22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

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Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Russian Around

The next train on our journey would see us crossing another border, out of Mongolia and into the Siberian wilderness in Russia. We were all on a bit of a high after enjoying our time in Mongolia so much, so this two night journey would be a chance to debrief and prepare ourselves for our entry into Russia. Armed with two minute noodles and bottles of red wine, we said our goodbyes to Oko on our final evening in Ulaanbaatar and climbed aboard the train bound for Irkutsk.

***

The order of the cabins had been changed around since last time, and as the tickets were passed around I realised that I wouldn’t be isolated from the rest of the group this time. I was bunking with Tracy and the other British couple, Matt and Jen. The best word I could use to describe Matt and Jen is ‘organised’ – nothing was left spontaneous or unplanned, and they always liked to be two steps ahead of the game. I’m usually more than happy to play things by ear and go with be flow to see how things turn out, so sharing a cabin with the two of them was something of a juxtaposition, although there are definitely shorter straws to draw when it comes to close confines roommates.

Crossing the border to get into Russia from Mongolia was never going to be a fun ordeal – it took approximately four and half hours at the check points in both countries. To do what, I’m not entirely sure – Mongolia and Russia share a common gauge on their railways so there was no need to change the bogies. I know it’s necessary to check paperwork and visas and do the routine check for stowaways in the luggage compartment, which we’d all become very used to, but 10 hours just to cross a border just seems a little excessive. Not that it affected us very much at all – you could still do all the things you usually do on the train, with the exception of using the toilet, which you could use the station for – it just feels a little more frustrating to be sitting at a train station platform rather than watching the rolling hills of the countryside pass you by. I found myself pacing the corridor of our carriage, popping my head into other people’s cabins to say hello and see what they were doing, unable to sit for too long in any one place while the train was stationary, almost as though I was trying to make up for the lack of movement that was going on.

When the train finally did get moving again I joined two of the Australian girls, Rachel and Martina, in their cabin, along with Tim, Kaylah, Alyson, Dan and Claire. Rach and Marti were actually a couple who both work in travel and tourism, and have been travelling around the world together for the past several years. They both had their laptops and hard drives, so we set up a little theatre, cracked open a few bottles of wine, and watched a few episodes of Family Guy,The Amazing Race, and An Idiot Abroad, with the vast landscape of Siberia stretching out and beyond behind the screen. The Amazing Race was fun to watch with a group of travellers, as we speculated how we would fare in the challenges if we were contestants, and the episode of An Idiot Abroad was in China, so we pointed out all the familiar places we had been earlier in the week. Combined with dark chocolate and red wine, it was a fun and effective way of passing the time – after a while we realised we’d been there for about 4 hours. It was almost eight o’clock, yet the sunlight outside was deceptive, and back home the daylight could have passed for three or four in the afternoon. It was something we would all quickly get used to, but this time it had caught all of us by surprise.

***

Our interaction with the train staff was probably the most eventful part of our trip. On the previous trains we’d hardly spoken to the uniformed women who marched up and down the corridor, cleaning and tidying and I suppose helping anyone who needs assistance. The attendants on this train were Russian rather than Mongolian, and on the second day of our trip, before the border crossing, the woman who had been working on our carriage came in with a basket of chocolates, chips and drinks that she was selling. She started speaking in Russian and motioning to her products, but obviously none of us understood.
“No, thank you,” Tracy said slowly, and I shook my head to indicate that we didn’t want anything. Matt and Jen were contemplating some of the chocolate bars, and asked if they could borrow some Russian rubles, as they hadn’t managed to exchange any currency yet.
“One Twix, please”, Jen said, pointing at the Twix bars and holding up one finger. The lady took the 100 ruble note and gave her two bars.
“No, one,” Jen repeated, holding up her index finger to try and communicate the number. The woman said something in Russian, took away one of the Twix bars and replaced it with a Snickers.
“No, I have allergies. Nut allergies,” said Matt. I don’t know if the train attendant understood, but if she did then she certainly didn’t like what she heard. She started rambling again in Russian, pulled the Snickers back and then put three bottles of soft drink of the table in front on us. She placed her hand on each one, each time saying something in Russian, then motioning back to the chocolates, all the while speaking Russian at us.

