Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Beijing acts as a good bookend to my trip, a 20 Million person bookend. In comparison to the tales of China's mega-cities, Beijing appears to be relatively sedate and low-rise with surprisingly little smog. Along with the colossal Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the narrow winding alleys known as Hutongs make Beijing a fascinating city to explore. However, this also serves as a reminder that despite the advanced infrastructure projects, China is still a country with many people living in poverty, these Hutongs are cramped and have no working toilets or running water.
Along with these popular tourist attractions, I also set out to try and find some of the more unusual or surreal constructions that are the inevitable unconscious products of a city the size of Beijing. This included "Wonderland", a disney-style amusement park on the outskirts of the city. Construction was halted for various reasons in the late 90s and now all that remains are a few fantasy castles scattered across a field. On the way to Wonderland I passed row after row of concrete apartment buildings under construction allowing me to wonder around a deserted city with 4 lane boulevards leading nowhere.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


At first glance Novosibirsk would appear to have little to offer to tourists, on closer inspection it is revealed that this is indeed true. The third largest city in Russia, Novosibirsk does provide an idea of what life is like in most typical cities in the country. Young, well-dressed people eating in sushi restaurants mixed with soviet legacy infrastructure and tenement buildings. There are still a few surviving wooden houses and churches spread around the outskirts but for the most-part the city is void of travellers. 

So when the Trans-Mongolian pulled up in the deserted Novosibirsk Station at 11pm it was a pleasant surprise to see my carriage was full of mostly British backpackers all drinking Chinese beer as the train tore across the wastes of Siberia. This surreal experience grew deeper as everyone developed an indifference to time and space. Stretching my legs on a platform during a quick stop I realised I didn't really care which time-zone I was in or what the name of the city was. This continued for 4 nights, watching the landscape subtly change from forest to fields to the edge of the Gobi desert. 

I had always expected this journey would provide me with an overwhelming respect for the scale of the earth. However, it isn't long before we're passing through the suburbs of Beijing, I've travelled to the other side of the planet and from here the world seems small.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012


Travelling across Uzbekistan I managed to stop off at some of the major cities that made up the silk road, Khiva and Samarkand being the most well preserved. Despite an agressive Soviet programme of limting the influence of Islam in this area, many of the Medrasses from the 14th century remain intact and, owing to the general lack of tourists, very peaceful places. 

I took the train across the generally unremarkable landscape to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a major city complete with a monumental subway system and many exotic experiments in Soviet government architecture. 

Across the border is Kazakhstan, used by the USSR as proving grounds for various experiments; the Baikonur Cosmodrome - now the busiest space port in the world, nuclear test zones near Semey and vast irrigations projects that converted the grasslands into a desert of soil and dust storms. Surrounded by mountains is the city of Almaty, the most European city I've been to since Tbilisi. Also home to several extravagant communist constructions, it is from here that I took the 2 night train to Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia, where I can rest before I head out to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Express

Saturday, 18 August 2012


The ferry crossing was mesmerising, sailing across a black vacuum, the lights of distant stars muddled with those of the drilling platforms. We arrived in Turkmenistan the next morning. With the constant spread of freedom and democracy across the globe, it’s becoming more and more difficult to visit a bona-fide police state these days. On paper Turkmenistan definitely looks like a sound bet; closed off country with poor human rights record, universal censorship and an eternal president who builds rotating gold statues of himself etc.

One aspect that certainly lives up to my expectations of a dictatorship is the Capital City Ashgabat. It is a hyper-reality, full of countless fountain lined avenues running between white-marble-clad hotel complexes, government buildings and embassies. From a distance it almost looks like Vegas. However, the city is so devastatingly lacking in character that you get a headache just from walking around the monotonous emptiness of the place. None of the buildings serve any purpose other than to impress, there are hardly any shops or restaurants and everything is set back from the street and guarded by fences. The place is so boring it makes downtown Singapore on a Sunday morning look exciting. The most similar experience I can think of is walking around a city in a video game where only the facades of the buildings have been designed to a low level of detail and you know that there is nothing inside any of the buildings. This sensation of emptiness is in itself an impressive featand makes Ashgabat a phenomenon that I have never seen before.

