A Train to the Tropics

Back on The Ghan through the red -and green- desert (Image © Great Southern Rail)

I’ll let you into a little secret – the so called Red Centre of Australia isn’t actually that red.

The sand, soil and rocks are red, for sure, but the days of the deep red desert stretching to the horizon have gone, at least for now.

Its all because of the weather Australia has had over recent years, and in particular, the higher rainfall in the Northern Territory. As a result, its actually surprisingly green, with trees, shrubs and grasses thriving on the damper conditions. Its still incredibly dry, but then these desert plants know how to make the most of what little water they do get.

The Ghan making its way through the Red Centre (Image © Great Southern Rail)

It means the view from The Ghan is predominantly a mesmerising conveyor belt of different plant life, but the journey north from Alice Springs promised to bring changes aside from those you could see outside of the window.

It was an evening departure from the Alice, but I made sure I was in the town centre to see the huge train arrive into the town after its 24 hour journey from Adelaide in the south. It was mainly to get a photograph from the front of the train – its actually so long, its impossible to get to the front when it stops at a station before I knew it was scheduled to arrive at around 1.45pm, but having arrived on the same train last week slightly earlier, I knew it would be worth getting to the station earlier than its due time.

The Ghan pulling into Alice Springs a few hours before I board

I rode along the Stuart Highway and waited at the level crossing, and just five minutes later, there was a tell-tale sound of a horn in the distance. Suddenly, photographers descended on the crossing from cars that were parked around the area, and then down the tracks there was a dazzling bright light as the train curved around beside the highway.

The powerful Ghan loco passes by

It seemed to take an eternity as one by one, the carriages trundled past, making the earth rumble underneath my feet. In the windows, excited passengers, all having their own adventures, waved as they arrived in this desert town. There was another blast of the horn, and the Ghan came to a halt.

I spent the afternoon buying provisions for the journey, the usual stuff to go in my backpacker fridge – a coolbag – like bread, biscuits and a fine selection of nuts and dried fruit reduced from $8 a pot to just 50 cents! My friend Laura was impressed. “What a bargain,” she smiled, looking forward to a night of chomping away on pawpaw, chocolate covered liquorice and cheap chocolate balls. A strange mixture, but it was cheap all the same.

A wave from a passenger

There was a very familiar feel about getting back onboard the Ghan. In a way, the excitement had been lost a little. When we left Adelaide, we were heading off into the unknown – what would the train be like? What will the people be like? What will the red centre look like?

Dan, Laura and I, pillows at the ready, for The Ghan at Alice Springs

We now knew all the answers to these, but we were instead looking forward to the relaxing comfort of the train. Bang on 6pm, the scheduled departure time, we began slowly inching forward before quickly gathering speed, and before we knew it we were pacing out of Alice and back into the outback.

Dan and Laura’s ‘cheap seats’ carriage – actually pretty swish!

I spent most of my time with Dan and Laura, who were again in the ‘cheap seats’ as they called them a few carriages back from me. Of course, cheap seats was an in-joke – infact, with almost full recline, a shower, more legroom than you would ever need and a nice peaceful cabin, it was about the same conditions as first class on a plane.

With most of the journey in darkness, we spent the evening playing cards and laughing and joking about our escapades over the past week.

Overnight train journey – always means the cards come out!

The route we were taking on the Ghan is actually relatively new – the railway from Alice Springs to Darwin was only opened in 2004, and in the darkness outside we were passing the famous rounded granite boulders known as the Devils Marbles, and passing through gold rush towns like Tennants Creek.

Getting nearer to Darwin (Image © Great Southern Rail)

Everyone onboard the train was awoken early in the morning by a brilliant story of Tennants Creek, dating back to the days when there were more than 600 men in the town, and just 40 women. According to the story, there was a lot of fighting for the affections of the few females around, and in the meantime, the men would mine, go to the pub and generally not look after themselves. That’s when one had a brilliant idea to attract more girls to the town, and advertised a free holiday in the outback for any women wanting to visit. Apparently, a young woman took him up on the offer, and arrived in Tennants Creek to find hundreds of men clean shaven, immaculately dressed and on their best behaviour to impress the new pretty thing in town.

The idea caught on, and in the end, busloads of women were signed up to visit the town on a freebie stay in the outback. The only problem was the wives of the few men who did initially set up homes as couples in the town grew increasingly frustrated with the new competition, and pulled the plug on the scheme. It was a great story to wake up to, and I’m sure it put a smile on many travellers’ faces.

Early morning arrival into Katherine

One of the reasons the story was played was to wake everyone up onboard, as we were about to pull into Katherine, a town some 300km south of Darwin. The Ghan stops in Katherine for about three hours, during which time we were encouraged to get off and have a look around the town. It was $15 for the shuttle to the town centre, so we bought a ticket and got driven to the town. Apart from shops, there wasn’t much else to see, apart from a visitor centre which showed how devastating the frequent floods can be in the area.

Enforced stop-off at the Katherine River

It’s a chance for people on the train to take up the rail company’s tours – splashing out on anything from helicopter tours of Katherine Gorge to a few holes on the local golf course. They come at a price, but there was no shortage of takers. Dan and I laughed a lot about how we’d have rather had a sleep-in on the train, being rocked away by the sway of the carriages.

“Its like being on the East Coast mainline back home, being kicked off at Grantham and told to have a tour of the place whether you like it or not,” I joked.

Katherine River – when it floods, it covers the bridge…

We walked to the Katherine River, which runs far below the bridge we were walking across. Then we saw some metre markings on another bridge a short distance away, showing how high the river flows at times of flood. A frightening prospect.

Road Train. Long. Fun fact – it can take 2km to overtake one at 80km/hr!

We sat and had a picnic breakfast, sheltering under a tree and watching the dozens of long road trains making their way up and down the Stuart Highway, from one end of the country to the other.

We walked back to the pick up point, only to have to wait for the third return trip due to the number of people trying to get back to the train on the small minibus that was being used. Back at the terminal though, the two powerful locomotives were being inched back towards the main train, ready for the final section of its mammoth journey north.

Watching it turn greener again outside

By now, it was noticeably warmer. The joining sections between the carriages, which are the only parts of the train where you can feel the outside temperature, had changed from the slight fresh chill in the south, to a warm and warm and humid place to stand and take photos. Outside, the red desert and shrubs were turning into lush greenery, jungles and palm trees dominating the landscape as we passed through Adelaide River and the Litchfield National Park, arriving into Darwin just before nightfall.

Darwin comes into view on the horizon

It had been a brilliant journey in comfortable surroundings and with some very friendly staff, who clearly love their jobs. This train, while being a vital link between the coasts and the centre of this massive country, is far more than just a way of getting around. People I spoke to had been saving for years for a chance to ride the tracks in one of the gold or platinum classes, complete with all the lavish luxury and gourmet food. But those of us in the standard Red class were also made to feel special, with the train having an overall feeling of an interesting tour, rather than the straightforward, faceless point-to-point transport we’re normally accustomed to.

Backpack and the backpacker’s fridge – a coolbag – reunited by the Ghan

Yes, I could have caught a plane and flown the distance in about five hours, but it wouldn’t have been the adventure it seemed to be onboard the Ghan. It was 2,979 kilometres of meeting new people, having a laugh, enjoying a coffee, relaxing in a lounge and watching a fantastic landscape glide by your window. I left the train with the feeling that I had actually ‘seen’ Australia, a feeling you definitely don’t get when you walk off a plane.

Welcome to Darwin, the end of the line!

As we waited for a taxi, we noticed how hot it was. We’d definitely arrived in the tropics, with high humidity and that ‘holiday smell’ of somewhere far away that spends its time baking in the sun. It was strange to think how different the weather could be, just from one train ride.

The taxi took a while, so I rang the HSBC bank back home to find out why my card wasn’t working anymore, having tried to use it online in Alice Springs. It turns out my details had been stolen by fraudsters and so they’d had to stop my card, leaving me without any way of getting money out.

Except, I’d also found a way of stopping myself getting money out. I looked in my wallet for my card, as a result of the fraud problem, and couldn’t find it. Cleverly, I’d left it in Alice Springs, down the side of my mate Neil’s sofa. Thankfully, Dan and Laura were on hand to pay for my hostel until I sorted something out. Another little problem to find a solution to – the joys of travelling…and of misplacing bank cards!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Railroading north on The Ghan

The Ghan – one of the world’s great rail journeys

When it comes to famous railway journeys, this trip has already allowed me to experience the world’s longest, the trans-Siberian from Moscow to Beijing.

But for sheer wow factor, The Ghan must take the absolute crown.

