Narvik of Northen Norway

By: leelefever on October 1, 2006 - 10:50pm

 It took us 4 busses and 3 trains to do it, but we have finally arrived in Narvik, Norway, from Helsinki, Finland - the starting point for exploring the Lofoten Islands and fjords via rental car over the next few days. Narvik is a cool little town that has the northernmost train station (and supposedly disco) in the world. It is a few hours north of the Arctic Circle by train.

This completes our overland trek from Beijing - from the Pacific to the Atlantic across Eurasia. Going from Asia to Norway seems like traversing planets instead of the same land mass. What a contrast.

On the  way through we stopped at Rovaniemi, which is known for being so close to the Arctic Circle and having Santa's "official" residence.  Surprise, surprise - it was a giant gift shop!

I wasn't really upset - i just love making stupid faces in these contraptions.

 We did cross the Arctic Circle for the first time there though... we can check that one off the list. 

Trans-Siberian Railway: Ulan Bataar to the Russian Border

By: leelefever on September 23, 2006 - 4:31am

I boarded the train in Ulan Battar with what I figured were blisters on my behind from hours of riding Mongolian horses on the steppe.  The horses and saddle were a bit too small for a western butt like mine. Sachi, the lucky, found that a couple of layers of skin had been worn away.  This is not a good way to start a two day train ride.

From the moment we stepped on the train, we were focused on the upcoming border ordeal with Russia, famous for its 11 hour wait.  The waiting around was not so bad except that the bathrooms on the train are locked for a majority of the time.  Of course, this is because the toilet dumps directly onto the tracks below, potentially making the already sketchy border area a sewer as well.  Our goal was bladder management, but just in case, we are holding a couple of plastic bottles in reserve.

We knew we were supposed to arrive at the border at 4AM so we both got up at 3:30AM to do what we could in the last minutes of the unlocked toilet.  The train arrived, the toilets were locked and we were left alone for 4 hours until 8AM, when the wait began for the border guards to arrive and take our passports for processing. 

For the entire train journey to this point, we operated only in the moment - by necessity.  There was no train itinerary and the attendants only communicated in very basic terms.  So we sat and waited and looked for our fellow passengers to appear on the platform - a sure sign that we can leave the train for a brief moment.  Other than that we just asked "Can we get off?" and then try to figure out if the answer was a “yes” or "no”. Our fellow Western travelers were in a similar predicament.

The border crossing into Russia was done with little fanfare.  However, someone presented himself soon after the border that was a bit startling for us.  For the first time in 8 months, a government representative had blonde hair and blue eyes.  Over a few minutes it was clear that the border with Mongolia seems to represent the most genetically distinct border we've crossed.  Within about two kilometers the people became, very, very Russian.  From what we'd seen thus far, the Russians are quite beautiful people with bright eyes, distinct features and slim physiques. 

Just before stopping at customs an Asian women entered our berth and hung a jacket on a hook and walked away as if we would be happy to carry the jacket with us through customs. Sachi promptly hung it outside where she collected it quickly.  Shaaah, as if.

 Counting the 4am arrival at the Mongolian border and 2 hours of free time on the Russian side, the ordeal did take about 11 hours and no plastic bottles were needed.  However, I will never forget an event just before departure that almost made me mess my pants.  A group of 5 of us left the train station to visit a shop about 500 yards from the station and we left with over an hour before our 3PM departure time.  Our quest was successful and we came back to the station with vodka bottles in hand - but something important was missing.  Our train was not sight.  We rushed up to the platform and looked around as if it might be camouflaged somehow - but no train was on track number 2.  Soon after we also realized that all five of us lacked any necessary means to catch another train.  We had all left for the store without a passport, train ticket, extra money or credit cards.  For a fleeting moment, our world and prospects for recovery seemed quite bleak and I wondered how I would be reunited with Sachi, clearly on her way into Siberia without me.  Then, to our surprise we saw a train approaching from the opposite direction and soon after a woman we recognized.  Was this our train?  Looking in the window, I met eyes with Sachi on the train, smiling and shaking her head.  She, along with the other passengers in our car were also surprised and briefly concerned when the train suddenly departed.  As it turns out, it only left the station briefly to change tracks and there was much relief.  Never again will I leave a train without extra money, a passport and ticket.

The Trans-Siberian Has Begun

By: leelefever on September 15, 2006 - 8:41pm

The train trip has exceeded our expectations in a big way. The train itself is OK, but Mongolia and Siberia have been highlights of the whole trip, except for my saddle sores. Unfortunately though, it's a bit harder to upload all the pictures, videos, etc. Once we get into the big cities like Moscow we'll be sharing a lot more. Here is quick video to get started...

