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pictures of china and other places

June 26, 2006

I’ve finally got around to doing something about all the pictures I took in China. I’ve fashioned a tiny gallery which you may look at here. Since there are an awful lot of them, I’ve set my favourite ones aside, so you could probably quite easily get away with just looking at those ones and then getting on with something more pressing. Thank you.

posted in the U.K.2 comments


June 1, 2006

Well: I’m back. I arrived in London last week, whereupon I immediately became ill. But I’m better now, and ready to do some things.

However, the point of this post is really just to say that hopefully, hopefully comments really are now working. Regular bombardments of spam seem to have knocked comments right out for more or less the whole time I’ve been travelling. But I’ve just upgraded WordPress, and the new version is supposed to have spam-shields of steel, so let’s see if that does the trick. Sorry to anyone whose comment has disappeared into the void: please try again.

(Soon, soon: photos of china.) Oho! I’ve added photos of China to previous entries here, and also made a big collection that you can look at here.

posted in the U.K.4 comments


May 19, 2006

I’m in Tallinn, Estonia, and slept six of the seven nights between Beijing and here on trains. Monday night I slept in Moscow instead. The trans-Mongolian train was fine: five days passed pretty quickly, and I wasn’t bored at any point. Strangely, the knowledge that you’re going somewhere prevents the fact that you’re effectively just sitting around from getting boring, and it’s surprising how long you can happily just sit and watch the world roll past.

The train from Moscow to Tallinn was immaculate. The second best train I’ve ever been on (the best being the soft sleeper from Xi’an to Beijing which I took with Jess two years ago, and which is probably the actual best train on the planet: luxurious to an extent that defies belief, with leather sofas and a flat-screen LCD at the foot of every bunk), the Tallinn-Moscow train is all soft furnishing, teak-effect panelling and green velvet, with a little artificial flower in a vase in every cabin and a restaurant car like a smart cafe.

Tallinn is also immaculate. Beautiful and crisp and clean, and when I got off the train the sky was perfect dark blue, the warm yellow light of sunrise lasted all day, and even the shadows were crisper and sharper than anywhere else I can remember being (I’m wondering if this is to do with being so far north…). Everything here is crisp and immaculate and (to me) surprisingly Scandinavian. I suppose that shouldn’t really be a surprise, it being only about 40 miles from here to Helsinki. From the train I walked to a cafe in the Old Town, and the cafe, and the coffee, and the omelette I ate for breakfast, were also all immaculate. After a week sleeping on trains, a month travelling in China, and nearly three years living in a part of Asia where immaculate cups of coffee are very thin on the ground, I can’t imagine that there could be anywhere better than Tallinn on a beautiful day to make being back in Europe seem like a good thing.

Unfortunately, the next morning I woke up to cold grey weather which has continued, and become drizzly, today. But maybe that’s a good thing, because otherwise I might just have stopped in Tallinn and eaten omelettes here forever. As it is, I now have a ticket for the night-ferry to Stockholm.

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last day in china

May 9, 2006

Hello. Gosh, that bit of time went past quite fast: I was in China. Running around, seeing and eating Chinese things, mainly. But I’ve nearly finished, and tomorrow morning, early, I get on a Moscow-bound train. As you might imagine, the temptation is strong to sum up, in a 1980’s American feelgood sitcom style, the important lessons I’ve learnt. So:

  1. Travellers are mostly idiots. In fact, this probably just reflects the fact that people are mostly idiots, but being a traveller provides more opportunities than usual for demonstrating one’s ignorance and bizarre notions about the world because travelling encourages the (usually mistaken) belief that you’ve seen things and know something of the world and its workings. Also: it is possible to ride a boat down a river near Guilin, through some of the world’s most bizarre scenery and in clear, sunny weather, and – on disembarking – to hear your fellow travellers muttering that the boat trip was “so bad it’s actually funny“. Presumably because of the lack of a cutting-edge soundtrack or interactive multimedia light display.
  2. People are brilliant. Since leaving on my travels, it has begun to seem almost like a law of nature that almost the exact moment you become lost or confused, either physically or mentally, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say ‘excuse me’ and then provide the exact solution to whatever problem you are having, however abstract that problem might be (anything from ‘where can I sleep in this town?’ to ‘how can I charter a seaworthy vessel and crew at this ungodly hour?’). I don’t know why it should be that this happens every time while travelling, but almost never when staying-in-one-place.
  3. Embarrassingly, most non-British Europeans (travelling Europeans, anyway) seem to speak three or four languages fluently. I can speak three or four words of French and German fluently.
  4. Finally, a surprisingly useful trick: when presented with information that you don’t want to be true, it seems you can usually just ignore it and ask someone else until you get the answer you want. This is particularly useful when told that something is ‘impossible’. For example, if told that it’s impossible to get tickets for such-and-such a train, just ask someone else, and repeat until you get the required answer.