Leaving Adelaide, and the south of Australia

The train’s name honours the Afghan camel drivers, who set off years ago, long before engines, diesel and rail, to help find a way to reach Australia’s unexplored interior. The honour is bestowed upon one of the finest trains you will find in the world. With 28 pristine carriages, it stretches back almost three quarters of a kilometre along Platform One at Adelaide’s Parkland Terminal. In front of me, 1,344 tonnes of pure rail journey heaven, its shiny silver consist glinting in the warm South Australian sun as I walk its entire length.

Ready for the trip north

At the front, its bright red powerful locomotive muscle, emblazoned with the famous Ghan camel insignia, waits for a green light and the signal to start hauling the behemoth through the iconic deserts of Australia’s red centre.

You can feel the anticipation in the air as the crew and porters busily load hundreds of suitcases and bags onto the train. Ahead, a 54 hour marathon through some of Australia’s most inhospitable, baron and empty landscape, straight up through the centre to Alice Springs and on to the very north. A trans-continental adventure that clocks up just shy of 3,000km before it slows to a halt in Darwin, turns around, and does it all over again.

Awaiting departure from Adelaide

This station is no stranger to impressive railway feats – the Overland to Melbourne, the Southern Spirit to Brisbane and the awe-inspiring Indian Pacific, which takes passengers from the east coast to the west coast of this huge nation, all pass through Adelaide. Yet there was almost a feeling that this was the first time anyone had ever made this particular journey, a feeling of celebration, summed up by the welcome meeting from the crew by the train.

“The party starts right here,” bellows one of the immaculately-dressed staff over the station tannoy.

The train crew introduction show – you dont get this on Hull Trains!

There then follows a brilliant run-down of who was who, who was in charge, who was at the controls and who would be reading the map on the way. There was a huge sense of fun mixed with pride – it was clear that everyone who lives and works onboard this incredible train loves every bit of it.

“Alllll aboard,” was the simultaneous cry from the crew as they made their way to their respective carriages, a walk that can take some time. Hundreds of passengers and travellers dispersed along the platform, eagerly looking forward to stepping onboard and settling down.

I met up with my two friends I met at the Backpack Oz hostel in Adelaide, Laura and Dan, both of whom have been travelling just a couple of weeks longer than me. They are in the Red section of the train, while I’m in the Red Kangaroo sleeper section, a couple of carriages in front of them, but they are both getting off at Alice Springs too. They have arms full of pillows and bags, but we all stop to take photos of each other.

All aboard…well, almost!

I’m in carriage N, berth 25, and we soon see the carriage label on the side of the train. I am welcomed onboard by the carriage attendant, Danielle, who directs me to my room.

The ever-smiley and helpful crew member Danielle

“I’ll come and find you later on,” I say to my new friends as I step onboard, waving them off as they walk further down the platform.

Inside, the beautifully furnished carriage swallows me, a sweeping, curving corridor through the centre winding its way past all the private cabins. Mine is towards the end of the carriage, the door already ajar to welcome me. I put my bags down onto the floor and take a minute to have a look around, and smile to myself. I think back to my experiences in some of the ‘second class’ carriages across Russia and Mongolia. This is the ‘basic’ service on this train, yet compared to my times on the trans-Siberian, it was like a palace.

My private cabin

Huge comfortable chairs, storage space, a clever little sink that folds down, smart red carpets and power sockets. Relaxing music is being piped into the room thanks to an individual radio in the ceiling, there are towels neatly folded up on the side, and on my table, a beautiful red toiletries bag, complete with shampoo, conditioner, earplugs and soap.

A proper shower on a train – and yes, you can watch the world go by when you’re in it!

Just a few steps away, a spacious and fully-functioning shower awaits on either side of the corridor. Its hard to believe it is all packed inside a normal sized railway carriage, a cleverly designed carriage at that, an example of some fine ergonomics to maximise space

As I marvelled at the shower, I immediately thought back to my times on the trans-Siberian through the depths of Russia, and of my long stint lasting four days and four nights on one train without getting off. What I would have done for a shower and facilities like this over there. Somehow, I don’t think my squash ball improvised plug, that came oh so handy to block the sinks back then, will be needed on here.

With departure imminent, there is an announcement for staff to remove all the flags and markers from outside the train. I settled down into my seat, wondering if anyone else would be sharing the cabin with me. Nobody else arrived – I’ve got it to myself.

And we’re off – the rest of Australia beckons

Just a couple of minutes after the scheduled departure time of 12.20pm, I could feel a slight vibration, and then movement. Outside, friends and family were waving to loved ones as they disappeared down the tracks. Workmen, who just a few minutes ago were loading bags and suitcases, leaned on the steering wheels of their carts and watched as the mammoth train began to slip out of the station. Adelaide began to move past my window ever faster, the train being waved on by many who had made a special trip out to watch its departure.

The locals turn out to wave the train off

The Ghan is held in such high regard, it wasn’t just your typical train spotters that had turned out to jot a number down in a pad, or take a photo as it passed. As we inched our way over the points and crossings in the city, a young boy on his father’s shoulders waved at every passing carriage. It must have been something to see the passengers waving back, and I joined them, giving the young lad a big wave back. His father pointed at me and smiled.

Further along, a couple walking their dog had stopped by the fence to watch the departing spectacle. Even their pets were standing to attention. This wasn’t just your average 10am departure to Kings Cross like you or I are used to. This was special. This was a journey that even now, even for those who live here, captures the imagination. We were not just passengers getting from A to B – we were being waved off as if we were explorers, early adventurers setting off on a ship into the unknown.

Heading out into the bush

Soon, the cityscape of Adelaide and its suburbs began to change into open fields and plains, peppered with gum trees and sheep. I went for a wander through the carriage and into the lounge area, full of similarly-minded travellers just getting stuck into a book, sipping a coffee or with their noses pressed against the window, watching as the Australian landscape unfurled in front of them.

I sent a text to my new friends Dan and Laura, a few carriages away in the reclining seat section, and asked how it was back there.

“Hey Phil, its really good! Can’t believe how much room we have! What’s yours like?” came the reply.

I sent a cheeky one back.

“Just tucking into some caviar with a personal hostess fanning me. Heaven knows what Gold and Platinum class must be like.” I pressed send, and laughed to myself as I imagined what the reaction would be just a few dozen metres behind me.

I quickly sent a follow-up, telling them about my cabin and that I’d meet up with them later.

“Sounds quality mate! It’s even good back here in the cheap seats. Will let you know when we venture forward later,” came the reply.

“Careful of the guards if you venture forwards from steerage – meaner than those on the Titanic,” I quickly sent back, putting another cheeky smile on my face.

With Dan and Laura in the onboard cafe bar

I can see us becoming good friends – we’re already planning to spend time in Alice Springs and around Ayers Rock together, and we’ve all got similar interests and a sense of humour. I’m looking forward to dinner with them later.

Outside, there’s definitely a changing colour to the landscape, the pale green of dried grass and fields is being interspersed with a browny orange soil. I lost phone signal, so decided to have a wander through the train to find Dan and Laura. It didn’t take me long, they’re only a couple of carriages back, and I sat with them over a coffee, watching the world go by and chatting about our travels.

Dan told me how he’d been working on a syrup mixing plant at a Schweppes factory in the south, making Pepsi and Solo. He explained how he was earning more money pouring citric acid into a vat than what he was ever earning as a teacher at an inner city school back home. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite right, but I’ve met a surprising number of people with similar stories, of giving up careers they have worked so hard for because they realised they can earn more money by doing something that needs far less in the way of skills.

A quick glimpse of the front of the huge train snaking ahead

Obviously, with travelling, most save for a few months and then use that cash for the next adventure, but it does explain why there are so many older people on the backpacking circuit, out in Australia having learned they can live a comfortable life on their travels, yet still save money.

Sunset in the outback

As the sun set, the sky turned a beautiful shade of fuchsia, casting an array of bright colours across the clouds over the plains. I settled in the lounge carriage with a complimentary coffee, and splashed out on a Kit Kat. It has a very relaxed feel about it, with comfortable bucket chairs and sofas to sink into. I spent the evening in the Matilda restaurant car, talking to fellow travellers who were all enjoying the experience just as much as me.

The comfortable lounge car

They included Cathy, a 60 year old woman from New Zealand who moved to Australia in the 1990s, and is living proof you are never too old for backpacking. She’s currently taking a year-long tour of the country with her beloved car, which she occasionally waves to on the Motorail carriage as the front of the long train negotiates a bend ahead, briefly becoming visible through the window.

“I love just meeting so many different people, of different ages, from all around the world,” she beams, talking to us all like the friends we already are, if only for a few hours.

