Yet Another Grand Tour

Last Autumn, as I noticed the evenings drawing in, I reflected that less than a year ago I was traipsing around China with a pack on my back and without too many worries in the world. I felt a familiar itch in the soles of my feet and said to myself  “’tis time for another ramble again, so it is. Time for another Grand Tour”.  So I considered the places I would most like to visit and why I would like to visit them and started to make a plan. The rough idea was to do the whole lot overland by train or using ferries where there was no train. I charted out a rough plan, downloaded a lot of Lonely Planet guidebooks and researched and dreamed throughout a pretty dismal irish winter; is there any other type? 

Now that there’s a stretch again in the evenings and we’re well into 2017, I dusted off my plans and started seriously researching and planning the journey. It’s due to start on 1 September this year,  only a few short months away. 

This trip will be like a slice of pie. I leave Dublin by ferry to Holyhead and from there to London by train. Then Eurostar to Cologne and from Cologne to Warsaw. A few days in Poland and Krakow and then off to Moscow vis Minsk in Belarus, all by train. A week or so in Moscow and St Petersburg and then up to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle to see some serious snow and the Northern Lights, something long on my bucket list. Back to Moscow and the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok.

I considered taking the Trans-Sib nonstop to Vladivostok just to experience that amazing railway and to be able to say that I had travelled on the longest train journey in the world. However, I thought about that and decided it would be an awful waste of time and space to just whizz past most of that amazing and vast country of Russia in a heated train so I decided to break the journey into several legs. The highlight, at the moment, of this journey is Irkutsk in Siberia and Lake Baikal. I intend to spend at least a week touring, by train again, around the lake. Something about Lake Baikal really grabs my imagination. 

Not sure why but I feel an almost religious fervour to go there. From a hardliner atheist like myself,  that’s saying something! Maybe an ancient ancestor of mine was a brickie helping to build the great wall of China,  back in the day,  and went off on a binge on payday and got lost and ended up in Irkutsk. Who knows. That explanation is as good as any other.

Holy Lake Baikal,  the Russians say. There’s a rail line called the Circum Baikal Railway and it travels around the lake.  That will be a must for me especially as it’s an engineering marvel and great testimony to the people who built it. Video of Circum Baikal Railway trip: https://youtu.be/oz8ApYiY8PE

From Irkutsk, I will meander onwards to Vladivostok but unsure if I’ll go by the Trans-Sib or by Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) route. I’m researching this at the moment.  Again, as the mood takes me and the wind blows me,  I’ll stop off at places along the way for a night or two.  

From Vladivostok, I take a ferry to Japan, spend time there and then another ferry to S Korea where I’ll also spend time. Finally a ferry to China and a train to Beijing. I missed Beijing on my last trip to China so intend to spend a week there. Then up to Ulan-Bataar in Mongolia, a 26hr 1235km trip, all for140€. Week or so in Mongolia and back to Beijing and Westwards towards Central Asia and the former Soviet Union Republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, collectively known as The Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS. They’re also referred to as the ‘stans.

Before I enter Central asia I want to have a stab at getting into Tibet or as near as possible. Its unlikely I will get a permit but, because I still have a Hong Kong identity card, there’s a chance. I’ll head as far south as I can from Lanzhou and see what happens. Because i spend a few months in China and still have friends there, in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, I was tempted to revisit the South of China but decided instead to go by the Northern route and just spend a few weeks in China.

The  ‘stans will be the highlight of the whole journey and I’m planning to spend about 6-8 weeks there. This will depend on what’s happens on the preceding legs of the journey. I might fall in love with a lake or mountain or town in Siberia or Mongolia or somewhere and spend longer than anticipated there.

What first grabbed my attention about the ’stans was the amazing Islamic architecture. I have seen some great mosques and madrassas in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and some in Malaysia and S. Thailand. It’s so different from the western Christian churches and cathedrals I’m used to and seem far more vivid and vital and strangely more approachable. Maybe that’s because Islam is mainly a living religion for the people who practice it whereas Christianity has largely ceased to be a living force in the lives of its practitioners. I’m thinking of Ireland where 70% of people profess to be Roman Catholic at the last census but only a tiny fraction attend mass or even practice any of the basic tenets of the church. It seems to be different with Islam although that is changing and an increasing number of Muslim people seems to be embracing secularism and their religion, as in Ireland, is becoming a cultural artifact.  Also, the amazing friendliness of the people I met on my travels to these Islamic countries really piqued my interest and made me want to return.

