Huaycan – My time with the NGO, Light and Leadership Initiative

I spent the month of October in a shanty town outside of Lima, Huaycan volunteering with the NGO, The Light and Leadership Initiative. Huaycan has a population of around 100,000 and was founded around 30 years ago. The city was founded as a place where people could live that was close to Lima and so could commute into the city for work. As is still happening now, many people from the countryside are moving towards cities as it is believed (and is often true) that there are more work opportunities and chances for aΒ brighter future.

In the eighties and early nineties Huaycan was taken over by Shining Path, the communist party in Peru and because of this, even today, Huaycan for many people is seen as a dangerous place. It is for sure not as safe as some parts of the world but I never felt in a great deal of danger during my time.

Todos las chicas!

Todos las chicas!

The climate in Huaycan is one that is very different for me indeed. It never rains. Never. Or it did once four years ago and it was a disaster. It is in a desert and as such there is virtually no green in site. If there is a tree it is because someone is watering it. Peru is full of microclimates. The weather in Miraflores in Lima is completely different and it’s only 20 miles down the road.
LLI is an NGO focused on education. I spent most of my time teaching English to children and adolescents as well as doing some computer classes for women. Huaycan is split into zones named as letters. Myself and the other 9 volunteers lived in a house in Zone D (very close to the main commercial area) and we worked in several of the other zones as well.

One of the students - so cute!

One of the students – so cute!

The Main Street in Huaycan, Quince, was always buzzing. Combi buses and auto taxis filled the streets while street vendors filled the pavements outside the shops. Depending on the time of day you could find food stalls selling ceviche, hamburgers, chifles, churros and a mountain of fruit and veg. At the end of the street was the market where you could buy everything from chicken feet to laundry detergent to that nice pair of leopard print leggings you’ve always wanted. There were more hairdressers on Quince than in the whole of Brussels I’m sure, as well as countless pharmacies and pollo a la brasa establishments. There were a couple of juice shops that were frequented often by volunteers as well as some bakeries selling some yummy snacks. It was always fun to take a walk up the street, there was always something new to discover.

Classroom

Classroom

One time walking up quince we noticed that a bakery had been temporarily closed due to tax reasons. Walking up the street again a few hours later it was obvious that this hadn’t stopped business, the bakery had simply moved their displays into the juice shop next door! How street vendors operated I’m not exactly sure but you can be sure that you will find them in the same place every day. I don’t know if it’s actually that they rent that space or it’s simply understood that the corner outside the second bakery belongs to the lady selling underwear.

Typical combi ride

Typical combi ride

To get around Huaycan the cheapest way was to take combi’s. Combi’s are minibuses or buses that are normally crammed full beyond belief that take people up to the high zones and back again. Depending on what zone you wanted to get to depended on the combi. The combi up to Zone Z was probably the most difficult. It wasn’t as frequent as other zones and it was a very small minibus that we would normally have to stand up in. This wasn’t a problem it just wasn’t the most comfortable ride as it required bending your neck and back quite a bit whilst trying to hold on to your things as well as a seat/other person to prevent yourself from falling. It all added to the experience of course πŸ™‚ Being some of the only gringas in town we were often asked questions about what we were doing there etc which was always fun as often they were quite interested in learning English themselves.

For the English classes, we would have one hour of English class and then one hour of sports or vise-versa. The kids were either aged 6-9 or 10-14 and both classes, whilst having quite different dynamics, were equally fun. We followed a curriculum and before each class would plan the different activities we would do to help teach. The classes that the NGO offers are all voluntary and are extra curricular. This can be both a blessing and a curse as of course it is much easier if the whole class is there for every class, which, unfortunately, was not always the case. Doing lots of reviews and taking things slowly was normally a good way to combat that.

Huaycan

Huaycan

There was a lead and a co teacher for every class which, for the young ones especially, was definitely needed. At least the older children did get English lessons in their normal school, the problem is that the level of education is not fantastic in Peru. Many of the English teachers are not as proficient in English as would be ideal to teach the language. This became apparent when a couple of students would ask for help with their English homework and there would be mistakes in the assignment. Also, knowing the level of English of the students and then seeing the homework they were given really didn’t match. The homework was normally of a subject that was of a much higher grammatical level which I’m sure must make it very frustrating for the kids. I hope that with the extra classes from LLI they will feel more confident in their English skills and will continue to learn!

Roomies!

Roomies!

Sports time was really just playtime, a chance for the kids to run around and play with the various playground toys we brought with us. Volleyball and football were very popular as well as a skipping rope or chalk as well as the game, Peces y Tiberones or Fishes and Sharks. For one of the classes, instead of sports time, they got to learn about gardening from a very generous local man who had some vegetables growing on the terraces not far from the classroom. I thought this was great for the kids as it was something different that they normally wouldn’t get to learn. Who knows, maybe some of them are budding gardeners!

As volunteers our weekends were Wednesdays and Thursdays. This was because our classes were extra curricular and so the normal weekend was our busiest time of the week. As I arrived on a Saturday evening, my first week was very short. For the first weekend, I stayed around Huaycan. On Wednesday we went to Chosica to visit which was very nice. It is a town just a few towns away that has a bit more greenery than Huaycan, although to be honest that doesn’t take much! It has a pretty town square and there were a few market stalls there too. The river is very pretty here as well. There were a few market stalls around the square selling various souvenir items. I bought a warm hat to keep my head toasty when I went further on my travels up to high altitudes. It was a lovely afternoon πŸ™‚

El Carmen

El Carmen

The second weekend we went to visit the ruins at Pachacamac. They are pre inca ruins and really quite big. Because of the desert climate, a lot has been preserved as decomposition rates are so slow. It’s a really huge site with several temples and buildings that were used as schools. It has a beautiful view of the ocean too! The next day we went into Lima to get some Thai food, delish!

The third weekend we went to visit an old peoples home in the region of El Salvador. There was another big group of volunteers the same day but we still managed to help out a bit washing dishes and things. We then went into Lima to get some Korean food. I’ll be honest, it really wasn’t my favourite thing ever but at least I can say I tried it.

The next weekend several of us went to Chincha and El Carmen, the heart of the Afro-Peruvian region. There is a lot of traditional dance and music that comes out of this region that has a very strong african influence, very different to what most expect from Peru! We go to visit here as one of my roommates, Sara, had connections there. Really cool place and a culture I never even knew existed. In the times of slavery, there were huge plantations in Peru worked by slaves. One of these huge haciendas is now a luxury hotel. We got to visit and really it was one of the strangest things. If you had seen this hotel in any western country you would have thought it was incredible. And then the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere near a village in the middle of Peru added another level of incredibleness.

We got to learn a few of their dance moves and how to play some of their instruments and eat some typical food. In Chincha, we even got to go to an aerobics dance class with moves from their traditional dance. Was another fab weekend in Peru πŸ™‚

During my visit I also got to go to a fruit market which was really cool. We got there around 7am and it was already jam-packed with fruit and people. You had to buy things a bit in bulk but it was also super fresh and super cheap!

Fruit market

Fruit market

On 1st November it is the Day of the Dead. In Huaycan, it is a holiday day and everyone gathers at the cemetery in Zona Z. The graves people have here are much more colourful than those you are probably more familiar with. Children go around on the day with cleaning equipment and a pot of paint and families will pay for them to do up the grave with a fresh coat of paint. Many graves have bench type things and so you find the whole family sitting down with food and drinks.

The day of the dead

The day of the dead

There are fairground rides at the bottom of the cemetery as well as several food stands. There is load music blasting, it’s really a party! I think it’s a great way thing to celebrate the dead and not to be too morbid about it.

