After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Shanghai, China (10th - 13th April)

Awesome beer and food at Boxing Cat

To get to Shanghai from Qingdao is a fair old journey, as are most places we wanted to visit in China. Because we had only decided at the last minute and booked the day before, we were only able to get standard class seats (hard seats), but given that it was a 19 hour journey we were hoping for hard sleeper cabins. In China the trains are often full and often for long distance routes they book up a few days in advance for anything but hard seat. Not the greatest for flexible travellers such as ourselves, although being forced into hard seats meant a significant cost saving (for a journey over 1000km it was about the same price as Sheffield to Chorley back home, not bad!). We figured it wouldn't be too uncomfortable anyway, as up until this point our only experience of Chinese trains was the swish high-speed one from Beijing to Qingdao. "How bad can it be?" we thought, but by the end we definitely weren't seeing the value in the money we saved! The seats are arranged so you are always facing someone else, and with little legroom between you. Also, despite having us having sequential seat numbers on our tickets, the way it worked out was that actually we were sitting at either side of the wagon, not even across each other. The seats are padded unlike the name hard seats suggest, but they are benches so it makes it quite difficult to sleep on. The Chinese seem pretty cool with it and are perfectly happy to sleep on stranger's shoulders!

After a long night and little sleep we were very happy to arrive in Shanghai. Within minutes of arriving we managed to meet a couple of 'characters', a girl who was overly helpful at the ticket machine (after the long night in hard seats we had learnt our lesson and were booking early to get a sleeper), and dismayed when we didn't buy tickets, not because we didn't understand the machine but because it wouldn't give us 2 tickets in the same cabin. While in the queue for the ticket desk a random white guy asked us if he smelt... Things got even weirder as we left the station to witness a motorist trying to take on a few traffic policemen with a stick. Convinced Shanghai was some kind of magnet for madheads, we took the subway to nearby the hostel. We got lost finding the hostel again and wandered around randomly until we decided to get a taxi, but this time we were prepared with a leaflet for the hostel with the address in Chinese.

The first night we checked out a local restaurant, which served Uighur food, from the Muslim north-west of China. The hostel manager seemed reluctant to send us to a 'proper' Chinese restaurant as she claimed Westerners didn't always appreciate the tastes and textures of Chinese cuisine! But the recommendation turned out to be good one, piles of spiced lamb, flat breads and black beer later we were satisfied and ready to do some proper exploring in Shanghai (as we had slept most of the afternoon away, another reason hard seats overnight aren't the greatest option). We headed straight for the Bund for a night-time stroll along. Lots of historic buildings from the French colonial days on one side and all the modern commercial buildings on the other. Quite an impressive spectacle!

The next day we headed out to explore Shanghai in daylight, on a lovely warm spring day. In the street we met some more local 'characters' who struck up a friendly conversation about where we were from and what we were up to in China, intrigued that we were wearing shorts and t-shirts (it was about 20 degrees so a very nice day back home but not really in Shanghai when it hits 35 regularly in the summer) and commenting that I looked like an artist with my hair and beard. Eventually they got round to inviting us to a 'tea festival' which had all the hallmarks of a scam (a common one in China, people approach you in the street, offer to take you to a tea ceremony, all very nice by all accounts until the bill comes for £200) so we politely declined and hot-footed it to the Yuyuan gardens and bazaar, one of the few historical tourist sites left in Shanghai. The "bazaar" is actually mainly souvenir shops and American franchises (Starbucks, Dairy Queen etc), but we had some apparently world famous 'steamed buns' were basically dumplings. They tasted nice and, well, dumplingy. There's only so much you can say about dumplings filled with mincemeat! Maybe were a little dumplinged out after seemingly every country we had visited for much of the trip had a national dish of dumplings, each with their own name for it: perogi (Poland), pelmini (Latvia), manty (Russia), buuz (Mongolia). The gardens themselves were actually very beautiful and peaceful (save for being invaded by middle aged German lemmings, sorry, tourists) and were every bit as ornate and well ordered as you would imagine an ancient Chinese garden to be. We felt this was the kind of thing the emporers were sorely lacking in their desolate Forbidden City in Beijing. In the evening we ate at a decent veggie restaurant and had some interesting tea before heading out to a bar near the hostel. It was a self-styled Belgian beer bar but we ended up drinking the imported American beers as they were cheaper, but it was great to have some 'proper' beer again. And by American I mean Brooklyn not Budweiser! On our walk home a makeshift barbequeue stand had been popped up, complete with covered seating area. Figured we could use some food to soak up the beer and had some amazing skewers. We picked out fish, beef kidney and assorted vegetables and waited with another beer for them to be cooked, grabbed some noodles from a neighbouring stand and tucked into the spicy BBQ goodness. The fish was so good we ended up ordering more. Seriously the best food of the trip so far probably! When we payed the bill it was so cheap too, ironic that our favourite meal so far was also the cheapest.

