Thursday, 21 April 2011

Advanced planning

Most probably next time I write here I will do it from Japan already, so before I quit South Korea, where I have been truly living for more than one month, waiting for the situation in Japan to improve, I want to talk about my future travelling plans in Asia.

I will write about my life in South Korea on a next post.

I still firmly believe that I need to be very diligent in many little details at every point of the travelling in order to accomplish the tasks I impose to myself, and not to be driven by purposelessness or carelessness, that would deviate me from the path. But, needless to say, I am very flexible regarding the bigger outlines of the trip.

So that is why I keep all my things in order all the time, I know where every item I brought with me is, I am aware of the money I have with me, I try to keep my backpack safe, etc.

I am currently in Seoul, as I have been for the last three weeks, since I signed up for a Korean language course, while waiting for a chance to go to Japan before May.

Next week I will visit the very South of South Korea and inmediately after that I will take a ferry from Busan to Fukuoka (Kyushu island, Japan) with a French friend that I met in Seoul.

My intention is travelling thoroughly from South to North of Japan, avoiding of course Tohoku (the northern part of the main island Honshu, where all the catastrophes have taken place), and then back to Tokyo and spend some time there.

I will be going as far as Hokkaido, to hike in the Shiretoko National Park, and to get the chance to meet something of the Ainu indigenous culture.

When I was still in Europe I bought in Paris a three-weeks JR Railpass that allows me to take freely any train in Japan (including some bullet trains), but that was back on the 5th of February, and I have to activate it before the 5th of May.

So I will take this opportunity and I will be travelling non-stop in Japan for three weeks.

But then, I have been lately thinking about how the rest of my trip is going to be, now that I have delayed the whole plan a lot by staying longer in South Korea.

Right after Japan I will go to China, for I have a Chinese visa, double entry, that I can use for 60 days of travelling in this giant country.

And huge it is, this Middle Country (i.e. “China” in Chinese), so as I am travelling overland in Asia it is bound to be the Central Axis of the biggest part of my trip here.

I read carefully the guide, and thought about what I wanted to know and see in China, and came to the conclusion that I should divide the country in 4 stays of roughly 3 to 4 weeks length, so I will be able to get everywhere I want, inside China, and from one place to another in Asia.

Once I get to Southeast Asia I will have to get a new Chinese visa to re-enter it.

My "Journey to the West" in China.

1: First entrance, from Japan. Northeast China (including Beijing, Xian, Jilin, Harbin) Exit to Mongolia. June-July

2: Second entrance, from Mongolia. East and South Coastal China (including Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong… but neither Hong Kong nor Macau). Exit to Thailand or Myanmar. July-August.

3: Third entrance, from Vietnam. Southern China (Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizou, Sichuan) and Tibet. Exit to Nepal-India. October?

4: Fourth entrance, from Nepal. Central China (Qinghai) and Xinjiang. Exit to Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. December??

There could possibly be some problems there, especially when entering the Tibet.

Last week a fellow traveller (a Dutchman who had been travelling for 14 months in Asia) told me that the Chinese keep closed the inner border to Tibet to foreigners at times, so depending on the time of the year, it could be difficult to get inside.

And I know that I require a group visa to get from Nepal back to Tibet, but I don’t know if I will be able to travel outside Tibet then, to get to Xinjiang and exit to Central Asia.

I have also recently read that it is possible to cross from China to Myanmar, but not in the other direction. I wonder if I could then exit overland to Thailand from Myanmar, given that people already told me that it is not possible to get overland from Thailand to Myanmar (but maybe it is possible to exit it, who knows).

In any case, it is going to take a long time for all of this to happens, and it seems that my original travelling times are no longer valid, mainly due to Fukushima.

I am very excited about the prospect of all of these adventures and new countries, and I am not in a hurry at all.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Yekaterinburg, Siberia and the Far East (05/03 - 16/03)

The train ride to Yekaterinburg was a bit longer but bearable. My arrival was smoother too, and my stay was easy but a bit boring (two days).

