With only a month left until exams are over and the summer begins, rather than revising I’ve been looking through some old photos of my travels around Europe. Its not often you see this view of the track, and I think they make surprisingly effective photos. Although I won’t be travelling on trains this summer, I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting out into the world again and having some new adventures. I’ve just bought my first film camera too, and am eager to get some great photos soon. Another photo which fits particularly well with this series is in my first ever post Long Distance Train Travel
I dug up some more photos from Tian Shan, The first shows the clouds coming in the evening before we left the mountains and retreated back to the city. The second is of the man who invited us into his yurt to keep dry out of the rain.
With the billion or so people in China, I needed to get away and have some peace and quiet, and what better way to do so than with a camping trip. A 4,600 kilometre, 2 and a half day, train ride from Shenzhen took Shane and I to the north-western Chinese city of Urumqi. This was pretty much the end of the line, a city where the communist hammer and sickle is displayed proudly, and the buildings are grey concrete blocks. Surprisingly KFC had still made its way here, but at least they had given it the address of 666.
We persuaded a hotel to let us leave all our belongings in a box in their storage room, stupidly I had sent all my camping gear home a couple of days previously, so this would be a rough and ready trip. I bought a length of rope from a local DIY store, and “borrowed” a bed sheet from the hotel which I could fashion into a hammock. We filled our back packs with tins of food, and some sausages from the supermarket in town, and caught a bus as close to Tian Shan (Heaven Mountains) as we could get. Immediately after getting of the bus a man offered to drive us further into the mountains, by this point we had learnt that westerners seemed to be some kind of prize in China, as everyone wanted to do everything for us. Chinese people are bloody brilliant.
There turned out to be the Xinjiang Camping Competition happening that weekend, and we got waved through all security like VIPs without paying any fees to enter the mountains, another stroke of luck for two almost broke travellers. The competitors had to camp at the bottom of the mountains guarded by what seemed like an army of police (I think it may have been the army) complete with riot vans. Shane and I hiked our gear to the top of the mountain before returning for the evening festivities we had been invited to. We had become hardened drinkers by this point, so the news of a beer drinking competition excited us no end. But first some of our new Chinese friends were insisting to get us wasted on rice-wine over dinner. Shane won the the first round of the competition, earning him the title píjiǔ wang (啤酒王 – Beer King). We both advanced to the final, where I managed to quaff three 600ml bottles in just over 2 minutes, winning a crate of beer which I promptly gave away due to feeling I was about to pop and not wanting more beer. The locals stood no chance!
Night had come, and in a drunken state we retreated back up the mountain to find our camp site, which was hidden in the trees. With only our phones for light this proved to be quite a challenge. I was ready to give up and sleep on a rock on the top of the mountain, but Shane being well versed in finding his way through trees was determined not to give up and eventually found us back to our camp. I fell asleep in my makeshift hammock straight away, and woke up shivering, after what has to be the coldest night I’ve ever experienced. We swiftly collected some dry moss and twigs together and built a fire to warm our frozen skin.
Each day we walked across the ridge of the mountain further away and set up camp further afield. Incredible peaks went on for as far as the eye could see. The air was distinctly un-Chinese in it’s lack of smog. Eagles flew overhead. In the knowledge that I would be heading home in ten days, this felt like a perfect way to draw my travels to an end.
Determined not to freeze to death, and armed with a Pocket Swiss-Army knife, we set up our second camp and proceed to cut down a dead tree with the tiny saw blade. This took hours and hours and hours. But eventually we had a fire which successfully lasted through the night. We speared a couple of sausages on sticks, roasted them over the fire, sang about our worldly conquests and hummed away on a harmonica. This is the life.