Slightly hungover we decided to check out the sights of Pudong (the commercial district), the only sight really being the district itself viewed from above in one of the high-rise towers. First we ended up in an eerily quiet shopping mall attached to the metro station, full of posh brand shops such as Armani and Versace. By this point we very hungry and figured there would be a food court and grabbed some Japanese noodles and a coke to sort us out. There was also a supermarket presumably aimed at the rich western businessmen (or more likely their wives) where we could have had ourselves some Marmite for £8! Headed for the Jin Mao tower, which was the tallest building in Shanghai until the World Financial Centre was built right next to it, a few floors higher. I bet they were a little miffed! Annoyingly between walking into the building, queuing up for tickets and taking the lift up it had hazed over so the view wasn't as good as it could have been but still pretty spectacular. Charlotte relished posting the postcards from the highest post office in the world (it sometimes feels like our travels are one long ramble trying to find the nearest post office!). Decided it would be rude not to take the world fastest train while we were in the area, despite it being to and from the airport. We took the metro there to save on the fare which we immediately regretted, given that it took over an hour. Coming back on the Maglev was pretty amazing, 431km/h an hour was the fastest speed we travelled at, almost as fast as flying. It felt like we were in a low flying aircraft as we swooped around on the elevated track, and made the trip that had took us almost an hour on the metro in 7 minutes.

Next we visited what turned out to be a real highlight in the Wright World of Beer trip. I had been hankering after some good beer since it had a been a while since we had had any variety or interesting flavours for a long while. Eastern Europe certainly has some good beers, but mainly of the same style (strong lager), and Russia was to be honest fairly uninspiring, even when we tried some beers brewed by micro-brewers. Mongolia had been the same story and it would seem the only beer normally available in China is weak lager (which actually I grew to like a lot and I think Tsingtao is the best beer of this type I have tasted - does the job when you want a cold, refreshing, cheap and thirst-quenching beer and the low ABV means you don't regret it in the morning). So some internet research revealed a few interesting beer bars in Shanghai (including the one we had patronised the previous night), mainly on account of the American influence it would seem. We found the Boxing Cat, near the laid back Fuxing Park, rammed full of young American schmoozing at a networking event. The lady kindly assumed maybe we had turned up for the event (despite Liam wearing shorts with baseball shoes and being fairly unkempt in the hair and beard department), but we politely declined and took our seats in the swish eating area upstairs. We very much enjoyed their 4 draft offerings; TKA IPA (very hoppy and dry beer in the traditional strong English India Pale Ale style, reminded me a lot of Brewdog Punk IPA), Right Hook Helles (decent German-style lager), Standing 8 Pilsner (dry, flowery Czech style lager) and Sucker Punch Pale Ale (wonderfully fruity and reminded us of Thornbridge Kipling). Along with the beer we had some tasty American grub, Charlotte opted for a Mexian soup and I went for an amazing burger; succulent beef topped with cheese and avocado - after so long eating different cuisines it was heaven to have a 'proper' burger, and it was worlds apart from the usual American fast food chain offerings. After a heady mix of beer and awesome food we were feeling good (and probably a little drunk) and headed back to the hostel feeling full and satisfied.

