All Around the World: Dubai

Thursday 27th March
I had managed to get about 4 hours sleep before there were to many distractions that I couldn’t ignore any further. This included the person behind coughing and a baby a couple of rows back crying and screaming. It was to late to watch a movie so I watched the final two episodes of ‘The Wrong Man’ which I’d missed when I’d left at the end of October. I tried to rest my eyes but first they came round to give breakfast and then to take the blanket I was using to cover my face.

We landed at around 6am and I made my way to the visa and tour booking desk. The guy at the desk confirmed there was space and because I wasn’t staying at a hotel the solution was for me to be picked from the nearby Premier Inn. It looked nice outside and I was also able to book a morning session to visit Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world). I felt quite apprehensive as I passed the baggage claim and it felt like something was missing when I left the airport with only a small rucksack.

Eventually I made it out of the airport towards the Dubai metro and I was thankful that the machine made it clear how to buy tickets. The notifications on the train were in Arabic and English so I had no problem getting off at the correct station though I had regretted not sitting on the other side as I would have seen the Burj Khalifa. After arriving it was unclear which way I needed to go but eventually I opted to follow signs to the Dubai Shopping Mall though I was surprised that all the signs for Burj Khalifa had disappeared.

The walkway was lot longer than I had anticipated and I wasn’t even sure if I was heading in the right direction. I looked out of the windows on both sides but I literally couldn’t see, and therefore felt lost trying to find the tallest building in the world. I finally entered the shopping mall and I have to admit even I was impressed and slightly overawed by its size. I finally saw some signs to the Burj Khalifa and made my way.

I was in no hurry to rush round the displays so I took my time and was surprised to discover that the Burj Khalifa was nearly double the size of the Twin Petrona Towers I had visited in Kuala Lumpur. I made my way to the lift and travelled to floor 124 which was 1,483 feet from the ground. The view was obviously impressive but there was quite a bit of haze in the distance which meant I couldn’t for example make out the Palm Islands.

There is only a certain amount of time you can spend looking down on a city so I soon found myself feeling ready to go back down. Before I did one of the telescopes became free and it was amazing to see the contrast between the city now and in the relatively recent past when it had been mostly desert. Once I was finished I decided to make my way to the Waterfall inside the mall before going outside to the Waterfront where I was able to appreciate just how big the Burj Khalifa is.

My colleague Sue had given me a suggestion for a vegetarian Indian restaurant called Rangoli where for very little money I could “eat like a King”. After arriving at the nearest station I started walking to the restaurant however as soon as I turned the final corner the local shop keepers were trying to tempt me in to their shop to buy t-shirts. I let out a sigh inside. I’ve been in the situation many times before and have learnt to ignore what I’m being asked but I really feel it is mentally tiring when people stereotype and assume I’m a walking £ or $ sign. It’s very frustrating when you know where you want to go and people keep trying to block your path but luckily I could see my destination so I persevered.

It wasn’t quite lunch so I ordered a mango lassi and waited for the kitchen to open. Eventually I made my way upstairs and ordered the Gujarati Thali. The plate given to me was big and had a few small metal dishes on it but I feared portion sizes looked on the small side. How wrong I was. Soon various waiters were bringing out Chapatis, Papads, and various curries and a dhal to fill up the bowls and when ever one was finished more food appeared. I loved it, though I wasn’t a big fan of the complimentary buttermilk drink.

Full and happy I made my way back to the train station and boarded the train. I had been careful not to board ‘Gold’ class but I made another tourist error. I accidentally boarded the “women and children only” carriage however luckily I was able to quickly move down the train when the mistake was pointed out to me. I arrived back at the airport to get a free shuttle to the Premier Inn but as the carpark was predictably very busy I couldn’t see where it was.

I had been told a taxi would cost about 25AED which I was prepared to pay to avoid the hassle of waiting for the shuttle. Sadly I had the floating £ and $ sign above my head and when I enquired I was told over 50AED so I said no thanks. There was still no sign of the shuttle so I went back in to the airport to the taxi booking desk and again the girl confirmed the price. I was then approached by a taxi driver which is always dodgy and he quoted 80AED. Declining that offer I went back outside and thankfully this time I saw the shuttle bus to the Premier Inn and I waited there for the pick up.