“We don’t speak any Russian,” Matt said, before turning to find his Lonely Planet book. “Maybe we can get some translation happening.” The Russian woman liked that even less. Her voice got louder, and she picked the book up out of Matt’s hands, and slammed it back onto the table.
“No,” she said, the first word of intelligible English so far, and then pointed at the book, said something that sounded like “your culture”, then motioned back to the chocolates and said “Here in Russia.”
Not only were we a little confused at what was going on, but it was a little annoying to know she had been screaming at us in Russian when she clearly knew some English words – no matter how small they had been, it would have been better than our almost non-existent knowledge of Russian. The drift of the conversation seemed to be that Matt and Jen would not be getting any change from the transaction, so they just settled for taking two Twix’s and letting the grumpy train attendant go on her way.

Later in the afternoon, in a conversation in Rach and Marti’s cabin, I learnt that everyone else had gone through a similar ordeal, with the attendant threatening to cut off our access to the hot water on the train if we refused to buy anything. The hot water was a boiling urn that could be used to make tea, coffee, and two minute noodles, so naturally it was a key ingredient to us surviving these long train treks. Personally, I was just surprised that they had managed to get even that much of a translation, although Marti is originally from Slovakia and does have a bit of a knack for European languages. When I relayed this story to the others in my cabin, Matt said it was just part of a more general bribe that is probably a regular occurrence. Whatever the case, after the train attendant had acquired her fee, she became one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met, even talking to us a couple of times in nearly perfect English. That annoyed my slightly, however, because it meant that her initial tantrum and almost definitely been a complete sham. It was a small amount though, and in the end didn’t come out of my pocket, so it was easy to write it off as just another cultural custom to recognise, familiarise ourselves with, and get used to.

***

Our short ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar felt like nothing after the amount of time it took from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I don’t think the distances are all that different – it was just the time spent at border crossings and the time of our departures that had made the second trip seem longer, given that we’d spent two nights on that train rather than one. It was a sweet, freezing breath of relief as I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Irkutsk, and I tried to not think about the fact that our next train journey would be at least twice at long, both in distance and in time.

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.

Borderline Insanity

This short anecdote will double as a warning for anyone who might be making a similar journey in the future: when travelling between Cambodia and Thailand, do not – I repeat, do not – book a bus ticket. Catch taxis, tuk tuks, trains, rent a car – anything but try to book a bus ticket. There are probably some services that operate smoothly and according to plan, but after the mess that I walked away from on my journey back to Bangkok from Siem Reap, it is certainly not a gamble I would ever be willing to make again.

***

So far in my journey, I had been happy fairly happy with the night bus services I’d caught. Krabi to Bangkok was a comfortable coach with reclining chairs, Saigon to Chau Doc was a little cramped but I had still had my own private space, and my Sihanoukville to Siem Reap journey had bed-seat hybrids that allowed your legs to stretch out completely flat, and even had free WIFI on the bus. I booked a ticket with that same company from Siem Reap to Bangkok, hoping to kill two birds (transport and accommodation) with one stone, and getting a similar satisfactory service. After waiting around since my check out at noon, wandering the the town and visiting the museum, I was picked up at 2am (yes, that’s a 14 hour wait) by a shuttle bus to take to me where the main bus was leaving from.

Scheduled departure time was 2:30am. No buses showed up until 3:00. Then we watched as a group of Khmer men unloaded three motorcycles from the cargo bins below. Myself and the other two tourist, a young German guy and an older man from Washington DC, shot each other uneasy looks as we were told this was our bus to Bangkok. They took our bags and I climbed on board. It was not a sleeper bus. Most of the seats were already full, and the majority of them were filled not by tourists, but rowdy local Khmer men. They had loud conversations over the top of my head while I was trying to sleep. The bus driver played music that was essentially a loop of cheesy instrumental music that belonged in a pornographic sound track. The whole bus smelt of bodily gases and other sickening scents. As I thought back to the slogan on the anti-piracy ads on my old VHS tapes, I certainly wasn’t getting what I had paid for.

