. Well Notre Dame was a serious wake up call. It made the biggest and most impressive churches I’ve ever seen look like a child’s tree fort. The ceilings must have been 3 stories high. The stained glass windows had more square footage than my old apartment. The pillars that supported it all were too big for four people to touch hands around. The sheer scale and majesty of this nearly 850 year old cathedral boggled my mind.

After Notre Dame it was time for the Louvre. The Louvre is the biggest museum in the world. It holds over 35,000 individual pieces of art. I went in with the intention of seeing a few of the most notable parts (the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo etc…) It ended up taking me over 3 hours to see 5 major pieces. Mostly because walking from one major attraction to another involved passing several thousand lesser known pieces of art that were really no less interesting to look at. Finally I made it out of the Louvre, exhausted, having seen the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, colossal Ramses statue (and a mummy!), the Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Medieval Louvre and of course several thousand paintings, sculptures and artifacts.

I returned to my hostel for a rest then set out that night to see both the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower (both of which are said to be best viewed at night). The Eiffel Tower, in particular, was surprisingly impressive. Pictures and videos do not do that tower justice. It is big. Like, really big. I took some video and it does an okay job of conveying the scale of the tower, but nothing beats seeing it in person.

The third and final full day I had set aside for two things; a closer look at the Arc de Triumphe (which was also very large, much more so than pictures give it credit for) and the Catacombs. The catacombs were easily the coolest thing I saw in Paris, if not during my entire Europe trip. Originally they were a stone quarry some hundreds of years ago. Then in the 18th century (I think) the cemetaries and churches of France were running out of room, so they started digging up the remains of thousands (maybe millions) of people and dumping them into the old quarry beneath Paris. Eventually the bones were organized and stacked into a funeral arrangement and the people of Paris almost immediately opened the site for tourism.

Basically you walk down 130 steps underground into a huge network of small passages. The corridors are about 6 feet wide and probably 6 1/2 feet high. Along the walls are bones. Millions of bones all stacked in a way that reminded me, eerily, of how my Dad and I stack firewood. From the ground there would be about a 3 foot high stack of femur and arm bones, then one layer of skulls, then another 2 feet of bones then a final layer of skulls on top. I took some videos so you can see what I mean when I finally get them uploaded. The walk through the catacombs I did was about 2km longs, maybe 1.5km of which was the ossuary, where the bones are kept. It was alot of bones.

If all that wasn’t creepy enough, sometimes you would see clear signs of what individual people died from (like little round holes in the skulls or some that were caved in entirely). It was very unsettling being gazed at… judged even…. by thousands of eyeless skulls grinning at you as you passed.

Afterwards I had a hamburger.

While eating this hamburger I made a few observations about Parisians. One: the only men I saw who were clean shaven in Paris were the tourists. The grungy look is definitely ‘in’ in Paris. I briefly considered that there may be a bylaw in place in the city making it illegal to shave more than once every three days, but I found no evidence to support this theory. Two: Paris is not a neat city. There is alot of graffiti, and lot of litter, and alot of pee and puke smells. I’m not sure why this is, but it is strange after London and Berlin and Amsterdam (and even Moscow and Irkutsk). Nevertheless it is beyond doubt one of the coolest cities I have ever seen and I am convinced there would be very few people in the world that would not enjoy spending a few days there.

My final night I hung out with my Californian friends for the last time and had a last few beers to finish off my trip to Paris and, indeed, my entire year abroad. The next morning was a short train to Charles de Gaulle followed by a smooth 7 hour flight to Montreal (I say it was a smooth flight, but I was slightly appalled that the movie they played was ‘The Big Year’, which is about bird watching. Seriously…. bird watching. Of course they made it out to be an incredibly exciting, almost sport-like activity. Unfortunately my powers of suspension of disbelief are not so developed as to allow me to believe that.

Now that I am back home in Canada I’m going to start editing the video from the last month or so (from February 27th in Beijing up until March 23rd in Paris) and will be posting videos as I finish them. Next week I am going to write another entry on adapting back to Canadian life (sneak preview: don’t eat a ton of cheese and milk after eating almost none of same for 13 months. Just don’t.). About a week after that I will type up a final goodbye to BNBnow which will include the bests, worsts and everything in between of the last year.

So please stay tuned for those two final updates and keep your eyes peeled here: http://www.youtube.com/user/Tiddlywinkers88?feature=guide for all the videos!

That’s all for now!

 

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St. Patrick’s Day in London

Monday,March 19th, 2012

Today is my travel day between London and Paris. My flight doesn’t leave until 3pm this afternoon, however, so I have time to write up my London thoughts before I leave.

London was a pretty awesome city! There is an insane amount to do and see here. When I first got off the train at Victoria Station one of the first things I saw was one of those old style black cabs. The second thing I saw was a bright red double decker bus. London is so distinctive and full of similar icons of English culture that it is impossible to confuse it with any other city. When you are in London, you KNOW you are in London.

My first few minutes in London were actually a bit like meeting an old friend – or, a better comparison, finally meeting in person someone who you have been talking to on the phone for a long time. Everything seemed somewhat familiar and as I saw all these famous symbols of London (the taxicabs, buses, telephone booths, police officers etc…) I couldn’t help but shake my head and think; “Oh London, you are just as advertised.”

My hostel is located above a pub just a short distance from Victoria station. The pub has been key during my stay because of St. Patrick’s Day, which was two days ago.