Our last day in Shanghai we spent visiting the Propaganda Museum, a collection of Chinese political poster art from the 20th century, housed in the basement of an apartment building. We are both fans of the style and it was an interesting historical snapshot of Chinese history too. For lunch we had some tasty noodles with stewed beef before heading for a quick pint at the Boxing Cat (Liam wanted to visit Fuxing Park which is nearby, so it would be rude not to have popped in, very convenient!). Liam also bought a baseball shirt, as he had his eye on it as all the staff were wearing them (although they were wearing them in American sizes and so were far to big for the small Chinese staff). Pint quaffed, and we were off to the train station to take a sleeper train to our next destination, Guilin.

Shanghai, China

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Qingdao, China (7th - 10th April)

"Hook it to my veins!" - Bags of Tsingtao beer

We were whisked from Beijing to Qingdao in record time on the fastest train of our trip yet. 888km (they must have gone out of the way to ensure the track length, as the number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture) in less than 6 hours, with a maximum speed of about 250km/h. Our first Chinese train of the journey and we were very impressed, lots of legroom and comfortable airline style seats even in second class. Got lost trying to find the hostel, ended up getting a taxi but we had foolishly written the address down in pinyin (Chinese in latin characters) only, which it turns out most Chinese taxi drivers can't read. After the taxi drove us around randomly for a while we got out, at which point I realised that if I brought up my email on my phone, the address would be on there in Chinese. The wonders of modern technology eh? Eventually we arrived to the hostel, in what had to be the best location in the city. On top of a hill, surrounded by parkland, the hostel was a converted observatory, complete with telescope still present in the bar area upstairs. There was also a rooftop terrace, so in theory there should have been very good views but unfortunately for the whole trip there was a low haze of dust and pollution (an all too common thing in Chinese cities sadly). After some Chinese barbeque grub we headed out to the pier, which is recognisable as the logo of the beer of the city's namesake (although spelt the old way - Tsingtao). The beer was of course one of the reasons we were here, as well as sea. After winter in Siberia I think we were a bit too keen in getting to the coast, and while pleasant the weather wasn't quite warm enough. On the way back to the hostel we discovered a pretty cool local food market selling fruit, veg, meat, fish (sea-fresh, no fishy smell!) and barbequed goodies, and also a local 'pub' complete with resident blind cat. It was a pub in the truest sense, as in a public house, literally a family serving beer straight from the keg in their living room. There were a few locals watching the tea-time soap, enjoying some seafood and of course a pint. And a guy giving himself a close shave with nail clippers, obviously his daily ritual along with his pint. For about 25p a pint we quaffed a couple of fresh Tsingtao's and people watched, while of course the Chinese did the same with us (in China it's not considered rude to stare it would seem) but it was a pretty friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

The next day was beer day! After a hearty 'English' breakfast (consisting of fried eggs, hot dog sausauge, about 15 beans and some charred bacon) on the rooftop terrace we headed to 'Beer Street' and took a look round the Tsingtao brewery. In all honesty the museum part was pretty boring, apart from some amusing sections seemingly thrown together by some high school interns such as how to appreciate beer (swirling the glass, but not in public as you might look a bit poncy) and some half-baked environmental corporate responsibility guff. But the real highlight was the bottling line. That doesn't sound so thrilling, but viewed from a walkway above it was pretty cool to see the bottles whizzing around on the conveyour belt, getting filled with beer, capped, labelled and boxed up. The only active jobs done by humans were watching the bottles go past a bright light to check there is nothing in them and a guy loading the can tops into the machine every few minutes (you'd think that with all that machinery and technology they'd have figured a way to automate this process but apparently not!). After that we got a taste of the beer unfiltered, just a more fuller flavour really as they are mainly brewing low strength lager. The best part though were the free beer peanuts, seasoned with yeast, hops and chilli. So after eating them you couldn't really taste the beer anyway. Beer Street itself was pretty dead, and basically consisted of lots of empty seafood restaurants, so instead we headed to our new local and grabbed a couple of bags of beer. Yes, that's not a mispelling! For takeaway purposes they sell litres of beer straight from the keg into clear bags, the kind of bags you get a the supermarket to put your vegetables in. Pouring them is fairly precarious, but we were well prepared with plastic glasses and enjoyed them in the park near our hostel (cue strange looks from the occassional passing local, the Chinese don't seem to drink in public parks like us Europeans, and in Russia it's probably considered strange behaviour if you don't walk down the street with a beer in your hand!).

