London to Paris
My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a nice idea, but gradually I began to think I would really do it, and finally, the night before I left, I packed my bags and told everyone I was going.
In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so not letting the lack of either currency or insurance deter me, I headed for Victoria.
Here, two major setbacks awaited me. First, Boots had no Sausage, Egg & Bacon sandwiches. Second, the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King’s Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called ‘abroad’ is Scotland, their use there is limited.
So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, ready to make plans from there. I was quite surprised to find a bloke selling ‘Selected European Tickets’ at the station in Dover, but when I asked him if I could get a ticket from Calais to Paris, he replied ‘No, sir, you’d get that in Calais’. I walked to the ferry terminal instead.
I bought my ticket, and got on the ferry to France. The weather was marvellous, and the crossing was pleasant, even though there appeared to be no way to get out onto the deck to appreciate it. The ferry was almost empty, so I spread my things out over several tables, and enjoyed the ride.
Calais was really not a pleasant introduction to France. Bits of heavy machinery lay scattered around the road from the port to the town, like a scene from Mad Max, and the buildings looked like they’d been transported here from a war zone. However, by the time I got to the town, things look a bit nicer. I was almost tempted to stay, but when I got to the station, I found that there was a train to Paris going in 10 minutes. I bought a ticket, said goodbye to the Canadian girl I’d been chatting to, and hopped on board.
Despite the train being almost empty, the conductor moved me on when he checked my ticket, as I was sitting in a reserved seat. He sent me off down the train, but there seemed to be no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren’t. He had to move me on twice more before I got it right. To emphasise his absolute authority over the train, he then stamped my ticket seven times, swore a few times, and swaggered off.
At Boulogne, the train filled up with loud and obnoxious schoolkids. As they raced up and down the carriages, throwing things, picking their noses and burping, I found myself talking to a Pakistani bloke. He seemed to have been a refugee in most western European countries, and from what I could gather, he’d just been deported from Britain, and was going to try his luck in France. He’d already had experience of French bureaucracy – “Government write very much paper” – and didn’t hold out too much hope of getting very far.
We arrive in Paris at 9pm. I strolled through the seedy area between Gare du Nord & Gare de l’Est, and tried to buy a ticket to Budapest. I found it was going to be a bit more than I’d hoped, and realised that if I went, I would have absolutely no money at all when I got back. So I revised my plans, and, seeing as there was a train to Munich leaving in 20 minutes, I bought a ticket and got on the way.
Munich to Paris
Train to Adelaide
The ice planet Hoth
Out of China
My day started brutally early at 4am, and I finished packing with a hint of dawn in the sky. I left my flat for the last time at 5am, walked along to the East Gate and found a taxi. I was worn out by the time I got there, and regretted having bought so much stuff, which I would have to carry eight thousand miles home.
I watched the blocks of sky scrapers go by. As we drove along Chang’an, the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the flag was being raised in Tiananmen Square. I got to the station in plenty of time and found my way to the waiting room. I got on the train at 7am, and found my way to my compartment. It seemed unbelievable to think that it would be my home for the next six days.
As we started to pull out of Beijing Station at 7.40am, I was feeling something like butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation of what this journey would be like. I watched as Beijing gradually melted away into the surrounding hills, and after a couple of hours we were in rural northern China. A few scattered parts of the Great Wall occasionally appeared on the tops of hills.
Tired from my early start, I slept a bit during the day, but mostly I was just watching the scenery go by. By 7pm, we were a few hundred miles from Beijing, and we were in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An amazing sunset was the last thing I saw in China, and a couple of hours after nightfall we reached the border with Mongolia at Erlian.
We spent five hours at the border. First of all, all the wheels on the train had to be changed, because the tracks in Mongolia are wider than the ones in China. Then we had passport and customs checks from the Chinese, a long slow rumble over the border to Dzamyn Ude, and then more passport and customs checks from the Mongolians. The Mongolian entry forms were printed in Mongolian and English only, and so I made many Chinese friends in my carriage by filling in all their forms for them. I had offered the favour to my three room-mates, not knowing that they had about twenty friends in neighbouring compartments. My wrist was aching by the time we left Dzamyn Ude at 2.30am.
I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn’t believe that I was really in Mongolia – to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view.
We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city – just tents. I’d never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment’s notice.
The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I’d ever seen. I had been talking to an Australian journalist on the train, who was about to live here for a year working for an English-language newspaper, and I wondered what she was thinking as we pulled into the station. I’d have been thinking “Screw this, I’m staying on until Moscow” if I’d been her.