My first morning in London was a drizzily, rainy day. I bought an umbrella and made my way to Hyde Park where I met the guide for the free tour. The London free tour was excellent, though the terrible weather put a dampener on things a bit. The tour covered Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace, the Prime Minister’s house, the Horse Guards Parade, St. Stephen’s clocktower (which is often mistakenly called ‘Big Ben’ – turns out Big Ben is just the name of the bell inside the tower, not the tower itself – thank you Tour guide!). Westminster Abbey was particularly impressive, it was covered with sculptures and designs and the longer I gazed at it the more cool things I noticed! There were many sites that I wanted to actually enter, but they were often prohibitively expensive. Westminster Abbey cost over 20 pounds for entry (around $30). Most of the famous tourist sites cost well over 15 pounds to enter. If you are planning a trip to London and really want to see these places, not just from the outside, be sure to budget several hundred dollars for tourist entry fees.

After the tour I went to a pub near Westminster Abbey for some fish and chips and a Guiness (it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all). The pub was playing a rugby game between France and Whales, and listening to all the drunken Englishmen screaming at the television was pretty entertaining. That afternoon I took a short nap before meeting up with some Californians that I met at my hostel. We had a few drinks at our hostel pub (while watching the Ireland/England rugby game, which was complimented by a MUCH rowdier crowd than the France/Whales game from that afternoon) and then wandered for a bit before finding another pub for dinner (this time I had bangers & mash). The rest of St. Patrick’s Day passed as you would expect St. Patrick’s Day in London for a bunch of young travellers to pass.

For my second full day in London I decided I had to go see the ‘home’ of Sherlock Holmes. I started by heading out to Westminster Bridge (because I wanted some more pictures of St. Stephen’s and the Thames). I walked along the river for a bit, then turned in and made my way to Trafalgar Square. On my way to Regent street I passed Her Majesty’s Theatre, where the Phantom of the Opera is currently playing. I nearly tore out my hair when I realized the show doesn’t play on Sundays and that I had missed a golden opportunity to see this show! (it has been on my list to do for several years now). Regent street led me to Piccadilly Circus where I picked up Oxford street and followed it all the way to Baker street.

The reason I am throwing all these street names at you is that I am hoping it is giving you a sense of that familiarity I feel with London. Nearly all of these streets and places I am seeing I have heard about, read about or seen in movies and television throughout my life – which is why I described coming to London as seeing an old friend. Anyway I saw the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker street. Then I decided to stretch my legs and walk down to London bridge and – just a little farther – the tower bridge of London. Hours later (and with very sore legs) I made it to the Tower of London and got some cool pictures of the Tower Bridge. I made it back to the hostel around 5pm that evening and had a few beers and a pizza to celebrate my last night in London.

Today I am going to take a short walk and maybe get a better look at Buckingham Palace (maybe catch the changing of the guard, if I’m lucky!). Then it’s off to the airport for my short flight to Paris and the last leg of my journey. I will spend 4 days in Paris and fly home on March 23rd. This means that I am 4 days away from finally getting back to Canada, and I have to admit I am really, really looking forward to finally getting home!

Stay tuned for the Paris update in a few days!

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The Amsterdam Whirlwind

Friday March 16th, 2012.

I have just arrived in London. I’m sitting in the pub that is the first floor of my hostel enjoying a nice cold Stella Artois. I must admit one of the things that I am really enjoying about Europe is the high quality beer.

Let me fill you in on my time in Amsterdam.

First of all, I think that Amsterdam is probably the coolest place I’ve ever been in my life. When I say cool I mean  laidback, relaxed, self-confident – that kind of cool. Everything from the people riding bikes everywhere to the patio bars on the canals to the shops and stores – all of them just contribute to this feeling that this place has it’s shit together. Amsterdam knows what is what, and it is damn good at showing it. Amsterdam is like a university senior and all the other cities I’ve travelled to are like high school freshmen – anything Amsterdam does seems awesome compared to other cities; it has a laidback attitude that is in contrast to other cities’ uptight rigidity and – of course – it gets all the hottest girls.

After my last blog entry I took a walk down to the heart of Amsterdam. Naturally, my first stop was the Red Light district – home to the legal prostitution that (along with the tolerance of marijuana usage) has made Amsterdam famous. When I entered the district my jaw dropped. There were tiny alleys off of the main roads that held windows bathed in red light. Inside these windows were girls actively engaged in luring johns for sex. I noticed my mouth was becoming rather dry a few blocks later and finally managed to shut it as I passed more and more windows. I have read about the red light district and even wrote a paper in university about the exploitation of women and human trafficking, so I thought I had some idea of what the district would be like. Even so I was amazed at how beautiful the girls actually were. Close your eyes and imagine a prostitute. Got it? Okay open your eyes.

Hey, open your eyes. That’s enough imagining now. Um.. yeah, trying to tell you about Amsterdam here, please stop imagining prostitutes now…

Anyway, I would be willing to bet that most of you imagined middle aged highly disheveled woman wearing a ridiculously skimpy outfit standing on a street corner. That was certainly my mental picture of sex workers prior to my visit to Amsterdam – even though I should have known better. Well, one aspect of that image of sex workers applies to the ladies of Amsterdam – the skimpy clothes. However, the majority of the girls that I saw in the district were young and stunningly beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few clunkers, and occasionally I would wander down an alley that turned out to be focused on plus sized or elderly women. But other than these detracting places most of the girls looked like they could have been models. Another observation I made about Amsterdam (and the Red Light District in particular) is that it smelt just like the living room of my first apartment. ‘But Tom, how can a city smell like your old living room’ I hear you ask? Because my old living room, thanks to my 6 roomates, smelled like burning cannabis. Of course, marijuana is tolerated in Amsterdam (I say tolerated, not legal, because it is not officially legalized, it is simply ignored) and therefore the touristy areas are heavily coated in the scent that so strongly reminds me of University.

