London to Hanoi by Train
"London to Moscow"
We left by bus and Tube to Waterloo International Station, leaving plenty of time to spare. Upon arrival at Waterloo, Will noticed his passport was missing. It was still in the scanner at my place, where I had scanned it to a file to store on an FTP site. We had to get it delivered to the station. We missed that Eurostar train. There was another one in two hours, but that only left 14 minutes to dash from the train and catch the Brussels - Moscow Express. We had no choice. Fortunately, Eurostar allowed us to change the tickets at no additional cost.
As the train approached Brussels, we explained the situation to the conductor. He helpfully phoned ahead to the station and found out the track number for the next train. Then he gave us directions to the platform and had us move as far up the train as possible. We ran like crazy and arrived at the platform a couple of minutes early to see no train. Will had a heart attack, but the train was merely late by about four minutes.
Once on this train, we were finally able to relax. The cabins were not the best design. They consisted of one bench seat where three passengers sit facing a wall directly in front. That turns into a bed at night, and two other beds fold out above, all stacked three high. We found out there was no restaurant car on this train, which was to last for two days and nights. We were starving and we hadn't had time in Brussels to shop for supplies and chocolate, as originally planned. Fortunately, I had a large supply Chinese instant noodles of various flavours. Very hot water was available on all trains, so we quickly whipped up a batch. Will said he enjoyed it as much as some of the best meals of his life. There were vendors at the train stations, so we were later able to purchase bread, sausages, Coke for the rum and vodka, and water to supplement our soup supply.
The border crossing from Germany into Poland would have been straight-forward, but I had problems. The immigration officials came on the train and moved down the aisle way, waking everyone up (it was 2:00 am). I had soaked my passport this past summer. The main pages and the visas were fine, but there were earlier country stamps that were a bit blurred. The immigration guy didn't like this, but it took a while for me to understand this, as the guy was shouting at me in Polish at 2:00 in the morning. Finally the guy gave up.
It was also very difficult filling out the immigration/emigration forms for Poland and Belarus, as they weren't in English. We got some help from Katerina, a girl sitting with us, deciphered some Russian letters from the guidebook, and otherwise left lines blank. This never seemed to be a problem. It was further complicated that crossing into Belarus appeared to be crossing into Russian, as far as immigration stops were concerned.
Eric - from London
Will and I had 17 hours in Moscow, and we arrived at about 9:00 am. It was fairly warm; only just below freezing. We took a dilapidated old Lada taxi from the station to the hotel. It had trouble starting and the driver drove like a maniac. We checked into our 3-star hotel and met our pre-arranged guide in the lobby, Lena.
We went everywhere that day by foot or Metro (subway). First stop was at an outdoor market where winter gear and miscellaneous goods were purchased. The winter boots were great local-looking ones with black leather outers and real fur inners. The mittens were also leather and fur. Both proved to be very warm indeed. There are no qualms in all of Russia about wearing fur. Almost every lady was wearing a fur coat. They are warm and they all look great.
Then we boarded the Metro to get downtown. The escalators were very long and moved very fast. The steps were made out of wood. The underground passages and train platforms were not sparkling clean or modern, but they had loads of character because of the fancy chandeliers suspended from the ceilings. The walls were also beautifully painted and sculpted. The trains were fairly old. There were crowds, but they moved quickly.
The first tourist stop was the Kremlin and we walked around the grounds. Many of the palaces were closed to the public, but we went into the Patriarch's Palace and the Assumption Cathedral. We saw the Tsar Bell and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where a changing-of-the-guard took place. The highlight, however, was the Armoury, which is really a museum. It has a great collection of luxurious old horse-drawn royal carriages, diamond-studded thrones and outfits. It also has a huge collection of gold tableware and ornaments as well as the largest collection of English silver in the world (including England).
Right next to the Kremlin is the Red Square, so named because Red is the translation of the old Russian word that meant beautiful. By the time we arrived there it was dark, so we had a magnificent view across the square to St. Basil's Cathedral, which was all lit up. The GUM State Department Store lines the entire east side of the square.
