Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Trans-Siberian Railway Beijing to Ulan Bator

We arranged a wake up call for 6 am, unfortunatly we hadn't finished drinking in the bar until 1.30 the night before. We grabbed our gear and headed out to Beining main train station to pick up our tickets and board the K23 from Beijing to Ulam Bator, the Mongolial Capital.Our carridge attendant showed up to our cabin where we soon settled down for a few more hours sleep.When we awoke we headed to the restaurant car for some breakfast and took a table next to some already very drunk Mongolians who insisted on raising a cheers every 3 minutes and continally trying to speak to us in Mongolian long after it had become apparent that we didn't understand a word. The enslaught only receded once the loudest of the group fell into a drunk stuper over his fried chickens feet breakfast.Back in the cabin we watched the incredible scenery of snow topped mountains and frozen rivers as we headed into desolate Northern China. The expance outside the window sparsly populated by coal miners, sheep farmers and the manual laborers of the railway.In the cabin next to ours was a Mongolian girl with a name almost impossible to pronounce. She was on her way back to see her family in Ulan Bator after spending a year studying in Australia.We stopped at the china mongolia border at around 8.30 that evening. Our passports were collected by the border guard and we disembarked before the train rolled into a train shed to have the wheels changed from the Chinese to the Mongolian gauge.Alongside the platform was a small building with some rudimentary facilities and we were locked in for 3 hours while the train recieved it's new set of wheels.We met two Australians whom the Mongolians recognized as the hosts of a popular English language tv show on Mongolian national television.We eventually boarded the train again for the 25 minute journey across no mans land to the Mongolian border, where once again the train was boarded by guards. A very stern looking female mongolian border guard had us one in the hallway of the caridge and carefully scruitamised our faces against the photos in our passports an hour and a half later we pulled away into the Mongolian plains, bound for Ulan Bator, the worlds coldest capital city..We arrived in the Capital at 1pm the next day and were met from the train by our Mongolian tour guide Gerhleah and driver Ahgee. It was -20C, without gloves, jackets, jumpers and a bear skin hat we would have almost certainly have died of hyperthermia whithin hours.After a short stop at the bank, to change our Chinese Yuan into Mongolian Tugots and Russian Roubles, we went to the biggest monestary in Mongolia and then down to the central square of the city. Governent house, on the northern side of the square is adorned with a huge statue of Gengis Khan. The remaining sides of the square are home to the national opera house, the headquarters of the ruling democratic peoples party (recently firebombed and partly destroyed in a riot organized by the opposition) the headquarters of the opposition, the Revolutionary party and the main post office.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hong Kong Phooey

We arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday evening from Bangkok and headed to Chung King Mansions. The only place to find cheap accommodation in Hong Kong. The place is an absolute dive but is in an excellent location in Kowloon and beats paying 150 pounds a night anywhere else on in the city.
Once we had checked in to what must have been the worlds smallest hotel room, we headed out to grab a few beers. We stopped by Delayneys Irish bar just outside where we are staying. We sat down at the bar enjoying the sence of being back in the west. We ordered some pints and everything seemed to be going well, until we realised that it was 6 pounds a pint!
Wednesday morning we headed to the office of our travel agent, who took all our paperwork and seemed confident that he could get us a Russian visa. We left the office assured and went off to explore Hong Kong.
The city is filled to the rafters with Gucci shops and super cars. Everybody seems to speak perfect English despite it being 95% Chinese here. The legacy of its British Colonial past has left a city that apart from the abundance of Chinese script and Asian faces is almost indistinguishable from any English City. The fire engines, police cars, buses, road signs, postboxes etc etc. are all modelled on England.
We headed down to Hong Kong harbor and the avenue of stars (Hong Kongs answer to Broadway) and hung around for the the Symphony of Lights show that evening. The worlds biggest light and music display. At 8 PM every night the amazing lighting of the many Skyscrapers on Hong Kong island is synchronised to music in a 14 minute orchestrated show. A truly amazing sight.
The next day we took the star ferry across from Kowloon to Hong Kong island and wandered around central district amongst its hundreds of skyscrapers. We then laboured up the huge hill on which Hong Kong's financial district is built, to the Hong Kong botanical gardens and zoo.
Later on that afternoon we found the peak tram and took a ride up to the Hong Kong viewing platform to watch the light show again from Victoria peak overlooking the city.
This afternoon we returned to our travel agents office, and by some miracle he had managed to procure us a Russian visa, at last, on the 5th attempt we actually managed to get hold of the Visa. A snip at 130 pounds!!!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Unscheduled stop in Hong Kong