Cathy (left) and fellow travellers from across Europe relaxing in the Matilda cafe

By 11pm, most of the train had gone to bed, and I made my way through the curvy corridor to my room, unhitched the bed from the wall and laid it down.

Cosy bed!

I looked out of the window at the blackness outside, only illuminated by a feint light shining out from the shower cubicle a few metres in front of me. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t long before the gentle rocking of the train worked its magic, sending me into a deep sleep as we made our way north through the outback.

The next morning, an announcement for breakfast service woke me. I slowly opened the blind. Outside, the landscape had changed – a repetitive scene of bushes and small trees rolling by my window, the greenery contrasting with the deep red sand which stretches from the tracks below, far and beyond the horizon. This is the outback, Australia’s red centre.

Red.

I relaxed with a coffee and began talking to Paul, a skin cancer specialist from Hamburg in Germany. He’s in Australia for a conference in Brisbane, but decided to tick some things off his bucket list before getting down to work in a few weeks time.

Paul, from Germany, and who realised the joy of overland travel

“Going by train gives an entirely different perspective, doesn’t it,” he said, watching as a dry river bed passes beneath us.

He’s well travelled, having backpacked through southeast Asia back in the 70s, and a keen photographer. Our first conversation actually began thanks to me finding out the door windows between carriages offer better photographs of the world outside thanks to a single glass pane cutting down on reflections.

“Doesn’t it give you an idea of the vastness of this place. It looks so different to how it looks from a plane.”

I couldn’t agree more – its one of the reasons why, with time on my side, I decided to make most of my way Down Under by keeping my feet on the ground. There are some parts where you have to fly, but on the whole, making your way over vast distances by land only gives more of an adventure, more of an experience. And it’s a social experience too, wandering through the carriages to meet friends along the way. There are no seatbelt signs here to keep you in your seat!

Another brilliant touch is the regular updates of what we are seeing outside the window from the train manager, with informative and interesting anecdotes about sites and scenery along the way. Its all broadcast via the onboard radio, giving the journey the feel of a tour more than just a way of getting from point to point in Australia. At one point, he came onto the radio to explain how the drivers were slowing the train down so we could see a unique statue at the side of the track, that of Iron Man, a figure holding up the one millionth concrete sleeper.

It was erected as a tribute to the work of those who built this huge line, which was actually re-routed in 1980 to avoid flooding problems around 100km to the east which had plagued the service. We had plenty of time to take photos, before the engine powered on and we accelerated back to normal speed.

The Iron Man carrying the 1,000,000th sleeper

With the kilometre posts alongside the track knocking on through 1,500km, we are just a few minutes away from Alice Springs, the magnificent Macdonnell Ranges looming ever closer. A Qantas jet plane flies overhead, the first reminder of civilization for a good few hours, with only desert and outback bush to look at for most of the morning.

Crossing a dry riverbed before Alice Springs

As we creep around a gentle bend, the Stuart Highway comes into view, full of cars and road trains making as equally an impressive trans-continental journey. The length of the train brings the town to a standstill as carriage after carriage rolls across the railroad crossing and alongside the platform, the halfway point for this train’s epic journey.

Pulling into Alice and holding up the traffic for a while

For me, it offers a week-long stay in the outback, a chance to visit the world famous sights of Uluru, the Olgas, Kings Canyon and the terracotta red sands of the Northern Territory. While I’m doing all that, this very train will make its way on to Darwin, turn around, go all the way back to Adelaide, and then come back to pick me up in exactly a week.

Arrival in The Alice – and its warm again!

As I step off into the warm sunshine, Paul comes up to me.

“I forgot to ask, where in England are you from?” he said, camera over his shoulder.

“Ah, it’s a little town on the east coast, you’ve probably never heard of it. Grimsby.” I replied.

He stepped back, gasped and smiled, gently shaking his head.

“I know Grimsby so well, I can’t believe it,” he laughed. “I have friends there. Whenever I go to the UK, I visit the town.”

A statue remembering the roots of the Ghan in Alice Springs

The irony is that it’s partly down to Grimsby why I’m here – to visit Neil, a good friend from years back who I used to work with in the town’s Pizza Hut restaurant.

Backpack back on, adventures continue

I grabbed my backpack, bid farewell to the Ghan for now, and set off with Dan and Laura into the town centre and to their hostel, Toddys, which will be my home for a few hours until Neil finishes work later in the afternoon. The last time we saw each other, I was 18, driving a gold Fiat Panda, had my university days ahead of me and had no idea how or what I would do to get into my journalism career. And when we said goodbye back then, how could anyone predict our next handshake would be on the other side of the world, and quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got almost 13 years-worth of catching up ahead. This week should be fun!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au

Has this made you want to read about my time on the trans-Siberian railway? Try A Trans-Siberian Adventure, Still on Track and The Wheels Come Off

Bridging the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

With just 49 hours to go before my flight out of Thailand, I find myself at one of the most famous bridges in the world.

While the Humber Bridge might just be the closest bridge to my heart, with us sharing the same birthday give or take a couple of hours, it isn’t a patch on the Bridge over the River Kwai in terms of historical significance.

I’m in Kanchanaburi, about 150km northwest of Bangkok and close to the border with Burma. It’s the proximity to the secretive country which saw the area become a vital supply line for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Having endured a tiring 25-hour journey from the south, the overnight delays and sleeping rough on a bench had taken its toll, but there was no time for a snooze in the little floating room I’d found on the river.

With just two hours to see the main sights before sunset there was only one thing I could do to squeeze them all in, so I hired a motorbike and at 4pm set off around the town taking in as many sights as I could, starting with the famous bridge.

It was built to carry the Thailand – Burma railway as a way for the Japanese empire to get supplies into the north, and to help keep pressure off the sea routes, which until the railway’s construction were the only way of getting supplies through. It followed on from the occupation of Singapore and Malaysia, and the consequent surrender of thousands of British and allied troops that were unable to keep the enemy troops at bay.

As a result, thousands of allied soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by Japan, and forced to work on construction projects that would help their own war effort. Years of hard labour, under nourishment, disease, torture and beatings by the Japanese took their toll, especially in the construction of the railway. It had been dismissed years earlier by British experts as an impossible task, mainly because of the dense jungle which covered much of the route, mountains, marshes and countless rivers which would have to be crossed. But they wouldn’t have had the manpower that Japan now had control of, and set upon the huge project. More than 16,000 allied troops lost their lives in the process, mainly British and Australian – and as a result, it became known as the Death Railway.

A map of the Burma-Thailand railway

In total, about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the 415km railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers died, along with 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.

They are staggering numbers, and mainly due to the forced labour conditions – brutal treatment by the Japanese, malnourishment, injuries and falls in construction and disease, which was rife throughout the POW camps, made worse by a lack of medicine and treatment.

The famous bridge

As a bridge, its fairly unremarkable but instantly recognisable, its curved black steel spans joining two angular stretches across the river. Of course, the bridge was made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s a long time since I’d seen it. Besides, there are many people who say its completely unrealistic, and infact fails to portray the true horrific treatment of the prisoners by their captors during the construction period.

Between the rails

Arriving on my scooter, I found a bridge swarming with tourists, mainly European and Japanese tour groups who had arrived on a fleet of coaches from Bangkok. Surprisingly, despite it still being an operational railway bridge, you are free to walk across and spend time on the tracks. While it has got a solid appearance, it still feels rickety, with huge gaps between the wooden planks holding up the rails, the scores of bright t-shirt-wearing tour groups and their umbrella touting guides, me, and the occasional train.

On the Bridge on the River Kwai

I spent time looking at its construction, thinking of the prisoners who had tightened up the thousands of bolts and the conditions they must have been working under. I know the bridge was also bombed by the US and RAF air forces during and after its construction, which also led to the deaths of many POWs. It was a long way down to the fast flowing river below, and records show many fell to their deaths while trying to build the bridge. The fact it still stands now, and in full use, is probably the best tribute to their horrendous work.

Dodging trains

I walked to the far side of the bridge and was looking at a guard post when suddenly I heard a familiar horn in the distance. It was a train – and I was slap-bang in the middle of the track. Thankfully, I knew the trains slow to a crawl to pass over the bridge, but sure enough the locomotive appeared behind me. I ran down the track back to the main spans of the bridge so I could get some photos, and dived into a refuge area.

The safe area still left you dangerously close to hundreds of tonnes of train as it slowly made its way over the river on its way to Bangkok, complete with yet more tourists hanging out of the windows, pointing cameras and smiling as they pass. I’m hoping to make the journey myself the following day, but even now I’m still unsure whether I will have time.

