Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Chinese bureacracy

This is how I left China.

I read I could get a ferry from the port city of Qingdao to Incheon in Korea. Having entirely predictable liberal guilt about flights, I vowed months in advance that I would do this. Lonely Planet,, etc had no real concrete information about how one might book the ferries that they casually flagged up, and the website was only in Chinese and Korean, but I figured I could sort stuff out on arrival in Qingdao.

I didn't think to ask any Chinese people to look at the website for me during any of the three weeks I spent in popular Chinese-reading country China.

I arrived in Qingdao and asked at the hostel if they knew the best way to get ferry ticket. They did not.

I went along to the ferry terminal to try and buy a ticket in advance. They told me I couldn't buy a ticket in advance and I should come back at 2pm the next day (i.e. the day of sailing).

That evening I got quite drunk with an Irishman who had an advance ticket.

At 1.30pm the next day I returned to the ferry terminal. I queued at the ticket desk for about quarter of an hour, before being informed I should definitely go to the building next door.

I went to the building next door. You know how people tell their kids that their pets have 'gone next door'? But they mean they're dead? Probably meaning hell? I think they just meant this place. It took me two hours to move one metre in the queue, mostly because there were zit-encrusted Chinese adolescents constantly pushing in front of me, each bearing the passports of at least ten of their friends of their friends. Eventually these would be processed by the three members of staff on duty, one of whom left after an hour and never came back. Every single petty gripe about the Chinese I'd accumulated over the past month came flooding bitterly up through my gut, and might well have been proverbially spewed over the giggling hordes around me, had it not been for the presence of Simon the Irish guy, of getting drunk with the previous night fame. We contented ourselves with quietly hurling abuse at everyone around us.
He was there because despite already owning a ticket back, he had to get it validated in order to claim a cabin on the ferry.
Alarm bells rang.
With no small amount of violence, I finally got to the front of the queue.
There were no ferry tickets available for another week.
Simon mumbled a few kindly words, but at the end of the day he had to get onto his fucking ferry.
Having come down with my massive backpack, I decided to get a taxi back to the hostel, where I would fume.
For some stupid reason I got in an unmarked cab, driven by a guy who spoke okay English. This is a bad sign, as most people in China who've learned English and don't work in hostels appear to have done so in order to con foreigners (this is obviously a sweeping generalisation, but I only met about three Chinese people who didn't work in hostels, and they all tried to con me).
He tried to con me. I was in such a bad mood that told him how much I thought it should be, realised I'd have to ask him for change if I tried to pay him that much, so actually paid him quite a lot less than for my taxi out there.
I went on a website and reluctantly booked 250 quid flight from Qingdao to Seoul.
At least I was leaving.
Several hours later I got a message from the agency I'd booked the flight with, telling me that in order to confirm the booking and process payment, I'd have to send a photocopy of my credit card to them by scan or fax.
The hostel had neither a scanner nor a fax machine.
I sent the agency a pleading email explaining my situation, got really drunk, then went to bed.
Woke up at 6am, very hungover, checked my emails, found I did not have a flight. I had essentially come to the fairly average town of Qingdao for no reason, and should probably have stayed in Shanghai drinking with my Swedish friends, and got a cheap flight from there.
I threw myself at the feet of Maxwell, a member of staff at the hostel, who - unusually for a member of staff at a Chinese hostel - didn't really speak any English.
He went to the Chinese-language version of the EXACT website I'd been on the day before, where the flight I'd attempted to book for 250 quid in English was on offer for a princely 53 quid for speakers of Mandarin.
The agency was going to send over a man, to the hostel, within the next two hours, who I would pay for my ticket in cash.
The man turned up with my receipt, which was for a 300 pound ticket. Alarm bells rang.
I went to the airport, which I'd probably guess cost more than everything else in all of Qingdao. It was four quid for a beer that cost 20p in town, and there was a string quartet playing in the airy but largely deserted departures hall.
I went to the Korea Air counter. Alarm bells were wrong. They gave me a ticket. I got on a flight, where - somewhat suspiciously - I was sat next to the only other white guy, a Dutch man developing a yacht powered entirely by wind and sun. For some reason I found him entirely loathsome, despite (though actually perhaps BECAUSE) of the fact that he was clearly going to do far more to improve the planet than I ever will.
Arrived in Korea. It was like going forward in time about 200 years. I got to my hostel, met some rowdy Americans, drank several beers bigger than my head, and three days later wrote a blog that probably inferred I had a bit more trouble getting to Korea than, let's be honest, I actually did.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

None of you are getting a toy soldier. Sorry

So I've recently been beset by the thought that I might be a bad tourist.