ahh! we went back to the Russian embassy this morning and saw the visa section. After waiting an hour and a half, they decided that despite what they said a few months ago, they couldn't in fact issue us a Russian Visa.
We e-mailed our travel agent, who suggested that when we get into Beijing she would Fed-EX our documents overnight to Hong Kong and try to get a guy in the other office there to get our visas processed by express service. Unfortunately, all that was going to cost about 180 pounds and we were not guarenteed to get our passports back in time.
Apparently Hong Kong is now just about the only place in the world that will issue a Russian Visa to UK citizens(although the Russians don't tell you that sort of info before you traipse around the world trying to get a visa), as, being an old territory, we are granted 180 days stay on arrival, circumventing the Russian rule that says that an applicant must have the right to spend at least 90 days in the country they are applying in.
But, it's not guaranteed that they will issue the visa in our absence!!!
So it looks like we are off to Hong Kong. We cant go in from China, despite the fact we are currently booked on a flight that lands 10 miles from Hong Kong as we would then use up our Chinese visa getting out of China and couldn't come back in without getting a new visa, which we don't have time for!
Thus, it looks like we are going to have to fly from Bangkok to Hong Kong tomorrow, just to get a Russian visa, then hang around in Hong Kong for a week until we are allowed into China.
A very expensive and time wasting process indeed! Oh well, it wouldn't be as much fun if it was easy!!

Friday, November 14, 2008

A worldwide tour of Russian embasseys and still no Russian Visa

Ahhh! Still haven't got a visa for Russia. The console in Bangkok when we first applied told us that he didn't want to issue us a Visa because it was two and a half months before our date of entry, which was too early. He recommended that we apply at a different Russian embassy in one of the other countries we were travelling to.
When we got to Phnomn Penh we took got up at 8AM and took a moto across town to the Russian embassy and were let into the consular section. The receptionist told us that the Console was busy and that we should come back at 9Am on Monday morning, it being Thursday at that point. We headed back to the hotel and spent the next four days killing time in Phnomn Pehn waiting for the embassy to open on Monday.
Monday morning came and we again drove across a gridlocked Phnomn Penh to the embassy. We went in and say down to await the console. As waited for about 20 minutes in the lobby until the Russian consul came out from an office at the back, smoking a cigarette and looking most displeased that he had to waste his time.
"What can I do for you?" he barked putting as he crushed the butt of his cigarette.
"We would like to apply for a Russian Visa please"
We passed across all the necessary documents for the application process; our passports, a letter of invitation by a hotel in Moscow stamped by the embassy in Russia, A copy of our insurance policy, a full itinerary, again endorsed by the Russians, passport photos and an application form that we had brought with us from the first attempt in Bangkok.
He took one look at the application form.
"Wrong colour pen"
"Oh, Sorry about that, do you have a new copy, we can fill out?"
"Documents, original?"
"No, they were scanned and e-mailed to us from Russia."
"Copy no good in Cambodia"
"Really, well we are travelling and thus have no address to obtain the originals, we were also told that copies would be OK"
"Not in Cambodia, too much counterfeit, cannot give here"
"Do you know what the rules are in Vietnam, or Laos?"
"OK, thanks so much for your time"
And with that we had completed our second attempt at obtaining a Russian visa.
The next attempt was to be Vietnam, although we found out that they only issue Russian visas to residents of Vietnam!
And the Russian embassy in Vientiane was our next port of call. Again we got up early, put on some decent cloths and headed across town to the embassy quarter.
We were let in by the guards and took a seat in the visa office. The Russian woman behind the desk looked at us and motioned to her watch. We checked the time, it was 8.58, the office didn't open till 9!
After a short wait the consul appeared, speaking excellent English and shook our hands. He took a look at our paperwork and was genuinely happy to help us. He went off to get some pens and application forms and we duly began filling them out whilst he looked through our paperwork.
"Are you guys citizens here in Laos"
"No, we are just travelling through"
"Ah! I cannot issue you a visa I'm afraid, only those with resident status in Laos"
"Oh, Really, where can we get a visa?"
"Only London."
"well, unfortunately we won't be in London any time soon, and thus cant get a visa from there, anywhere else?"
"No, only London, its the same for Russians, they can only obtain a UK visa in Moscow"
"The Bangkok office seemed happy to issue them, they were just unsure due to the time scale"
"well, I don't know how the enforce the rules but I cannot give you a Visa here in Laos. Sorry."
so, next stop Bangkok again, which will hopefully conclude our tour of worldwide Russian embassies. Failing that we will have to try posting it to Hong Kong from inside China, but with only two weeks in the country and no address, it could be a problem!