After five days, the weather turned worse, torrential rain poured down, our food had run out, and my hammock had ripped so badly I was practically sleeping on the soggy ground, so we decided to head back to Urumqi. Soaked to our bones we set off back to the bottom of the mountains when some local Uyghur people ran out calling us into their yurt. they stripped us down and dried our clothes over a cow pat fuelled stove while we waited for the rain to subside. They fed us some offish kind Naan bread (which apparently originated there) and what must have been yak butter. Delicious….
Two chinese guys happened to be also in the yurt, and they happened to be going back to Urumqi. Much to our surprise they had managed to order a taxi to drive up the mountains to come and collect them. I thought this must be from the road at the very bottom of the mountains, but no, the taxi had driven up the mountain in the rain and came right to the door of the yurt. All in all this is going to be a pretty hard camping trip to beat, and it proved to be a successful remedy to the hustle and bustle of city living.
China has to be one of the funnest (excuse my English) countries in the world. I had been travelling for a while with a Canadian guy, Shane, in the north of Vietnam, and he had decided to change his plans and come into China with me.
We booked our train tickets from Vietnam’s Capital, Hanoi, to Nanning, just over the border in the south east of China. Shane was a couple of days over his welcome on the Vietnamese visa, and mine would run out on the day we would travel, and we still had both of our motorbikes to sell. Needless to say we were cutting things fine.
Previously I had been travelling with my girlfriend, who had at this point become my ex-girlfriend. I knew we were on the same-ish schedule, but when we boarded the train and she was sitting not just in the same carriage, but in the next row of seats, it became apparent this was going to be quite a border crossing.
At the border we were awoken by some other passengers, or guards, I don’t recall. Dazed we hauled our bags onto the dark station platform, and through to security. The guards pulled up Shane on his overdue visa, and took him into a side room. They wanted a bribe to let him through, I overhead him casually tell the guards ‘I don’t have any money with me’, they said ‘okay’ and let him on his way. Surprisingly easy.
Upon slowly re-alighting the train, I dozed off and awoke in China. It was the early morning, but a sticky anticipation hung in the air. Lu, a Chinese girl we met on the train helped us work out where a hotel was, nobody seemed to speak any English here, I loved it.
From there on out China kept getting better and better. It was the last month of my travels and I was determined to make this count even more than the previous half year. Nanning is a city which the guidebooks play down to be a mere stop through from Vietnam into China. To me, it was a city which let the imagination run wild, anything and everything seemed to happen on the streets here, the back streets were full of colour, smells, and sounds. Chinese text shouted at us everywhere, at night the city turned to sin. It didn’t feel wrong to hit the clubs here.
The first night we decided to explore, without a guide we had no clue where to head, so we would have to trust the hopefully kind heart of a taxi driver. We sat in the back seats and pumped our arms up and down, while I sang ‘Disco Disco’ and Shane dropped me a beat. He understood, and much to our surprise took us to the best club in town, Soho.
We seemed to attract the attention of nearly everyone inside, the men handed us more drinks than we could drink, and the girls flocked in all directions, I felt famous. Then things went blackout and the next thing I know Shane is hauling me into a taxi, where my consciousness oscillates until Shane is convinced the driver is taking us in the wrong direction. Shane drags me off the backs seat, and pulls a couple of cardboard boxes out of a bin at the side of the road.
We wake up in the morning, without a clue to where we are, some local guy is washing his car next to my head, and everyone is staring at us lying on the floor probably thinking, ‘what the hell are these two white guys doing?’. I take the cheat cards which Lu had written for us and we get a cab back to the hotel. I think, ‘I need to learn Mandarin’.
The next day we went back to the same club, this time we were more prepared, but received the same treatment as the night before. Shane met a model who invited us to come back to her place, the only catch being it was a four hour train ride north to LiuZhou. Outrageously drunk we bundled ourselves into a taxi back to the hotel (which we now knew directions to), stuffed our belongings (and the contents of the mini-fridge) into our backpacks. It was now 5am, so we ran to the station where Tank met us with three sleeper tickets, and three bowls of Laoyou noodles.