Somewhere before Yekaterinburg a monolith marks the symbolic border between Europe and Asia in the middle of the Ural mountains (they are not really high, they are more like hills), but I was not able to see it.

In any case, Yekaterinburg felt much more European than Kazan.

Light snow greeted me on my arrival, but easily enough I walked all the distance to the far centre from the train station (around 40 min), to get a room at Hotel Bolshoy Ural.

It was not very cheap and the rooms were definitely seedy, with a noisy sink inside, cracked wooden floors, doors that didn’t closed properly, corridor toilets in a very bad state, and shared showers in the basement.

The facade of the building was cracked also, and some bits really fallen down.

But as most rooms in Russia it was overheated (I always wondered about the huge amount of energy they waste in every building of Russia for months and months of winter weather), and the bed was not that bad.

Yekaterinburg itself was not very charming.

It is not an ugly city at all, but there are very few reasons for tourists to stop by, apart from the obvious landmark of the fictitious division between Europe and Asia.

It has some interesting buildings, some old and some of modernist architecture, and the general impression is quite agreeable, especially around the pond in the middle of the town. But a walk around is enough to see what the city has to offer.

Unfortunately I couldn’t meet anyone in Yekaterinburg, despite I had arranged meeting with a Russian girl I met in my hometown at a Japanese party just days before my departure, and that I was also supposed to meet a friend of a Moscovite friend of mine.

If I had had a Spring day in Nizhniy and a wintery one in Kazan, then I had both on the same day in Yekaterinburg. The weather was very changeable; it was sunny and warm during the morning and the noon, snow almost nowhere to be seen on the pavement, but all of a sudden a windy snowstorm arose and then we had metres of snow on the streets. Crazy.

Undoubtedly the bizarrest of all things in Yekaterinburg is the cult around the deceased Tsarist Royal Family.

After the October Revolution in 1917, which gave way to the first ever Socialist State, the Tsar Nicholas and his family fled to Eastern Russia, but they were captured and executed in Yekaterinburg.

Nowadays the Russian Orthodox Church has established a cult around them, and even cannonized them as Saints and Martyrs.

Now in the place of the massacre some three newly built temples stand and inside the main church you can behold the icons of the Tsar’s Family, even with the Saints’ Aureolae, and people kneeling in front of them, kissing the images, praying and everything.

Outside there is a tomb where people regularly deposit roses and other flowers.

The experience inside the train

After two days in Yekaterinburg I had a real challenge before me: spending two days inside the transsiberian train, some 52 hours, no stops.

No Russian people do like that, I changed at least three times of companions in the four beds compartment.

And, just for the record, I had 2nd class tickets (kupe), for the first time, since I had been travelling in 3rd class (platskart) all the time.

The main difference is that in 2nd class the comparments are limited to 4 beds and they can be closed and locked, so allegedly you can have more privacy, while in 3rd class all the beds are exposed to the corridor in a big open compartment.

I must confess that it was hard in the beginning.

Many circumstances joined together made the trip a little more difficult.

I need to say that I was having a hard time coping with Russian behaviour at times all over my journey in these lands. They can be really rough, strict, inflexible and irrational sometimes.

Well, when I got on the train I only wanted to stay on my upper bed, calmly and undisturbed, but that was obviously not possible when you share your comparment.

Russians feel they really need to communicate while on board and there is no escape to that, probably they feel much more obliged to talk with their companions when confined in a 2nd class compartment than in the 3rd class open compartment (remember this if you are taking the transsiberian).

They know the trip is going to be long so they are in that travelling mood when you need to socialise in order to pass the time faster.

It can be both a warming welcome or an unnecessary annoyance, depending on how you consider the matter.

Even if you don’t understand what they are saying they keep and keep trying, and in the end I was surprised that I understood much of what they told me in Russian, in spite of my limited knowledge.

