Epilogue: Passion for People and Food for the Soul

I boarded my flight at Honolulu airport and settled down for the final leg of my around the world journey: the flight back to Sydney. The flight from Hawaii to Australia isn’t too bad, at least in terms of jet lag. I left Honolulu early on Friday morning, and arrived in Sydney late Saturday afternoon, but crossing the International Date Line hadn’t really affected my body clock too much. It was roughly a 10 hour flight, so it had just felt like a very long day on a plane.

When I stepped out into the arrivals hall at Sydney airport, I was greeted by… well, nobody. Dane, who I had last seen in Berlin, was supposed to be picking me up, but when I connected to the free airport wifi I discovered that he was on his way, but stuck in traffic. It was almost laughable, that I had had so many people around the world greeting me in so many foreign cities, yet when I actually came home there was nobody there. My parents were out of town and wouldn’t be back until the New Year, and in reality this post-Christmas period was pretty busy for most people, so I understood why no one could make it. I just wandered out into the warm Sydney evening, taking a big whiff of that big city Australian air. After gallivanting around the world, sleeping on floors and couches and spare beds for the better part of the year, with a new adventure around every corner, I was finally home.

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I still call Australia home.

***

It’s been two years since I arrived back in Sydney after that nine month tour of backpacking across the world. I’m a little appalled at myself that I fell so far behind in the blogging, and that it took me this long to finish writing about it, but I’m also pretty impressed with myself that I managed to stick it out and write it until the very end. A lot of people have asked me “How do you remember everything that happened?” My answer is that, aside from having a very good memory, I figured it was only the most memorable things that would make the best stories, and I wasn’t at an age where my memory is going to be regularly failing on me. “But even the conversations? Word for word?” Most people wouldn’t be able to recount a conversation verbatim the very next day after having it, let alone two years later, so I obviously took a few creative liberties in constructing some of the dialogue, although all of it was as accurate as possible.

After reflecting on all these stories and all these adventures that I had during my travels, I want to take a moment to reflect on the idea of travelling itself. I remember sitting down on the pier near Darling Harbour in Sydney with Rathana, in January before I departed on my trip, when he was making a short trip back from Bangkok.
“It might be tough at times, but it’s going to be amazing for you,” he’d said to me as we gazed out over the water. “You’ll learn so much about yourself. A trip like that… it’s gonna change you. And if it doesn’t, well… you’re doing it wrong!” he said with a laugh. As someone who had travelled the world over already as part of his job, I was inclined to take Rathana’s advice to heart. I would learn, I would grow, but I don’t think I was really prepared for how much travelling would actually change me.

***

I’d carried those words with me through most of my first few months, wondering if I was getting that life changing experience that this was all supposedly about. Fast forward to the last weekend of my first time in Berlin, were I was curled up in the outdoor garden at Berghain with Ralf, his arms wrapped around me in the cool evening air as we watched the stars twinkle above us.
“I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.” Ralf just ran his fingers through my hair and smiled.
“It will change you,” he said, as though it was a matter of fact. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He paused and reconsidered his words with a chuckle. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”

***

Many more months later, I would have a similar conversation with Vincenzo in New Orleans, sitting on the balcony of his French Quarter flat and basking in the muggy, humid air, with Princess scurrying around our heels, craving our attention.
“It’s true, travelling can be tough. You learn a lot about yourself and put up with a lot of stuff you never thought you ever could. But sometimes, after being away so long, going home can actually be the hardest part.” There was a solemnness in his voice, one that told me his advice was definitely coming from direct experience.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, you see it with Americans all the time, so I assume with Australians too… when people have travelled, they’ve seen the world. Experienced a different culture. Opened themselves up to what’s out there, even if it’s just a little bit. To go home to people stuck in their ways and their views, who’ve never left their hometown and probably never will… it can be isolating. The more you know, the more you challenge yourself, and the more you can doubt yourself. Those people who are stuck in their ways, they’ll be so sure of themselves… but that’s all they’ve ever known.”
I sat there and took it all in, soaking up the sage advice like a sponge. “I just want it all to mean something, you know?” Once again, I couldn’t shake the fear that I would return home from my life after nine months on the road to find that nothing had changed.
“Maybe you won’t notice it now, because every day you’re in a new situation, but when you go home… you’ll notice it. You’ll change. But what I’m saying is, it might be a little difficult to adjust. Not because you’re settling back into your old life, because- well, how could you? You won’t be the same person. You’ll be changed.”

At the time I had leered at Vincenzo skeptically, willing to believe that he believed what he was saying, but not quite sure if it would apply to me. Looking back, I wish I’d taken notes or recorded his words verbatim, because they had been gospel: a prophecy of what was to come.