On our final day we took a walk down the extensive boadwalks along the coast around Qingdao, from the older part of town to the business district with the flashy highrises and the soulness feeling common in these places wherever you are in the world - especially China as these areas have been thrown up in a matter of years. The walk was very pleasant, but even though it was a nice sunny day the visibility out to sea was really bad which was quite strange. We also saw the area where the Olympic Sailing events were held in 2008. Well, we could just about make out the huge Olympic rings across the harbour in the low cloud. We also enjoyed a baked sweet potato, a winter staple in China, the sellers have a makeshift oven on the back of bicycle made from an old oil drum, sold by weight. On our walk we also saw loads of Chinese newly weds (it being a Saturday) posing on the beach for photos, we must have seen about 30-40 couples on our 10km walk!

And so, our time in Qingdao coming to an end, we booked our train tickets to our next destination, Shanghai!

Qingdao, China

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Beijing, China (1st - 7th April)

Spicy BBQ chicken wings, perfect beer food!

We were expecting Beijing to be a bit of a culture shock. I think we had expectations of it being ridiculously busy, noisy, polluted and smelly, with lots of traffic and that this would probably take a bit of getting used to. So it was quite odd to be greeted at the railway station by two very friendly girls from the hostel, hop on to the well ordered metro and then wander down the street along with the light traffic toward the hostel with, well, no problems or hassle at all!

Beijing is a funny city, so steeped in history and yet sometimes it felt that there was something missing. It's frustrating because we're unable to vocalise what that 'missing' thing is, but it was something we felt while we were there, despite really enjoying our time there. It's a big city, so it takes a long time to get around, but it does mean that there is just so much of it to explore! I think we came expecting the usual buzz of chaos that we have experienced in other Asian cities, but I think there is a different feeling here, likely because they have a pretty well organised government. Having said that, we definitely grew to love it in all it's intricacies and contradictions.

One of the main highlights of our time here was the day trip that we did out to the Great Wall. It was called a trip to the 'Secret Wall' and despite being near to the touristy restored section of Badaling, it was off the beaten track and pretty quiet. At times the wall was crumbling and looked very sorry for itself, and it was great fun walking up and down the at times incredibly steep sections between watch towers. Our calves ached for days afterwards and we can understand why they take the coachloads of OAPs to easier parts of the wall, in some places it even has cable cars! When you're walking on it it's difficult to comprhehend that you're standing on a wall that's actually about 4000 miles long. The history is incredible, with so many men dying whilst building the wall, and the irony that it was built in order to keep the foreigners out and now attracts so many tourists every year.

We also visited the Forbidden City, which was somewhat of a disappointment. We felt the most impressive aspect of it was its scale (it's huge!), but aside from that it's just a lot of very similar looking fading building that you aren't allowed to go in! I guess when you imagine a city for emporers to live in you may imagine some lush greenery and real grandeur for them to enjoy, but we didn't really see this at the Forbidden City. It felt quite desolate with it's wide cobbled avenues and conservative colour scheme. It is said that the Summer Palace was built as a summer retreat when the heat of the Forbidden City got too much (it must be horrendous in summer as there is no shade), as it's just outside the city and with lots of greenery and trees for shade. We spent a pretty glorious afternoon at the Summer Palace, exploring the temples and pagodas, walking around the lake and shading beneath the trees. It was much nicer than the FC and we can see why they'd like that as their summer retreat! Within the city we also visited the Lama Temple, a beautiful temple that still survivies within the city, with lots of worshippers each giving three incense sticks to each of the Gods. Ticking off our second waxwork-alike of the trip (the first being Lenin), we took a peek at Mao in his mausoleum, along with lots of flower bearing Chinese tourists. Again, pretty weird, pretty anti climatic. Just a small dude with a bit of a screwed up face, as if he's about to burst into tears. Strange. Apparently as they weren't sure how succesful the preserving process would be, they had a waxwork made up as well. Each night Mao's body is lowered into his tomb, where the waxwork is also kept. So who knows whether it was even the real Mao we saw!