***

At some point, through the stench and the racket, I suppose I managed to catch a little bit of sleep – after 15 hours of being awake it was bound to happen eventually, no matter the circumstances. It wouldn’t have been any more than half an hour though, and at around 6 o’clock, after just under three hours of transit, the bus jerked to a stop. It was dawn outside, and slowly and but surely all the Khmer men stood up and shuffled off the bus. I figured that we had reached the border, and would be required to alight so we could have our passports checked and stamped. “You get out here now”, said one of the bus company workers to me and my two other Western companions. “Another bus take you to the border.” As I climbed down the steps and out into the bus station, I watched the Khmer men who had been on my bus all climb into the back of a ute, which sped off down the road and into the dust. It was obvious that rather than put us on a chartered bus, the company had decided the throw their few clients on any old bus that was heading in the right direction, and deal with the rest once we got to the Thai-Cambodian border.

We met a bunch of British girls who had just climbed off another bus who were also heading to Bangkok. After being sent on a small wild goose chase, crossing the road several times in an attempt to find someone who knew what the hell was going on, we were ushered onto a bus – I was disgruntled, though not surprised, to find myself on the very same bus I had alighted from only moments before. We were only on board for a couple of minutes though, before the bus pulled up directly outside the border crossing. “You cross border now,” said the bus company guy, as he took our tickets and stuck little yellow stickers to the front of our shirts. “Crossing take one hour. Someone will meet you on other side. Sticker is your ticket now.” I was mortified, but there was nothing else I could do, so as a sleepy pack of tourists we climbed off the bus and made our way to the border crossing.

Only to discover that the check point itself didn’t open until 7 o’clock, which was still almost an hour away. When I had booked the ticket, I had been given an estimated time of arrival in Bangkok of about 9:30am. I had already long ago given up on that hope, but with every passing minute I became more and more unsure of how I was actually going to get to Bangkok at all. After an hour of waiting, plus another hour to go through both departures in Cambodia and arrivals in Thailand, I finally found myself on the other side of the border. It was far from a feeling of relief though – it was a terrifying moment, plagued with doubt and the endless possibilities of the next unpleasant surprise they would spring upon us.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

As I trudged through the crowd of pilgrims, I heard a shout and saw a wave of hands. “Yellow sticker! Yellow sticker over here!” For all that had not gone accordingly to plan this morning, being greeted in Thailand was like clockwork. I had been sticking with the man from Washington, so we made our way over to the waving man, where we were asked to sit on plastic chairs and wait for the rest of the travellers with yellow stickers. Once they arrived, we were taken to a small travel agent just a few minutes away, where we were informed we would be catching a minibus all the way to Bangkok. It certainly wasn’t a sleeper, but I figured it would get us there faster than a regular bus, so I felt a little better about that. However, when the bus arrived 15 minutes later, the agents face sported a look of concern as one by one, we piled into the bus. I was at the end of the line with my American companion, and as he scanned down his line of clients, he agent called out, “Who is relaxed? You relaxed, yeah? Time is no problem?” It seemed no one had taken into account the space needed for all of our luggage, and we weren’t all going to fit on this bus. Washington and I took two for the team, with the agent assuring us it would only be a half hour wait for the next bus.

***

An hour and a half later, the tiny travel agency was beginning to fill up with people, mostly locals this time, and I grew uneasy at the thought that they would try and squeeze all of us onto the next bus. Washington and I were given priority, since we had forfeited our places on the last bus, so I can’t say for sure if there was anyone who didn’t make the cut. It was 10 o’clock by the time we finally boarded our bus and continued our journey towards Bangkok. However, we hadn’t been travelling long before our bus was pulled over by the police. All the exchanges were in Thai, and no one offered any explanation, but we were sitting there for another solid half an hour while the police made phone calls and wrote on bits of paper, which I can only assume was a ticket of some sort – perhaps our driver was speeding? In all honesty, at this point I was beyond caring. We were still hours away from Bangkok and I hadn’t had a proper sleep in about 24 hours.

The journey back to the city went up without a hitch, other than the minibus stopping every now and then and the driver having short, disjointed conversations with some of the other passengers, and dropping them at various points around the city.

