Wednesday, August 29, 2007
One thing is for certain, when stepping on that train tomorrow we'll leave most of what civilization has to offer behind us. So let's enjoy these precious last moments with showers, water-toilets, real beds and the internet! I honestly have no clue whether I'll be able to get to an internet cafe anytime soon so this might well be the last update for the next week or two.
These past 2 days were quite busy and I think I really fell for Beijing. It's hard or rather impossible to describe but there's something about this city that really attracts me and wants me to stay longer or rather come back in the not-too distant future. I always knew that 4 days here were going to be very little but I've only started to scratch the surface around here and I could easily spend another week here without being bored.
Yesterday, after purchasing our train-tickets, we went to the Forbidden City which was a really great experience and significantly better than what I had expected. The whole day was a bit foggy which normally makes taking decent photos more difficult than it should be but yesterday it only added to the magic of an already stunning place. Additionally we were quite lucky because there weren't too many people around at times which really made taking photos a pleasant experience. I can't wait to see them on the big screen! I guess the one thing I liked best about the Forbidden City, or in fact about Beijing in general, is the use of space when building something. The Tian'anmen Square is probably the best example of this as it's the most amazing man-made space that I've ever seen. 400,000sqm of space. You really have to see it to believe it! In fact I liked to square to much that I'm going to get out of bed early tomorrow morning to still have some quiet time to simply sit there and enjoy it. The Forbidden City is somewhat similar in that it's use of space - the yards - between the various buildings is simply breathtaking. I'll definitely upload some photos once I get home and then you'll see what I'm talking about as it's really not possible to describe it in words.
After being in the Forbidden City for around 2 1/2 hours Patrick and I decided to look for the Temple of Havens. Of course we didn't have a map so we started walking into the general direction of where we though it would be. After some time we realized that our feet we demanding a break so we went to a subway-station, took a photo of the map with the Chinese characters for the temple and then proceeded to look for an empty taxi (not that easy during the rush-hour). After spending more than 15min looking for such a taxi we found one but the driver had not clue what to do when I showed him the map of Beijing with the Temple of Havens characters on the screen of my digital camera. First he wanted to take a photo of me, then we showed the image to a collegue and in the end he turned us down, somehow gesturing that he wouldn't want to drive us there. You can imagine how happy we were about that. So we ended up walking the whole way which took us more than an hour. We finally did make it, lucky yo arrive at the Temple 10min before it was closed. This gave us a great chance to enjoy the temple, or rather the main 3-story Pagoda (spelling?) with as few other people as possible. Just before leaving that great place we even managed to take some pictures of the whole structure without any people being there. Needless to say it was well worth the exhausting way.
Today we got up at around 5 a.m., had some breakfast and then started out tour to the Great Wall at 6:20 a.m. The three hour bus-ride (which wasn't all that relaxing due to the excessive A/C and bumpy road) took us to JinShanLing from where we made a 10km hike on the wall to Simatei. The weather was beautiful and the light allowed for some great (or so I hope) photos to be taken. The Great Wall just basicallz sits a top of hills and often offers breathtaking views of the wall (and towers) ahead and behind you. For the first 2/3 of the way the landscape is also extremely nice and unspoilt by civilization. According to Patrick, who visited it at Badaling - which is much closer to Beijing - the Great Wall as a monument is significantly more impressive there (bigger, higher, faster) than what we saw today. I also have to admit that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by the structure itself, given that the wall we all know from photos is up to 7m wide and 16m high. In JinShanLing on the other hand it's significantly smaller than that. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'd rather recommend going to Badaling, especially if you're on a tight time-budget. Don't get me wrong, I had an outstanding time today (except maybe for when we had to go up the infamous "130 steps" which nearly killed me and when a Chinese vendor asked whether Patrick and me were brothers) and even though we suffered through the midday-heat and 6h of riding on a bus the whole experience was great. Walking on the wall really does give you a good impression of the astonishing construction-marvel it is and it also gives you the necessary time to reflect and really enjoy the beautiful scenery. However if you're more into the "shock & awe" type of experience then Badaling should probably be your first choice.