We were in Beijing when it was the national holiday of 'Tomb Sweeping Day', a day to honour the dead by leaving them food and drink, cleaning up memorial patches and burning fake money that has 'Hell Bank' printed on it. Tasteful! This led to lots of newspaper articles about death and honouring the dead, in particular highlighting the lack of space that there is in Beijing for cemetry plots. Although lots of people are now cremated, the families still want to bury the deceased's ashes in a plot so they have somewhere to go to remember and honour them. People often have to pay over a years worth of income for a tiny plot as space is just so scarce, and Beijing's population has had to have been warned against pre-buying plots, as this raises prices even more. It seems a shame that they put so much emphasis on the physical location of the deceased, it would be so much easier for them to scatter the ashes in a place that the person wished. Although maybe if that happened, Beijing would seem dustier than it already does! ;)

We were really surprised at how many people seemed intrigued by us. It's not like Beijing doesn't attract white tourists! Perhaps the people who wanted their photographs taken with us were out of towners to whom seeing a white folk was really unusual. At the Summer Palace, reclined by the lake with a beer, we had people hiding in bushes to take photographs of us, and some bolder photographers hoohooing at us to attract our attention. Another thing we discovered the Chinese are very open about is toilet arrangements. The hutong (backstreet) public toilets are just a row of holes in the floor, with no partitions between them. Charlotte attracted the attention of a toddler who had accommpanied his mum, and delightedly came over to say hello whilst she was having a wee, much to his mother's consternation. He also had to be returned to the toilet after attempting to follow Charlotte out of the toilets and down the road. Fun times! We loved exploring the hutong areas, the one story residential areas that sprawl all over the city. Most don't have running water, hence the plethora of public toilets. We bought some good snack food from these places and enjoyed some very cheap beers! There is a great communal atmosphere here, but unfortnately these communities are a dying breed as more and more are knocked down to make way for skyscrapers and blocks of flats.

The food was something that we particularly enjoyed about arriving in China, after far too long eating lots of meat and broths with very little vegetables! There is fairly little in terms of 'English Chinese takeaway' style stirfrys, and much more barbequed food that we'd imagined. We found a brilliant student rooftop terrace bar near the Drum and Bell Towers which serverd brilliant chicken wing kebabs coated in chilli and tongue numbing aniseedy Sichuan pepper. There are lots of stalls selling greasy tasty flat breads and cheap snack foods. Our favourite food on the go has to be a pancake which is coated with egg, sprng onion, coriander and three different sauces, all painted on with a decorators brush, before being wrapped up with a big crisp thing inside it. Yum!

The final change from the norm for us was having to haggle. Liam's first go at haggling didn't go particularly well, it has to be said. Lots of bars use these distinctive wrestlers mask type bottle openers, which he had had his eye on. We saw them at a market, and the seller tried to sell it for the equivalent of £6. Liam got her down to £3, bearing in mind we were still getting to grips with the value of the currency, so immediately after handing over the money realised that despite seemingly bargaining down by half, he had obviously still ripped off. A clever trick on there part, a general rule of thumb seems to be that they will start at about 10 times the fair price in some of the touristy places. A few days later we saw them in a shop, looking much newer and complete with pouch... 3 for £1. Fail! So we learned our lesson on something pretty low value and were much more prepared for tackling the Silk Market. Despite liking his purchases of some new Converse and a t-shirt, Liam hated the whole palava of the shop girls threatening to burst into tears (and indeed at times very much looking like they were going to burst into tears) at the price he was willing to pay. Charlotte found the whole thing pretty amusing and enjoyed haggling a rucksack from £30 to £5.50.

So these are our thoughts on Beijing, and China thus far. Qingdao next!

Beijing, China

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Liam's Round-Up: Musings on the first chapter of our trip.

Time for a little reflection and shoe-gazing (see what I did there?)

So it feels like one chapter of our travelling is coming to an end, that is the 'winter' travel part of our trip, and the end of our time in Europe and Russia as we continue into Asia. We have of course techinically been in Asian since we boarded a train in Moscow and crossed the Urals, but the places we visited were still typically Russian and had more European influence than Asian. Even Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, feels more like Russia than Asia as the city was built by the Soviets, who also destroyed most historical and cultural traces such as monastries and religious sites. We saw the coming of Spring during the couple of weeks we spent in Mongolia. From sightseeing on arrival in the city, shivering as my thermals were in the wash, to feeling like we were going to lose toes when travelling around the countryside on the back of an ox cart. But even out in the countryside a couple of days the mercury (only just) rose out of the negatives and by the time we had spent a few more days in the capital we even ventured out sans winter coats, for the first time on our trip, when the sun was out it was even possible to walk around in a t-shirt (8 degrees felt not far off a heatwave!).