Obviously this doesn't particularly bother me (don't worry, this isn't a blog about my feelings, I'm not some sort of girl). But still.

I've just been in Xi'an, which is an awesome town in its own right, but certainly the only reason two thirds of middle England appears to be camped up here at any given time is that Xi'an is the city nearest popular tourist attraction The Terracotta Army.

So anyways, I went to see said Army, and it was good, though I suppose I shared the same sense of anticlimax a lot of people report; it's a stunning spectacle, but at the same time it's neither better or worse than what you expect: it's a very large room filled with two thousand year old clay figurines in various states of disrepair, and I suppose the sheer fact of its existence is the most remarkable thing, not so much the form that existence takes.

Nonetheless, it's kind of mind-blowing regardless, but whatever your feelings it doesn't technically take that long to see, so inevitably there are some shopping opportunities. You can buy:

1) Innumerable replica figurines of the Warriors

2) Stuff made of jade

3) Warriors picturebooks, signed by the peasant who first discovered them (incidentally there are two peasants in two different rooms, who as far as I can tell are purporting to be exactly the same guy. When asked about this hitherto decent English-speaking museum staff appear not to understand the question. Which I found utterly delightful)

Anyway, my tourguide/all staff in the shops genuinely appeared to be confused and maybe a little hurt about the fact I didn't want to buy any of these items, a tactic that induced pretty much everybody else from my hostel who went along to cave in and at least purchase a small trinket. The logic often being 'if they really want to sell me four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p, who am I to turn them down?' And yet turn them down I did. I don't know, for all the shameless cash-ins, blah blah blah, this is the only place in the world where I can get four small replica soldiers for the equivalent of 50p (I mean, have you seen the prices in Games Workshop these days?), would it really have hurt so much to buy something I didn't really think was very nice and had it over to parents at the end of the trip? They'd like the THOUGHT, at least. I dunno, I had a vague moment when it occurred to me I might be doing tourism wrong? I don't even pose in pictures next to noted monuments to prove I was there or whatever. Maybe this is what I SHOULD be doing? Hmm. Actually I did toy with the idea of buying a 4ft soldier as I think that would look quite cool in a house... maybe I should have just gone for it. I could have been like that guy who went round Ireland with a fridge, only way more awesome.

Yeah, arguably travelling on my own makes my mind drift somewhat obtusely.

Anyway, I suppose the Terracotta guides aren't really ones to look for on advice; basically these clay dudes were buried for 2,000 years without anybody having a clue about it, yet the (mostly freelance) individuals showing tourists around all speak with total authority about it, frequently to hilariously contradictory effect; most notably my guide said the human bones found around the Warriors were just from graves that had been dug above it by unsuspecting future generations of peasants (reasonable, you have to admit); my friend's guide claimed with utter certainty that they were the bodies of ALL 700,000 workers involved in the project. Which is, I suppose, the more fun idea.

Anyway, I won't bore you too much more, but for the sake of my own self-aggrandising piece of mind, here are some other things I did in Xi'an.