Tank took us around her town, showed us all the little locals places which the ‘cool kids, models, and socialites’ hang out, we lit one of those Chinese lanterns down by the Lijiang River. Each of us wrote some wishes on the side. Tank wrote ‘Every Day be happy! Get more money.’; I wrote ‘Be successful in love, life, happiness, live long, fast and bring greatness to the world.’, Shane wrote ‘To find BIG Party & marry Tank’. It crash dived into the river, leaving hoards of laughing Chinese and two gutted travellers. We went to Tank’s fashion show to cheer ourselves up and meet some nice Chinese girls.
At the show we met three local business men who were in town entertaining clients for the night, we had been given front row seats, and all the food and drink we could stomach, and now these guys had invited us to come to their town with them the next day. Our luck seemed to be on for China, and Shane and I were absolutely loving it.
The next day we got up bright and early, but obviously after Tank as she wasn’t in the apartment, so we wrote her a note, and left. The businessmen were staying in a nice hotel in town, and had a Jeep waiting for us when we arrived. They had a fake police siren mounted on the roof of the car, and we sped down the motorway towards Guilin at what seemed like at least twice the speed limit.
Guilin was one of the ‘Lonely Planet’ destinations, and as such Shane and I weren’t too keen on staying for long, we had a rule that if we saw another white person in town then we’d leave the next day. After a quick dip in the river we went back to one of the guy’s houses, where we got dressed up to go out for dinner. That night we dined on Century (rotten) eggs, intestine, and fish head.
After dinner the businessmen wanted to take us out on the town, I guess to show us how they partied, they said we were going to a KTV, apparently we had a private room booked. A maitre d’ ushered us to the room with purple velvet sofas, and a line up of girls in long silk ball gowns. A little set back by the situation, the businessmen explained that the girls were not prostitutes and just were going to spend the evening with us. I was sceptical but went along with it anyway. KTV turns out to be Karaoke Television, I consider myself lucky to have been in China, because with the exception of the Chinese trying to sing in English, my rendition of Tom Jones’ ‘Sex Bomb’ makes me quite frankly the opposite of what the song would be suggesting.
Jack, one of the businessmen, who’s house we were meant to be staying at for some reason did not want us to come back to his, maybe the girls had wound him up enough to want a free house for the night. So he took us to this massage parlour, where we were handed a baggy set of silk shorts and a shirt, and a big white dressing down, told to have a shower, and taken to a room. Where two masseuses massaged Shane and I to sleep.
According to our rule, we had to leave that day, the stench of white man was too strong in this town. I’m not normally one to retract on my steps, but we both agreed that catching a train back to Nanning was the best plan.
Love was in the air. It was ‘Chinese Love Day’, officially called the Qixi festival. Couples were out in their hoards on this warm night, buying all sorts of tit and tat and ridiculous Chinese made unnecessary products for their other halves. Men donned matching t-shirts to their girlfriends, their trying to hide the embarrassment faces suggested they were forced into doing so. Shane and I thought it would be a good night to hit the clubs again.
That night I met Chao, a sweet, and stunning, local university student. For the next few days she was determined to show me the ins and outs of herself and her city. Apparently the place to hang out was the water park/zoo. Dubious of whether this really was the best place to go, and a bit pissed off my swimming shorts had been forgotten/stolen (probably forgotten) in Hanoi, I decided to go anyway. Chao promised me that it was possible to buy new swimming shorts at the park, what she didn’t say is that the only type available would be skin tight speedos. I’m not a guy to get that embarrassed by the things I wear, but speedo’s on a day out with a girl you’ve just met?… I manned up and wore them anyway, and to my surprise people seemed to like them. We met a chinese couple there who we arranged to have dinner with later, what they didn’t say was that we would be eating boiled pig brains intestine and bone marrow. A feast not for the feint hearted. While I politely bit into the soft moose like brain, and sucked the marrow out of a chunk of bone, Chao had decided to give me a Chinese name. After discussing the matter with the couple she decided on Long Wang 王龙, I was delighted with her choice even before I found out the English translation, which was Dragon King. What an honour, ‘I love China’ I thought.