As I write this we are on the Ulaanbaatar to Beijing train, for almost 12 hours we have been passing by the endless dusty plains scattered with the occasional livestock and herder families, that make up most of Mongolia. Soon will will be in China and it seems like the perfect time for a spot of reflection and shoe-gazing. So with horrendous instant milk tea in hand here are some random musings on the last 3 months of our lives.

On the whole, travelling in winter has been an interesting experience, and the first time we have undertook anything beyond a weekend away in the season. Europe in January is quiet, very quiet. Of course there's the usual post-Christmas lull coupled with difficult economic times which meant the bars/restaurants and tourist attractions were sparsely populated. Of course as a tourist it is nice to have places all to yourself, the addition of hundreds of other foreigners would hardly have added anything to experience, but sometimes there was a definite lack of atmosphere. The weather was unseasonally warm for most of January, so it meant that our imagined images of Denmark being a winter wonderland didn't come true. However we still enjoyed Denmark a lot, and the amazing food, tasty beer and hospitality of Ally, Lars and his parents made it a great experience. Unfortunately the planned cross-country skiing was off the cards, and many attractions were closed for the winter, so we vowed to return in the summer one day. Prague was a little strange being so quiet, as it is geared up to cater for vast amounts of tourists the rest of the year. Unfortunately it is a place where tourism has took over and diminished some of the charm of the place. It is of course still a beautiful once you get away from the souvenir shops blasting out American rap music and the numerous poor quality restaurants touting for business.

Cesky Krumlov in south Czech Republic was a real gem and it was lovely to see the small, picturesque town tourist-free and covered in a layer of snow. It really was a winter wonderland straight out of a fairy tale. It was another destination we vowed to visit again in the summer though, mainly on account of the hiking opportunities so close to the town and the fact that a river runs right throught the middle, offering the opportunity to hire boats and spend some lazy days on the water. From here on in things got rather more wintry, and we enjoyed a great few days snowboarding in Zakopane, Poland before meeting up with Mark to spend an enjoyable few weeks exploring Poland and the Baltics.

Russia, of course, was always going to be the highlight of our winter trip, and St Petersberg didn't disappoint, even if it was sometimes just too damn cold to be exploring the city, one afternoon the mercury even sunk as low as -22. Our time around Lake Baikal was made all the more special and memorable by the snow and ice, and thankfully it wasn't as cold as it had been, coupled with the fact that the drier atmosphere of Siberia means you feel the cold less. Of course despite loving these places we still would love to return to Russia in the summer! Hiking and camping along the whole stretch of the Circum-Baikal Railway is one thing we have in mind, as we had such a great time doing some short hikes while we were there, and I'm sure St Petersburg is lovely in summer as it is a very colourful city with a riverside setting.

It is certainly interesting as a traveller to see places in different seasons, especially in places with such different extremes in the weather. Most Russians couldn't understand why we were visiting in the winter, as despite being used to the cold it didn't seem like they much enjoyed it (they really whack the heating up indoors too!). But I supposed that would probably be akin to saying an Englishman enjoys the rain!

We have also been reflecting on the way we have undertaken to travel. While overland to China is certainly not a distance to be sniffed at, our pace of travel may seem laid back, even lazy, to some. 3 months is a long time to undertake anything, but in the end it doesn't really seem like that long. But, at the same time it feels like we have been away forever and have pretty much accustomed ourselves to this transient lifestyle. 15 hours on a bus or a couple of days on a train now doesn't seem like much of a big deal. We met a couple of English people the other week who had covered the same distance we had overland in a matter of 3 weeks, nevermind 3 months. Of course this isn't enough time to even begin to take in the countries travelled through, even at our relaxed pace we have only in reality scratched the surfaces of the countries we have visited. To us this is an example of travelling overland for the sake of it, while I'm sure they have still enjoyed it, in their shoes we would rather use our limited time/money exploring less places.