Xi'an's centre is dominated by its ancient Drum Tower and Bell Towers; short concert demonstrations of said - very old - instruments were on throughout the day; saw them both and they were unexpectedly awesome, primal, booming thuds and tings, vicious bass bells and drums post-rock thunderous one second, springy as a techno beat the next. All conducted by people dressed in mildly twee medieval dress; basically it's China's version of Morris dancing, and it would probably fit in quite well at an ATP.
Had to wait an hour and a half for the bell demonstration, not yet particularly certain it would be any good or not - sundry western tourists went in to look at the tower and left without being arsed to wait for the music, and I was occasionally tempted to join them, but one mantra resoundingly beat through my head: "what would Laura McDermott do?" Probably nota great mantra in EVERY situation, mind.
Also a classic Chinese moment at the drum concert: man waits maybe 45 minutes to get a frontrow seat for the ten minutes of music, gets a phonecall halfway through said music, spends the remainder of the concert shrieking into his phone in a - mercifully futile - attempt to be heard over the cacophony. Nobody apart from me finds this even slightly rude/odd.
I spent most of my evenings getting drunk with a guy from North Carolina called John. He's sort of like a slightly toned down real life version of Earl Hickey, in that he doesn't have a moustache or a criminal record, but he does have a faintly shady past in the US Navy and is a MASSIVE believer in karma - he profited from selling his house just before the entire global economy did its thang and appears to feel terrible about it, for some reason. This was good for anyone in his vicinity, as purchased rounds with almost superhuman alacrity; when I occasionally managed to sidle off and buy one myself he'd (with increasing seriousness) roar "you tryin' to steal mah KARMA!?"
And lastly, a shout out to Xi'an's Muslim quarter, a thoroughly awesome district of town - about two miles of windy streets full of old guys on ancient motor trikes weaving imperiously through what was in principle a pedestrianised area, vendors hawking foodstuffs that seemed to exist only here (you'd be at least mildly surprised at what these guys'n'gals are willing to do with a kiwi fruit), and birdsong everywhere, thanks to the cage on cage stung up as musical ornament. Vibrant old school awesomeness, and thoroughly worth the three mornings of crippling 6am stomach pains that elementary deduction would suggest was the direct result of gorging oneself on said experimental streetfood.

But it's good, and so big you spend a long time gawping at it

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Propaganda, smog and high explosives

So in my last blog I made some generalisations about the Chinese. I am surprised there have not been protests from my Chinese fans, because as it turns out most of my generalisations were reasonably inaccurate. I said the Chinese find it near impossible to communicate with the likes of me. I said they stared at Westerners in blank-faced fashion. I said they were poor at driving. I metaphorically pulled my eyelids into slits and bellowed 'HA-ROW!'

What I had done was assumed that as Harbin had a population of four million people, it was probably quite cosmopolitan. Nah. Having been to Beijing, what I can say quite safely is that the people of Harbin are a bunch of peasants and I spit on their stupid peasant ways, the peasant fuckers, fuck them.

Actually it was probably best to get the most provincial place done first, because that way we could go "wow, isn't China different?"in a vaguely patronising way, without yet having had the chance to take a good long look at our mucky Western souls and admit understanding what was going on around us and crossing the road without needing counselling afterwards might be a nice thing. In quick summary: Beijing has an awesome public transport system, people don't gawp at you, you can usually make yourself understood via gesture (which seemed beyond the folks in Harbin), and the traffic rates more like a Nightmare on Elm Street on the scareometer, as opposed to Harbin, which rates a robust The Descent.

In long summary - somebody asked me on my last night in Beijing what I actually thought of the place. Some two hours later I'd burbled out an over-earnest and entirely incoherent reply, which can be boiled down to the following: what I really liked about Beijing was that every time you get off the metro, it felt like you were in a different city, often a different country, and definitely a different time in history, meaning I can't really say what I thought Beijing was like. But it was fun. Here is a list of some things I did.

Slobbed around in a former prison

Our hostel was a place called the P Loft, which was formerly a Japanese run prison. It hadn't been cleaned a lot since, but was awesome in all other respects, mostly because the staff were a bunch of impractical wasters who discounted everything to meaninglessness the moment they decided they didn't hate you. Combined with the gargantuan common area this was all the good, especially when I arrived, as victims of my Twitter feed will have long ago been bored to tears by the epic description of the battle of wills waged by me and my stomach following my arrival in Beijing. In summary: I eventually won, my victory assuaged by a steady diet of sitting on the sofa doing nothing and Will Smith films.