After the sight-seeing, we did some more shopping: odd items we forgot to bring with us, long underwear, and train supplies. Will took me up on a dare and entered a Chinese restaurant to get some free chopsticks for the train (for the instant noodles). Not only did he get two sets, but he also got a photograph of the event.
Lena took us to an amazing specialty grocery store to get our train supplies. This used to be a palace and was still decorated as such. There was a huge selection of vodka, the first item on our shopping list - as much vodka as a western liquor store's entire stock. The variety was amazing. Lena told us, "In Russia, there is good vodka and very good vodka." It turned out that she was absolutely right. (Another translated Russian saying is, "Western women don't wear fur.") We also bought French sticks of bread, cured meat, cheese, and potato chips.
I was absolutely dead on my feet by this time, so we headed back to the hotel. We arrived at about 7:00 pm and we didn't have to leave until about 10:30 to catch our train. We decided to crack open some of the vodka bottles and begin our education. Will also insisted on trying out the Vodkinator (see the Blog), but it was no use - the Russian vodka was just too good right out of the bottle, especially the Pertsovka with its hint of pepper flavour.
We had arranged a driver through Lena. He picked us up, took us to a different train station, and helped Will with his vodka-laden bag right to the train carriage.
Eric - from London
"The train: Moscow - Lake Baikal - Vladivostok"
Moscow - Lake Baikal
The cabins were much more civilised than those on the last train. They consisted of 4 bunks, 2 up and 2 down, on opposite sides of a small table at the window. We met our cabin mates and one of our provodnitsas (lady who manages the car).
There are 7 cabins in each car, each with four bunks (two in the first-class cars). There is also the provodnitsas' cabin shared by both of them (one for each shift). There is a bathroom at each end with a western toilet and a sink with cold and warm water. In the hallway at the end near the provodnitsas' cabin is a samovar, a built-in boiling-water dispenser for utensil washing, coffee, tea, or instant noodles. There are buffer areas at the end of each car separating the cabin and hallway area from the outside door. These are the smoking areas. The restaurant car was two cars away - very convenient.
The Russians are quite polite people. They queue like the British, if you have the upper bunk and they realise you want to eat, they will move away from the table for you, and if you want to change clothes they will leave the cabin so that you can close the door for a few minutes.
After a while we discovered and figured out the schedule of stops. We were slowly beginning to understand the Russian alphabet characters. If the stop lasted at least 15 minutes, we would get off the train and perhaps buy supplies from the vendors who had sleigh loads of water, vodka, sausages, and bread. There were 36 stops to Irkutsk and about half of them were over 15 minutes long.
We ate a few bland meals in the restaurant car; sat there and drank once in a while, tried to chat with others, or tried to follow the violent movies or horrible music videos on TV.
We didn't really sleep much those first few days. We read a lot. Eventually we settled down into a regular routine of washing up as best we could in the mornings, changing, instant noodles for breakfast, reading/snoozing, getting out at stops, socialising and occasionally eating at the restaurant car, standing by the windows in the hallway, updating our logs, and occasionally taking pictures. Train life is very relaxing.
Two girls from London boarded the train later. Both were not the best travellers in the world, complaining about everything. They were, however, the only English speaking people we had met since the Eurostar, so we spent some time with them in the restaurant car.
Each car has 2 provodnitsas (female train attendant, provodnik is male), one for each 12 hour shift. These ladies work very hard and hold all the power in the car. They were extremely tough, competent, and enterprising. We had read about them in the Lonely Planet "Trans-Siberian Railway" guide, so we knew to try and befriend them early in the trip. We weren't that successful, but at least they didn't hate us.
They clean the bathrooms and toilets, stock them with new toilet paper, vacuum the carpets twice a day in the hallway and each cabin, keep the wood burning samovar going, deal with all the tickets, provide the linen and towels, open and close the curtains in the hallway, change the protective hallway mats every day, and deal with all passenger issues. At each stop they go around the car knocking all the ice off the undercarriage with an axe, a pick, or hot water; and they fill the car up with water. They also have a side trade of selling coffee, tea, and souvenirs.