My first day was spent doing one of the free tours offered by Sandemans New Europe tour company. As I may have mentioned, this company promotes free tours in many of the major European cities. I took one of these tours in Berlin and was pleased with it’s entertainment value and quality. I decided to try the same tour in Amsterdam and so far Sandemans has been two for two. On the tour I learned several really interesting things about Amsterdam. For one, all the buildings lean forward slightly in the old parts of the city (Amsterdam, unlike many European cities, survived WWII mostly unscathed and therefore retains it’s old style architecture). The buildings also have hooks at the top of them. The reason for this is that since the city is built so close to sea level, flooding was always a concern – and as a result people wanted to store their goods near the top of their houses. The hooks at the top were used as pulleys to haul items up to the attic for storage, and all the houses lean forward so the goods would not bump into the buildings on their way up – saving countless windows. Furthermore, many of the buildings have developed a slight lean to the left or right,as a result of the marsh the city is built on. The result is that if you really pay close attention to the buildings you begin to feel like you are in a Dr.Seuss book or old cartoon, as all the buildings jut out at odd angles that sometimes seem to defy gravity. When I first noticed this I wondered if I was developing a contact buzz, but the tour guide confirmed that the buildings actually do look that way.

Amsterdam is full of old buildings, churches and monuments and – just like Berlin – to attempt to enumerate them all here would be little more than a test of your patience. However, one or two of the coolest places I saw would be the world’s second narrowest house (a little strip of a building just a bit wider than a door frame), the sex museum (which contains more nudity and giant penises than I have ever seen in one place – and I’ve looked at myself in the mirror on many occasions) and dozens of coffee shops that openly sell and advertise marijuana and mushrooms.

Day two was spent recuperating from the pubcrawl that I took on my second night in the city. The pubcrawl wound it’s way through 5 bars and one club in the Red Light District and I had an absolute blast (I hung out with a few people I met on my free tour that afternoon and met two Canadians, one of whom was from as close to my own home as Lindsay, Ontario!). The pubcrawl gave a good taste of Amsterdam nightlife, which is similar to the rest of the world’s nightlife except every bar had smoking rooms where you could smoke cigarettes or marijuana. Even though I was a little slow off the marks the morning after the pubcrawl, I did manage to drag myself out to the Heineken Experience. The Heineken Experience is a tour of one of the original Heineken breweries in Amsterdam. The whole tour was really informative and I enjoyed it alot, but the constant plugging of how good Heineken beer is was a little wearisome. Every piece of interesting information about the brewing process was punctuated by something along the lines of “…which helps make Heineken a cool, crisp drink, everytime!”.  

I spent the second half of my last day having lunch with some people from my hostel and engaging in one of my favorite activities; people watching! Even though the city had a good public transit system, it was always much more enjoyable to walk around; the views of the canals, the architecture and people watching was some of the best of any place I have ever been to.

Tonight I will take a preliminary reconnaisance wander through London aand find somewhere to eat. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, so I will have to punctuate whatever touristy things I get up to with the occasional beer in celebration!

Stay tuned for my blog about London in a few days!

That’s all for now.

 

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Three Days in Berlin

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Berlin was so awesome! Like, seriously. So awesome.

As I write this I am sitting in the bar of my new hostel in Amsterdam. I arrived about an hour ago and have just settled down for a beer and some map gazing to acclimatize myself to Amsterdam. This post however, is going to be about looking back at my all too brief time in Berlin.

Berlin was really, really cool. I may be repeating myself, but I really want to stress this. Where to start? First of all, I am finally (FINALLY) back in a country where I can reasonably expect to be able to communicate with anyone in English. I would compare this feeling to the feeling of taking a huge breath of fresh air after being in a particularly dirty turkish prison washroom. What I mean to say is, it is a relief. So with a new-found spring in my step (and thoroughly enjoying the mild ten degree above weather) I set out to explore Berlin.

My first day was spent settling in to my hostel (shower, shave, map gazing – much the same as what I am doing right now in Amsterdam). After I got settled I went for my customary recon walk. Consulting my map, I figured I could follow the river Spree, which runs though the heart of Berlin, all the way to Tiergarten Park. At the time I was totally unaware of the significance of this area – I just like parks. I got there and made my way to the Brandenburg Gate. Not entirely ignorant of European history (but almost) I had at least heard of Brandenburg gate and knew it was a historical monument of some significance. I’d like to just quickly mention that during my time in Berlin I learned a great deal about the city’s history and the significance of its many buildings and monuments. I will not elaborate on the history of these places in this entry for two reasons 1) if you are interested in learning about these places a simple google search of their names will tell you way more than I could and 2) I am terrified of making a mistake and feeling foolish when I discover my error after all my family and friends have read it. That being said, if there is a monument with a particularly poignant meaning or humorous anecdote associated with it I may relate that to you. Right then, on with my account of Berlin. The Brandenburg gate was interesting not only for its historical and cultural significance, but also for the awesome people watching opportunities it provided, being surround by tourists at pretty much all hours of the day.

