A Travellerspoint blog

Phnom Penh and the Darker History of Cambodia


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11 August 2017
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I arranged to take a bus from Siem Reap to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, which left town at 08:45. I was collected from the hotel and was pleasantly surprised by how nice the bus was: large, comfortable seats, power outlets at each seat, and they gave us all a breakfast pastry and bottled water. The bus ride lasted around five hours.

Arriving in Phnom Penh, I was able to walk down the street to my hostel (it was less than five minutes away from the bus terminal). The hostel was quite nice with very friendly reception staff; there was a decent sized common area with beanbag chairs and a sofa. I was staying in a 4-bed dorm and there was only one other guy sharing the room with me (yet another Brit!).

I was very tired from the long bus ride, though I’m not sure why. I spent the afternoon reading and taking a short walk around the area of my hostel. Nearby was a wonderful night market, where I went to have dinner. The large square was filled with stalls selling clothing, jewelry; a large stage at one end had people singing; behind the stage was where the food was being sold. The seating area was all on bamboo mats placed on the ground. After ordering a noodle dish with chicken, I took a seat and soaked in the entire experience.

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12 August 2017
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I had planned out a route to walk through the city and see the main sights, which were all within easy walking distance. I first walked to the main city temple, Wat Phnom. Entrance for foreigners cost $1 (free for locals). The temple was located at the top of a small hill. Inside were many statues and the place was crowded with tourists. I spent a few minutes walking around the temple before walking over to a local coffee shop.

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I planned to visit the Royal Palace next, but it was closed between 11:00 and 14:00 (it was now just past noon), so I passed the time at the local coffee shop reading. I’d found the place via Trip Advisor and was really happy with my iced mocha (the coffee was strong!). Shortly after 13:30 I left and made my way over to the palace.

The Royal Palace was an impressive place to visit (not as grand as the palace in Bangkok, but still nice). The entrance fee was rather high ($10), but it was worth it (I would have regretted it had I not gone inside). The area was a massive square with several temples and stupas all around it.

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The centerpiece was the Buddhist temple. It was massive and lavishly decorated; inside were several statues of Buddha, including their own emerald Buddha. I spent some more time walking around the giant square, admiring the fantastic architecture, before making my way to the exit.

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I then walked along the Mekong River, where I stopped to grab a bite to eat, before heading back to the hostel to cool off. The AC in my room kept turning off during the afternoon, requiring the staff to cut the power to the room entirely to reset the machine. This would happen every hour or so, which was very frustrating: the room had no windows or fan, so there was no other source of fresh air or any air movement.

I had three new roommates that night, all Americans from the Chicago area. They were all quite friendly and we spent some time chatting. One of them was reading the book “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon – a book that I had forced myself to read a couple years ago! The only other person I knew who had even attempted to read the book was my friend Jake’s wife, Brooke (she was the one who told me about the book – mostly about how impossibly fucked up it is!).

For dinner that night, I returned to the night market, but ate at a different food stand. The food was equally as delicious.


13 August 2017
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

WARNING: the entry for today covers a dark and disturbing period in Cambodian history. I describe what happened as it was related to me, without holding back any of the gruesome and horrifying details.

Today I had booked a tour to take me to the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields just outside of town. I had experienced the pinnacle of Cambodian history with Angkor Wat, now it was time to delve into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979.

The tour group was small and we soon found ourselves at the infamous S-21 prison camp, where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge would detain some of their prisoners, torturing them to get information before having them killed. The prison was an old school that had been converted into a prison. During the nearly four years that the prison was in use, we were told that over 20,000 people were sent through S-21, with only a handful of them surviving to tell their tales.

The prison was comprised of several buildings; we first visited the cells of the VIP prisoners. Outside of this building was a small field with the graves of the final 14 victims who died in the prison. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, liberating the prison and putting an end to the Killing Fields operations. However, the final prisoners in S-21 were killed before they could be freed.

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The VIP cells were all on the ground floor, were very large and each housed only one prisoner. The original bed frames and toilet boxes were still kept in the rooms: everything was preserved exactly as the Vietnamese found it in 1979. On the walls of each cell were photographs of the dead body of the prisoner found in that specific cell (the Vietnamese documented all of the crimes they discovered). On the floor of each cell, we could easily discern the blood stains that remained after all these years. The prisoners were kept chained by the ankles to their beds and the original restraints were on display as well.

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The next building contained several rooms filled with photographs, of both the perpetrators of the crimes and their victims. Men, women, and children were brutally tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. There were displays of the various torture devices they used: removing a person’s finger nails, various water torture. One of the survivors became an artist and drew images from his time in the prison.

The final building contained more cells, though these were markedly different: the large classrooms had hastily built cell walls built of brick installed in them. Each cell was very small, though the walls of the cells did not go much higher than five or six feet high. There were also no doors on the cells: the prisoners were kept chained in their cells. Despite the low walls separating them, they were forbidden to speak or make any noise. There were several rooms of cells like these.

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It was a deeply moving and saddening experience, made more so by our tour guide, who was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Her family had been forced from the cities when Pol Pot came to power: he forced everyone – everyone – living in the cities to leave and return to working the land; people were forced to walk from one end of the country to the other. Many of our guide’s family members were arrested and never heard from again. She escaped with her mother into Vietnam until the regime fell.

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The craziest part is that almost no one who perpetrated these crimes has been punished: the Khmer Rouge became guerilla fighters for the 20 years after they were overthrown, during which time they were still the legitimately recognized government of Cambodia by the West – the Khmer Rouge represented Cambodia in the UN! Finally, when the current government was established, they ended the struggle and granted a general amnesty to the Khmer Rouge (exempting the leadership, only five of whom survive in prison today).

We then drove out to the Killing Field, one of around 300 such remote locations where the Khmer Rouge would kill and bury their victims. Trucks would arrive in the fields in the middle of the night, the prisoners would be bound and blindfolded, led over to the mass grave pit and murdered. Bullets were too expensive to use to do the killing; instead, the Khmer Rouge would use bamboo sticks to break their necks.

The Killing Field was very serene. Our entrance ticket came with an audio guide that provided outstanding information about the Field and what had happened there. Several of the mass grave pits were dug up and exposed, while others were now just depressions in the ground now covered by grass. It was deeply saddening to think about what when on in this location, not to mention all over Cambodia.

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The most moving and disturbing part of the Killing Field was a large tree near the back of the field. This is where the infants were killed, often in front of the mothers. The guards would grab the kids by the foot, hit them against the tree and then toss them into the mass grave. Other times they would toss them into the air and use their bayonets to do the killing.

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Nearby was another large tree where a loudspeaker had been installed; it blasted patriotic songs throughout the day and night to hide the sounds of the people being killed. The final stop was the large memorial stupa. Inside were several thousand skulls of the victims who were murdered there.

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The morning’s tour gave me a lot of reflect and think about as we drove back into the city center. I compared this experience to my visits to the Nazi concentration camps: both were the sights of unspeakable human suffering, torture and death.

Arriving back into town, I first grabbed a late lunch before going to a nearby coffee shop to read and work. The coffee shop overlooked the river, making it the perfect place to unwind after the morning. That night I went up to the hostel’s rooftop bar with my roommates; we hung out for a couple of hours up there, chatting and drinking local beer. It was a fun way to end my time in Phnom Penh.


14 August 2017
Sihanoukville, Cambodia

This morning I grabbed a bus out to the beach town of Sihanoukville, which is roughly five hours away from Phnom Penh. However, due to traffic congestion, it took us over two hours just to get out of the city itself! I spent much of the drive sleeping, which helped pass the time. We arrived into Sihanoukville just before 14:00. The town was small and I was able to walk over to my hotel; I had booked a private room for my two nights in the city.

I went out for a stroll along the beach, which was not quite what I had expected/wanted. Much of the beach area was dominated by restaurants and bars that had seating extending out onto the beach itself. I walked along this area and then strolled down some of the city streets. I eventually found a small local café, where I hung around for a little while, reading (as always).

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For some reason, I felt compelled to check my email as I was walking around and it was lucky that I did: my flight from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City in two days had been suddenly cancelled! The airline claimed it was a mechanical error and will give me a full refund. I was sent into panic mode: there were no other flights from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh City, so I would have to return to Phnom Penh to catch a flight there. Thankfully, I found one for the same price with Qatar Airways at 17:30 on the 16th. I soon found a bus that would leave Sihanoukville at 07:00 that morning, giving me plenty of time to reach the airport.

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For dinner, I stumbled across a small place that served a lot of local cuisine (many places advertised Western food). I ordered noodles with veggies and chicken, along with a beer. To my surprise, I also received peanuts to go with the beer and some sort of garlic bread. The entire meal for $3.00!


15 August 2017
Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I had planned to spend the entire day relaxing on the beach today, but Mother Nature had other plans. I got up and walked 30 minutes to a nearby beach, which was far nicer than the one near my hotel. This beach was almost deserted, but had a line of beach chairs under umbrellas stretching all the way down the beach. Nearby was a strange statue of a dragon popping out of the ground.

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I relaxed on one of the chairs, enjoying the tranquility of the beach…and then I heard the thunder booming in the distance. The morning was very cloudy and there were storms on the horizon. I continued to lay about on the beach for several more minutes, but as the thunder got louder and the dark clouds rolled in, I high-tailed it out of there.

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I walked back into town and, just as the first drops of rain began, ducked into another small café. My timing couldn’t have been better: no sooner had I sat down than the storm broke, with a torrential downpour of rain, coupled with intense thunder and lightning. The storm lasted for well over an hour, during which I happily watched it through the large windows of the café.

For lunch, I stopped by a burger place that was run by a Cambodian who had spent some time in the States. He wanted to emulate the In-and-Out burgers that he’d enjoyed there; I have to say, he did a pretty good job. I ordered the double burger and it was gigantic – far bigger than I had anticipated, but it was absolutely delicious!

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I spent the afternoon quietly relaxing at the hotel. A second wave of the storm came through, making walking around anywhere a miserable prospect. For dinner, I returned to the same place from the night before and ordered the same thing to eat, but this time I had a White Russian to drink.

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I made it an early evening since I had to be up very early in the morning to catch the bus back to Phnom Penh.

Posted by Glichez 07:42 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Angkor Wat: the High-Point of Cambodian History


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8 August 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Country 77

My flight to Cambodia left Bangkok at 10:00 and I planned to take public transit back out to the airport, which meant that I had to leave the hostel by 06:15. I wanted to miss the rush hour on the BTS trains as I knew they could get incredibly crowded; thankfully, I missed all of the crowds. There was quite a line at the bus stop waiting to go to the airport, but even so, the bus wasn’t terribly busy.

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The flight lasted just over an hour and before I knew it, I was walking through passport control. I had applied for an evisa online, which meant that I could skip the visa on arrival line (saving me a considerable amount of time!). A driver from my hotel was waiting for me outside of baggage claim; we loaded my bag onto his tuk-tuk and drove into town.

It was a hot day, but the breeze as we drove was cooling. Driving along the road into Siem Reap, I noticed a restaurant named Pyongyang! I wanted to go back and try it, but it was some ways outside of town. The tuk-tuk driver was very pushy about my plans for my time in Siem Reap: he kept wanting to drive me to different sights; I declined everything as I had already made plans.

The hotel was very nice; I was surprised at how nice it was considering that I spent only $10 per night at the place. It had a nice pool, large rooms with comfortable beds; the staff was very outgoing and helpful, though they too became pushy when trying to sell me on various activities around town. Again, I declined.

After taking a shower, I decided to take a walk through town. Siem Reap was noticeably poorer than the other places I’ve visited in SE Asia thus far, but the people we no less friendly. However, I constantly heard “Tuk-tuk mister?” or “Hello? Tuk-tuk?” as I walked down the street. Drivers would wait along every street, hailing any pedestrians who happened to walk by.

The town itself is rather small and it didn’t take me long to walk around. I eventually stopped for a quick bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant which I rather enjoyed. I then stopped at a local coffee shop to cool off and do some reading.


9 August 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Today was the “big day” in Siem Reap: time to tour Angkor Wat!

The tour company collected me shortly after 08:00 and, after picking up several other people, we drove over to the ticket office. We were each photographed so they could make our personalized tickets; as we were walking back to the bus, our guide received a call that two more people were on their way to join us. This required us to wait in the parking lot for around 30 minutes while we waited for them. Once they arrived, we drove over to the temples.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is beyond impressive: it is absolutely incredible! The massive temples rise out of the jungle, eerie and majestic at the same time. Our first stop was at the Angkor Wat temple complex itself. We entered through one of the ancient gates, walking over to the main temple (and taking shelter in the shade to avoid the intense heat).

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The temple was spectacular. It definitely lived up to the hype and surpassed my expectations! I found myself comparing the experience to visiting the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Warriors: both of those had been major disappointments to me as they couldn’t live up to the hype surrounding them. Angkor Wat, on the other hand, went above and beyond.

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The temple had five main towers: one in the middle and four in each corner. The delay we had waiting for the two additional people ended up working in our favor: the major tour groups had already moved on, giving us easy access to the temple. We walked up the steep stairs and got to walk around the inside of the temple.

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Finally, we stood in line for our turn to climb to the top level. After standing (and sweating profusely) in the hot sun for about 20 minutes, we got to climb the steep stairs to the top. It was well worth the wait! There were four lookouts stationed around the main temple, which had a small courtyard surrounding it. The views over the ruins into the jungle were very cool!

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Climbing down from the tower, we continued to walk around Angkor Wat, where we saw the king’s stairway (a noticeably less steep staircase leading to the top). We exited and walked over to one side where there was a small lake, which perfectly reflected the towers.

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We then crossed a floating pedestrian bridge to get back on the bus. Due to the delay in getting started that day, we opted to head to lunch and stop at the other two temples in the afternoon. Lunch was at a local restaurant nearby; we were served a variety of foods, including two curries, spring rolls, and noodles.

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The first stop after lunch was at Ta Prohm – the so-called Jungle Temple. This was used as a filming location for one of the Tomb Raider films. This temple complex was located inside the jungle and was completely overgrown with trees. Many of the temples had trees literally growing out of them, the roots snaking down the walls.

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My favorite part of this temple was the “tree within a tree” – one tree had grown around another one, killing it. It was a fitting (and creepy) addition to the temple ruins. The temple was overcrowded with tourists, but it didn’t take away from being able to enjoy and marvel at our surroundings.

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We made it back to the van just as it began to rain. During our walk through the temple we’d been separated from two people, so we waited for them to reach the van. As we waited, the skies opened up and a downpour began. The two guys finally showed up, soaked from the rain.

Our final stop was at Ankor Thom, which was the ruins of another city and temple complex. Unfortunately, the rain had not yet stopped, though it had slowed to a drizzle. We decided to get out and walk around the temple, regardless of the rain. Our guide took us around to various parts of the temple, whose towers were adorned with faces on each side.

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The rain had collected and made large pools of water throughout the temple, preventing us from being able to fully explore the entire place. Nevertheless, we were able to spend around 45 minutes at the temple. We again left just in time as the rain picked up on our way back into town.

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For dinner that night, I walked over to a small local place and ordered fried yellow noodles with veggies and chicken. It was amazingly delicious! I could easily have ordered a second helping.


10 August 2017
Siem Reap, Cambodia

After the long day of excitement and sightseeing at Angkor Wat, I spent a slower day wandering the city of Siem Reap itself.

The town was rather small without a lot of things to see or do within it; the main reason for coming to Siem Reap is to see Angkor Wat. There was a small river running through the center of town, which I spent some time walking along. I stumbled across a rather nice temple along the river, which had several large statues in the main courtyard.

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To escape from the heat, I ducked into a coffee shop that afternoon and spent some time reading. For dinner that night I went back to the same local place that I’d eaten the night before… and ordered the same dish! Yes, it was that good!

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Posted by Glichez 09:50 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Bangkok: Gateway to Southeast Asia


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4 August 2017
Bangkok, Thailand

My shuttle picked me up around 08:00 and we made it to the airport in good time. My flight to Bangkok was roughly an hour long. Upon arrival at the airport, I made my way to the local A1 bus, which took me to the BTS SkyRail train (at Mo Chit). I took the BTS train into Bangkok, having to transfer only once before reaching my hostel (there was a stop across the street from my hostel).

The hostel was located down an alley, which was somewhat difficult to find, but I could not have been more pleased with the place. It was run by a mother-daughter duo who are easily the friendliest people I’ve met yet in Southeast Asia. They were always smiling, providing assistance and advice.

The dorm room was located on the third floor; there was only one other person staying there that night, a British guy named Sam. He and I hit it off right away: we began chatting about our various travels and soon decided to go explore the city together. Sam had been away from home for the past year as well, spending much of the time working and living in Australia and New Zealand; Bangkok was his final stop before heading back to London.

Our host showed us around the immediate area, pointing out a food court area full of food stalls, before taking us over to the nearby river boat dock. We decided to take the tourist boat up the Chao Phraya River to the Wat Arun temple, where we were told we could easily find some food for lunch. The boat itself was cheap and ran every 30 minutes.

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Throughout the entire day, Sam and I never wanted for a topic to talk about; conversation came so easily and we talked as we rode the boat, walked the streets of Bangkok, ate lunch, etc. We talked about trivial, fun things to more serious, political or historical topics; it was nice to chat with someone who was clearly knowledgeable about the world (politically, historically, etc); we could get into some really deep conversations.

Upon arrival at Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn), we were both blown away by how beautiful it was. The towering stupas were white and covered with colorful decorations and statues. We spent some time walking around the temple complex, climbing up the steep stairs of the temple to better marvel at it. Sam had been to Chian Mai before Bangkok and commented that nothing there was as impressive as Wat Arun.

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We were both starving by this point, but we could find no food stalls anywhere near the temple – much to our annoyance. We took a nearby ferry across to the other side of the river, where we happily found a place to eat. We had just sat down to eat when a torrential downpour of rain began outside, coupled with some intense thunder and lightning. Our lunch was very good, but it was the dessert that was the centerpiece: mango sticky rice. Sam had eaten this earlier on his visit to Chiang Mai and suggested it. It was a simple dish: sliced mango with sticky rice and condensed milk. It was a perfect mixture and wasn’t overly sweet.

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After our late lunch (closer to dinner, really), we wanted to go and see the nearby Wat Pho temple, but it was closed by this point. Instead, we spent several hours wandering around Bangkok. We walked around the exterior of the Grand Palace complex, but generally walked aimlessly through the city. It was a great way to get to see more of Bangkok.

We made our way back over to the river and eventually walked north to the Phra Sumane Fort: a small, colonial-style fort along the river. We then began to walk back into the city itself; Sam mentioned grabbing an ice cream (it had been a hot and humid day), which sounded amazing and we were off on a mission to find some. We settled on something from 7-11, which was refreshing.

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Our route through Bangkok took us by the Golden Mount, which was brilliantly illuminated at night. We both decided to return there the next day to see the area properly. After walking some more, we reached the Giant Swing and decided to get a tuk-tuk back to the hostel.

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We flagged one down and negotiated the price (though we later discovered that we seriously over paid!). The ride was great fun though: the tuk-tuk was decorated with colorful lights that occasionally flashed as we drove along. We made a short video as we drove down the road. It was easily one of the highlights of the day.

Arriving back at the hostel around 20:15, we made plans to do more sightseeing together the next day before I went back out and Sam went to bed. I would normally have stayed in for the rest of the night myself, but I needed to make my way out to BKK airport to meet some friends!

By wonderful coincidence, my sister’s best friend, Melissa, and her boyfriend, Max, were both in Thailand: they had been vacationing on a couple of islands and were on their way home to Berlin. They had a five-hour layover in Bangkok that night, arriving around 21:00 and then leaving at 02:00. I can’t remember how we figured out that we’d both be in Thailand at the same time, but we’d planned to meet up for dinner and drinks during their layover.

I took the BTS over to the subway, which ran out to the BKK airport (I had arrived at the other Bangkok airport, DMK, earlier that day). The BTS was incredibly crowded and the train cars were packed tight with people. I reached the airport just as Mel’s flight landed and we soon met outside of baggage claim.

It was so nice to see a familiar face after being away from friends for so long! The last time that I had seen Mel was in Chicago last December, when we’d both visited Caryn (and we saw “Rogue One” together). This was my first time meeting Max and I immediately liked him. They needed to get checked in for their next flight; once that was taken care of, we went down to the restaurant floor to find a bar.

Surprisingly, there are no bars in the airport! We found a café that served beer, so we stayed there and shared several large beers. I ordered dinner as I hadn’t eaten since Sam and I ate; Mel and Max had a meal on their flight, so they weren’t hungry. We sat there for several hours chatting and catching up. Watching Mel talk with Max I was instantly reminded of Caryn talking to Andy – it’s not hard to see why Caryn and Mel became such good friends!

We said our goodbyes shortly after midnight as they needed to make their way through security and passport control. We snapped a quick selfie before leaving. The visit was far too short, but it was still wonderful!

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The public transit stopped running at midnight, so I ordered an Uber to take me back to the hostel, where I arrived shortly before 01:00.


5 August 2017
Bangkok, Thailand

Sam and I got up and left the hostel around 09:00, looking for somewhere nearby to have breakfast. We found a small café that offered several breakfast options at good prices; we were both pleased with our food and were energized for another day discovering Bangkok!

We again took the tourist boat up to Wat Arun and then the ferry across the river. Our plan was to visit Wat Pho and then try to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us around to many of the sights. As we were walking over to the entrance to Wat Pho, a guy approached us, offering to help as we looked somewhat lost (not know where exactly the entrance was). The guy suggested several other stops around town for us to visit and helped us flag down a tuk-tuk. Yes, the guy was definitely a plant to try and get us to buy some suits at the Export Center, but he did get us the tuk-tuk we’d wanted for a very low price…so why not do it?

Putting Wat Pho off until the afternoon, we took the tuk-tuk over to see the Black Buddha, located in a small temple complex. The Black Buddha was an old Buddha that came from the old capital city, Ayutthaya, which had been burned down during a way with Burma in the 1700s, thus turning the Buddha statue black. In the years since, people had placed thing gold leaves around the Buddha, hiding the majority of the black fire marks. Inside the temple was a very friendly guy who explained the history of the Buddha to us; we spent several minutes chatting with him, which was enjoyable. At the end, he mentioned going to the Export Center – clearly he was another plant on the established route.

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Next door was another temple, this one containing a smiling Buddha. This temple was large and great murals on every wall. There were several Buddha statues surrounding the one smiling. There was another friendly guy in this temple who we chatted with; he snapped a couple pictures of Sam and me before mentioning the Export Center to us! He mentioned a specific tailor who could make us some great suits. I actually loved the experience following the trail of plants! Haha

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Sam had been legitimately interested in getting a suit made when he reached Bangkok, so we did go into a tailor (our tuk-tul driver “just happened” to stop outside of the specific tailor that we’d been told about – how strange!! LOL). We spent a short time inside as Sam was measured for his suit; we enjoyed picking out the fabric for his suit, changing the fabric at the very end when we found a new one. The best part was picking out the lining for his suit: it was a colorful, decorative print fabric that would add just the right “pop” to the suit. Sam also ordered a coat, which was very British in style. Sam did a very good job negotiating the price on the entire order, getting the guy to knock the price down quite a bit. The guy tried to sell me on ordering a jacket: I wanted an Edwardian-style jacket (a ¾-length coat), but his price was far too high (I set a maximum price for myself, but he wasn’t able to come down to it, which was perfectly fine with me).