***

Coming home was hard, and settling in was difficult. I met up with Georgia and Jesse again, and it was great to see all my old friends. We caught up for drinks and due to my lack of jet lag, we even hit the town and went out to Oxford St.
“What’s the best thing about being home?” everyone had asked me, and without hesitation I had told them how excited I was to sleep in my old bed again. So you can imagine the mixture of confusion, amusement and depression when I woke up the following morning on my couch, having passed out as soon as I’d arrived home. I was supposed to have changed, I’d thought to myself, beating myself up about how easily I had slipped into my old partying habits of yesteryear. But the changes presented themselves gradually. I had more to say in conversations, and I was able to better consider other peoples perspectives, and be more mindful of their cultures. But eventually even I got tired of hearing myself saying “Oh that reminds me of when I was in…” and casually dropping exotic place names in the middle of discussions, so I can imagine how over it the people around me must have been. It was like taking a fish from the ocean and placing it in the tiny fish bowl where it was born. It was satisfied, and it could live, but there was always a yearning for more once you knew there was more out there. It was the travel bug amplified tenfold, enraged by the fact it had been stuffed into a jar with only a few air holes to breathe. Yet the feeling would eventually pass, and you could wallow in the isolation, or you could use it as motivation to ready yourself for another trip.

So no-one was really that surprised when I announced that I was leaving again, heading back to Berlin on a working holiday visa after only four months in Sydney. Though in that time I had fed the travel bug and fuelled the wanderlust by paying it forward and hosting Couchsurfers in my own home. I hosted people from Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and Poland, and all of them brought with them the same passion for exploring the world that I had had in my own journey. For all the perceived isolation that you might experience when you return from travelling, it was always worth it for all the amazing people that you meet along the way.

***

When it really comes down to it, it is the people that you meet on your travels that make or break the journey, and I honestly couldn’t imagine my life being the same without the friends I had made along the way. I unfortunately fell out of touch with some of the people that I stayed with, but in the past two years I have managed to see many of them, even if it was for a brief beer as they passed through Sydney, and it always made me smile, reminding me that despite all the exploring we do, the world is a pretty small place after all.

I ended up seeing my New York sister Melissa much sooner than I had anticipated, after she flew back to Sydney to (unsuccessfully) patch things up with her long distance boyfriend. David, who I had briefly met in LA, ended up staying with me when he broke up with Danny and their holiday plans fell through, and he ended up spontaneously rebooking some flights to Sydney. Matt, the charming gentleman from Ireland, had also flown to Australia for a holiday, spending a few weeks here with me in Sydney. Then it was back to Berlin, where I stayed with Ralf for several weeks while I found my feet and searched for an apartment. Donatella was off galavanting somewhere else in Europe, and Nina and Simon had since moved to Brazil, but I had a blast living it up in the international hub of Europe, satisfying those cravings to meet new and exciting people. I’d caught up with Rathana there again, due to his constant travelling for work, and even travelled back to Amsterdam for my second pride parade on the canals in as many years, where Joris and Thjis graciously opened their home to me again, and I was welcomed back like an old friend amongst their friendship circle. I was also visited by Kathi, who flew up from Vienna with her new girlfriend for a week in Berlin, and I myself took a short holiday over to London where I caught up with John and Richard and reminisced about the time four of us had consumed 10 bottles of wine, and also took a day trip down to Brighton to catch up with Laura and laugh about our crazy adventures in Cambodia. After arriving home from my time in Berlin, Umer from Switzerland arrived just in time for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, bringing with him a bunch of amazing friends, with whom I had such a great time in my own city, as we all helped to make the world a smaller yet undeniably friendlier place.

Even more recently I caught up with Alyson, my other American friend from the Trans-Siberian Railway, who had quit her demanding job and packed up her life to go travelling, something I could not applaud her enough for doing, and I’ve caught up with Thjis for a beer when he was in town only a week or so ago. And in a few days I am heading back to the US to see Ashleigh and Nick (who is now my brother-in-law) in Hawaii, Jake and the whole WeHo crew in LA, Todd in San Francisco and Vincenzo in New Orleans.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that the people are what made my journey so unforgettable and amazing. Because even when you go home, and you’re living out your daily routine while the Great Wall of China or Christ the Redeemer are thousands of miles away, it’s the people that you are still able to maintain a connection with. Those new friendships that you forge and cherish, those are what really change you. As a sociology major, I’ve always maintained that people were my passion, and it’s especially true when it comes to travelling. You could stay in a fancy hotel and see all the popular tourist attractions and take some amazing photographs, but to me, that’s still not really travelling. For some people it’s enough, but for me, nothing will ever beat the experience of meeting the locals in any given city, and the lifelong friendships that you can forge with seemingly random people from every corner of the globe.