I’ll arrive in Moscow on Monday, and leave the following day for Tallinn, Estonia. After that, my route will depend how quickly I am able to locate a ship bound for the Kingdom of Sweden, in the far north, from where I have heard that it is possible to take another boat to the city of Newcastle. From there I will complete the journey to London in a locomotive of the Great North Eastern Railways.

posted in Chinano comments


April 25, 2006

I’ve been in the countryside for a few days. I’m catching a train tonight to Kunming. I’m posting this just in case anyone reading this might also happen to be in the Kunming / Lijiang area.

Can’t write properly now: this internet cafe is among the most dimly-lit of places, and my eyes are screaming at me to leave! leave!

posted in China1 comment


April 19, 2006


I’m in Yangshuo – a small town a little way south of the more famous town of Guilin. It’s a nice place, though with a slightly strange atmosphere that probably comes of a small Chinese town being filled with shops and bars aimed at Western backpackers. The scenery is incredible, but it would be much better to put up some photos than try to describe it (unfortunately, though, I can’t do that right now). Postscript: back in the UK, now I can add pictures!

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a word of explanation

April 15, 2006

16th January 2007: This has been sitting, unpublished, in WordPress’ mind for eight months now. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I intended to edit it at the time. Anyway, I publish it now because the alternative would be to delete it. I will slot it neatly into April 2006. That is one of the joys of non-chronological journalising.

Now I think about it, I never did actually explain quite what I’m doing…

For a while I’ve had two essentially unconnected, but mutually compatible travel plans brewing in my head. Firstly, ever since I visited Jess in China the year before last, I’ve been planning to go back and travel in the south of China for a month or so (in fact, two years ago I came back from China so excited that for a few days I seriously considered using almost all my annual leave to go straight back the following month).

Secondly, I’ve been thinking since I-don’t-know-exactly-when that I’d like to return from Japan (specifically the small island in Okinawa that I lived on for my first two years) to London without using any planes. I have two reasons for wanting to do this: firstly, since I have no deadline to be back in the UK, I can’t see any reason to use a form of transport that is much more environmentally destructive than the slower alternatives. I think human beings have a stunning ability to mistake ‘socially acceptable’ for ‘morally justifiable’ (I’ll have to stop here, lest this turn into a somewhat beside-the-point-at-hand tirade about the way most public ‘moral debates’ seem to concern what rights minorities deserve, and are conducted by people who see it as an unfortunate necessity that their affordable footwear is assembled by people in distant countries who work fourteen-hour days in horrendous conditions for just enough money to stay alive…)

Anyway, I’ve flown far too much while living in Japan, and it has left a bad taste in my mouth: how can I, knowing how destructive and wasteful flying is, legitimately claim to be concerned about the environment while continuing to do it, entirely unnecessarily, several times a year? “Yeah, I know it’s bad, but how else do I go on holiday?” doesn’t cut it any more than “Yeah, it’s unfortunate that these shoes are produced in inhuman conditions, but those other shoes are so much more expensive.”

That aside, my other reason for wanting to travel overland is: because it’s fun.

Travelling very long distances by boat and train can be a bit trickier than catching a single flight, but it’s actually much more straightforward than I’d expected (even getting my Russian visa – a notoriously frustrating one to sort out – only took a few days via a travel agent in Hong Kong who specialise in trans-Siberian travel). I’ve also found Seat 61 a very useful source of information, too – it has nice, clear guides to travelling by train and boat from London to just about everywhere.

posted in Chinano comments

hong kong

April 13, 2006

[May just pointed out that comments weren’t working. I’ve fiddled with the settings and it seems they should be now (though I now have to delete 45 spam comments a day – pshk). Sorry about that.]

[However: now I seem to be getting bombarded with comment spam. I hope whoever is responsible suffers extremely awkward social situations and serious inconveniences and setbacks almost continuously until they stop. I’ve turned up my spam filter settings again, but please do let me know if your comment gets swallowed.]