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Happy with his orders, Sam and I set off for our next sight: Wat Benchamabophit (the Marble Temple). It was a very ornate and decorative temple, with Buddha statues lining the interior courtyard. The central temple building was beautiful and we were both very impressed with it.

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Our tuk-tuk driver took us back over to Wat Pho after that. During the drive, Sam and I laughed about the plants that we’d encountered during the day and the entire experience in general. We both agreed that it had been worth it: we got to see the sights and he was able to get the suit that he wanted.

We were finally able to go inside Wat Pho, home of the large reclining Buddha. The entire complex was huge and we were given a free bottle of water with the entrance ticket (which we desperately needed – it was another hot and humid day!). In one of the first buildings, there was a gong that visitors could bang - so, of course, we did!

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The reclining Buddha statue itself was incredible: it was far larger than either of us had anticipated! “Large” doesn’t come close to describing how massive the statue is; I later found out that it is the second-largest reclining Buddha statue. We made our way through the temple, marveling at the statue and snapping a few photos.

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The nearby Grand Palace had been on the plan for the day, but when we heard that the entrance fee was 500 Baht (very expensive), we decided to skip it. Instead, we walked past the palace and through a park area nearby as we made our way through the city to reach Wat Saket (the Golden Mount). We had not yet had lunch and we were hunting for a place to eat, but food proved to be rather elusive. We finally found a small family-run place and ordered fried rice, which was decent, but not the best.

We reached Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) shortly after lunch. Before making the climb to the temple at the top of the hill, Sam and I treated ourselves to some ice cream from a nearby shop (our go-to treat during the hot days). The walk up the hill was pleasant, walking amongst the trees, with a lot of artificial mist being sprayed everywhere. Along the way were several smaller shrines.

The main temple itself was at the very top and afford some spectacular views over Bangkok. Sam and I agreed that the city didn’t have a particularly beautiful skyline: it just seemed to sprawl aimlessly, without a definitive business/city center. The temple was not an impressive as we’d hoped: the inside was mediocre when compared to the other temples that we’d visited. There was a shrine in the center that we did a quick walk around, before heading to the roof. The roof housed a massive golden stupa, which was easily the most impressive part of the temple. We watched several monks praying, along with visitors stapled money on a string as a donation.

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Leaving the Golden Mount, we decided to head over to the Siam Center shopping mall to cool off and get something to eat. We haggled with two different tuk-tuk drivers before settling on an acceptable price (we checked the cost of an Uber, setting that as our maximum price; we paid less than that though).

Siam Center was a massive shopping complex made up of several malls. Sam and I ventured into only one of them, which we found to be very industrial-modern in design (which we liked). We didn’t spend much time wandering the stores, but rather located the food court so we could get some dinner. The food court contained several different places to eat; the payment system was rather unique (and ingenious): centralized cashiers would load money onto cards for us; we would then go order our food from whichever place we wanted to eat; they would scan our card, deducting the cost of the food; at the end, we gave the card back to the cashiers and were refunded the remaining balance.

We had thought to eat Western-style food that night, but many of the Asian-style foods looked delicious. We ordered form the same place, each getting a rice dish. Mine was too spicy for my taste and I couldn’t finish it (I ate a spicy pepper without realizing it, which did me in). After dinner, Sam wanted to get a bubble tea and, after some wandering, managed to find him one.

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We left the Siam Center and proceeded to walk over to the “red light district” area of town, along Silom: we both wanted to see what it was like and try to identify who the lady-boys were. The walk over took roughly 30 minutes, during which we chatted (I was amazed that we had no ‘down time’ or awkward silences: we never stopped talking, about anything and everything.

Upon reaching the Silom area, we found the street packed with stalls selling fake everything: watches, bags, clothes; you name it, they had it. Further down we came into the red light district proper: bars everywhere with suggestive names or logos of women pole dancing; through the doors of the bars we could see the runways where the girls would be dancing later. It was rather fun walking about, though we agreed that we were there too early to see the district at its best. We spotted a few lady-boys and a man or two with obvious escorts.

We walked around Silom for about 20 minutes before heading in the direction of our hostel: it was a 30-minute walk back, which gave us more time to chat and hang out. During our time in Bangkok, I had been determined to find a place that sold rotis so Sam could try one; we had been unsuccessful thus far and I spent the walk back trying to find one. Finally, at a food cart right outside of our hostel, we found the Thai equivalent to the roti: a Thai pancake!

We ordered one and I was surprised to see how the guy made it: he mixed up an egg with some banana slices, which he poured into the pancake as it was cooking. Once it was all done, he cut it up with scissors, then drizzled chocolate sauce and condensed milk on top. We walked back to the hostel and shared the pancake, which was delicious!!

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Back in the room, we were excited when Sam’s suit and jacket arrived. We spent some time doing an amateur “fashion show” as Sam tried on his new clothes. The jacket was easily my favorite piece: it fit like a glove! The suit was equally as nice, with the lining still my favorite part. Sam was very pleased with them.

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We spent the rest of the evening chatting; Sam wrote down a lot of helpful suggestions on things to see in the Philippines when I go there in January (he had just spent three weeks there). We finally called it a night around 23:00 as Sam needed to be up early in the morning to head to the airport.


6 August 2017
Bangkok, Thailand

Today began with my alarm going off at 05:00: I had a tour leaving at 07:00, so I needed to be up early; more importantly though, I wanted to get up to say goodbye to Sam. The past two days in Bangkok had been absolutely amazing – two of the most fun days of my travels thus far; all due in large part to getting to hang out with Sam. In many ways, he reminded me of my buddy Shane, whom I had met in Sydney on election day last year: both very outgoing, genuine, friendly people.

Sam was already awake when I got up: neither of us had slept well that night. We walked downstairs to the deserted first floor where Sam ordered an Uber. When the Uber driver was nearby, Sam got ready to leave and I told him that I’d walk out with him. We walked over to the street and arrived right as the car was pulling up. Sam put his bags in the car and then it was time to say goodbye. I’ve never been good with goodbyes and this was no different. We thanked one another for a wonderful time hanging out in Bangkok, knowing that we’d keep in touch. We parted with a final goodbye hug. I waited for the car to drive away before heading back to the hostel.

I left the hostel around 06:40 and made the short walk over to the hotel where I would be collected for today’s all-day tour to Ayutthaya, former capital of Thailand. I was supposed to have taken this tour the day before, but I was thankfully able to reschedule it so I could hang out with Sam instead.

The tour group was a decent size and our guide was very informative, talkative, and funny. He provided a lot of information for us as we drove the half hour to our first stop: the royal palace. The palace is still functioning and used by the royal family. We were given some time to walk around and explore the massive grounds. Our tour guide took several of us around, explaining the history behind many of the buildings. There were several different architectural styles present: from Thai to Russian to Chinese.

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We then drove to the ruins of the old city, Wat Maha That, which functioned as the capital of Thailand until the city was destroyed during a war with Burma in the mid-1700s. Flooding several years ago did further damage to the ruins, resulting in many of the towers sinking and standing at an angle.

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The many Buddha statues throughout the ruins were all missing their heads; their bodies standing as silent memories of the city’s former gory. One head of a Buddha statue had become intertwined with the roots of a massive tree. The Black Buddha that Sam and I had seen in Bangkok originally stood in Ayuttaya; it became black as a result of the fires that destroyed the city.

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We had one final stop before heading for lunch: a Buddhist temple containing a Buddha statue that is apparently over 1,000 years old! We went into another temple where people were praying and placing thin gold leaves onto different statues.

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The afternoon portion of the tour focused on a boat cruise down the Chao Phraya River. We had a buffet lunch on board, which was surprisingly good. The boat ride took roughly two hours; it was relaxing as we sailed into Bangkok.

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Arriving back in the city, I spent the evening quietly relaxing: reading and working on my blog.


7 August 2017
Bangkok, Thailand

My final day in Bangkok was yet another busy day! Visiting the Grand Palace was my primary focus for the day. Once again, I took the tourist boat from my hostel up river and got off at the Grand Palace stop. The palace has a strict dress code, requiring everyone to properly cover up. I bought a cheap pair of baggy pants to wear over my short and made my way inside.

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The palace was packed with tourists, mostly Chinese tour groups; it was chaos as I made my way through the ticket line and finally entered the palace complex itself. The buildings inside were truly amazing: very ornate decorations covered everything; stupas were scattered throughout. The centerpiece was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha: a massive temple containing a small Buddha statue.

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I spent some time walking around the area, admiring the fantastic architecture and brilliance of the place. I eventually made my way over the residential palace and was stunned by how impressive it was. The building dominated the square, it was simple, yet very elegant.

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Leaving the palace behind, I decided to make my way over to Chinatown in the hopes of finding something good for lunch. The route through the city would only take about 30 minutes; on the way, I stopped briefly at the nearby City Pillar Shrine.

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Bangkok’s Chinatown was not quite what I had expected (or wanted); I had hoped for something similar to the one in Kuala Lumpur (and perhaps there are parts of the one in Bangkok like that which I did not discover). I found store after store after store selling the same products or jewelry. The few places to eat didn’t appeal to me, so I decided to have lunch at a food court near to my hostel.

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I walked back to my hostel from Chinatown, taking another 30 minutes to do so. Upon reaching the area, I immediately went to the food court and ordered some delicious noodles with chicken. I spent the rest of the late afternoon reading and then went back to Siam Center for dinner – back to the same food court in the mall where Sam and I had eaten a few days before. Arriving back at my hostel after dinner, I treated myself to a Thai pancake (from the same place Sam and I had eaten earlier).

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Posted by Glichez 01:59 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

"How do you like my island, Mr Bond?"


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31 July 2017
Krabi, Thailand
Country 76

After checking out of my hostel this morning, I caught an Uber to the airport. I had two flights today: Penang to Kuala Lumpur; and Kuala Lumpur to Krabi. Both flights were short and flew by; I had light snacks on each of them. My layover in KL was just over two hours, which I spent reading and blogging.

Arriving in Krabi, I was disappointed to find that it was raining quite heavily. I paid for a transfer to my hotel from the airport, but had to wait for a while before the shuttle showed up. By the time we reached Krabi Town, where I was staying, the rain had thankfully stopped. The shuttle took us to the main bus station, where we were transferred to songthaews.

Songthaews are usually modified pickup trucks (though sometimes larger trucks) that had two rows of seating on the flatbed section. They could be seen all over the Krabi region as they are the cheapest and best method of transportation. The songthaew from the bus station was a larger one: I was reminded of a US Army truck transporting a group of soldiers in the back.

My hostel was nice as the staff were extremely friendly and helpful! I had paid for a single room in Krabi and it turned out that I was their only guest during that time (it being low season right now). It wasn’t a proper hostel though: it was a store on the ground floor and the second floor had a few rooms for guests. Nevertheless, it was very nice and I liked it.

It was early evening by this point, so I only explored the city for a little bit. There was a wonderful night market down the street from my hostel, full of stalls selling a variety of foods and goods. I meandered through there for a bit before grabbing a small bite and then calling it a night.

1 August 2017
Krabi, Thailand

I had planned one organized tour during my time in Krabi: a day trip out to “James Bond Island” where they filmed some of the movie “The Man with the Golden Gun” (the island was the home of the villain, Francisco Scaramanga). The weather was calling for intermittent rain all day, which I hoped wouldn’t ruin the tour.

I was picked up at 08:00 and we made a few more stops to pick up additional passengers before heading out to the departure point. Our guide, Mai, was really nice and kept the tour on schedule. We drove a short way to the river, where we boarded a longtail boat to head out to the islands.

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The boat trip was a lot of fun; it rained lightly as we headed towards the islands. The entire area was spectacular: dozens and dozens of islands on both sides, rising out the water, many with sheer cliffs, all of them covered by vegetation.

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Our first stop was at one of these islands that had a small cave running through it; nearby were three large boats anchored in a small bay, where we docked. The large boats had dozens of kayaks that would take tourists through the cave, around the island and then back to the boat. Most everyone in our boat had opted for a kayak ride through the cave; a few others and I stayed in the longtail boat as it drove us around the small island, giving us very good views of the cave (the longtail was too large to go through the cave). After seeing the cave, I had no regrets about not taking the kayak.

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We drove for about ten more minutes before reaching “James Bond Island” – Phang-Nga. The rain stopped just as we were arriving, making it perfect for us to explore the island. The island itself is made up of two large peaks rising out of the water, connected by a narrow stretch of beach between them. Looking around, I could instantly recognize many things from the Bond film: where Bond’s plane had landed, where Scaramanga’s house was supposed to have been, and then, of course, “that mushroom-shaped rock” behind the island.

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The place was crawling with tourists and the center of the island, so beautiful in the Bond film, was now crowded with stalls selling cheap souvenirs. The beach area behind the stalls, on the side with the “mushroom rock”, was quite nice though.

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There was a small path leading around the island that I followed. It didn’t lead anywhere terribly exciting, but it was nice all the same. We had about 30-minutes on the island before we boarded the boat to head off to lunch.

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Lunch was on another island on our way back to the mainland. There were quite a few huts built out over the water, supported on stilts and this is where we ate. The menu was fixed, but I enjoyed everything: fried rice, chicken stir fry, vegetables, and even fried chicken.

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After lunch, we went back to the mainland and boarded the minivans, which would take us around to the final sights of the day. We stopped at a cave that contained a large reclining Buddha, though the monkeys living in the area were the highlight of the stop. People would buy food from nearby stands and give it to the monkeys, who approached everyone expecting to be fed (which is disappointing that they’ve been taught that after having so many people do it).

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The final stop was at a nearby waterfall where we’d normally have been able to swim, but the water level was too high, making it too dangerous. We were given some Coke and coconut cookies as a light refreshment before getting back on the bus for the long drive back into town.

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We arrived back to Krabi Town around 18:00 and I soon set out to find some dinner. I decided to get something from the night market nearby; I’d seen several things that looked good the night before. I couldn’t find any of the noodles that I was craving, so I settled on a doner kebab, which was delicious. For dessert I had a Nutella Thai pancake. The market was located around a square that contained several tables and chairs, which was where I ate my meal. There was a small stage setup at one end of the area and a guy was playing the guitar and singing. His sang a mix of local songs and covers of Western hits.

2 August 2017
Krabi, Thailand

Today had one thing on the itinerary: the beach. That’s it. Nothing more glamorous or exciting; just the relaxation of enjoying the beach. I was excited!

I reached the nearby resort town of Ao Nang via songthaew: there are several “bus stops” around town where the songthaews stop to pick up passengers, with a fixed price for a trip between Krabi Town and Ao Nang. The songthaews were in smaller pickup trucks and the ride took roughly 30 minutes.

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The beach area was pure paradise: a long stretch of sand with mountains surrounding the area and a few islands cropped up on the horizon. I took a walk along the shore, enjoying the waves lapping at my ankles (the water was the perfect temperature too). The beach was not pure sand: it was covered with small pebbles and shells. I did my best to find sea glass for my mother, but there was none to be found (though if she had been there, she would have found A LOT!).

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I stopped to grab some lunch and then went out for another walk along the beach and sat down to do some reading. I didn’t get to stay too long as a storm soon blew in over the water. I ducked into a Starbucks to have coffee and read while I waited out the rain.

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Once the rain was done, I went back to the beach and spent a long time walking along the shore. I was in complete awe of the beauty of the place: there truly is no better word to describe it than paradise. The water was not as clear as other beaches that I’ve been to (such as Cairns in Australia), but there was something about Ao Nang that exuded tranquility.

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I caught a songthaew back to Krabi Town in the late afternoon, getting out early so I could stop by the temple in the middle of town. It was a small temple, but the architecture was beautiful: a white temple with green dragons lining the staircase leading up to it. I left the temple at the right time though: the rain returned just as I reached the main street, which provided coverings from the rain.

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I returned to the night market for dinner again that night. Happily, I was able to find several stalls selling noodles! The one I ordered from had three different noodle dishes; the woman working there was very kind and gave me a mixture of all three dishes. It was spicy, but easily the best food I’d had since the Cameron Highlands. I grabbed a beer from the beverage tent and sat down in the nearby square to eat. Tonight there was a small band performing on the stage.

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3 August 2017
Krabi, Thailand

I had planned to head out to the White Tiger Temple north of Krabi Town today, but the weather had other plans. It rained off and on for pretty much the entire day, making the prospect of walking up 1,200+ stairs to the top of the mountain to reach the Temple not very appealing.

Instead, I went back to Ao Nang for the day. Despite the rainy weather, I managed to squeeze in several short walks on the beach. The waves were rougher today and it was fun having them splash up on the beach as I walked along (my shorts got soaked, but I didn’t care – I had no swimsuit with me, the one article of clothing I neglected to pack!).

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The beach was less crowded today, owing to the weather. I would watch out over the horizon as each storm would make its way to the shore: the rain would slowly envelop the islands on the horizon and then the mountains nearby, by which point the beach would be deserted.

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I ate lunch at a local Thai restaurant and ordered garlic chicken. I then found a food cart selling Thai pancakes, so I ordered one with banana and chocolate. I was just heading back to the beach when a fresh storm blew in, so I ducked into McDonalds to wait it out (dozens of others follow suit and we stood around waiting; none of us ordered anything, but they didn’t seem to mind).

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I thankfully got in one last walk along the beach after that before it was time to head back to Krabi Town. To my disappointment, the night market was not running tonight, forcing me to find another place to eat dinner. Nearby was a small place that served a variety of Thai and Western foods, all at reasonable prices. I went with chicken Pad Thai and an apple flavored Italian soda. I could easily have eaten several orders of the noodles; it was so good!

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Before heading to bed, I booked the shuttle to the airport in the morning. The lady who ran my hostel handled everything; they had been so helpful during my entire visit, pointing out where the songthaews picked up, offering suggestions on what to see, etc.

Posted by Glichez 03:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

From the Highlands to the Beach


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25 July 2017
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

I was excited to be leaving Kuala Lumpur this morning: it was a nice city to visit, but a few days to visit was plenty. I met up with Anna at 10:00 so we could catch the train out to the central bus station. Anna had no plans for her time in Malaysia, so she decided to join me on my way to Cameron Highlands and then to Penang!

The bus ride lasted around four hours: I spent the time sleeping and listening to music. The bus driver searched everyone’s hand bags for food as it was not permitted on board, so I was rather hungry by the time we arrived in the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands.

I was instantly struck by the cooler temperatures and absence of humidity as I got off the bus. We walked over to my hostel to drop my bags off before going to get a bite to eat. Anna’s hostel was 4km away and she only had one small bag (her large bag had been left at our hostel in KL).

My hostel was very nice: large, spacious common rooms with comfortable sofas; outdoor seating areas around the terrace and a balcony on the second floor. I had a private room that was rather large and comfortable. Best of all: the price was incredibly cheap!

Anna and I walked down the main street in town to find a place to eat, but found that many places were closed during the mid-afternoon. We found one small place that was open and decided to eat there; I ordered the mee goreng (noodles) with chicken, which was easily the best dish I’ve had in Malaysia. Anna agreed that her food was equally as good. The staff was very friendly; as we were leaving, Anna and I agreed that we’d have to eat there again.

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I walked Anna part of the way towards her hostel and we parted, planning to meet the following day for lunch or dinner. I spent the evening working and reading, both at the Starbucks in town and at my hostel.

26 July 2017
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

I had a full day planned today, with a guided tour lasting from 08:45 to 17:00. We were driven around in a Jeep 4x4 as we made our way up and down the rocky, bumpy hills of the Highlands.

The first stop of the day was at a tea plantation: we were able to spend a few minutes walking about the tea fields before it was time for them to be fertilized. The workers scooped up the fertilizer using large plates and flung it over the plants; some people ignored the repeated calls for them to leave the fields and were hit with several rounds of fertilizer! While at the first stop, I ran into Anna and Ti, who were taking a half-day trip that mirrored the first half of my tour.

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We drove to the top of the highest ‘mountain’ in the Highlands, where it was rather foggy. Our tour guide walked us through the Mossy Forest nearby, which was beautiful and eerie in the mist. It was unfortunate that it was such a foggy day as the views over the Highlands from there are supposed to be fantastic.

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We drove back down the hill and over to a tea factory, where the tea was processed. There was a short, self-guided walk through the factory, which had a strong aroma of fresh tea; the rest of the area was devoted to the gift shop and café. The café had an outdoor terrace where I went to get some great photos of the tea fields.

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I again ran into Anna as I was leaving the tea factory: we planned to try and meet up for lunch. Half of my tour group was only doing a half-day tour, so I assumed that we would stop for lunch when we dropped them back in town; I was wrong. Our driver dropped those of us on the full-day tour at a butterfly farm while he took the others back to town; our lunch stop would be somewhere else.

The butterfly farm was small, but nice. There were flowers everywhere with butterflies flitting around the hot house. There were also some cages containing other animals, such as lizards, snakes, rabbits, and scorpions. I enjoyed the brief stop, but it dragged on for too long as we waited for the driver to return.

Our lunch stop was…disappointing. It was the only restaurant in the area and was quite expensive (5-6 times more expensive than the place I’d had dinner the night before). Not wanting to pay such a ridiculously high price for the meal, I skipped it. I spent the lunch break chatting with the two couples on the tour with me: one from Denmark and the other from the Netherlands.

The afternoon portion of the tour was equally disappointing and I regret not doing just the half-day tour instead. We were shuffled from one place to another, each one designed to simply sell stuff to tourists. First there was the strawberry farm, which sounded interesting at first, but the reality was quite different: we could walk around a very tiny portion of the farm and thus had far too much time to spend at the dining area. I did get a strawberry milkshake and a strawberry muffin, both of which were very good.

The second stop was “Cactus Point” which was just a large shop where people could buy different varieties of cacti and flowers. After that we stopped at a local market area, where we walked around for about five minutes before everyone was ready to leave. I could tell from the reactions of the others that they were just as disappointed as I was.

There were two things worth seeing during the afternoon though: the small “Time Tunnel” museum and a Buddhist temple. The museum chronicled the history of the Highlands and contained an incredible amount of things on display, many of them from the mid- to late-20th Century (pop culture items, mostly). Nevertheless, I enjoyed getting to learn some history of the area. The Buddhist temple was modest, but had some great statues of Buddha.

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Returning to town, I met up with Anna for dinner; we went back to the same place from the night before. I had two meals since I hadn’t eaten anything that day! Anna had changed hostels during the afternoon, moving from the one 4km away to one right behind my own!

That evening was spent reading and relaxing.

27 July 2017
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

I had originally planned to take a sunrise tour today, but cancelled it once I realized that it would be revisiting many of the shopping “sights” from yesterday’s tour. Instead, I spent a very quiet and relaxing day in town. I focused on getting caught up on my blog, doing some reading, and getting some work done.

My company had finally given me a time-frame for the transition period before I would be laid off: three months, with my last day being 31 October. This was longer than I had expected, which would thus bring in more money and allow me to possibly complete my planned travels (except for India, which would have to be cut). What they had not yet responded to was my request for a severance package. I spent the afternoon reexamining my plans and budget to see if I could make it work.

Anna and I met for a late afternoon lunch; our favorite place was closed, so we ate at another small restaurant next door to it. She was catching the afternoon bus to George Town in Penang and I would be following on in the morning. I walked her over to the bus stop and we made plans to meet up again in George Town.

28 July 2017
Penang, Malaysia

My bus departed at 08:00 this morning; as with the other buses that I’ve taken recently, I spent much of the time sleeping. When I arrived in Butterworth, I had to catch the ferry over to George Town, on Penang island. The place was chaotic, but people were friendly and pointed the way to the ferry terminal.