My evening was spent waiting for the washing/drying machine to finish getting its work done on our clothes (remember no more civilization in the coming week or so!) before heading out to look for some food. Having read through Martina's guide-book I had decided that a restaurant for Indian and Thai food sounded like a good place to spend the last evening. (Patrick stayed at home due to a messed up stomach and Martina plus Fernando had already eaten.) So I took the last subway (note: subways here in Beijing only go until about 10:30 p.m.) so the district where I was hoping to find that restaurant. 30min later (and several questions about whether I was looking for massages, drugs, prostitutes, whatever) I gave up the search for it and went for a beer in the garden of a more or less fancy hotel close to the Chinese Trade Center. Still being hungry (I had only eaten breakfast and a sandwich as lunch) I looked for other options and decided that a 24h Chinese fast-food joint going by the name of "Be there, be square" sounded like a viable option. At this point I discovered it's really impossible to find a decent place to eat after 10 p.m., unless you want to go for an American fast-food brand called McDonald's that is, as most Chinese restaurants seem to close to 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. I guess you can find something if you know exactly where to look but that wasn't the case here as none of the places mentioned in the Lonely Planet "Best of Beijing" seemed to exist anymore. Hell, I didn't even find a 24h convenience-store (7/11 where are you, I miss you!) to buy some instant noodles and beer. At some point I even considered going to one of the restaurants at the Grand Hyatt Beijing (not the cheapest hotel I might add) to ask for a sandwich or something. In the end I decided to call it a day and went home, grabbed a beer ("Tsingatio" which is quite good) at a small store and now I've spent the past hour or so standing in front of the computer in our hostel's lobby and typing these lines...
Without any beer left in my bottle and my hungry stomach coming to haunt me it's probably a wise decision to press the orange "send" button and head off to grab some sleep.
Beijing, I miss you already
Monday, August 27, 2007
By this time the sun had started setting and the light was just beautiful for taking photos so Patrick and me went for our cameras and starting shooting. The highlight was definitely Tian'anmen Square which looked extremely nice, hope to show you some photos of it at one point or another. As everyone was quite hungry, especially after seeing the ceremony of a Chinese flag being taken down (somewhere close to Tian'anmen) we decided to go into a small local restaurant in one of the side-alleys. The menu was Chinese-only so the food was chosen with a mixture of pointing at photos, our neighbour's dishes and random selection on the menu. Everything turned out to be quite good, even though we didn't really know what it was. Needless to say that I also enjoyed the beer!
In the evening we wanted to look for a bar or something similar to go out a bit. Apparently going out is not a big thing around here because the lady in the hotel responded by "I've never done it myself, but I heard that you might something long this street." So we went there by subway and on foot only to find a rather nice but very quiet road with the minimum amount of life there. After some time we did see some lights going up into the sky and therefore found a disco / KTV place of sorts. However we didn't decide to go into it which turned out to be good decision as just behind the disco there's a small lake (can't remember it's name though) which is surrounded by lots and lots of bars. Patrick mentioned that when he was in Beijing 2 years the whole place was just one huge construction site so this is definitely something quite new and artificial. We ended the day with beer and cocktails before heading home for some well-deserved (I'd like to think;-) sleep. Of course it's close to 3 a.m. by now and the others are sleeping already while I'm still typing these lines...
Tomorrow we're planning to get up at around 8 a.m., grab some breakfast and then head off to that CITS office to purchase the train-tickets to Mongolia. Afterwards we intend to go to the Forbidden City and visit another temple or two in the afternoon. For the evening we might go to a (a) Beijing Opera or (b) Beijing Duck dinner. For Wednesday we booked a tour for the Great Wall which should also be fun as we'll be going to one of the less touristy spots and walk 10km on the wall before being picked up again.
Well, good night for now...