After the Gate I walked a short distance and found the Reichstag. The Reichstag was a singularly fascinating building, made even more so by the fact that it is yet another building that I have visited in a videogame. As I gazed at the imposing architecture, munching on the absolutely delicious giant pretzel I had just purchased, I reflected on the time I (virtually) stormed the stairs of this building in the climactic final level of Call of Duty: World at War, before being repeatedly burned alive by the flamethrower-wielding Nazi who would jump out from behind one of the pillars near the entrance as I approached. I saw some young children frolicking towards that very pillar and I broke into a dead sprint, attempting to reach them before the flamethrower Nazi could cause them harm, when I was brought to my senses by the metal barriers and ticket windows that blocked my path.

The next day was Sunday and I decided to visit the concentration camp just north of town. Sachsenhausen, as it is called, was a forced labor camp composed of mainly political prisoners, common criminals, Jehovah’s Witness and of course, Gypsies and Jews. While it was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, it was still a solemn and disturbing place to visit. Even though the extermination of Jews was not the objective of the camp, random violence, torture, human experimentation and murder did occur on an apparently shocking scale. I had never been to a concentration camp before, but I have to say Sachsenhausen lived up to my expectations of what a visit to one of these sites would be like. What brought it home for me more than anything I saw or read during the tour was how half  of my tour group – including the guide – was choking back tears at several points in the tour. Even after all these years and being as far removed from the horrors of that time as we (the young people of my generation) are, the site was still able to stir up such powerful feelings of sadness and empathy for the victims of the place even after 3 generations.

For day three of my stay in Berlin I decided it was time to take one of the free tours that are offered in many European cities. The tour lasted about 4 hours and covered a lot of awesome sights in Berlin. I really can’t go into detail about all of them, because I simply don’t have enough time or enough beer left in my glass. Let me cover a few of the highlights that I would tell anyone who was planning a trip to Berlin that they simply must see. First is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I recommend taking a second to google this, or else wait a few weeks for me to post the video of my trip and then watch it. The memorial was a huge area (maybe the size of a building) that was essentially a field of gray concrete blocks of various heights. The monument comes with no explanation or description – it is left for each person who visits it to decide how to think and feel about it. Another site we saw is the place where Hitler committed suicide (it is now a parking lot, if you were wondering). The bunker he was in when it happened was too well-built to be properly demolished, so the area above ground is not suitable for the foundation of a proper building, concordantly Hitler’s place of death is now a parking lot. Another place that will stick with me is Bebelplatz. This is the location where the Nazis burned thousands of books after their rise to power. The monument in this place is really thought-provoking. Beneath the sidewalk there is a huge white room with floor to ceiling white bookshelves (empty bookshelves that could contain up to 20,000 books). The room is totally sealed but you can look down into through a glass window set into the sidewalk at the empty space and the hundreds of empty shelves and reflect on the loss of the 20,000 books they could have held.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my time in Berlin I woke up this morning and used the incredibly efficient and punctual public transportation system (Berlin’s transit system might be one of the only transit systems, in any country that I’ve been to, that I would be happy to rely on) to get to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam. I’ve only been in Amsterdam for a few hours now, but already I have the feeling that this city will be more exciting and involve much more drinking than any other stop on my Europe tour. For one thing, I am planning on visiting the ‘Heinenken Experience’ – which is a tour of a former Heineken brewery (two drinks included FREE with admission!). Secondly, my hostel is clearly a party hostel – the table I am sitting at faces the glassed-in smoking room (and it isn’t cigarette smoke that wafts out at me when someone goes in or out) – and there is a bar in the basement.

Unfortunately you will have to wait a few days for my update on my adventures in Amsterdam! Stay posted though!

That’s all for now

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My short stay in Moscow

March 10th, 2012

It is Saturday evening and I find myself in Berlin. I have been firing out these blog entries hand over fist that last few days. I don’t like to write this many entries this often – and those of you who subscribe to the blog are probably sick of e-mail notifications. Unfortunately it is necessary for me to try and keep up with all that is happening. So tonight I’m going to quickly type up a blurb about Moscow and I’ll write up my experiences in Berlin in a few days.

One thing I would like to mention about the trans-siberian train into Moscow that I forgot is the absolutely unforgettable experience of throwing back a  vodka shot toasting the health of newly re-elected President Putin with two Russian gentlemen. How often does something like that happen?!

So Moscow. Hmmm Moscow. I don’t have a lot to say about it. For one thing, it was cold. Very cold. I was also trying to mentally recuperate from my long train ride so I found I was content to surf the internet – glorying in being re-connected to the world – instead of furious sightseeing. I did notice that food was indeed expensive in Moscow – though not quite as bad as I had expected. In Irkutsk I met a Brit who told me it was outrageously expensive and I had prepared myself for the worst.

One my first day in Moscow I hunted down a McDonalds to try the world’s most expensive Big Mac (it tasted exactly like every other Big Mac I’ve ever had, which is to say, satisfyingly delicious). Day two was my major sightseeing day. Moscow was a few degrees warmer than Irkutsk, but it is a windy place. The wind easily made it feel 10 degrees cooler than the actual temperature. My Canadian tolerance of cold weather was put to the test, certainly, but I found it equal to the challenge. I started by walking towards the Red Square and Kremlin building. When I arrived at my destination I wandered fora bit, taking in the interesting architecture. There were statues and memorials of all kinds littering the area.

