|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!