Russia, Mongolia, China

Hey all,

In the six or seven weeks since I last wrote I have managed to squeeze in another train jaunt across Russia (8/10 – still enjoying the struggle), some time camping out of the back of a jeep in Mongolia (6/10 – great scenery, hard to get around, unappealing (not to say horrible) food), and some time avoiding the main sights in a few famous places in south-west China (7/10 – a breath of fresh air, just don’t stay too long).

This is a long email. The key points for those of you who thrive on such things are:

* I have travelled around about another 12,000kms (although I am the first to admit my knowledge of geography and addition are not all they could be), 5,000 or so in the flagship ‘Rossiya’ train across Siberia, many thousands being assaulted by unpleasant Chinese squawkings from the loudspeakers in trains around the Middle Kingdom, and 1,500 more risking serious head injuries on what pass for roads in Mongolia.

* I came not so close to the locals, distanced by language, by travelling with other foreigners, and by choice. So I had more tourism in my tourism than usual.

* But still I had time to study transportation (all sorts), isolation (ditto – and I thought NZ was far away), and frustration (banks, visas, and officialdom more generally) up close and personal. And still fit in the usual bunch of inspiration (thank you), perspiration (from sweltering Siberia, past Mongolian plains to Chinese furnaces), mastication (Mongolia bad, China good), introspection (why am I doing this?) and self-deception (this really is fun) that are the standard diet of all travellers.

So yes, I have done a bunch of cool stuff since leaving Central Asia. And a bunch of stuff that was not so cool at the time but seems to be ageing well. In vaguely a chronological order:

* I spent days in trains, buses, taxis and roadside restaurants, and by some minor miracle, arrived in time to meet my significant other off a plane in Moscow’s ugly airport (heavy, close, brown, noisy).

* I kicked around St Petersburg (still my favourite Russian town) with said other for a few days, studying the amazing sights, the terrible weather, the outstanding (Georgian) food, and the joys of Russian bureaucracy. I saw the depths of my self-deception (travelling in Russia is easy, isn’t it?), realised I missed more from home than I thought, and appreciated laughing for real.

* I raced across Siberia with some sophisticated Russians, and met in Irkutsk (still not my favourite Russian town) two excellent Englishmen (one, white-rabbit-like, rather late for a date in China), a Mongolian visa official who was not inclined to issue me a visa, and lots of other foreigners who were going my way.

* In Ulaan Baatar I discovered everything that is named after Jinghis (Genghis) Khan but missed most of the real sights, met some Mongolian rockstars (who were less inclined to make my acquaintance than I theirs), drank up a storm on cheap Russian champage, and discovered the value of having good people around.

* I learned where the middle of nowhere is (and a bunch of other things besides) in a week in the Gobi Desert. Mongolia travel tip: bring spices – boiled fatty goat can be flavourless when served on its own. Alternatively, flee to the Bhuddas of northern China and feast on seafood for hardly any money at all.

* I saw firsthand the effects of SARS in eliminating tourists and not locals in Beijing (despite what the scuttlebutt might have had one believe), wondered at the Giant Pandas apparent efforts to eliminate itself (too lethargic for sex? how peculiar), and learned where to go and where not to on the streets of Chengdu (those barbers don’t just cut hair).

* I wasted away days of my life hanging out in China’s south-western Yunnan province, and expended a great deal of energy in avoiding key tourist sights. I went native and biked about in Kunming (and spiced up two-hour breakfasts with quality conversation), watched DVDs, free internet and agressive waiters in Dali, and felt superior to the mere tourists in the Disneyland that is Lijiang.

* And when I finally wanted to leave China, fate threw a few more spanners in the works, just to remind me of that old adage that if you think things are going well, you clearly have no idea what is actually going on.

Just in case I have not slowed my biorhythms quite enough, I now find myself avoiding the sights and enjoying the coffee in Laos. I am going with the tourist flow towards the south and then heading down to Singapore for the middle of September.

Just a few weeks left now of my journey. Perhaps time will become more precious now that there is less of it. Or perhaps I will become more and more keen for my next set of adventures in New Zealand (ETA early October). I will let you know.

Hoping you are flourishing,