Some old guys get really drunk and annoying, even possibly violent if you reject their invitations. I tried pretending I didn’t understand, but trust me, that doesn’t work.

They share all the food they have in the compartment and it is not uncommon that they offer you vodka or some shots of other alcoholic drinks.

One funny thing is that soon after I departed from Yekaterinburg finally I learned how to use the tap in the toilet of the wagon.

They all work in the same way from Ukraine to Vladivostok, and so far I had thought simply that there was no water in the toilet.

But there was! Only that at both sides of the tap there were two wheels, which misleaded me to think that if I turned them water was going to pour down from the tap.

To get the water from the tap you only had to push upwards below the tap, touching directly the source of water. Not very convenient, but at least I could wash my hands and brush my teeth!

So well, it was boring, but I passed the time talking, reading (Anna Karenina), writing and watching films on my laptop.

It was far worse this first ride than the second one, when I took my final train from Irkutsk to Vladivostok.

My only stop in Siberia: Irkutsk

An error of calculation didn’t let me know that I was arriving at 3 a.m. to Irkutsk till I was already on board.

All times in train tickets in Russia are set to Moscow time, but I didn’t realise this when I checked the ticket, so I thought I was going to arrive at 9 p.m.

Russia is very long and Siberia spans through many time zones, which that in itself has an effect on a traveller of long distances, a kind of a slow-motion jet-lag.

Funnily enough, I tried to live at Moscow time inside the train (and had my watch set to this time), so my body were not so tired when I got to Irkutsk, but I had only partial success.

Inside the train, I went to sleep when my watch showed 10 p.m. and woke up when it was 10 a.m., but of course reality was different, so actually I slept past midnight and woke up past noon.

In any case, I was lucky and my Couchsurfing host in Irkutsk saved me!

I had contacted her only some days before, and our last communication said that she was going to meet me at 9 p.m. But only later I realised that I was not arriving till 3 a.m.

Anyway, she saw my train was arriving at that time and came to pick me up and drive me to her place (30 min. walking away from the centre).

And she even had to work early in the morning next day… I am amazed by that kindness of spirit that allows such a sacrifice for your guest. I won’t be able to forget this.

Next day I walked around Irkutsk, a city with its charms but no clear sights either (that happened for the most of Russia).

I found out about the timber houses in Siberia, quite different from those of the European Russia, and more colourful.

I must remark that Irkutsk is a big city with 1 million people population, and that people don’t feel that they are in the middle of nowhere as I thought.

In fact, there are big cities every six hours on the train all over Siberia, so further north is unpopulated, but at both sides of the railroad, it is not so empty.

On the following day I day-tripped to the shore of Lake Baikal, some 60 kms away from Irkutsk, but there was nothing much to see, for it was still completely frozen: two metres deep of ice, even cars were freely driving on top of it.

I walked on the ice too, but I was kind of cautious, not to slip, and moreover, not to step on broken ice and fell into the lake, haha, very unlikely!! But that’s how I felt.

I was awed by the beauty of the frozen waves, forming suggestive shapes, curves, slopes, peaks…

There were also transparent layers of ice that almost allowed you to peek into the crystalline waters of the lake.

There was a nondescript port and a poor-looking fish & souvenir market where vendors tried to get my attention, happy to see a turist.

On my way back to Irkutsk I met two Australian son the bus, who were the first travellers I met in Russia.

I suffered an episode of TD, perhaps thanks to the tap water I drank (they told me it was completely safe, because Baikal is the greatest source of drinkable water in the world), and a bizarre situation that I won’t tell here.

Last stop: Confusion & Last Minute Diversion

No soon had I returned to my host’s in Irkutsk that I read about the earthquake that had just happened in Japan and dramatically changed the course of my journey.

In the first moment I was just worried, but I thought that everything would be fixed soon. I was going to be in Japan just in about a week later.

So I got on the transsiberian train for the last time, heading to Vladivostok.