I followed the train back off the bridge and made my way towards a nearby museum, right next to the bridge and at the site of the first wooden bridge that was built across the river before the main metal construction was finished. It was called the World War II and Jeath War Museum, for which I paid 40 Baht to enter (80p). It was possibly the most surreal museum I have ever been into, and when it comes to first impressions, an exhibit of televisions through the years just didn’t seem to fit somehow.

Odd

It wasn’t the only quirky addition to the exhibits. The models of people were bizarre, most of the displays were covered in layers and layers of dust, there was no particular link or explanation for most of the things you could look at, and a set of ‘life size’ main characters from the war were actually laughable…

Madame Tussauds is worried

If it wasn’t such an awful subject to be trying to educate myself about, most of the museum was laughable.

A bit weird

There was a scene depicting one of the bombings of the bridge, complete with cartoon-style paintings of aircraft, and possibly one of the best Thai-English ‘Tinglish’ translations I’ll ever see. ‘Bodies were laying higgledy piggledy’ apparently. I guess it helps to paint a picture of the scene.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for long – not just because it was slightly disappointing, but mainly because the sun was beginning to set.

The sun goes down

I still had one more place to visit, the cemetery where some 6,000 British and Australian troops were buried after succumbing to their treatment in the construction of the Death Railway. Row upon row of headstones with familiar names – Smiths, Hills, McCalls, Norths – complete with their regiment badges and ages, mainly in their 20s or early 30s, who had once been in southeast Asia but were never to return home.

War graves in Kanchanaburi

The grounds are well manicured and clearly looked after and regarded highly by the Thai community around here. Infact, my cyclo rider who had found me accommodation on the river just a few hours earlier even gave the cemetery a nod as he cycled past earlier. He didn’t know much English, but he did say “Brave men” as we passed. Brave men indeed.

With night falling, I headed back to my accommodation on the river and watched as the sky went the most amazing red as the sun set behind the distant mountains. My room was an experience in itself – its actually a floating bedroom, with the river Kwai flowing underneath. Every now and then, a boat will go past causing the whole place to gently sway as it bobs over its wake. Its actually quite relaxing, if slightly strange – and feels like you’re on a boat rather than in a hotel room.

Sunset on the Kwai

Back in the restaurant, and being near Burma, I decided to sample a Burmese chicken curry that I found on the menu. The owner, and cook, it has to be said, did warn me its quite hot, but it was too late. Most of the people around me had heard me order it, so I couldn’t chicken out now (no pun intended) and then spent approximately half an hour trying to consume what was by far one of the hottest curries I’ve ever had to tackle. I managed it – just –  but at least the time between mouthfuls of iced Coke and curry gave me time to think about my next move.

The bridge by night

I know I have to be in Bangkok in 24 hours time, as I really want to spend one last night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Khao San Road. I also want to make it to Hellfire Pass, another famous part of the Death Railway. I also want to travel across the Kwai bridge on a train, adding to my railway themed trip so far. It seemed an impossible task. I spoke to the owner and cook, who had a bit of a smirk on her face after making me a chilli fest for tea, and asked if it was possible.

“You’ll need to be up early,” she said

“You can get to Hellfire Pass in time for an hour there before the last direct train back to Bangkok leaves,” she explained.

My first thought was ‘how early’.

“There’s a group leaving here at 5.45am on a taxi to the bus station. Then theres a bus around 6.30am that goes north to the Burma border. It passes Hellfire Pass. It’s the only way.”

Its early, but a necessity. With a basic calculation of two hours for the journey, it should get me to the Hellfire memorial centre for about 9am, giving me a few hours to take it in before somehow making my way  back to Nam Tok and catching the 1.15pm train. It would, however, mean taking all my rucksack, backpack and belongings with me.

Trying desperately not to press snooze, I dragged myself out of my floating bed and into the floating shower at about 5.30am. Outside, dawn was breaking and a tuk tuk was waiting. I was joined by three women heading back to Bangkok for their flights home, but we were all too tired to talk properly. At the main bus station, I was ushered onto one of the local buses – it’s a no frills affair, but at least I’ll be moving soon.

Wrong.

After 20 minutes of waiting on an empty bus, I leaned on my bag and fell asleep. I woke up again at 8am – and we still hadn’t moved. There were a few more people onboard, but there were no signs of us heading anywhere. Back to sleep again, having now mastered the art of grabbing sleep wherever and whenever you can, and another hour later the engine started.

The bus was packed – it had been waiting for a full load, as is often the case in Thailand, rendering my early start pointless. After three hours of being asleep on the bus in a station, it was finally on the move, but my time at Hellfire Pass had been drastically cut short.

The other slight problem was the language barrier on the bus. It might have only cost me the equivalent of 50p, but the conductor had no idea what I had asked for. I also had no idea where I was heading or what to look for. I was the only foreigner on the bus, packed with families and kids heading to various parts of north west Thailand. Completely off the beaten track, I was on my own and battled to keep my eyes open on the swelteringly hot bus as it rocked its way along the mountainous roads north. I noticed that when people want to get off, they simply shout out and they get dropped at the side of the road. A conductor then bellows a weird noise to the driver when he’s clear to get going again, before he does a little run alongside the bus and jumps on the steps at the back.

I passed through Nam Tok, a town where I need to be later to catch my train, so I knew I was near. We were cruising along and I was taking in the scenery when we passed a military post with some flags flying. Then I saw a small sign with something written in English on it. I quickly looked back – was that the Hellfire Pass centre?

I suddenly woke up from my half dozing trance and called back to the conductor.

“Hellfire pass?” I asked, quizzically, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He just made his weird noise, and suddenly the packed bus came to a halt. If it wasn’t my final destination, all this was about to become very embarrassing, but it was too late. My bag had already been thrown into the dirt at the side of the road, and whether I was right or wrong, I was getting off the bus!

Hellfire Pass Memorial Centre

Thankfully, it was the right place, albeit with a sweaty bag-laden hike around some military outpost to the memorial behind. Its actually run and part funded by the Australian government in memory of all the allied soldiers who lost their lives here. I stumbled in to the blissfully airconditioned reception amid strange looks from tour visitors who wondered whether I had somehow walked all the way here with my bags.

Into the cutting

The lady at reception was nice enough to look after all my belongings for me, but warned me I only had an hour, or an hour and a half tops, if I wanted to make the 1.15pm train.

The museum was brilliantly laid out. A video on entry shows some of the horrendous work that went on during the war in the Asia Pacific region, including footage of the railway being laid by emaciated prisoners. Gradually, with the help of a great audio guide featuring some of the soldiers who were forced to work in the area, the story about the Death Railway, and in particular, Hellfire Pass, is explained.

Amid the details of how earth and rock were broken by shovels and picks, of how embankments of stone and soil were heaped up by human hands, and how bridges were formed using wood from the surrounding jungles, there is one site that stands out – and I am at it.

Konyu Cutting was the hardest, most difficult part of the railway to construct. It was effectively a solid rock mountainside – a mountain the railway somehow had to negotiate. Of course, trains can’t go up or down steep gradients, and so they had to go through the mountain. In peacetime, a tunnel would be dug – but the Japanese realised that there would only be two points of construction at either end if that was the method of negotiating the mountain. Instead, they realised they could force prisoners to chisel their way down through the rock, making a passageway for the trains to pass through.

Hellfire Pass

The brutal conditions, the backbreaking work, the lack of any form of power tools meant that this point of construction was quickly feared by prisoners. But it got even worse, as from April 1943, and with a summer deadline looming, the Japanese needed to step up the pace. They introduced the ‘Speedo’ period – forcing prisoners to work 16 hour shifts, even at night, with the whole area lit by flickering bonfires and under the watching gaze of Japanese soldiers.

In Hellfire Pass

It was widely regarded by POWs as a living hell, and therefore acquiring the name Hellfire Pass.

Copyright Hellfire Pass Memorial

The Speedo period at Hellfire Pass coincided with the wet season, meaning disease was at its worst and outbreaks of Cholera claimed thousands of lives. Some 70-90,000 civilian labourers are also thought to have died on the railway, many at Konyu Cutting.

In Remembrance

After the war, Hellfire Pass was largely forgotten about, although not by those who witnessed the horror during its construction. Largely consumed by jungle, it was rediscovered in 1984 by Tom Morris, one of the thousands of POWs who had helped to construct it.

Today, it is a tasteful and thought provoking memorial. The sides to the deep cutting clearly show the manual work that took place to remove the thousands of tonnes of rock. Close to the bottom at one part, a broken drill bit remains stuck fast in the rock. Scrapes and drill marks in the rock face are a permanent reminder to future generations of days of unimaginable horror and suffering by those who had inflicted them on the mountain.