I got to meet a great group of people this past month and I am very thankful for my experience. I hope I get to see some of you again in the future!

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The US of A – The South

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Texas Longhorn

I haven’t written in so long but I am determined to finish this for all my travels! I am now back in Brussels and back at work and am more or less back into the swing of things. The next few posts will probably be a bit shorter than normal but I would much rather finish them with a bit less detail than not finish them at all!

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I caught a fish!!

After Singapore I flew across the pacific for the first time to the US. Man is that ocean big! I flew first to Guangzhou and then across to LA. I left Guangzhau at 9:30pm and arrived in LA at 7:30pm the same day.. after a 14 hour flight. Crazy huh?! 16 hour time difference does that kind of thing..

I was in LA for just one night in a motel near the airport and the next day I flew down to Dallas. The next couple of weeks I spent with friends on a road trip around the area. I saw my great friends Bill and Deedee in Graham, TX for a couple of days, saw Jenny and her now fiancΓ©, Cliff, in San Angelo, TX, went up to Tulsa, OK to see a family I hadn’t seen in years and I got to see Casting Crowns in concert which was amazing!

Then across to Search, AK for a couple of days to see some more friends before heading back to Tyler, TX. It was a fab couple of weeks. I got to see some great people, got to practise my gun shooting (not something i do ever…) and got to enjoy the great hospitality that is so famous in the south. I’ll be back sometime I’m sure πŸ™‚

Target Practise!

Target Practise!


I had a long journey again to get to Peru. I flew DFW to FLL and then had a 6 hour layover in FLL before getting on a 6 hour flight to Lima. It was a long day but it saved me a lot of money and was of course well worth it.

Hola Latino America otra vez!!

Singapore

I arrived to Singapore Thursday evening and took a taxi straight to Mert’s apartment. Not long after we went out and met Eleni for dinner and had some yummy pizza! It was great to see people again, if not a bit strange at the same time all the way over on the other side of the world!

Friday I had a pretty lazy day. I was staying in a Condo that had access to not one, but four swimming pools. So I of course had some pool time after a nice lie in. I could definitely get used to living somewhere like that for sure! In the evening we went out dinner and drinks with Marie Emilie as well. Saturday I met with Felipe and a friend of his, Katie, for lunch where we had gone previously a year and a half ago. That evening we went to Robertson Quay for an amazing burger before heading to Clarke Quay for drinks. Orlando and Ainhoa were in town so we got to see them too, was fab! Sunday morning we all met for brunch at a very british inspired place, delish! Jone’s the Grocer. They sell a lot of top quality groceries too. If you are in Singpore, you have to go at least once for the Eggs Benedict, wow!

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Gardens by the Bay

We made our way down town and saw the Sentosa Dragon Fountain and then walked across to Marina Bay Sands and went to Gardens by the Bay. Its just recently opened up and is a large green area of Singapore. There are 2 huge green houses that went into. The cloud forest was freezing!! Pretty cool to see all the jungle but my was it cold! We then had to say goodbye to Orlando and Ainhoa as they had to catch their plane. Ivy, Mert and I got dinner in Marina Bay Sands before heading home.

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The Sentosa Fountain and Marina Bay Sands

Monday i headed to Little Arab Town and got some henna (pretty!) and to China Town as well as going to see the Fountain of Wealth. For a relatively small place, there definitely is a lot to see. I met Felipe that evening for a Crab and FIsh dinner at a pretty local crab shack. Man was it good! Thanks Felipe!

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Henna!

Tuesday was my big travel day. I had to say goodbye to Singapore, and Asia infact. I flew first to Guangzhou, China and then from Guangzhou across the pacific to L.A. It was my first time flying across the pacific. I can’t say if felt any different to flying across the Atlantic, only maybe a bit longer, but now I can say I’ve done it!!

I had a fab time in Singapore spending time with friends, it was a different and great part of my trip. Thanks Mert so much for having me!

Malaysia – Big City and Island Paradise!

4th Sept – Arriving to KL airport it was easy to find a bus that went straight to the centre. I had looked up before and I just had to take the monorail a few stops to get to my hostel. There were a lot of road works outside of the station so it took a little bit to get myself oriented but I found the hostel with no problem. I was there pretty early so my bed wasn’t quite ready but I was able to take a shower and get online, you know, the important stuff. I hadn’t planned this part of my trip at all so I took some time chatting with other people and doing some research online to see what I wanted to do.

I went for a bit of a walk in the afternoon around The Golden Triangle area and I went to see the Petronas Towers. There is an incredible mall at the base of them. I felt like it had every designer shop you could ever think of as well as several other more normal ones, and then some! It was fun to look around but did feel like this is definitely how the other half live. I then took the metro near to China Town and Little India. I got to look around a Hindu Temple which was pretty cool. Jin Petaling is a bustling shopping street, Chinese market style. Pretty much any knock off or pirate copy you could imagine, you’ll find it there.

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Petronas Towers

I stayed there for dinner and had dinner at a street BBQ place. They had lots of food on skewers, raw, that you chose from. There were lots of vegetables as well as meat and seafood including squid! Some of the meat they put on their grill and other things they put a tub of boiling water in the middle of the table and you put in whatever you wanted when you wanted. It was a pretty cool place and I was definitely full afterwards!

The next day I had a quiet morning and in the afternoon took the train out to the Batu Caves. It is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. They are ancient limestone caves that you have to walk up a lot of steps to get to. I went with Jerry, a friend from my hostel, We had heard you could buy food to feed to the monkeys that were supposedly around the area so we bought some bananas. This perhaps turned out to not be the best idea in the world, although definitely a pretty funny one!

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Batu Caves

Once we got on the stairs, the monkeys were pretty obvious. We took out one banana and I guess monkeys have a sixth sense for that kind of thing but within miliseconds one was there to take it right out of Jerrys hand. WIthin seconds there was not just one but several monkeys around. I tried to give one of them a banana but it became apparent that one was definitely above the other ones. As soon as she came over the others were too scared to take the bananas and let her take them all!! How greedy!

Other monkeys then started going for the plastic bag. And then one went for Jerry’s arm. He’s trying to shake that thing off but it’s not
going anywhere without the bag. He was quite a small but a very agile monkey, pretty strong too. And he got the rest of the bananas. So mission accomplished. As soon as the bag was gone and we had no more food, the monkeys didn’t seem as interested in us as they were before but really, we were pretty ok with that.

Getting into the caves, it was very interesting. There was a small temple in one part of it and several shrines around. We got there just
in time for a ceremony to start. As with all Hindu places, people had to take their shoes off to get to the temple part and there were some in a small area that only a few people could go into, and they were seated on the floor right in front of the shrine. There were 3 men dressed in robes that did the ceremony. There was a metal pole with a teardrop shape on the top and they poured over several things on it, washing each time with water. This was repeated several times. It was interesting to watch even though I really didn’t understand what was going on.

After visitng the caves we stopped by the bus station to buy tickets for the next day to get up to Kuala Besut. I had Malaysian Indian food for dinner, was pretty darn good. A chicken curry with Peshwari Rotis. Delish!

Kieren and I booked tickets for the next day to go up the Petronas Towers, as they are booked for times every 15 minutes. Wow!! What a view! The Petronas Towers was the tallest building in the world from 1998 – 2004 with 452m when Taipei 101 took it over with 509m. We got to get off at the sky bridge as well as the 86th floor. The lift goes up pretty fast so you don’t feel like you’re going that far up at all. Stunning city few from the top. I’d love to go up at night sometime too.

That evening I took the night bus up to Kuala Besut where we would take a boat across to the Perhentian Islands for some beach time!!