Before that, I spent my last night in Irkutsk at the resting room of the train station, because I was departing very early in the morning, but the story of how crappy that night was is too long to be properly told here and now.

This was probably what is going to be my longest train ride or ride whatsoever in a looong time. More than 70 hours.

But I was more mentally prepared than on the previous ride, so it was not that hard.

Besides, I only crossed two time zones, so almost no “train-lag” there.

Aaannd, I was so lucky that I got, just by chance, the first comparment of the carriage, which only has two beds, and is more spacious. For the same price/ticket, of course.

I shared it only with quite a silent guy, and not for the total length of the ride.

I was surprised too that they served us food trays, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t have to bring my own food.

A memorable coincidence was that I was watching the classic movie Dersu Uzala just when we were crossing the taiga, and the characters arrived to Khabarovsk when my train was just passing by.

I arrived to Vladivostok around 7 a.m., exhausted yet again but with a big smile of illusion. The transsiberian journey had ended, the real trip was about to start.

The end of the uninterrupted railway from my hometown almost 10.000 kms West of there.

Then the nightmare started.

After 3 days isolated from the world, I had tons of messages of friends and relatives telling me that the situation in Japan has gotten far worse, and that I should not go there.

I dedicated some minutes to read thoroughly the news on the net, and saw the catastrophe caused by the tsunami and the radiation leaks into air, sea and ground in Fukushima.

The fact that I was crossing the whole of Russia in March as fast as possible just in order to get to Japan, my real desired destination, made the situation far more frustrating.

I wandered looking for a place to crash, but it was not that easy, and the streets were chaotic (badly paved, no street names, littered and crappy looking).

Due to the effect of the sea, snow was very very scarce in the streets, and the temperature was warmer, but the wind was chilly.

I didn’t see anything special in Vladivostok apart from the beautiful and emotive end-of-the-rail train station and the port, full of Navy ships.

Yul Brynner’s birthplace was Vladivostok’s main attraction, I guess, so you can picture it.

I wasn’t in the mood for anything, really. I was tired, hungry and depressed. I had spent all my energies in the longest train ride ever with just one purpose, and then it couldn’t be done.

I got a room in a really expensive hotel (Hotel Vladivostok), overnighted there and next day, saddened but hopeful, I got aboard of the Korean-run ferry to Donghae, South Korea.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

European and Asian Russia (02/03 - 05/03)

This journey has had many beginnings, and one of them is surely the moment I took the train out of Moscow. It can be arguably said that the real trip began there, but as I have said, there is no a clear time to identify as the beginning.

After more than a week in Moscow I was feeling relieved to resume the journey, and delighted as I sat in my compartment, heading to the not so far away Nizhniy Novgorod, my first stop East of Moscow, but still in the European Russia.

I had with me the bouquet of flowers that Valya had given to me, and quite clumsily I didn’t know where to put it when I got on board.

I took calmly the novel Anna Karenina that I had recently bought in Moscow and opened it by the first page. The reading made the 6 hours journey pass in a moment.

There in Nizhniy Novgorod the original Russian lands ended, and the conquered land started eastwards.

I arrived at night to Nizhniy Novgorod (which means Lower Novgorod, opposed to the older Great Novgorod to the North of Moscow and ancient capital) but a friend of a Russian girl who had studied in Bilbao one year ago came to pick me up at the station.

It was a bit of a confusing arrival, because I had planned to dine with a French-Russian couple of acquaintances (I hosted them last year in Bilbao) just forty minutes after my train arrived.

The problem was that at the same time my host in Nizhniy had to drive me to his place. So there was no material time for me to take a bus to this couple’s flat, in the opposite direction (not very central) of where my host lived (quite near from the old town).

I tried to call them but the phone number didn’t work, so I had just to leave with my host. I e-mailed them as soon as I arrived to my host’s, but unfortunately I was leaving in 24 hours so I couldn’t arrange a meeting with them.