Sunday, August 26, 2007
We had a good ride from Munich, with very nice flight-attendants and good food on both legs of our journey. And now I think it's safe to say that we also had a very good start into Beijing. At least as soon as we got into our cab after having to wait in line for 45min while watching endless loops of ads for the Olympics (which are really omnipresent around here) and terrible Chinese TV-shows. So, first lesson learned: next time opt for the pick-up service from the hostel which would have cost us RMB150 (instead of the RMB120 we paid for the regular cab) but would have saved us quite some time and energy. And if you decide to go for the regular cab then at least don't be so stupid as to not use a trolley for you backpack, because after 22h on planes it's quite pain in the rear to stand around with 20kg on your back.
Anyway, once we got into the cab things started to look up. Especially when the driver, after thinking hard for 15min, muttered the words "Welcome to China" with a big friendly smile on his face.
The hotel is situated in the immensely charming Hutong area, which is still (maybe as still in not very long from now...) reflecting the traditional Chinese way of housing. We walked around a bit before settling into a small restaurant on the street for some nice food and a good Chinese beer! Afterwards we decided to look for Tian'anmen square (for more details see Patrick's comment below), we weren't quite sure which direction to walk once we left "our" street. Maybe another note about the immediate neighbourhood: it's quite touristy in a "Lonely Planet / backpacker / individual" kind of way, with lots of small shops, travel agents and restaurants with English menus. Plus there's one bar aka "tourist trap" which is easily distinguishable by being the only place with loud music playing.
One random amusing observation was made at the immigration counter on the airport as you can evaluate the officer's performance on a smiley-scale from very good to very bad. We don't know what happens when you press the "unhappy button" - at least in my mind the officer then gets an electric shock or something. Now how about installing such a device at the OBB-counters, in every Bezirksamt and Magistrat and offer this as an option on a telephone hotline. "Please press a number from 1 to 9 to evaluate the support you've received." #9 BUZZZ...
Well, 'nuff said for today, it's time to grab some sleep!
Patrick's free of sense corner:
After finding heavenly peace by consuming a cheap Costa-Rican cigar from Dubai on the square of heavenly peace under the watchful eyes of chinese authorities and contributing to both the amusement and photographical motives of chinese tourists and pedestrians we have truly and finally arrived in this wonderful city. Viva!
P.S.: Christoph is a fucking hacker:-)
Friday, August 24, 2007
Today was spent with some last minute shopping and we should be all set now. At least I can't think of anything we've forgotten.
In the evening I started packing all my things into that brand new backpack of mine. Here's a photo of what my room looked like with all the items from my "to-be-packed" list strewn across the bed and floor...
Now when I turn around I'm presented with a significantly better view. The main backpack is quite full and my carry-on backpack (which will also be used for day-trips) will also be packed once I add my camera and some other things which are still missing.
Unfortunately my sleeping bag (the green thing on the left) didn't quite make it into the backpacks so I'll have to carry it when boarding the plane. I certainly hope that Emirates isn't too picky about enforcing their "1 carry-on bag only" policy. Especially since my overall weight is well below what I'm allowed to bring (20kg + 6kg) with my backpack coming in at around ~14kg and the small one with 4kg.
Well, I'm off for now, I still need to get some things done before I can call it a day. Plus I'm still thinking about heading to a friend for a last sip of Austrian beer.
Next stop: Beijing...
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Ah, screw it, if possible I'll post new entries the plain old-fashioned way and in case I can only do it via e-mail, well, then we'll all have to live with a shitty looking text-formatting.
And now I've spent enough time with this blog, back to real-life...
submitted that entry via e-mail. Somehow my e-mail client (Thunderbird
2) seems to like screwing up the formatting.
Anyway, here's another attempt to blog via e-mail, this time I'm
writing the message via my university's webmail service...
