A Snack Fit For a Khan

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I could have posted a photo of eagles or vultures. Of yaks or Mongolian ponies. Of Turtle Rock or the sun rising over the hills of Terejl National Park. But no, this was my first encounter with Mongolia, so you get it too.

It amused the hell out of me, both for the Star Trek reference and the fact that, having had a snack box at work for the past 12 years, it does look like they’re the local franchise of Ireland’s famous King Crisps. Sadly, that’s about the only way they resemble them, as they have an appearance and texture not dissimilar to polystyrene packaging pellets.

Right now I’m in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar, having spent last night in a ger camp and yesterday trying all sorts of Mongolian activities, from archery to anklebones, with a little horseriding thrown in too. I’m off to museums this afternoon, then heading out in search of Mongolian beer.

And yes, photos of all of those other things will appear on Flickr before too long. I’m not whimsical all the time…

Wasted in Irkutsk

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I’m currently sitting in a train station in Irkutsk, about as tired as I’ve been so far this trip. Which is a neat trick, seeing as I’ve spent the last two days by the shores of Lake Baikal, in a room in a log cabin with the balcony view above, enjoying sunshine on a par with the best Irish summer day, doing nothing more strenuous than going for a dip. Yes, it was bloody cold, but still.

In about an hour, I’ll be jumping on a train to Mongolia, specifically Ulan Bator, where I’ll spend a night in a get and a night in the city before hopping on the train once more. If I have anywhere near the amount of luck I’ve been having so far on this trip, I’ll be flying. (In this very waiting room, I ran into a couple travelling the opposite way, who were able to give me some pointers on the Japan portion of my trip, having just spent two years there.)

Anyhow, night is falling, and I must be off. Will do my best to keep the updates coming, wherever I and the Internet happen to intersect.

This is where I’ve been…

…for the past four days.

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I’m currently chilling by the shores of Lake Baikal. Literally – the first fingers of the Siberian winter can be felt now, even though the sun has been out all day.

In lieu of a real update, some cheering words from one of my heroes, from the postscript to his “Voyage of the Beagle”, which I managed to finish somewhere in the vicinity of Perm. Definitely spoke to my particular situation.

“But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover, how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.”

Not my ride, unfortunately…

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Sadly, my travels from here on won’t involve replicas of the Soviet Space Shuttle. At least I assume it’s a replica. Seeing as I’m in Moscow right now, one can’t entirely be sure. Still, it’s a very cool thing to find by the river in Gorky Park, or Park Kultury as it’s more properly called. (And to demonstrate my cultural bankruptcy, every time I think of the words “Gorky Park”, I don’t think of classic novels but rather the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change”. For shame…)

Anyhow, there are plenty of folks on wheels in the park – roller blades, scooters and bikes. And tomorrow I’ll take to some iron wheels of my own: a four-day expedition by train to Central Asia, specifically Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

St. Petersburg and Moscow have eased me into the Russian travel experience, but this is where my traveller’s credentials get tested. And given my recent troubles ordering dinner, that could be a test I’ll flunk. Still, there’s nothing like a challenge to force you to step up your game. And my game may benefit from some time in the wilderness. I’ll see you on the other side of the Internet…

New Addictions

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Tripling down on the Russian options at Pelmeny restaurant on Voznesensky Prospekt. From left to right: Kvass (very tasty), Siberian Pelemeni in butter (even tastier) and borsch (spicy and warming). I may not have the hang of the language yet, but I could survive eating like a Russian quite comfortably…

A Matter of Scale

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The first thing I noticed about St. Petersburg was that everything is a little further away than it appears to be. A combination of long, straight, broad avenues and buildings that mostly stick to a six-storey limit help the horizon to extend towards vanishing point. However, there’s also a matter of scale: everything here seems to be built about 10-15 percent bigger than I’m used to.

That building over there isn’t small, it’s just far away.

The result, for someone like me who likes to walk around a lot, has been some extended strolls on this, my first day here. Luckily, I also have a habit of showing up where I mean to be several minutes early. Which means, all things being equal, this has also been a day of strange hyper-punctuality.

A Ghostly Benefit

I wasn’t pleased about missing my sleeper train to Copenhagen, but I’ll have plenty of chances to sleep on board trains in the weeks to come, and there are benefits. If I’d caught it, I would have slept through a mist-wrapped passage through the coastland of northern Germany and Denmark, dotted with human habitation but with little sign of actual humans. I don’t count my fellow rail travellers; they’re just as ghostly as I am.

Reading Margaret Atwood’s end-of-humanity fiction probably primed something in my brain to appreciate this early-morning desolation, but it’s still splendid. Wide fields of grain, interspersed with trees and electric pylons, and towering above them all the giant figures of the wind turbines, leaning into the breeze as they flail their arms in silent purpose. All of this emerging from and disappearing back into the mist, as though I’m meant to see it for a short while and memorise it. A sort of memory test.

The world has woken up as the day has gone on, with roads joining the rail as we crossed a bridge, and we’re about to hit a ferry too. That will destroy the last fragments of the illusion and start the day in earnest. Still, I’ve got what I wanted from the morning—an end to the tension of last night and a little bit of easy wonder to soothe the soul.

Mistake No. 1

Make your mistakes early—it gives you more time to make amends for them. It’s a good rule to live by, but it doesn’t always work when travelling, when one mistake can cause a domino run of missed connections and extra expenses. Well, I made my mistake on day one (or two, depending on how you count it) but although the dominoes teetered, they haven’t toppled—yet.

That mistake? Getting into the station at Köln/Cologne after enjoying a beer on the banks of the Rhine, only to find that where a train for Copenhagen should have been was a train for Warsaw instead. Had I looked around more thoroughly, I would have spotted that two of its carriages were bound for Copenhagen, after being decoupled in Hannover, but instead I started asking questions of station attendants who were even more confused than I was, and soon my sleeping berth was heading north without me.

Cue some anxious waiting, dawning realisation, confusing and irritating conversations with staff and eventual resolution in the form of the next train, which was at 2.10am, requiring around four hours of sitting on platform 5a of Köln Hauptbanhof. This change in plan doesn’t seem to have cost me any extra, and I’ll get into Copenhagen just in time to catch my onward connection to Stockholm, albeit without the two hours for lunch and good night’s sleep I’d originally hoped for.

So, first crisis averted. Probably. As I write this, I’m on a train somewhere north of Lübeck (passing Neustadt, if the sign I’ve just seen can be believed) moving at a leisurely pace through waterways and forests, mist-enshrouded and still in the early morning. I’ll probably be in Stockholm when I get to post it—another new city and new nation, and the final staging point before the Russian segment of this adventure.

Travels, Reviews, and Assorted Musings