Lake Baikal - Vladivostok
This time, unfortunately, the restaurant car was maybe 12 cars away, so any journey there required planning and determination. We slept a lot more on this leg. The initial excitement of the trip had worn off, the train rides were very relaxing, and the constant time zone changes confusing. We were starting to run out of books.
Eric - from London
"Lake Baikal & Irkutsk"
Our driver met us at the Irkutsk train station and took us the one-hour drive to Listvyanka, a small village of 2500 on the west side of the lake. The landscape on the drive and in the village is the same as Southern Ontario or the foothills of Alberta in Canada.
We stayed at the Baikal Terema Hotel, a nice bright log cabin hotel on a small hill. Our room overlooked the lake in the near distance. It was from here that we really appreciated the beauty of the lake for the first time. Lining the east side of the like is the snowy Sayan Mountain chain stretching as for north and south as you can see. It is beautiful, but not always visible if it is snowing or if there is steam from the still-unfrozen lake.
As we arrived in the town, it struck us just how small this place was in the middle of nowhere (or Siberia, to be precise). We wondered what we would do for the next 3 days. As settled in, walked down the hill to the main road, and down that to the Limnological Museum (Museum of Baikal). The main attraction there was a dull aquarium and a couple of freshwater seals (who only exist in Lake Baikal). This was a 3.5 km walk one way. The temperature there was about -15°C (earlier on some of the night time train stops it was -23° outside).
On the way back we stopped at the bar and had a few drinks. It was deserted and we played some form of pool. The table was rickety and had very tight pockets. There were fifteen heavy all-white balls and one maroon one.
The next day we rented snowmobiles. A guide took us through some easy trails at low speed and then let us play on our own in an open space presumably so he could gauge our skill. After that he picked up the pace and took us on smaller more scenic advanced trails. It was a lot of fun. Just as we were returning we came across the two whining girls we met on the train. They were walking along dragging their cross-country skis behind them; they were definitely not having fun on this trip. So we gunned the snowmobiles obnoxiously, waving as we roared by them. It was fun.
Then we walked down to the port and looked at the tourist souvenirs and fresh fish. Will ate one; he said it wasn't bad. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at a bar there drinking beer, vodka, and tea as we looked out at the lake.
We decided then and there to leave Listvyanka the next day and go to Irkutsk at day early.
We got a car to take us from Listvyanka back to Irkutsk, a fairly featureless city, but pleasant enough. We walked by the old wooden houses sporting fancy "lace" wood trim. They're interesting but are so poorly maintained that one of them had even collapsed. If the local government doesn't do anything about the others soon, Irkutsk will lose its only tourist attraction. We then went to a mall to eat.
Will insisted we go out to "Siberia's largest discothèque". I was expecting some kind of dump, but it was modern and slick. As we entered we got searched by guards armed with sub-machine guns and dressed in camos. This may be normal now, but it wasn't that way last time I went to a disco. Anyway, the music was way too loud and I was feeling way too old, so I bailed after two drinks and left Will to it. I got lost a little in the dark going back to the hotel, and got a bit scared again all by myself in these alleyways, but I got back OK.
The next day we spent a considerable amount of time in the Internet café and ran into Lisa again. Sophie was off seeing a doctor. She had twisted her leg cross-country skiing. The fact that we ran into these girls four times around Lake Baikal, unplanned, convinced me that the four of us must have been the only tourists in all of Siberia at that time. If there were others, we would surely have run into them as well!
We stayed there for two days and nights.
Eric - from Irkutsk
We spent a considerable amount of time researching and preparing for this trip. All information gleaned from the web, the Lonely Planet, and even "experts" at the London 2004 Independent Travel Show said that Vladivostok was essentially a hole in the wall, a grubby sailor town with few redeeming features. We found it to be the opposite. Outside of Moscow, it was by far our favourite city in Russia.