Broken drill bit, stuck fast

Its hard to picture just what those prisoners and labourers had to go through in order to construct what is actually an incredible engineering feat, the cutting completed in just a matter of months. It enabled around 220,000 tonnes of supplies to be carried along the railway by the Japanese before the end of the war.

In need of a lift!

It was time for me to head to the nearest town and catch a train to Bangkok, and complete my own journey along the Death Railway. Somehow I had to get there though, a distance of 20km, and so I headed to the main road in the hope of flagging down a bus or taxi heading in the direction of Nam Tok.

After 20 minutes, there was nothing. With my bags at the side of the road, hitchhiking was pretty much the only option left, when a silver minibus pulled over.

“Where are you heading,” shouted a man from inside.

“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.

“Jump in buddy, unless you’re British,” he seemingly half joked.

I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.

“Hello, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we’re Mormons, and delighted to help you,” said a fair-haired lady I sat myself next to.

Being dropped off in Nam Tok by my new friends

There was another half joke about converting me along the way before we began chatting about our reasons for being in this part of Thailand. Her name was Sister Katherine Noorda, a humanitarian worker. It turns out they had travelled from America and have been helping with the flood relief operation, delivering goods and supplies to those in need. They had been in Thailand for many months, and we enjoyed chatting about our love of the country. At one point, home made cookies were handed out which we all enjoyed.

It took around 20 minutes to reach Nam Tok, where I offered a donation for fuel and for the church, in gratitude for their help in getting me to the end of the railway line in plenty of time for my afternoon train.

“No, there’s no need for that, just promise us that if you ever see anyone in need, you’ll do as we do and give them some help,” Sister Noorda said. Of course, I agreed, and we had some photos taken outside together.

With my new friends after they picked me up

The train to Bangkok was late, as usual, but at 2pm we pulled out of Nam Tok and followed the route of the Death Railway, as was laid out and constructed during the Second World War.

Bangkok bound

It includes some breathtaking bridges and viaducts, including the wooden Wampo Viaduct that runs alongside a mountain and beside the river Kwai.

Crossing the Wampo Viaduct

Hold on tight!

Through another cutting

The beauty of Thailand’s railways, especially on a third class carriage like this one, is that all the windows open for some fantastic photograph opportunities. I went one step further, and clinging onto a handle on the side of the train, stood on the steps to the carriage for some great photos of the route.

About to cross the famous bridge

It included the moment we reached the Bridge over the River Kwai, which just 24 hours before I had been scampering along to take photos of the same train making the crossing. Now it was me that was hanging out of the train and smiling at those who were in the safe spots on the bridge.

Crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai

Originally scheduled to arrive into Bangkok at about 5.30pm, we were already horrendously late when suddenly one of the train guards ran through the carriage shouting.

No windows and trackside fires = covered in dirt. The beauty of third class rail travel!

The train shuddered to a halt. Incredibly, the Death Railway nearly lived up to its name, as somehow a teenage girl had been thrown out of one of the carriages. Somehow, she escaped with some cuts and a bang to the head, and was retrieved from the tracks by the train crew and sat back down with her friends.

My last sunset in Thailand

As she continued her journey, and we pulled in to Bangkok some three hours late, it was yet another moment that makes travelling in this brilliant country so fun. You really never know what is going to happen next.

Arriving back in Bangkok

I hailed a cab with two Dutch tourists and we headed to the Khao San Road. Against all the odds in my head, I’d managed to see everything I wanted to see, and probably in record time. A thought provoking pilgrimage to remember those who helped fight for us, but a fascinating look at some of the most historical parts of the country.

The Paris of Siberia

Irkutsk – October 22-25 2011

“Some crazy Irish guys have just arrived in a Volvo”

Not what I was expecting to hear from a fellow backpacker as I bundled through the main door of the hostel after the trip to Lake Baikal!

Irkutsk -near the big lake towards the East!

A well-travelled registration plate!

Sure enough, parked up outside was an old Volvo 940, complete with Irish registration plates, an Irish flag sticker and a load of sleeping bags and belongings inside.

Its owners are married couple Cameron and Julie, an Australian and an Irish girl. Incredibly, they’ve driven all the way to the far side of Russia from Dublin, having left the Emerald Isle in August. Along the way they’ve stopped off at Stockport to see friends, before making their way to Harwich for a sailing across to Holland, and then driven across Europe, through the Russian border, and after a few weeks battling the crazy way of driving here, managed to reach Irkutsk.

Cameron and Julie...and their Volvo!

I’m amazed – having thought my trip was a bit of an adventure and ‘off the beaten track’, driving the entire 8,000km in a 1991 Volvo pretty much trumps everyone’s traveller story, and we sit around for a few hours digesting their tales of how the engine erupted into flames at a petrol station, yet somehow still manages to work. Of how they had so much trouble bringing the car through the border. How they’ve been asked for photographs by members of the public with their number plate. And all along, we’re drinking shots of Russian vodka which had been given to them by a well-wishing trucker at their last truck stop, full of praise and admiration for their intrepid adventure.

Their story makes me smile, as one of my first ideas when I was starting to think of my trip was to buy an old van and drive it to Moscow, to help save on transport and accommodation costs. I’d have kitted it out with a mattress in the back, much to the amusement of my friends Matt and Siobhan back home.

I wouldn't fancy driving in this lot!

They had visions of me being arrested in lay-bys somewhere in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t that thought which put me off however – it was the problems with bringing a car into Russia and potentially having to leave it there while the journey continues around the world. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare to say the least- and the Russian authorities are very much against any western cars being left on their soil!

Cameron and Julie seem to have a plan, although I won’t go into it here in public for obvious reasons – but their blog is at www. wanderwithus.tumblr.com if you fancy seeing how they get on (after you’ve finished here of course!)

Nearby street

I had an important reason for being in Irkutsk – the small matter of a visa for Mongolia. It was something I desperately wanted to get before leaving the UK, and had planned to make a visa dash to London on one of my days off before leaving, but my Chinese visa application took a lot longer than it should have done – more on that in a future scribbling!

Lenin statue near the hostel

Anyway, it turned out that the Mongolian consulate was only around the corner, but when we arrived I was told they could only do a ‘next day’ service. That somewhat scuppered my plans to get a train that night to Ulan Bator, but these things happen. It meant an extra day in Irkutsk, so more time to look around.

Fishing on the Angara, Irkutsk

I went back to the hostel and searched for the trains to Ulan Bator the following day. I was quite alarmed to see there was no availability – especially as my Russian visa expires in a few days, so I needed to get out of the country. With a two-day journey to Mongolia, things were getting a bit close for comfort if I had to leave in two days time. By my rough reckoning, the Wednesday train would see me clear the Russian border by a matter of hours, delays not included in the equation.

I decided to head to the railway station in Irkutsk to try my luck there. I went with another backpacker, Hannah, who’s originally from New Zealand but lives and works in the financial district in London. With my handwritten Cyrillic ticket request (I think its harder to write with their alphabet than it is to read it) we braved firm ‘nyets’ from a number of stern female Russian ticket sellers on at least four different windows before eventually finding the international ticket window (again, no signs or help anywhere, you’re just expected to know where to go!)

Irkutsk station - confusing!

Thankfully, the website was wrong, and a second class lower berth was mine on tomorrow night’s service from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator for 4,600 Roubles, or about £90. I was relieved- it gives me a day to play with on my Russian visa, and I wont have to face the wrath of any angry border guards!

Irkutsk

Hannah and I went in search of some lunch, which is easier said than done here. Its so hard to spot cafes and restaurants, as there’s very few of them. The Russian view on eating, I’ve concluded, is completely different to that in the West, where its seen as a sociable way to enjoy time, with nice food and good company. In Russia, judging by some of the pre-prepared buffet-style food I have managed to find, its simply a means to an end; a way of staying alive!

Crazy tram drop-offs in the middle of busy roads

I’m used to fast food usually being available everywhere you look. So far, I’ve seen just one Mcdonalds sign in Russia, which is probably good for my addiction to the place, while there’s nothing in the way of KFC, Burger King or Pizza Huts, the usual venues for a quick but unhealthy fill.

Rows of 'food' stalls

Instead, there are hundreds of little stalls all over the place, selling cakes and biscuits and various breads through a little hatch. My musings have already prompted concern from my parents and on Twitter that I’m not eating properly. The problem is, fresh fruit and veg is hard to buy, and proper cafes or restaurants are few and far between. Even when you find them, it’s a game of Russian Roulette – or lucky dip as the travellers call it – running your finger down a menu and hoping for the best. There’s absolutely no way of working out what on Earth you’re ordering!