The bus ride was fairly uneventful. The lady that we booked our tickets with was very nice and she gave us the front seats at the top that had the most leg room, so I slept pretty well! Kuala Besut is a small little town that is really only known for the ferry service to the Perhentian Islands. We arrived around 6 am and had to wait until around 7:30 am to get the boat. It was a pretty bumpy and wet ride, but fun at the same time. It rained almost the whole way there and while we were sort of covered, we still got pretty wet. It was hot
though, so I didn’t mind.

There are two Perhentian Islands, Kecil and Besar. Besar is the larger one and has more of resort type places. Kecil is the smaller one and is where we went and has a much more backpacker feel with a few resorts, but definitely the cheaper option on the whole. There isn’t really a way of booking a place to stay before you get there so we got off the boat and headed for a place we had heard about. They said they thought they had space but we would have to wait a few hours to get in. Having taken a look at their bathroom facilities, we decided to look elsewhere. Ideally a place on the beach was preferable but there weren’t many cheap options available. In the end we stayed at Tropicana Inn which is a bit of a walk in from the beach into the jungle but it was super cheap and the bathrooms were a lot nicer so it worked out very well.

The days on the island have sorta rolled into a haze as to what happened on what day but it was a lovely, relaxing time. I got to chill on the beach a lot and enjoy the gorgeous blue water and swim. It was so clear and actually very shallow for a good ways out on Long Beach. One evening a crowd of us went to Coral Bay on the other side of the island for BBQ. I got BBQ’d fish, a drink, rice and a dessert in a combo deal for around 2 pounds. What a bargain! Only thing is we had to wait about two and a half hours for the food to come… A long but well worth it wait.

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Long Beach at the Perhentian Islands

A couple of nights I went to Monkey Bar on Long Island and chilled meeting new people and playing cards. Along the beach itself there are a couple of bars that put low tables out on the sand with mats and candles and everyone sits out, often with Shisha. They have fire shows to watch as well as music playing. It’s a pretty cool atmosphere. One day Jerry, Charlie and I went on a snorkelling trip. Best day ever!!! We got to go to 5 different places around the island.

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Shark!

We saw turtles, sharks, stingrays, a gizillion fish, coral, it was awesome!!! We had lunch on the settlement on the island which is quite far away from Long Beach but easy by boat. Our guide had a really good underwater camera with him so we were able to get some pretty cool photos of us and all the fishes!!

It was a shame to leave to the island but I guess it had to happen at some point. It was another very wet boat ride, the heavens completely opened up about half way into the boat trip and my goodness did it rain. We all got off dripping, both us and our bags. I said goodbye to Charlie and Jerry and waited for a while before getting my bus back to KL to pick up my luggage before heading to Singapore.

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just swimming with a turtle πŸ™‚

I sat next a guy from the US, turns out he is playing the violin in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at the base of the Petronas Towers, cool or what?! And he was kind enough to let me use his shower and have breakfast with him when we arrived in KL. Thanks a lot Noel!

After picking up my luggage I headed to get the bus to go to Singapore. It was easy enough to find where to buy the ticket and I
only had to wait for about half an hour before the next bus game. It was a nice bus and a very smooth drive. The border crossing was
relatively simple too. Another country down with a few more to go!

Beijing

We arrived in Beijing mid afternoon so once we had got ourselves settled in our room, we went for a bit of a wander. Having bought so many souvenirs, we needed to buy a suitcase for dad to take back along with his big rucksack. We had been told about the Pearl market which was essentially a black market for fake products, a well as some pearls on the fourth and fifth floor. Our hotel was pretty close to a metro stop so we took that to get there. The place was full of junk, as well as some nice things too. But the prices they first suggest are ridiculous. They say you can normally get it down to 20-30% of what they originally say. I found a suitcase that I got for a reasonable price and some jeans and a tshirt and dad got some souvenirs too. Successful shopping trip.

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Wangfujing Street at night

After taking everything back to the hotel we went for a walk down the nearby shopping street of Wangfujing to find somewhere to eat. It was a pretty cool street, very modern, with many of the same shops in Europe. There was a big apple store on the corner too. We walked around quite a bit and eventually stumbled on a pretty local looking side street with several restaurants with seating outside. We sat at one of them and had some pretty tasty food. The portions were huge! We had a lamb dish as well as sweet and sour pork, both very yummy. It was then early to bed as it was an early morning the next day.

Waking up we had breakfast in the hotel just before 7 and got picked up about 7:30 for our first day of our city tour. We headed straight to Tian’anmen Square. It was already pretty busy even though it was so early. We learned some of the history of the place, all of which I didn’t know and it is pretty interesting. The central axis of North-South runs right the way through the middle of the square with monuments on that line. The forbidden city is just across the street, with the same axis running right the way through it. The monument to the peoples heroes is on the line. Traditionally only the emperor could walk on this line in the forbidden city. Other people had to walk either side.

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Dad on Tian’anmen Square

After visiting Tian’anmen square we went across the road to the forbidden city. This was home to emperors for 500 years but it now houses the palace museum. It was built in 1406-1420 and consists of 980 buildings and is absolutely huge! You could spend 2 days just looking at everything inside. We visited just along the central axis (it was like we were emperors!) and even that took a good couple of hours and we were whisking through. I was asked several times to have my picture taken with locals, by both guys and girls. It’s quite strange and I do wander where those pictures will go but comes with being a foreigner there I guess… We got to look inside all of the temples along the centre axes, every time it was a battle to get to the front to be able to take pictures. It sounds silly to say it but I really was surprised about how many Chinese tourists there were. There were a number of foreigners too but I guess it does make sense, the majority don’t live in Beijing so of course they would want to come and visit!

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Dad and me outside the Forbidden City

After the Forbidden City we went to a silk shop. We got to see how silk is made. There are two types of silk in China. The traditional silk is from a silk cocoon with just one silk worm inside. 8 cocoons are put together in water to wet them and make it easier to unravel and are then wound together to make one single silk thread. The other type of silk is made from cocoons with two silk worms inside. Here the cocoons are made from 2 silk worms and it is near impossible to separate the two. In this case the cocoons are soaked and then stretched out little by little until a big web is made. This silk is used to make incredibly soft padding for things like duvets and cushions. The duvets were amazing! I wanted one pretty badly.. Maybe next time. We got a few little souvenirs here, nothing major. The silk clothing was very pretty but it definitely came at quite the cost..

After the silk factory we went to the Temple of Heaven. It was built at the same time as the forbidden city and was a place the emperors would go to say prayers to heaven for a good harvest. The hall of prayer for good harvests is in the middle of the complex and is very pretty indeed, very ornate. It is round as this symbolises heaven with buildings around that are square, that symbolise earth. The temple itself is within a beautiful park that is very popular now for exercising, especially with the elderly. For Chinese nationals over 65, it is free for them to enter and maybe of them do as there are a lot of trees the air here is actually very healthy and natural, quite the contrast to the rest of the city.

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The Temple of Heaven

We then went for a Chinese buffet lunch in Bangfuchun Restaurant. It was mostly locals so it must be a good place right? The food was very good. There were several dishes in the middle that we all shared. There was a roundabout it the middle so it was easy to get to the dishes you wanted.

After lunch we went to a real pearl market where we got to see pearls right from a fresh water mussel. I got some earrings, the necklaces were beautiful but a tad out of my price range..

We then went to the Summer Palace which was a big of drive away. It is the largest Chinese imperial garden as is regarded as a museum of gardens in China. It mainly consists of Kumning Lake and Longevity Hill. The lake covers 2.9 square kms and is completely man made. The soil was used to make Longevity Hill which is about 60m high and has several buildings and temples on top.