However, when it came to dropping me and Washington off, things became a little more difficult. We finally reached the city of Bangkok, but I had yet to see any familiar landmarks in order to gain my bearings. “Where are we?” I called out to the driver. I got no reply, and it was only then that I realised that while the travel agent assured us we would be dropped in the middle of the city, this driver spoke hardly any English, so could not tell us where we were or where we were going. So you can imagine my frustration when, after driving through the streets of Bangkok for nearly two hours, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near the familiar the city centre. It didn’t help that it was now well into the afternoon, and we were caught in the gridlock of peak hour traffic. I even got my map out and motioned the driver to show me where we were, but he gave it a blank, vacant stare that filled me with horror – the idea that our driver didn’t even know where we were was too much to bear. I’d now been more or less awake for 27 hours, and 15 of them had been in transit. I wanted to scream, and yell and swear at the driver, at the incompetence of both him and the agent and the whole mess of an ordeal that had been my journey back to Bangkok. I was exhausted and furious, but I knew that getting mad would achieve absolutely nothing, so I resigned to my fate and crawled to the back of the minibus to lie down along the back seats, since by now Washington and I were the only passengers left.

Eventually I saw a landmark that I recognised, Victory Monument, which was actually the drop off point we had agreed upon with the travel agent in the beginning. So I guess the driver had known where he was going all along. All the same, I scrambled out of that minibus and onto the streets of Bangkok as fast as my tired little legs could carry me. I never thought I would have been so happy to be back on the streets of Bangkok, but after being at the mercy of the minibus driver for so many hours it was a glorious feeling to know exactly where I was, and have control over my own direction and movements.

***

I made it back home to Bangkok in the end, but it definitely hadn’t needed to be such an ordeal. I’m not saying that all bus trips will be like that, but when you’re booking for a route as disjointed and unpredictable as Siem Reap to Bangkok, or probably anything that involves that border crossing, there’s a lot of wiggle room for transit companies to shove you in wherever you fit and make a great profit on the sleeper ticket that you thought you were purchasing. Thankfully most of my travels for the next few months will be exclusively on trains, because the couple of weeks I spent travelling back to Bangkok from Siagon had seen me on enough buses to last me for quite some time.

Rollin’ On A River

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought it was only appropriate that I explore a little more of Vietnam before heading off to the Cambodian border. After sussing out the logistics of my various options, I decided that heading south to the Mekong River delta would be the most interesting and diverse experience. The day trip involved a two hour bus ride out of the city, so I rose uncharacteristically early that morning and trudged onto the bus still half asleep, yet curious to see what the wider country of Vietnam would have in store for me.

***

The Mekong River is the largest river in Asia, starting in Tibet, and flowing through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it divides into 9 tributaries that all flow out separately into the South China Sea. The south of Vietnam is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ due to the established crops and farms throughout the region. The real tour started at a riverside town called My Tho, and from there we walked through the jungle on a small undergrowth trail until we reached the river.

From there we got into small wooden row boats that took us down a narrow river system that was surround by thick vegetation on each side. We weren’t too far from the main roads, but we were well and truly out of the city now, and floating down the river in the long rowboat really gave me an idea of Vietnamese culture that was probably a little more traditional then either of the living situations I had experienced so far. The short trip took us to a modest little business that turned out to be a factory for making coconut candy. We were able to taste some of the sweet substance right as it came out from melting and thickening over the fire – it tasted a bit like fudge – and were given the opportunity to buy some. That was the first inkling that I was on a tour that I’d heard been referred to as a “tourist trap”, where the initial cost of the tour is cheap, but all the extras come at an additional cost, and almost every stop along the way tries to sell you something.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

After we had concluded business at the candy factory, our tour guide fetched a hessian bag, reached inside and produced a snake from within the depths of the sack, immediately offering it to individuals in the group to pose with it and take photos. Luckily I had faced and conquered my fear of snakes back in Bangkok, otherwise my reaction to the surprise might have been extremely embarrassing. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the reptile – or to be more accurate, to get the reptile around my shoulders. I thought back to the fearless little ten-year-old boy I had been when I visited the Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland, itching to get my photo taken with the huge python, and realised that I’d come full circle again. I didn’t even flinch as the tour guide draped the snake over my shoulders and looped it around my neck.