Park in Irkutsk

We gave it a good go trying to find something authentic. We looked for a café that was recommended, and it seemed far too pricey. We looked for another in the guidebook, and it had changed into a United Colours of Benetton (still the height of fashion here!) and eventually found somewhere that sells Russian pancakes. We settled for that, hoping for a savoury filling. That was a no-no, as only sweet fillings were left we were told! We decided to have two each, with apricot jam on the side, and laughed about having to have dessert first.

The main course was a Subway that we managed to find on the way back to the city centre. Well, we did at least try to be authentic!

Trubetskoys house

The rest of the day was spent seeing some of the sights, including Trubetskoy house, once home to Sergey and Yekaterina Trubetskoy, who caused a whole load of trouble back in 1825 when they tried to mount a coup, which failed, and so lived here in exile. By far the best thing about it however was the sign on the gate. All I’ll say is I was there on a Monday…I didn’t want to take the risk the next day!

Hmmm... I'll give Tuesday a miss

That night a few of us went ten-pin bowling at a nearby complex, which was a lot of fun.

Bowling fun

The first game was full of male competitiveness between Cameron and I, for the highest score, although his flukey Turkey blew my hopes to bits. The second game was much more fun – we’d seen the system showed your bowling speed, so invented a new game of taking the heaviest ball and seeing who could bowl, or should I say throw, it fastest!

Butterfingers at work

Of course, the 15 ball had really big finger holes, and I dropped a clanger by trying to put all my energy into it, just as it slipped off my fingers and into the air behind me. As we were the only ones in there, the noise surely alerted the staff to our shenanigans.

Male pride...

If it didn’t, the next calamity certainly did. Matieu, a French guy, bowled it as fast as he could, except the machine was still in the process of clearing pins away. We all gasped. We knew what was coming. Time did that weird slowing down thing as we hid behind our hands and cringed, almost wanting to look away, but actually really wanting to see what would happen. BANG. Pin clearing machine was broken!

Thankfully, the camouflage-wearing (!) security guards weren’t alerted, the machine was repaired for us, and we finished the game. I won the game, but Cameron won the real game. With a speed in excess of 35km/hr!

The rest of my time in Irkutsk was spent picking up my Mongolian visa, which set me back $100, and wandering around through the streets of the city. Its called the Paris of Siberia, and with its river, pretty streets, churches and cathedrals, it was easy to see why.

Damaged Cathedral of the Epiphany back then

The city centre had a display of historic photos, including some of its original cathedral that had to be pulled down after being damaged in the civil war, and others of its recently restored, and rather colourful, Cathedral of the Epiphany. An amazing restoration judging by the photos of its damage

 

Cathedral of the Epiphany today

 

I opted for a strange bit of Russian cuisine for lunch from one of the little stalls near the city stadium.

Mystery pasty-esque food

The best way I can describe it is as a deep-fryed Cornish pasty containing yet more mystery meat. I ate it sat on the banks of the River Angara, near to the Trans-Siberian railway memorial, dedicated to the work of those who built the line I’m travelling on.

Trans-Siberian Railway memorial

After stopping at a shop to buy some supplies for the train journey – some bread rolls, cheese, tea and apple juice, it was back to the hostel to pack. There’s a two-night journey ahead, and another country to discover.

Lake Baikal

Sunday, October 23 2011

Lake Baikal

I woke up in a panic – I knew I’d pressed the snooze button on the phone alarm, and I had the guy who runs the hostel waking me up. I had a trip organised to Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, and the pick-up was at 9.50am.

Thankfully, I still had 20 minutes to get ready. I’m staying at the Nerpa backpacker’s hostel in Irkutsk, close to the city centre. It’s clean, homely and friendly, everything you need when you’re adjusting to life as a backpacker. They’d booked me a trip to the lake after I saw it on the noticeboard, and it was one of my main reasons for stopping off in the town – the other reason being that it has a Mongolian consulate, so I can get a visa for the next country on my trip.

I was under the impression that it was an organised trip, and as the minibus turned up, I was quickly taken to the town’s market. An hour later, and the minibus now full of locals, we were on our way to the lake, 60km away. It was a pleasant journey, a couple of passengers tried talking to me and kept repeating the word ‘London’ with smiles and a nod. I kept smiling and nodding back!

The journey

The journey took me through some fantastic countryside – long straight roads cutting through evergreen forests, rolling hills and villages made up of tiny wooden huts, a typical sight in Siberia. It did not feel like the Russia I had imagined – it felt much more like I was in the French Alps. It was about an hour before we reached the lake, stretching out for miles and meeting snow-capped mountains on the far side.

Chillaxing!

We arrived in the lakeside town of Listvyanka, the minibus driver gave me a list of car registration numbers I could get a lift back with, and I went off to explore. Some fellow backpackers told me there was a ski-lift to take me to the top of the hills around the town for a great view of the lake, so finding that was the main objective. I quickly found however that the town was very spread out along the main road at the edge of the lake. I read my guide book on the shore for a few minutes, before deciding to walk to the main village.

The water was incredibly clear and blue, lapping onto the pebbly beach. On the horizon, snow-capped mountains, and the borders of Mongolia and China.

Listvyanka

The sheer scale of the lake is immense – it’s known as the ‘Blue Eye of Siberia’ for a reason. It’s the world’s oldest lake, formed 50-million years ago; the deepest at 1,637m (5371ft) and is among the largest lakes on the planet, stretching 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide. There’s so much water in it, that if everyone’s taps ran dry in the world, Lake Baikal could keep the entire population of Earth going on fresh water for 40 years! And its so clear and clean, that the locals simply put a bucket in and take it home – I even saw one man who works at a diving company filling two cups, presumably for a warming cuppa, straight from the lake.

Siberian village by the lake

The guide book revealed how it was a nice walk to the town’s church, nestled at the back of the town in a valley.

The church, minus its 5-star toilets!

Walking through the streets was like walking back in time – people were in their gardens turning over soil, tending to their vegetables, while rusting cars and tractors were dotted around. Most houses are wooden, many are falling apart, but nearly all of them have beautiful painted shutters adorned with carvings.

One of the reasons for finding the church was because the guide book told me some concessions had been made for tourists, and that there were some new five-star toilets located behind it. I thought that would be a ‘convenient’ stop after a while travelling, so headed towards them. There were some cheery waves from people as I walked past, and after about fifteen minutes, I found the church…and the ‘five-star’ restroom. Needless to say, I didn’t use it, but did spend the walk back to the main road chuckling about how many other travellers must have followed the words of the guidebook expecting to find a shiny, sparkling w.c, maybe with hand driers, basins, mirrors, the works – only to find a shed and a hole in the ground!

An Omul fish, unique to Lake Baikal

I walked along the path and headed to the easternmost side of the town, which looking at the map seemed to be a short walk. I failed to look at the scale, and three kilometres later, I eventually found the Baikal museum. It cost about £3 to enter, but I’m afraid to say it has to go some way to rival The Deep. There were a couple of endangered freshwater seals swimming around in a tank that was clearly far too small for them, along with a few other exhibits of wildlife unique to the lake, including the Omul fish. People were selling these fish all over the place, normally barbecued and at the side of the road. Its supposed to be lovely, but my dislike of fish makes this delicacy off-limits!

My map shows the hilltop lookout as being behind the museum, so I set off to try and find it. Yet again, Russia’s aversion to maps and helpfulness means I walk around in a big circle for a while, getting trapped on some form of wooden walkway, and then asking the person at the museum which way it was. Helpfully, she gave me instructions in German, although her pointing gave me the general idea of where to head.

As I walked up a dusty track, and then climbed steps to another dusty track, I wondered if I was on yet another Russian wild goose chase. There was no ski-lift to be seen, just hills and trees. I walked up a hill, and was about to head through some gates, when there was a whistle from behind. One of the locals, wearing a traditionally big and fluffy Russian hat, motioned me to turn left – mainly as I was about to walk up to a military camp!

The world's slowest ski lift!

After what seemed like an eternity aimlessly walking up dusty tracks, looking for signs and wondering if a hilltop viewpoint actually existed, I began to see a metal building and heard a familiar noise – the low drone of a ski-lift winding its way up a hillside!

It was a fairly hefty £4 to take the lift up, but after a good few hours hiking, I was ready for a rest, and I rest I certainly got. It was possibly the slowest ski-lift in existence! I’d have probably crawled up quicker if I’d tried, the chairlift slowly bumping over each wheel on the pylons at a boredom inducing pace, but it gave me a chance to analyse the slope below me, obviously a piste when it snows, and by the looks of it, a short but challenging run!