The ferry ride lasted perhaps 15 minutes and half way through, a torrential rainfall began and did not let up until after I had reached my hostel. There was a brief break where the rain wasn’t coming down as hard, during which I quickly walked from the ferry terminal to my hostel.

I was very pleased with the hostel: it was in an old, 110 year-old building with two large common areas for guests to enjoy. The rooms were massive and had the AC running at all times; the gust of cool air each time I entered the room was refreshing after being out in the humid heat.

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I met Anna for dinner and she brought a new friend she’d made named Francesca, who I immediately took a liking to. We ate at an Indian place that had been recommended to me by a guy at the hostel, but the food I wanted was not currently available; everything else was expensive, so we all settled on ordering naan.

29 July 2017
Penang, Malaysia

The next morning the three of us met up for breakfast; we each had different Rotis (mine was with egg and onion). We then caught the bus out of town, over to Batu Ferringhi. Anna and Francesca were planning to hike over to Monkey Beach and stay the night there, while I was going to enjoy the beach at Batu Ferringhi. The bus ride took about an hour; before I got off the bus, we made plans to meet for dinner the next day before they each caught different buses back to Kuala Lumpur.

I spent much of the day doing some reading and taking a long walk along the beach. The weather was very nice: though it was hot and humid, it did not rain! The beach was somewhat crowded, but I enjoyed my walk all the same: walking along, ankle-deep in the waves. The area around the beach was beautiful.

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I took the late afternoon bus back to George Town, where I spent some time walking around, finding some of the street at in town. There are two types of street art in George Town: massive murals painted on the sides of buildings (often with real objects, such as bicycles, incorporated into them) and rod iron signs hanging on various buildings, many of which relating some history of the town. Today I focused on finding many of the iron art: I zig-zagged my way through town, following a map that I picked up at my hostel, showing the locations of each art installation around town.

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The evening was spent quietly reading.

30 July 2017
Penang, Malaysia

My final full day in Malaysia was focused on seeing more of George Town. I first walked over to Fort Cornwallis, which was the first structure built by the British when they settled in the area. The fort was not as interesting as I had hoped: I was able to walk along the walls of the fort, but that was all there was to truly see. The interior was filled with a large field and a café.

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I focused the rest of the morning and early afternoon in taking down the various murals throughout town. Thankfully, they were clustered together in groups, which made my task all the easier. There were several paintings featuring cats, including a giant orange cat (which I made it a point to find).

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Some of the paintings with real objects incorporated into them were simply amazing. There was a painting of two kids on a swing, with two real swings stuck into the wall for people to sit or stand on. There was a man riding a motorcycle and visitors could sit on the actual motorcycle.

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I stumbled across several more of the iron art as well. Some of it was humorous and all done in a caricature style.

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When the afternoon heat set in, I decided to see a movie: War for the Planet of the Apes. Having enjoyed the rebooted series thus far, I was interested to see the latest film. I was not disappointed and liked the movie very much.

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Anna, Francesca and I had planned to meet for dinner that night, but we somehow missed one another when it was time to meet. Francesca’s bus left at 20:00, so I was unable to see her before she left. However, Anna and I did manage to reconnect and met up at her hostel around 21:30. We walked around Chinatown and stopped for a quick bite to eat at a small noodle stand nearby: the noodles were spectacular! I could happily have eaten there every day of my stay in George Town.

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We then walked over to Love Lane, where the bars were located. We stopped at one bar and each had a small beer as we sat and chatted. Anna’s bus wasn’t until 01:00, so we had plenty of time to hang out together. When we were finished, we walked over to my hostel and then had to say our goodbyes. I was sad to see her go, after spending the past several days together.

Posted by Glichez 10:17 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Malaysian Escapades


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20 July 2017
Melaka, Malaysia
Country 75

I was up early and off to the bus stop this morning: off to Malaysia, my 75th country!

The bus was much nicer than I had anticipated, with large, comfortable seats that reclined; the AC was kept on throughout the ride, keeping me nice and cool. I spent most the time on the bus sleeping. Getting through passport control was a breeze and took a matter of minutes.

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My first stop in Malaysia was the town of Melaka, which I was surprised to find was a rather large town with several malls. The bus dropped me off a short walk from my hotel. The staff at the hotel were very friendly and helpful. I had paid for a single room for my two nights in Melaka, which I was looking forward to; unfortunately, the room was on the top floor with only a ceiling fan – no AC!

I set off to wander around the city for a little bit in the afternoon and decided to take a boat tour along the river. The river and boardwalk along it were the centerpieces of Melaka. The boat tour lasted about 45 minutes and was enjoyable. I liked getting to see the city from the river: there were numerous buildings with elaborate paintings and murals on them that I particularly liked.

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When the boat tour was over, I walked through Dutch Square, where there were dozens of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for tourists to hire them; each of their vehicles was elaborately decorated, many of them with either Hello Kitty or Pikachu, but I saw one with Captain America and another with SpongeBob.

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For dinner that night, I ventured into Chinatown, but was disappointed that many of the food stalls were already closed. I managed to find a good and inexpensive restaurant, where I had some delicious pork and rice. I called it a night after dinner as I was still rather tired from lack of sleep the night before and the long day of travel.

21 July 2017
Melaka, Malaysia

I had an entire day for sightseeing in Melaka today and I started out by taking a long morning stroll along the river so I could better admire the various murals on the buildings there. It was very quiet during the hour or so I spent walking along the river.

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I then walked deeper into the city proper to reach a Buddhist temple that was located next to a small park. The temple itself was quite nice, but it was the monument next to it that caught my attention for some reason: it was a large stone pillar with an elaborate dragon sculpture at the base of it.

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I walked back through town, taking in the various sights and smells of the food stalls and vendors; my next destination was yet another Buddhist temple. This temple was far more impressive and was full of people praying and lighting incense.

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Across the street was a new and very modern Buddhist temple; I sat down outside of it (in the shade) to cool off as the temperature and humidity had resulted in me drenched with sweat after my long morning walk. I walked back to Dutch Square and stopped for lunch at the Hard Rock Café located there. I know, why have a Western meal when there was a plethora of cheaper, local food around me? For the simple fact that I wanted to sit in the AC and they offered a great lunch deal for practically nothing: three course meal plus beverage.

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After eating, I decided to visit the Stadthuys, which was effectively the town hall of the city during the Dutch colonial period. The complex was situated on the lone hill in town, which I climbed to reach the ruins of the church located at the top. The views over the city was rather nice from there as well.

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Walking down the hill, I passed by the old Dutch cemetery, where there was a massive tree that I found fascinating for some reason. I continued back around to Dutch Square and decided to visit the Melaka museum located in the Stadthuys building.

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The museum chronicled the long history of Melaka, from the Dutch colonizing of the area to being governed by the Portuguese and then the British, followed by occupation by the Japanese during the Second World War. The museum also detailed the traditional, local life and customs. It was a very well done museum and I enjoyed it very much.

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That evening I went to see “Spiderman: Homecoming” at one of the nearby shopping malls; I wanted a night of mindless entertainment and I got it. The movie was alright: better than most of the Marvel movies, but not nearly as good as the DC films (but I’m biased…). In any event, I enjoyed going to the movies.

22 July 2017
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I had another early start this morning: I caught an Uber around 06:15 to take me to the bus station outside of the city center so I could catch my early ride to Kuala Lumpur. I arrived at the station earlier than anticipated, so I grabbed a quick breakfast before boarding the bus. As with my bus to Melaka, I spent the ride sleeping.

We arrived into Kuala Lumpur around 11:30; I was impressed by the massive and modern bus terminal that the city had. The city’s various mass transit options all had stops there; I caught the subway into the city proper, where I got off and walked to my hostel.

I was less than impressed by the hostel: it was somewhat run down and the guy running the place was constantly lamenting the various problems he had, despite the fact that they were of his own making. When I arrived, he was complaining that he was overbooked by 14 people for that night and that I may need to move down to the sister hostel.

As I sat waiting to see what would happen, another guy at the hostel and I struck up a conversation. His name was Kayne and he was from England; he’d been traveling throughout SE Asia since January and was leaving for Australia in a few days (he’d received a working holiday visa for one year there). We talked a lot about our various travels and decided to grab a bite to eat for lunch once I had gotten my room sorted out.

Thankfully I was able to get the room that I had booked: a single room with AC. The room itself was basic, with a very thin blanket for bed coverings. I was just glad to have the room! I locked my things up, grabbed my camera and headed out with Kayne to get lunch.

We walked into Chinatown, which was right next to the hostel. Kayne had spent a couple of weeks in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and had found some hidden gems. He took me to a small food court area that had about a dozen food stalls serving all kinds of food. I went with chicken fried rice, which was a large portion for less than $2! I had finally started to delve into the cheap area of SE Asia!

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After eating, Kayne went back to the hostel, but we made plans to meet up that evening. I walked back to the subway and rode over to the KLCC, the massive shopping center where the Petronas Towers were located. I had wanted to see the towers for years (probably ever since seeing the movie “Entrapment” back in 1999).

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I got my first proper view of the towers from the small park in front of them. The towers were incredible: they are the tallest twin towers in the world and the sky bridge between them just below the half-way point was equally impressive. The towers were designed with five different sections to represent the five pillars of Islam. The towers were built with 88 floors each as 8 is considered to be a lucky number by the Chinese. Thus the towers had quite a bit of symbolism in them.

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I wanted to buy a ticket to go to the observation deck, but the tickets were all sold out for the day (there are only a limited number available each day). Instead, I explored the mall and did some reading while enjoying some coffee.

I met back up with Kayne around 18:30 that evening back at the hostel, where we were joined by a women staying there as well: a German named Anna. The three of us went to a small Indian place that Kayne knew to grab some dinner; I had yellow curry with cheese naan. The food was good, but the chicken in the curry was only so-so (mostly bone and fat).

Once dinner was finished, we took the subway over to KLCC so we could see the Petronas Towers by night. A local friend of Kayne’s had taken him up to the rooftop bar of a nearby hotel earlier in the week where one could get some an unobstructed view of the towers. We walked over to the hotel, but discovered that the bar charged a hefty entrance fee on the weekends, so we skipped that plan.

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Walking back around the park behind the towers, we arrived back in time to watch the musical fountain show that was put on every night. The show was impressive, though not as intricate as the laser light show in Singapore. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable to sit and watch. Near the end of the show there was a commotion behind us: someone had been pick-pocketed and was chasing after the thief.

On our way back to the hostel, Kayne took us by Merdeka Square, which was quite popular among the locals. It was a large open space where people were just hanging out and enjoying the evening. We spent a few minutes there before walking back over to Chinatown to grab a small bite to eat. It was a very enjoyable night and I was really glad to have met both Kayne and Anna.

23 July 2017
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I woke early this morning and went back over to the Petronas Towers in an effort to get a ticket up to the observation deck. Thankfully, the line for tickets was small and I was able to get a ticket for the 09:30 time slot. While wandering around the KLCC mall until then, I stumbled upon a kid's ride with a statue of Mighty Mouse!!

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The entire visit through the Petronas Towers was held to a rigid timetable: each group was given colored badges and we were moved through the different stops at set times. The first stop was the sky bridge on level 42. It was very cool to walk between the two towers, looking out over the city. Looking down was both scary and exciting, seeing the four pillars that were keeping the bridge suspended between the buildings.

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After about 15 minutes, we were ushered back to the elevators and taken to the observation deck at level 86. Unfortunately, the entire observation deck was inside, but the views were absolutely amazing. I could see for miles around and I was glad that the day was mostly clear (the smog made the sky somewhat hazy, but it didn’t destroy the view).

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We had another 15 minutes before we were taken back down to the base of the tower. Overall, I was very pleased and happy that I got to go up the Petronas Towers; it was my primary motivation for stopping over in KL and I’d have been disappointed if I’d not been able to make it up. Today was my last chance too as the towers are closed on Mondays (tomorrow, my final day in KL).

I went back to my hostel where I met up with Kayne for lunch; we’d planned to meet up with Anna as well, but she didn’t show up (we later found out that her phone was still on New Zealand time – 2 hours ahead of KL – which resulted in us missing one another). Kayne and I again ate in Chinatown; he was leaving for Australia later in the evening and was stressing about getting a job there. His funds were running low and he needed to get a job ASAP or he’d have to return home – a prospect he wasn’t happy about and which I fully sympathized with.

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The afternoon was taken up with a guided tour to the Batu Caves. The tour made several stops at local factories, which I generally detest as they are done to encourage tourists to spend money. The first stop, as a pewter factory, was more interesting than most as we were given a thorough and in-depth tour of the factory; it was really interesting to see how the various pieces are crafted.

We finally reached the Batu Caves in the late afternoon. The cave complex housed some Buddhist temples, which were reached by climbing a long staircase. Outside of the complex was a massive golden Buddhist statue (probably the most impressive part of the entire Batu Caves).

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I climbed up the stairs and encountered dozens of the resident monkeys along the way. They would sit in the trees or along the steps, hoping to snag some food from the unwitting tourists in the area. I made it to the top without behind bothered since I didn’t have any food for them to grab. The caves themselves were…underwhelming, to say the least. The main room was a massive cavern and I climbed a second staircase up to the Buddhist temple inside.

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On my way back down from the caves, I stopped in the “Dark Caves” area, which offered guided tours through the caves using just a torch. It was a more adventurous way to see the caves, but I had no interest in doing it as the caves were home to many spiders.

I had heard so much about the Batu Caves and it was listed as one of the top sights to see in KL, but I was disappointed with the entire visit. The exterior, with the cliffs and the giant statue, was the most impressive part, but the caves themselves could easily have been skipped. My feelings were shared by Anna (who visited them that afternoon as well), as well as by Kayne.

Returning to the hostel, I made plans to meet up with my Polish friend Grzegorz (Greg) who was coincidentally in KL as well (he and I had met in our Odessa, Ukraine hostel in early May); small world that we’d both be in KL at the same time!! Before going to meet with him and his friend Aleksandra, I met up with Kayne one last time before he left for the airport. I wished him well and hoped that he found a job soon so that he could save up some money to continue traveling with.

I met up with Greg and Aleksandra nearby and I took them over to the food court that Kayne had taken me to on my first day in KL. I ordered sesame chicken and the three of us split three large beers. It was great getting to hang out and chat with Greg again; when we’d met in Odessa, we’d only had a few short conversations in the hostel, but now we got to actually hang out properly.

We found a small restaurant down the road from the food court where we sat and drank a few more beers: the place served a bucket filled with five beers, which we ordered and shared. We spent the next few hours chatting about our various travels and lives. It was quite possibly one of the best evenings of my trip: getting to meet up with a friend I’d made earlier on and having a fun evening out together.

At the end of the night, we snapped a couple of quick selfies before going out separate ways. I had one final day left in KL, while they were both leaving the following day. I hope to get to meet up with Greg again sometime soon – possibly when I’m back in Europe later in the fall!

24 July 2017
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I met up with Anna this morning to grab a quick breakfast; we went back to the small place in Chinatown that we’d gone to with Kayne the other night. I had an onion and egg roti, which was delicious and bursting with onions (could there be anything better?!).

We decided to do some exploring of the city together as it was our last day in town. We were both anxious to leave KL behind: it is a nice city, but there is not much to see or do there. After discussing a few options for what to do, we settled on walking over to a Buddhist temple to the south of the city center; it was around 4.5km away (roughly an hour’s walk).

The streets in KL have limited sidewalks and those that do have them are shabby and often in ruins. We had to weave around, zig-zag, jaywalk in numerous places, all to reach the temple. We’d have liked to follow along the river, but the path abruptly ended and forced us to find another way. Half way through the walk, we made a brief stop inside a shopping mall to cool off.

The last stretch of the path was the worst: all up a steep hill, with the heat and humidity. Thankfully, it was all worth it. The temple was quite large and very impressive; I thought it was the second most impressive sight in KL, after the Petronas Towers.

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We climbed up to the top level of the temple, where we got to look out over the city and we could even spy the Petronas Towers in the far distance. By this point storm clouds had rolled in and it began to rain, thunder and lightning. The storm didn’t last too long though – not nearly long enough to cool things off.

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We opted to take the subway back into the city from the same shopping mall where we’d stopped earlier. Before boarding the train, we stopped at a doughnut shop which sold a variety of specialty doughnuts; I got an Oreo cream and a tiramisu. Absolutely delicious!

I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and cooling off after the long, hot walk. It was a pleasant way to spend the last afternoon in town. For dinner, Anna and I went out to Chinatown with another woman from our hostel, a New Zealander named Ti. After eating, we did some shopping in Chinatown and I bought some baggy, traditional-looking pants. I adore them and they are incredibly comfortable!

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The three of us then went over to KLCC and walked over to the same hotel rooftop bar that we’d tried to get into over the weekend. As it was Monday, they were no longer charging an entrance fee, which allowed us to walk right in and admire the view. The windows looked out over the KLCC complex and right at the Petronas Towers, brilliantly illuminated in the night sky. We snapped several photos through the window before realizing that there was an open window space right above us!

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Before leaving to go back to the hostel, I noticed that the KLCC mall had a Garrett’s Popcorn… so, of course, I bought another bag - though a smaller one this time! We called it an evening once we got back: Ti had an early bus to the Cameron Highlands in the morning, while Anna and I would be following along later in the morning.

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Posted by Glichez 06:59 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Dinosaurs?? In Singapore?!


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17 July 2017
Singapore
Country 74

I slept in this morning since I did not get to sleep until well after 01:00 the night before. I spent a leisurely morning at the hostel, taking my time to get ready for the day. I met the owner and he gave me a plethora of information about Singapore, including a map on which he marked several interesting things to see and do.

As I set off into the city, I first stopped at 7-11 to get some water… and I was delighted to see that they had chocolate milk! I hadn’t been able to find any chocolate milk since I was in Germany this past March; I bought one and quickly chugged it down; it was amazingly delicious.

My first stop was the bus station where I would be catching a bus to Malaysia on 20 July: I wanted to find out exactly where it was so I wouldn’t have any issues on the morning I was due to leave. The walk was only about 20 minutes; Singapore is a very clean and modern city, with motorists respecting pedestrians (huzzah!). The bus station was slightly chaotic and it took me some time to locate the bus company I had booked with, but I soon had it all figured out.

I then planned to visit the Gardens by the Bay, which is a large park right on the waterfront. It was another 30-minute walk from the bus station, which I thought would be an easy walk to make. I was wrong. I was soon drenched with sweat as I walked through the city; not only was the temperature getting high, but it was extremely humid. There was a large shopping mall about half way along my route where I stopped to cool off for a little bit.

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Next to the Gardens by the Bay is another large shopping center with a pretty park area in front of it, right next to a bay with a great view across the entire city. Inside the mall I spotted a DC Comics store, which I, of course, had to visit. There were so many great DC superhero items for sale, but I refrained from buying anything. Throughout the store were statues of the various DC superheroes, such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Green Lantern, etc.

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I finally made it to Gardens by the Bay and decided to buy the entrance ticket to the two conservatories that were there; the gardens themselves are free to walk around in, but the conservatories cost money to access. The entire park is massive, with artificial ponds throughout. There was one area with massive structures built to resemble trees that had plants growing up the sides of them; for extra money, one could access the SkyWay: an elevated walkway around these structures (I opted to skip it).

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I first visited the Cloud Forest conservatory and was immediately grateful for the cool temperature that the dome was kept at – much needed relief from the heat outdoors. The centerpiece of the conservatory is a massive, man-made waterfall. The conservatory is filled with various plants, seeking to emulate a mountain climate.

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The pathway winds around the dome and eventually leads to the top of the ‘mountain’ and the source of the waterfall. From there, a suspended walkway extends over the conservatory, providing some amazing views of the various plants.

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The second conservatory, the Flower Dome, was, as its name suggests, filled with various types of flowers. There were different sections for different areas of the planet, each housing plants and flowers native to those areas (ie. Australia, South America, etc). There were some very interesting sculptures dotted here and there in the Dome.

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The central area of the Dome was dominated by large flower gardens. The colors of the various flowers were incredibly vibrant and stunning. While I enjoyed the Flower Dome, it didn’t have as striking an appeal or interest for me as did the Cloud Forest.

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Leaving the conservatories behind, I walked back through the public (and free) gardens to reach a nearby shopping mall. By the time I got there, I desperately needed some air conditioning (it was the peak of the afternoon heat by this point). I spent some time cooling off before catching the subway over to Chinatown.

Chinatown was full of people, most of them tourists, and I was on the hunt for a bite to eat. The streets were lined with stalls selling tons of souvenirs and various other goods, alongside restaurants (which were far too expensive for my taste). I eventually discovered a street with numerous food stands lined up down the center, with seating areas throughout: it was like an outdoor food court.

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I was overwhelmed by the variety of options available, from rice to noodles to seafood to chicken… and much, much more! I went with lemon chicken, which came with rice and a small soup (and it was quite affordable too!). The chicken was very good and the lemon sauce was perfect; I was tempted to get a second order!

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I spent some time walking around Chinatown, stumbling upon a small, but nice temple. I went inside for a quick look around before heading off to catch the subway again.

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My plans for the evening focused on attending the light and sound show back at Gardens by the Bay. Every night at 19:45 and 20:45, the Gardens host a show at the square with the giant tree structures. Tonight’s theme was Broadway and featured a 15-minute medley of showtunes, from Phantom of the Opera to Cabaret to Cats to Little Shop of Horrors to Les Mis. The artificial trees were illuminated by colorful lights timed to the music.

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Once the show was over, I made my way back to my hostel, where I relaxed and got some much needed sleep.

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18 July 2017
Singapore

Today was another day for exploring the city; after experiencing the heat and humidity yesterday, I reorganized my plans to fit in periodic breaks in various malls with AC. I did a short walk through the Middle Eastern neighborhood, which was alright. The main thing to see in the area was the mosque, which was rather nice; I went inside, but only spent a couple of minutes there as it didn’t have much to offer.

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I returned to Chinatown for lunch, this time having chicken with noodles at the same food court area (though from a different food stall). It was yet another delicious dish! After wandering the streets of Chinatown a little bit more, I walked off in the direction of the river.

I was happy to find a cool breeze had picked up when I reached the river, making my stroll along the waterfront quite pleasant. It was a quiet and peaceful place for a walk; I sat down beneath some trees to relax and simply enjoy the tranquility of the area; it was almost as though I wasn’t in the middle of a bustling city.

I spent the remaining late afternoon doing some reading back at my hostel. As night fell, I took the subway back over to the Marina Bay Sands to watch the water show at 21:00. The show is put on in the bay next to the shopping mall, with music, lights, and lasers all creating a dazzling spectacle for people to watch. The show lasted roughly ten minutes or so, but it was mesmerizing. The lasers were the highlight of the entire show: the fountains would spray a plume of mist into the air upon which the lasers would project various images, from blossoming flowers to moving animals and birds.

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I hopped the subway back to my hostel once the show was over. I needed to get some rest for the fun and exciting day ahead of me!

19 July 2017
Singapore

I had one thing on my agenda for today: Universal Studios Singapore. I had planned this excursion several months prior and I had been looking forward to it ever since. It had been several years since I had last been to a theme park; I was quite giddy with excitement.

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The theme park is situated on an island that is the entertainment center of Singapore: there is everything one could want there, from restaurants to shopping to the theme park. I arrived shortly before the park opened and spent some time walking about the central area. I stumbled upon a great surprise: Garrett’s Popcorn! I thought it was only in Chicago, but there is was in all its glory; I knew that I had to return before leaving the park that afternoon.