We'll see how it goes!
in 2 1/2 days we're already going to be in Bejing!! :-)
Tomorrow will be a pretty busy day as I still need to buy my sleeping
bag as I wasn't able to find a suitable one while I was in Vienna these
past two days. Plus thanks to the f****** moron at outdoorversand.at
(who sent the Nortland Kailash 70+10 backpacks we ordered to another
customer and now we won't get it in time) we still need to buy a
backpack tomorrow. There are two Nortland stores which are relatively
close by where we hope to find good backpacks. I rang one up 10min
before they called it a day and they had one Kailash 70+10 still in
stock. However they received a large shipment today which they haven't
unboxed so I'm quite optimistic about getting the ones we want tomorrow.
One way or another it's another thing that I'll have to take care off
and I'm not too happy about it. *grml*
On another note I tested out my iso-matrace half an hour ago and it's
really quite confortable, which it of course should be given that I
spent €60 on it...
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
We've now got all three visas and the first thing I did after marvelling at them for a minute (or two) was to get 3x copies of each visa. I'm going to leave one copy at home with my parents and take two along myself. "Better to be safe than sorry" as they say...
Monday, August 20, 2007
a 1:1.600.000 map of Mongolia by Reise Know-How (€9) to keep me from getting lost
a self-inflatable "Trail Lite" mattress by Therm-A-Rest (€59) to keep me from freezing
a 4L water-bag by Ortlieb (€21) to keep me from dehydrating
Unfortunately there were also two things I didn't get so far:
a sleeping bag (quite important I dare say!)
a light-weight camping pot
We also still need to get some things in terms of medicine and whatnot. Plus I need to find my good hiking-shoes!
While looking for some of these things I also stopped by local Army Shop, the first time that I went to such a place. Needless to say I was expecting a facist-lookin' guy right out of "Falling Down". However when I walked into the store I was pleasently surprised by three good-lookin' young ladies looking at me with a smile. I wish all shops I go to had staff like that, then I'd probably do less online-shopping... ;-)
Seriously though, I'm really looking forward to keeping everyone posted once I start my journey next Saturday. I'm not sure whether I'll be able to access Blogger.com from China (someone said that it's banned over there) but since Blogger.com also supports adding posts via e-mail I'm quite positive that I'll be able to blog throughout my time in China. (In my worst case scenario I'll have to avoid mentioning the name blogger.com and relay my e-mails via another e-mail account in case my messages to ***@blogger.com don't make it through the Great Chinese Firewall.)
Right now I'm tossing around several ideas for what I could do with the blog once I get back from the TransSib. I'm also trying to think outside the box as I might end up writing a blog or blog-like series of articles for another website in October. But we'll have to see how it all works out...
To quote from the Wikipedia entry for WikiScanner:
WikiScanner (short for Wikipedia Scanner) is a tool created by Virgil Griffith and released on 14 August 2007, which consists of a publicly searchable database that links millions of anonymous Wikipedia edits to the organizations where those edits apparently originated, by cross-referencing the edits with data on the owners of the associated block of IP addresses. The Associated Press reported that Griffith wanted "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike."
Kudos to Virgil for coming up with this outstanding idea! :-)
I have to say that we had quite a hard time to define important influences but one aspect that I think is quite important is that people prefer to do something tried and trusted instead of going down an unknown route. You could also sum it up by saying "it's better to be safe than sorry". In terms of politics (and by some stretch of imagination) one could also end up with "sacrificying freedom for security".
What do you think? If you had to define important components of today's Zeitgeist, what would they be?
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
€160) and for a backpack we're going with a Nortland Kailash 70+10 (€80). Next week (if I get back alive from the Frequency-Festival that is) I'll also purchase a sleeping bag, though I'm still not sure which one to get. So the last unknown is which matrace to get, my buddy decided to go for a €50 iso-matrace, however I'm still not sure whether I'm willing to spend that much money on that.
Well, I'm off for now to buy all the food+beer+water that we're going to need for the festival. Rock'n'Roll, here I come... :-)
Monday, August 13, 2007
Anyway, with regards to technology and the TransSib I was actually thinking about purchasing a Nokia N770 tablet as somewhat of a mobile note-taking and blogging tool. However I realized that it's really just an excuse to justify getting a gadget. Plus my bank account is looking quite empty anway (did I mention that I'm going to be broke after this trip?), so I've decided to stick to pen and paper. I'll try and capture some of my impressions on paper, apart from the obvious photographs, and then compile that information into (I hope) interesting blog entries.
