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Been there, Dan that!

a travel blog by Dan

Well, i'm off to wing it in China for a while, there is some structure to my plans i'm just not sure what they are yet! Thats not entirely true, i'm hopeing to do a bit of teaching somwhere whilst i'm out there and i fully intend to land in a plane in Hong Kong, see i've got loads of plans!!!
it'll be reet mum...

note: the name has changed again, for the last time i promise!

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Beijing is Bueno!

Beijing, China

Just been taking it really easy this week. The hostel is really ace and too easy to just laze about in.
However i haven't just whiled away the days reading about how to survive robot uprisings and messing around on the internet, honest!

Had a trip to the flea market which was good fun lots of tat as expected but some cool communist bits and bobs and plenty of "Maomerabilia", if your REALLY lucky you might get some as I bought a fair few bits and bobs then had to have a practice pack to ensure I didn't need a new bag or a trip[ to the post office, fortunately neither is required, you'd think I'd be pretty good at packing my bag by now after about 8 months! It will be nice to not be living out of the same slightly tatty bag soon.

Went to the forbidden city, was trying to do it on the cheap so I went to the parks north of the city from which you can get an excellent overview with the intention of not bothering going in if I was satisfied with what I saw, however due to the shocking smog I thought I aught to go down and have a closer look so I wondered down to the Northern gate which is actually an exit and was met by literally thousands of tour groups and in a moment of swanky traveler naughtiness made like a lost child looking for his mum and walked in through the exit, expected to be met by some sort of ticket inspector at any second (there usually everywhere in China) but non came and before I really realised it I was in!
Was well busy inside but impressive stuff. Didn't really know what I was looking at as I didn't have a leaflet, apparently you don't get one if you steal your way in...

Next day the weather was crap and that night the wind suddenly blew and it rained, the first time for me in about a month.
The weather was well timed as it blew all the clouds and smog away by the morning and at 6am with a very crisp blue sky above I set off on a bus ride to Jinshanling the starting point of a 10km walk along the great wall.
The weather really was perfect as you could see for miles but it was seriously chilly despite the lovely sunlight.

The wall is everything I expected, truly impressive engineering takes it over impossible terrain it really is a super structure. Shame Genghis just road around it!

The walk was lovely a few steep parts in places and plenty of hawkers trying to sell you books, postcards and t shirts but it wasn't too busy and worked out fairly good value as the Thai student card once again came in to good use and also the tour company who where charging 18 quid each for the 3 hour bus ride there and back (expensive because there is no other viable option apart form taxis) only charged 2 of the 3 people in our group so we got there for 12 quid each instead, making it far more reasonable.
I'm turning in to a bit of a dodgy geezer I'm ashamed to say. I'll be nicking apples of next doors trees next!

permalink written by  Dan on October 23, 2008 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: Been there, Dan that!
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The Great Train Journey begins...

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

So I'm on my way home... The slightly long overland route though, traveling on the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian Railway then through a bit of Europe before getting to Berlin before the end of November. So i wont be gracing your couches eating cheese and chutney sandwiches and generally pissing you all of by complaining I have no money because I've been on holiday for 9 months just yet!

After convincing the taxi driver I wanted to go to the train station and not the airport I got n the train early on Saturday morning without any hitches. The cabin is a nice spacious 4 bunk with a door and I'm joined by an Aussie lady going to visit her son in Mongolia and 2 Mongolian sisters who are about to take the 2 of us under there wing for the next 31 hours of train travel.

Not that we really needed looking after but they insisted ad the trip was made most enjoyable by there tales of Mongolian culture ad custom andgeneral health and safety tips. I was also given a Mongolian name "Tengis" which means wide blue ocean, just like my eyes I'm told!!!

The border crossing where the most tedious part and after getting up at 6am no ne appreciated being kept up til 2:30 the next morning waiting for our passports to be returned on the other side. It takes so long to cross because there are so many people going through customs and we all have to "pass" the inspection AND the wheels on the train have to be changed as the Mongolians run there trains on a different gauge to the Chinese!

Arrived in UB the next afternoon about 1 hour late. Very cold.

permalink written by  Dan on October 27, 2008 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
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A couple of days as a nomad!

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Well not really.
Jumped straight on a tour for the next morning after arriving at my guest house the Golden Gobi. A couple of nights in Gers (Yurts) one in the local national park and another with friends of the guest house owner in the middle of nowhere... theres a lot of middle of nowhere in Mongolia.