We drove out of Dubai and as we entered the desert I was over come by tiredness and dozed off. Our first stop was a garage to fill up and as I chatted to a guy from New Zealand I hit my head on an overhanging sign which at least woke me up. The owners were trying to get me to wear a traditional head scarf and I wasn’t interested at all. I really wanted a fizzy drink to wake me up but sadly the drinks didn’t have prices on so whilst I knew I was being conned I couldn’t work out the exchange rate quick enough.

Our first proper stop was to see a Peregrine Falcon display. The guide provided quite a bit of information and told us that he had a detonator to blow up the bird if it escaped because it was tame and wouldn’t survive in the wild. We were all quite horrified but he then assured us he was only joking. The Peregrine falcon is the fastest bird and it was impressive to see it in action as it was so fast it wasn’t possible to get a clear picture of it swooping down.

After leaving the display we started our journey to our desert camp but to get there had to cross the sand dunes. I had done something similar in Wadi Rum in Jordan but this seemed even more extreme and it was great fun. The constant up/down and side to side movement meant it was like a never ending roller coaster so I was slightly relieved when it was all over as I think by that point we were all feeling slightly dizzy.

We arrived at a lookout to see the sunset and the lighting really was quite impressive the sun looking like a small orange ball in the sky. It gradually sunk lower before disappearing beneath the sand dunes and with that my last sunset of the holiday was over. I’d travelled across 8 countries but my last day was now over. The next time I’d see the sunset would be back home and that would be assuming it wasn’t blocked by cloud.

The desert camp wasn’t really what I expected because it was much busier than I had anticipated but it still looked nice and had a good atmosphere. I started off by having a short camel ride which was really just around a small area of the camp before getting a henna tattoo. This had seemed a good idea at the time but almost immediately before it had tried I knocked it therefore destroying one of the patterns but still causing it to leave a faint mark / stain on my arm.

The dinner was huge but because I had a flight I didn’t want to over indulge to much however I made sure I had enough to keep me going until I had to board the flight. As we ate the main course the hosts provided a belly dancer for some entertainment which was particularly popular with some teenage boys on the table behind. After the belly dancer had finished the lights in the camp were turned off so we could see the stars. I have to admit whilst it was a clear evening it wasn’t as spectacular as what I had seen in New Zealand or Australia but I still enjoyed it as I knew once I was back in London I’d be lucky to see anything at all.

The Journey back was uneventful and The driver kindly took me direct to the airport where I checked back in and waited at the gate trying my best to stay awake.

Friday 28th March
I boarded my last flight of this incredible journey and saw the plane was a Airbus A380 which I knew had been plagued by engine failures in 2010. After taking my seat I found a movie called ‘The Sapphires’ which had been recommended to me by Victoria over a year ago. The movie had been about 20 minutes in when the safety demonstration began and I must have fallen asleep during the latter because when I woke the movie was playing and we were in the air. Almost immediately upon waking up there was an in flight announcement from the Captain. “Some of you may have wondered why we are only 6,000 feet in the air, unfortunately we appear to have developed a minor engine fault”. I hadn’t noticed and this was a somewhat unpleasant surprise.

I had no idea how serious it was but the captain sounded very calm and very professional however I know that if some Australian’s tell you about the danger of sharks, snakes and spiders they’ll always play down the risk. When they tried to fix the fault but ultimately couldn’t identify it he remained calm, almost jolly as he told us ‘hey folks we’ve tried to fix the minor problem but it appears to be a bit more serious than we first thought’. Whilst I remained calm the thought did briefly cross my mind that this may have been Australian code for there is a snake and it has bitten us.