We arrived yesterday at about 9:30 am local time, so we had more than an hour of daylight to check out the scenery as we approached the city. To our right we saw hundreds of people ice fishing (our map is not detailed enough to properly identify the body of water). Even before we got off the train, we could tell that Vladivostok was significantly different from the other towns we had seen since Moscow.
The architecture is both older and newer than the Soviet era, so there are not many huge square concrete block Soviet-style buildings, and the rest are quite pleasant to look at. This may be relative compared to what we have seen for the past week and a half.
The economy seems to be booming here. There is construction going on everywhere, including condos on the waterfront. Everyone seems to be driving brand new large 4-wheel-drive Japanese SUVs. More than half of the vehicles are UK style wrong-side drive, and we haven't developed a theory yet as to why that is. The only left-side roads around here are Hong Kong and Malaysia, right?
Also helping our appreciation of this town is the first 4-star hotel we have stayed in on this trip, the Hyundai Hotel. This compares with any Western world 4-star business hotel in rooms, service, and expensive prices; but it is money well spent at this point. They also have a decent American breakfast.
The population here is about 750,000 and the centre is quite compact, so walking around everywhere is easy - and we have walked pretty much everywhere. It is quite a hilly city and some views, with a stretch of the imagination, could look a bit like Monte Carlo in Winter time. Yesterday the temperature was a balmy -10° C, but today it went down to about -17° again.
We have seen most of the tourist attractions: the steam locomotive at the station alongside the end-of-line Trans-Siberian marker, the waterfront, a frozen beach where we walked out on the frozen Pacific to a mermaid statue, inside a WW2 submarine (very cool!) that had sank 10 Japanese ships, the Pacific Fleet museum that was closed (but we took many photos of guns and tanks outside), and a hike up a hill to the lookout. Tomorrow we hope to get on a harbour boat tour, if they run in the Winter, and I may drop into an art gallery which is supposed to be decent.
Last night we met a fellow from California in the hotel bar (top floor, nice view) who has been importing-exporting here for the past ten years. We had a few drinks and he pointed us to a very nice Armenian restaurant for supper tonight. The food was the best so far on the trip and we almost got full. The cappuccino was the best I have had in years, and the bathroom wins the cleanest-bathroom-with-best-toilet-paper in Russia award.
On the way back to the hotel, we found this very cool Iguana Internet café with fast access speed and flat screen monitors, and a bar in the next room.
We leave tomorrow night, actually 2:02 am of the 31st, for Harbin. There has only been one report on the Internet (that I can find) about this journey with a horror story border crossing. It is definitely not a well-travelled leg for foreigners. We'll see what happens.
Eric - from Vladivostok
"Vladivostok to Harbin - Border Crossing"
We caught the train at 2:00 am Vladivostok time. After an hour our car at a siding. We stayed there for 8 hours, no heat or lights.
We stopped at the Russian border to emigrate, a process that took 4 hours. We were dozing on our bunks. The provodnitska suddenly comes into our cabin shouting at us in Russian; we understand the word "customs". It turns out everyone had left the train except us.
We rush pack and run out of the train. We have no idea where to go; there are no English or graphical signs anywhere. We rush around, thinking we are late and may not return in time to catch our train. Finally we enter through a door on the opposite side of the building from the train. We were ushered upstairs into a large waiting room. All that rushing and then we waited there for 2 hours.
Then we all go back downstairs and line up at the customs area. They check our passport and do a quick check in our bags. Then another line up where they do a thorough check of our passports against a computer database. Throughout this whole experience it appeared that we were the first Canadians they had ever seen in their entire lives. Every time they opened our passports and saw all the other previous stamps, they would call over half a dozen other officials to discuss it. Then we hang out in the middle of this hallway area for about half an hour.
Then another door opens up and we line up and go through another passport check. They didn't like the fact that my passport had gotten wet and that some of the old country stamps were blurred. The main information and all the new visas were crystal clear, but that didn't matter. The only other place that had complained about this to date was that Polish immigration guy that shouted at me on the train to Moscow. So I had to stand to one side and half an hour later, a senior guy let me through. I rushed again, thinking about catching the train, but it turns out everyone was standing around waiting again in another hall.