In couple of hours we board a train from Irkutsk to Ekaterinberg, Russia which will take about 48 hours.

Mutiny on the Way to The Great Wall of China

By: leelefever on September 7, 2006 - 6:26pm

We went into deciding that we would laugh and find humor in the situation - no matter what.  Being in Beijing, we needed to see the Great Wall and really didn't feel like working out the details for an independent trip to Simitai - a part of the wall 150km from Beijing.  So, we just booked a tour from our hotel and hoped for the best.

It started with a nice surprise - a minibus with 8 well-travelled and youngish Italians and some a few rows of spare seats.  Italians are so fun and full of life.

Anyway, after sitting in ridiculous Beijing traffic for about 2 hours (where we witnessed car-to-car turtle selling), our Tour Guide "Prudence" announces a stop for 40 minutes at pottery factory - a famous "Factory Tour", the often loathed-but-required element of group travel.  Usually a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand – pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. and then presented with a giant gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kick-back for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar.  It's basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that wastes time for the disinterested.  Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown.

Prudence is a very nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her.  We huddled together to plot our resistance - we would not be taking the tour and we would demand to get back on the bus and proceed to the Great Wall.  Stephania was our leader and the negotiations began while each of us used the bathroom and returned to the sidewalk by the bus, sure not to be lured into the fold.

Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that an espresso machine was present and the discussions were moved to ensure that Italians could get an espresso fix in the midst of the overthrow.  A lesson in espresso-making ensued.

Prudence put up a valiant fight for our time spent in the factory, insisting on 40 minutes, then 30, 20 and finally 10 before capitulating completely and allowing us to board the bus to the Wall.  Stephania was our rock and the insurrection was complete before too much time was wasted...and there was much rejoicing.

I encourage all travelers to call bullshit on the factory tour scheme when they travel - you will rarely find it on the itinerary before you buy the ticket, yet it will waste time that could be spent at the actual destination.  If the group is small, ask about interest and organize your mutiny - remember that you are paying for the experience.  Viva la Résistance!

Oh, and we saw the Wall too... 




Video: The Yangtze River's Three Gorges, China

By: leelefever on August 25, 2006 - 6:53am

There may be fewer places in the world that are sparking more environmental controversy that the Three Gorges section of China's Yangtze River, where the world's largest dam project is almost complete. More on that soon. Despite the dam, the gorges before the dam remain a beautiful place and this video (hopefully) captures some of the beauty that, as of October of this year, will be further underwater.

The Karsts of Guilin, China

By: leelefever on August 16, 2006 - 8:04am

As a child, I remember seeing pictures of a magical place where the earth seemed to have burst right out of it's shell and created giant rounded stone mounds, set amongst rice paddies, rivers and farms. I said then that I was going to see that place one day. Much to my enjoyment, we found this place in Guilin, China.

 The mounds are actually called karsts and are made of limstone.  200 million years ago this part of China was under the sea and limestone was thrust upward from the earth's crust and then eroded into the shapes we see today. 

The karsts are best viewed from a boat on the Li River and as most things in China, it is done as part of a package tour, complete with flag waving guide.  Our guide was the delightfully geeky "Jack". The tour included lunch and costs about US$58 per person.


 We learned today that English teachers in China often suggest western names for their students.  The person who told us was given the name "Norman" but didn't like it - so he chose "Steven" instead.

Jack led us on a 4 hour trip down the Li River, accompanied by a very long line of similar boats, each holding about 100 sweating people.

 The whole trip was narrated by a women with English skills far inferior to Jack's.  She told us how the Li River "winds through the grotesque peaks exactly like a blue silk ribbon" and how we should watch out for the peaks that "look exactly like 9 oxen".  Most aboard looked around in a confused state, amazed at the scenery nonetheless.  And the scenery was amazing.  There is surely no other place in the world like the karsts near Guilin - it's the stuff of poetry and paintings.  In fact, the area appears on the back of the 20 RMB (chinese currency) note.




Beijing to Helsinki Over 20 Days

By: leelefever on August 5, 2006 - 3:46am

It’s been a big and long awaited day for us.  Since the trip was just a twinkle in our eye, we have been looking forward to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which will take us from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia and then to Helsinki, Finland over 20 days.  It is the longest train journey on earth.

We’ve found that it is one thing to want to do it and another to actually get everything lined up to make it happen.  The problem is trying to plan the travel and get Chinese and Russian visas while on the road.  For a 30 day Russian tourist visa, Americans have to outline an exact itinerary and have letters of invitation from hotels along the way.  Further, because we chose not to plan ahead too far, we have to get the Chinese visa and Russian visa while we are in (expensive) Hong Kong.  This is not to mention trying to plan the Trans-Siberian journey in the midst of the visa applications.