***

I started this blog as a project to keep me busy, so that I didn’t feel like I would come home with nothing to show from a year of travelling around the world. I couldn’t have been more wrong in those fears and assumptions. Travelling has changed me so much as a person, and I am quite content with the person that I have become. I quickly fell behind in updating the blog, but I’d like to believe that that happened because I was so busy enjoying life, living in the moment, and experiencing every sensation in its fullest that I barely had time to write it down. When real life came back into the picture, I suddenly had a whole bunch of other priorities and projects to work on, but I refused to leave the story unfinished or untold.

Maybe when I am old and grey, and my memory does actually start to fail me, I will be able to revisit these pages and relive the journey, but that won’t be for a long time (I hope). So for now, I’d like to thank you, the readers of my blog, for taking this journey with me, and experiencing vicariously all the wonders in the world I was so fortunate enough to come across. Hopefully I have inspired some of you to plan and undergo your own journeys, because in my honest opinion, there is no better food for the soul than travel.

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The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.

All Aboard

So far in my journey, the only train travel I had done was the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani – the rest of South-East Asia had been traversed via bus, boat and plane. When it came time to board our first train of the Trans-Siberian adventure – the Trans-Mongolian leg of the trip fro, Beijing to Ulaanbaatar – I was quite excited, unsure if it would be similar to my experience in Thailand or something completely different. Snow met us at our hotel at 6:30am, and we piled into a minibus that would take us to the station. After a few security checks and little bit of waiting, she showed us to the platform and talked to the train attendants who took us to our cabins. We would be getting a new guide in every city of the tour, so we said our goodbyes to Snow as we climbed aboard. She had been a peculiar little woman, soft-spoken and shy but very polite, and had been quite helpful during our stay in Beijing.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

Beijing Railway Station the morning of our departure.

***

As a group, most of our time had been spent sightseeing, wandering around streets and temples and other attractions, and eating together at meals. However, we would be departing Beijing at around 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and wouldn’t be arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on the Monday. If ever there was going to be a time to properly get to know my fellow travelling companions, it was going to be during the periods of transit where there was not much else to do other than talk to each other. It was interesting to get to know a little more about everyone: where home was, what they did there, where they were going after this tour, how long they had been travelling for, and how long they still had to go in their travels. I also discovered that I was the youngest of our group – the tour was for 18 to 35 year olds, but majority of the group was at or around the 30 mark, with a few in their mid-twenties. Most of them were also seasoned travellers, and listening to their stories made me realise that despite my travels extending right around the globe, there would still so much more of the world left to see once I finally arrived home.

I’d also been wondering who I would be sharing a room with, after having spent my nights in the Beijing hotel alone. Yet as Snow gave us our tickets for the train, she said to me, “I think you will be on your own. Each cabin has 4 people, but there are 13 people. Your name is last on ticket, so you might be with strangers.” She had seemed concerned, but I had assured her that I would be fine. I’d been sleeping in dorms with strangers for most of the past 6 weeks – another night on a train wasn’t going to kill me. The cabin set up was quite differently from the Thai train though – instead of single seats that lined the carriage and transformed into beds, the Chinese train was divided into cabins, each one equipped with two sets of bunks, which served as seats during the day and beds at night. I spent most of my time during the day in the next cabin over, with Kaylah and Alyson, the American girls, and Claire and Dan, a British couple who had been temporarily living in Australia and were returning home to the UK.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

Mountains in the Chinese countryside on our way out of Beijing.

***

While I loved getting to know my tour companions, acquainting myself with the fellow travellers in my cabin was a different matter. When I’d first been shown into my room, I found a couple sitting on the end of my bed. Snow said something to them in Chinese, but they stared back at her with blank, uncomprehending faces. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Snow ventured out and asked “English?” The woman of the pair slowly shook her head and said, “No… not well.” Snow turned to me, a little frustrated.
“They are Mongolian, so I cannot speak with them…” She peered out of the carriage and down the corridor, looking for assistance from the attendants, but I assured her that as long as I had a bed in the cabin, I really wasn’t too concerned with where I slept. After a short while another older man joined us, and placed his things on the bunk above mine. Shortly after departing the station, he climbed up into his bed and settled down, and the couple seemingly disappeared. It was a 13 carriage train with a dining car at the end, so I figured that that’s where they had relocated to.

A few hours later, when I decided to do a little bit of exploring myself, I wandered down to the dining car, where my suspicions were confirmed. The Mongol couple was sitting at one of the tables, with about six or seven cans of beer sitting in front of them. The woman had her back towards me, but her boyfriend must have recognised me and said something, because she whirled around in her seat to face me, her beehive of hair flying all over the place, and shouted “Hi!” in a long, drawn out way that made me sure she was at least extremely tipsy. I said hello and waved back, but I had only come for a quick investigation, and didn’t stick around long enough for any other kind of exchange. It was still fairly early in the afternoon at that point, and we would be crossing the Mongolian border later during the night. I silently hoped that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble for our cabin during the border crossing and customs procedures.