Success -I found the top!

The wait was worth it, the view at the top was spectacular. The sun was in completely the wrong place for photography from the peak, but I still managed to get some nice shots. Below, the lake flowed into the River Angara, which itself flows all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. I met an American man from Charleston in the States, he’d asked me to take a photograph of him and his wife at the top, and he seemed as surprised as I was to find someone else who speaks English! They are few and far between around these parts, so we both enjoyed finding out about each others’ travels. He was there with his Russian wife –they had married in May and so had both now travelled to her home country to meet family.

The view from the top!

Also at the top was the Russian man in the furry hat, the local who’d whistled at me. He asked me to take a photograph of him on his phone, and then motioned to the sun and managed to gesture enough to me that it was a good day to visit the top of the hill. He seemed to enjoy telling me all about the lake in his native language, motioning how deep the lake was, how big it was, the fact Mongolia and China are on the other side.

Cheese!

Clearly proud of living there, and now having the opportunity to show off this amazing natural wonder to tourists, we both leaned on the railings admiring the view for about an hour, taking it in turns to try to explain different things to each other. He would be giving me facts in Russian and hand signals, at one point writing numerals on the ground (it was how deep the lake was) while I showed him maps of where I was travelling to and showing photographs of life back home (Russian people absolutely love this!)

Eventually I decided to go – he shook my hand, smiled, and said pretty much the only bit of English he knew: ‘Goodbye my friend’

Mountains in the distance

I decided to walk down the hillside, and comprehensively beat the chair lift down to the bottom, before walking the three kilometres back to the marketplace. While there, I bought a barbecued kebab. I asked if it was beef (‘rosbif’) but he just said it was 150 roubles and gave me it anyway. It came with a blob of ketchup and some onions, and it has to be said, was very, very nice. I sat on the beach eating the meat – be it beef, pork or yak – watching as the sun started to drop behind the mountains. There was a really nice atmosphere, people strolling along the prom, sitting on the beach, laughing and joking, despite the fact temperatures barely rose above freezing point all day. It was so cold, my camera battery died really quickly, so I wasn’t able to get any shots of sunset over the lake, but it was stunning.

Lucky ribbons - a Siberian tradition

The man from America walked past me and said hello again, and asked if I’d had a good day. He joked if I didn’t hurry up, I’d miss my bus – but I had one more task before heading back to Irkutsk…

Legend has it that the Baikal waters are holy, and that if you dip your hands in, you will add an extra year to your life. Well, I’d done that just to wash the greasy mess off from the kebab – but if you dip your feet in, apparently you add another five years on to your life. So off came the shoes and socks, and I felt a bit stupid as I walked over the cobbles and went for a paddle.

It was icy cold – the lake freezes over with three metres of ice for much of the winter – and it was almost unbearable. But being slightly superstitious, it was worth it for another five years!

As for the legend that a swim in the lake adds an extra 25 years to your life – judging by the temperature around my feet, I don’t think I’d have seen the sun finish setting that day if I had gone for it.

Some superstitions are worth forgetting about!

A Trans-Siberian adventure

After a quick stop to see the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night, I made it to the station with an hour to spare before my train. Totally unlike me, I know, but it was nice to be relaxed for once!

Thankfully they still use numbers - Train 44 was mine!

Although it was cold and dark, the station was full of people, laden down with suitcases, rucksacks, carrier bags and the odd animal here and there.

'The train now standing at Platform 3 goes to Asia'

The train I’m booked on goes right across the entire width of Russia to Khabarovsk, some 8,500km, so naturally many people have supplies for the trip too. Some travellers seem to have brought an entire shop with them!

I’ve already come prepared – a trip to Tesco before I left the UK means my rucksack is full of Batchelors Super Noodles, some cheap Tesco home brand noodles (thought I’d give them a try!) pasta snack pots, crisps and biscuits to keep me going, as I’d been advised by my guide book.

Im in carriage 10, and given berth 10 by the carriage attendant as I clambered onboard the train.

My train, the Moscow-Khabarovsk service

Its warm and cosy inside, with wood panelling, Russian-style carpets, curtains and a soft light. I’m in a top bunk in a room with four beds, which actually works out quite well because I can put all of my luggage in the compartment above the corridor.

Soon after I get in, a Russian family arrive and start stowing their suitcases everywhere.

In the corridor I see someone wearing a German football tracksuit top. I asked if he was German, thinking that he’s likely to speak a little bit of English if he is. Turns out his name is Igor, and he’s Russian – but his English is fantastic.

Igor

Igor works in the cosmetics industry, and told me of his trips to Italy on business. He seemed surprised I was on the train on my own, and even more surprised when I said I was heading to Irkutsk. He’s heading to Yeketeringburg to see his family, a couple of days away, but he gave me his business card and told me if I needed any help to go and see him. A nice guy.

Back in my cabin, and the family are getting settled. At first, I didn’t think anyone could speak English – I worked out there was a mum, a teenage daughter and a younger girl who kept appearing from down the corridor, clutching a cuddly camel. At first, communication was through smiles and nods, but then we introduced ourselves. Nastya Kristell, the 15 year old daughter, knew a little English, and worked as translator. Then her dad Andrey appeared from down the corridor – their friends were in another cabin, and so were spending their time between the two.

Andrey and his daughter Nastya

I spent many hours that night talking to both Nastya and her father – they had just returned from a family holiday in Hurghada in Egypt, and were now embarking on an 18 hour overnight journey to their home city of Kirov. Never again will I complain about a two hour drive back from Manchester Airport after a week in the sun!

Beers all round!

Andrey offered me a beer, and at first I politely refused, but then remembered from reading my handbook that it can be seen as rude to refuse. When he asked again, I accepted, and we laughed as we all tried to swap English and Russian phrases together. Nastya was practising her English, and secretly whispering Russian phrases to me as I tried to remember them, to our mutual amusement! As the lights of Moscow outside changed into the darkness of the Russian wilderness, we all fell about laughing many times with our stories and bad translations, and after sharing some photos our lives back home, before we knew it, it was 2.30am and time for bed.

Its quite perculiar trying to sleep on a train. First there’s the movement, and while I’m sure I’ll get used to it, it does move around a lot! Its more of a gentle wobble really, with the occasional jolt added just for fun. Then there’s the noise- the tracks aren’t especially smooth, so there’s the traditional clackety-clack, clackety clack that’s disappeared back home with better rails. The rest of the noise is passing trains – my head is right by the window, so anything going the other way is pretty noticeable, especially as it seems to be a Russian rail tradition to sound horns as the locos pass each train!

I slept like a log in the end, so much so that I struggled to wake up the next morning. The motion of the train kept rocking me to sleep, and while I woke up at around 10am to have a look around, I made the fatal mistake of getting back into my bunk. Cue more soothing rocking and the repetitive clackety-clack, and I was dead to the world once again. I needed it though, the past few weeks had left me shattered, and to be honest its nice to be able to switch off and relax a little.

My home for four days!

Aside from the sleep, Im completely cut-off from the outside world now. As we head towards the 1,000km marker post, mobile phone signal is something of a rarity, while my new USB Data Modem stopped working as soon as we left Moscow. Without my music (iPhone issue again!) and having to preserve battery in my netbook, I read my Trans-Siberian Handbook for a while, planning the next few weeks, and decided to explore the train.

Im finding it really comfortable, although Igor tells me it’s a very old train, and the newer replacements are much better. The only thing that is a bit grim is the bathroom – but even then, I’ve been in much worse. I’ve tried to get water out of the tap twice in there now though, and without success. It’s got two big cogs above it, which I presume are for hot and cold water, but try as I might, I can’t get any H20 out of the tap. It works, and I know it works as someone has splashed water everywhere, almost to tease me, but I give up for now.

My trans-Siberian carriage

Each carriage in second class has about nine cabins in it, all aligned to one side with a corridor along the other side. At the end of the carriage is a samovar, a coal-fired water boiler which has an endless supply of water, and is also responsible for the intense heat which seems to build inside the train!

The samovar...teas, Super Noodles, intense heat...

Every now and then, somebody walks past with a bowl of steaming noodles or soup, and from somewhere there’s a supply of tea in a glass cup with a handle. I’ll look for those later!

I decided to head down the train, and over the slightly daunting joins between the carriages where the tracks are whizzing by in the big gaps below you at 40-50mph. The restaurant car is only two carriages away, but it seems quite pricey and from what I saw, the food didn’t look that good. I decide to stick with the Super Noodles from the samovar for now, and pick up some supplies from the station traders as we stop along the way.