BTW, I'm currently listening to the new Marilyn Manson album "Eat Me, Drink Me" and I really like it! The sound, his voice and also the lyrics seem to be a bit more polished then with his earlier records. So far my favourite tracks are "Putting Holes In Happiness", "Evidence" and "Eat Me, Drink Me". And what does everyone think of the track called "Mutilation is the Most Sincere Form of Flattery"?
Please note that most embassies require you to bring your documents in person. Only Mongolia accepts applications via a letter, however in our case they asked us to pick up the visa in person as they didn't want to send it back, even though I had included a pre-paid envelope. In our case we also didn't have any issues with me always bringing along the documents for my friend, however I assume that on a bad day a cranky official might require all applicants to stop by individually.
Address: Strohgasse 22, 1030 Wien (Konsularabteilung)
Phone: +43 1 / 710 36 48
Opening hours: Monday / Wednesday / Friday - 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., Monday / Wednesday - 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Required documents: application, 1x photo
Price: €30 (regular service, 7 days), €53 (express service, 3 days), €63 (same-day service)
Address: Fasangartengasse 45, 1130 Wien
Phone: +43 1 / 535 28 07 - 12
Opening hours: Monday / Tuesday / Friday - 9 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Required documents: application, 1x photo, invitation or confirmation by a hotel or tour-organizer
Price: €40 (regular service, 7 days), €80 (express service, 3 days) => this is for a single entry/exit visa, the one that will be most interesting to TransSib travellers
Address: Reisnerstrasse 45-47, 1030 Wien
Phone: +43 1 / 712 12 29, +43 1 / 713 86 22
Opening hours: Monday / Wednesday / Friday - 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., visa-pickup apparently on these days from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Required documents: application, travel-insurance form, invitation from Russian travel agency or similar entity, 1x photo
Price: Price: €35 (regular service, 10 days), €70 (express service, 3 days or less)
To the best of my knowledge this information is deemed to be realiable as of August 2007. However I'd definitely recommend you to get in touch with the embassies beforehand to check whether anything has changed. The website of the Austrian foreign ministry (Außenministerium) is also always a good source of information about countries and their embassies.
Anyway, we've certainly learned our lesson and if I had to do it again I'd shell out the €40 or €60 it costs to have a travel agent or other entity organize all the visa stuff. I don't even want to start adding up the time I spent running all across Vienna to organize that stuff.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
The lesson I learned was that it's even easier to spend a grand on outdoor gear than on computer stuff.
In the end I only bought a warm pair of trousers (€90) and a good windstopper-jacket (€99). According to my checklist I still need:
a sleeping bag
a light-weight tent (as a backup in Mongolia and for our time at Lake Baikal
a small matrace of sorts
some warm clothes and good socks
With regards to the tent we found a good one (only 1.2kg) that was even on sale (€99), unfortunately the shop had run out of them and wouldn't be restocking them anytime soon. I also saw a sleeping bag that looks like a good choice and I'll probably get that one next week.
Yesterday evening I spent some time researching outdoor equipment websites and looking for local specialized shops in Vienna. I'll probably hit one or two of those on Monday morning, after my visits to the Mongolian and Russian embassies. I also found what appears to be a good backbag by Northland. A German online-shop sells them for €79 a piece which is significantly cheaper than the ones we saw in the shops yesterday. My buddy also stumbled across a suitable tent by Salewa (1.7kg, €159) which we'll probably order early next week.
Looking at our e-tickets for the flights to Bejing and home from Moscow I realized that we're allowed to bring 20kg on both rides. With all the equipment that we're carrying along staying below that will be a bit of a challenge. This is probably the one thing I like best about travelling to places that are generally warm, you don't need to bring along as many clothes and other equipment.