***

Fast forward to about 8:30 that evening, and we had finally reached the Chinese side of the border crossing. I had been moving around freely at that point, but now we were required to return to our cabins to clear Chinese immigration and customs. Gramps and I sat patiently on our side of the cabin. The young Mongol man sat on his bunk, stumbling through a hangover after an afternoon nap and frantically trying to fill in his departure card. The Amy Winehouse look alike was no where to be seen – I would later discover that she was sleeping in the neighbouring cabin, which had thus far remained empty. An austere Chinese man came and collected passports, and we were ordered to stand up so that the under-seat luggage compartments could be checked for stowaways. However, he was speaking in English, which my Mongol companions failed to understand, and he must have started yelling in Chinese after that, because what followed was a lot of exasperated sighs from the border personal as they snatched up passports and shouted orders at the travellers. It must have been more of a nuisance than an actual problem, because they eventually moved on to inspect the rest of the train.

After that ordeal came the time for changing the trains bogies. The railway tracks in Mongolia have a different gauge of thickness to those China. Travellers were given a choice – get off the train and wait for three hours while this happened, or stay on the train for three hours while this happened. Whatever your choice, you had to stick with it, as you couldn’t come and go during the procedure. While most travellers chose to get off the train, everyone in our group decided the stay – there didn’t appear to be a lot to do so far out in the Chinese countryside on a Sunday night, and I was curious to see the bogie changing process. It just involved each carriage being jacked up and sliding out the old ones and slipping in new ones – though some other more interesting things occurred during that time…

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

Another carriage in the process of having bogies changed, as seen from our carriage.

I had been sitting in one of our other group cabins when I heard Alyson call out to me. “Robert, I think you’re locked out of your cabin.” I stuck my head out into the hallway to see at my cabin door was indeed shut, and they were the kind that could only be opened from the outside with a staff key. At first I thought it had accidentally shut, but after a while we heard noises coming from inside the cabin.
“I think your Mongols are having a bit of couple time, Rob”, Dan said with a slight chuckle that was sympathetic but still quite amused.
“Really? Eww, no they’re not… They can’t be, surely? Right?” I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying. There were a few muffled shrieks, and from inside Alyson, Kaylah, Dan and Clair’s cabin, we heard banging against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” Alyson said, her eyes widening in horror, not wanting to believe what she was hearing, but unable to unhear it now it was happening.”Definitely some serious couple time going on in there.” I was just hoping that Gramps had actually left the train for the bogie changing.
“Oh my God, can’t they just wait?” someone else had said, perhaps Claire. “It’s just one night!”
The entire group, all thirteen of us, stood around in our cabins and the corridor, half laughing and half standing around in a stunned silence. I was almost at a loss of words, but I tried to remain optimistic.
“Well… as long as they’re not on my bed, right?”

***

The Mongol couple hadn’t been on my bed – but it turns out they had been on someone else’s. After the bogies had been changed it was well past midnight, and after we went through the Mongolian side of the border and had our passports collected, most of our group began to fall asleep one by one. In the end it was only Dan and I left in the corridor, watching the hallways as the train acquired more passengers. A train attendant came to my cabin and started having a very heated discussion with the couple, though it was all in Mongolian so I have no idea what was actually said. Then, rather abruptly, they gathered their things and stumbled out of the room. I exchanged a look with Gramps – he obviously knew what going on, but his expression gave nothing away about how he felt about the situation. Like me, he was probably just waiting for everyone to settle down so he could go to bed. But the couple had obviously been in the wrong cabin for the first leg of the journey and had to be shifted, because the space that Amy and her lover had vacated was quickly filled with some new Mongolians.

Our two new roommates were a peculiar duo – I nicknamed them the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar. They had luggage that looked like it weighed about 30kg, or at least sounded like it when they clunked the bags down onto the floor, and they tapped away on their touchscreen smartphones with their flashy acrylic nails while the shiny metallic decorations on their t-shirts caught the light like a disco ball, sending flecks of glare all around the cabin. They exchanged a few words with Gramps – I may as well not have existed to the , so after the official business had been conducted I slipped out of the cabin to rejoin Dan in the hallway. It would appear that the Real Housewives were not the only new passengers in our cabin – Dan and I had to duck out of the hallway and back into our cabins to make room for a group of six men, all of whom were incredibly filthy. You could see the dirt that lined their clothes and caked their faces, but the worst thing was the smell. The pungent aroma of raw fish wafted down the corridor, sending the cabin attendants running down the hallway, shrieking, covering their faces and spraying air deodoriser every time they had to open one of the two cabins which these men occupied. It was quite amusing, but would have been more hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that our carriage was now stained with the unpleasant stench.