Along the lake there is the along Corridor, famous for its length (728m) and it’s paintings, around 14,000 different paintings in total. We of course walked the whole length of it. It is indeed extremely ornate. It was built so that the emperor’s mother could walk through the gardens whilst at the same time being protected from the elements. It was first built in 1750 but had to be then partly rebuilt in 1886 due to fire damage. Once walking the length of the corridor we then took a dragon boat across the lake which was fun to get to see the palace from the water.

We then got transferred back to our hotel. It was definitely a full day of site seeing. There really is a lot to see in this place!

The next was another early start and the first stop was the Underground Palace, Dingling, one of the 13 Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs. From the Yongle Emperor onwards, 13 Ming Dynasty Emperors were buried in the surrounding area. We visited the tomb of the Wanli Emperor, which is one of the only 13 Ming Tombs to have been excavated. They seriously go all out for emperors. And even though the emperors are long gone, respect is still paid to a high degree and people will throw money where he was buried hoping the emperor will treat them well and give them good luck and good fortune.

The site itself was cleverly chosen based on Feng Shui principles. Most of the tombs haven’t been excavated yet but we did get to go down and see one. There were replicas of the tombs themselves. They were huge and red! 3 of them in total. Down there was also the emperor’s and empresses stone chairs. I think I would be happy with just a stone personally…

Afterwards we were taken to a Jade carving factory. It was pretty cool to watch people carve the jade. A lot of patience is definitely required as it is a very long and tedious process. I bought what they call a happiness ball which is a ball of jade with 3 movable balls inside, made from a single piece of jade. A little difficult to explain but it is pretty cool!

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The Great Wall!

It was then a bit of a drive up to the foot of the Mutianyu Great Wall where we stopped for lunch before heading up to the wall. This part of the all is not as famous as the Bataling section (here an emperor gave a speech and after everyone wanted to see the exact spot) but from all I’ve read and seen, it’s definitely the better part to visit. We took a cable car up to the Great Wall itself but it was certainly a good hike walking up and down the wall. We had about an hour and half to explore. The views were stunning and we even got some shots without any other people in them! It was cool to get to walk along it, one of those bucket list things to tick off! It really is a must should you find yourself in this part of the world. It’s just phenomenal to think that people built it!

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Dad and I by the Great Wall

For the way back down you can either take the cable car again (boring!) or you can take the toboggan ride (way more fun!). Unfortunately we did get a bit stuck behind a slow person so we would wait as much as possible to try and pick up as much speed as we could on the bends.

Driving back to downtown Beijing we stopped by the Olympic Green to get some good photos of the Bird Nest and the Water Cube. It’s a shame they aren’t used for much now other than for tourism but they sure do look cool. We then got to enjoy a Chinese tea ceremony and got to try a number of different teas before heading back to our hotel. Another long but thoroughly enjoyable day.

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The Bird Nest and Water Cube

Day 4. A slightly later but still early start. We headed straight for the Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas. How adorable! They’re pretty funny to watch for a while. They spend 14 hours a day eating because they need to eat that much bamboo to get enough nutrition. The other 10 hours they spend sleeping. Not a bad life, huh? They are one of the few animals that are very dependent on their mother for a long time, at least 6 months. One of them was chewing away and then sat down on a log, really chillaxed, and continued eating. Another sat pretty comfortably chewing on an apple. There was another who was rather old looking, they turn grey too when they go old. He climbed up a ladder type structure to sleep on the top in the sun. A teddy panda may have been purchased but she is still needing a name… πŸ™‚

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Giant Panda just chilling out

After enjoying the pandas we went to see the largest Lama Temple of Beijing, Yonghe Tempe. It is a Tibet style Buddhism temple. Inside one of the temples there is a 26m sandlewood statue of Maitreya Buddha which is pretty impressive. It’s in the world Guinness book of records for being the largest Buddha carved from one piece of sandlewood. There are a lot of people that come here to burn incense as offerings up to the gods. The buildings are all very ornate, quite incredible really the detail there is.

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Lama Temple

We then went to a Hutong to have lunch with a local family. We got to ride around on rickshaws which was fun. Hutongs are some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world, even though they aren’t really that fancy. A lot of Chinese tradition can be found in these regions and they are the oldest areas of the city and as such the land is much sought after. Where large mansions used to be, they have now been divided up into several houses. It all looks quite haphazard but it works. After lunch we got to ride around a bit more on rickshaws.

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In a Hutong District

We then headed to the Olympic Green to get up close and personal with the Bird Nest and the Water Cube. We didn’t go inside but we walked all the way around. They are interesting structures, it’s just a shame they aren’t used anymore. We got some cool pics though.

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Outside the Bird Nest

And that was the end of our Beijing tour. It is a great city, definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in China. And there is more to see as well, we just got some of the highlights. We had a nice dinner back at the place we had gone before and then it was packing time.

The next morning Dad had to get a taxi early in the morning to get to the airport on time. It was sad to say goodbye 😦 I had a great month with you Dad! I hope we can do it again sometime πŸ™‚ My taxi wasn’t until 10 pm that night so I had a lot of time to kill. I slept for a bit more before getting breakfast and then did some window shopping and worked some on my blog. The time went relatively quickly before I had to get the taxi.

I flew with Air Asia and it was as pleasant an experience it can be for a 2am flight. I slept most of the 6 hour flight and arrived bright and early to my next destination, Malaysia, to start my next adventure!

Goodbye Mongolia, Hello China

Our trip to Beijing from Ulanbaatar was the shortest train trip since leaving Europe, just 30 hours with one night on the train. It left early one morning and arrived at 2pm the next day. Our compartment was next to the Swinhoes again which was good, would have been sad to have been separated for the last bit! It was probably the most scenic part of the whole trip to be honest. We passed through the gobi desert although a lot of that was at night but we did get to see some – it was pretty cool. The windows on this train opened fully so we could take some pretty good photos. On the other trains we had to take the photos through the windows and I’ve definitely seen cleaner windows in my life…

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On the train across the Gobi

The Mongolia border crossing was around 7pm on the first day but we couldn’t get off the train as it took the whole time to go through the whole train with passport control. The Chinese border stop was only a few minutes after and this one lasted quite a while as the bogies on the train had to be changed. Russian and Mongolian trains have different sized track to most of the rest of the world and so when the train crosses the china/Mongolia border, the wheels all have to be changed.

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The Gobi Desert

The train goes into the bogie changing shed and one carriage at a time, the train gets lifted up by hydraulics (while we are on it, and no, we didn’t feel a thing), and then the bogies are changed before lowering the carriage back down. The track here has a double track on one side so both sized bogies can run. It was pretty cool, not something you get to see very often.
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Our slightly messy compartment…

We made sure we were up in good time the next morning as this is when we were going to see the Great Wall from the train! It was no longer flat dessert scenery, it had turned into beautiful mountains full of greenery. We saw the wall several times along the way which was awesome.

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The Great Wall!

As we got closer to Beijing we had several tunnels to go through, around 60 of them. They were numbered so if you looked out of the window at the right time you could see how many were left. It did break up the scenery quite a bit but was sorta fun at the same time. The scenery started to be more and more built up and was looking more and more like a city pretty quickly. Beijing is an absolutely gigantic city. Some 20 million people are said to live there.

There are several train stations in the centre and the one we arrived to was huge! They have a one way system going on which is probably for the best because it was pretty mayhem when we got off the train. On the platform we said goodbye to the Swinhoes (which was quite sad, I enjoyed travelling with them a lot!) and then went to find our ride to our hotel. That was a bit more difficult than expected as there were A LOT of people outside the train station. After a phone call we found each other and a lovely driver took us to our home for the next 4 nights.