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Khmer Rouge Killing Fields at Choung Ek, outside Phnom Penh

A shocking window on just how dark human nature can be. The killing fields of Choung Ek were a half hour tuk tuk ride from our lakeside guesthouse in Phnomn Penh. One of the many sites around Cambodia where the Kymer Rouge, under the rule of Pol Pot, beat to death and buried millions of its fellow Cambodians.

Paul, our Tuk Tuk driver took us out from the guesthouse, through midday Phnomn Penh traffic and along the unsealed dusty road that leads out of the capital. The Same route that was travelled by the condemned in trucks from security prisons in the city.

We arrived in the almost empty dirt yard that acted as a car park and went off and got our admission tickets. As we walked into the site, it initially looks like a park or a peaceful recreation spot, with no immediately obvious signs of the horrors that occurred there. In the background were the noises of local children playing at a school. In front of us stood a large gold topped stupa. As we got closer, it quickly became apparent that this huge structure was absolutely crammed from top to bottom with the skulls of some of the 9000+ people that had thus far been exhumed from the mass graves at the site.

We spent some time inside the structure, completely shocked by the site. The cases and shelves containing the skulls are open, and tower, stories above you. The extremely narrow passageway that runs between the outer wall of the stupa and the cases of skulls means that you have no choice but to be inches from the thousands of skulls. Plastic signs request that you don't touch them. They are arranged by sex and approximate age at death. The point at which we entered brought us in front of hundreds of skulls of those aged 5 -9.

We left and started to walk around the site. Various information boards told of where buildings once stood, containing chemicals used in an attempt to subdue the smell, as well as kill any of the victims who were only stunned by the blows inflicted on them. Signs around the site requested that we didn't walk on the still unexcavated mass graves.

We came across a large tree with a thick branch running perpendicular to the trunk, on it hung a sign telling of how the Khmer rouge soldiers used the branch to hang a loudspeaker playing music at a decibel level high enough to drown out the cries and screams of the children who were being beaten to death against the trunk. Against this same trunk today were stacked piles of fractured bones that had been found on the ground nearby since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

As we walked around the unkept paths we could see pieces of bone, teeth and clothing embedded in the ground all around us. As Cambodia had slowly forged itself a position on the backpackers trail, the number of visitors to the site had been wearing away the earth of the makeshift pathways, slowly exposing the bodies buried just below the surface that we were inadvertently walking across.

A small acrylic sided box to the right of the pathway displayed a sign explaining that the contents was pieces of skeletons and personal effect that had been found around the site since the early excavations of the mass graves. As the box was fall and locked the lid was piled with many more pieces that visitors to the sight had found and placed there in the hope that one day someone may have the will and resources to catalogue them correctly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Python, Kangaroo, Ostrich and Crocodile then off to Angkor What?