However, the cabin doors appeared to be fairly airtight, and managed to either block out or, more importantly, contain the smell. So long as the doors to their cabins stayed shut, the smell didn’t bother us too much. I had to chuckle to myself though, as I realised that the Mongolian lovers who had soiled my cabin had been relocated to one of the two rooms occupied by two of the dirty fisherman. To me it was fitting, almost as though the universe had matched and raised them on their attempt to get down and dirty. As I bid my group goodnight and headed back to my cabin, I made another discovery. In the space of about half an hour, the Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar had also been relocated – I’m still not sure to where – and in their place was a single Mongolian woman, sitting on the bottom bunk and quietly arranging her things. She looked up as I walked in and gave me a small smile, which I returned before going about setting my bed up. I had laid out the bottom sheet and was about to climb into bed with just the top sheet to cover me, when the woman motioned to the blankets that were piled onto the top bunk above her, which now appeared to be empty.

“It will be very cold,” she said to me as she pointed. Pleasantly surprised to learn to spoke English, I thanked her and pulled one of the blankets down, making sure my actual body came into contact with it as little as possible – I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened in this cabin earlier. I laid the blanket down, climbed under the sheet, and waited until the woman was ready for bed. Gramps had already been waiting patiently above me. When she finally moved to turn off the night, she turned to me with a smile and said goodnight.
“Goodnight,” I replied as the lights went out and we were thrown into darkness. After the confusing game of musical chairs that my day in this cabin had been, I was quite happy with how the evening had turned out, and I drifted off to sleep to the gentle rocking motions of the train.

***

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolian countryside as we approach Ulaanbaatar.

The following day went by rather uneventfully, watching the Gobi desert and the surrounding landscapes pass us by. It had felt like quite a long time, but it was a little daunting to think that the Trans-Mongolian leg of our journey was actually the shortest trip of all, with the exception of the train between Moscow and St Petersburg. Having well and truly left China behind us – other than a bottle of alcohol the shopkeeper had described as “good for health” – we climbed off the train Ulaanbaatar, eager to see what Mongolia had in store for us.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

At Ulaanbaatar station, after journeying across the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

Bird Flu and Beer – Chicken in China

While my days in China were spent doing typical tourist activities, at night Snow took us out to eat at some authentic Chinese restaurants. Most of the waiters at the places we went to had fairly limited English, so we had to rely on Snow to do all the ordering. We ended up getting a range of dishes and splitting between the group – it was amazing how much food you can order for a group of thirteen and still only end up paying approximately $7 each. Needless to say, nobody went hungry, and I feel I can safely say that some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, I had in China.

One thing that made me uneasy at first, however, was that Snow ordered a chicken dish. Alarm bells went off in my head immediately – all throughout my travels in South East Asia I had been following the news and tracking the progression of the new strain of bird flu. At the time I arrived in China, I knew there had been the most cases in the city of Shanghai, and even a few confirmed reports in Taiwan. Some people had suggested I not go to China – others, including my mother, had just strictly warned me to stay away from live poultry and to not eat any chicken. At this point in my trip, I can safely say that I am yet to handle any living poultry. As for eating chicken… well, to be honest, I completely forgot. The alarm bells didn’t go off until after we’d finished our meal, at which point I had eaten a substantial amount of chicken.

But so had everyone else in the group, and no one seemed to give the danger of bird flu the slightest thought, and if they had then they certainly hadn’t mentioned it. Snow hadn’t seemed too concerned, so I took that as a good sign – I figured the local people tend to know more about what’s going on in their areas then CNN, although with China you never really do know…

Tim, one of the Australian guys, had been travelling throughout China for the last three weeks on a different tour before joining our group. He was telling us a few stories about his travels and some of the places he had been, and at one point mentioned something about Shanghai. Alarm bells did instantly go off this time, and when he finished his stories, I leaned over to have a one on one conversation with him.

“Did you say you were in Shanghai?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yeah, probably about a week or so ago.”
“For how long?” I continued to quiz him, with the nonchalant façade probably failing miserably.
“Just three nights,” Tim replied, quite matter-of-factly. I thought maybe the direction I was going might have been apparent, but he didn’t appear to have any idea where I was taking the interrogation. I leaned over further and spoke a little quieter, suddenly feeling a little silly about my paranoia.
“What about bird flu?” I asked in a low, hushed voice.
“Bird flu?” Tim repeated. “What about it?”
“Wasn’t it a problem? Like, weren’t you kinda scared going through Shanghai?”
He looked genuinely surprised, or at the very least confused. “Umm… No, not really. I mean, it might be around, but… no, I wasn’t worried. It’s mostly fine, really.” His tone carried the nonchalance I’d tried to attain in my original question, and I very much believed what he was saying.

So between Tim having survived a visit to Shanghai and our entire group eating chicken seemingly without a second thougth, I decided that perhaps bird flu wasn’t as much of a serious concern in Beijing as my loved ones would have me believe. I know most of them will be reading this either sighing, face palming, or rolling their eyes, but in my opinion it just really shows how a little bit of media hysteria can go a long way, and terrify the on-lookers more than the people actually living the experience.