I searched through my book for answers about how to get water out of the taps in the bathroom – and there it was. Apparently, you have to use a little lever right underneath it. I ventured to the bathroom to give it a go, and out the water came! I was quite relieved – I was in need of a wash by now, so freshened up. Then I went to the carriage attendant and asked for some tea – its 10 Roubles for a teabag and glass, so about 20p. More importantly, it came with a spoon, so I can now stop slurping my noodles straight out of the Tesco Snack Pot container I’ve fashioned into a reusable bowl!!

Back in my bunk, Andrey and his family are preparing to get off. He told me how he wants to go to Thailand next year, and I showed him some of my photos from my visit earlier this year. He’s got a battle on at the moment, as his daughter wants to go on holiday on her own. He asked me what age children in England are allowed to go on holiday on their own, and disappointingly for Nastya, I told him around 18. She rolled her eyes and laughed- she was pinning her hopes on me taking her side… I told her you’re never too old for a holiday with your parents!

Andrey gave me some Egyptian jam and a teabag as a gift from his family, and took some photographs of me with them. I took some of them too, and I knew Nastya was impressed when I told her that I worked for the BBC, and knowing I had a BBC Open Centre pen in my bag, I gave it to her as a present. Just the BBC logo on it meant something to her as she ran her fingers along it – I think the BBC is still so well-known and respected here. She gave me a hug, as did her father, and we said our goodbyes.

Andrey and his family at Kirov station

I watched through the window as they ran out to meet their family who had met them at the station. They turned around and waved at me. I was sad to see them go if im honest – they had made my first daunting night onboard such an enjoyable experience. I realised we were stopping at their station for a while, and as they were still on the platform, I went out to get one last photograph of them all together as a family. The camera was quickly taken from me, and I was ushered into the middle for a few photos with me too.

Saying goodbye to Andrey and family at Kirov station

It was lovely to meet them, and I wished them every success in the future before they headed to their cars and their nearby flat. If everyone I meet on this journey are as friendly and fun as Andrey and his family, this will be a fun trip!

I bought some Coke from the station shop and got back onboard. Two older Russian men were now in my cabin, and although they mustered a ‘hello’ didn’t really say much else. Thankfully I bumped into Igor who was heading for a cigarette, and we spent the night chatting. We got off at one station and walked the entire length of the train, getting some much needed fresh air, and watched as the locomotive was swapped over at the front for the next leg of the journey. It’s a cold night, our breath drifting into the stillness. Police dogs and guards are patrolling the tracks, checking the trains, while a maintenance man does what the maintenance man does at every station I’ve seen so far- walks along whacking every axle with a long-handled hammer and listening to the noise it makes. It sounds strangely like a xylophone.

Back on the move – with all axles intact – and after another hour of talking in the corridor, Igor and I are politely told to shut up by another passenger, so we went to bed!

A morning stop in Yekaterinburg

The next morning I wake up as we approach Yekateringburg, some 1,816km from Moscow. It’s where Igor is getting off to meet his family, but he gives me a guide as we drift into the town, pointing out the main factories and a huge towerblock that was built on unstable ground without planning permission. Even Igor says it was a crazy thing to do!

As we arrive in Yekateringburg, I walk to see Igor off the train. His mum and dad are there waiting, and he introduces me to them in Russian. The only bit I understand is the word BBC, to which there are raised eyebrows, gasps and then hugs all round! I think his parents must have been parked on double yellows or something, as they needed to be off in a hurry, and Igor gave me a manly hug and a pat on the back, and wished me well for my trip before walking down the platform with his suitcase and parents in tow.

There’s an old lady in my cabin now. She got on in the middle of the night in Perm. She wears really thick glasses and fairly bright lipstick for a grandmother. At first im not sure how to take her – she looks a bit serious, and clearly cant speak much English. I think she’s a little unsure of me too. For anyone reading this who went to Healing School, she reminds me of Mrs Storey, same height, build, even looks very similar.

She motions me to sit down near her on the lower bunk, pats my knee and says something in Russian. I do my usual ‘Sorry, im English, I don’t know Russian’ act with a big smile and a wave of my hand near my throat (I don’t know why that seems to indicate we cant speak the language!) In broken English, she asks my name, and the ice is broken.

Yekatarina (left) and Yuri and his partner

Her name is Yekaterina, and she’s on her way to visit family at the last stop for this train, Khabarovsk, not far from the Sea of Japan. A lot of our conversation is done through pointing, smiling, motioning and looking at photos on her camera and on my laptop. I work out she’s got a son, and her grand-daughter is a student. That’s when the food offering starts again, and she pulls out what look like some uncooked Findus Crispy Pancakes. She tells me I must eat three of them, as it’s a Russian tradition, and thrusts one into my hand.

Another stop in Siberia

I’m not entirely sure what was in it, I think it was minced chicken or something, but it tasted quite nice. It’s a good job, as I wasn’t going to be let off with just one, and two more later, I’m quite full. I offer to get her a cup of tea to return the favour, but she asks me to fill her cup with hot water instead. She’s got her own supply of teabags, and looks at me as if I’m daft for buying one from the carriage attendant!

The train takes a breather at Novisibirsk

Outside, the scenery is changing. Until now, much of the view has been of trees and forests, but as we’ve headed west, its visibly turned from Autumn into Winter. In Moscow, trees were still hanging onto leaves, rather like back at home. Gradually, the leaves have disappeared, and are now all on the ground. Igor had told me its unusual not to have snow by now – maybe I’ll see some before we arrive in Irkutsk.

Getting colder!

The trees are also thinning out, with lots of empty grasslands and meadows, interspersed with a few huts and houses here and there. Every now and then, we’ll stop at a station, the longest today being at Tyumen. A young couple get on, meaning for the first time on the trip the cabin is full. Yekaterina talks to the guy, and shows me his bracelet/necklace thing he’s playing with. Its something to do with the game Warhammer apparently. Ive never played the game, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but associate it with geeks – and despite him not knowing much English, he strikes me as the sort of person that would play Warhammer! I think there’s been some Warhammer convention on somewhere, and he’s heading home to Novosibirsk, where we’re due to arrive tomorrow. Nice enough couple though.

Life onboard is getting to be a bit of a routine now. The trick is not to think of it as a journey to somewhere, and to count off the hours until you get there, but to enjoy it as an experience.

It was certainly fun trying to have some form of decent wash in the toilet earlier – and I mean in the cubicle, not in the actual pan, before anyone says anything!

Space is limited, so I managed to hang my clean clothes up on the peg, filled the bowl with water thanks to my squash ball plug (a great travel tip by the way – they block up sinks and you can play with them!) and basically gave myself what can only be described as a standing-up bed bath! It was awkward, water was sloshing around everywhere, but I didn’t care as before long there would have been complaints from fellow travellers…or I’d have to start handing out nose pegs! It felt much better to freshen up and have clean clothes on, and I returned back to my cabin and an admiring glance and squeeze of my shoulder from Yeketerina!

Another trans-Siberian train pulls in

Im fascinated by how many people are using the train, and indeed how many trains there are travelling backwards and forwards across this vast country. Back home, I had visions of an empty railway line with one or two trains a day trundling along, each with a few tourists doing the same as me, knowing they can add ‘worlds longest railway journey’ to their list of things to do before they die.

Another station and more passengers!

These are actually really busy railway lines – at least one train passes us every 10 minutes or so, be it a passenger or freight train, and most of the compartments onboard are full of people travelling around this huge country.

Speaking to a few of them, they reason that the train is safer that flying. Russia has a dubious flying safety record at best, so its understandable. Its certainly more relaxing – I’ve got my nose into Piers Morgan’s ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am’, his follow up to ‘The Insider’, and the first time I’ve properly read a book for years. I sometimes get ridiculed for this, being a journalist and not reading much doesn’t seem to compute with some people, but the fact is I hardly have the time! On here, I do, in between dozing off for a few minutes after being rocked to sleep. Its just what I needed, and something I certainly wouldn’t have considered on a normal annual leave holiday- I’d have seen it as being stuck on a train for a week and wasting my time off, rather than treating it as a once in a lifetime experience, as I am able to now.

Once in a lifetime or not, im certainly getting fed up of Super Noodles. I went for the chicken flavoured packet tonight. I’d hoped that the station vendors would be selling sandwiches, or something useful to eat. Instead there seems to be lots of packets of fish strips, manky chicken and big Russian Pot Noodles, none of which particularly float my boat at the moment!

Irkutsk-bound

I take myself down to the restaurant car in the end, not to eat, but to sit and watch the world go by with a beer and my book.

Today seems to have flown by, and already we’re almost halfway to Mongolia.