The next day Shane and I decided that we had spent too much time in Nanning, and we left in the morning. Our ambition was to get to Taiwan, just without paying for a ticket. First we had to catch the train to ShenZhen, one of China’s wealthiest cities in Guangdong Province. After the reasonable fourteen hour train ride, it felt not dissimilar to stepping into the future
My Mum called me up when I was in Southern India to tell me about this town called Hampi which I had to go to. Usually I’m too quick to disregard advice from her, but on this chance I thought I’d take it. After about 5 hours on the train I was there, tuk tuk drivers of course jumping at my feet.
Hampi was surrounded by the ruins of a once incredible civilisation, and giant boulders, which looked like giant versions of an ancient seabed. We rented out some little motorbikes and explored.
Berlin is without a doubt my favourite city which I have been to in Europe. The U-Bahn is a great way to get around, each station has its own history and individual charm. One of the things I love about living in London nowise watching people on the tube, wondering where they are going, what their lives are like. One thing I have come to notice on the tube is that people travelling on their own generally seem to feel like they become invisible to others. Nobody gets embarrassed on these quick few minute journeys where their faces will soon become lost in the crowd, and this brings out an inner self in such a public place. This is a place to relax, and why not do a spot of knitting on the way home?
P.s. I hope everyone likes to read, currently I’m working on an account of my time in China, Its taking a while (hence no posts of late), but when It arrives it’ll hopefully bring out a few smiles and laughs.
Another photo from Prague, It had been a long day wandering around the cobbled streets of this historic city, a glowing midsummer sun was getting lower in the sky. I had been wandering behind my friends getting distracted taking photos of various buildings, posters, etc. The girls stopped to rest on a bench overlooking the Vltava river, the trees semi silhouetted in the light, and the long shadows in the sky equal a feeling of satisfaction after a long, but excellent day.
This is the Prague Senate House in the Czech Republic, really there’s no story behind this photo (well not one I can write on the internet anyway!) It’s just a beautiful building. It had been incredibly hot over the previous few days, which I had spent in Berlin, and the sun continued to burn down as I crossed the border. Prague is a city which I think has an unfortunate reputation of stag parties, and drunken English yobs running amok. The side of Prague which I appreciated (this will probably change a few weeks before I get married one day) is the Old Town and the Lesser Town. Two beautiful areas, calm and sophisticated, and definitely worthy of a look.
Living on the South Coast of England affords its luxuries, hopping over to France being one of them, with the price of train travel within the UK ridiculously high its now cheaper to cross the English Channel for a day out than it is to go up to London (although I do live in London now). This photo was taken the first day of my travels around Europe, and shows, I feel, the complete contrast between my post ‘Vietnamese Festival’ which depicts the busyness, vibrancy, and madness of life in Asia against the more subdued English charms of bleak colours, grey skies, white cliffs, and our beautiful rolling hills. England, and the rest of northern Europe, for me, has a watercolour feel.
I visited India for a couple of months at the start of summer 2011, I hadn’t a clue what to expect ,but it exceeded my thoughts in every way. They say Incredible India! and it really is, may that be good or bad. I flew to Chennai (Madras) and travelled through the centre up to New Delhi and onto the the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, then retreated down through the deserts of Punjab and Rajasthan, further south I hit the bustling city of Mumbai (Bombay) and down to the beaches and jungle of Goa, Just inland from Goa hides Hampi, a gathering of temples many thousands of years old. I then went back to Mumbai and caught the train for half a week to Darjeeling up in the mountain on the north east province of Assam, then down to Kolkata and onto the next leg of my journey.
the past two years i’ve spent much of my time travelling on trains. long distance train travel is something of an acquired taste, but eventually, it soothes a pensive mind.