We moved on. Southern Mongolia had been flat and grassy; northern Mongolia was hilly and barren. The lack of population was striking, and I had a huge craving to come here and trek in the emptiness. That would have to wait for another trip though. I watched the country go by, mesmerised by it.
In the evening I went to the restaurant car. Last night it had been a Chinese Railways restaurant car; we’d ditched that at the border and picked up a Mongolian one, so I got the classic Mongolian meal of mutton. I met a few other travellers over dinner, and once darkness had fallen we played cards until we reached the Russian border at Sukhbaatar. Last night’s border crossing had been slow, but this one was even slower, despite there being no wheel changing operation. We arrived at 9.30pm, and spent a couple of hours going through the Mongolian formalities. Then we rumbled over to Naushki in Russia, and I was not surprised at all that the Russian formalities took a very long time. Part of the reason was the smuggling – a lot of people on the train were carrying a lot of goods on which they didn’t want to pay import taxes, and a lot of distribution of possessions had gone on. Maybe some people get caught; more likely, a bribe or two is paid here and there. Everyone in my carriage got through the customs checks OK, and at 5.30am we powered off into Russia.
I was excited to be in Russia. Getting a visa had been the most difficult thing about my trip: I’d got my Mongolian one with the greatest of ease at 10am one sunny Monday morning in June, and so I thought I’d try and get the Russian one the same day. I walked through Hyde Park to Bayswater Road, and quickly found the queue. Equally quickly I realised it was going nowhere, and I decided to come back earlier the next day. I did that, but it was beginning to look like getting a visa would be more difficult than I’d expected, because I queued for two hours, until the consulate closed, and didn’t even get into the building.
The next day was Russian Independence Day and the consulate was closed. The day after that I went into battle for the third time, arriving at the embassy at 8.15am. At 9am the doors opened and the queue moved forward, but it stopped before I got in the building. Three hours later, the queue hadn’t moved and I was still visa-less. It looked like some serious early starting would be required and so my fourth queue experience began at 6.15am, after I’d got the first tube of the day from Bounds Green into town. This time at 9am I actually got into the building, and I felt like a visa was within my grasp. But again I was denied. The queue moved interminably slowly and I got nowhere near the front. When the shutters came down at midday, a scuffle broke out at the front with someone who needed a visa urgently banging on the glass and demanding to see the consul.
I spent the weekend wondering whether to entirely rethink my plans. It seemed almost totally impossible to get hold of a Russian visa without paying wads of cash to agencies to do it for you. I’d already spent almost twelve hours in the queue and now the only option seemed to be to sleep on the pavement outside.
In the end I decided to do that. Late one warm evening early in my second week of trying to get a visa, I packed up my sleeping bag, thermos and a bag of sandwiches and headed for Kensington for my first experience of sleeping rough. I reached the gate, and to my relief I was the first person there. I bedded down outside, and thought that these were ridiculous lengths to go to. But I was in too deep and I couldn’t pull out of the battle. It was visa or death for me now.
At 2am another visa-seeker arrived, in disbelief that he was not the first in the queue. About half an hour later another person arrived, and people continued to join in ones and twos throughout the night. At 3am it began to rain heavily, and soon there was lightning and thunder. I crawled inside my sleeping bag.
By 6am it had stopped thundering, and an influx of people from the first tubes had started arriving. There were still three hours to wait until the doors would open, and my morale was slipping. I held on, though, and got into the building at 9am. If anyone had tried to push in front of me now, I would have killed them with my bare hands. I went to the window and handed over my forms, pulling twigs from my damp hair and brushing dirt off myself. Half an hour later, my forms had been processed, my passport was taken, and I was told I’d have a visa by the following day. As I staggered away, a security officer was shouting at the queue, saying that they were too noisy and that no more visas would be given out until there was total silence. I left the quietening embassy behind and went home to sleep.
Having gone through all that, I thought that Russia had better be good. And it was, here in the far east. When I got up we were in forests, but soon we reached the shores of Lake Baikal. It looked stunning under big blue skies, with misty mountains visible on the opposite shore. The waves virtually lapped at the tracks at times. We spent a few hours rolling along by the lake before reaching Irkutsk in the mid-afternoon.
In the evening I played cards in the restaurant car. Among the players this evening was a small Mongolian boy, whose parents were traders, travelling back and forth on the train, buying Russian things to sell in China and vice versa. This boy clearly had a lot of time on his hands to perfect the art of Shithead, and he won frequently.