Getting friendly with the locals.

Getting friendly with the locals.

After the reptilian meet-and-greet, we jumped on another larger boat and headed down and across the river to another town named Ben Tre. We had lunch at an elephant fish ear farm – large flat fish that resemble their namesake. However, that particular delicacy was another tourist trap that wasn’t included in the price of the tour, though I’m not a huge fan of fish and was able to settle with tour included beef and rice dish. I sat at a table with two couples – a pair of British 27-year-olds taking their annual holiday, and another retired British couple who now lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They were all very nice and interesting to talk to, although I’d been hoping I might meet some more people like myself, solo travellers or backpackers. Groups and couples tend to already have their itineraries firmly set out, so I just had to enjoy their company for the day before writing them off as what Tyler Durden would call “single serving friends”.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

The last stop of the tour was the centre of the town, where there was a temple complex with several pagodas and statues of Buddha. I hadn’t gotten around to visiting a similar site in Saigon, so I was glad to be able to make up for it here instead, though the more I saw of South East Asia, the more similarities I began to see in all these temples and monuments. Which doesn’t make them any less holy or worthy of reverence – it just means you can’t spend quite as long marvelling in awe at them when you saw that temples bigger cousin in a different city. Overall, my day tour on the Mekong River was pretty average. I guess being a day tour it was obviously going to feel a little rushed, but there was nothing particularly amazing or breathtaking about it. Although it was nice to get out of the city and see some more the of the country of Vietnam, no matter how briefly.

Happy Buddha!

Happy Buddha!

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

***

That trip happened during the middle of my week in Vietnam. To stick to my river theme and spare you from any more river references in my blog titles, I’m going to throw chronology to the wind even further and tell the short story of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City…

After a slow day of recovery from my last night in Saigon, I hopped on an overnight bus towards the riverside town of Chau Doc. Not wanting to travel all the way to Cambodia via bus, I had decided to split the trip up by traveling to a border town on the Mekong River, staying there for a night or two, and then catching a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t as cheap as a bus, but I figured it would be a great way to see some more of the countryside, as well as being one of those rare opportunities to listen to Lonely Island’s I’m On A Boat and giggle smugly to yourself at the accuracy of the content.

Though for all the research I had put into transportation, I hadn’t bothered to investigate too much into the town of Chau Doc itself. Crawling off the bus at 5:30am, I was unimpressed (mainly with myself) to find myself alone in a tiny riverside town, where hardly anyone spoke English, at a time where hardly anything was open. “Cheap hostel,” I managed to convey to a motorbike taxi, and we roamed the streets for about 20 minutes, moving from closed hotel to closed hotel. Eventually I gave up and repeated “boat” while pointing at an address in the Lonely Planet guide, and my taxi driver seemed to figure out what I wanted. I found myself sitting at a dock on the river, half asleep while I waited for the world itself to wake.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

Despite the dull light of the dawn, my short ride around the city had proved to be very illuminating. There didn’t appear to be any major tourist attractions here, and the level of English speaking locals seemed to be at a concerning low. I could see things going very wrong very quickly in a place like this, and after the bus ride I had just had, it was something I did not want to deal with. In a split second decision I changed my mind, and my stopover in Chau Doc went from a couple of days to a couple of hours, in a couple of seconds.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Luckily there was room on that mornings boat, so after only a couple of hours of being in Chau Doc, I was speeding up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border. My companions for this voyage turned about to be a bunch of Americans from Philadelphia who were doing a tour through South East Asia as part of a masters program. They were all extremely friendly, and they took me under their wing when we went through the border crossing process, which I was thankful for, since this was the first overland border crossing I’d ever done. It’s a feeling of sheer terror handing your passport over and one check point and then not getting it back until the next one. Once we got back on the boat from the Vietnamese exit point, the rest of the Americans had their passports returned, but mine didn’t come back. I knew it must have been because I still had to get my visa, while the others had obtained theirs in advance, but all the same, it’s still an uneasy feeling.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

But it all went up without a hitch, and I spent rest of the 6 hour boat ride to Phnom Penh chatting to my new American friends, admiring the rural scenery and nodding in and out of consciousness – to say the least, it had been a very long morning.