Mongolia – Temples & Nomadic Life

Before leaving Ulanbaatar we stopped off at the Gandan Khiid Monastery. It is quite an impressive group of buildings, in the style of Tibet Buddhism. This is most popular type of Buddhism in Mongolia, with over 50% of the population following this religion. The temple survived the communist period and was reopened to be used as a monastery again in 1944. There are over 600 monks in residence now, we got to hear some of them chanting. They all chant in tibetan so the locals can’t actually understand. There were lots of cylinder shaped objects around and inside the temples that people were spinning. You are only supposed to spin them clockwise. They have Tibetan letters on them and it is supposed to help your ancestors who have already passed away. Inside one of the temples was an incredibly big statue of Buddha, 26.5m talk. It hardly looks like it would fit from the outside.

Just outside UB they are building another statue of Buddha, that will be the biggest in the world, I believe around 74m, taller than the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. They have a model of its feet at the temple and they are indeed awfully large.

After a visit around the temple it was time to leave the urban area and head for the semi gobi. To try and cut down on congestion, there are some days of the week where only odd or even numbered cars are allowed to drive. Because of this, our car couldn’t drive in the centre that day and so we went with the Swinhoe’s until we were just outside the city where we met with your driver.

The road was actually of surprisingly good quality pretty much the whole way there. Once we got out of the city, it definitely seemed to be one of the only roads, if no the only road, and it was heading directly west. After a couple of hours we stopped in I suppose what you could call a small village for lunch. The menu was only in Mongolian (incidentally Mongolia uses the same Cyrillic alphabet as Russia, a present they were given during the communist rule. Most now can’t even read or write with the old Mongolian alphabet, quite a shame if you ask me) but we got a translation and ordered what on the menu was shepherds pie. It was more or less what it was with a bit of a Mongolian twist. Not bad at all.

It was another good couple of hours before we got to our home for the next two nights. On the way there really was quite a lot of nothing with a few gers here and there, generally with herds of animals nearby. These could be sheep/goats, horses or even camels. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many horses in my life. There are apparently 14 horses to every person in Mongolia and I can believe it. The herdsmen typically have several for riding. They eat it too. There may be a lot of nothing but it is very beautiful and very untouched. I hope it stays that way for a while.

We were staying with a nomadic family pretty much in the middle of nowhere. They had 3 ger tents. One was the kitchen and where the family lived, the other 2 we for guests like us. Us and the Swinhoes stayed in one ger and a couple of Aussie-American ladies stayed in the other (we had met them before by the lake).

There were 2 horses there to ride and when we told them we were interested in camel riding, 3 camels appeared too. It wasn’t long before Dad and Harry where on the horses and you could just hear ‘choo!’ which is what you say when you want them to go. It wasn’t hard to know whee they were, even from in the ger as it was said quite loud! Once the camels arrived Sophie and I got on and went for a ride with the son of the family who is definitely quite a character and made the whole thing even more enjoyable. We went up to the nearby sand dunes and I stupidly forgot my camera but at least that meant I could just enjoy the scenery. Once we were up on the dunes we really felt like we were in the middle of the dessert as all we could see was sand all around us with the mountains in the distance.

The boy (I wish I knew his name!) was really quite amusing. At the top he got off his horse, gave us the reins for the camels, said goodbye and walked off.. To pee..haha. And he told us to make the camels go we had to say ‘roar!’, to make us roar.. It was good fun.

The sunsets here are stunning. The sun sets behind a mountain range and the colours in huge sky are just incredible. All shades of red and orange that reflect in the water in front, absolutely amazing.

We had dumplings for dinner in the ger. The solar panel they have charges up a car battery during the day so that at night the light bulb in the ger can be powered, very useful indeed. It wasn’t cold enough for a fire to be built, blankets were enough. We had quite an early night because really, what else can you in the middle of the semi gobi once it’s pitch black?

The next day was pretty full. We drove around 2.5 hours further west, some of it down the tarmaced road and the rest along dirt tracks. It made for quite a bumpy ride indeed. And our driver was pretty fast too. We kept having to pull over and wait for the other car as we were miles ahead! We arrived to what would have been Karakurum several centuries previous and what is now Kharkhorin. We first visited a museum (we were still quite in middle of nowhere but this museum had ac and wifi… Random!) telling about Mongolian history and the significance of Karakorum.

After the museum we headed across to the site itself that would have been where the ancient city lay. There is quite a substantial amount of ruins but a lot is long gone. It was the capital of the Mongolian empire in the 13th century. It was a very diverse city with many people from many religions living in harmony. It was the first place to give out passports which were large metal objects, not quite as convenient as the paper ones we use today. Genghis Khan rallied his troops there in 1218 but it is said it only truely became a settlement in 1220. In his time it would only have been a ger town, only several years later was a temple built. It was a walled city with much of the wall still standing with lots of temples and other religious buildings from several religions. It was cool to get to walk around it and see some of the Buddhist temples.

We were so long looking around we ended up not having lunch until almost 4pm. I was starving! We stopped by a nearby river to eat which was very pleasant before taking the 2.5 hour bumpy ride home. Dad, Harry and I went for a camel ride while the sun was setting, very beautiful indeed. I remembered my camera this time and the guy went with us took over 50 photos. A bit snap happy but he did get some good ones πŸ™‚

It was a nice quiet night again enjoying the scenery as the sun set with dinner in the ger. We got to spend a bit more time with the family. We even tried milking a cow. Not as easy as it looks…

The next day we had to say goodbye to the family. It was a thoroughly enjoyable stay. Whilst the toilet left a lot to be desired and there wasn’t any way of showering, I would definitely go back. The people are so kind and generous and the scenery is simply stunning. Harry was pretty set on buying a ger and getting some sheep and goats and trying it for a while.

After breakfast it was time to head on to our next stop, a tourist ger camp on the other side of Ulanbaatar. It was a good ways away, around 8 hours in the car I think. And it certainly was not all down tarmaced road. The first little bit was nice and smooth but the rest was a bumpy ride. How the drivers know their way is beyond me as there is definitely anything but signs on these ‘roads’.

We were running a bit late but the plan was to go to the big Gengis Khan statue before arriving at the tourist camp. It was almost dark when we got there but we managed to get to the top of it while the sun was still setting. It’s a bit random to be be honest, it’s a huge statue of Genghis Khan on his horse pretty much in the middle of nowhere with a load of tourist ger camps in the surroundings. It a here when legend has it that he found a golden whip. There is a museum at the ground floor with lots of ancient artefacts from all over Mongolia. It is the largest equestrian statue in the world with the horse standing 40m tall.

We arrived at the tourist ger camp when it was already dark, out our things in our ger and went straight for dinner. Food at the camp was really rather good. We had barbecued meat which was very tasty! There were several others there as well, several from the uk and it was fun to get to meet some new people and hear about their adventures.

We had a fire made in our ger oven and it made it nice and toasty! It was a beautifully decorated with a bed on either side, a dresser and a coffee table and a sink. The sink didn’t have a tap but it had a container above it that could be filled with water with a tap on it and under the sink was a bucket. Quite clever really.

The next day the weather was not fab. We got up for breakfast, which was again pretty yummy food and I got a shower! It’s a good feeling to be clean. We were hoping to ride horses but the weather was a bit too wet to enjoy it so we went for the relaxation option instead. We did laundry and had another fire made in the ger so our clothes would dry and did some blog writing and sewing. Meal times were good times to get to chat with people. Both lunch and dinner we stayed a while in the dining room just chatting away.