Went to the Olympic site

I hate the Olympics for all sorts of reasons: they used to interrupt the smooth passage of children's' TV when I was a wee 'un; the games are all totally gay; it is shit compared to the comic genius that is the Winter Olympics; it has the temerity to occur at the same time as the Edinburgh festival; some sort of right on blah about ethics/corruption. But the Swedes (from the train, we'd caught up with them) wanted to go see the site and I felt guilty about having spent the day being ill, so I went along and, y'know, it was impressive in a sort of pointless-as-anything-other-than-a-tourist-attraction way. I mean, there's The Bird's Nest, the massive, spectacular, glowing sci-fi hulk of a stadium... in real life the only sports the Chinese are really into are ping pong and kite flying. This leaves it a bit redundant. There's a hotel in the shape of the Olympic flame. This is quite cool, but it is only near brightly lit but disused sports buildings... in ten years' time will this really make anybody happy? Not for me to say, but as a fan of things that require an enormous amount of effort while serving no practical purposes, I was enchanted.

Attempted to see from one side of Tianamen Square to the other.

Difficult, mostly because there is still so much smog in Beijing that the air is on the wrong side of opaque, even on a technically clear day (when you sneeze, black comes out, bit eeew). Went along to watch the flag-lowering ceremony, mostly by accident. What you'd expect really, a little Soviet kitsch, a little overblown, but basically some men with weapons going to elaborate lengths to move a piece of cloth. Kept trying to take surreptitious pictures of toddlers waving China flags. Wonder if this makes me a paedophile on a technicality?

Saw the Great Wall Of China

Yeah, it's good. Part of me assumed that it would maybe be a big con, and that just off shot in every promo photo there was, like, a Woolworths or something. But it is really stunning, and, indeed, just like the pictures - there were quite a few tourists about, but less that one might think, and a lot of them filtered out after the first few hundred metres, as in an admirable piece of bloody-mindedness, the Wall was built over terrain that no invading army was ever going to be stupid enough to march through in the first place. You're walking on slopes that really can't be too far off 45 degrees, and after spending two hours getting there, you do get the rogue thought after about ten minutes that maybe it'd be just nice to get a coffee and admire the thing from afar. A kilometre or so along it was just me, five of the Swedes and one Chinese guy on his own, running along inadvisable slopes at inadvisable speeds, a souvenir medallion around his neck, stopping at ever high point to how out what I can only assume to be the Chinese for "I'm the king of the world".

Lived the expat dream

Sort of. Met up with friend of a friend Jim, a cool (i.e. poor) expat, who broadened my horizons and blew my mind by taking me into a world of bars, English-speaking staff, and beers that cost more than 40p. A different side of the city to our hostel's shack-tastic 'hood, though felt slightly absurd having a stilted conversation about Vegas with an affable American who could probably pound me to death with the weight of money in his back pocket alone.
This was nothing compared to the evening excursion conducted by the three English guys and seven Swedes to a club named Propaganda (as these places tend to be named). Upon arrival in Beijing Louis and Joe had, bless 'em, simply started drinking 'til 7am every day and sleeping until it got dark. This does make me wonder if there's something in the water in Sheffield. Though flagging a little, they were happy to show me and the Swedes the Beijing clubbing ropes when everybody else was ready for a dose of Propaganda. Basically you pay the equivalent of eight quid for an open bar, and try to still be alive and hooker-free by 5am. Whether its a sign of getting old or the fact journalism has taught me a free bar is a marathon, not a sprint, I was relatively lucid by the night's end. This defaulted me to the utterly fraudulent position of offering relationship advice to the Swedes, four of whom are coupled up - very wise when on a nine month backpacking trip. I waffled some shit at them, and somehow everything worked out okay, the night ending with me and one Swede having a mildly xenophobic conversation in really, really, really bad German.