One thing I have noticed while travelling is that I greatly enjoy seeing places in person that I have visited in books, movies or video games. In Hong Kong I couldn’t get enough of looking at the two towers that Batman glides between in ‘Dark Knight’, and I loved seeing the floating restaurants and ‘The Peak’ that figure prominently in ‘Tai-Pan’ and ‘Noble House’ novels. Red Square gave me another jolt of recognition as I realized I had already visited it in the videogame ‘Ghost Recon’. Indeed as I walked through the area I couldn’t help but think; ‘Yeah, that’s the corner that I had to sneak my squad around, and right here is where the first tank was sitting’ etc, etc… The Kremlin was really impressive – an old style white and gold building surrounded by a huge red brick wall. I also saw the Lenin Mausoleum (where on certain days you can go and see Lennin’s preserved corpse) but it was closed.

I wandered this tourist heavy location for a while and took some video and pictures of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Afterwards I walked south and followed the river down to the Church of Christ the Savior – a beautiful and massive white and gold church just minutes from the Kremlin. Next I meandered back in the direction of my hostel, stopping for a coffee and some people watch, of course.

This morning I woke up early and caught a flight to Berlin, where I have been doing some light sightseeing (discovering several more places I have murdered my way through in videogames) and I will post my impressions and adventures in Berlin in a few days.

That’s all for now!

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The Trans-Siberian Railway

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

I am in Moscow. Stage I of my super-ultra-mega giga plan is complete. Or is it Stage II? I don’t know stages….

I feel, at this moment, exactly the way a super villain must feel when all the pieces of their dastardly plan are falling into place. I wish I had a cat to stroke, but since none is presenting itself I will content myself with one minute of leaning back in my computer chair in this hostel, tapping my finger tips together in front of my face while a chilling cackle escapes my lips….

Right, now that that is over with, let me fill you in on my train ride from Irkutsk. I must admit that the second leg of my journey was not nearly as enjoyable as the first one. There are several reasons for this that I am sure you will pick up on as I describe the journey. First of all, for this leg I was in a second class, 4 berth sleeper. The compartment wasn’t actually any bigger than my two bed first class compartment on the trans-mongolian train, and yet it contained 4 beds. Thankfully, I never had more than one roomate at a time over the entire 86 hour journey.

My first partner was a lovely old Russian woman named Ala. Some of you may know that I have a tendency to assign people I barely know with nicknames in my own mind. I privately nicknamed Ala ‘Golden Face’ because of the unusually large amount of gold teeth she was sporting up in her grill. She was polite and quiet and though she spoke no English (and I no Russian) we still became fast friends as I showed her pictures and video of my teaching days and she showed me pictures of her family and (repeatedly) her attractive grandaughter (whose E-mail address she gave me before getting off the train). I only had the pleasure of Golden Face’s company for one evening and part of the next morning as she was getting off in Krasnoyarsk (spelling?). I wasn’t entirely sad to see her go, I must admit because it left me with an empty compartment to myself.

For the rest of that day I contented myself with looking out the window, reading my book and quietly contemplating how much the contents of Golden Face’s mouth would fetch at market. The scenery for most of the journey was snowy winter wonderland, occasionally punctuated with a small town or village. Occasionally the landscape would change from flat to hilly or back again, but I really saw no spectacular sights such as those on the trans-mongolian trip. Sometimes I could look out the window and imagine myself crossing Canada, the two landscapes are so similar. Though, despite having many coniferous trees, like Canada, Siberia had a remarkably large amount of birch trees, which aren’t so common in the parts of Canada I have seen.

The monotonoy that was settling over me in Ala’s absence would soon be broken, however, by the arrival of Andre, a heavily built middle-aged Russian man. Andre’s English was very limited, but he did know a few words that occasionally came in handy. He was able to convey that he was on his way to Omsk and that he was an oil pipeline engineer. Andre boarded the train around 8pm (I was just finishing my instant noodle supper when he joined me) and he wasted no time in running off to the dining car to order some food and beers for the both of us. We were joined shortly by his boss, Jon. Jon was quite a character. I suspect that he may have been heavily involved in the Siberian mafia. He was a big man with possibly the largest hands I have ever seen. He was wearing a black turtle neck sweater under a black blazer with black pants. He brought with him a plastic bottle full of vodka infused by arctic cranberries.

I have to admit, it took Jon a few minutes to warm up to me. He eyed me suspiciously for a time, but I could tell he was warming as I showed him and Andre pictures of the cute little hellspawns I used to teach in Korea. His cold, appraising facade finally broke when, discovering I was from Canada, asked me if I like to fish. Like all great fishermen, I gave the ‘a little gesture’ with my hand coupled with a nodding of the head and the barest fraction of a wink that suggested I was actually quite talented at it, but only being modest. This did the trick and – his previously impassive face breaking into a wide grin – he shook my hand enthusiastically.

I would like to point out at this time that all of the above occurred without the use of verbal language. I was able to convey all of this information about myself using only simple words (like ‘Canada’ while pointing at myself and interpreting their miming of various questions). Jon’s miming of fishing looked alot more like firing a gun at the ground than casting a fishing line, but when I did the ‘reeling in’ motion with my hand and gave him a questioning look he confirmed that fishing is what he meant.

What followed is one of those great drinking nights that springs out at you when you least expect it. The three of us polished of all of the vodka and beers, and we were shaking hands and giving high fives like old friends, even though I could hardly understand them. The universal language of men took over when they asked if I had a girlfriend, to which I answered in the negative, and they both eagerly mimed that I should put off getting married for as long as possible. Later I found that Andre had fought in Afghanistan in 1983. This was towards the end of the night when we were all reaching the height of our comraderie (and the vodka bottle was at its lowest level, though I’m sure the two aren’t related).