The next day it was time to go back to UB after breakfast. The first little part was a dirt track through fields but the rest was a nice road. The weather still wasn’t great but at least we were dry in the van. We arrived at the hotel and there were several other tourists checking in as well. It was pretty nice with several restaurants attached.

The weather was still not great but we went for a walk around to at least see a bit of the city. We tried to get into the natural history museum to see some fossils from the gobi desert but it was permanently closed (at least for now) as the building was unstable…

So we went straight for the shopping instead! I had read there was a souvenir section in the state department store and was a bit hesitant about it but it turned out to be great! It was on the top floor by the food court (they had a Cinnabon!) and was huge! They had anything and everything you could ever want from ger memorabilia to paintings to musical instruments to cashmere… so we of course came out with several bags.. Definitely a great place though if you are in Mongolia for souvenirs. Whatever you’re looking for you’ll find it here and at very reasonable prices too.

That evening we went to Tumen Akh cultural show. Fabulous! Just what the doctor ordered. No wonder it has such great reviews on trip advisor and only just across the street from our hotel. Here in UB when money is spent it is definitely on the inside of the buildings and not the outside. Both our hotel and theatre look like nothing from the outside but on inside they are both indeed very nice. We got to the theatre around half an hour before the show started and there were already several people there. We met a Mongolian tour guide who was first in line to buy tickets and she offered to buy ours for us as well so we gave her the money. A big coach load came in that somehow had their tickets beforehand but as soon as we were handed the tickets, true Russian style we squeezed in at the front of the queue for the door and got front row seats!

Now this theatre is a lot more basic than your average theatre at home. The stage is at the same level as the front row and the 4 rows of seats are more like 4 large carpeted stairs than seats. Definitely gives it more of an authentic feel. It was well decorated as well.

The show lasted about an hour and really was entertaining. There were several dancing acts with lots of different traditional outfits as well as instrumental pieces on Mongolian instruments. There was some normal singing and also some throat singing. It is probably one of the strangest things I have ever heard and definitely quite mesmerising. Check out this link if you haven’t heard it before. So overall a definite winner. Another must should you find yourself here.

We went back to the hotel for dinner and then it was another early night as it was a very early start. We got picked up at 6am (along with most of the rest of the hotel it seemed) to get to our 7:15 train to Beijing.

20131010-191857.jpg The huge Buddha statue

20131010-191924.jpg The view from our ger

20131010-191941.jpg Giant Turtle!

20131010-192000.jpg Camels!

20131010-192021.jpg a The family we stayed with

20131010-192038.jpg Genghis Khan Statue

20131010-192056.jpg Inside our ger at the tourist camp

20131010-192113.jpg Mongolian Show

Get me out of Russia!

Once on the train I couldn’t help but throw up again. Thankfully there was a bag handy but disposing of the bag was a little tricky. As mentioned before they lock the toilets before and after a station. We were moving at this point but we weren’t 10 minutes past yet. I tried to show I needed to get rid of the bag but they were having none of it. I went to put it down the sink they have in the attendants room but she stopped me and opened the toilet finally for me. It was of course locked again once I was finished..

You are supplied with a duvet and pillow per bed and then the sheets are given to you after. Some were sitting out and so to pick one up to make up my bed as I all I wanted to do was sleep. She wouldn’t let me have it so as soon as she walked away a bit I just took it and shut our compartment door. I don’t think she was a big fan of me but the feeling was fairly mutual..

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The timetable

While all of this was going on dad started to feel quite unwell. Fab. I actually felt a bit better after spilling my groceries so was able to get the beds ready. I slept quite well. Dad was up a bit in the night but did manage to get some sleep too. In the morning one of the attendants came in to speak to dad, in russian of course, and gave him some medicine. 3 tablets to take now and 3 in 20 minutes. And she wouldn’t leave until he had taken then 3… Still not sure what they actually are but they didn’t kill him. 20 minutes later the other attendant came in and did the same thing, wouldn’t leave until he had taken them.

We got to the border town around 1:45pm and it was a 5 hour stop. We had to stay on for the first bit while we gave in our passports and filled out customs forms. There was quite a scary looking lady that came into every room searching for things, standing up on the ladders for the top bunks and searching every nook and cranny. Dad was made to stand up so that he could be seen better to check him versus the passport photo. During this time the toilets are of course locked. Once we had our passports back we were allowed to get off the train. Naushki is a very small town with not a lot to see at all. I tried to walk around a bit but my stomach was still quite sore so decided to just sit on the platform for a bit. Dad was actually feeling quite a lot better (goodness knows what was in those drugs!) but still the same train attendant came over with another very russian looking woman who was apparently a doctor. Dad was trying to say he was ok but neither one could understand the other. They came over a second time and dad just kept talking and eventually I think they got the hint.

We got back on the train and around half an hour later after 2 very short stops we came to the stop for border control in Mongolia. We were finally out of Russia!! The immigration control officers came on and I’ve never seen such a change in attitude just 21 km down the road. There were pleases and thank you’s! The things as a Brit you come to expect as the norm. They were very friendly indeed. Already we were falling in love with the country and we had only just arrived!

This stop was 2 and a half hours at SΓΌkhbaatar. We did get off the train and exchanged a small amount of money so we could use the loos. We climbed underneath a train to get onto the platform, something generally regarded as a bit unsafe at home but here it was quite the norm. I got back on the train shortly after and ended up going out of site of the station as we were joined up to some more carriages. A few people had a bit of trouble finding the train again but eventually did.

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It’s quicker to go under than around

We were due to arrive in Ulanbaatar at 6:10am and so had set our alarms for about half an hour before. However at just before 5 our friend the train attendant unlocked our door and turned the bright light on shouting at us to wake up. I thought we had overslept at first but then seeing the time, turned the light back off and went back to bed. She came in a few minutes later doing the same thing but that time she got a door pulled over right in front of her as I was having none of it. I’m not the best morning person in the world..

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Some of the scenery along the way

We got off the train in due time and were met by 2 guides, one for us and one for the Swinhoes. We were promised breakfast and a shower once we got off the train and so were taken to hotel. The shower wasn’t exactly what we were expecting but we did get to wash. Instead of the normal individual shower, it was a communal shower/sauna.. It had a hot pool, a cold pool, sauna, plenty of showers and even showers where you could sit down on these plastic seats. Took a little getting used to but actually was alright.

We had a nice big breakfast at the hotel. I’m pretty sure they had about every food under the sun there, including curry and spaghetti bolognese. And then were off to explore Mongolia! Thankfully everyone feeling much better πŸ™‚

Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

Just as a warning, this entry covers probably the worst couple of days of the year so far as far as travelling goes. Granted, they could definitely have been a lot worse, we weren’t put in a gulag or anything, but it definitely wasn’t great.

So after meeting Sasha and Lana, Lana comes with us in the bus and we stop off briefly at a hotel to use the facilities before heading off for our drive to Bolshoe Goloustnoye Village on the shore of Lake Baikal. We were with the Swinhoes for this part of the trip and in fact the rest until Beijing! It took about 2 and a half hours. The first part leaving Irkutsk was a well tarmaced road but it soon became a rather bumpy ride. The road is relatively new but it is in no way finished. The bridges have tarmac on them so they are smooth but they tend to only last a couple of seconds. Still, there are certainly worse roads out there.

We arrived in time for lunch at our guesthouse. The owner, a lovely lady, a rare breed in this country, had cooked us a nice lunch including borsch and a meat dish with rice. The place is her house and then there is another building with a few guest rooms and a banya (more about that later). There was an outhouse type building with 2 latrines. The mattresses were a little hard but there were plugs and heating so no complaints.