***

The other part of Chinese night life I experienced was the Hou Hai Bar Street, where a bunch of different small bars lined a riverside street. I visited the street after dinner on our last night in Beijing with Tim and Alyson, the other American in our group. As we strolled down the street trying to decide on a place to have a drink, Tim made a comment on how unlike the rest of China this street was, or more precisely, how much American influence there was. Almost every bar had live music and karaoke, with many of them butchering Western music with their limited English vocabularies. Most bars had people outside trying to beckon you into their venue, but we kept walking until we found a place that lacked the hecklers. We ended up taking a seat at a Jamaican bar, sitting outside so that we could hear each other talking over the live music inside, and sampled some of the local draught beer. It was nice to get to know some more members of our travel group, though we didn’t end up staying out too late, as we had to get up early to get the train to Mongolia the next morning. But it was nice to catch a glimpse into the Chinese nightlife.

Beijing's riverside bar street.

Beijing’s riverside bar street.

China’s Greatest Hits: Sightseeing in Beijing

My overland trip through Central Asia was going to have one major difference from the rest of my travelling – I was going to be on a tour, travelling with a bunch of other people. After travelling solo for so long, I was actually quite excited to be returning to some sort of a schedule where there was a little less uncertainty at the beginning of each day. I was also going to be going through some countries where English is not as common as it is in places like Thailand and Vietnam – in that sense, they’re not places I’d be able to visit at all unless I was under some sort of guidance.

When I arrived back at the hotel after my trip to Beijing Zoo, I was greeted by our guide, a Chinese woman whose English name was Snow. She led me into another room where some of the other travellers were waiting, so I took a seat and waited for everyone to arrive. There were thirteen people in our tour group – two girls from America, two couples from the UK, and then four girls and two guys who were Australians. Snow briefed us all about the Chinese part of our trip, and talked to us about what we wanted to do. The tour I was on was a little different to most – there was no strict set itinerary, and each individual was allowed to chose whatever they wanted to do, and decide how they wanted to fill their time in between the train journeys between cities. However, there was a unanimous vote to see China’s most popular tourist attractions: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China.

***

The following day was supposed to be quite cool and overcast, so we decided to hold off on our journey to the Great Wall until we had better weather. So on our first morning as a group, we met Snow at the hotel and then walked to Tiananmen Square. We were told it was the largest city square in the world, and could hold at least one million people. There’s also a flag pole where a flag raising ceremony is held at sunrise every morning – Snow told us we could attend it tomorrow morning if we wanted, but I decided that after Angkor Wat I had already played my “awake at sunrise” card for this month. The square itself was an interesting space though, not dissimilar to places like Martin Place back home in Sydney, although exponentially bigger – I was informed that the vast space in front of us was only half the square, and that it continued on the other side of the central monument, a memorial dedicated to the people who died in the Chinese Peoples Revolution, and the mausoleum of Chairman Mao, which has thousands of visitors every day, coming to pay respects to the former leader. However, I was surprised to find that many Chinese people still don’t know about the fatal student protests that happened in that very square in 1989. For me, it was a shocking example of just how much censorship the Chinese government imposes on its population – and here I was thinking how terrible it is that they block Facebook!

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

Myself in Tiananmen Square.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City.

After having a wander through Tiananmen Square, we crossed the road to the Forbidden City. The name sounds more intimidating than it really is – it simply comes from the fact that the Forbidden City was former the home of the Chinese Emperor, and therefore the common people were forbidden from entering. Snow took us through the City, pointing out some of the finer details in the architecture and design, and telling us stories about the history of the buildings and the people who once resided in them. The Chinese royalty haven’t lived in the Forbidden City since 1912, and it was opened to the public about a decade later. I also noticed that many of the buildings had scaffolding around them, indicative of reconstruction and repairs that were underway. It reminded me of places like the palaces in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the temples at Angkor Wat. When you see pictures of them, they look like impressive buildings that have withstood the test of time, but in reality they are in a constant state of upkeep and conditioning, something that you can only really see if you visit the places for yourself – or see amateur photographs that don’t make it into the advertisements or guidebooks.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

Standing with a lion statue inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

The Imperial Garden inside the Forbidden City.

After spending a couple of hours wandering through the Forbidden City, Snow took us to a garden behind the city called Jingshan Park, where there was a tower from which you could have a wide, panoramic view of the Forbidden City and the surrounding areas of Beijing. From that vantage point we could see just how bad the city’s pollution really is. Part of it may have been due to the overcast weather, but there was still an undeniable thick smog that clogged the horizon. It was still an interesting view in its own weird way, and didn’t diminish the enormity of the city – buildings and civilisation stretched on in every direction, as far the eye could see.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

The view of the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park tower.