As he reminisced about this the mood grew solemn and I found myself wishing that I could tell him that I am proud to shake the hand of any man who fights for his country, regardless of the political motivations of the people that sent him there. Unfortunately I was too drunk to work out how to convey this sentiment through mime (which, had I managed it, would have been some of my best work) so I opted to shake his hand and pat his shoulder instead.

The next morning Andre and Jon disembarked and I enjoyed a compartment to myself for the rest of the journey. I wish I could say the remaining day and a half were quiet and uninterrupted, but unfortunately that was not the case. On either side of my compartment was a Russian family that had been on the train since Irkutsk. They took up 3 compartments and I think there must have been 12 of them at least – including three children. The children were given free reign in the carriage, and after 3 days were sufficiently bored to start being interested in the quiet foreigner in compartment 5. There were three of them, one boy who I guessed was around 6, a girl of the same age and another girl who was probably 3. The girl of six did not annoy me, though she often would walk past my door a little slower than necessary while staring at me intently. The youngest girl, however, was annoying enough to earn a nickname. I called her ‘Screecher’. She earned this nickname because the only sounds I ever heard from her lips were blood curdling, infant waking up 3 times a night style screams which issued from her lips an average of 3 times a day.

Try as I might, I was never able to establish a pattern that her wailings followed, though it seemed to me that it was most common just when I was drifting off to sleep, at a particularly good point in my book, or otherwise enjoying a particularly poignant train of thought. She also took to standing in the doorway of my cabin and staring at me for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes (I’m serious, while pretending not to notice her while reading my book one time I discreetly checked my watch to time how long she could stare at me while I lay on my bed, totally imobile and doing nothing more exciting than breathing quietly). 2 minutes.

By far the worst of the three, however, was the young boy, whom I took to calling ‘Corpse Face’. The reason for this nickname is because his bright blue eyes, with that vacant and dull stare common in young children, coupled with his pale skin, reminded me of the monstrous living dead creatures known as ‘The Others’ from a popular series of novels I have been reading. Corpse Face was bolder than his sister (or cousin, or whoever the other girl was) and he started saying things to me in Russian from the doorway of my compartment. Now, I know I am coming across as an asshole, but I know that if you give a kid that age an inch, they are going to cling like a sock to the top of the dryer. One smile, one attempt to play a simple game, and I knew that child would not leave me alone for the rest of the journey. I don’t want to sound like I hate kids – because I don’t – It’s just that I really did not fancy being interrupted hourly by a bored 6 year old who hadn’t bathed in days (not a slight on him – none of us had bathed since boarding the train) and with whom I could not communicate.

My solution was offer him unyielding indifference. After his first attempt at conversation I peered at him over the top of my e-reader (with what I hoped was a Ebenezer Scrooge-calibur scowl on my face) and told him I don’t speak Russian. After one or two more of these appearances, in which he paused at my door to say something in Russian (I can only assume that he had forgotten how unsuccessful his previous attempts were), he actually ventured into my compartment. I ignored him has he sat on the bed opposite me and said something else in Russian. Then he stood up and said something else and, able to ignore him no longer, I looked at him with an exasperated look and told him again that I do not understand him and I do not speak Russian. After another moment he left the compartment. I hastily stood up and closed the door after him, leaving only a crack open for ventilation.

Some time later I spotted one of Corpse Face’s creeping, vacant eyes gazing at me through the crack in the door. He pushed the door open (uninvited, I might add) and came back in and sat quietly next to me. Some of you might be hoping that this story will have a happy ended. That his adorable persistence would melt through my stoic defenses and we would become best of friends. Let me assure you right now that that did not happen. I mean, excuse me, but I was relaxing and enjoying a quiet train ride and a good book, so forgive me for assuming it is not my responsibility to provide entertainment for someone else’s child. I did, however, tolerate him sitting on the edge of my bed, but when – after several minutes – he attempted to tickle my feet I drew the line. Indicating through sign language that I was going to take a nap I made him leave my compartment before shutting the door in his face. Call me cruel if you want, but it would have taken a Santa Claus calibur love of children to undertake the task of entertaining 3 small children in a 7’x5′ train compartment for 42 hours.

I kept my door mostly shut after that, or would leave it open until I saw that the three nuisances (I mean, children) were loose in the hallway, at which point I would promptly shut it.

When the train finally pulled into Moscow at 4am this morning I was not sad to see the back of it, although the experience was not at all entirely unenjoyable. As with the trans-mongolian leg of the trip I emerged very relaxed and at peace, as anyone who just spent nearly 4 days totally detached from the chaos of the world would. I took refuge from the cold in the train station while waiting for the metro to open and, at 6am, made my way to my hostel. The hostel is in a good location but I haven’t spent much time wandering the city yet. I did hunt down a McDonalds this afternoon because I wanted to experience the world’s most expensive Big Mac (Moscow is a very expensive city and, last I heard, had the highest prices for a Big Mac sandwich of any city in the world). Today I am going to relax at the hostel and plan the European leg of my journey (booking flights/trains and hostels). Tomorrow I will explore Moscow – I’m intending to head to the Kremlin, which is nearby, and see some of the old churches and historical sites in the area.

Stay tuned for an update on Moscow in the coming days.

That’s all for now.

 

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A brief stay in Siberia

Right then. It’s Sunday March 4th, 2012 and I am in Irkutsk, Russia.