The tours are usually very expensive here due to the long distances traveled and all the guides and other guff that you are supposed to have.
However we where offered a more local experience without all the tourist spots and due to the park being close the fuel costs where also minimal, So a tour that would normally cost $50 a day (that 3 days not 2 nights) cost $45 dollars in total. A much needed bonus at the end of my trip now the money is running dry.
So we ( teamed up with a couple who lived in Beijing, 1 Aussie and a chap from Newcastle) where driven out to our Ger and left to our own devices in the beautiful pine forest park, walked around a fair bit then warmed up in the tent. The food wasn't too great, lots of dried dairy and grease but its all about keeping your energy up when you live in the Steppe. Went on a horse ride for the 2nd morning and visited a local monastery.
The first family didn't really get involved with us but after we where driven to the next family, visiting a huge 44 meter high statue of Genghis (pronounced Chinggis) on the way, we where soon put to work shoveling frozen shit and chopping wood (the girls where taught how to make dumplings) Next morning we helped the chap slaughter and butcher a sheep which was a great experience. I feel it really important people know hoe there meat is killed and the Mongolian process is very peaceful and quick.
The sheep is turned on its back. a hole is cut below the ribcage and the slaughterer quickly shoves his arm in to the beast and snap the main artery by the spine. A couple of puffs and the sheep was dead and no blood left it body. This is because the Nomads use everything from the body so during the butchering process the all the blood is scooped out, The ladies made it into black puddings using the intestines.
The sheep was put onto the roof after the job was finished to freeze along side a cow they had killed the day previous.

After our mornings work on the third day we returned to Ulaanbaatar. That evening went to see some Mongolian wrestling. Interesting no rules stuff with some of the biggest people I've ever seen all in one room! I'm not ashamed to say that I was shit scared especially when we strolled in a bit late to struggle t find a seat and discover we where the only foreigners in there. The Prime minister rocked up halfway through!

permalink written by  Dan on October 29, 2008 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
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Hyello Russia!

Irkutsk, Russia

After a slow train North, mainly because of the incredibly long winded border crossing/shunting operation that took approximately 8 hours, I have arrived in Russia.
Another comfortable train and fairly uneventful trip all the best sights where sadly missed as we passed lake Baikal in the night.
Irkutsk isn't just the grey city I expected it to be it has quite a few old wooden houses with ornate window frames and gutters scattered amongst the soviet style concrete apartment blocks.
Its expensive here but the food is good, particularly the salami style sausage, bread and Russian salads.
Weather not so great today, just hovering above zero so the snow that remains is fairly slushy and there's that fine rain in the air that really wets you through!

Strolled the streets this morning and went to collect my ticket to Moscow, slightly confusing apartment block the women lived in and after stumbling into a pet shop with an extremely large baboon I was directed upstairs where I had to enter number 11 apartment to get to number 12! After all that she doesn't have the ticket yet but she was a very jolly soul and we had tea and cakes whilst she assured me she'd have it by Friday.

Will go to Olkhon Island tomorrow to check out the western edge of Lake Baikal. Day long bus trip there and back but I've been assured by other travelers its well worth the effort.

permalink written by  Dan on November 3, 2008 from Irkutsk, Russia
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If you go nowhere else...

Khuzhir, Russia

I had been told about this place by everyone I'd met coming the other way from Russia. It was more than worth the hype too. I only wish I had a week to spare not 3 days
Olkhon Island is a fairly large place on the western edge of Baikal (the worlds biggest and deepest fresh water lake containing a fifth of the worlds fresh water and going to a depth of 6 kilometers, they reckon it will eventually halve Asia, not for a Millennium or 3 though!)
It has one major settlement, Khuzhir, and amongst it is a place called Nikitas Homestead a collection of eco lodges in which you can stay for 750 rubles a night full board. That is pretty cheap for Russia and the food is brilliant as long as you like your fish.

Once on the island there's a lot of it to see, including Shamanistic rocks (the local people the Buryas are the main inhabitants here and have been for centuries) lovely pine forest, beaches and huge clifftop coastline. Sadly you really need to hire a car or tour and have at least 3 days on the island to do all this and been as though the bus ride and ferry there take the best part of the day my 3 days spare really meant I was pushing it for time. So I spent the day the coldest I've ever been in my life but in one of the most stunning place. Honestly the pictures don't do it justice. Its so barren and incredible, the lake is also massive and blue (just like my eyes, haha) and I only saw the western edge where its about 10 km's wide the other side is 50 at least.

I don't really know what else to say about it so look at the pictures.

Oh... the Banya was excellent I think I'll build one that can also function as a wood fired pizza oven when I've got my own cottage on a cliff!

Waiting for Tatiana the tea lady, she's bringing my train tickets round bless her!

permalink written by  Dan on November 5, 2008 from Khuzhir, Russia
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The great train journey continues!

Moscow, Russia

and ends I suppose though there are more trains to come I completed the trains Siberian in one fell swoop. 6oookms and 3 nights on my own in a couchette I actually went a bit stir crazy as literally nothing happened. Until day 2 that is when in my bordem I decided to have a shave and during a vigorous tapping of the shaving head on the sink it popped off (one of those replaceable ones) and fell down the drain and into the Siberian wastes! No I didn't have a replacement so I took the rest of the trip with a half shaved chin, a chin that hadn't been shaved for a month so had lots of skanky beard still remaining. Ah well, worse was to come.
In a desperate measure to eat something resembling veg (all the food available is bread, meats, cheeses and pot noodles) I bought a salad from a train station, Russian salads are always covered in mayonnaise. Woke up the next morning, the last morning feeling very odd and by the evening when I'd struggled to my hostel on the metro after failing to get the taxis to offer anything below 50us dollars for the 2 km trip from the train station! (i took the metro) i was in a real mess.
Only 2 nights in Moscow and the next day was spent in bed.
Forced myself up on the second day when a couple of British guys I'd met in Irkutsk showed up, checked out the Kremlin with them, along with Saint Basil. Also popped in on the Lenin Mausoleum, which was a bizarre experience, being shepherded through by incredibly stern Russian army types to see a dead body that looked as though it had begun to turn slightly dusty!
Was shattered after the mornings escapades and feeling sorry for myself I returned to the hostel to warm up and wait out my train to Saint Petersburg, an overnight hop of a mere 8 hours.

permalink written by  Dan on November 10, 2008 from Moscow, Russia
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This is Europe!!!