***

After lunch, we caught the delightfully efficient subway system out west to visit the Summer Palace, another ancient building that housed different members of Chinese royalty throughout history. We walked along the banks of the artificial lake while Snow told us stories and explained different aspects of the landscape and buildings. Within the Summer Palace was a building called the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a large tower which also provided us with spectacular views of another area of Beijing. Even though the air was thick with clouds and smog, we could still see quite far into the distance over the lake, and the weather gave the whole place a sacred and mystical feeling.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace - an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

Inside the ground of the Summer Palace – an area about 4 times the size of the Forbidden City.

View from the Tower of Insence.

View from the Tower of Insence.

One thing I began to notice, after having it pointed out by some of my other companions, was that Chinese people just love to get photos with white people – whether or not they have your consent isn’t really even an issue. As I stood at the top of the tower, looking down at the scene beneath me, a noticed someone standing a couple of steps below me. She was a Chinese woman who had been standing next to me just moments ago – she had repositioned herself and was now holding her camera up to take a photo of herself, clearly angled to have me in the background. My reaction was one of both amusement and annoyance, and I rolled my eyes as I side-stepped out of the picture. It wasn’t the first time it had happened – sometimes they’re even quite direct and simply approach you and ask if they can have their picture taken with you. Sometimes I oblige, other times I can’t be bothered, but I found it kind of rude to try and take pictures like that without even having the decency to be discreet about it. The local Chinese tourists love to pose and have their photo taken in front of everything – from the biggest landmarks to the most basic and insignificant details. I just wondered how they would react to one of us coming up and shoving a camera in their faces and calling it a holiday snap.

***

Our second day in Beijing would see us headed to the Great Wall of China, which is about a two hour drive out of the city. There are a lot of different locations where you can visit and climb the wall, but Snow had suggested we go to an area called Mutianyu, which was a little further than the other more popular tourist section of the wall, but was supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots. All I can say is if Mutianyu wasn’t the most popular section, I’d hate to see how many people were at the bigger tourist area. There were lots of groups of Westerners, but there was also huge amounts of domestic tour groups from other parts of China, including a massive group of school children.

There were two options for getting to the top of the Great Wall – riding a cable car or climbing the steps all the way to the top. Most of the group wanted to get the cable car, but I kind of wanted to walk. “I want to be able to say ‘I climbed the Great Wall of China’, not ‘Yeah I took a cable car to the top ’cause it seemed like a lot of stairs'”, I had said, and luckily Kaylah, one of the American girls, had shared a similar sentiment. So the two of us set off to climb the stairs while the rest of the group piled into the cable car. I quite enjoyed the walk up with Kaylah, because it was the first time I’d really gotten to get to know someone from the group one on one. Since we had an uneven number of people in our group, I had ended up being by myself in my room at the hotel. While I loved the little bit of privacy, it meant that I’d only really interacted with my group members in group situations. I hadn’t really made new friends or gotten to know anyone since meeting Laura back in Cambodia, so it was fun to talk to Kaylah and get to know a little more about each other, making jokes here and there and motivating each other as we made the steep ascent up the hill to the Great Wall.

Snow had said it would take about half and hour, but together Kaylah and I managed to conquer the steps in just under twenty minutes. We thought it was an impressive achievement, regardless of how out of breath we may have been once we reached the top. We stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and take some photos of the magnificent view. It was completely different from the kind of views we’d had back in Beijing – the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and you could see the Chinese mountains and countryside stretch on in all directions. The wall itself was an interesting structure – after the trek from the ground level up to the top, I hadn’t expected there to be more stairs. But as the wall snaked up and down the contours of the hill, there were old flights of stairs going up and down, made even more peculiar by the fact that many of the flights tilted either left or right, as well as having vast variations in steepness from flight to flight. It made for an interesting and somewhat challenging walk along the wall, though the real challenge was trying to take a photo without a horde of other tourists in the picture.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

Feeling very proud of myself after claiming the Great Wall of China.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

At the highest point of the wall with our guide, Snow.

We walked along a section of the wall, enjoying the views and taking photos, until we caught up with the rest of the group who were on their way back down. Kaylah and I continued on until we reached the highest major outpost that was accessible to tourists, and then made our way back to the bottom of the wall. However, instead of walking down, we decided to take the fun option and ride the toboggan down. It was a similar set up to theme parks in Australia like Jamberoo – a metal half-pipe tube that snaked down the mountain, which you rode down on a toboggan with a single lever to control acceleration and breaking. It was a fun way to reward ourselves after all the walking we’d done on the way up, even though we were slightly stifled by the Chinese tourists who weren’t as enthusiastic about gathering speed as Kaylah and myself. We just laughed it off and puttered along behind them, enjoying the fresh air, amazing views, and the fact that we’d just walked along one of the great wonders of the world.