I felt bad about that, but I soon forgot about it next day, a bright and not so cold day in Nizhniy.

The city itself overlooked the massive Volga basin, an endless tract of purely white plains dotted with occasional snow-covered trees that awed me and couldn’t stop looking at. Despite its width the river was well frozen and covered with ice and snow on top, and people were walking on it.

It was my first truly Spring day, with mild temperatures (1º C); in fact Spring had started only two days ago according to the Russian tradition (1st of March), and even snow was melting on the streets, and I saw cats running around (I suppose they somehow keep themselves under cover when temperatures are below cero).

I took a pleasant walk all around the centre of the town (for the first time just walking under the sun was a pleasant sensation, in opposition to what I had experienced before in the winter harshness), but they were no clear touristic sights, aparte from a nice Kremlin, and as I said, the remarkable views over the Volga.

In some parts of the town there still were wooden constructions, remnants of the traditional architecture. I mean, the Russian houses were made of wood, and fine examples of this were to be found in Nizhniy’s old town. In this trait I found quite a resemblance with the wooden houses of Finland (which is an Uralic culture as many others who exist in the core of the European Russia), who also belonged to Russia not so long ago.

I love when I am aware of this kind of continuity between countries I have already visited, because it gives to the experience of travelling much more value, helping me to have a clearer picture of the world’s cultures.

I was about to miss the train leaving at 21h from Nizhniy (and arriving at 6 a.m. to Kazan).

I was at my host’s place after the walk and after playing some music for him and his girlfriend we ran late and by the time we were waiting for a bus to take us to the station, we only had 15 minutes before the train departed from the station on the other side of the river.

We took a mistaken bus and had to hop off at the next stop.

Finally my host halted a car and agreed to take us for a fee (apparently any car can work as a taxi in Russia). I was not familiar with any of this, because even the gesture he made to stop a random car was not the one of hitch-hiking obviously.

2 minutes left and I ran to get onto the platskart carriage where I spent the night.

Kazan is not strictly on the main Transsiberian line, but being part of the European Russia, there the train lines are much more diversified than in Siberia.

I chose to stop by in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, one of the federal members of the Russian Federation, in order to have a taste of a different culture, other than Russian.

The thing is that there is not a real difference between European and Asian Russia, it is all one, as European or as Asian at every place.

Of course one cannot forget that there are many native cultures in Russia which are not only not Russian, but not even Slavic or Indoeuropean. That is the case of the many and scattered Uralic, Altaic and Paleosiberian cultures spread on my way to the Far East.

And in Tatarstan, as the name indicates, the Tatar people lives, of Turkic language and culture, but very different from their far Turkish relatives.

My arrival to Kazan was a strange one, I am not sure of how to describe it.

On one side, as has happened to me before, I couldn’t get good sleep in the train and woke up very early (in any case I was arriving at 6), tired and uncomfortable.

But there is no time for laziness when you are travelling by train, you have to repack all your things quickly, fold the mattress (they give you a mattress, a pillow and some blankets in every train), put your boots on (most people use sandals inside the train) and get out of the train before it departs again to the next station.

Well, I should say that I had a rough start in Kazan.

I was animately walking out of the station, just few minutes shy of dawn, when I saw that the temperatures were the lowest I had seen so far (-20º C), but I didn’t feel it so cold (probably because I was quite far from any big water mass).

I was excited of being in Kazan, but it was barely morning, I needed some sleep and I didn’t know where to go (this sensation of excitation and exhaustion at the arrival to a new destination has been very typical all throughout my trip).

Skipping the taxi-drivers offering their services outside the station, I tried to figure out where I was on the map walking to the far corner of the square.

The sky was blue but the freezing temperatures had created a strong layer of ice on the streets, and I happened to step on it when crossing a road.

Thanks to the slippery and icey floor, I fell abruptly to the ground near the road, with my heavy backpack and everything on.