One last amusing detail is that both me and my friend are basically buying all the same stuff, so we're going to look like ridiculous twins once we hit Mongolia. :-)
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Anyway, I'll be travelling with one of my best friends, a guy I met during my Zivildienst (social-service, the alternative to mandatory military-service here in Austria) and two of his university collegues. We're an international group (2x Austria, 1x Poland, 1x Portugal) and a bit on the techno-centric side in terms of our studies (2x Physics, 2x Computer Sciene). Should be good fun!
The current plan is to fly out to Bejing from Munich (and via Dubai) on August, 25th - exactly two weeks from now. We'll then spend a couple of days in Bejing with jetlag and some touristy sight-seeing. We found a very nice Hostel which is said to be "in a traditional Chinese courtyard " and only a "10 minutes' walk away from the alleyways to Tian'anmen Square". Plus they have a Beer Drinking Competition! :-D We'll also try and make it into one of those Peking operas, I've been wanting to see one in person for quite a long time.
From Bejing we'll head up to the Great Wall of China with local trains, I'm really really looking forward to seeing that massive structure with my own eyes. After that we'll slowly be moving towards the Mongolian border, again relying on local trains. Our original plan was to take one of those direct international trains from Bejing to Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia). However we had to abandon that plan as these trains only seem to leave from Bejing on Mondays and Tuesdays. As we'll only be getting there on Sunday afternoon this is definitely too early for us. Apparently there's also a train leaving on Thursdays however this one can't be reserved in advance so we'd have to try our luck at the Bejing train-station once we actually get there. There's also the added annoyance of not exactly knowing when the border between China and Mongolia is open. From what we know Sundays are definitely closed, Saturdays might be closed and on all other days the border closes at something like 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.
As you can see our plans and information are barely adequate and we'll have to improvise as we go. There are of course a number of agencies here in Europe that can organize all the details of your trip. Though you can expect to pay quite a bit for their services. So being travellers on a (low) budget we hope to get by cheaper by organizing things ourselves. Plus there's the added excitement of actually having to talk to people instead of feeling like a pensioner on completely pre-planned tour with guides at every step of the way. We'll see how it goes!
Once we actually make it to Ulaanbaatar we'll start looking for a jeep + driver and maybe a guide/translator. The current idea is to head to a place called Bayankhongor (a provincial capital if I'm not mistaken) which is south-west of Ulaanbaatar. From there we'd like to head south into the Gobi desert for 2 or 3 days before we go back up north and check out a National Park. The issue again here is that we're not quite sure how we should organize that. Apparently it's quite hard to find good English-speaking guides outside of Ulaanbaatar so we'll probably start checking there first. The other option is to go to Bayankhongor (or Arvaikheer) by bus and hope to find jeep / driver / guide there. Again, at this point there's not much else to do but hope that everything goes relatively smoothly. So in case I suddenly stop blogging once I've left Ulaanbaatar you can figure that (a) I'm stuck with a dead jeep somewhere in the middle of nowhere, (b) we ran out of food and are being cared for in small monastrry or by nomad herders or (c) decided that the Gobi is so nice that I'm not willing to leave anymore.
From Ulaanbaatar we'll be moving up north to Russia and the city of Irkutsk. Or much rather Lake Baikal. We intend to spend a couple of days at the island Olchon where we're planning to do some hiking, biking and just generally enjoying the place.
From Irkutsk we're taking a 3-day train-ride back to Moscow. When exactly is still unclear as the timetable seems to change every few days but from what we know at this point we're planning to leave Irkutsk on September, 19th. September, 25th is the date of our flight from Moscow back to Vienna, so we hope to get there in time.
Well, that about sums up our current plans for now. Plus it's past 4 a.m. around here so I better grab some sleep.
Anyway, the main reason for doing this is my upcoming trip with the Transsiberian Railway from Bejing to Moscow which starts on August, 25th.
I'm still not quite convinced that I'll have the required self-discipline to actually pull this through, but we'll have to see how it goes.
I'll leave it at that for now, and hope to follow up with a short introduction to my TransSib plans in a couple of minutes.