***

The last stop of the day was the Ming Tombs, a huge mausoleum complex where thirteen of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty were buried. We went down into the tombs to see the coffins, and visited the several exhibitions and museums, before piling back onto the bus and heading home. While we’d had two full days of sightseeing in Beijing, looking at maps and guidebooks and seeing all the other things we didn’t see made me realise just how huge a city Beijing is, let alone the enormity of the country of China. I’d had a couple of unpleasant experiences, but on the whole my visit to Beijing was interesting and enjoyable. Despite that, I definitely felt I was ready to get up early the next morning and begin our trek to Mongolia.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Huge coffins in the Ming Tombs.

Hello Panda: Beijing Zoo

After my first night in Beijing, I still had a full day before meeting my tour group at the hotel in the afternoon. I knew that once I met up with them, most of us would want to do the major things in Beijing such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so I decided to find something else to do that might not as be as popular among the group. After collecting a city map from hotel reception and studying a guide to the Beijing subway system, I discovered that there was a station not too far from the hotel, and also one located right next to the Beijing Zoo. Figuring it would be a quick and easy expedition to manage by myself, I set out into the streets again to tackle Beijing in the daylight.

***

Getting to the first station was a mission in itself. I thought I was going the right way, following the major roads, but I ended up at Wangfujing Station, which was in the complete opposite direction from my desired destination of Tiananmen East Station. It was only one stop difference, so I just considered myself lucky I’d found a station at all and descended into the underground subway system. Every entrance point has a security check and bag scanning conveyor belt, just like going through customs at an airport. When I finally made it down into the station, I tried to buy a ticket to Beijing Zoo Station. It took my a while to realise the fare for the subway was just 2 yuan – less than a dollar – no matter where you were going. The train system was also clean, fast and efficient, much like the public transport I’d used in Bangkok and Singapore, and I found myself internally cursing Sydney for still not lifting its game. I had one stop to transfer to a different line, but soon enough I had arrived at the zoo.

Given that I was in China, it was very clear as to what was the major attraction at the Beijing Zoo. On top the entrance fee into the zoo, there is an additional charge for admittance into the Panda House – the exhibit that in home to the zoos five panda bears. Once you make your way past the billboards of panda history – of which the English translation was almost too painful to read – and the scores of iconic panda merchandise, you can actually get a glimpse of the animals. I have to admit they are cute, and their colouring definitely lends them a cuter appearance and reputation that almost all other bears lack. Yet like most animals in zoos, they didn’t do a great deal. Even wild pandas are known for being particularly lazy, so I wasn’t surprised to find that all the pandas were either sitting by themselves, chewing away on bamboo, or sleeping. All around me were crowds of Chinese tourists, squealing with excitement and posing for photos with the pandas in the background, and while I appreciated the rare sight, I didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm. After all, for all that the bear was doing, it could have easily swapped places with me in a day in my life back home, and I don’t think anyone would have really noticed.

Eating panda.

Eating panda.

Sleeping panda.

Sleeping panda.

***

The rest of the zoo was, to be completely honest, quite depressing. There were some nice sculptures and some beautiful scenery, but on the whole the zoo was quite dirty. A lot of the animals exhibits looked quite inadequate too. While the pandas were treated to luscious floral fields, I found wolves who were living in no more than a red dirt landscape with a few burrow holes, and no real space to run around. One on the two pools in the polar bear exhibit was a foul green colour, though one of the bears did put on a bit of a show swimming around in the other, less filthy body of water. The highlight of the whole complex was probably the aquarium – obviously newly built, and incurring another entrance fee of its own. It provided the chance to get particularly close to some of the marine animals, though again I wondered if there was adequate space for some of them – four turtles circled around a small, shallow rock pool, seemingly trying to mount the rocky walls and escape. There was also a show with the beluga whales and bottle nose dolphins, and though I couldn’t understand any of the commentary, I watched and enjoyed the tricks that they performed, including synchronised jumping, and one of the animal trainers riding a dolphin like a surfboard.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

The wolves in their less than adequate exhibit.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Polar bear swimming in the cleaner of its two pools of water.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it's exhibit.

Turtle almost trying to escape from it’s exhibit.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

The dolphins still seemed quite enthusiastic about life, at least.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

Synchronised jumping in the dolphin show.

***

I’ve never known how I really feel about zoos. I know they play important roles in the conversation of endangered species, but I sometimes feel great sympathy for the poor animals locked away inside less than adequate exhibits. When I visited the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo last year, I learnt that some of the animals that won’t breed are castrated to keep them under control. I was horrified – I pictured some science fiction scenario in which humans were the animals in a zoo, and myself being castrated because I refused to mate with the other female “animals”. I found it a little disturbing, and have ever since found it hard to pinpoint where zoos stand on my moral compass. Pandas might be content to sit around and eat and sleep, but my heart goes out to those captive wolves, locked in a glass box when they should be running free in the wild.