I was in the middle seat and as i couldn’t see anything carried on watching the film. It almost sounds silly in hindsight but I thought if the worst does happen I’d at least want to know how the film ended. I guess the film was a distraction, whilst it was playing I was in a bubble where the reality of the situation couldn’t get to me. I just assumed we would be fine which is probably a bit naive especially as we had to dump fuel in to the sea to lighten our load as we were initially to heavy to return to Dubai. We were also escorted on to the runway by fire trucks but weren’t told to get in the brace position and the captain did try to assure us it was a formality ‘for the situation we were in’. I guess I’ll never know what situation that was.

The landing was smooth but the captain claimed an over enthusiastic fire engine had parked to close to us meaning we couldn’t taxi. I naïvely thought we’d be allowed off the plane fairly quickly. We weren’t. The airport staff wanted us to remain on the plane whilst the engineer assessed the situation. Personally I wasn’t overly keen on staying on the same plane though I knew the engineer with his neck on the line would have only given a go ahead to fly if he was sure. He couldn’t and the flight was officially cancelled. It was now about 3.00am but still we had to wait on the plane.

There was an interesting looking documentary on formula one racing so I decided to start watching that not really expecting to see the end. Gradually people were asked to leave, starting obviously with business and first class. Sadly I was near the back so I was amongst the last group and by then I had seen the whole documentary which was over 1 hour and 45 minutes. I have to admit the organisation was atrocious. I didn’t mind being amongst the last group because I had no dependants but I just couldn’t believe those with children, especially babies hadn’t been given any type of priority. I was also surprised that where people had a connecting flight from London there wasn’t an effort to fly them direct to their final destination.

Once I was off the plane which was after 6.00am I got chatting to a lad from New Zealand who was about to start a new life in London. We had been told we would all be treated as individuals and those at the front of the queue were certainly taking their time. By the time it got to us the approach had changed and no questions were being answered and all they were doing were handing out meal vouchers. I jokingly asked if I would be home by Sunday and I received the response ‘most probably’. Not most definitely, not even most likely. By now it had gone 7.00am so I’d officially been awake for more than 24 hours.

The duty manager kindly let me use her mobile phone as my phone battery had died after I had updated dad but I wanted to speak on the phone to confirm I was ok and to make sure he wasn’t going to Heathrow. I felt hungry but I also felt very tired and just couldn’t bare the thought of going upstairs so I stayed by the desks saving my meal voucher for when it was less busy. After about two hours of waiting someone at the desk told me to take a seat in the lounge and told me that there was a flight from Melbourne and a flight from Sydney both arriving from Heathrow. They still needed final authorisation but the intention was to combine the flights (effectively cancelling one) and for one of the planes to return straight back to the UK.

At 09.35 we finally received confirmation that we would be departing at 15.00 and due to arrive in Heathrow at 18.30, 13 hours late but at least not 24 hours or more which is what I’d feared. After waiting around downstairs a bit more I saw the lad from earlier and together we went up to the business class lounge. Qantas/Emirates had failed to find us a hotel due to everywhere being booked by the time it had got to our section of the plane. We were both tired and needed somewhere to sit down but we didn’t really expect to be let in however it seemed other passengers in our situation had thought of the same idea.

I have to admit I didn’t really explore the lounge as I was to tired. They had free computers with WiFi and a comfortable chair I fell asleep in, that was all that mattered. I woke with a start and noticed it was 12.30 so I’d probably been asleep about an hour if not more. The food option choices available with the voucher weren’t great but I opted for what I will ensure will be my last McDonald’s for a considerable amount of time.

I had two vouchers which entitled me to two drinks and two burgers of any type. I didn’t really want two of each so asked if I could swap 1 burger and coke for a portion of fries instead. Initially I was told no but then the manager agreed and after exchanging what was left of my money I made my way to the gate. There I started chatting to someone from Australia who was about to do the huge 49 day Topdeck tour round Europe. He was a bit nervous as it was his first big trip abroad and I told him everyone would feel the same and that things could only get better after the start he was having.