This week I am in Hong Kong. Good God, though – Hong Kong is pretty good. It’s a huge, beautiful skyscrapered city, like a condensed, livelier version of Tokyo, set on a cluster of small and pretty semi-tropical islands. It feels like an imaginary city: like someone has thrown together all these random bits and pieces of other cities and cultures to make a place that isn’t quite Chinese and isn’t quite European. “Trams? Yeah, let’s have some of those. And skyscrapers. And steeply sloping pedestrian-only streets full of cafés – yeah, like in Paris. And let’s have old nineteen-thirties-style ferries and a pristine subway system. And let’s run an 800m escalator up that hill.”

And then, you can get on a boat, and in forty minutes you’re on a lush, forest-covered island where only a few thousand people live, with a giant buddha looming out of the mist.

It surely can’t be China: in all the stations there are people protesting about [deleted]* and handing out leaflets denouncing the Chinese government. Which would get you in a lot of trouble only a few miles north of here. And yet it is…

I could live here, I think.

Only… hot! It’s only April, and it’s already like June in Okinawa. I can just about handle Okinawa’s August now, but I suspect HK might be too much for me.

The other thing I’ve done while here is buy my trans-Siberian ticket. So: I will be leaving Beijing on the 10th of May, on a direct train to Moscow. Which will mean five days on a train. Which (I realise now) will mean five days without a shower. If you happen to be in Moscow on the 15th May, avoid me.

* deleted – because it just occurred to me that it would be pretty stupid to use a word that meant this site got blocked by the various filters and prevented me accessing it once I’m back in China proper. The deleted word is the name of a religious movement that is, to say the least, not popular with the powers that be in Beijing.

posted in China2 comments

things I have seen in shanghai

April 5, 2006

Man drying tea, Yuyuan Ming gardens, Shanghai

  • Chinese acrobats – possibly the actual most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Imagine being able to do a backflip ten feet into the air and land perfectly on the upraised feet of someone else who’s standing on their head! You would surely be tempted to do it in public just to startle people.
  • Whole skyscrapers used as TV screens.
  • A number of Germans in medieval costume, including a man in full chain mail, trying to hail a taxi.
  • A man putting his jumper on the pavement in front of a bus stop and setting fire to it, for no clear reason I could make out.
  • Toilets with no cubicles. Shock! After two years in Japan, with its onsens and rotenburos (hot baths), I can now do public nudity, but public shitting (even by other people) is still frankly too avant-garde for me.
  • Beautiful Yuyuan Ming gardens. Apparently designed for hide and seek – full of winding paths between (and over, and under) big rocks, hidden passages and crevices, little wooden follies, and dividing walls, not to mention tiny ponds and bridges.

Hmm, I wonder how I can put up the photos I’m taking…
postscript: I can’t.
post-postscript: now I’m back in the UK I can…

posted in Chinano comments


April 3, 2006

Shanghai skyline

I’m in China!

More specifically, I’m in Shanghai!

Kyoto was freezing, and although the cherry trees were in bud I didn’t quite catch the blossom. I did get snow to make up for it, though. In my last few days in Japan for some reason I developed an inexplicable craving for ‘omrice‘ – rice wrapped in a thin omelette, which is odd in that it seems to be a Western-style dish that is Japanese. For almost the whole time I was in Japan I hardly ever ate it, and then right at the last minute I realised that it is brilliant and ate it at every opportunity.

I met up with Graeme and Kasumi for a last wander round Kyoto, and then on Friday morning I went across to Osaka and boarded the boat for Shanghai. I’ve ridden three boats so far (Okinawa – Kagoshima, Fukuoka – Osaka, and Osaka – Shanghai), and each one has been better than the previous one. The one to Shanghai was great – very comfortable, and much more sociable than plane travel. The only downside is that 36 hours after I got off the boat, I’m still swaying slightly, though that’s more strange than unpleasant.

Last night I wandered up and down the Bund – the grand European-style riverside in Shanghai – ate a big Chinese meal, and then went to a bar to see a great jazz band for free! I haven’t been to that sort of gig in Japan at all, and have missed it. The bar was full of people of probably at least a dozen nationalities, but had none of the artificial, limbo-like feeling that ‘foreigner bars’ in Japan tend to have – probably because foreigners are much less out of the ordinary here. The city is a crazy mix of ramshackle and futuristic. I didn’t really plan to come here, but I’m glad I have, and I’m considering staying a couple of days longer than I’d planned before I catch the overnight train to Hong Kong…

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