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The park opened at 10:00 and the crowd was rather large, but it took very little time to get through the gate. The central street is Hollywood themed, with restaurants and gift shops lining the street. I walked through this street and the next, which was based on New York; my destination was Sci-Fi and the two rollercoasters they had there.

The theme of the both rollercoasters was Battlestar Galactica: one was Human, the other was Cylon. The tracks were intertwined to be “dueling” rollercoasters. The Human coaster was a more traditional ride, steep ups and downs, but nothing crazy; while the Cylon coaster was more intense, with several upside-down spins, corkscrews, etc. The coasters were supposed to resemble a space battle between the Cylons and Humans.

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Due to the extreme nature of the rides, everyone was required to empty out their pockets and place them in free lockers nearby (the lockers were free for a set period of time, after which they would charge money). After storing my stuff, I got in line for the Cylon coaster first. The walk to the ride itself was full of Cylon statues and videos playing of Number 5 giving a ‘pep talk’ before the ‘fight’ against the Humans. I was seriously nerding out!

From the get-go, the ride itself was intense: the cars shot out of the start at high speed, racing to the top of a steep climb before plummeting downwards, heading into the first of many inversions. It was exhilarating! The ride lasted roughly 30 to 45 seconds and I was disappointed when it was over – I wanted it to just keep going!

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I ran over to the Human coast next and enjoyed experiencing the ride from the other side. As with the Cylon side, this one had props and set pieces from the show to give the feeling of being on the Galactica itself. Videos played of Adama and Starbuck giving their pep talks before the right. The cars still sped up the initial hill quite fast, but the rest of the Human coaster couldn’t compete with the Cylon side. It was still a lot of fun, just less intense.

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Leaving the Sci-Fi zone, I ventured into Ancient Egypt, where the Mummy ride awaited me. This was another roller coaster, but this one was all inside. The ride had a separate line for single riders, allowing me to skip to the front of the queue to fill any open seats on the ride. The route to the ride wound through a mock Egyptian pyramid, which was fun to walk through.

The ride itself was one of my favorite rides in the entire park. I sat in a large car as we raced through the pyramid: there were abrupt halts, followed by unexpectedly going in reverse, dropping through darkened trap doors, the car spun in a circle. The most exciting park was done in complete darkness as we raced along the track, with some faint lights periodically flashing around us. I had a great time and knew that I’d be coming back to ride it again. But first…

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Two words: Jurassic Park. Need I say more?!

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Yes, there was an entire section dedicated to Jurassic Park, which I was overjoyed about. The entrance was a replica of the gate from the movie, while music from the movies played over loudspeakers. In front of the gate were two large statues of a T-Rex and another dinosaur fighting in front of a replica of the visitor center from the movie.

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This section of the park had two rides: the dino-glider and a water ride. I got in line for the dino-glider ride: it was a four-seater car that raced along a track suspended over the entire Jurassic Park section. It was an ok ride, but not nearly as exciting as the proper rollercoasters in the other sections. I planned to ride the water ride at some point, but I needed to store my belongings in a locker and the lockers in this section were not free.

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I continued exploring the park and made my way to Far Far Away Land, which was based on the Shrek film series: there was a large fairytale castle in the middle of the area, along with many references to various characters like Donkey, the Gingerbread Man, etc. Most of the rides in this area were aimed at younger kids, but I did ride the Puss In Boots rollercoaster. It was the tamest of the coasters I rode in the park, but that’s due to the targeted age for riders.

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The final area of the park was dedicated to the Madagascar films and didn’t contain any rides that peaked my interest. I instead went to get some lunch at a nearby 1950s-style American café. Outside the café, live performers were putting on a Minions themed show.

After lunch, I returned to the Jurassic Park area to catch one of the live-action shows in the park; this one was based on the film Waterworld. The audience was split into sections: one that would stay dry and one that would get wet. Before the show began, some of the performers came out with water guns and buckets full of water and proceeded to splash much of the audience. The show itself was alright and entertaining enough. The set centered around a large lagoon where they had boats and jet skis racing around; there were explosions and some cool special effects.

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Heading back to the Sci-Fi area, I rode the Cylon coaster a second time before going to the 3D Transformers ride. This one also had a single rider line and I was able to get right onto the ride. We sat in a car with 3D glasses on: the car was rocked and jolted around as we fought off the Decepticons; the video being projected was very good and really made me feel I was there.

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I then rode the Mummy coaster again before storing my things in one of the Battlestar Galactica lockers (for free) and then heading over to the Jurassic Park section to do the water ride (the lockers are supposed to only be for the Galactica rides… but I didn’t care).

The jungle river ride quickly became a favorite of mine in the park: we sat in a circular car that floated around the ‘river’ that runs through Jurassic Park. Everything starts out rather well, drifting by a Stegosaurus and a few other dinosaurs… before it all goes to hell. The first sign of distress was Nedry’s jeep in a great recreation from the first movie. We pass by an area that had been destroyed by dinosaurs and was flooded, sending us on a crazy ride through the rest of the river; the car would spin around and swoop down hills, spilling water over us. Velociraptors popped up on all sides, a Dilophosaurus spit water over us, all before we entered the hydroelectric plant.

We were plunged into darkness as sirens blared; in the distance we could hear the roar of a T-Rex. The car began to spin around faster and we passed under some running water before seeing the T-Rex breaking through the wall. Rushing deeper into the plant, we were pushed into an elevator: at the top of the elevator was the T-Rex, who was trying to attack us! The doors at the top of the elevator opened and we plunged down the hill to escape, getting soaking wet in the process. The car then returned to the starting point. It was a GREAT ride, not least because of the dinosaurs.

I began to re-ride many of the same rides again: I rode the Cylon coaster for a third time, the Mummy coast two more times, and I did the Jurassic Park jungle river ride twice more, back to back. The third time I went, the guy at the entrance joked that I must like getting wet, to which I replied that I love dinosaurs.

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It was around 18:15 by this point and I needed to get some dinner, so I decided it was time to leave the park. On my way out, I stopped at Garrett’s Popcorn and bought a jumbo bag of the Chicago Mix. I walked back to the city along the waterfront: the breeze off the water was cooling.

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I returned to Chinatown for dinner again, this time I had pork with rice. I then went back to my hostel so I could get my bags packed and ready for my early departure in the morning.

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Posted by Glichez 05:37 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

A Brief Stopover in Jakarta


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14 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia
Country 73

I had an early morning layover in Kuala Lumpur, which gave me enough time to grab a bite to each for breakfast before heading to the gate for my final flight to Jakarta. I slept on the short flight and we arrived into Jakarta in the late afternoon.

I had arranged to stay at a hotel at the airport since my time in Jakarta was limited: it was affordable, convenient, and there was a bus into the city that ran quite frequently (and it was cheap!). I wandered through the terminal, trying to figure out how to reach my hotel, which was in a different terminal. A guy came up to offer help, but in reality he was trying to sell me a taxi ride: he claimed the terminal was 4km away with no easy way to get there. I declined his help and found the free terminal shuttle that took me where I needed to go.

The hotel was nice, but very simple: I had a room with a bathroom and a TV, but no window. It was fine for my basic needs and I was glad of the privacy after sharing a room during my travels over the past few months. I spent the afternoon relaxing in my room and unwinding after the long night of travel; I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on TV and had dinner at an A&W fast food place at the airport.

The terminal had dozens of fast food places scattered along the outside; many of them were local places, with a few Western/American places included as well. I’d not been to an A&W for over 15 years and I wanted a root beer float; in that, I was not disappointed. I went to bed and slept quite well that night, thankful for the air-conditioning in the hotel.

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15 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia

I decided to sleep in the morning – something I’ve not had the luxury of doing for quite some time. I’ve been regularly going to sleep around 01:00 most nights, so the early morning alarms were starting to wear on me.

I went out to the airport terminal to catch the bus into the city center. The terminal was rather chaotic, but thankfully two workers were kind enough to help me locate the bus. They had me wait with them and, as the bus was approaching, they flagged it down to stop for me; I was very grateful for their help.

The bus took roughly 40 minutes to reach the Gambir train station, located in the heart of Jakarta. The ride into the city highlighted the extreme income differences and poverty that was present throughout the city: slums and shanty towns were located right next to newly built high-rises.

I set off to walk about the city and explore some; there was not much in the way of tourist attractions in Jakarta, but that didn’t deter me from going out to see the city itself. The Gambir station is located right next to the National Monument park, which was entirely fenced off. I evidently took the wrong rout to reach the entrance as I had to walk almost all the way around before I found a gate that was open.

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The National Monument was a large obelisk erected in the center of a massive, open square. Surrounding the square were various smaller monuments and statues, along with large parks. I did a full circuit around the park area, taking it all in.

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I then walked over to a Starbucks to cool off and do some reading. It was a very hot and muggy day, so finding somewhere with AC was essential! I started reading a book called “The Wars for Asia” that covered the various wars happening throughout Asia from 1911 to 1949 (primarily between Japan and China).

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I eventually made my way back to the Gambir station to catch the bus back to my hotel. It was a slower paced and relaxing day of seeing Jakarta, but still very enjoyable.

16 July 2017
Jakarta, Indonesia

I again took the bus into the city this morning to spend a few hours exploring other areas. My flight to Singapore wasn’t until 20:00, so I had the entire day to kill. The hotel was kind enough to store my luggage for me, which was a massive help.

Arriving back into Gambir station, I walked in the opposite direction of where I’d gone the day before. I had spotted a large church and a mosque in that direction from the bus and thought I would go find them. The streets in Jakarta (and indeed, in all of SE Asia) are not pedestrian friendly: there are few crosswalks and when there are some, the drivers (especially on motorbikes) rarely pay any attention to them. Crossing the street is an exciting, though sometimes dangerous, endeavor.

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I made it over to the Catholic church, which was across the street from the mosque. Traffic in the area was horrendous and it was quite crowded with people owing to the fact that it was a Sunday. I stopped to snap a few photos from the outside before continuing on through the city.

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I again stopped to have some coffee and get some reading done once it became hotter in the afternoon. After spending a little bit of time cooling off and relaxing, it was time to catch the bus back to the airport so I could make my flight to Singapore. Overall, I thought Jakarta was only so-so: it was a large city without a lot of unique character or things to see/do. I was ready to move on.

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My flight got me into Singapore shortly after 23:00; I had already arranged to have the airport shuttle take me to my hostel in town, which made everything much easier once I arrived. I was quite tired and I didn’t want to spend time figuring a lot of things out.

When I arrived at the hostel, the front desk was closed, but they had provided me the access code for the front door and left an envelope with all of the information I would need. The hostel was very nice, very clean, and modern. I was in a 10-bed dormitory, which thankfully had good AC! Each bed had two large lockers assigned to it, so I was able to fit in my backpack and my larger suitcase as well. I locked everything away and crawled into bed, exhausted.

Posted by Glichez 09:45 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Naadam Fesitval: "It's Fortunate That We're Here for This"


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9 July 2017
Karakorum, Mongolia

Another long day in the vans awaited us today as we continued to make our way back to Ulaanbaatar. Our destination today was the ancient capital city of Karakorum. Once again, I was in the van with Mary, along with David, Pamela, Amy and Diana; we had Sansar as our driver.

We stopped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch, where the food was decent. By this point we were all fed up with the “mystery gray meat” that had followed us throughout the trip. Today’s meat was somewhat better and had flavoring.

We spent the majority of the day driving and our van pulled into the ger camp in the late afternoon. We sat around waiting for the other two vans and Namuun to arrive, but after nearly 30 minutes, we had seen nothing of them. Pamela noticed that Namuun had tried calling her several times and, when Pamela called her back, Nimuun was pissed off that she’d not answered (rather ironic considering that Namuun hadn’t answered her phone when Pamela was sick one night at the camel camp…). We weren’t supposed to be at the ger camp at all: we were supposed to be at the Erdene Zuu monastery (which is where she and the other two vans were). When we finally reached the monastery complex, the others had been waiting for nearly an hour!

The monastery complex quickly captivated me and the afternoon’s chaos was soon forgotten. Much of the complex had been destroyed during the communist purge in the 1930s, but a few of the Buddhist temples managed to survive. The complex was surrounded by a large, white wall and the majority of the area was an open field.

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In the three main temples, photos were only permitted with an extra fee, which I didn’t pay for. The temples contained massive statues of the Buddha: past, present, and future; as well as various depictions of the other gods and monks. We had museum guides with us in each of the temples who gave us in-depth descriptions of everything we saw.

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Next to this preserved area was a functioning part of the monastery which allowed photos to be taken. It was small, but quite fun to walk around. Inside were a few monks doing their prayer chants.

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In the large courtyard of the complex was an unassuming, small blue building that was the oldest surviving temple there.

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We left the monastery and drove a short way over to another museum, which focused on the history of Mongolia. We again had a guide with us who took us throughout the entire museum and explained a lot of Mongolian history, which I found fascinating. Most of the group didn’t participate as the museum provided free WiFi (our first Internet access in over a week!). The last room of the museum contained artifacts from a recently discovered burial tomb, which Alexandra and I both found absolutely amazing.

When we returned to the ger camp, we gathered for dinner and spent the evening relaxing. There was a collective feeling of relief as we realized that it was out last night in the gers. They had been a fun and unique way to stay around Mongolia, but a real hotel room was quite welcome by this point.

10 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We had an early start today so we could reach Ulaanbaatar in the early afternoon: we left the ger camp by 06:00. I volunteered to ride in the gas chamber van; Alexandra sat next to me and Jeanette (from Switzerland) was also with us. The ride was long and hard, over a lot of bumpy roads. As we got closer to town, Jeanette began to get restless and unhappy; she wanted to take breaks. Once we reached Ulaanbaatar, the traffic was horrendous, but Jeanette kept trying to ask the driver questions; he spoke no English and I finally snapped at her to stop bothering him so he could drive (we were all worried that we’d end up in a crash).

Our new hotel in the city was closer to the city center and was visually much better, but the amenities were not as good as the first hotel. After checking in, the group went out for lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby. After lunch we had the rest of the day free, so I spent the afternoon getting caught up on work.

That evening, most of us went over to a bar across the street from the hotel to have some drinks and grab some food. The bar was rather nice and had a good vibe. Madeline, Kristy, Mary and I were the first to arrive.

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Later in the evening, my boss called via WhatsApp and I stepped away to take it, not realizing what was coming: the company wanted me to return to the United States right away to “fix” the problems in the department over the next four to six months. I said I would have to think about it, which seemed to shock my boss; he apparently wanted an answer right away, which I couldn’t even fathom. This news was devastating as it would ruin all of my well-planned upcoming travels.

I returned to the bar and shared the shitty news with the group, who were kind and sympathetic. Needless to say, I decided to drink a lot that night.

11 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Naadam Festival Day #1

Today was the big day: the opening ceremony of the Naadam Festival!

We drove over to the festival grounds shortly after breakfast, arriving around 09:30. The festival area was large and spread out, with numerous food stalls and stands selling various trinkets and souvenirs. Near the entrance was a covered area where groups of men were playing the traditional Mongolian knuckles game; they were making quite a bit of noise as they cheered their teammates on.

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We made our way over to the stadium where the opening ceremony would take place. Nimuun gave us our tickets and we had just over an hour to wander the grounds before the ceremony began. Mary, Madeline, Kristy, David and I did a loop around the stadium so we could take a look at the various stalls that had been setup.

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Several people were selling temporary tattoos, which they would then apply for you; we all decided to get one. Kristy and David got the Mongolian flag on her cheek; Mary got the flag in the shape of Mongolia on her arm; I got the national symbol on my neck. In postings on Facebook and Instagram, I pretended that the tattoo was real…

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Returning to the stadium, we made our way to our seats. The group’s tickets were not all together: we were scattered around the same section though. The rows were VERY narrow, leaving no space for anyone to walk by (we had to stand on our seats each time someone needed through).

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The ceremony itself began at 11:00 and lasted for just under two hours; each ceremony covers the history of Mongolia, but how it is depicted changes each year. This year began with some horse riders parading through the field before

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Then, some evil spirits showed up to give battle to the Mongolians. There was a battle of sorts before a hero rode in on his horse and fought off them off.

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Up next, it was time to fight off the Romans. A large group of Roman soldiers marches onto the field and the ensuing battle was massive and very fun to watch. The archers would run at the soldiers, who used their shields to protect themselves and launch the archers into the air. Eventually though, the Mongolians got the upper hand and defeated the Romans.

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The remaining show was a dazzling display of Mongolian culture as the groups of people would dance and sing around the field. Large floats would drive around the perimeter of the field as well. At the end, there was a long parade of different Mongolian groups. In all, it was an exciting and eventful start to the Naadam Festival!

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We hurriedly left the stadium so we could have lunch before the archery began at 13:30. Nimuun took us to one of the food stalls where we had traditional Mongolian dumplings, which were deep fried. They were actually quite tasty – far better than I had anticipated. They were flat and filled with a thing layer of meat.

After eating, we packed into the archery stadium, which was rather small and people were crowding around everywhere, standing in the aisles, etc. There were no assigned seats and people could simply come and go as they pleased (the only events with actual tickets were the wrestling and opening ceremony).

There was a quick show put on before the archery itself began: men in masks danced around the field before two warriors rode in on horseback. We weren’t quite sure what it was all supposed to represent, but it was visually quite interesting to watch.

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The archery itself was not as exciting as I had anticipated. The archery I had watched at the Rio Olympics in 2016 was great fun, but the Naadam archery lacked some of the tension. The archers stood in a long line and fired their arrows toward the targets; several archers would go at the same time and there was a lack of tension in the air. Nevertheless, it was still fun to watch first the men and then the women.

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Kristy and I soon got up and decided to go for another walk around the festival area – but first, we stopped to get some gelato, which was refreshingly cool as the temperature was quite high during the day. As we were walking about, we stumbled upon a food stall that had evidently caught fire: debris was everywhere, the authorities had it blocked off.

We eventually walked over to the knuckles arena where we met back up with the rest of the group. We were free to come and go as we pleased during the day, but Nimuun was organizing the bus to take people back to the hotel at 16:00; nearly everyone was there to catch the bus after such a long day at the festival.

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After a quick refresher at the hotel, we all went back across the street to the same bar from the night before; we had only a couple of drinks before we decided to head out to dinner. Mary had found a vegetarian restaurant nearby, but it was closed during the festival, so we settled on the restaurant next door (coincidentally, the same place Nimuun had booked for the group’s farewell dinner the following night!).

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After dinner, a few of us (Alexandra, Diana, Mary, Kristy, Michael and I) walked over to Genghis Khan Square, where a stage had been erected and a DJ had playing music. Throughout the nights of the festival, people could come to the square and party. The crowd wasn’t very big at this point, but it was still early in the evening (around 20:30). After hanging around for a few minutes, Alexandra, Michael and I walked back to the hotel to get some rest.

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12 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Naadam Festival Day #2

The second day of the Naadam Festival – and the final day of the Mongolia tour!

We were up and on the bus early this morning, leaving the hotel by 06:30 and having a packed breakfast on the bus (the breakfast was a sandwich, which I did not eat as it was rather soggy). We had a long drive out of town to reach the finish line of the horse race; the closer to the event area, the worse traffic became.

The crowd was enormous, with massive parking lots full of cars; stalls setup selling food, toys, souvenirs; people riding horses all over the place. It was pure chaos – and it was fun navigating our way through it all! A long row of small bleachers had been setup along the finish line where people could sit; directly in front of the bleachers was a line of police who kept a close watch on the crowd.

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We had a very long wait once we arrived: the race was due to finish around 09:30 (or so Nimuun claimed), but that time came and went with no sign of the riders. I was sitting next to Alexandra and we spent the time chatting quite a bit, which was really nice. As the stands began to fill up, we decided to stand and wait at the barrier so our view wouldn’t be blocked by others coming in.

As we waited, helicopters flew by overhead and several parachutists jumped out, carrying various flags beneath them. It was an unexpected treat to watch them as they glided down and landed near the finish line. At the same time, a group of horse riders were riding up and down in front of the stands doing tricks as the rode by: they would start galloping and then slide off their saddles and get into death-defying positions as they held on to their moving horses!

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Finally, a couple hours later, we spotted the horses galloping towards us on the horizon! The cars driving alongside them were turning up a lot of dust as well. The young jockeys (mostly boys, but also a few girls, from ages 7 and up) were amazing to watch as they rode their horses, with the crowd loudly cheering each one of them on, regardless of what place in the race they were in.

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Once the race was over, we walked back to bus and began the very long drive back to town. The drive itself was compounded by the fact that everyone was leaving the horse racing grounds at the same time, so the drive took us several hours (during which I thankfully napped).

Arriving back into town, we were dropped off back at the Naadam Festival grounds. The afternoon’s plan centered around watching the wrestling, which is the primary sport in Mongolia. The wrestling was held in the same stadium as the opening ceremony. We had barely enough time to grab a quick lunch (the same dumplings from the previous day) before it was time to head into the stadium.

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Photo credit: Diana Berrent - Diana Berrent Photography

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Alexandra, Diana, and me
Photo credit: Diana Berrent - Diana Berrent Photography

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It took some time for the wrestling to begin in earnest. Before the match began there was a long ceremony that included singing, along with the wrestlers doing the Eagle Dance on the field. The afternoon round began with the Round 5 (out of a total of 9 rounds) and one of the wrestlers from our camp was going to be wrestling! Each wrestler must win the previous round to advance.

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All of the wrestling matches began at the same time and the wrestlers competed until their opponent was defeated, which could take some time. After each wrestler won, he would do a lap around a ceremonial banner in the center of the field and do the Eagle Dance. The banner was watched over constantly by an honor guard that was changed on the hour (the changing ceremony was small, but the guards would goose-step on and off of the field).

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At the end of each round, there was a long break and some awards were handed out to the winners of the other sports, such as the ankle bone games, archery, and horse racing. Between Round 5 and Round 6, one wrestler who had lost in Round 5 began to contest the results. He walked around on the field, trying to get the crowd to cheer for him in an effort to reverse the judges’ decision. At one point, it appeared that the decision had been reversed, which angered many in the crowd; people around us began to throw their bottles of water or soda onto the field. Ultimately, the decision was not reversed, but it took quite a long time for the wrestler to finally leave the field and allow the competition to continue.

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After Round 6 we waited a long time for Round 7 to begin, but the awards ceremony for the horse racing was seemingly endless. Nimuun had made dinner reservations for us that evening at 19:30, so we had to give up waiting so we could make it to dinner on time. We later learned that our wrestler was eliminated in Round 7.

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The farewell dinner was quite nice. Our small group all sat together (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, Alexandra, and me); it was nice to get to spend the final evening all together. We had one of the waiters that a group photo of the entire group as well.

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Once dinner was over, several of us (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, Alexandra, Pamela, Aimee, Diana and me) decided to go to a nearby rooftop bar for a few final drinks. Aimee had been talking to a local guy, who she’d met at the archery camp, and he joined us as well. We spent a couple of hours sitting around, drinking, chatting; the bar had a live band performing cover songs and the view from the top overlooking the city was stunning.

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It was sad to have to say goodbye to everyone; the tour had flown by and I’d made some great new friends (which is one of the best parts about traveling the world). I eventually crawl into bed that night shortly before 01:00.

13 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

My final day in Mongolia began quite early as David was up around 03:30 to catch his ride to the airport. I’d asked him to wake me when he left so I could say goodbye, which he did and I was happy to be able to wish him well.