Soon we also got chatting to a guy from Devon and it gradually became obvious the flight was going to be delayed further and this was eventually blamed on catering issues. We finally boarded at the time we should have departed and once I was seated I put on my next choice of film “The Delivery Man”.

Rather than trying to sleep I was now trying to stay awake as long as possible and watched ‘The Butler’ which I thought was quite thought provoking. Almost as soon as the film ended I crashed out and woke up about 4 hours later because the guy next to me had jabbed me in the side as he wanted to escape. The flight had fortunately been uneventful and once I made it through security I was officially back in London after a fantastic few months.

Unfortunately the drama wasn’t quite over. We’d all had a bad feeling that changing planes would result in lost luggage and whilst my sleeping bag came out almost straight away there was no sign of my backpack. It was a bit concerning because they would have been added together and as the crowd slowly emptied I was one of a handful of people left. The backpack did eventually emerge but the detachable rucksack was no longer attached and didn’t come out.

There was quite a crowd of people from my flight at the lost luggage counter and when I finally got to the front I was redirected to the back of another queue that dealt specifically with damaged baggage. The guy who served me was helpful and filled out a report however it was understandable that he could give no indication as to whether Qantas would accept responsibility.

I finally made my way through customs and saw dad and Jenny waiting for me. It was nice to see some friendly faces after the journey back I had endured. It all felt a bit surreal especially as I’d only seen the the week before but my journey was now over.

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Posted by Travels and Rambles in Asia, United Arab Emirates, 0 comments

Drops of Jupiter: Thailand

Monday 24th March
During the flight I watched four films because there were a few I had missed at the cinema that I had wanted to see. I started off with ‘Captain Phillips’ followed by Philomena. Both of these had required my full attention and were quite moving so I needed something to lighten my mood and therefore opted for ‘The Interns’. With time still available I managed to squeeze in ‘Rush’ though I made a note to watch the accompanying documentary on my next Qantas flight. I did however watch a few classic Mr Bean episodes and a documentary about ‘The Ashes’ which was effectively a Aussie gloat fest at how embarrassing English cricket has been in all years except 2005, 2009 and 2010.

I arrived at Bangkok and whilst I did have directions on how to get to my hotel the city suddenly seemed very big when I was told the bus I had been told to get no longer ran. I was determined not to get a taxi because I knew mentally I couldn’t face the battle of trying to find one that wouldn’t try to con me and I knew that unlike the good old cabbies of London they didn’t have to sit an equivalent of ‘The Knowledge’. Thankfully I got on the free internet and worked out that the train journey from the airport was simple and it would only cost about £1.

The train was modern but busy though no where near as bad as in Russia and I was able to position myself by the door. I could the see the CBD in the distance and it all looked very modern but the outskirts of the city looked very traditional and seemed to still be surrounded by tropical forest. I guess whilst this looked unusual to me it would be no different to passing through a London suburb such as Richmond that still maintains a ‘traditional English Countryside’ feel.

Once at my station I had a short walk to the hotel and whilst the pavements were either non existent or blocked by food stools I finally made it inside. Compared to some of the places I had stayed it was luxury and to be honest none of the criticisms I’d read seemed justfied for the price but I guess some people had a much higher expectation than me. With free breakfast and WiFi I was in paradise.

After sorting out my things (dumping them on the floor) I went back out in search of some traditional Thai street food. I went to where I thought the stools were but I couldn’t see any and as the road appeared from a distance to be a dead end and had a unsavoury smell I returned back to the main street. I looked at the menus of various restaurants and tired and hungry eventually settled for the one outside my hotel purely because it was close. I ordered a Chicken Pad Thai which was very nice but cost slightly more than I expected though still a lot less than what I’d have paid in London.

I returned to my room and flopped down on my bed. I decided I’d figure out how best to spend my time the next morning.

Tuesday 25th March
I woke up and because my knowledge of Bangkok and Thailand was pretty non existent except for the fact I knew one of the ex Prime Ministers was the owner of Birmingham City FC  and In prison. I knew this had resulted in political turmoil but when it came to tourist attractions all I knew about was to get a Thai massage and toi try some Thai street food.