Unfortunately the massive investment in Ashgabat stops about 5km out of the city when the highway disintegrates into desert with the sporadic helping of asphalt. Unfortunately this is the only road through thedesert and up to Uzbekistan. As if the 47°Cof the Karakum Desert isn’t hot enough, right in the middle lies the Darvaza burning gas crater. It’s an old gas mine that collapsed and caught fire in the 60s and has been burning ever since. Watching it slowly light up as the sun sets is one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever seen.

After crossing over into Uzbekistan I travelled to the fishing town of Moynaq. This town is perhaps the strongest example of the effects of the well documented shrinking of the Aral Sea. It now lies hundreds of kilometres from the coast and its fishing boats have been left sitting in the desert. The town lies downwind from an old Soviet Bioweapons testing facility, originally built in the safety of Vozrozhdeniya island, it is now part of the desert and it’s semi-buried anthrax containers are a constant threat to locals. From this bleakness I am now travelling to the relatively popular tourist destinations of Khiva and Samarkand and along the silk road as I gradually get closer to Beijing.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Caucasus

Oil Rocks in the Caspian Sea

After the Dogu Express I arrived in Kars, a regular sized town in eastern Turkey. Beyond Kars, at the extreme edge of the country, lies the ruined medieval city of Ani. Once one of the largest cities in the world, it was left for ruin and has been disintegrating for the last 500 years. Despite regular plundering, vandalism and the Turkish Military using it for target practice, there still remains several giant stone churches that were the most advanced of their age.

A 12-hour bus journey through more of Turkey was followed by a quick stop off at the Black sea resort town of Batumi and then an 8 hour train journey took me to the Georgian Capital of Tbilisi. Whilst still bearing the hallmarks of its Soviet past such as the deep level metro system, the city has recovered from the various conflicts it has experienced in the last 2 decades. The maze of courtyards and narrow winding streets in the old town is by far the most unique aspect of the city, along with Georgian spicy meat dumplings and grilled cheese pies.

The overnight train into Azerbaijan, made up of old soviet carriages, rolls into the capital city Baku. This is the largest city of the Caucasus and is centred around a perfectly preserved old city of recently cleaned sand stone minarets and palaces. The city is developing rapidly as the Azeri GDP skyrockets. The source of all this wealth can be discovered in the somewhat barren landscape surrounding the city. Populated by forests of oil derricks and pump jacks as well as colossal oil platforms out in the Caspian. From here I will take the ferry, or cargo ship, towards Turkmenistan and Central Asia. Hopefully I will catch a glimpse of Oil Rocks, the legendary oil rig city 50km off-shore built on the wrecks of tankers.

Friday, 3 August 2012


Following 3 days, 5 trains and 8 countries, the final leg of the journey into Istanbul is by coach. Arriving at around 6.00 in the morning I have an opportunity to explore the city in the absence of the swarms of tourists. Bigger than London, Istanbul has a distinctly local feel to it, with the residents lining up in single file along the Galata Bridge to cast their fishing rods into the Bosphourous at first light.

From the narrow lanes that climb up the hills it is easy to make out the geography of the city, the 3 major spreads of land laid across 2 continents. The local feel of the city is reflected in being able to comfortably visit most places by foot, ambling around the surprisingly un-pushy restaurant and shop owners. Along with ample amounts of kebab, the fresh fish sandwiches and plenty of Efes made Istanbul a city that is all too easy to enjoy, at night we struggled to venture far from the hostel bar and saw little reason to, all of them being so similar.

After 4 days it was time to leave and head east, towards the Caucasus. The train line between Istanbul and Ankara is closed and a coach replacement was necessary. From the rather hum-drum looking city of Ankara I took the Dogu “Express” train service towards Kars in the very East of Turkey, about 900 miles from Istanbul. The term “express’ appears to have been applied fairly loosely as it seems to meander lazily across the landscape at around 40mph, occasionally stopping and taking about 27 hours to reach its destination. I had considered taking the faster bus but a meal in the restaurant car along with a beer reminded me why I’m on a rail trip.

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