In the morning, I met up with a local Mongolian guy that I had been chatting with (via an app) for several days; he’d been out in the desert with friends for the past few days, but he’d taken an overnight train back to the city. His English was very good; even though he thought it was terrible, I could understand everything he said. He’s a teacher in the city and he explained a lot about the various foreign teaching programs that send educators to Mongolia, primarily from the US, Canada and the UK. We hung out for a little while, until it was time for me to go meet up with Mary, Kristy and Diana for lunch. I was sad to have to say goodbye to him: it was clear that it wasn’t easy for him to be gay, living in Mongolia; I felt sad for him.

Mary, Kristy, Diana and I were the only people left in the city this afternoon as everyone else had caught early flights (or they weren’t part of our smaller group). Diana and I planned to walk to the Pyongyang Restaurant, a North Korean place in the city, but she wasn’t feeling well, so I made a quick walk over. It was interesting, but nothing special (aside from the fact that it was North Korean – Tong Il!).

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The four of us met up at the vegetarian place that Mary had found (the one that was closed a few days earlier). It was highly rated and very popular with foreigners. I ordered French Toast, something I had mentioned only days before as having been craving. I was not disappointed: the French Toast was to die for; everyone tried a bite and agreed that it was surprisingly good. It was great getting to spend one final meal together. I was especially going to miss Mary – my van buddy! I really felt a strong connection with her throughout the trip; she brought such a positive, energetic, spontaneous, and fun vibe to the group.

After lunch it was time for the final goodbyes. Diana and I headed back to the hotel together as we were going to share the shuttle ride to the airport. We were each flying through Beijing, but on flights 30 minutes apart. My layover was six hours, but Diana’s was a brutal all-night layover; we made plans to meet up in the Beijing airport so we could have dinner.

Arriving in Beijing, I made my way to the passport control as I needed to reclaim my bag and recheck-in for my next flight (I’d booked two one-way tickets: Mongolia to China and then China to Indonesia). Thankfully, China provided a 72-hour visa-free entry, which was quick and easy to get processed. Once I was through baggage claim, my return to Hell… China... began.

I was quickly reminded why I disliked the country so much: the people were rude and obnoxious. I was trying to get into an elevator, but people got on and stood right at the front, refusing to move back and make room for others. No one there knows how to queue to save their lives. I walked right over to my check-in counter and waited a few hours for it to finally open. I had to change terminals, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to meet up with Diana as planned, which was disappointing (I sent her a message on Facebook to let her know). While I was waiting, a massive storm came through, with pouring rain and an amazing amount of lightning – I loved it!!

The storm only delayed my flight a little bit. Once I was on board, I fell fast asleep…

Posted by Glichez 07:13 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation in the Great WC


View World Tour 2017-2018 on Glichez's travel map.

Before I begin this entry, a huge thank you to Mary Penticoff for providing the title for this blog entry. She was the best companion on the long, bumpy, dusty, gas-filled days driving through the Gobi!

3 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Today began our week-long trek out to the Gobi Desert. We left our large tour bus behind and switched to three Soviet-era vans that could hold six people each (plus the driver). The vans were built for off-road driving as there were very few, if any, paved roads where we would be going. We all referred to the vans as motorized refrigerators.

Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David and me all climbed into one van, with Nimuun joining us as well. Diana also joined us. The van itself was the best of the three, with leopard-print seat covers and quilted padding along the sides and roof; it was also the only van with seat-belts.

Our drive lasted roughly five hours, heading south from Ulaanbaatar. The roads were quite bumpy and our driver, Sansar, drove the fastest of all the vans; there were many times where we were thrown around in the back as we bounced over the rocky, dirt roads. It was an exciting and fun ride.

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We arrived at our destination, Baga Gazriin Chuluu, in the early afternoon. This was a rocky area with many large outcroppings that we could climb and walk around on. There was a small cave nearby where two monks hid during the Great Purge in the 1930s (though they were soon discovered and executed).

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The sky in this area was a brilliant and vibrant blue; the clouds in the sky were absolutely perfect. It truly embodied the notion of Mongolia being the Land of Never Ending Sky.

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We then drove over to the ruins of the monastery where the monks had been living and working. It wasn’t a traditional monastery, but a place where the learned monks would translate documents from Tibetan into Mongolian. All that remains now are some old walls with trees growing throughout the area.

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We returned to our new ger camp for the evening.

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4 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Another long day in the vans as we drove another six hours or so. We were forced to change up the vans and seating arrangement, though thankfully I was sharing the new van with Mary. The new van was the oldest of the three (it often had trouble getting started) and the driver spoke almost no English, but he had a great personality and would sing along to the Mongolian music he played. The van was far bumpier than the first one, but it added to the excitement of the ride. Mary was able to curl on the seat next to me to sleep during much of the ride and I managed to sneak in a nap as well.

We arrived at the ger camp, where we stopped to drop off our things and then have lunch. Climbing back into our vans, we drove on to our sightseeing stop for the day: Tsagaan Suvarga. This was a beautiful cliff that seemed to rise out of the middle of the desert; the cliff faces were a brilliant shade of yellow. We first drove to the top of the cliffs which afforded some amazing views over the Mongolian landscape. Each day I was blown away by the beauty of this country: even though we were in the desert and the landscape variety was limited, it was still beautiful.

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David had an American flag scarf that his American girlfriend had given him and, as it was the Fourth of July, we Americans stopped for some photos with it atop the cliffs.

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Driving down to the base of the cliffs, we were given 30 minutes to walk around and explore. I joined Alexandra as we strolled along the base of the cliffs; Mary had sprinted on ahead of everyone, like a true hiker. We climbed up and down the various hills and were continuously amazed by the cliffs; their yellow color was so vibrant, especially with the stunningly blue skies.

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That night at the ger camp passed as all the others had done: dinner and drinks. I spent some time reading and getting caught up on this blog (which I was woefully behind on). As I sat outside my ger enjoying the cool evening air, Mary came and showed me a fantastic app on her phone that identified the stars and planets in the night sky. We regaled one another with funny stories about using “bush toilets” on previous trips. As she described it, we were in the “Great WC” of the world – meaning, everywhere we looked was a WC (water closet – toilet).

5 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

An early start today as we left camp by 07:00 so we could fit in enough time at our sights today. I was the first to the vans this morning and managed to get the five of us (Mary, Madeline, Kristy, David, and me) all into the same van that I’d been in the day before. We’d hope to ride in the same van every day and I think Nimuun didn’t mind letting us be together (we’d have more fun together than separated).

The day was cloudy and rather cold, but the van’s windows were held open by old electrical wire, so the cold air was rushing in as we drove along, making us all quite chilly. We managed to untie the wires and close the windows to warm up, while Madeline and Kristy huddled together under one of the sleeping bags in the back.

What we didn’t realize was that the windows provided much needed fresh air and ventilation for the van; the engine was between the driver and passenger seats, with a hatch inside the van providing access to it and two vents shooting heat from the engine into the van itself. Soon the van began to small of exhaust fumes and we had to open the windows up again. Mary slyly commented that the experience gave new meaning to auto-erotic asphyxiation, which gave us all a hearty laugh.

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We arrived at the Vulture Canyon and enjoyed a picnic lunch, which I was delighted to find out was tsiu van. After eating, the group set off for our two-hour hike through the canyon. I spent the first half of the hike walking with Susan and talking US politics (a recurring topic of the tour group). We crossed and re-crossed a small creek numerous times as we hiked along the path, deeper and deeper into the canyon itself. The mountains surrounding us were jagged and rocky; each turn brought a new and breathtaking view.

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We reached the top of a small waterfall, which is where the path ended. Some people climbed down the waterfall while the rest of us relaxed before turning around to head back. The weather had warmed up and the sun had finally come out. Once we were back at the vans, we drove off to our new ger camp.

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This ger camp was quite modern and was definitely tied for the nicest one so far (along with the first ger camp). The gers were clean, with power outlets, tables; the restaurant was large and cool; they even offered massages (which Diana was quite excited about!). There were two nice gazebos providing some shelter from the sun; I sat in one and did some reading, enjoying the cool breeze.

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Dinner was early that evening so we could head out to the Flaming Cliffs for sunset. The cliffs themselves were discovered in the 1920s by an American archaeologist who had also discovered the first dinosaur eggs nearby. We first drove to the top of the cliffs, where we spent around 45 minutes hiking around them.

The views were the best that we’ve had thus far on the trip: the cliffs rose out of the middle of the desert and were a bright red color. Hiking around the cliffs allowed us to look out over the desert for miles and miles. A storm was brewing in the distance, which we had to outrun on our way back to camp (though we still had plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs). I spent the time walking around the Pamela as we carefully trod the gravel pathways.

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On our way back to camp, we stopped further away from the cliffs as the sun started to go down. The red in the cliffs was so vibrant and stunning, one could easily understand where the name “Flaming Cliffs” came from. As we raced back to camp, we were able to watch the awesome sunset from the van. The sky was aflame with reds, oranges, and blues. All of us in the van simply sat and stared at the sky during the drive.

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Returning to camp, I spent the evening in the ger working on the blog. While I was sitting in my ger talking to Ron, who was sharing the ger with David and me, our driver from that day randomly walked into our ger. Ron and I were caught off guard and we couldn’t communicate with him as he spoke no English. He smiled, said hello and looked around; we thought he might be drunk and confused about which get he was sleeping in that night. He eventually left. A little bit later, when Ron left to have a shower, the driver came back into the ger! He motioned me sleeping, which I took to ask if I was going to bed. He came around to where I was working on my blog to see what I was doing, then said “Facebook?” and I nodded yes, that I had Facebook and this would get posted there when I had WiFi. He wanted to connect on Facebook, so I had him write his name down so I could find him once we were back to WiFi. He sat there for a minute or two before getting up to leave. It was a strange interaction.

6 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

This morning our small group (Mary, Kristy, Madeline, David, and me) all managed to get placed in Sansar’s van – the one we had ridden in on our first day with the vans. It was by far the most comfortable of the vans and we were excited to have it once again. We had another long and very bumpy drive through the Gobi region to reach the sand dunes today.

We arrived to our ger camp in the early afternoon and were very happy with the camp: it was the most modern of the camps thus far. All of our gers had ensuite bathrooms, which was the main highlight. The camp had only opened two days prior to our arrival, so everything was very clean and new. There were some small issues here and there that needed fixing, but overall it was quite nice. The lunch was rather disappointing for me though: tuna salad as a starter, followed by mushroom soup – two foods that I greatly disliked. The main dish was good though: rice with meat.

It was extremely hot this day and we spent a few hours at the ger camp after lunch, waiting for the day to cool off a bit, before heading over to the sand dunes. The dunes were massive and stretched for over 150km; they were nestled at the base of a string of mountains and looked as though a dump truck had simply dropped the sand there.

Arriving at the dunes, we were given roughly two hours to walk around and attempt to climb to the top (if we wanted). Nimuun said the record for climbing to the top of the largest dune was 45 minutes and we all bet that Mary could best that record. She took off her sandals and headed up the dune. We all eagerly watcher her climbing and she managed to reach the top within 25 minutes!

The sand on the dunes was scorching and most of us couldn’t walk barefoot on the sand. A small group of us climbed up to a small ridge at the base of the large dune to snap some photos. The countryside and the dunes themselves were so beautiful and breathtaking.

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I decided to climb up a little higher and set off on my own. I’d set a goal for myself and just kept climbing higher and higher. David set off to follow me and together we set off in an effort to reach the top of the dune. I had to call it off soon after that, as the dune became steeper and I was unable to really dig my feet into the sand; my fear of heights kicked in (just like it did in Namibia).

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I met up with Kristy further down the dune and we crossed over to another ridge and walked back over to the vans, where we congratulated Mary on her achievement.

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Back at the ger camp, we sat around playing cards after dinner. I taught our small group how to play Cabo and everyone seemed to enjoy it (we played it for several hours). I finally crawled into bed around midnight.

7 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Last night, both Pamela and Alexandra got quite ill and apparently Nimuun couldn’t be reached during the night. We found out that she hadn’t even stayed in the camp that night: she’d left to arrange our camel rights for today and ended up staying at the camel ger camp. It later came out that she had been drinking a lot of vodka with the family during the night. When she returned to camp, she expressed very little concern over the two who were sick and told many lies to help cover up what happened.

When we all met up to leave for the camel rides, Nimuun was in a very poor mood and was downright rude to everyone – it was a stark different to her usually bubbly and friendly persona. She even commented that it was a free day and that she didn’t need to be happy. We were all unhappy with her attitude.

At the camel ger, we were split into two groups as there were only seven camels available; I was in the second group with Mary, Kristy, Amy, Madeline, and Carmen. David was in the first group and we asked Nimuun if he could switch, but she wouldn’t allow it. We waited at the ger camp while the first group went out, sitting around in a gazebo chatting during the 90-minute wait.

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Photo credit: Kristy Carstairs

I was less than enthusiastic about the camel ride. All of the camels had two humps and were walked along a path, single-file, with the guide pulling the reins of the lead camel. I was put on the lead camel and thankfully didn’t fall off when the camel stood up. We were each given the rope holding the camel behind us; it was our job not to drop the rope as they kept the camels in line. They didn’t have a proper saddle on the camel and within minutes I was getting sore and uncomfortable.

We walked for roughly 45 minutes over to the base of the sand dunes, where we stopped for a quick round of pictures before heading back. By this point my ass and thighs were very sore and I was eager to get off the damn camel. When we were nearly at the camp, we ran into another group of camel riders. The guides stopped and, for reasons unknown, switched around some of the camels. My camel got tired of standing and decided to sit down unexpectedly. It was startling, but I didn’t call off (huzzah!).

When we arrived back to the camel ger camp, my camel refused to sit down so I could dismount. It took two of the guides some time to get the camel to finally sit. When I got off, my legs were a little wobbly, but I was glad the ride was over. The collective opinion was that the ride was just so-so: not what any of us had expected and overall somewhat dull.

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We had the rest of the day to relax at the ger camp. I spent my time reading mostly; I wanted to finish my current book so I could find and start a book about Vietnam before I go there later this year.

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8 July 2017
Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Today was our longest drive in the vans yet and Nimuun once again designated which one we would be sitting in. Mary and I were again in the same van, along with David, Susan and Diana. We were the gas chamber van again, which I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the most comfortable van, but I didn’t hate it the way the others did. We were pleased to hear that Alexandra and Pamela were feeling much better this morning after a day of rest and recovery. Mary was not feeling well though; she spent much of the day curled up in the van sleeping.

We stopped for a short break in a small village where there were some mini-markets. I bought some snacks, but had to throw away the majority of them: the Coke was very hot and undrinkable; the Twix bars had melted to the point that the chocolate tasted funky; and the second ice cream I bought was definitely not vanilla (I’m not sure what it was, but it was salty and tasted awful).

We drove for another hour or so before stopping atop a small hill for a picnic lunch. This was, for me, the worst meal of the trip so far. It was basically a repeat of the meal we’d had at the wrestling camp, but the meat did not look appetizing whatsoever (it was what we’d come to fondly call “mysterious gray meat” and was still on the bone). I ate the tomatoes and one of the potatoes before I gave up.

Back in the van, I ate some of the Pringles that I had left over from a prior shopping trip. Mary then pulled out some Oreos and a jar of creamy peanut butter and offered them to me. We’d been talking of the peanut butter and Oreo treat for days and I was so happy to finally get to try it. Amazing. Absolutely amazing! I had several of the Oreos and put a generous amount of peanut butter on each one. Best snack of the trip.

Our ger camp, like most of them, was in the middle of nowhere, but we were all overjoyed to finally arrive and get out of the vans. The drive had been roughly eight hours and was the dustiest day yet; a thick layer of sand and dust coated everything. The bathrooms at this ger camp where the best of the entire trip: clean and ultra-modern.

Many of us met up on a large covered patio next to the restaurant to have drinks and play cards. Over the next several hours, we played round after round of Cabo and drank beer. It was a much needed way to relax and unwind after the long day.

After dinner we took a short hike over to the ruins of a monastery, which had been destroyed during the Great Purge in the 1930s. The crumbling remains of walls could be seen all around and over a few small buildings still stood. We were given time to hike around and take pictures. The sun was setting and the moon was huge on the horizon.

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Once we reached camp, I took a shower to wash off all of the sand and then crawled into bed.

Posted by Glichez 07:54 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Ulaanbaatar and the Naadam Training Camps


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28 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia – Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Big travel day for me today: off to Mongolia!

My exposure to anything Mongolian thus far has been confined to a rather funny bit from South Park. I was anxious to arrive and experience the country!

I was up early so I could check-out and get back to the train station: there was a train leaving at 09:01 for the airport (the airport trains run infrequently and this was the best option for my flight later in the afternoon). The train itself was rather crowded and took about 50-minutes to reach the airport; the airport station was right next to the terminal, which was fantastic.

I had several hours to waste at the airport, so I spent the time watching Mad Men and then grabbing a bite to eat. I stopped at a tiny food stall and had a delicious schawarma for lunch, which was surprisingly good. Check-in was easy and getting back through passport control was the easiest time I’ve had yet in Russia.

I was flying Korean Air from Vladivostok to Seoul, and then from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar. The flight to Seoul literally flew all the way around North Korea, which I found rather amusing. The flight, while lasting about two hours, provided in-flight entertainment and a meal! The meal was shockingly fish, which I had never seen served on an airplane before; I was grateful that it didn’t make the entire place smell.

My layover in Seoul was just under three hours, providing enough time to grab a bite for dinner. The airport was massive and ultra-modern. There was a live orchestral quartet playing music in the airport; they played a melody from “La La Land” which I quite enjoyed.

For dinner, I ate Taco Bell. Yes, the Seoul airport has Taco Bell. I immediately sent a text to Penswe in Scotland, who loves Taco Bell (which he’s not had in nearly four years now). I was like a kid in a candy store: I had no idea what to order – I wanted it all! After eating, I swung by Starbucks to get a coffee and then relaxed at the gate until it was time to board.

The flight to Mongolia was slightly longer, but had much better in-flight movies (I spent the time watching “Rogue One”). Another meal was served on this flight, but this time we were given a choice between pork and beef; I went with pork and enjoyed the meal.

The flight landed around 21:30; getting through passport control was a breeze (made even more so given that I was among the first to get in line!). After getting my bag, I easily found the driver sent by the tour company to pick me up. We had to wait for one other person before leaving. The other person was a woman named Madeline; she’s 26 and from Boise, ID. We spent the entire drive to the hotel chatting and getting to know one another.

The hotel was very nice and the staff all spoke quite good English. Each floor had a small sitting area with a filtered water machine; the water was deliciously cold and was most welcome. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the room, working, and watching Mad Men.

29 June 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Country 72

I slept in this morning and went down to breakfast rather late, where I met up with Madeline again, along with two other women who were on the tour as well: Mary (from Idaho), Kristy (from Sydney, Australia). We all decided to do some exploring of the city and to get some shopping done.

After breakfast, we met up and first stopped to get some money changed at a nearby bank. Our first (and primary) sight of the day was the main city square. On one side of the square was a building with a massive statue of Genghis Khan, which was guarded by two soldiers. A large statue of horsemen was placed in the center of the square.

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We then walked through the city and over to the State Department Store, where we did some grocery shopping and stopped for a coffee. I was hoping to find a small day pack, but was unable to find anything in any of the stores that we stopped in.

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Turning back, Kristy and I decided to stop in at the National Museum of Mongolia, while the other two went back to the hotel to rest (they were the most jetlagged of the group). The museum covered the entire history of Mongolia, starting from ancient times running through the Mongol Empire to the communist times to the present day. One of the most enjoyable rooms contained dozens of traditional Mongolian costumes.

By this point it was around 15:00 and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped at a restaurant nearby called Broadway. We split a pizza and some spring rolls, along with a couple local beers. We spent a couple of hours just chatting, getting to know one another; it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

That evening the entire tour group met up for our orientation meeting: there were 16 people on the tour, each one of us single travelers (though there were two friends traveling together). Our tour guide was named Namuun; she was incredibly nice, funny, spoke great English; I was excited to have her as the guide. The rest of the tour was made up as follows:

Mary (USA)
Madeline (USA)
Kristy (Australia)
Susan (USA)
Diana (USA)
Carmen (USA/Mexico)
David (Australia)
Ron (Australia)
Bill (Australia)
Paul (Australia)
Jaqueline (Switzerland)
Michael (Sweden)
Alexandra (UK)
Amy (UK)
Pamela (Singapore)

I was surprised by the group demographics: the majority of the people were older (50s+) and there was a wide range of nationalities, as well as socio-economic backgrounds. By strange coincidence, the group that I’d spent the day with (Mary, Madeline, and Kristy) were the ones closest to me in age (along with David). David turned out to be my roommate that night in the hotel. He’s a really friendly and outgoing guy – and incredibly tall, dwarfing everyone else he comes across!

There were some... oddities in the group, most notably Bill and Michael. Michael spoke broken English and was rather quiet. Bill was... well, just very strange. He was a dentist and we quickly discovered that he liked to drink. A lot. He'd carry around a bottle of vodka to every meal. He was usually quiet, always appearing disheveled and appearing uncomfortable or confused all the time.

We were all shocked and somewhat angry to find out that we did not need sleeping bags for the tour, despite the trip description and dossier repeatedly stating that a sleeping bad was required for one of the nights. I had bought one when I was in Edinburgh and lugged it around for the past four months; I was less than pleased to get this news.

We all went out to eat at a Mongolian restaurant, where I ordered a local dish called TSIU VAN: a noodle-based dish with meat and vegetables. It was, beyond a doubt, the best local cuisine that I’ve had on my travels thus far. My meal was delicious and I devoured every single bite. We made it an early night so we could get going early the next morning.

30 June 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We set off from the hotel at 08:30 for our first destination: the wrestling training camp.

This tour focused on the Naadam Festival, which is an annual sporting competition in Mongolia at the county, state, and national levels. There are three events: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. The first three days of this tour focused on introducing us to each of these events, allowing us to visit various training camps and meeting some of the competitors.

The wrestling is, without a doubt, the most popular of the sports in Mongolia, with the various champions becoming national heroes. The men wear traditional costume, consisted of a vest, leather boots, and small briefs. They compete in rounds, with those making through five, seven, and the final round winning various titles: elephant, lion, and champion.

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We were met by another guide, a man named Timur, who spoke impeccable English, though we quickly discovered that he was a functioning alcoholic and drunk most of the time. He spent some time explaining the wrestling to us as we watched a large group of wrestlers practicing in a large field. There were dozens of them sparring with one another; one of the most interesting features was that the men were of all different shapes and sizes; they were tall, short, lean, muscular, and large. Anyone could compete, regardless of body size/type.

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Timur was wearing a t-shirt that read “Cherry Creek Apartments” above the word “Denver” which I was shocked to see! I asked where he got the shirt and explained that I used to live near to Cherry Creek; his wife had bought the shirt (it was evidently donated and sent over to Mongolia).

While walking around and snapping photos, two wrestlers noticed me and motioned to me to take their picture. They happily posed for the picture and took great pleasure in looking at the picture on my camera. It was a fun little interaction with them.

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After spending some time watching them, the trainers organized a small competition for us, which was an incredible treat (our guides kept mentioning how unexpected and unusual this was). We were the only tourists to be visiting the camp, so our visit may have been an equal treat for them. The wrestlers perform what is known as the Eagle Dance before each round: they run down the field, then stop, extend their arms and ever so slightly wave them like bird wings. There is a gracefulness to the performance that we all found fascinating.