It turned out there were some lovely Buddhist temples in the city so I decided I would see a selection of them and the Grand Palace. It looked an easy journey on the bus so I went down to fill up on breakfast in the hope it would last to dinner. The selection was as good as that I’d had in India and I was able to have 4 different courses including Indian, traditional English, fruit and pancakes.

I started by booking myself a 1 hour massage for that evening at the spa recommended by the hotel and where I got a discount. My right knee ligament has been aching if I have to cross it since January though I am unsure exactly what caused it and I hoped the massage would cure the issue. I also thought it would be a nice way to relax after what I hoped would be a busy day exploring the city.

I waited at the bus stop and the traffic wasn’t moving at all and there was no sign of the bus. Taxi drivers kept trying to gesture towards me but I stayed strong ignoring them. I’d read a few of the taxi tips that morning and the final quote had said “Don’t worry, for every bad taxi driver there are two good”. Those odds as far as I am concerned are shit and whilst I felt familiar with all the tricks they would try and pull I had no intention of needing to do so.

I realised after a while that it was becoming a bit pointless waiting for the bus because there was a lot I wanted to see. I therefore flagged down a taxi. The driver seemed genuine enough and I made it clear I wanted to go to the ‘Grand Palace’. Unfortunately after about 5 minutes we still hasn’t moved that far. He then told me the Grand Palace was closed and asked if I wanted to go to the ‘Floating Market’. I explained near the Grand Palace was fine and that I wasn’t interested in shopping. He then became persistent and told me that protests had closed the Grand Palace. I had no interest in going to the floating market as being taken there by a taxi driver was one of the cons I’d read about. However at the same time I knew that even if the Grand Palace was open, traffic caused by the protests meant I wouldn’t get there, and I didn’t really fancy being out on the streets in those circumstances anyway. I therefore paid the equivalent of about £1 and walked back to the hotel.

My new plan was what I had originally intended to do in Bangkok, exercise and rest & relaxation. I’d been carrying my gym kit around for nearly 5 months and I finally used it by going on the running machine for 20 minutes. My fitness wasn’t quite as bad as I feared but the machine was old and kept stopping for no reason which is why I didn’t run for longer. I did some weights before going outside and doing a few lengths in the swimming pool. I felt quite pleased with myself and was glad I had at least done something with my day.

I arrived at the Spa in good time and thankfully it looked as fancy and non seedy as I had hoped. Kirsten had told me Thai massages were painful and even though the lady was short she pressed very hard and seemed to know exactly where my body was showing signs of wear and tear. At one point it felt like she was walking across my back, though as my head was buried in a pillow I guess I’ll never know if she was. The conversation tended to be “pain?”, “hmmm no” (even when I once broke my arm I didn’t admit how much it was hurting), “ahh need little pain” followed by some action which resulted in the pain level rising a notch and me yelping.

My body was clicking and whilst I haven’t been a careless owner it was clear I probably haven’t looked after my body as much as I should. Body I promise vegetables and exercise will be the norm once we’re home. In case anyone is thinking it, there was no seedy side and no happy ending once my hour was up. I wish I could say I felt like a new person but I think I need more than a quick fix. I went downstairs, drank some tea and even though I hadn’t had lunch or dinner I returned back to the hotel as I didn’t feel particularly hungry.

Back at the hotel I stayed up later than I should have done considering I had such an early start the next morning. I was trying to use the free WiFi to upload as many pictures to Dropbox from my tablet so i could create space to transfer more pictures from my camera. Time seemed to go by much quicker than I had hoped and I hadn’t achieved everything I’d wanted to and wondered exactly where the day had gone.

Wednesday 26th March
I woke up early so that I could get breakfast before the tour to the Khao Yai National Park however I decided not to eat as much as the day before because I was feeling quite tired due to the lack of sleep. I was probably running off adrenaline because I was looking forward to finally seeing some of Thailand and at being able to travel on an elephant. It was nice being fussed over as the reception staff sought to ensure my needs were met and even said they would let me know when the pickup arrived. I was particularly grateful for this because I was a bit paranoid that there would be a problem with the hotel pickup.