We wait there or out on the train platform for another hour or so. We see our train cars and we all rush out, but we have to wait until customs search the train, which they hadn't done while we had been inside for 3.5 hours already. Finally we’re allowed on and exit Russia.
The train went through no-man's land for about an hour, and stopped there for no reason for another hour. Finally we stopped at a station and Chinese immigration officials came on the train. This would have only taken half an hour, but again they didn't like my passport.
I was escorted off the train. An official and I walked the length of the train, over a pedestrian overpass, and into a large building that appeared to be an immigration hall. It was now dark and very cold. There were two booths manned, but otherwise the place was completely empty and dark. I was handed off to a more senior official; we walked down some more dark corridors and up more steps. Another official hand-off, more corridors, and finally into what appeared to be a lunch room. This was lit up, warm, and had about 30 immigration staff lounging in there. They got the most senior official in there to look at my passport. Another younger guy managed to ask me some questions in English. Huge amounts of Chinese discussions and debates; every person in there had to see the Canadian passport. Everyone was quite friendly to me throughout this whole incident. Finally Big Shot let it go, and took me back downstairs to those two booths for stamping. Then booth-guy painstakingly entered in all the passport information into his computer, finally stamped it and said I could go. I ran like crazy back through the dark passageways. This had taken over an hour and I was sure my train had left. It hadn't. I ran and jumped on board. The train didn't leave the station for another 3 hours!
Once in China, things became normal and there were no more long pointless stops. We arrived at Harbin Station and our hotel was right across the street, as promised.
Eric - from Beijing
The difference in the people is striking. On the Russian side of the border, they look the same as everywhere else in Russia and much of Europe, and there are not many Chinese. Immediately over the border, a distance of maybe 30 kms, 100% of the people are Chinese, just like that. They've taken their borders very seriously for thousands of years.
The language barrier here was absolute. While we never really learned Russian beyond some basic phrases, we had managed to actually learn their alphabet and could read it fluently and quickly. This was useful for place names and the few words that are also the same in English, "restoran", for example. In Harbin there were no English signs, as there sometimes are in Beijing, and absolutely no one speaks English. We managed, but everything was difficult.
The first day in Harbin we took a taxi out to the Siberian Tiger Park where they have at least 40 or 50 tigers, and we think we saw maybe 3 Siberian Tigers. The tigers are not being prepared for independence in the wild and they are totally dependant upon man. The sole purpose of the park appears to be tourist dollars. They loaded us on mini-buses and took us through the grounds. The tigers have obviously been fed from these buses and were coming right up to the back windows that could open, where we were sitting. They bumped right up against the buses. At one point a tiger followed us out of his area. The mini-bus driver took us around in circles as we corralled the tiger back into his area. Later on we were walking in this protected walkway through some other tigers. Will joked how they should provide raw meet for the tourists to feed to the tigers. Sure enough, around the next corner was a lady selling live chickens from a basket. Will couldn't resist and bought one. They showed him what to do: hold the live chicken by the wings through this gap and get ready to jump back. The tiger made a huge leap for it, but we were a little too high. He came close enough to give us a hell of a scare, though! Then Will dropped the bird and it was snapped up before it hit the ground.
Later that day we went out to the Harbin Ice Festival. It's amazing that this hasn't permeated into the mainstream travel destinations for Westerners. This is a truly world class event; it alone worth a flight out to China. The grand opening of the festival was on January 5th, and this was only the 2nd, so they were still doing some finishing up, but mostly all the sculptures were complete. This is an absolutely amazing world-class event. There are life-size sculptures of famous buildings around the world and you can climb over most of them. There is a man made mountain with an ice castle and slides coming down.