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The completion was great to watch: it was a preview of what awaited us at the end of the trip at the national Naadam competition. We all decided to contribute some money (a couple of dollars each) to a prize for the top three winners. We each picked one or two wrestlers to cheer for and the ultimate winner was the favorite.

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Once the competition concluded, the wrestlers went off to shower and freshen up, while we hung around and chatted with one another until it was time for lunch. We were going to eat with the wrestlers and eat a traditional meal with them – again, a rare and unique treat that most tourists didn’t get to enjoy.

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Lunch was a “hot pot” of sorts: the meal was cooked all in one large pot and contained lamb, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. We were all served very hefty portions; the meat was rather fatty, which we learned the wrestlers preferred. There was a small gazebo nearby where we all sat around eating a drinking.

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Once the meal was over, we were able to spend a lot of time just hanging out with the wrestlers. The trainer came over to the gazebo and randomly started giving me a shoulder massage; it was quite relaxing and he had such strong hands that it really relaxed the muscles. He noticed my tattoos and hag quite a laugh about them (no idea why).

Most of the wrestlers spoke little to no English, so Timur served as the interpreter. The coach’s son spoke very good English and had spent some time studying in the USA. He was a wrestler as well and definitely one of the cutest of them. One wrestler became quite smitten with Amy as she has blonde hair and blue eyes – a rare sight in Mongolia. He was flirting heavily with her, wanting to exchange Facebook information, and eventually put his arms around her (in a good natured way). We were joking that we’d be marrying off everyone in the group by the end of the tour.

Vodka was pulled out later on and we had several shots of vodka, which is apparently a tradition in Mongolia. It was a special treat for the wrestlers, who are usually not allowed alcohol during the month training leading up to Naadam (they’re also not allowed to spend time with their families or have sex!).

There was a Frenchman with the wrestlers: he was working on his master’s degree and was studying the diets of the Mongolian wrestlers (along with Japanese sumo wrestlers). He was a very nice guy who spoke passable English; he and I spent several minutes chatting before it was time for us to leave.

We all agreed that the time spent with the wrestlers was an incredible experience: we were given such uninhibited access to their camp, spent hours getting to know them and become friendly with them. This was a treat that one couldn’t find on almost any other tour.

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We drove over to our ger camp for the evening. A ger camp is a traditional Mongolian camp with buildings similar to yurts;. They are simple housing: several small beds are placed around the perimeter with a wood-burning stove in the middle and a ventilation opening at the top. This camp was quite modern and the gers were large and comfortable. I was roomed with David again. After settling in, we all gathered to have a beer before dinner.

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1 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

We left around the same time this morning to drive several hours over to the horse racing camp. As with the wrestling camp, it was is in the middle of nowhere, but the scenery was amazing. The camp was rather small, with just one ger for the family. Nearby was a pen for the horses and another area where the horses were kept tied up during the day.

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Timur met us at the camp and explained about the horse racing. The horses are Mongolia horses, which are not as easily tamed as the horses we have in the West. The trainers have a rigorous training method for getting the horses ready for the long-distance races. The horses eating a drinking is strictly controlled, to a point where we thought that the animals looked somewhat unhealthy. Children are the jockeys, starting as young as four years old!

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There wasn’t much going on in the camp itself, but a short race was being organized nearby, so we set off to watch it before having lunch. On the way over, we made a quick stop at a gigantic metal statue of Genghis Khan atop a horse. One could climb to the horse’s head, but we didn’t have the time for us to do that.

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When we arrived at the racing area, we found a ceremony of sorts going on which we went to watch (the shamans were doing a ceremony to ask for more rain as the country is currently going through a drought). Nearby was a large, beautiful shrine.

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We waited around for a long time for the race to start; one of the boys from our training camp was participating in the race. The jockeys began to parade their horses around in a circle while they sang a song, before finally heading out to the starting point (which was quite some distance away). We climbed into our van and drove out to around the halfway point, where we stopped and waited for the horses to start running by us.

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When the first horses appeared on the horizon heading towards us, we all climbed back into the van; by this point several horses had gone by and we set off in hot pursuit. The ‘road’ was a rough and bumpy dirt path that we were speeding down in order to follow the horses. Several men were chasing behind the horses on motorbikes, encouraging them along; while other horses were visibly worn out and gently walking along. Racing along with the horses was exciting and exhilarating, bouncing around everywhere on the bus and cheering from the windows.

We missed seeing the winner run past the finish line, but we all rushed out of the bus once we reached that point and caught some great photos of the other racers finishing.

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After the race was finished, we returned to the training camp for lunch, where the owners had prepared a massive meal for us: dish after dish of food was produced from within the ger and all of it was tasty. We were all impressed with the meal and ate hearty and well.

That evening’s ger camp was nestled in the mountains of a national park, by far the most picturesque setting for a ger camp that we’d yet seen. The camp itself was… subpar. Several people found live mice in their gers, both when we arrived and throughout the night. Our ger never saw any mice, but one person on the tour had a mouse run across her face during the night!. The bathrooms had a communal shower, which was awkward. Soon after we had settled in, a large tour bus of Koreans arrived.

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Kristy, Madeline and I walked up a small hill nearby to take some pictures of the surrounding mountains. They were jagged and rocky, but amazingly beautiful. Climbing back down to camp, we went to the restaurant where we split a few beers and hung out until it was time for dinner.

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2 July 2017
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Today we set off for the final Naadam training camp: the archery center. The training center was rather close to the horse camp, just on the other side of the large Genghis Khan statue. The facility was also part of an aviation business that had several gyrocopters. The owner of the place was a fascinating man who had researched traditional Mongolian bow making (an art that had been lost for hundreds of years); he was now slowly starting to make them in the old traditional way, with animal horns and sinew (though the process was very expensive).

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We ordered our lunch, which would be at the restaurant at the facility, before heading to the large field where the archers were busy practicing. Their targets were not the traditional targets one associates with archery, but were small cylindrical shapes made of camel hide placed on the ground at the other end of the field; the aim was to knock the targets over. There were two archers dressed in the traditional Mongolian costume; it was amazing to watch them practice their art. The day was very windy and they were aiming into the wind, but many of them were still able to hit their targets.

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Lunch was tasty: I again ordered tsui van and it was every bit as good as the one I had on the first night. Once we were all done with lunch, we said goodbye to the archers and drove back to Ulaanbaatar, to the hotel we had stayed at the first two nights in town.

We arrived in town later than expected and had little time to do any sightseeing or shopping before it was time to head out to our evening activity: a cultural performance. The performance was at a small theater that was absolutely packed with people, mostly Korean tourists; the room had to air conditioning, so it was stiflingly hot. I ended up in the very back row, where the ‘seats’ were narrow benches that were impossible to sit on, so I stood during the hour-long performance.

The show itself was rather impressive, for what it was. I’m not a huge fan of the cultural shows themselves; they’re usually somewhat cheesy and done just for the tourists; this was no different. The performers all wore various traditional costumes, played various Mongolian instruments and sang many folk songs, including a talented throat singer; they also did some folk dances. The most amazing segment was the performance by the two female contortionists. The final segment was a ‘mask dance’ where the performers all worse large, elaborate and amazing masks during a short dance.

After the performance, we walked over to a restaurant for dinner. I had a lamb kebab that I rather enjoyed (though it was a bit spicy for my taste). Timur joined us for dinner and wanted to go out for drinks with us after we ate, but we all declined and walked back to the hotel. As we were walking along the streets, Mary got a burst of energy and started to run up and down the sidewalk: she would run from where we were to the end of the block and back, over and over; at one point she took her sandals off and ran barefoot.

Posted by Glichez 04:37 Archived in Mongolia Comments (0)

Trans-Siberian Railroad, part II


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20 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia – Irkutsk, Russia

I didn’t have to checkout from my hotel until noon today, so I spent the morning enjoying the lake one last time and taking a final walk around. It was a very relaxing and easy-going morning; I enjoyed Baikal and wished that I had been able to explore more of the area, but I was ready to move on from Listvyanka.

I caught the bus back to Irkustk shortly after noon and we were back in town around 14:00. The bus dropped us off near to the bus station and it was a roughly 20-minute walk from there to my hotel in the city. Unfortunately, as I was walking to the hotel, my bag tipped over and one of the wheels got bent, preventing it from rolling properly; then, somehow, it rolled through a small bit of tar (which I didn’t even notice until later), which caused the wheel to stick even more. After checking into my hotel, I did my best to repair the wheel, but there was nothing I could do – I needed to get myself a new bag. Needless to say, I was upset at this prospect.

My hotel was located near a large square next to the river, so I went out for a walk to forget about my luggage issues. The weather was much hotter than it was at Lake Baikal – I felt as though I was baking in the heat; the temperature reached over 30 °C! I stopped for an ice cream as I walked around the square.

I then walked further into town where a shopping mall was located and also where the only luggage store was that I could find via Google. The walk took about 40 minutes and I was hot and tired by the time I reached the mall. I found the luggage store and was pleased that they had a large selection of bags; one of the ladies there spoke some English and helped me out quite a bit. I decided not to buy a bag just yet as I wanted to give fixing my current bag one last try.

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Finally, I stopped in a local coffee shop, Castro Coffee, to grab something cold to drink and to do some reading. I ordered a milkshake, but what I was given was not a milkshake by Western standards: it was a sweet drink, but without ice cream in it, so it was basically just a milk drink. Nevertheless, it was tasty and I enjoyed it; unfortunately, the place didn’t have AC and it was too hot to sit inside to get any reading done, so I soon walked back to my hotel to relax for the rest of the evening.

21 June 2017
Irkutsk, Russia

Today I finally accepted that my suitcase was beyond repair and that I needed to buy a new one; it was the cost of the new suitcase that was the difficult part to cope with: I didn’t want a cheap bag that would fall apart on me, but I didn’t want to buy an expensive one either.

Putting that issue aside at the start of the day, I had breakfast at the hotel, which was the best breakfast that I’ve yet had on this trip. Most of the food was the generic breakfast food one gets at any hotel, but the dish that I had multiple servings of was a vegetable rice; there was something about it that really ‘hit the spot’ and I devoured it.

With a full stomach and energy for the hot day ahead, I set off to see Irkutsk! The city had an interesting history of having exiles from Moscow or St Petersburg society sent to live there (exiled in Siberia), especially the Decembrists from the revolt in December 1825. The aristocracy who were exiled to Siberia/Irkutsk soon set about fashioning the city to mirror their former lives as best as possible. As such, many elegant buildings were built and many still stand (though in quite a dilapidated condition nowadays). Some of the most interesting buildings were the older wooden ones that looked to be abandoned.

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I passed through a quaint square with a pool and fountains (the Soviets loved to install fountains in the city squares!); on one side of the square was a very Soviet-style governmental building, complete with a hammer and sickle on top. This square led into the pedestrian and shopping areas of the old city center, which I found to be rather nice to explore.

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I walked through many of the small shopping centers, hoping to find more luggage stores with cheaper prices; those that I did find had cheap quality bags for sale, so I moved on. Outside of one shopping center was a monument to the Internationale: a large mural on the side of a building with a statue of Lenin to one side.

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I walked down to a different part of the riverfront where there was a nice park, full of trees and flowers. In a large square was a large statue of Tsar Alexander III (father of Nicholas II). During the Soviet times, the statue was removed, but it was restored in the early 2000s.

large_Irkutsk__11_.jpgIrkutsk (12)

Irkutsk (12)

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I decided to spend some time walking through the park, enjoying the views of the river and I stumbled upon a large bust of Yuri Gagarin (the first human in space) surrounded by a bed of flowers! It was a random place to find a monument to him.

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Needing to escape from the heat (and to get some desperately needed water), I walked back to the shopping mall. I bought a water at the grocery store and cooled off before reluctantly heading back to the luggage store to buy a new suitcase. Once that was done, I took it back to my hotel and was glad to see that everything from my old bag fit into the new one – just barely!

I began to develop a headache during this, which I attributed to the heat and not having enough water during my walk through the city. Nonetheless, I was determined to do some last bit of sightseeing. I returned to the large square outside of my hotel to properly explore it. There was an eternal flame in memory of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and some monument to Lenin (I wasn’t sure what it was for, but I never need an excuse to snap a photo of a Lenin!).

I walked back over to the riverfront area, where there was a massive statue and a small, but pretty, Russian Orthodox church nearby. By this point my headache had become severe and I needed to get back to the hotel. I spent the rest of the evening there, reading and working.

22 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

The last – and longest – leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad journey began today! This journey would last for just over 69 hours…

I got up early and checked out of my hotel by 06:00; the hotel had attendants on each floor and they handled the check-out process, making it simple and easy. I considered taking the tram over to the railway station, but decided to walk instead; the morning was cool and pleasant; plus the station was only about a 30-minute walk away.

The train station was packed and I had some time to kill before my train was due to depart at 07:47, so I settled in to do some reading. As the departure time neared, I noticed the departures board had a display showing “01:00” next to my train; I correctly assumed this meant the train was delayed by an hour. Eventually the train did arrive and I lugged my bags onto the train one last time.

I found my cabin occupied by two young guys; happily, I had the bottom bunk again and I asked one of the guys if he would mind moving his grocery bags so I could store my luggage. The other guy in the cart exclaimed “You speak English!” and a sense of relief washed over me as I heard his British accent! This section of the Trans-Siberian has the fewest Westerners on it, so to find a fellow English speaker here was quite a treat!

We immediately began chatting and getting to know one another, both happy to have someone to talk with during the next three days. His name was James, he was 22 and he was from England; he too was traveling around the world on his own. We spent the first several hours of that day’s journey chatting. James had done almost the same itinerary that I had done through Russia, though with less time in most of the cities and without stopping in Nizhny Novgorod. I was really impressed with his knowledge of Russian history – he stopped in Yekaterinburg for the same reasons I did: to see the Church on the Blood!

One other bit of random good news: both James and I were staying at the same hostel in Vladivostok!

Our other cabin-mate was Russian and friendly enough, though he spoke no English, but tried to communicate to us in Russian. I felt bad for him because the journey was quite dull for him with no one to talk to (he was in the same position that both James and I had been on our respective trains up to that point: unable to communicate with those in our cabins).

That evening, James and I both had the standard cup of noodles for dinner (oh joy…), but as an after dinner treat, James brought out his vodka stash. Technically drinking one’s own alcohol was forbidden on the train, so James had mixed one bottle into a bottle of Pepsi; it was this vodka Pepsi that we began to drink first. Once that was gone, he got out a fresh bottle of vodka and some Sprite; this vodka was soon gone as well. We decided to try visiting the restaurant car, but it was closed by the time we got there (to be fair, it was near midnight at this point). With nothing else to do, we decided to head to bed for the night.

23 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

In the early morning a large group of French tourists boarded the train and one of their group was put in our cabin. They were quite noisy when they got on board, waking all of us up, so we all slept in quite late that morning.

Both James and I spent a considerable part of the day reading. I had finished Petersburg the day before, so I started in on some simple, easy book: Thrawn (yep, that’s right, a Star Wars novel… but it was mindless entertainment, just what was needed). I read nearly 40% of the book that day. James nearly finished his book that day as well.

That night we took advantage of a long stop in some random city to get out, stretch and get some fresh air. Once the train began rolling again, we headed to the restaurant car to grab some drinks. The French tourists were finishing their dinner, so we were sat near the front of the car.

I started off with a Russian beer while James had a vodka coke. Thus began our evening of fun… and getting scammed…

We asked the waitress the price of the vodka cokes (they weren’t on the menu), she indicated that they were 100 rubles each, so I switched over to those as well. We were then moved to a different table once the French group was gone, where we ordered some snacks (peanuts and crab-flavored chips). We sat around chatting as we drank a few more drinks; it was a fantastic time. The waitress came around for us to pay and we paid our portions of the bill (roughly 1,500 rubles each – the snacks plus 5 drinks or so each).

By this point the car was practically empty, except for a pair of girls and a group of younger guys. Also at this point the evening begins to get somewhat… hazy…

What I recall is that we encourage our waitress to have a glass of wine and she brought over an opened bottle to pour herself a glass. Then we moved over to have a drink with the two girls. They spoke broken English, but we could communicate well enough. Randomly, the waitress showed up with a plate of fruit slices (apples and oranges), though neither of us remembered ordering it. I began to drink the wine and James had another vodka Coke. Eventually we called it a night and stumbled back to our cabin for bed.

24 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

I awoke this morning not hungover, but not entirely feeling great; a half-hangover of sorts. I drank quite a bit of water and ate a small snack, which helped. I passed the time watching Mad Men on my phone. During the early morning hours, the French group had departed, leaving the train much quieter for us this last day.

When I got up to use the bathroom, I discovered a large stack of rubles in my pocket, which had definitely not been there the night before; all I had left after paying the bill for the drinks was a 5,000 ruble note and four 100 ruble notes. Now all I had was 4,000 rubles in various denominations; clearly I had spent an additional 1,400 rubles by the end of the night.

When James woke up late in the afternoon, we laughed about the night before and remarked on how much fun it was. He was concerned about how much he had spent as well; he’d use his brand new credit card for the first time and, since no receipts were provided, wasn’t sure how much the damage was. We figured it couldn’t be more than $40 or $50 – maximum!

Our last day on the train was spent chatting for a while and also watching TV shows on our phones. It was a quieter day as we were both in recovery mode.

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It was hard to believe that the train journey was coming to a close. This three-day journey, while the longest of the trip, seemed to fly by – due in large part to having someone chat with during the day. We kept remarking how lucky we both were to have been placed in the same cabin.

25 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

Neither James or I slept well during this last night on the train; we had to be up early at 06:00 for our early morning arrival (somehow the train had made up the nearly 2-hour delay and was now running on time). Around 04:00 our Russian cabin-mate got off the train and from then on, I was wide awake.

We arrived in Vladivostok just before 07:00; since it was far too early for check-in at our hostel, we walked to what we thought was the train station (but turned out to be the ferry terminal) to see if there was any food to be had. Everything we’d found online in the city was closed until 09:00 or 10:00, which didn’t provide any help to us.

We spent an hour in the ferry terminal before heading to a nearby Burger King, which thankfully opened at 08:00. We were both so hungry and devoured our meals there, which helped to pass more time as we sat around chatting. It was amazing how quickly and well we’d got on with one another over the past few days. I was glad that we were at the same hostel and we made plans to explore the city together.

The hostel itself was surprisingly quite nice: it had wood-log paneling all around and felt like a mountain cabin; the common area was very large as well. We were shown to one room, which was small and cramped, but luckily all of the beds were taken, so we were moved to a larger room. I spent the next several hours freshening up and getting some work done while James rested in the room.

Later that afternoon, a Russian guy from Moscow started to chat with us at the hotel and made some suggestions on what to go and see in the city; as James and I were preparing to leave, the Russian basically invited himself along with us. I wasn’t against having him join us, but I soon grew weary of his company. James and I wanted to do sightseeing, but the Russian guy (whose name I forget) was clearly bored and impatient to get to the beach/boardwalk area.

Our primary destination for the afternoon was the Eagle’s Nest, which is a lookout over the water and the entire city. One can walk there, but the Russian insisted that we take the funicular up to the top. We walked over to the funicular only to find that we’d walked to the top of it, thus defeating the entire purpose. The Eagle’s Nest was a short climb up some stairs from there. I was surprised by how run down and shabby the Eagle’s Nest was, especially as it is a major sight within Vladivostok: stairs, fences, sidewalks all were in various states of disrepair. The views, however, were spectacular and well worth the journey.

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Vladivostok is quite similar to San Francisco – indeed, Nikita Khrushchev made the comparison back in the 1970s. To emulate the US city, the Russians built two large modern bridges that resemble the Golden Gate Bridge; the bridge in the middle of the city is aptly named the Golden Horn Bridge.

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Making our way back down from the Eagle’s Nest, we set about finding a way to walk across the Golden Horn Bridge; James was quite keen to do so, but I was rather uneasy due to the height, but I’d have faced up to my fear and done it. Unfortunately, the bridge is closed to pedestrians and we weren’t able to cross it!

We then headed down to the waterfront to walk along Golden Horn Bay. There was a nice promenade for pedestrians to walk around and it was full of people; food stands were located sporadically around and we eventually stopped to get a quick bite to eat. The food stand served corn dogs, something James had never had, so we decided to order those, but they were out of them; James went with a regular hot dog and I decided to wait for dinner as nothing else looked enticing.

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We turned around and headed back towards the city center and eventually made out way to the C-56 submarine, which was located next to the Great Patriotic War Memorial (complete with an eternal flame). The entire memorial area was very nice, as all memorials to the war are throughout Russia.

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The submarine was on land and we were able to go aboard and explore: the first half of the sub was a museum (all in Russian) and the second half were a series of the preserved rooms in the submarine itself. It was a quick visit, but very interesting.

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One thing that James and I discovered during our time hanging out is that we both like to make random – and sometimes obscure – references to movies or TV shows, such as South Park or Family Guy; we could easily figure out what the other was referring to, which made it even funnier. I was reminded quite a bit of my friend Kevin in Scotland; he and I do the exact same thing. James could simply say (in a dark and sinister voice): “Do it!” and I knew he was quoting Palpatine from “Revenge of the Sith” right away! He also got my South Park reference when I would sing “You’re the best around… nothing’s going to ever keep you down!” and he replied “I thought this was America!” Good times, good times…

Sportivnaya Harbor was our final destination; to get there we walked through a large public square with a memorial to the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). It was particularly interesting to see this memorial here as Vladivostok was occupied by foreign supporters of the White Army (the anti-Bolsheviks): the Japanese, the Czech Legion, the Americans and the British.

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Sportivnaya Harbor itself is a large and very busy promenade along the waterfront, full of restaurants, shops, and various entertainment stalls (including air-rifle games). We strolled along the walkway and stopped at a small restaurant where we enjoyed some drinks on the patio: James and I each had some ciders while our Russian companion had beer.

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Soon it was time for dinner and the Russian kept pushing that we eat at the restaurant; the place was reasonably priced and the food looked good, so we did. We each had pork BBQ with lavash bread. The meat was very good and tasty, but the bread was rather dry (the lavash bread I had in Armenia was vastly superior to this bread).

The sun was setting by the time we left to head back to the hostel. We tried to stop in a local bar on our way, but there were no other customers in the place (it was 21:30 and people didn’t usually show up until 23:00), so we left. We decided to grab some drinks from a local store, drink back at the hostel and then return to the local bar as it looked like a great place to drink. James picked out a cheap bottle of vodka at the store, but the Russian kept insisting that he buy a better bottle; James stuck by his choice, which seemed to annoy the guy.

Back at the hostel, James and the Russian mixed up some drinks and I decided to skip it for now. James wanted to do some video chats with people back home, so I hung out in the common room on my computer getting some work done. It was getting quite late and James and I were both exhausted, so we decided to call it a night without returning to the local bar.

26 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

Today was James’ last day in Russia before he flew off to Beijing and we’d planned to head out to Russky Island, which was located across Golden Horn Harbor. Our hostel had provided information on taking the bus there, which would take roughly an hour each way; we both were quite keen to take the ferry over to the island and get to see the area from the water in the process.

Our plans from the night before had us getting up and leaving by 09:00 – and our Russian friend had again invited himself along. However, we all slept in quite late and we didn’t get going until nearly noon! I had woken up earlier, but I got distracted with Mad Men and video chatting with my sister, Jack and Jane; when I noticed the time was 11:00, I went and woke James up. We hurriedly got ready and planned to grab the first ferry available. The Russian guy seemed less enthusiastic about it and still needed 20 minutes to get ready, so James and I left to grab food nearby.