After collecting me the driver said we were picking up two others and we’d therefore have a pretty much private tour. He didn’t seem to know where the other hotel was and had to keep asking for directions but eventually we found it. I’m terrible at guessing accents and I put my foot in it when I asked where in Canada the couple were from only for them to say they were from the States.

Our guide provided us with quite a bit of information about the history of Thailand and his thoughts about the political instability gripping the country as a result of corruption. There were also some more quirky facts for example ‘The Beach’ was filmed at the national park we were going to. He also provided some advice on how to navigate our way through Bangkok and the taxi scams he warned the others about sounded like my own experience. He also gave some other day trio ideas and I personally hadn’t realised the Bridge over the River Kwai was in Thailand.

Our first stop on our way to the national park was at Nakorn Nayok a province around 100km from Bangkok and which our guide suggested would be better suited as capital. We started off by looking round the market and tried some fruit. The first was called Rambutan and looked like a giant grape but tasted like a melon. The second tasted like Mango and may well have been but our guide said it was a fruit that you could only get in Thailand. The other fruit was unidentified though may have been a tamarind however it looked very strange as it came in what looked like a giant pea pod and unlike the others it wasn’t very juicy.

Whilst I had been feeling tired the walk through the market woke all my senses up and the smell of the live/fresh meant (including a pigs head) meant I tried to only breath through my mouth as I’d done on shark cage dive. We saw live eels, frogs and turtles all of which were food as well as dead birds however we were told the live birds weren’t yet for food and were for people to release as part of a celebration e.g birthday. We also saw lots of different eggs including some that were pink which had been treated in a way that means they can last a long time however personally I wasn’t keen to find out if that was true.

We left the provide and as we passed a number of locally built temples our guide explained they were built by families who were seen as doing a good deed because they could be used by the public. Soon we arrived at a rice farm in Baankwan which was owned by the tour company we were with. After being shown around a traditional house and wondering over to see the Ostrich we got on to a cart so that a cow could transport us around the fields.

It was very bumpy and obviously the old wooden cart didn’t have any suspension and I half expected it to fall apart at any moment. It did however carry on going and we just about managed to stay in. The ride was meant to give us an idea about the traditional rural way of life and whilst it was a nice setting without our guide we didn’t know the significance of what we were looking at. We were all wearing traditional hats and after the ride was over we got an opportunity to sit at the front to look as though we had been controlling the cows direction.

We then watched our dinner get cooked and at one stage there was a very impressive burst of fire in the frying pan. Lunch included a shrimp Soup, fried chicken and stir fried vegetables. What I tried was tasty but there was to much and the other two had suffered recent food poisoning so didn’t eat to much.

We arrived at the Khao Yai National Park and started a short walk to the Heaw Narok waterfall. The National Park is listed by Unesco so people are no longer allowed to hunt and as a result there are a number of different species of animals including 250 elephants. We didn’t see any on the walk but we did see evidence that they had been in the area and also a big fence to protect the elephants from getting close and falling in to river. This was built in response to an accident in 1992 when a baby elephant fell in to a chasm and as the adult elephants tried to help they also fell in. In total 7 elephant calves died.

We finally reached the end of the walk and then had to climb down around 190 steep steps to see the waterfall from a lookout. It had been dry so there was actually no water but it still looked quite spectacular. On our way back up the steps we saw a lizard and just before we reached the car park we saw two monkeys, a baby and an adult. Our guide was quite optimistic we’d see more later in the day so we carried on walking.

We drove theough the national park and I drifted off to sleep and woke up to a brief thunderstorm and very heavy rain. It stopped for a while and saw some deer but then came down with even more fury which meant we didn’t stop to see the monkeys. Fortunately by the time we arrived at Pak Chong it had stopped raining and even though we hadn’t seen the monkeys up close at least we had seen them on the walk.