The next day we walked through the old Doalin area downtown, saw some Russian architecture and the Russian Sofia church, and bought some train supplies. We also came across the Holiday Inn, where we should have stayed, and stopped there for a few drinks. That evening we went back to the Ice Festival. All the sculptures have coloured lighting built into them and the entire park is awash with colour. We did the whole tour again. It was just spectacular. It was worth the cost of the entire trip just to see this. It must be amazing on opening night when they have a ceremony complete with fireworks. They are also many activities for kids: skating, skiing, riding ice-skate-sled things, spinning Chinese tops on ice, and small to large ice slides. You can rent mini ice yachts, snowmobiles, or dune-buggies. You can have a ride on a donkey, horse, or reindeer; or in a horse-drawn sleigh. There is also a climbing wall for adults, 20 feet tall with knotted ropes, with a fall onto solid ice if you fail. Of course there are absolutely no safety measures at any of these activities, as well as at the multi-storey sheer ice steps. It's kind of refreshing after lawsuit-conscious North America and UK.
The next morning we took a 12 hour train ride to Beijing.
Eric - from Beijing
"Beijing and Hanoi"
I had been to Beijing and Hanoi before and Will flew home after Beijing, so we split up our sightseeing.
I went down to the antique market where I bought some paintings. I then walked back through a bunch of alleyways. They reminded me of South-East Asia, and I hadn't seen or felt this the last time I was here. This was very interesting in that it appeared to be the "real" old Beijing.
The first night we both went out to the Sanlitun area with its "Bar Street". The challenge, as always on this trip, was to find a bar that wasn't playing loud obnoxious karaoke, disco, or elevator music. We finally found a real band that was actually playing Rock 'n Roll, but they soon turned to the mellow love songs that the Chinese love.
One project for me was to go out to the Friendship Store and get a few more English novels. We had exhausted our supply and I was facing an upcoming solitary train ride to Vietnam. One afternoon it snowed, dumping over 2 cm in as many hours. Unlike the locals, we were well fitted out with our Russian winter gear. I found a nice Internet café that served a bottomless cup of jasmine tea.
Will visited the Forbidden City, bought an oversized stamp of jade with relief carvings, took a picture of some young locals having a snowball fight right in front of the People's Monument in Tiananmen Square, went to the same shopping district I did, visited the Great Wall, and had a massage.
Eric - from London
Wow! My first time visiting this city was a real eye-opener. First, let me say that it was nothing like I expected. Being the same size as Bangkok, (around 15 million, give or take), I expected the same kind of chaos and "the distinctive odour". Was I wrong...
In spite of being told that things in China are on a large scale, you really have to see how Beijing is laid out to appreciate what big really means. A "block" is between 1 and 2 kilometres in length, the sidewalks are wider than most roads, the streets are so wide you wonder if you will be able to run across before the light changes, and the buildings! Let me put it this way: after seeing the Grand Beijing Hotel, it will be hard to imagine anything else ever being able to use the word Grand as a fitting description.
The next thing I was surprised by was the complete lack of shoving and pushing that I'd been lead to believe was standard here. Without fail, people were courteous of each others personal space. The notion of queuing up for something is alien, but there is no shoving to get ahead of you, just a gentle jostling to move into any available space. Although I wouldn't describe the people as outgoing and friendly, having just come from Russia, the seemed refreshingly happy.
Will - from Amsterdam
The train car turned out to be just like the Russian ones, but newer and cleaner. When I arrived at my cabin, it was filled to the roof with boxes. I asked the owners to remove the boxes, emphasizing this by heaving some out into the hallway. Eventually they moved them away. Once the boxes were shifted we were social and got along just fine. They were a couple from Hanoi who were obviously traders.
This leg of the journey was two nights and one day. I briefly saw the famous pointy mountains of Guilin that could be seen from the train. Chinese emigration officials came on the train before our debarkation stop to stamp our passports out of China. Then we arrived at the Vietnam border. We all got off the train and immigrated.
There were some changes in Hanoi since I was last there in 1998:
- much higher ratio of motorcycles to bicycles now
- 10 times as many tourists
- more spoken English available now
- while the vendors are still the most aggressive in SE Asia, they are less so now than before
It was great to be back in South East Asia again, and Hanoi was as pleasant as last time. Highlights included the "world famous" Water Puppet Show, and walking around the old quarter.
Eric - from Hanoi