Our breakfast/lunch was Burger King again: it was close, fast, and cheap. James had checked his credit card balance this morning and found that he’d been charged nearly 90 GBP on the train! There was absolutely no conceivable way that we spent that much on the train and he was understandably concerned and angry about it; he contacted his credit card company to investigate the charge. I picked up the bill for lunch: a small gesture, but I felt I owed it to him since he could very well have been charged for items that were mine.

As we finished eating, we both admitted that we weren’t terribly interested in having the Russian guy join us again today; we both wanted to head down to the ferry terminal and get to the island. To help ease our consciences, we said we’d contact the hostel to tell him what time to meet us at the ferry, but then we realized we didn’t remember his name, so that gesture would have been useless.

We arrived back at the ferry terminal and went to the ticket office, but the prices we were shown were astronomical! It turned out that the lady was showing us prices for the long-distance ferries to South Korea and that there was no ferry to Russky Island from that terminal; the ferries left from a smaller dock just up the road.

Upon arrival at that dock, we discovered that there were no ferries running to Russky Island at all, which was intensely disappointing. It was nearing 14:00, which meant we didn’t have enough time to take the bus out to the island. There was a boat trip around the harbor that was departing soon and we were told that it would go around Russky Island. Deciding that it was the next best option, we decided to take the boat trip. I paid for our tickets in a continuing gesture of thanks/repayment/help; James reluctantly let me, but insisted that this was the last of it. We both laughed and I agreed.

The boat was a small vessel and we were the only English-speakers on board; we were joined by a Chinese tour group. Their Russian guide discovered that we spoke English and came over to talk to us. He was friendly, but very talkative; he kept telling us about getting to see Limp Bizkit in concert in Vladivostok and getting to meet the band. He then kept insisting that we meet up and go out that night; James and I were clearly not too keen on it, but we told him that we’d contact him via WhatsApp (but we never did).

The boat tour itself was… disappointing. We had been misinformed on the route the boat would take: it went across the harbor and got near the island, but then promptly turned around, heading to the bridge before returning to port. There was no sailing around the island, nor did we see the lighthouse that was mentioned by the cashier as well. On the plus side, seeing the city from the water was nice: there were quite a few cargo docks and cargo ships just sitting in the bay. The entire trip lasted roughly an hour.

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Once we were finished, we decided to try walking out to the lighthouse, which was roughly a 90-minute walk away; we may not have the time to reach it, but the walk through the city would be nice. The route took us south through the city, into some neighborhoods and areas that tourists would normally not venture. It was a fun and interesting way to see more of the city.

We stopped at a local supermarket to grab some drinks; James doesn’t drink beer (he prefers ciders); they didn’t have a cider, but he found a fruit beer that was passable; I grabbed a German beer for myself. We drank our beers as we continued to stroll through the city.

We eventually ended up at a nice park/square area that afforded some amazing views over the harbor, out to Russky Island. We spent quite a bit of time sitting on a park bench, admiring the views, and chatting. There was a cat wandering about in the grass, who was clearly trying to hunt something; we were mesmerized by the cat and waited anxiously for it to pounce; when it did, it didn’t catch anything.

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Around 18:00 we decided to head back into town so we could grab dinner before James had to head to the airport (his flight was at 00:30 that evening). Given the late time, I suggested that we grab a bus back into the city; luckily enough, one came by within minutes and we got on. Busses in Vladivostok cost 21 RUB no matter where you get on or get off, so it was a cheap way to get back into town. The ride took 15 minutes, whereas the walk would have taken over an hour.

For dinner, we opted to go to a café that we had noticed on our way into town the first day. It was a nice little restaurant and we were able to use my Google Translate app to decipher the menu. We both ordered a steak topped with an egg and sauce, with a side of potatoes. As a starter, we ordered katchapuri – the Georgian dish that I’d fallen in love with and James quite enjoyed it as well. We spent the next few hours having a couple drinks, eating, and chatting. It was one of the most enjoyable meals that I’ve had so far on my trip: good food and good company.

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We both agreed that, though the day didn’t go as planned, it ended up being a very enjoyable one.

By this point it was 21:30, so we went back to the hostel so James could collect his things and call a taxi. When we reached the hostel, the Russian guy silently glared at us, but said nothing (thank god). James and left his bag with mine all day and so we spent a few minutes bumming around the hostel before he had to go. James had picked up a small journal on his travels and was now having people he met write little blurbs in it: each person would have a page to write whatever they wanted. He gave me the journal and I filled up the entire page: thanking him for all the amazing memories, saying how much fun I’d had hanging out with him.

Finally, it was time for him to leave and I found myself getting quite sad that our time together was at an end. Making friends is one of the best parts about traveling the world, but saying goodbye to them never gets any easier. I went outside with him to wait for the car, which (sadly) pulled up right as we got to the street. We said our goodbyes, promised to stay in touch, and gave one another a hug goodbye. I stayed there until his taxi was driving off and then headed back into the hostel.

James truly made the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and my time in Vladivostok very memorable. I’m quite glad to have met him on the train and that we got on so well together. Hopefully our paths will cross again sometime: there’s a slim chance we could see one another in Southeast Asia, but odds are it’ll take a trip to the UK or to the States for us to meet up (both options will happen at some point too).

27 June 2017
Vladivostok, Russia

My last full day in Russia! Seeing as I had seen the major highlights of the city with James already, I focused today on getting some last-minute things taken care of before heading off to Mongolia.

My top priority was getting a haircut. I had not had a proper haircut since Edinburgh, though I’d been buzzing the sides and back of my hair regularly myself; now I needed the longer top part trimmed down. I found a well-reviewed place called Chop-Chop nearby and decided to give them a try.

On the way over to Chop-Chop, I stopped by the statue of Lenin across the street from the train station. James and I had stopped there the day before, but the sun was not in the best position for pictures, so I wanted to try and get some in the morning. I’m a sucker for a good Lenin statue!

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Chop-Chop was a very nice barbershop, staffed entirely by men and they spoke passable English – more than enough for me to explain how I wanted my haircut. The guys asked where I was from, thinking that perhaps I was from Denmark; they seemed surprised when I said I was American. My barber seemed nervous at first to trim the hair on the sides and back of my neck so short, but I assured him that it was ok. After washing my hair, he began to buzz it and he paid meticulous attention to everything; in the States, the buzzing part takes minutes, but this guy spent over 20 minutes doing it. He quickly figured out how I like to style my hair and I couldn’t have been happier with my haircut!

I also needed to print out some passport photos for my visa-on-arrival for several countries in Southeast Asia; I’d found what I thought were photo printing shops via Google, but it didn’t pan out (I’m planning to get the photos printed in Singapore). Instead, I walked back over to Sportivnaya Harbor and then into the city center.

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There was one last sight that I did want to see: Nikolai’s Victory Arch. It was a small, but beautiful arch located right next to the submarine that I had visited with James earlier (it was a shame that we didn’t visit the arch together).

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I then walked over to yet another memorial statue for the Great Patriotic War before heading to a coffee shop to relax and do some reading. I eventually made it back to the hostel to pack my bags and prepare for departure in the morning.

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It was hard to believe that my five-week journey through Russia was coming to a close. I had spent 36 days in Russia and traveled from one coast to the other, seeing everything from Tsarist splendor to Soviet cold-hearted architecture; the train had been a Bucket List item for me. I had spent the most time in Russia out of any other country on this trip (and there’s no upcoming country that will come close to this length). I look forward to my next visit to Mother Russia.

Nostrovya, Comrade!

На здоровье, Товарищ!

Posted by Glichez 17:00 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Trans-Siberian Railroad, part I


View World Tour 2017-2018 on Glichez's travel map.

11 June 2017
Moscow, Russia – Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Trans-Siberian Railroad

Today began my Trans-Siberian Railroad adventure! The first leg (today) was to be the shortest, lasting roughly four hours.

I was up at 05:00 to catch the metro over to the train station where I was easily able to find my way to the correct platform. The train left just after 07:00. The train itself was quite nice: no sleeper cabins, just rows of regular seats with designated areas for luggage. The first part of the journey had the train quite full, but after the first hour or so, the crowd had thinned out. I spent the time listening to music.

The train arrived in Nizhny Novgorod around 11:30 and I made my way over to my hotel. I had booked hotels for my stopovers during the train journey so I could have a measure of privacy in-between trains. The hotel was quite close to the train station, which was in a so-so area: it was evident that it was an industrial city, especially this part of the city.

However, the hotel itself was very nice (though it didn’t look that way from the outside). The staff spoke no English, but we were able to find ways to communicate (miming, pointing, etc). I couldn’t check in until 13:00, so I spent the time in the hotel dining area, getting some work done. Once I got checked in, I freshened up and eventually decided to grab a late lunch.

I had found a small shopping area roughly 30 minutes away (walking) from my hotel and I decided to head over there. The city was distinctly Soviet in design, layout and style: cement buildings everywhere, sidewalks and streets falling into disrepair, dozens upon dozens of cords stretched between buildings. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to reach the shopping area as I couldn’t find a place to cross the major street that stood between it and me (no crosswalks or underpasses). I did, however, pass by a smallish square with a Lenin statue!!

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I ended up heading back to the train station where I found a McDonalds (by this point I couldn’t be bothered trying to find anything better).

12 June 2017
Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Trans-Siberian Railroad

Today was my day to do sightseeing around the city itself, which I had inadvertently planned for Russia Day. I caught the metro into the city center: the majority of the metro stations were in the industrial area, with just one station near to the city center (still a 20-minute walk from the center).

After exiting the metro, I walked down the central street towards the city center. The street was lined with shops and restaurants, many of which were closed for the holiday. The crowd of people steadily increased as I ventured further into town.

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I eventually found my way to the city’s kremlin (fortress), which is open to the public. Inside there was a small display of military vehicles: tanks, jeeps, airplanes; on the brick wall were a few murals depicting WWII. Upon closer inspection, I found that the murals were made up of thousands of photographs taken during the war. They were amazing.

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The kremlin complex had a nice walkway overlooking the Volga River, which I strolled along as I made my way over to one of the guard towers. In a central square was an eternal flame dedicated to the memory of WWII.

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I discovered that there was a large event going on in the city center for Russia Day; to get in, everyone had to pass through metal detectors and let the guards search our bags. Along the main road were several areas where kids could engage in various sports: basketball, wrestling, soccer; there was a large stage at the end of the street where performers would sing or dance. Sadly, the stage blocked one of the city’s sights: a great staircase leading down to the Volga.

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In one area there was a military-themed display, with people dressed in period costumes from the various wars Russia has fought in: 1600s, 1800s, WWI, WWII, modern day. In this same square were some people dressed as 19th century nobility who were dancing to music; I quickly recognized the music and dance as the one used in the “Pride and Prejudice” TV mini-series (the Darcy and Lizzy dance).

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By this point the weather had turned nasty and began to rain quite a bit, so I made my way to a small coffee shop, where I spent some time reading, letting the rain pass by, before heading back to my hotel. On my way back from dinner that night, I bought a “Fidget Spinner” from a street seller. Street vendors line all of the major streets in Russia, selling everything from toys to food to clothes. Fidget Spinners were everywhere and I thought it could be fun to play with during my days on the train. I’m still not sure if I’m ashamed of myself or not…

My train departed around 23:00 that night, so I checked out of the hotel (which the staff found strange and clearly thought was ridiculous). Boarding the train, I found only one other person in the 4-berth cabin with me. He was a younger guy, around my age; he spoke basic English, but was very friendly (and rather attractive!). I was quite relieved that the other beds weren’t being occupied, giving us space and quiet. I stored my bags under the seats and setup my bed (I was assigned to the lower bed) and was soon fast asleep.

13 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

I slept rather well on the train and my cabin-mate greeted me with a pleasant “Good morning!” when I woke up. The train would not arrive into Yekaterinburg until 21:00, so I still had the majority of the day to spend on the train. To help pass the time, I did some reading, listening to music, sleeping, and watching Netflix (downloaded shows): House of Cards mostly, along with Watchmen.

When the train pulled into the Yekaterinburg station, my cabin-mate offered to help me out with my luggage, which I politely declined. We said goodbye to one another, shook hands and then I was off into the city!

I had booked another hotel near the train station, but this one was rather difficult to locate. I was able to find the building, but there was no signage for the hotel. After walking up and down the block several times, some locals pointed me in the right direction – the entrance was right in front of me! The hotel itself was quite nice; once again, the staff spoke no English, but we used Google Translate to communicate. After check-in, I went out for a short walk before crawling into bed to rest up for the following day.

14 June 2017
Yekaterinburg, Russia
Trans-Siberian Railroad

Today was packed with sightseeing around the city and I made the absolute most of my time.

Breakfast was brought to me in my room in the morning: two pancakes with tea. The hotel has an order form for breakfast each morning, but I wasn’t clear on how much one could order, so I kept it small. It was actually quite good and gave me some energy for the day.

I walked over to the main bus station, situated next to the train station. Based on research I’d done online, I had identified which bus (#150) ran from the city out to the Europe-Asia border monument (the bus actually runs to the small city of Pervouralsk, but the drivers often drop people off on the side of the road at the monument). Buying the ticket was simple enough, but communicating to the driver where I wanted to go proved somewhat problematic. I showed him signs and pictures of where I wanted to go and he gave a noncommittal response, but I took my chances anyway.

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Shortly after leaving the city limits, the driver pulled over next to the newer (and smaller) border monument, which wasn’t the one I wanted. I indicated that he should drive further on and tried to tell him where I wanted to go. A younger guy on the bus tried to help out as well: he spoke no English, but knew where I wanted to go. Over the next 15 minutes we were able to communicate and get it sorted out; the main thing he and the driver stressed was that I had to walk through the woods from the road to the monument, which I knew of from my research.

The driver pulled over at the correct location and pointed me through the woods; I thanked him and set off to find this border monument. It took me roughly five minutes to get there. The monument was a large column, topped with the Romanov eagle and a line of lights along the border itself; on either side were signs saying “Europe” and Asia” (in Russian). The monument was erected on the spot where Tsar Alexander II supposedly stopped in the mid-1800s, popped a bottle of wine and declared it to be the border between Europe and Russia.

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There was not much else to see, so I soon set off to walk to the nearest bus stop on the outskirts of Pervouralsk (about a 15-minute walk away). The bus back to Yekaterinburg pulled up less than a minute after I reached the bus stop and I was back in town by noon, with plenty of time to explore the city itself.

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I walked through the city, finding some interesting monuments and sculptures on my way to reach the Church on the Blood. It was a very pleasant walk, with excellent weather, which I was quite thankful for as rain was in the forecast for the afternoon.

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The Church on the Blood was my primary reason for stopping in Yekaterinburg. In 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were imprisoned in the Ipatiev House and were brutally murdered in the basement of that house by the Bolsheviks as the White Army approached the city during the Russian Civil War. The bodies were later taken to the woods for disposal (after acid had been thrown on the bodies!). The house was eventually torn down in the 1970s to prevent it from becoming a focal point of monarchist sympathizers. A Russian Orthodox church, Church on the Blood, now stands on the spot where the Ipatiev House once stood, with the altar inside standing where the Romanovs were murdered.

The church was quite large, with brilliant golden-topped domes. I was in awe when I saw it: the sun was shining off the domes, making the gold glitter. Outside of the entrance to the church was a large statue of the Romanovs, including Nicholas II carrying the young Tsarevitch Alexei. It was actually quite moving and somber, really hammering home the tragedy that occurred that night.

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Photos were forbidden inside the church itself and, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to sneak any photos. It was a small area, but covered with the usual Russian Orthodox opulence: gold, paintings, candles, etc. I spent several minutes inside the church, silently reflecting on the sufferings of the last tsar and his family.

Leaving the church, I had a few more rather interesting sights to see in the city. I walked further into the city center and came across the massive Square of 1905, the main city square. There were some Soviet-style statues at one end of the square, facing a long pool with fountains. People were scattered all around the square, relaxing and hanging out.

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I walked through the square and made my way over to the banks of the Iset River. Along the way I stumbled across some great street art along the side of a building. Russian cities are full of street art, but this was particularly impressive to me.

There was some construction going on along a stretch of the riverfront, forcing me to take a detour from my route. I discovered that I had missed my destination: the QWERTY monument. I crossed over the Iset River and backtracked so I could circle back; thankfully I found the monument tucked away right next to the construction site.

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The QWERTY monument is a large reproduction of a computer keyboard in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. It is one of the many unique and random monuments throughout Russia.

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After a long day of exploring and adventures, I walked over to a nearby shopping center to grab dinner. It was good timing on my part as the rain began right as I was walking into the building. The rain had let up slightly by the time I left and I caught the metro back to the bus/train station, where I could quickly walk back to my hotel.

15 June 2017
Yekaterinburg, Russia
Trans-Siberian Railroad

I spent the day doing practically nothing: I did some reading, watched the latest season of “House of Cards” and had an overall lazy day. My train was scheduled to depart at 22:16 that night and I had to keep my backpack with me throughout the day (including my laptop), which made doing much exploring difficult. I had an exhausting time the day before, so having a slow and quiet day was rather refreshing. Before catching my train, I stopped by the grocery store to stock up on food: cup of noodles, chips, peanuts, etc.

I grabbed my bags and went over to the train station around 21:00 and waited for the platform announcement. By this point I had become an expert on navigating the Russian train system (ok, it really isn’t that difficult!) and I soon found myself onboard and in my cabin. Once again I was assigned the bottom bunk; this time I had two other people in the cabin with me: an older military guy and another guy who was quite friendly and who gave me a beer. Neither spoke English and they began to talk to one another, so I soon watched more Netflix before bed.

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16 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

When I woke up this morning I found that my two cabin-mates had departed during the night and I was now sharing the cabin with an older Russian woman. She spoke no Russian and was rather unpleasant: I said hello to her and waved, but she just ignored me – this basically set the tone for the next two days.

I passed the time on the train doing some extensive reading, as well as watching movies. The cabin had power sockets, which was an amazing perk that I was quite thankful for! There was no guarantee that the cabin or even the car itself would have power sockets, so I was worried that my phones and laptop would run out of power; now I could watch all the movies I wanted!

That evening I was provided with dinner, which was some pork with pasta and a roll. It was a basic meal, but most welcome!

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17 June 2017
Trans-Siberian Railroad

Another full day on the train spent reading, working and watching movies. My cabin companion spent much of the time sleeping and she snored quite loudly. Ugh! I was so annoyed, but I was able to mostly tune it out with my headphones.

The Siberian terrain in this part of Russia was covered with forests and some small lakes; it was mostly flat and unremarkable. I had rather hoped the scenery would be more… impressive; I actually found myself reminded of driving across the Unites States.

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18 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia
Trans-Siberian Railroad

The train pulled into Irkutsk around 11:00 this morning; I said goodbye to by cabin-mate and was glad to be leaving the train behind for a few days. I exited the small train station and walked over to the tram stop outside (in reality, it was just a place on the road where the trams would stop). I was hoping to catch tram 4a over to the bus station, but after waiting for nearly 20 minutes I gave in and took tram 1 to the central market stop, a 15-minute walk from the bus station.

Walking over to the bus station I was surprised to see how poorly maintained the streets and sidewalks of the city were; I didn’t expect anything as nice as Moscow or St Petersburg, but this was quite bad. As I approached the bus station, tram 4am drove past me – of course! Haha Inside the bus station I was able to easily buy a ticket to Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal.

The drive from Irkutsk took roughly 90 minutes and the “bus station” in Lisvyanka was right outside of my hotel there. The hotel was the tallest building in town and the staff there all spoke very good English. I checked in, but was disappointed to find that my room was in a separate buildings and didn’t overlook the lake itself. I took a much needed shower as there were no showers on the train (three days with no shower is never fun).

I went out for a walk along the shore of Lake Baikal, but soon had to take shelter inside as a storm moved in and it began raining. The rain lasted for a few minutes before moving on and I was able to continue my stroll.

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The locals and tourists alike soon crowded back onto the rocky beach, laying in the sun, cooking food, and having fun. The beach was lined with covered picnic tables for visitors to enjoy (and stay dry when the storm hit!). I found a small grocery store where I stocked up on some food before heading back to my hotel for the evening.

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19 June 2017
Lake Baikal, Russia

Today was a full day focused on enjoying Lake Baikal.

After having a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I ventured out around the lake. I walked for roughly 8km, heading south along the waterfront. The views were stunning: mountains and hills surrounding me and in the far distance I could just make out the mountains on the other side of the lake. Along the way I found a couple statues: one of a scuba diver and one of a fisherman.

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Lake Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake (by volume), containing around 22% of the world’s freshwater. The water was amazingly clear and it was quite cold when I dipped my foot into it. The beach itself was quite rocky, not the smooth sand that one typically associates with beaches. Listvyanka itself is nestled in the hills among the trees: the town was a mix between a beach town and a mountain town.

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I walked down to an amazing overlook where there was a memorial to some guy and a neat sign advertising a nearby hotel. This was the furthest that I cared to walk and there wasn’t much else beyond this point; getting anywhere further on would require a boat and to hike through the forest.

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When I reached the town again, I walked north along the lakefront and soon reached the end of town again, where I stopped in the small grocery store to grab an ice cream. I wanted to try and get out on the lake on one of the many boats, but a storm was blowing into the area, with very dark clouds, so I decided to wait for it to pass.

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I went back to my hotel and up to the 7th floor terrace café, which overlooked the lake – and was covered, protecting me from the approaching storm! I ordered a coffee and curled up with my book as the storm hit; it was great fun and exciting to sit there and watch the storm cross the massive lake.

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After the storm was over, I went out for another short walk along the lake before calling it a night and heading to bed.

Posted by Glichez 05:31 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Back in Moscow and Red Russia

7 June 2017
St Petersburg, Russia – Moscow, Russia

My train to Moscow left at 13:00, so I spent the morning packing and getting ready to leave. The train station was a short 15-minute walk from my hostel and I arrived in plenty of time. Not having experience with the Russian long-distance trains, I wanted to arrive early enough so I could figure out where to go.

I noticed that my phone was no longer data roaming, preventing me from getting online without wifi, which was quite strange as it had been working perfectly fine ever since I left the States. I was quite worried and concerned because I had planned to use Uber to get from the Moscow train station to my hostel, which I couldn’t do without data roaming. In addition, I needed to download the information for where my hostel was located! Russia has a lot of free wifi connections, but to connect to them you need to provide a Russian phone number so you can receive a verification code via text. I tried everything I could to fix my phone: I restarted it, removed the SIM card, tried it in one of my spare phones; nothing would work. I boarded the train hoping that the issue would resolve itself by the time I reached Moscow.

When I got to the train, the conductor checked my passport before boarding and then I easily made my way to my seat. My car was filled with Chinese tourists, who were very loud and noisy, shouting to one another across the entire car, eating their food (chewing and slurping quite loudly); I was not happy. A Russian woman across the aisle looked over at me after I’d made a face of disgust and laughed: she nodded in agreement.

I slept most of the journey and listened to music to help pass the time. The trip was only four hours and we arrived in Moscow just before 17:00. I’d thankfully been able to connect to the wifi on the train and downloaded the hostel information, which was great because the data roaming was still not working on my phone (I could text and make calls though). Not having any other choice, I took the metro from the train station over to my hostel. I had been concerned that it would be crowded owing to rush hour, but this was thankfully not the case.

My hostel was located quite near the Bolshoi Theatre – just two blocks away from where I had stayed last August – so I knew the area somewhat well. I found the building and was able to get inside easy enough (the hostel had emailed me the door code). The building had obviously been an old Soviet communal-flat and had been converted into private rooms after the collapse of the USSR. When I reached the door to the hostel, it was locked, but it had a button to call them. I pressed it repeatedly for several minutes, but no one came. Finally, someone came down the stairs and opened the door; he went and grabbed the front desk guy, who then got my checked in.