Actually I was quite concerned because I didn’t want to fall in front of an incoming vehicle when crossing, and I kept that fear during my stay in Kazan.

My jeans, that had already badly scratched in Poland, got so dirty that I had to scrape them with recently fallen snow to clean them.

Nonetheless, soon I was rewarded with a superb dawn upon the solitary streets of Kazan, especially when I was on a bridge over a water channel.

I clearly remember that that vision filled me with joy in spite of all the inconveniences I had suffered at the time.

A sweet memory.

Moments later I got to the hostel I wanted to stay in, but it was not even 8 in the morning yet and it was closed.

Doubtfully I knocked on the second door (a small closed hall was open and I could relieve myself from the cold for a while), a glass door through which I could see a human figure sleeping on a sofa near reception.

I don’t really believe that there was no room for me anywhere in the hostel, but that was what the just woken up hostel manager let me know.

He pointed me the nearby Marriott Hotel, a big new building looking certainly like an expensive hotel, which I couldn’t afford.

I think he was only pissed off because I had woken him up, but the outcome was the same.

I think that kicking a possible customer out so early in the morning when outside is -20º C is unpolite, but anyway. I quitted. (Just for the record, the hostel’s name was Fatima).

Walking my way back to the station I took a different path and walked by the outer walls of the Kazan’s Kremlin.

Everything was very white, and above all the impressive new mosque and its turquoise roofs illuminated by the morning sun rays.

Finally I stayed at Hotel Volga.

Let me say one thing: Food and hosting are expensive in Russia, almost anywhere. Or well, they are not cheap, not backpacker-style cheap.

Food in restaurantes and cafes is expensive, so dining out is probably not so popular, but regular food is affordable.

But there are no real hostels in the less travelled parts of Russia, so one has to get a single hotel room which is at least 30 €, but could get much more expensive, even in crappy and seedy hotels far from the centre.

Kazan was my first hotel destination then. Besides, it is more boring than staying at a hostel, but they let me in quite early in the morning so I could take a nap before going out to see the town.

As I pointed out before, one particularly interesting region in Russia is the Volga, which spans very long through the middle of the European Russia, and homes quite a peculiar mixture of Uralic (related to the Finnish people) and Turkic population, some of them Muslims.

In Kazan this was very obvious, you could see that it was a very different town from others in Russia.

There was definitely an Asian feeling to it, with ‘Steppe nomad’ looking people anywhere in the street and the open air markets playing Turkish-like music, not to forget the minarets seen afar and the houses’ architecture.

The most lasting impression of Kazan, no doubts, is the Kul Sharif Mosque, which was built just 5 years ago inside the Kremlin, where a similar one had stood for centuries before it was demolished by the Russian invaders. It is named after the defender of the city against the tsar Ivan the Terrible.

It is a beautiful sight, no matter how you look at it, what angle, inside or outside…

Side-by-side with it there are two Orthodox churches in the Kremlin, and the beauty of the contrast is noticeable.

Kazan also has a university where Lenin (half-Tatar himself) studied, and some interesting minor churches.

There was a charm in the decayed parts of the town, some buildings in a bad state, abandoned and forgotten, all of that covered by a thin layer of recently poured down snow.

And yes, I slipped and I fell to the ground again when I was heading to eat something in a very central and commercial street.

As an exception to the rule, I ate very cheaply in a self-service restaurant with local home-made food, very humble, but definitely yummy and filling!

What I probably enjoyed the most was the walking under the snow by the southern side of the town, to where the Tatar population was restricted till 19th century (after the Russians conquered it), and where there were more traditional Tatar houses and signboards in Tatar language everywhere.

Overall, I am very happy that I stopped in Kazan.

My last day in Kazan snowed all day long, and very hard, you couldn’t stay outside long, because the snow would start to cover you, but the temperature rose to a comfortable -4º.

So for the best part I read Anna Karenina and relaxed before my next stop and my first real town on the Asian side: Yekaterinburg!!