A rough calculation suggests we have spent around 11 whole days getting to China between 23 trains, 19 buses and 1 ferry travelling around 15,000km getting to our main destinations (ie. not including local transport around and about the cities and towns we have stayed). Not most people's idea of a holiday! But I think we have kept a good pace, discovering new places a couple of times a week and not spending so much time on buses and trains to be completely sick of it. Having said that, out of a 28 day visa in Russia we spent around 5 days on buses and trains, not far off 20% of our time!

Also while we always have had a rough plan and have generally stuck to it, it is always good to stay flexible and take any recommendations or changes of heart (and weather!) and be able to run with it. The planning was mainly in our heads and all we did in advance of our trip was book our train ticketss to London and the Eurostar to Paris, to give us a fixed leaving date and of course to get the cheapest tickets. Apart from that we had no transport (OK we booked a couple of trains/buses around Western Europe a week before we left - again to ensure better prices) or accommodation booked. That's not to say we aren't organised and don't have a plan, and in the internet age it is very easy to research destinations and book accommodation online a couple of days in advance. From Eastern Europe onwards online booking for trains is pretty much non-existant although we did book our Ecolines bus from Riga to St Petersberg online (and for an outrageously cheap price).

This brings me to another thing we have pondered on this trip. Although of course when we first travelled back in 2004 the internet age was in full swing, making hostel booking especially easy, things are even more online now. Travelling with a laptop and with many hostels, cafes and bars offering free wi-fi there is no longer any feeling of being cut off from the real world. This has its ups and downsides, maybe some of the magic is lost (althought we have had some great times 'unplugged'; on the Trans-Siberian railway, and the 2 trips away from the city around Lake Baikal) but it's really great to be able to keep in touch with family and friends and ensure we are well researched when arriving at a destination. Photos are also a lot easier to manage now as internet speeds are faster and the means to put them in online albums is much more user friendly in the age of Picasa and Facebook. There are also a hell of a lot more hostels popped up in this relatively short time period. We have only stayed in places that didn't brand themselves as traveller's hostels once or twice, whereas last time we travelled they were often in short supply.

So now to discuss some highlights. Russia has so far been our favourite country, and the fact that we were drawn there was the main reason we decided to undertake the overland journey from Europe to China. Also it was a complete unknown to us, and while we had expected it to be similar to other Eastern European countries, it very much has its own personality. In fact we were surprised at how friendly people were, even most railway station staff were friendly enough - and as most travellers will tell you this is usually where one seems to inspire the most anger in people while travelling. In Ukraine a few years We had spent a lot of our time unwittingly upsetting just about everyone we came into contact with in the service industry, from railway stations and trains, to bars, hotels and restaurants. But even in the depths of winter most people we met in Russia were friendly, and we especially enjoyed the Russian hospitality while couch-surfing in St Petersberg and travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway for 4 days in one go. The main highlight of Russia had to be Lake Baikal, Olkhon was amazing as I'm sure we have banged on about many a time, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time hiking parts of the Circum-Baikal Railway.

Of course we also really enjoyed our time in Europe. Denmark was great as already mentioned, and we most definitely enjoyed the beer in Antwerp, Cologne and the Czech Republic (as well as other things!). Our time with Mark was great too, exploring more of Poland and discovering Lithuania. The Hill Of Crosses was a pretty epic sight, literally thousands of crosses big and small all collected on one little hill. Very atmospheric on a winter's afternoon.

And so, onwards and upwards to the next chapter of our trip. Hot weather and great food two of the many things we are looking forward to, and of course the very different cultural heritage the continent offers to our own. And hopefully the occasional nice beer!

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (16th - 19th & 25th - 31st March)

And now after a brief intermission.... our tales continue! For a few weeks we were without access to the blog due to China's paranoid government and are only just getting round to doing the blog again. We'll update gradually with all the goings on in China...

Liam enjoying himself on St. Patrick's day.