The elephant ride had been my main reason for booking the tour and was great fun. I started off sitting in a special seat which even had a seat belt but eventually my ‘guide’ got down and I sat on the actual elephant. It felt a bit unstable and I was surprised at how hairy it was but it kept plodding along occasionally it’s warm ears flapping against my legs. It was a bit naughty though as one point it got hungry, stopped and started to use its trunk to snap tree branches. The highlight was crossing a small creek which was surprisingly deep after after the ride we got to feed them some bananas.

On the way back our guide was giving us some tips on how we could spend the next day and he was going to take us on a tour of some of the temples as it sounded easier than doing it ourselves after the previous problems I’d had. I thought I still had another day as I still had one final night in the hotel but I just happened to glance the date on the counter and all of a sudden it struck me my flight was in a few hours time and I didn’t have an extra day.

I would have liked to have had time to nap as I’d already had very little continuous sleep and I knew I had to stay up 17 hours in Dubai. For the first time I was looking forward to being home but only because I would be sleeping in a bed again. After uploading some more pictures to dropbox and transferring the days pictures to my tablet I finished packing. I had booked the hotel taxi to the airport so arrived at the airport in good time.

The check in desk was very busy but eventually it was my turn and as I watched my luggage being labeled I had an uneasy feeling that something would happen to it though couldn’t explain why. I made my way to the gate and as I tried to stay awake I ended up talking to the girl next to me who it turned out had also been travelling around numerous countries and was on the way home. This was my first flight with Emirates and it was a nice touch they had left a wash bag on my seat however I was so tired I was probably asleep before the safety demonstration video had ended.

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Posted by Travels and Rambles in Asia, Thailand, 0 comments

Fake Plastic Trees – Kuala Lumpur

Monday 11th November
I made sure I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare because the last thing I wanted to do was to encounter any unexpected problems resulting in me losing one of my nights of much needed luxury in Kuala Lumpur.

Arriving at the airport a middle aged man from South Africa started a conversation with me because I suppose I looked like someone he’d have more chance of engaging with compared to our fellow passengers. This is not meant to sound disrespectful as I was actually surprised at how well English was understood in tourist areas and that most important signs were bilingual. Russia take note. London probably should as well…

He was slowly stressing out because he had a connecting flight and our flight was delayed by an hour. For me the delay just meant a little bit longer until I could have some proper down time. I could give an account of our 4 hours talking but it’s mostly forgotten and I think in hindsight I was probably talking in my sleep by the time we finally boarded after 2am.

I’d run out of jumpers in China which was a huge blessing because I was forced in to wearing a t shirt which i was grateful for when I landed at 9am in KL it was a very humid 29°c. I’d opted against rage against the train when I realised it would ‘only’ cost £6 more to get a taxi so by about 10.30am I was at the hotel. My room wasn’t ready but I left my bags and explored the surrounding area to find an ATM.

When I returned the room was ready and they asked if they could bring my bags up. It’s safe to say I’m not used to that level of service and when I saw the room the first thing I did was flop on the bed double bed which didn’t have any mould stains. Next I had a shower and noted the door actually closed.

First I text Victoria for some tips on how to spend my first day and reflected on the fact that by Thursday afternoon I would finally be in a timezone that was ahead! With some ideas in my head I set back out in to the welcoming warmth.

I did a tour of the city to familiarise myself with the key areas though I somewhat hilariously fell asleep thereby defeating the point in it. I did however wake up when the bus stopped to get pictures of the Royal Palace and later the KL Communications Tower.

Eventually I got off properly to explore the bird park. This was an absolutely huge free flight aviary – possibly the biggest in the world – where there were so money birds just walking and flying around many of which appeared as interested in me as I was in them. Sadly apart from pigeons, chickens and ducks I’m not much good at knowing the difference but the signs were in English and the place was rather tranquil.

Once I’d left I followed the main road down to Merdeka Square (independence square) which is also the historical area containing many of the old colonial buildings the centre of which is the old style village green that was once used for cricket. The highlight though is the giant Malayan flag which symbolises the event when the union flag was lowered in the square for the last time and the country was formally independent.