Almost blew myself up

Chinese New Year ended last Monday, which basically meant every single person in Beijing devoted their evening to the detonation of explosives. Chinese fireworks can broadly be divided into three types: stick of dynamite-sized bangers that serve no aesthetic purpose, but if you stand within about ten metres it's like being punched in the ears; long red strings of bangers that sound like somebody going on a lengthy spree with a machine gun; and paintbox-sized tins that you set fire to, causing red rockets to often (if not exclusively) shoot upwards. It's not pretty, but is it kind of captivating, and beckoned down from our balcony by some enthused locals, we were given a handful of bombs each to dispose of as we would. We pulled it off without hurting ourselves, which prompted Joe to launch into a drunken spiel to a bewildered Chinese guy about how he thought letting three years olds chuck about high explosives was a much more prudent and safe system than the rather more repressive approach adopted in the UK. It was at about this time that an ambulance turned up to cart off some shell scarred local. I sort of found this more satisfying than is appropriate.

Other stuff

This could go on indefinitely, really... I liked Beijing. I was sorry to leave. Everybody else is still there. Probably they'll still be there in a month. Maybe even a year. I have succumbed to the number one traveller cliche and gone off travelling someplace. How exciting.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Harbin a mice time

So blah blah blah: China is a bit different to England. It's immediately very different to Russia: where the border town on Mr Putin's side is quite possibly the most awful place on the entire planet. You basically have to sit in a concrete shack for five hours while your passport gets stamped and the train in prepped for the Chinese train tracks - there is nothing to do there whatsoever other than desperately try to spend your remaining roubles buying horrible snacks off a woman with a trolley laden with what were in essence lumps of cold lard. To add insult she - inevitably - hated us, probably because we wanted to buy things, though mostly because she was Russian and this is what Russians do. So you get into China for another five hour wait, but there are skyscrapers and electric lights and fireworks and giant statues of Chairman Mao, one of the most reprehensible human beings to ever walk the planet, and you think 'Yes. Civilisation.'

As you can imagine, there's a fair amount of culture shock, which I'm sure you can guess at easily enough, but to boil it down:

1. It is impossible to understand a word anybody is saying or anything written down anywhere, nobody understands you, and it's almost entirely pointless attempting to self-teach oneself any Chinese words, as the language is based on inflection to such an advanced extent that nobody has a clue what you're saying unless you nail it perfectly.

2. People stare at you almost constantly. It's genuinely very hard to work out why they might be doing so - the idea of the 'inscrutable Oriental' is clearly bollocks, as you see all manner of completely recognisable facial expressions elsewhere, but the default reaction to whitey is to stare with as blank a face as possible for as long as possible.

3. The driving here is genuinely unbelievable, short of enforcing an actual bounty on civilians for drivers, I can't actually imagine how it could be any more hazardous. Harbin, a city of four million people, has maybe ten traffic lights, all of which are ignored. Crossing the street involves vast quantities of faith, and preferably keeping a Chinese person between yourself and the oncoming traffic. Worryingly I'm quite good at it, which doesn't really say wonders for my life expectancy.

Anyway, it's quite different, let's leave it at that. The reason we were in yet another city you've never heard of was for the legendary Harbin Ice Festival, where vast sculptures of fantastical things are constructed from huge blocks of ice with electric lights frozen into them, a hangover from some old fishing tradition.
We were excited.
Then somewhat taken aback.
We arrived not to the Harbin Ice Festival, but to the Harbin Disney Ice Festival, proceedings hijacked by Mickey, Donald, and y'know... those other guys. I'm reasonably certain that this is the first year it's happened like this, or else it might have been mentioned in one of my gazillion guides to the Trans-Sib route; either that or Disney actively paid of Lonely Planet et al not to mention it so that they could better see the expression on our faces when we turned up.

Anyway. There was about five initial minutes of horror, mixed with amusement on my part, bemusement from Chiharu (who had come to Harbin too), and po-faced hippie grumbling from Louis and Joe. But as it turned out, it was mostly front loaded with Disney blah, and before long we were lolloping through a wonderland of large blocks of glowing ice that looked immensely impressive firsthand, kind of like the tackier portions of the video to Billy Jean on every single photo. They didn't look as bad on camera as the actual best bit of the festival, which was the international ice sculpture competitions - exquisite carvings of forest creatures and mythological beings... in real life lovely as the finest of Classical carvings... on my poor benighted little Olympus they look a bit like large jelly sweets. Anyway, the point is that when you pore lovingly over my pictures, you should be impressed, even if you are not impressed.

On day two Chiharu unreasonably went off to see friends in Shanghai, which was sort of a problem, as she can speak approximately four words of Chinese and read about two, meaning she was 100 per cent better at us at understanding what the hell was going on in restaurants which didn't have picture menus. Nonetheless, matters sort of came good when we that evening were herded into a random shack by an enterprising restaurateur, and actually managed to order food via the medium of the 'food' section in my Lonely Planet guide. Then - despite (though to a large extent BECAUSE) nobody understandood a word anybody else was saying - we managed to get into a hilariously elliptical argument over how the restaurant owner thought our hotel was too pricey... to give Louis credit, he attempted to draw a diagram on a napkin that explained the hotel had been booked as part of a Trans-Siberian semi-package trip and was actually quite good value for money. Sadly it was essentially as elusive as 'the most beautiful D in the world', something I attempted to draw while on an awful lot of mushrooms not so long ago, and failed in the attempt thereof quite miserably.

Final day and we had a choice between Harbin's other two attractions: a germ warfare museum and a Manchurian tiger sanctuary. Even my sense of humour wouldn't quite permit a Disney/grotesque human experimentation double whammy, so tigers it was. Yeah, Manchurian tigers are cool, they're big mofos who generally looked like they could have swatted our safari bus to pieces if they'd actually been bothered, but they're cats and it was a sunny day, so they decided to laze imposingly instead, which was good for all.

There are only 400 or so of the poor beggars left in the wild thanks to people being shit scared of them/some wearyingly predictable peasant belief that their meat'n'two veg = nature's Viagra, so the fact there appeared to be about double that number in the park was sort of heartening, assuming they're actually going to be rehabilitated... on a less delightful note, we got to witness a bit of cultural division as a succession of Chinese tourists fed live chickens to one group of adolescent tigers. This would have been kind of okay-ish (maybe), but the poor bugger was strapped to a bamboo pole and waggled above the tigers by whichever tourist had bought it... tigers were variously baited until eventually the tourist got bored and let them have it or the fact a tigers is basically a large furry tank that can jump meant one just grabbed it (in one case wrenching the pole into the enclosure, whuch amused us heartily). The worst thing is that every time a chicken clucked in, y'know, agony, all the Chinese tourists just laughed. I dunno, it was pretty grim, though the fact that we were basically standing there gawping prudishly at the Chinese tourists probably didn't make us significantly better.

Got back into town and had some noodles, a fact that will take on more significance later.

Boys went to use an internet cafe for a couple of hours and sort of grouse in a brotherly way about how they'd spent too much money (they're planning to work in Japan for a year at end of this trip), and I took a mooch about Harbin the town - actually some really pretty bits, especially when I tracked down its main old street, which is a blessedly pedestrianised relic of Russia's short colonial era. Wandered down to the massive frozen river at sunset and was really lovely, loads of bright eyed and bushy tailed townsfolk yomping about on the ice on iron sleds and old skool pony and carts - reminds me of paintings of the Victorian ice fairs when the Thames used to freeze over.

I was happy.

Then I started to feel a little peaky.

Then I met the boys and we went to get some food. They only wanted egg fried rice for whatever reason, and maybe hadn't grasped that there technically aren't any Chinese restaurants in China, meaning we went into four establishments, pointed at the symbols for egg-fried in my book, and were told they didn't sell it.

I rolled my eyes, and felt a bit more ill.

We finally went to noodle chain Mr Lees, which comprises about one third of all eating venues in Harbin, though often the branding is all inside the store with a deceptively trad exterior - kind of the equivalent of a Wimpey concealing itself as a charming country pub. I ate about a third of my watery noodles and felt yet more ill.

Then we got on our rather plush soft-sleeper train to Beijing. Each bed comes with a TV with ten channels, and the best thing about Chinese TV is there there's ALWAYS a film about some guy beating the shit out of some other guy one. So I watched one of those.