The capital of Mongolia can only be described as a completely unique place. It's a fairly small scale city, surrounded on all sides by mountains which are easily viewed from the end of most of the city's streets. The Soviets were the ones to really make this capital a proper city (Ulan Bator means 'Red Hero'), bringing modern infrastructure to what was previously mostly a sprawling colllection of Mongolian traditional gers. Crossing the roads is crazy; unlike other Asian cities where you have to avoid the weaving motorbikes, here everyone just seems to weave along at high speeds in big cars, not paying any attention to pedestrian crossings. There are some really big cars here, in the space of ten minutes one day we saw 5 Hummers hurtling down the street. The relatively free and democratic political system has attracted many international folk here, bringing Western style bars and restaurants with them. The city's pollution problems, coupled with lack of medical facilities, means that people working for the British Embassy are not allowed to bring their children to live here.

Ulaanbaatar is a city of contrasts; from high rise Soviet blocks to nearby ger settlements right in the heart of the city, and from young city slickers with designer shades to herders waiting at the bus stop in traditional Mongolian clothes. We spent a rather too long 10 days in total here, forced to stay a while to get our Chinese visa sorted out. The food that we had in Ulaanbaatar was OK, and was a pleasure to the purse after Russia! Our local favourite was a cheap eatery called Cafe 999, selling Mongolian food such a Tsuivan, a pretty simple noodle, meat and veg dish. We also enjoyed some pretty decent pizza (well, better than Russian pizza at least). We visited a vegan cafe a couple of times, feeling all meated out after our Ger to Ger experience, and had some good salads and vegi khuushur (pasties).

Beer wise, there have been a few disappointments. We hit an Irish bar for St Paddy's, where Liam was forced to leave a pint of distinctly dodgy (and liekly watered down) Guinness. We tried the home brewed fare at Khanbrau Brauhaus (a German-run brewery), which tasted of pretty much... nothing. A popular lager, Chinggis Khan, turned out to be a very standard lager, as did the Korean beer 'Hite' which promised to have been designed with the wellbeing of the youth generation in mind. Outrageous! Undoubtedly the best that we had was Gem Draft, sold on draft from the supermarket in large plastic bottles, with a lager or a dark beer available, which was really very tasty! So in true budget traveller mode, we enjoyed a couple of evening sessions on this stuff back at our guesthouse on a few of the nights we spent here.

In terms of the sites of the city, here's what we visited:

The main square, Suhbaatariin Talbai, is in the centre of the city and has the main Government building at it's head. At it's centre is a statue of Damdinii Suhbaatar, a Mongolian revolutionary leader. On sunny weekend afternoons the square is filled with hip young things rollerblading and snakeboarding, and lovebirds sailing round on tandems.

The city market was a fairly hectic experience, from watching the hoards of people climbing over barbed wire clad shipping crates to avoid having to pay a 50 Tughrik entrance fee (around 3p), to witnessing the frantic gambling over card and chess games. The market sells pretty much everything you can possibly think of, including horse ropes & saddles, kitchen units, clothes, daggers and livestock. We spent a couple of hours just wandering and having a browse before escaping to the relative calm of the streets.

The Gandantegchenling Monastery felt like our first true taste of the Asia to come, with a really impressive Janraisig statue measuring 26.5 metres tall and only us whities being charged for entry ;) It was quite an odd place really, where parents bring their children to feed the pigeons and random drunks seem to hang out and cause trouble amongst the peaceful worshippers.

We also visited the International Intellectual Museum, founded by Tumen-Ulzii Zandraa who from the age of 11 has been designing and building complex 3D Mongolian wood puzzles. It housed a pretty cool collection of the puzzles he has designed, including some which have won prestigious awards from the 'Internation Puzzle Party' (we kid you not). There were lots of other toys and chess sets on display, including the biggest chess set in the world which pretty much filled a room and which had gers instead of castles. Another notable highlight was a photograph of a perplexed Bush being handed a puzzle by Mongolia's ex president - classic. Tumen-Ulzii Zandraa himself popped out at the end of our visit to perform a few magic tricks, bit of a legend! Definitely the highlight of our sightseeing here.

We've also benefited from the slower pace of the last few days by having time to update the blog, get in touch with people we've been meaning to for ages, and planning the next couple of months of travel. We had only really planned our trip (roughly) until this point, and it was surprising how long it took us to decide what we wanted to do! Next stop, Beijing!

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia