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Thu, 4 Dec 2008 Romania – Hong Kong

July 1, 2009

Since I last wrote there has been so much to see I feel like that whatever I can sensibly put into an update will simply not do it justice. Anyway, I will try a little summary and my photos will paint the rest of the picture.

I spent the last days in Romania at the Way of Joy homeless project that I have visited before and helped in the office and served the homeless children food in the canteen. It got really cold the last few days in Romania and it was hard to think of people living without electricity or gas just around the corner from here I was staying. I had the privilege of going with some of the project’s volunteers to take a couple of children to a warm indoor play park and to buy them some warm clothes. Like the project founder says; it’s not the children’s fault, why should they suffer for being born into this situation. The project is inspirational but unfortunately the heart behind it is not shared by the all of the rest of the community and support from within Romania is difficult to get. They rely on support from charities such as Robin Hood Ministries in the UK to continue their work, which really helps these people to get out of the poverty trap. One such person is the lady who is now the cook for the canteen. With help she now has a proper place to stay and qualifications that enable her to have a job. It is encouraging to meet her and there are many others who have been helped because someone cared. How different could the world be if we all did a little?

I continued on from Romania on a train for 2 days travelling through Ukraine to Moscow with an unexpected but welcome 3 hour stopover in Kiev. I made friends with a Romanian archaeologist who spoke good English and a Russian lady who despite speaking little English still managed to communicate with us. The three of us had a good time aboard. The train was not the cleanest and the ride distinctly bumpy but I guessed that this would be good preparation for my 6 day Trans-Siberian/Mongolian train journey to come! I was a little unprepared food-wise and the buffet on the train was closed but thankfully I could change money in Kiev and stock up there and also I could not stop Emelia and Tanya from giving me half of their food as well. I think they could not understand why I was travelling on my own and were mothering me. I was not complaining!

Moscow was less daunting than I imagined. The cleanliness and western style of much of the city made me feel more at ease than some of the places I had been to in Romania. I also followed the good advice of friends who had visited Russia and avoided eye contact with officials and had no problems. I was fortunate to meet 3 others in my hostel who were not only on the same train as me but in the same carriage too! I did some sight-seeing with some others from the hostel and particularly liked Red Square (though disappointed that it is no longer actually red any more). I had a couple of amusing moments when I was definitely being watched by security guards in a very posh department store because I looked far too unkempt to be in there (Have they not seen a traveller before?). I refrained from provoking any further interest and hastily exited said establishment only to be followed in the local supermarket too. They didn’t complain when I bought up half the shop in preparation for the next train journey though.

The trip to the station to catch the Trans-Mongolian train was challenging, brought on my myself as usual. Employing a little ignorance and the help of the language barrier I managed to get the subway lady to let me through with my ridiculous-sized bicycle bag. It is something that I had once vowed I would never do again whilst travelling back from the US through the subway system in Chicago and had swiftly forgotten! Still, it was one of those unique experiences that I nor any of the bemused backpackers I’d met will ever have again.

After standing around in zero degrees Celcius at the station I finally boarded the train and managed to stow the bicycle with the help of my cabin-mate who didn’t blink an eyelid at my mentioning having a bicycle. Her brother happens to be doing a similarly silly adventure with a bicycle around the world so this was a good start for us. The second amusing thing was that her name was also Helen so that made life easier for us, but probably not for the rest of the people we met who probably will not know who is who when we email them. Most of our carriage was western apart from one Mongolian girl who probably found our behaviour immensely amusing, or at least bemusing. Next to my cabin was one full of boisterous Swedes and this cabin became the social centre for most of the time on the train.

The 6 day journey was very scenic with added challenges of eating and washing when you are on a train for that long! There was only cold water available to wash but I was up early one morning and the Chinese train guard let me use the hot water in their bathroom. We ate a lot of instant noodles as we only had hot water available but again one day the guards were in a good mood and I managed to put together a bolognese style dish which I was allowed to warm on the furnace that they burn coal in to heat the carriage. Other than this we were able to try local foods that we could buy at stations along the route. It was effectively the longest that I had stayed in one place and it was good to have more time to get to know the people that I was travelling with.

Siberia was pretty bleak and showed the poorer side of Russia compared to the shiny front that Moscow portrayed. I particularly enjoyed waking up on the third morning to a thick blanket of snow covering the scenery and a bright sky. Border crossings were long and depended on the country as to the level of searches and time for passports to be processed. Unfortunately for the 2 Australians I had met at my hostel, their visa had run out 2 days too early and they were hauled off the train at the Russia-Mongolia border along with all their stuff and when the train set off again 3 hours later they had not returned. They were stuck there for 2 days and had to pay 500 USD in fines before catching an onward train to Mongolia!

Mongolia brought an entirely different view of deserts, yurts, small clustered towns, scattered rubbish where there had previously been a nomad camp and camels! On day four Helen and I woke up early to make sure we caught a view of Lake Baikal in Mongolia which is the deepest lake in the world and has the biggest volume of fresh water of all the lakes including the great lakes. It could supply the whole world with drinking water for 40 years. There were some pretty icicles formed when the water had crashed against the rocks and instantly frozen.

Many of the people on the carriage got off in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the coldest capital in the world, which left myself, Helen and a lone Swedish girl from the next-door carriage to carry on to Beijing. The social cabin was filled with new people who were not quite so sociable.

Over the Chinese border the desert of Mongolia turned into more of a mountainous scenery but still with the sand and colour of the desert. Many people wear masks in Beijing, not only because of the smog, but because the dust of the Gobi desert is gradually moving further east. One day we had a mini dust-storm in the carriage from where the sand came in in between the carriages and into the corridors. I thought there was a fire! Thankfully there was none but I got a sore throat from breathing sand.

Us three girls saw the sights of Beijing together apart from when I had an afternoon on the bicycle. It is very exciting cycling in Chinese cities where most people ignore the traffic signals but somehow everyone avoids colliding with each other. You really need acute observation, agile manoeuvrability and the confidence to aim for where you want to go with the knowledge that all will work out fine. I had decided I wanted to find the Olympic mountain-biking course which instead of being a mountain-bike park as I had imagined, had been mostly returned to it’s former state of being a local walking/tai-chi place bar some of the course marking tape and some added tarmac roads dissecting the area. There were also migrant workers from the countryside chopping down wood from trees and makeshift sleeping places where I imagine these people would be sleeping at night. It is interesting to see the reality behind the glamour of the games. I am quite appalled at some of the stories I heard of people being turfed out of homes in the old traditional huton areas with little warning to make way for shiny tourist make-believe Chinese streets amongst other things. Also, many of the Olympic buildings simply looked totally out of character for their location and you just wonder what was there before. We were not convinced that the community has benefited overall from the games. Still, I can say I have mountain biked on the same course as where the best in the world were competing!

The coldest day in the Beijing area was when we went on a tour to the Great Wall. Almost entirely put off by reports of major tourist-trappings, we found a tour that promised an unspoilt trip to a secret part of the wall. It was certainly different from the pictures you see that show the restored parts of the wall. We chose a walking tour where we were dropped in a village and were taken by quite an elderly guide up a mountain. She must have been over 70 and spoke no English but stopped at great points for pictures and knew where all the sheltered spots were for a bit of a sit down. The views of the wall snaking its way over the tops of the mountains was amazing. It was considerably windy and at points we had to hold on to make sure that a gust of wind did not unsteady us. According to a thermometer carried by a German couple, the temperature was as low as minus 4 and I was very thankful for my windproof and thermal gear. My water I carry in a backpack with a tube you can drink from became impossible to drink because the water in the tube froze! We walked for over an hour along the wall and then down into the village for a traditional rice and vegetables meal eaten with chopsticks of course!

The three of us went our separate ways on Friday but I will see Helen again here in Hong Kong and New Zealand as we are in those places at the same time too! I spent a few days in Shanghai where I was awestruck by shiny lights when I got here in the evening and had an interesting time trying to get a taxi and then was ferried to the wrong road with my bike hanging out of the boot of the taxi. In the end I used my phone to call the hostel and get them to tell my taxi driver where they were. Evidently my Mandarin pronunciation is poor! After that interesting start I was glad to discover the more real parts of Shanghai behind the tourist amusement park style façades, skyscrapers and shopping malls full of Gucci and Prada that the majority in China can’t actually afford. All with the help of my trusty bicycle which enables me to see more in a much shorter space of time and venture where others probably would not easily find! I found the old, cramped Huton areas with tiny streets and public toilets because no-one has their own. I cycled through the local markets for local people at local prices as they could never afford what is being sold in the tourist areas.

I wished I’d have been wearing my sunglasses and a facemask for dust protection whilst cycling as the air here is appalling and worse than Beijing. That is something good that the Olympics did for Beijing! I was eating a lot of noodles and Chinese dumplings from the street traders and am glad I had free internet connection at my hostel to catch up with friends.

I caught an overnight train from Shanghai to Hong Kong, making acquaintance with an Australian family and a Norwegian who was taking the adventurous way home from a conference in Beijing. Time was passed playing cards, people watching and discussing the culture of the Chinese. Arriving in Hong Kong brought familiar sights and smells for me as I was here in May. It also brought warm breezes and sunny skies. I have been catching up with friends and I am going to set about discovering the nice places to cycle this afternoon.

That really is only half or less of what I have seen and done in the last two weeks. Here are the photograph albums that accompany this:

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