We headed to Pub Street in the center of Siem Reap with a few people we had met in our guesthouse including a few of the Cambodian guys that worked there. Pub street itself is an oasis away from the beggars and hustlers of Siem Reaps streets. It is closed at both ends to anyone who is not Caucasian, western, well dressed or prepared to bribe the police at the checkpoints. We passed the piano bar, reportedly favored by Angelina Jolie, who stayed there whilst filming Tomb Raided at Angkor Wat. A huge board outside advertising the fact, along with a list of punny cocktail names related to their five minutes of fame.
We found a restaurant for a barbecue dinner, and between us ordered python, crocodile, ostrich and kangaroo, all surprisingly tasty. After washing it all down with a few bottles of Angkor beer, we headed around the corner to the Angkor What? bar, a Siem Reap institution, advertised across Southeast Asia by tee-shirt wearing patrons.
We met up with Casey later that evening and danced the night away to some very western music. After leaving at 2AM closing, me and Casey thought that it would be a good idea to go and find some more drinks elsewhere. After wandering the streets of Siem Reap in a rather inebriated state we surmised that the only logical next step was to try our hand at one of the local casinos.
Having found one that looked good we duly went in and sat down at a blackjack table. We were the only patrons of the huge flashy 24 hour casino. The croupier came over and we put down 20 dollars each. The table was fitted with electronic screens and our 20 dollars showed up in the bank. We tried to place our first bets, but despite our best attempts the machines didn't seem to like it. we asked one of the waitresses and then the croupier to assist up in losing our money. To our astonishment nobody in this huge Casino spoke a word of English! Breaking into Charades didn't seem to work either.
On auto pilot, I did what I have been used to doing when someone doesn't speak English and immediately switched to speaking Korean. To the complete surprise of both me and the croupier we continued the discourse in Korean.
Unfortunately the staff seemed none the wiser as top why the machines didn't want our money. Getting bored with our best attempts to give the casino our money (as the only customers) we asked if we could change the chips back into money. Not a problem at all, within a few minutes the staff were wishing us a cheery goodbye. I suspect that that particular casino will not be in business too much longer!

Angkor Wat, Preah Khan

As soon as the sun came up over Angkor Wat the hordes of people suddenly disappeared, back on their buses to return to the cities hotels and guesthouses for breakfast,. As it was just the two of us on our tour we elected to get breakfast from some of the street food stalls along the sides of the road outside and go and see Angkor Wat before the crowds. It was a wise choice, there wasn't more than 15 people in the whole complex. we had the place pretty much to ourselves. After about an hour and a half of marveling at the enormity of the structure of Angkor Wat we headed out back to join our driver on the other side of the great moat that surrounds the complex. As we crossed the courtyard there was an army of sixty or more groundskeepers cutting the grass with sickles. The idea of all those Cambodians sweating away for hours trying to cut the acres and acres of grass with in such a way seemed ridiculous when a guy with a lawnmower could do it in a twentieth of the time!
We rejoined our guide and headed for another temple called Preah Khan. An impossibly big grid of tumbled corridors and towers held together by the roots of the trees that has destroyed those around them. Again the place was deserted apart from one or two other people milling about. With the jungle so close to the temple you could really get a sense of how the first French explorers must have felt upon stumbling on this ancient wonder in the dense jungle. The whole place was like being inside a Tomb Raider film.
The freedom to explore is completely unrivalled by any western archaeological wonder. A few small signs written in bad English, warning you that poking around at the stones may result in a braining by a huge lump of the temple, along with some makeshift supports, are the only indication that anyone else in the world knows about this place.
After a good while taking it all in we again headed back to meet our guide and continue to a few of the smaller, but equally impressive temples at Angkor.
Absolutely exhausted by the climbing and the 38C sun burning down on us we returned to our guesthouse at about 4 in the afternoon. We slumped down on the sofas and ordered a few bottles of Angkor beer. Whilst there we met some other travellers and arranged to go out with them that night for a snake dinner on Pub street in the middle of town. We retired for a well earned power nap to prepare ourselves for a night out in Siem Reap