Tonight at 6pm I board the train for Moscow, which will be an 86 hour voyage across Russia. Fingers crossed I get another compartment to myself like the first leg of my trip, but I’m nevertheless preparing mentally preparing myself to spend 4 days with 4 drunken boisterous Russians.

Let me fill you in on the second half of the Trans-Mongolian train and my experiences in Irkutsk.

The second half of the train ride (I think my description of it left off in the Gobi desert the morning after we crossed into Mongolia) was fairly uneventful. The desert slowly became whiter and whiter throughout the morning, though the snow never became particularly deep (just a dusting, like repeated morning frosts building on each other). I saw lots of cows, sheep and yaks out the train window and occasional Mongolian villages. Some of the villages were made of wooden houses with western architecture others were a mixture of wood cabins and yurts (fabric houses that are circle shaped, somewhat like a native american tipi) and other villages (the most interesting ones) were comprised entirely of yurts with fences containing livestock and dogs running about.

As we approached Ulaan Bataar the villages became closer together and we started seeing paved roads with sedans cruising along beside us. Ulaan Bataar itself was a biggish looking city with concrete apartment buildings, gas stations and everything else you would expect to see in a city of its size.

After Ulaan Bataar the scenery returned to desert, though as we went further and further north we began to see more trees and hills. That night we reached the Russian border and after a thorough inspection by the Mongolian authorities (my compartment got the drug sniffing dog and everything!) we crossed into Russia. Again, the border crossing happened at night and took hours as they came on board, checked our passports, took them off for two hours or so before finally returning them. By the time we crossed into Russia I was getting thoroughly annoyed with the border crossings, as they were stressful interruptions in the otherwise peaceful, relaxing journey. Furthermore, they took place at night, and once my passport left my hands I could not even consider sleep until it was returned to me (which means every border crossing I ended up staying awake till nearly 1am).

I awoke the next morning to see a beautiful winter landscape and a small village with wooden cabins (complete with smoke rising from the chimneys) nestled amongst birch trees at the base of some high mountains. I got some good video that will describe it better. My final day on the train was spent taking in the sights and reading my book. Around 10am we hit Lake Baikal, which is one of the largest lakes in the world. For about 5 hours we skirted the edge of the lake (it is about 700km long) before finally turning away from it to follow a river that led to Irkutsk.

Let me briefly talk about my first impression of Siberia. I want to make a note that everything I see in Russia is seen through the lens of someone who has lived in Asia for over a year. So it is hard for me to tell what my impressions of Irkutsk would be if I hadn’t just been living in Asia. For instance, walking around the streets of the city I notice that the women are all tall and absolutely gorgeous. Is this because Russian women are all tall and beautiful? Or is it because I haven’t seen this many western looking women in one place for over a year (bear in mind that these Russian women might only seem tall, compared to the Korean girls I am used to)? I also can’t help but feel like Irkutsk is very similar to my hometown, Peterborough. The buildings are all 2 or 3 stories tall, the sidewalks are spacious and uncrowded and the streets are filled with sedans and SUVs. Again, I ask you: Is Irkutsk really similar to Peterborough? Or is it just that this is the first time I have been anywhere that even remotely resembles a western city? The fact that the streets are totally devoid of scooters, or that the people I pass on the sidewalks give me more space instead of purposely doing their best to bump into me, or that the buildings aren’t covered in neon signs might not indicate Irkutsk is similar to home, but that it is merely different from Asia.

Yesterday I took a guided tour to Lake Baikal, which lies about 60km away from Irkutsk. I had already seen the lake from the train, but it was just as impressive up close. On the way to the lake we stopped at Russia’s equivalent of Lang Pioneer Village (a living museum in Canada that depicts life in the days of the pioneers). We toured an open air museum and saw some old style Russian houses and schools. It was interesting.

Afterwards we visited an old Church in Listvyanka, a small village on the shore of Baikal. Then we headed into the village itself (we saw some dogsleds, but unfortunately I didn’t get to go). The village makes a living by catching and selling fish from the Lake. The lake, by the way, is one of the deepest lakes in the world. You can drink from it all year round without filtering the water. Furthermore, the lake has an unusually high concentration of oxygen, making it home to thousands of unique species of fish and algae. The lake contains 80% of Russia’s fresh water supply and 20% of the worlds. I really can’t get across the scale of this lake to you properly – it stretched out to the horizon and looked more like the ocean than a lake. The craziest part is it is frozen solid – the ice that covers it is around 3 meters thick. You could walk out and get lost on the ice, being unable to see land in any direction. Absolutely amazing.

Today I spent the day touristing at Kirov Square in Irkutsk – there are lots of museums and hundred year old churches in this area, as well as statues and monuments to famous Russians. I saw a group of Russian soldiers, about 12 of them, marching in that old style you see in videos, with one leg shooting way up to hip height. Meanwhile, another group of soldiers saluted around a torch/fire in the center of a monument, which was a little reminscent of the eternal flame at Canada’s Parliament. I wanted to take some video for you guys, but chickened out because; A) taking video of soldiers is always a little dodgy and B) I have read that it is very rude in Russia to take pictures of anyone without asking their permission. After the square I hit up a grocery store and stocked up on food and supplies for my 4 day journey on the Trans-Siberian.

Speaking of the Trans-Siberian, wish me luck and I’ll update you again when I arrive in Moscow.

That’s all for now.

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Beijing and the Trans-Mongolian

 

I have just arrived in Irkutsk, Russia. During my train journey from Beijing I wrote a quick update that I will now post for you here. Note that the date is yesterdays, as that is when I typed it in my train compartment.