Then I vomited for about four hours. If you think large quantities of really mild noodles are a good thing to chuck up as these things go, you'd be wrong. It's horrible, like having a big ball of damp yarn yanked forcibly out of your gullet. I think I may now have a morbid fear of noodles, which could be problematic out here. At about 3am I managed to pass out. Naturally my last thoughts were of unbridled enthusiasm for our imminent arrival in China's capital.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Man sits on train for four days; expects you to care

So: the Trans-Siberian express. The reason I did this journey. The big long trainy thing that facilitated the expansion of Russia to its presently preposterous dimensions. The lengthy sit down that inspired Dr Zhivago and probably some other classics I haven't bothered to read.

Yeah, it was good, like.

What gets lost amongst the general 'OMG you're on a train for how long???' is how batshit mental the constant shifts in timezone are, especially when set off against Russia's staunchly practical but simultaneously mind-blowingly ridiculous policy of decreeing that all trains and train stations in the country should run on Moscow time, regardless of what the actual local time may be. Naturally hilarity ensues - we got on the train on Moscow time +2, and spent the next day trying to stick to train time, but found this slightly undermined when within 24 hours we'd crossed three more timezones, causing it to be dark at about 2pm (train time) and light at fuck knows what time in the morning.

We took an executive decision to switch to local time, which was probably wise, as it meant you got to see stuff, but it was never even remotely clear what type of timetable the train staff were sticking to. Whatever the case, they fucking HATED us. By this stage 'us' constituted me, Joe and Louis, my awesome Japanese cabin mate Chiaru, and seven very rowdy Swedes. It's possibly a bit tragic all the foreigners bonding together, but at the end of the day we were the only people not approaching the trip as some sort of self-imposed slice of purgatory: mine and Chiaru's other roomie was a blandly smiling Chinese bloke who was doing the whole non-stop Moscow to Beijing seven day extravaganza. He didn't talk to anybody, had nothing to read or do (other than eat) and basically whiled a week away staring out of the window until he felt tired enough to fall asleep, waking up and repeating.

On the other hand the rest of us essentially interspersed lying in in bed snoozing, reading and chatting with trying to figure out whether of not it was an appropriate time to get wrecked on the restaurant car's and its hefty stock of beers. Night after night we were the only customers, save for a few wretchedly dissolute dock workers who spent their entire trip vodka'd to the gills, occasionally mumbling at us with dead eyes, one of them getting so trashed he managed to mess himself in front of us.

You would honestly think that the restaurant car (a private profit-making service, not affiliated with the train company as such) would be glad of the vast amounts of custom we gave them, but that would be sorely underestimating the Russian temperament. Whether it was because we were loud, we were talking in foreign, or more likely, the suspicion that we were all having fun, the staff did their best to thwart our attempts to have a drink, be it using the dementia of the time zone hops to explain it was definitely definitely closing time, or in one more extreme example, locking two of the girls in the hallway between two cars, going in for a feel, then getting really angry when they didn't like it and hurling us all out in a fit of pique.

Er, but this all said, it was enjoyable, meeting some nice people but with a license to laze, watching Russia gradually fade from massive, snow covered pine forests to sparkling expanses of steppe, occasionally popping out of the train to buy some weird snack from a vendor at a station you'd never heard of, being agreeably freaked out by the changes in time, and maybe above all really feeling we were going this distance, that there is some enormity to going through the biggest country on earth and emerging in a completely different culture at the end. Definitely hit a rhythm, and I can totally see how the full seven day shebang would be perfectly possible; for all the slight unpleasantness of some of the Russians, it felt very safe, you fell into a nice routine and you felt like you were achieving something in a way you most certainly don't on First Great Western.

Felt almost a bit regretful that I was only in Russia for two weeks total, but think there's only so much that could have been achieved in winter, a lot of stuff like Lake Baikal simply wouldn't make that much sense at that time of year; if he ever saves any money/gets some time away from Metro, there is a plan to come back one summer and do this with Powell; Christ knows he'll love the experience of being confined in a small space where time doesn't really apply and there's not much to so apart from sleep and get drunk.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Man writes about excruciatingly cold town you've never heard of and have no interest in

Oh wait, that could just be the name of my whole blog.


Let's start again.