Luckily we found help and today we’re rejoicing in our luck at settling the whole issue in one fell swoop.  We saw an ad for an agency called Monkey Business that specialized in Trans-Siberian journeys that has an office in Hong Kong.  Today we walked into the office and within about 1.5 hours, we had an itinerary including lodging and all trains from Beijing all the way to Helsinki and applications for both Chinese and Russian visas. All we have to do is drop by the office on Thursday afternoon and we’ll be set until late September – certainly the longest range plans we’ve had thus far.  We feel like we’ve avoided a HUGE pain in the butt and have a lot of trust in our new friend Kelvin at Monkey Business. This is him:

Here’s our itinerary:

  • August 11th:  Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China
  • September 9th: Depart Beijing, China
  • September 10th:  Ulanbaatar, Mongolia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 14th:  Irkutsk, Russia (Lake Baikal-Siberia) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 18th: Ekaterinburg, Russia (Urals) (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 21st:  Moscow, Russia (2 nights plus travel)
  • September 24th:  St. Petersburg (3 nights)
  • September 27th:  Helsinki, Finland

It feels a little unreal to have plans like this and we’re both really, really excited.  We spend our time in a “Ger camp” (a Ger is a tent like structure, similar to a yurt) in Mongolia and do “homestays” in the homes of Russian families in Siberia.  We’ll spend 8 nights on the train with lots of instant noodles and coffee and perhaps a little vodka. In the end, we’ll hopefully gain some good friends in other travelers and local Mongolians and Russians.  After spending longer in Asia than we expected, it’s nice to finally see the “around” part of this around the world trip come to fruition.

Denied for Hong Kong

By: sachilefever on August 2, 2006 - 6:27pm

Typhoon Prapiroon is coming through these parts this afternoon which means ferries to Hong Kong have denied us passage. All boats were tied up to dock this morning after the typhoon signal was hoisted to "8". We are stuck in Macau for one more day and have time to find out what exactly a signal "8" means. Oh - we just lost the TV we go!

Hanoi and Uncle Ho with Wanna and Vuth

By: leelefever on July 31, 2006 - 3:04am
Our friend Beth Kanter introduced to another Cambodian blogger who lives in Hanoi. His name is Wanna or Mr. X. Yesterday we met Wanna and his friend Vuth (also Cambodian) for a day of sightseeing, including Uncle Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.
We're planning to do more video soon and this is practice...

Thanks a bunch for great time folks!

Anatomy of a Scam in Vietnam

By: leelefever on July 27, 2006 - 8:22am

It’s been said many times- be clear with a Vietnamese cab driver about your hotel, or they will take you to their friend’s hotel, where they will earn a commission. We’ve seen many attempts at such diversions, but none so blatant as we experienced today, just after arriving in Hanoi.

We took a cab from the airport into town (37km for US$10). On the way, we told the driver to go to the “Camellia 3” Hotel and showed him where it was on the map. He agreed and the agreement was settled. Along the way he had a number of phone calls, which rang in a ring tone with the volume on 11. We understood nothing he said.

Upon arriving in the Old City of Hanoi, a young Vietnamese guy walked over to the car, opened my door, stuck his head into the car about 3 inches from my face and said “Welcome to the Camellia 3 Hotel!” I struggled to look around him at the building and the awning and did not see anything about the Camellia, or any hotel for that matter. No matter what we asked, he continued to insist, quite rudely “Yes, this is the place, the Camellia 3 Hotel, let me get your bags.” All I could say was, “First, please back up and let me get out of the car.” I left Sachi in the car and stepped into what was supposed to be the Camellia 3 Hotel. I walked to the reception desk and said “I’d like a business card please, where is your business card?” Their answer: “We ran out”. This, of course was a lie and there was no longer any doubt what was happening. This was not the Camellia 3 Hotel.

The cab driver must have thought we were complete idiots. He actually thought that he could drop us off at some random hotel and we would believe, thanks to the not-so-skillful scamming of his not-so-sly cronies, that we had arrived at our requested destination and would blindly get a room, earning him a commission.

We’ve met a lot of nice people in Vietnam, but it is the prevalence of this kind of bullshit that will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. We said to him what we say to all people who try to pull such stunts. “You are bad for tourists – you keep doing this, tourists will stop coming.” He only smiled with a “you can’t win’em all” attitude and went off to give another tourist a good reason not to come back to Vietnam.

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