After lunch we all took a walk up the village. There is a church in the village, quite pretty from the outside, an Orthodox Church. Traditionally women should wear skirts and cover their heads. There were some spare skirts and scarfs in the porch so the three of us ladies got kitted out before heading in. It was quite similar to other churches we’d been in, no chairs, and with quite a bit of artwork, just not as ornate as some of the cathedrals we’d seen.

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At the Orthodox Church in the village

There was a small hill just after the cemetery in the village (the cemetery was a site in and of itself, there was a photo on almost everyone’s grave with lots of flowers, both real and fake) so we took a walk to the top. It was a nice view with the lake in the background.

We asked as soon as we arrived if there was a shower as after 4 days, you do really start craving one. When we got the response of no, gutted is definitely not a strong enough word for how we felt. However, little did we know there was something better waiting for us! At 5pm we had a banya. It’s essentially a sauna with a bit of a Russian twist. There is a wood fire that heats up a large vat of water and it’s that water that heats the room. It was a wooden room where water just drained out from underneath. There was a large barrel of cold water and then several saucepan shaped plastic tubs and some washing up basins. So the idea is to sweat everything out and then make your own mix of hot and cold water in which to wash. I certainly wouldn’t have time for that every day but it does make a nice change to your average shower.

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The Banya. Fun times πŸ™‚

After the banya it was time for dinner. We had dumplings in soup, not bad at all. The weather had deteriorated a bit and it started to get a bit chilly but at least there was heating.

For this part of the trip we could leave our big bags behind and just take our small bags. The next day was a trekking day and so we just carried all our belongings with us. Breakfast was a lovely omelette and then we were off around 9 am for a 20km (12 mile) trek. The weather wasn’t fantastic when we set off but it wasn’t wet enough to need a waterproof just yet. We had asked our guide, Dima, if he knew about the weather for the hike the evening before and when we got the reply ‘I don’t know, I’m not a meteorologist!’ We decided to ask no further.

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The Orthodox Church in the village

A couple miles down the road it started to get pretty wet and so waterproofs were out on. Once we had walked out of the village, we walked through some forestry and then went down onto the beach. It was a rocky beach and not the easiest to walk on, especially when it’s raining and the rocks are quite wet. We never did get the option of stopping for lunch, which we probably wouldn’t have taken anyways but it would have been nice to have been asked. Dima and Lana were both with us, supposedly as guides although we frequently would have to call for them to wait up as the group got quite spread out at points.

As the walk went on we all were getting wetter and wetter and as a consequence both quite cold and miserable. We just wanted to arrive and be able to get warm and dry. Step by step it was squelch by squelch.

According to our itinerary our destination was another village on the lake, Kodlinaya, needless to say we were not expecting what was coming. We arrived absolutely sodden around 3pm to a small collection of wooden buildings, more like sheds than cabins and were directed to one which was to be our home in theory for the next 2 nights. We got in, there was no electricity and no heating. The whole place was dirty including the beds and there were flies everywhere. Not quite the log cabin with a nice fire we were expecting…

We decided pretty much straight away unanimously that we didn’t wish to stay here at all. Everything we owned was wet as rain had just soaked straight through our bags. We called in Lana and Dima and expressed our sentiments which were not particularly kindly received. We were given 2 options, stay or walk the 20km back. Walking the 20km back straight away was not an option at all as one member of our group had a foot issue and we most likely would have gotten ill form the cold and wet. We said they needed to think up another option and so off Dima went to try and get phone signal to call his boss.

Meanwhile, we were shown to another building that had a kitchen and dining area. I don’t think I have ever seen a more disgusting kitchen. There was a pile of egg shells you could hardly see for all the flies. They were everywhere. No food was covered and place really was file infested. It was then we decided we wouldn’t be eating during our stay..

Thankfully the dining area had a fire going and so we all huddled around that and planned to stay there until something got sorted. We were presented with lunch which was instant mash with a rather pink looking sausage. We kindly declined. Dima had carried some cheese and salami with him which was supposed to be our lunch so we did eat some of that but covered the plate with Harry’s hat to keep it away from flies.

We waited quite a while for Dima to come back. Whether he did actually call anyone or not we will never know but there appeared to be no third option other than a Banya for just 40 minutes. So that was it, we now needed to plan our own escape. It was decided, we would try as much as possible by the fire, try and sleep in the freezing cold and then leave at first light to the other village, walking back the 20km.

We did go across to the banya building but didn’t actually go into the banya itself. Sitting in the room just outside we tried to warm up and dry some things a bit. But as soon as the 40 minutes was up us and our drying clothes were kicked out so our guides could go in… Go figure..

So back to the fire it was. We learnt that this place was actually a holiday camp, not a village at all. Why anyone would come here out of choice knowing what you were getting into I have no clue but nevertheless there were some Russians there too. I’m sure in good weather it is a much more enjoyable place but that still doesn’t excuse the dirtiness or the kitchen..

One of the Russians, although not able to speak english, was actually quite friendly and helped us align our boots and clothes to dry a bit more effectively. I’m not really sure what they must have thought of us all but I’m quite sure they were thinking something.

We had some snacky food with us and so had a bit of that instead of dinner. Around 10 or so we went back to our cold shed to try and get some shut eye before our early start the next morning. There was varying success on the sleep front. I managed to get at least a few hours before getting up at 6 to be ready to leave as soon as it got light. We had said with the guides we wanted to leave at 6:30am which got a roll of the eyes as a response and so 7 was more or less agreed. At 7:10 we we ready and so went to tell the guides we were leaving. They were sitting having breakfast at the time. So off we were, the 6 of us, as well as a cat. Apparently he didn’t want to stay either.

The cat stayed with us for a good 2 miles and then stayed behind after a few hundred metres on the beach. I hope he made it back ok and got some food.. 😦 It thankfully wasn’t raining today but was still quite cloudy. Back into the forest we were walking down the path and suddenly Peter fell over and it didn’t look good. The ground underneath had given way and he fell down on his ankle. They managed to get him up to sit on a fallen tree. He is a doctor, his wife a nurse and daughter a medical student so there was certainly a lot of knowledge around. Catherine, his wife, taking one look at it was fairly certain it was broken. Not good.

The guides by this point had pretty much caught up so we told them what had happened and that we needed to get help. The response was to ask us what they should do about it… A bit ironic all of this as only the previous evening we had asked Dima what was done in an emergency to which we got no response. Great. We told them it was their job to sort it out so off they went to find some phone signal. In the meanwhile Peter had taken some painkillers and said with the help of dads trekking pole would try and walk a bit. Lana came back to report they had been able to get in touch with the village and a boat would be out to the beach closeby to pick him up. Somehow he managed to walk the half a mile to the beach and did very well indeed.

The story does pick up a bit here. Peter and Catherine stayed there with Dima and the rest of us carried on walking towards the village as we had no idea how big the boat would be. About 45 minutes later we saw the boat going down the lake. They actually pulled in to get us but we tried to signal they needed to go further. It was a speedboat, it was almost a James Bond rescue! A while later the boat came back with the three of them on it and went to pull in to pick us up too. We were very thankful as we were starting to struggle quite a bit. We had to walk just a little further up the shore so the boat could pull in enough to pick us up. We had a very exciting ride back to the village jumping up from the waves quite a lot. Once we arrived at the village the guy on the boat picked up a truck and gave Peter a ride back to the same guesthouse we were at while the rest of us walked back. The lovely lady was there to welcome us again. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see someone I can hardly communicate with!

They put the banya on for us so we could warm up which was lovely and we were then served a lovely lunch before the bus arrived to take us back to Irkutsk. I will still all a bit confused as to what would happen when we got to Irkutsk as we still had one more night before our train to Mongolia. Upon asking Lana she said we had been booked into a hotel that we would need to pay for and she didn’t know how much it was. I was not a happy bunny.