As I’m still researching this part of my trip I don’t have much more to add here. I’ll shortly have another blog just about my plans in Central Asia.

After Central Asia comes the Caucasus, a mountainous area nestled between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, consisting of southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This transitional region has a foothold in both Eastern Europe and Western Asia, but is generally viewed as part of modern Europe. Covered in some of the world’s most stunning alpine landscapes, Caucasus is home to Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain peak in Europe. I’m hoping to enter this region by ferry across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan to Baku in Azerbaijan. Turkmen visas are hard to get as Turkmenistan is one of the last hardline and closed countries in the region and suspicious of independent travelers.

Homeward bound now so down to Iran to spend time in Tehran and then to Turkey en route to Istanbul. From there back to Dublin.

With the exception of ferries and a few short bus hops, my whole journey is by train. More about trains later

Ah, I feel another meandering maudlin memory coming on…

I remembered how, when I lived in Amsterdam in the 1970s, I used to look with envy at the multicoloured Magic Bus leaving for India from Dam Square every week. I desperately wanted to go but everytime I tried to save some money there was always a reason to go for a drink. You can guess the outcome of that. The drink had a drink and then the drink had me and although I had nothing at the time, I lost it all! By the end, I used to look at the beautiful people going off on their fabulous journey and feel nothing at all but bitterness, resentment and hatred towards them. So much easier to spew out hatred at others than look at the growing darkness within myself.

Then I got sober in 1982 and got the opportunity to do all the things I had missed out because of my alcohol use so in 1984, I went by train from Slough to Istanbul stopping off a day or so in Paris, Venice and Belgrade. I spend around a week in Istanbul and another week in the Goreme Valley and then went eastwards, city by city, by bus until I got to Iran. I was the only pink/beige person on the bus and all the other travellers were local Iranians who had gone to Turkey for a day trip.  They were unbelievably friendly, chatty and warm. Like Irish people but with great hair and suntans.

I travelled all around Iran for 2 weeks during the height of the revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. I spent a time in Teheran in a famous international youth hostel. My Lonely Planet guide book, a year or two out of date, mentioned that it was a great place to meet other independent travellers and catch up on news about where to go next, what was not to be missed and what was best avoided. This was long before the internet and this was the best way to update travelling information. As it turned out, I was the sole resident of this huge hostel. It was about 4 stories high and build around an enclosed courtyard and all rooms opened out to a landing. It was quite echoey.  

Once, I went to a town called Ilam and could hear the sound of artillery not too far away. It sounded scary and I wondered if I could get nearer. Jesus. I only half noticed that there were no other European faces around. I why groups of bearded young men gave me looks of pure hatred when they saw me. The gods look wondered out for madmen and drunks, they say, so I didn’t end up chained to a radiator for a few years. On my final day, at the Iranian/Pakistani border I saw a Swiss guy going in the opposite direction. Irish and Swiss citizens were the only people at that time allowed transit visas for Iran.

I spent a week in Quetta, in North Pakistan, bandit country even back then. Once, in a fit of mindless insanity, I went with a group of Mujaheddins to the Afghan border. The Russians were bombing the hell out of Afghanistan then and the freedom fighters (then; terrorists now) wanted me to take photos of the Russian gunships shooting up a village. I had a good camera at the time, an Olympus OM4, and maybe they thought that photos from a European might have more weight than ones from a local. Luckily for me, the guy who was to take me over the border didn’t show up. The gods were busy that month.   

To make a long story short, difficult for me to do, I travelled through Pakistan and then a few months all around India and returned to London on a frosty February 1985.

Three years ago, when I was working in Thailand, I travelled almost 9,000km across SE Asia on train, mainly soft sleeper. I spent 3 weeks travelling from Bangkok to Singapore staying a lots of places on the way. This was 2,500km each way. I did a second trip from Bangkok to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and back again to Bangkok and staying at lots of cities and towns on the way. This took about 4 weeks and was over 4,000km. I have great memories of these places and the experiences I had while travelling.  I will have similar memories from this trip.

Anyway, back to the future.

That’s all for the moment. I’ll write more as I finalise plans in the next weeks.

 

 

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