Saint Petersburg, Russia

What a beautiful place, massive European buildings lining wide roads huge palatial halls and immense churches and cathedrals. Yeah I like Saint P.

After arriving very early and still worse for ware I located my hostel and went to bed. Woke up at 3pm, sun went down around 4:30. I went to the church of Christ the Savior which was fantastic, the Interior in particular was far better than Saint Basils, it look extra atmospheric up lit in the night sky.
Was soon back in bed.
Next day I felt a lot better and walked up to the river and along to the Peter and Paul Fortress then to the famous Hermitage museum and spent the rest of the day in there taking my time over it huge collection of international art.
Last morning in Russia saw me arrive at the bus station an hour and a half early and get a bit weirded out by like of signage and other potential passengers to Tallinn. Eventually others started to appear and I was soon on the bus out of Russia. At the border crossing I had my passport scrutinised by the Russian border and was triple or even quadruple checked against my image. I wanted to remind the guy that I was leaving so he had nothing to worry about, but I kept quiet and smiled instead.
In comparison when reaching the Estonian side the guard there furiously checked all the Russian passport and demanded tickets and was about to do the same to me but then noticed it was a British passport and just smiled at me and moved on... God Bless the EU!

permalink written by  Dan on November 13, 2008 from Saint Petersburg, Russia
from the travel blog: Been there, Dan that!
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My first couch surf

Tallinn, Estonia

Arriving in Tallinn on the very cheap bus from Saint Petersburg I jumped in a cab and directed my driver to the address in my notebook. I arrived at a strange looking, empty wooden house. Somewhat worried by the fact I'd been directed to a seemingly empty house I hung around for 15 minutes in the hope that someone would turn up. Having just resorted to accosting someone in the street in an attempt to use there phone, two smiley faces appeared with arms full of shopping. I soon discovered they where Erko and Louise and they bussled me into the house, a lot less derelict looking on the inside, made us all some sandwiches and told me to choose a bed.

This was couch surfing a project I'd heard about a couple of months ago where you contact people in cities worldwide and simply ask if they have space for you on there couch or if your really lucky a spare mattress. Theres no money involved just generosity and a keenness to let travelers in to your house.

The house I've arrived it is somewhat unique though. A group of young Estonians are living here but are also running the downstairs area as a community house that all the locals can come and use for meetings, functions or just parties. Theres also a kitchen and Erko or Markus cook every evening and people drop in pay 2 Euros and join in with the meal. Its incredibly laid back and friendly.

I had intended on staying here for a couple of nights but the place is so great and I needed to recouperate after my illness (which I was miraculously cured from as soon as I left Russia)

Tallinn is also a beautiful town with a great Medievil gothic old town with chocolate box like cobbled streets which are great to stroll around, really not a whole lot else to do here though I've been helping round the house a bit (they are still fixing it up, they only got a shower last week... after 6 months)

Started snowing yesterday, theres about 6 inches fallen now, most I've seen in years!

permalink written by  Dan on November 21, 2008 from Tallinn, Estonia
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Riga, Latvia

Well not really just more snow than I've seen in a while.
Couch surfed again in Riga, found the chaps house just as he was heading out, he quickly showed me around and then gave me a key before disapearing off to a social function. 2 fellow surfers turned up a moment later. Went out in Riga that night the weather was chilly but clear. Woke up the following morning to a gale and snow drifts all over the place. Apparantly Tallinn all but closed down so its lucky I left when I did.
Like the plucky tourist I am I braved the gales and had a look around the old town. Lots of bars and even more casinos which is a bit odd, also a disturbingly large amount of British boozers, even seen stumbling out of clubs at lunchtime, no wonder we have a bad rep here.
Early bus to Vilnius the next morning, really need to get a hurry on now to get to Berlin in time to meet Mum and Dad.

permalink written by  Dan on November 23, 2008 from Riga, Latvia
from the travel blog: Been there, Dan that!
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Quick stop in Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

Having arrived in the afternoon from Riga, Vilnius oldtown got the once over from my camera. Seems a lovely place actually, very quiet in comparison with Latvia.
Most of the archetecture here is Roccoco (it said so on a sign) and there are lots of pink churches and cathedrals scattered amongst tall and slim cobbled streets, nice for the afternoon but really not a lot else to see so Im not sure I missed much by moving swiftly on. Though I would have liked to have gone to the genocide museum housed in the former KGB headquarters, after eventually finding the place I discovered it was closed on Mondays!!!

permalink written by  Dan on November 24, 2008 from Vilnius, Lithuania
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