It was another bumpy ride back to the hotel. Why we didn’t go to the hospital first I don’t know..Upon arriving Sasha was there. Russia really doesn’t bring the best out in and I started questioning again what exactly was going and how I was appalled with the guidance we had received and how I was under no circumstances about to pay for a hotel room when I had already paid for the trip. I still don’t think I was as rude as the replies I got.

Meanwhile Harry and Sophie checked in and got the password for the wifi. Dad had written an email stating all the issues we had had over the past 2 days and sent it back to the tour company asking for immediate help. In the meantime I was still trying to explain to Sasha why I wasn’t happy but I feel there was both a language and culture barrier. Not long after he received a call from London saying they would cover the cost of the hotel. After that Sasha was extremely helpful giving me a city map and pointing things out as well as our train tickets for the next day. He even helped get us and our stuff into the lift.

We had dinner in the restaurant downstairs in The London Pub with Harry and Sophie and not long after Catherine came back to report on the Russian A&E. It certainly sounds a little different to the NHS back home.. He had indeed broken a bone and was now in plaster and unfortunately would need to fly home early.. What a couple of days!

The next morning we all met for breakfast and we said our goodbyes to Peter. It was a big shame he had to go home, he would be missed by all. After breakfast we started packing up thinking we had to leave our rooms by midday but we then got the message we had until 7pm, great news!

I started feeling a bit unwell and decided to take a bit of a rest while dad went out to do a bit of exploring. Turns out I really wasn’t well at all. I spent the rest of the day in bed throwing up and with travellers diarrhoea…. Fantastic. I couldn’t eat anything and could drink water more or less but even some of that came back up..

We left the room at 7 and went down to wait in the lobby for a couple of hours before getting taken to the train station. I still wasn’t feeling good at all and the car journey didn’t help. Drivers in Brussels can be pretty crazy but that’s nothing compared with here. We got to the station and Harry very kindly carried my big bag for me.

Trans Siberian Train

Well this is it, we are on the train across Siberia! We’d gone 6 hours before I even looked at my watch. I guess it’s a perception thing, when you’re on the train for 5 hours it can seem to take forever but if you have 4 days, you may as well just sit back and enjoy the view cos you’re not going anywhere for a while!

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View from the train of a typical Russian village

To explain a bit about the train, it was essentially just like any other sleeper train you might find across the world, but quite a basic one. There were several 4-sleeper berths in our carriage with a toilet at either end. That’s really where the basic part really comes into play. The toilet was certainly functioning, it just wasn’t quite like toilets at home. It did have a flush by a food pedal but the flush opened right onto the track so looking down it you could see the rails go by. It did flush a bit of water down too making you think it was perhaps a bit cleaner.. To turn the tap on you had to push a button underneath where the water comes out and it was quite stiff and had to be pushed in to get water. A bit tricky but it worked. There was even soap. One slightly annoying thing is that they would lock the toilets 10 minutes before a station and wouldn’t open them again until 10 minutes after we’d left the station. So that sometimes meant an hour or so without a loo. If the stop was long enough you could go on the station. It wasn’t that big a deal on this train (later trains it was a little…) but you did need to remember to go before it got locked!

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The toilet, and yes, it does flush onto the track..

In our berth, we had a mattress, a duvet and a pillow and were issued with sheets and a small towel as we got moving. I decided to sleep on the top bunk and have the bottom bunk as my living and luggage area which worked very well. Dad slept on the bottom and rolled up his mattress each morning. It’s surprisingly comfortable to sleep on the train, I didn’t have a problem sleeping any of the nights. Our window didn’t open but there was air flowing through when the train was moving so it pretty much an ok temperature the whole time.

The first evening we went to the dining cart and had some dinner. It was ok all things considered. What was quite strange was at one point one of the ladies working in the dining cart shouted down her phone and then proceeded to throw it across the carriage before storming off. The other lady went running after her and they both eventually came back, the first seeming fairly upset. We later heard the same shouting from the kitchen and for the rest of the evening the pair looked quite annoyed and upset. No clue what happened at all but do hope everything was ok in the end. A bit of action in the dining cart anyways.

That was actually the only evening I ate in the dining cart, I stuck with pot noodles for the rest along with bread and cheese spread and crisps. We had brought a bit of food onto the train but definitely not enough. We had cereal bars from home that we had for breakfast along with tea/coffee. Every carriage had a boiler for hot water that was always available which was great. We brought cupasoups with us too which made for a good meal along with bread and crisps.

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Buying supplies on the platform, mainly consisted of crisps, cheese spread and bread

There was a timetable on the train with most of the stops that we would be making on it, although we stopped several times without it being mentioned on the timetable. All times were in Moscow time but every day we entered a new time zone, going forward 2 hours after the first night and then an extra hour each day after that. So we started out GMT+4 and end up at GMT+9. It’s all quite confusing as you are constantly converting from Moscow time to local time and then from local time to Moscow time to see when the next stop is.

We were surprised at the lack of foreigners on the train and the sheer number of Russians. This may sound a bit silly given as we were in Russia but I suppose we just assumed, especially as it was summer, there would be more travellers like ourselves. Many russian families stayed on as long as we did, some even longer, presumably travelling to/from their homes from Moscow.

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Lunch time on the train

There were no plug points in the rooms, only 3 out in the corridor. And it was really on a first come first serve basis. We managed to keep things with a bit of charge. For one Russian family, it clearly wasn’t their first time on the train. They had brought an extension lead with a long cable on it so were able to plug it in and have the plugs in their room. Others would occasionally unplug it to plug in their phones, only fair, but should I be back, I will do the same.

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The water heater on the train

As there was no showers on the train, it was a baby wipe job. After a couple of days I had to wash my hair and so cut my fanta bottle and used the bottom half as a cup to wash my hair over the sink. Rather successful actually. I also improvised a washing machine using an empty 5l bottle of water, filling it from the sink and added the washing powder and clothes, and shook. After a bit of soaking, empty it and put clean water in for the rinse. Worked remarkably well. And then with my washing line I could hang up all my undies! I’m sure everyone wanted to see them from the platform..

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Dried fish anyone?

On the timetable it not only said the names of most of the stops and the times but also how long we would be stopping at each of the stops. It was sometimes a considerable amount and sp there was enough time to get out. At a couple of the stations, there would be ladies on the platform selling food as well as a few souvenirs. We were able to get the bread and cheese spread fairly on in the journey me a few more pot noodles. When we had very long stops, half an hour or more, we could go into the station building and there would often be wifi which was very nice!

You may ask, what on earth do you do on the train for 4 days without getting bored?! Good question but surprisingly enough I never did feel bored. The whole time is a sort of blur in one. Whilst I did sleep well I only slept a normal amount, 8 hours a night or so. I would spend time enjoying the scenery. I studied the timetable a fair bit as I liked to know when the next stop was and what time zone we were in. I brought a cross stitch with me that I have made pretty good progress on. I did a bit of blog writing although probably not as much as I should have done. I read some parts of travel guides for the upcoming locations as well as ones a big further down the road. We chatted between the two of us and also made some friends with the Swinhoes. When we stopped for longer than 10 minutes I would always get out and have a wee gander. The time sort of just passed really. Between sewing, laundry, chatting and sightseeing and eating, there wasn’t much more time in the day!

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Arriving in Irkutsk

We arrived in Irkutsk local time around 9am which Moscow time was 4am (so best to be on local time!). We were met on the platform by Sasha and Lana who took us to our bus. We had just travelled 5193km by train and crossed into another continent. Pretty cool.