Yekaterinburg, Yekaterinburg: we've all dreamed of it. For some it haunts us nightly. But few of us truly dared believe that hallowe'd place of legend truly exists.

Oh hold on.

You haven't heard of it, have you?

Yeah, well, it's good, but I was there a week ago and want to write about the train and kind of need a wee and this Chinese internet cafe has no facilities IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN, so I might be relatively terse, mightn't I?

Yekaterinburg is the capital of the Urals, and is also the place where Tzar Nicholas and his family were gunned down then bayoneted by the Soviets (or in the case of his sister, lobbed down a well and then gassed - niiiiiiiiiiiice). Anyway, byproducts of this are a sort of slavishly apologetic demi-cult that revolves around an insanely expensive Russian Orthodox cathedral built on the site of said killings. Weirdly the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia only deems them martyrs, but the Russian Orthodox Church OUTSIDE Russia (yup, 'parently it's big business) has them down as saints. This in effect means that they are treated as saints, the cathedral bedecked in sacred icons of the whole family gathered together, including reputedly the priciest icon in Russia. So if you're feeling ill or infirm, you can pray to the Romanov family, a bunch whose chief special skill was getting shot, and aren't technically saints in their own country. This makes so little sense I've just made myself ill writing that sentence, but in conclusion, the Russians are a surprisingly guilt-ridden bunch.

What else, what else... oh yeah, when we arrived it was -24C, and it got rather colder at night. I'm somewhat conscious from the hordes of indolent yuppies and silver spoon suckling toffs that I choose to call my friends that a lot of you have been skiing and it was probably -235 Kelvin and your mulled wine got cold, but for me this was a novel experience. The only thing I can really compare it to is dental anaesthetic.

I have taken up with the Suttons, two brothers from Sheffield that fans of the second half of my last blog may be familiar with. We have been drinking, which is nice, the highlight of our Yekaterinburg drinking being a visit to Beatles-themed bar known as Yellow Submarine. It was fun: arguably the worst covers band I have ever seen bashed out a peculiar mix of Beatles and Nirvana tracks (they probably set some sort of record for Worst Band In The World With Two Drummers), through frisson was added for the locals by the fact that the town mayor's vodka-blasted son was on guitar... apparently he was lucky that none of Yekaterinburg's apparently vociferous/very very bored paparazzi were in the house. I took a photo. I might sell it. Break into Russian regional press. Not sure it's a growth industry, mind.

Got talking to a student called Ekaterina. She was dressed like Britney Spears in the Baby One More Time video, only set off with a t-shirt imprinted with Paris Hilton's face. She was - no joke - by far the most ardent communist I met in all of Russia, something all her friends found hilarious. By the end of the night we were both utterly battered and having what has to be the shittest argument to have ever occurred between capitalist and commie. It can roughly be boiled down thusly:

Me: "Yeah, well you can't possibly like Stalin"
Her: "He was a great man!"
Me: "Oh, fuck off. I mean, not in a bad way. Sorry. Um. But you know. He was a cunt. I mean. Sorry. I mean, I suppose he had a right to kill your lot, though not really, but, um, Polish, yeah?"
Her: "What?"

It was fun.

Oh, and husky dog sledding occurred. I was expecting it to be a lot like reindeer sledding, and really it was, with one crucial exception: I had to get out and push. Were there a medal for canine laziness in the face of Western thrill-seeking decadence (which let's face it, there might be) then these fuckers would have scooped it. It was actually enormous fun after about the second kilometre, when my very genuine rage had finally become palpable to the stupid mutts/there were no more nasty hills to go up.

Um, this may read a bit deadpan. I liked Yekaterinburg - the pisstaking cold was a larf from a tourist perspective, and our uncanny ability to continuously bump into people who were not only friendly but also flawless speakers of English (big shout out to Olga the tour guide) has probably given us a grotesquely skewed - but entirely positive - view of the place. So good for the Tzar, and good for Communism - if him and his crew of saints/martyrs hadn't been shot there, we wouldn't have come to Yekaterinburg, and wouldn't have had the spiritual and moral vacuum present in all who don't know or care where Yekaterinburg is purged from within us.