After getting settled in, I called my phone carrier to ask about my roaming issues; they informed me that it was an outage they were having all over the world and that it should hopefully be fixed soon. This was a relief as I had been concerned that something was wrong with my SIM card.

I met a guy from Chicago at the hostel as well; he had spent a year teaching English in Russian and had recently returned to the country. As he explained it, he “just didn’t fit in” at home and “could find lots of girls to date” in Russia. He went on and on about how beautiful they were, asking me if I had done any dating on my trip (I avoided the subject). He lamented that the Russian women would go out with him for drinks and dancing, but it would never lead to sex. He was a strange guy; his social skills, even when talking to me or others at the hostel, were just… off. I can’t describe it any other way.

I walked over to Red Square for a quick stroll that evening. The last time I was here (August 2016), a large seating stand had been erected in Red Square, preventing me from truly experience its grandeur. I was happy to find the square (mostly) cleared this time. They were erecting a stage near the GUM shopping mall, directly across from Lenin’s Mausoleum; other than that, the square was wide open. The difference was astounding. I could see from one end to the other and really see the expansive red brick walls of the Kremlin.

I stopped for a bite to eat for dinner (my first food of the day!) before heading back to the hostel and calling it a night.

8 June 2017
Moscow, Russia

This morning I slept in and had a lazy morning before eventually walking back over to Red Square to see it properly by day. To my disappointment, more scaffolding had been erected in the square during the night, blocking the path in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum. The vast majority of the square was still open though. I found out that they were getting the stands setup for Russia Day (June 12), which celebrates when Russia declared its independence from the USSR.

Interesting historical note: 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks (and Lenin) to power. It will be interesting to see how (if at all) Russia (and Putin) decide to commemorate this event…

I caught the metro outside of the city center, heading out to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. There was a large plaza in front of the museum with various statues and memorials scattered around it, including one for World War One.

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Directly in front of the museum was a massive tower/obelisk that was covered with carvings of different aspects of the war. Topping the tower was a huge statue and at its base was a statue of St George slaying the dragon (a very common image throughout Russia). Behind the museum was a decent park with more sculptures and memorials in it.

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I opted to not visit the museum for a variety of reasons, the principle one being that I had already visited several similar museums in other former Soviet cities; each museum followed the same general layout and structure, so I felt that I had probably seen most of it all before. Surprisingly, the Moscow museum was the least impressive exterior of the museums that I had visited. The one in Minsk, Belarus or Kyiv, Ukraine were far more impressive.

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Nearby the metro station was a triumphal arch, celebrating the victory over Napoleon in the 1812 war. Construction work was being done near the base of the arch, so I was unable to get too close, but I was able to snap a few photos. Extending from the base of the arch was a line of flower gardens.

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9 June 2017
Moscow, Russia

My original schedule for the day revolved around Red Square, starting with visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum, but I discovered that it is closed on Fridays. The best I could do was walk along Red Square and view the Kremlin Necropolis from being the tiny roped barrier (the graves are all hidden behind the trees).

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In disappointment, I decided to swap my plans for the following day and visit Kolomenskoye, an outdoor museum. Prior to that, however, I spent some time meandering about Red Square since I was already there: St Basil’s Cathedral, the various Kremlin towers, and walking onto a nearby bridge over to Moskva River to look into the Kremlin fortress itself. I also strolled through the Kremlin Gardens, passing by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the monuments to various Soviet cities from the Great Patriotic War (WWII). By this time I had taught myself to read the majority of the Cyrillic alphabet and could then decipher what the city names were on each monument.

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Within the Kremlin Gardens, I discovered that one of the monuments (topped with the Romanov eagle) that I had so liked during my prior visit was in fact dedicated to the Romanov dynasty. The monument had been erected there in 1913 for the tercentenary of the foundation of their dynasty in Russia; it was torn down during the Soviet times, but it was replaced in 2013 for the quadricentenary.

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The Kremlin Gardens are full of various statues and monuments, including one to Alexander I (who designed the gardens after the burning of Moscow in 1812).

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I caught the metro right outside the Kremlin and rode it out to Kolomenskoye. This outdoor museum was actually a series of museums in a massive park area. The centerpiece of the area was the wooden palace of Tsar Alexey Mikhailovitch, which was my first stop upon arriving. The building resembled a mountain cabin, just larger in scale. Tsar Alexey Mikhailovitch came before Peter the Great, when Russia truly became a major power and the wealth of the Empire began to be displayed in palaces (like those of Petersburg). Nonetheless, this log palace was quite a treat to see.

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I next walked down the road towards one of the many churches in the park. One the way I came across a magnificent lookout area, overlooking the Mosvka River and Moscow itself in the distance. The church itself was nestled in among the trees of the forest.

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Following the path around, I made my way over to the Tsar Square, which was surrounded by more churches and what appeared to be an old fortress wall. The square had large grassy areas where dozens of people were stretched out, enjoying the beautiful day. Throughout the entire park were several artists, either sketching or painting various scenes in the park.

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The last major highlight for me in the area was a cabin of Peter the Great. It was the largest of his cabins that I’ve seen; it was closed, so I wasn’t able to go inside and explore (sadly). On my way out of the park, I spent time walking through the various avenues of formal gardens. At the exit was a small amusement park for children – in reality, more like a small fair.

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For the afternoon, I planned to make a tour of the Moscow metro stations, similar to the one that I had done in St Petersburg. The best Moscow stations were scattered around the city, not along one central line as in Petersburg.

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I took Line 2 (green) to Mayakovskaya station, where there were about a dozen or so murals made of tile in the ceiling; each one depicted a simple scene in Russia; a large mural at the end of the platform depicted Lenin (who else?!).

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The next station on Line 2 was Belorusskaya, which had hammer and sickles on every column; along the ceiling were several oval cutouts with small murals in them.

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Hopping onto Line 5, which runs in a circle around Moscow, I took it over one stop to Novoslobodskaya. This station had stained glass windows on every column which were supposed to be illuminated from behind; in reality, most of the windows were quite dark (Soviet Russia...). It was still a beautiful station and one could imagine how bright it would shine were all the lights to be turned on.

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I rode Line 5 over to Komsomolskaya, which was coincidentally where I had arrived from St Petersburg a few days ago. This station is perhaps my favorite of any of the Russian metro stops. The tile murals on the ceilings were huge and depicted several scenes from the Revolution, including one of Lenin (in a famous stance, talking to the people). The wall decorations were equally breathtaking. I was amazed at how much beauty was contained in one small space - it was truly a palace underground.

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The final stop was Ploshchad Revolyutsii, near to my hostel. This was a small metro station, but that did not prevent it from being decorated with massive, life-sized statues of various Soviet workers. They adored each of the columns in-between the arches. The arches weren't high enough to let the artist depict standing people, so each one is sitting or kneeling or crouching in some way.

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That evening I returned to Red Square for a night-time walk to once again admire the amazing buildings light up. I'm not sure what it is about buildings or monuments being illuminated at night that captures the human interest, but everywhere I go, I like to explore at night - and I am hardly alone: hundreds of other tourists are there doing the exact same thing. The Kremlin is truly magical at night, especially with the red Kremlin Stars shining their ruby red over the square.

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10 June 2017
Moscow, Russia

I had planned to revisit Lenin’s Mausoleum first thing this morning since it had been closed yesterday. I had viewed his body a few times back in August 2016 and thought it would be fun to do it again (plus, it’s free!). The Mausoleum opens at 10:00, but there was no one lining up to enter. I then saw the guard talking to some tourists and it became obvious that the mausoleum was closed that day (most likely due to the work being done in Red Square). Needless to say, I was disappointed.

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I walked over to the nearby Museum of 1812, which was adjacent to the entrance to Red Square. The focus of this museum was, of course, the war against Napoleon. There were practically no visitors when I entered, which was nice; the museum did not permit photographs.

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The museum was so-so. There was signage in Russian and English, but it didn’t fully explain the issues surrounding the war or the events that occurred during it; Russian exploits were, of course, celebrated disproportionately. I was hardly an objective visitor though: Napoleon is my favorite historical figure; I view him as a hero, one history’s greatest leaders (politically and militarily).

Some of the interesting items on display include:
• Napoleon’s Sword, a ceremonial sword that was captured during the war. It was later used by Soviet soldiers before being turned over to the museum.
• Various letters and orders signed by Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I
• Napoleon’s field kitchen wagon, one of one a few such wagons of its type to survive. It was in quite good condition, though smaller than expected; then again, one doesn’t cook massive meals when on military campaign…
• Napoleon’s sled – this one is not verified! This is rumored to be the sled that Napoleon used when he traveled back to France during the retreat from Moscow. Political turmoil in Paris required that he rush back, leaving the command of the army in the hands of his generals (though Napoleon’s critics claim he abandoned the army). The sled was very small, only fitting one person.
• A small locket of Napoleon’s hair

It was an enjoyable museum, but I doubt that I would visit it again, given the chance.

I considered buying a ticket for the Kremlin that afternoon, but the weather started to get unpleasant and rain; since the majority of the Kremlin revolves around walking outside, I decided to skip the visit (I had spent an entire day at the Kremlin in August 2016). Instead, I spent the day taking it easy and relaxing before my journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad!

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Posted by Glichez 06:01 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Peterhof and the Subterranean Metro 'Palaces'


View World Tour 2017-2018 on Glichez's travel map.

1 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

Today marked the last day that I could use my Petersburg Card and I had saved two of the best attractions for last: Peterhof and the midnight drawbridges tours.

Included with my Petersburg Card was free transport over to the palace of Peterhof by hydrofoil. The palace itself was to the west of the city center, right on the waterfront. I caught the first boat over at 10:00; the journey took around 40 minutes.

Upon arrival, I walked along the jetty and entered the Lower Gardens. The jetty itself was quite windy, but once in the gardens, the wind died down. The pathway into the gardens was along a small canal that was fed off the Gulf of Finland and was lined with small fountains, which were turned off. Trees were everywhere and the entire place gave off a regal vibe. There was a small bridge over the canal that provided a view straight up the canal to the palace itself. I was disappointed that the fountains were not turned on, assuming it was due to the cold snap that had been moving through the area.

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I walked about the gardens for a little bit, enjoying the peacefulness of it all; admiring the various statues and smaller fountains, a few of which were functioning. The Peterhof Palace itself was perched atop a small hill; a long, but not tall, palace with gold-plated decorations everywhere and two very exquisite wings, capped by what appeared to be churches on either side. At the base of the hill were formal flower gardens and dotted along the hill were more fountains.

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By this point I had noticed that a large crowd was forming around the central fountain, known as the Samson Fountain. I realized that the fountains were going to be turned on and, quite excited, I rushed over to the fountain. I managed to get a spot rather close to the railing and, soon after, classical music began to play as the fountains were turned on. The show was breathtaking and second-to-none.

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The Samson Fountain sits in a small pool of water at the base of the hill; a golden statue of Samson ripping open the mouth of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden during the reign of Peter the Great (who built the original palace at Peterhof). Ascending the hill are several tiers of fountains, with dozens of golden statues on each one. A grotto area sits behind the fountains on one of the tiers. Surrounding the central pool were more gold statues, all leading towards the central canal with its rows of smaller fountains.

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Peterhof is often described as the “Russian Versailles” and it is not difficult to see why (not to mention that the palace was built to replicate many of Versailles’ features). Having seen the fountain show at Versailles multiple times, I can easily say that the fountains of Peterhof are far superior (in my opinion).

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I spent some time walking about the gardens once more, admiring the marvelous fountains. The music had ceased, but the fountains continued to run (thankfully). I returned to the bridge from earlier and was rewarded with some truly spectacular views of the palace. The clouds would briefly give way and the sun would sparkle in the water and gold. Around the grounds (and indeed, in many places throughout Petersburg), people were dressed in period costumes, most frequently as Peter the Great; they wanted money for taking photos, of course, which I declined to do.

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The ticket office for the palace interiors was nearing its opening time (like the Catherine Palace, the entrance to the Lower Gardens was separate from the palace itself). The line was far shorter than at the Catherine Palace and buying the ticket took almost no time. The ticket office and the entrance were in two different locations and there was only signage in Russian indicating where to go, but I just walked about like I knew what I was doing and soon found myself entering the palace.

Sadly, photographs were not permitted inside Peterhof – the only Russian palace to have such restrictions. The marvelous state rooms were just as eloquent, opulent, and astounding as the other palaces that I had visited. The mail ballroom was out of this world: gold décor everywhere. Words truly cannot describe how amazing the palace was. It was the smallest of the palaces, being rather narrow, but long and only two floors. The path through the palace let visitors see the majority of the rooms. A particular highlight was an original room from the palace that Peter the Great built (future tsars and tsarinas added on a rebuilt many parts of the palace): it was a study with some of his original belongings, including a small travel clock.

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Once my tour of the palace was finished, I spent some time walking around the gardens once again. I was drawn to the fountain show over and over, almost mesmerized by the beauty of the place. I could imagine the Imperial yacht being moored along the jetty and the Imperial Family walking along the canal as the fountains greeted them.

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I soon exited the Lower Gardens and entered the Upper Gardens, which were much larger formal gardens, though without the splendor of the fountains. There were a few large pools with more modest fountains in them and my stroll through the Upper Gardens provided some great views of the palace.

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The gardens exited onto the main street and I decided to call an Uber to take me to the train station. My card only provided free one-way transport by hydrofoil; to return that way would require re-entering the Lower Gardens (paying for admission again) and then buying the 700RUB hydrofoil ticket; meanwhile, the train cost only 50RUB. There were a few Uber drivers around, but none would accept my ride; one that did was over 30 minutes away, so I canceled it and decided to walk. The walk to the station took roughly 40 minutes and I was just in time to buy my ticket for the next train…

BUT, there was no signage at the station to indicate which platform the train would arrive at. I bought my ticket, scanned it and went out to the platform and found it deserted. Realizing I was on the wrong platform, I tried to find a way to reach the other one, but there was no walkway over. The train came and went without me.

The only way to get to the other platform was to exit the side I was on (completely exit the train station), go through the underpass outside, and re-enter the station from the other side. Only, I couldn’t get out of the station: to get through the turnstiles, you have to scan you ticket again, but they wouldn’t accept my ticket. I tried to call someone in the ticket office, but they ignored me (I saw them look over – I know they heard me). Finally, I simply jumped the barrier. Reaching the other side of the station, my ticket again would not let me through. I went to the counter and mimed my predicament to the cashier; she was surprised, but manually opened the gates to let me in. I was rather upset by the entire mess. I was now worried that my ticket wouldn’t scan once I reached Petersburg – thankfully it worked fine once I reached town.

I went back to my hostel to relax and then grab some dinner before heading over to Starbucks to do some reading. The drawbridges tour did not begin until 00:50, so I had quite a bit of time to kill (sadly, all of the museums closed at 18:00, so I couldn’t while away the time there). I walked back down to the Palace Embankment to join the tour, admiring the city by night as I did. Palace Square was magical at night, with the Winter Palace light up.

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The boat left from the same pier as that morning’s hydrofoil. I was assigned a spot in the front cabin, but I spent little time there as I went out onto the deck to see the bridges during most of the tour. The boat provided blankets for passengers and I placed one under my coat, which kept me surprisingly warm. The tour was only in Russian, which was ok as I was still able to watch each bridge as it went up.

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The Neva River in St Petersburg has several large bridges that cross it, but none are high enough to permit tall boats to sail underneath them. To allow them passage, the bridges are opened each night from roughly 01:00 to 03:00. The real spectacle is just how massive each bridge is and watching each one raise up is really interesting (I was quite impressed – it exceeded my expectations).

The first bridge was right next to the Winter Palace; it had lights along it and music played as it was opened; a large crowd was gathered on the Palace Embankment to watch and several boats were alongside us in the Neva. Once each bridge was opened, the boats would speed along to the next one, almost as though it were a race.

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The tour of the bridges opening lasted about an hour before we turned back around. On the journey back, I went back into the cabin to rest. The front cabin was full – well, there was room, but none of the people were inclined to make room for me, so I was put in the rear cabin. With the city being so north, the night sky never got fully dark during the night; by the time the tour ended around 03:00, it was bright enough that many street lights were turning out.

I tried to get an Uber to take me back to my hostel, but, once again, I could not get a car to pick me up. With the metro not running at this time, I was forced to walk (I refused to pay the exorbitant rates the taxi drivers were charging). I reached my hostel just before 04:00 and was soon fast asleep.

2 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

I slept in quite late this morning owing to the fact that I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 04:00. I was still exhausted from the long day and late night before, so I spent the day being lazy. I walked around the city a little bit, but mostly I spent the day reading and working.

3 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

On today’s agenda: visiting some of the remarkable metro stations in St Petersburg. Russia – the Soviet Union, to be precise – spent a lot of money on the metro stations in both St Petersburg and Moscow, making them into true works of art. The story goes that the citizens, after the Second World War, were so tired of seeing destruction everywhere, that they asked the government to give them something beautiful to look at, which turned out to be the metro stations.

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Most of the great stations in St Petersburg were along the primary Red Line 1, which was the closest to my hostel. There were a few walking tours offered in the city that took visitors through the metro, but I decided that I could do it best on my own. I walked down to the station and set off on my rather lengthy excursion on the metro.

Up first was Avtovo Station. This was one of the best stations of the day. At the end of the column-lined platform was an incredible mural; magnificent chandeliers hung from the ceiling; ornamented grates hung on the walls. The best feature of the station were the central columns that were made of glass; the glass was cut into 3-D shapes of Soviet stars and other symbols.

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I rode back one station, to Kirovskiy Zavod. The station was covered with grey marble and each column was topped with a metal sculpture representing one area of the Soviet economy (or so I assumed): metal working, farming, etc. At the end of the platform? My favorite: a bust of Lenin himself.

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Narvskaya was next and one could definitely feel more of a Soviet influence in this station. The hammer and sickle adored each column, accompanied by Soviet-style statues of workers.

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The communist influence continued at the next stop, Baltiyskaya. It was a simpler station with grey marble, but the mural at the end of the platform was dedicated to the Revolution of 1917.

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My final stop of the tour was Admiralteyskaya, the station closest to the Winter Palace and located right next to the Admiralty building. The theme of this station was, appropriately, the navy, specifically the founding of the Russian Navy by Peter the Great. Murals were all over the place, with Peter himself depicted in several of them.

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Concluding my tour of the metro stations, I rode the metro across the river and excited at Lenin Square, where yet another statue of Lenin was standing high atop a pedestal. Fountains lined the square and a bed of flowers stretched out before him.

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I had planned to walk from Lenin Square over to the Peter and Paul Fortress, but as I was able to leave, it began to rain quite heavily, so I decided to take the metro back towards my hostel. I spent the rest of the afternoon working and reading as the rain refused to let up.

4 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

I decided to revisit the Winter Palace and Hermitage museums again, this time hoping to get into the Diamond and Gold rooms. I left my hostel very early in the morning so I could get there when the ticket office opened. I had enough time to stop and grab a coffee on the way too, which helped give me some energy for the day.

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When I reached the palace, I was happy to find the ticket lines rather short and, best of all, tickets for the Diamond and Gold rooms were available! My ticket to the Gold Room was for 13:00, which gave me roughly 90 minutes to explore the Winter Palace. I grabbed a museum map this time and made my way back through the various state rooms. I made a mad-dash run through the palace and museum; I remembered where many of the rooms where and soon the maze of rooms began to make sense to me! I’m not going to describe them in great detail again; for that, see my previous blogs. I’ll just share some of the photos that I took during this visit.

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I did revisit the Malachite Room, which was luckily not crowded, allowing me to snap some great pictures of the entire room and then the adjoining dining room where the Provisional Government was arrested.

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The Gold Room meeting point was in a small room on the ground floor; there were about six of us on the tour and our guide soon met us and took us to the entrance to the room. She spoke excellent English and provided very thorough and detailed explanations of everything we saw. Photos were not permitted in either the Gold or Diamond rooms.

The Gold Room was filled with gold pieces from early Russian history, mainly from the various nomads that had inhabited the area. The tsars, starting with Peter the Great, collected the various pieces during their rule. The displays were very interesting: rings, earrings, diadems; there were some pieces that were so small and so detailed/intricate, they needed to be placed under a magnifying glass to be properly seen (to this day, no one knows how they were able to create such intricate pieces).

The tour lasted just under an hour, which gave me another hour or so before my tour of the Diamond Room. After exploring and revisiting most of the state rooms once again, I met the ground for the Diamond Room tour.

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The Diamond Room is a bit misleading as the majority of the pieces displayed are gold, many similar to what was displayed in the Gold Room. There were some very interesting diplomatic gifts that various tsars had received, including horse decorations with thousands of diamonds. The final room of the exhibit was the best part as it contained tsarist treasures: snuffboxes, rings, other jewelry, etc. Overall, I was disappointed in the Diamond Room.

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By this time, it was late afternoon, so I grabbed a late lunch / early dinner and decided to call it a day.

5 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

Another uneventful day in St Petersburg. I first had to get some laundry done; I had found a small laundromat a few days ago and decided to revisit them. They only had three washing machines and the majority of the place was devoted to a bar. I had only one load of laundry to do, but it took me over two hours to get done! After that was done, I needed to get a late lunch as it was now past 14:00.

I spent the rest of the afternoon back at my hostel working before calling an Uber to take me to the Yusupov Palace. This place was where Rasputin was murdered in 1916. No one truly knows what happened that night and the story put out by Felix Yusupov himself seems so outrageous. What is known is that Felix and his co-conspirators lured Rasputin to the palace; they go him drunk in a basement room and then Felix shot him. Returning upstairs to share the news, he was shocked to find that Rasputin had survived and was trying to get away through a small courtyard. Rasputin was then shot several more time after which, his body was taken out of the city and dumped in a river.

Sadly, my visit to the palace was not to be. When I arrived, I found the ticket office was closed, despite the fact that I had already purchased my ticket online and was told to arrive at that time. I couldn’t find anyone to help me and I soon gave up. The palace was on the Moika River and I walked to the other side of the river so I could at least take pictures of the palace itself. Looking up the museum later, I was not terribly disappointed in missing it: the basement room is there, but there are several (rather poorly done) dummies representing Rasputin and Yusupov.

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6 June, 2017
St Petersburg, Russia

My final day in St Petersburg! My 16 days in the city had flown by and I was not yet ready to leave; I had truly fallen in love with the city. I decided to spend my last day in town revisiting some of my favorite areas and sights.

I walked over to St Michael’s Castle, through the Summer Gardens and the Field of Mars, over to the Winter Palace. I had considered taking a free walking tour that morning, but decided against it as I wanted to do my own thing instead. I spent quite a bit of time in Palace Square, admiring the Winter Palace. I had dreamed of visiting it for so long and it was sad to be leaving.

I crossed the bridge over to Vasilyevsky Island, where I strolled around the riverfront park and the rostral columns once more. I then walked back across the bridge and walked back by the Bronze Horseman before heading back to Palace Square one last time. I reluctantly pulled myself away from the Winter Palace and walked back down Nevsky Prospekt one last time (though, to be fair, I would not miss that long walk!). I stopped back inside the Kazan Cathedral for a quick visit on my way back to my hostel.

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That evening I went back to my favorite Starbucks to relax and do some reading.

Posted by Glichez 21:22 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

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