I will enjoy myself in Irkutsk for the next 2 days and will write another blog entry detailing the remaining part of the train and my experiences on Lake Baikal.

 

It is Thursday, March 1st, 2012

As I type this I am gazing out od mrnfac, sorry. While I typed that last sentence I was gazing out of my train compartment’s window at the vast Mongolian plains. I am hurriedly typing this entry on a word processor (my wi-fi is not working, for some reason). I’ve decided trying to cover everything I’ve seen and done when I arrive in Irkurkst will take too much of my valuable dog-sledding time (which is one of the activities I’m hoping to do on the frozen Lake Baikal). When I get back to a reliable internet connect I will post this, then the next entry will cover Irkurkst and the trans-siberian train. So how did I wind up looking out a window at the barren plains of Mongolia? Let me back up and start from Beijing.

 

On Monday afternoon I landed in Beijing. I quickly found my hostel thanks to having already stayed there once during my summer vacation. I was amazed at how familiar Beijing felt, right down to the attitude of the bus driver to the small cough I developed as I wait for my lungs acclimate themselves to the pollution. Day two in Beijing found me acquiring my train ticket and then relaxedly people watching from a Starbucks window, before stopping at several 7/11s to collect provisions for the train ride.

The next morning I awoke and set off for the train station with my new found travelling partner (a girl staying in my hostel who is also returning home after teaching abroad, oddly enough). We found our way onto the correct train without too much difficulty (though I am glad I had a western companion, as all sorts of doubts can creep into an idle mind waiting for an important train in a foreign land). Boarding the train I was delighted to find that I have a compartment all to myself (I’m staying in first class – so I should share the compartment with only one other person, but luckily the train is mostly empty). Some people may be put out by having no companion for a 54 hour train ride, but I am excited! Not only  can I lounge about and take up as much room as I want, but I don’t have to socialize with anyone and can relax completely in my comfortable room.

Yesterday was spent staring out the window at the awesome sights (more about those in a second), eating in the dinning car with my western partner Eve and newly discovered other westerner Shawna, reading my books (finished Prisoner of Azkaban in one day – working my way through the whole Harry Potter series) and drinking instant coffee from the healthy supply I brought myself. It has been a quiet and reflective journey, and I’ve spent it admiring the sights, reading good books and thinking about the ethereal nature of life (okay, that last one is a lie – I’m not trying to discover more to life than videogames and alcohol – honest!).

Speaking of sights, I have taken a fair bit of video and pictures, but let me describe them a bit. The area in the hours north of Beijing has been the most visually stimulating. The tracks carried us through a mountainous region with lots of tunnels and valleys and rivers and farms and villages. Looking out the window for this period was really amazing. Every tunnel plunged the whole compartment into total darkness for 10 seconds to 2 minutes, and when we emerged from the tunnel a different scene invariably appeared before our eyes for anything from 5 seconds to 5 minutes before the train darted into the next tunnel. For me the window became like a television screen and the tunnels were channel changes, or commercials. We’d shoot into one tunnel, then just as my eyes adjusted to the dark we would pop out into a well lit scene of a frozen river meandering between sheer mountain walls on all sides, some 50 feet below us, one tunnel later and its a view of a small village nestled into a mountain side, then a factory smokestack in the distance set into the valley between two steep mountains. Quite fascinating.

By lunch time we were into flatter terrain and the ground had turned dusty and brown. The vegetation in this area was mostly shrubs and grass, though there were farms everywhere with neatly planted rows of small trees (maybe olives? Not sure). At dinner time we watch the sunset from the dining car over the foothills of inner Mongolia (just north of the great wall, which is now Chinese territory). Finally, around 8pm we arrived at the China/Mongolia border. Customs officials took my passport and the train pulled off into a warehouse where the Chinese wheels were replaced with a wider gauge wheel used in Russia and Mongolia. The process was loud and took several hours. Looking out the window I tried to see the technicians at work, but couldn’t make out much. Every now and then the entire train would rock violently and there would be a loud bang as another car was removed or re-attached. Hours later our passports were returned (sigh of relief) and we started moving again (it was now nearly 11pm). After about a 20 minute trip we hit the Mongolian border, customs officials took our passports again, and we waited another hour or two. Finally the train got under way just after 1am and we started our journey into Mongolia.

Waking up this morning I was treated to a beautiful view of the Gobi Desert. Now I’ve just returned from breakfast in the newly attached Mongolian dining car. Over our lingering coffees we watched as the sand and scrubby grass has given way to white snow with brown scrubby grass. The landscape is very flat and, I must admit, thought-provoking. We will be arriving at Ulaan Bataar around 1pm this afternoon and the Russian border this evening. Tomorrow, around noon, we will arrive in Irkutsk so I have just over 24 more hours of train time.

One thing I need to mention about the train before I sign off is the bathrooms. Oh the bathrooms! Easily the most entertaining aspect of the journey, they are. It all starts out pretty normal, there is a toilet and sink, all that good stuff. After you do your business, thats when the fun begins! To flush you step on a small pedal and then watch (in my case fascinated and delighted) as your business is jettisoned into a small chute and fired out the bottom of the train right onto the tracks! Looking into the toilet you can actually see the train tracks whizzing by beneath you! Needless to say I’ve made a point of drinking more coffee than is necessary to ensure many trips to this wonderful apparatus.

Okay, so maybe 54 hours on a train is getting to me… a little.

That’s all for now!

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