Boarding the bus again as it was getting dark I had the idea of going to the KL tower to get a birds eye view of the city. Unlike with the shard the top is fully open to the elements and I therefore had to sign a deceleration to confirm I wasn’t going to jump off.

It was quite expensive and perhaps in hindsight it would have been better to have had a better knowledge of what was below me but I managed to get some nice pictures of the Petronas twin towers and used the free binoculars to find my hotel.

Getting back to the ground I started the walk back to the hotel. I vaguely memorised the route as I didn’t want to look more like a tourist than I already did and despite having I later found out taken a slight detour I eventually sighted Zara and knew I was nearly home. Zara has actually become a reoccurring beacon – the same store helped me find my way home in St Petersburg.

Having worked out where I was I realised I was hungry as I hadn’t eaten since a bag of left over spicy crab crisps I had left over from China. Where to go? I was in the eating district of the Malaysian capital. I panicked – there was to much choice but having just left China I didn’t fancy another Chinese. I needed a home comfort but my decision to go to McDonalds made me feel disgusted at myself.

Tuesday 12th November
I woke fairly early as I had booked a tour to the Batu Caves, my main reason for wanting to visit the city. I hadn’t heard of these until last year when an old colleague visited and put a picture on Facebook. Almost immediately I’d added it to the list of places I wanted to see so when Kirsten found me flights via KL with a 2 night I couldn’t have been happier.

I took the decision to check out the all you can eat breakfast buffet in the hope it would keep me full up until dinner. I also ate fresh fruit for the first time since I’d sat in the business class lounge at Heathrow. It’s somewhat surprising I hadn’t developed scurvy so bad my lack of fresh food has been for the past 3 weeks.

Hunger satisfied and locked up for 12 hours I got on the mini bus where I got chatting to an American from Phoenix however then we arrived at a big depot and it became apparent we were on different tours. This was a shame because I was the only non couple person on my tour and this meant I fell asleep during the commentary like the day before.

First we went to pewter-ware demonstration centre which was fairly interesting as we got to see inside the factory. This is also the original industry that was responsible for the growth of Kuala Lumpur. We also went to a batik factory, though calling what we saw a factory felt an exaggeration. This was basically just a shop and 5 minutes in to the designated 40 I opted to get back on the air conditioned coach to have a nap.

Finally we were on our way to the caves and the truly massive statue of Murugan towered over everyone. Walking up the stairs I encountered my first monkey though luckily it decided to jump on the person in front and not me. The next I saw was eating a coconut and just after I passed chucked it down. After this they obviously decided I wasn’t a threat because they just watched me.

The 276 steps wasn’t much of a challenge in the heat compared to the Great Wall but the heat and humidity meant I was dripping by the top. Luckily the caves were cool though they still seemed to be melting which meant I had to be on alert to dodge deepish puddles and dripping water.

There were a number of temples at the top but the caves themselves were smaller than I imagined. We only had about 50 minutes to explore and I did feel we could/should have spent less time at ‘the shop’ as the caves were the main point.

it was about 2 when I arrived back at the hotel in KL so I decided to charge my camera and my own batteries before heading out a couple of hours later. I wanted to do the Petrona towers however annoyingly the towers were fully booked so I arranged a time for the following day. I also wanted to check how easy it was to find the start of my street food tour.

One thing I quickly noticed about KL is that signs would point you in one direction and then vanish. I was therefore glad I checked in advance because a journey that took 30 minutes when I knew where I was going took well over 2 hours when I didn’t. I was starting to feel fatigued at constantly feeling a bit lost and my mood hadn’t been helped when I got caught in a torrential thunderstorm. It was however fairly exciting to see the fork of lightning hit about 1 second away when I was on the monorail.

Back at the hotel I freshened up and headed back out to explore the street food. On my way I briefly considered a foot massage as I’d been told the street I was on was famous for them. Unfortunately no one had told me which ‘store’ to go for. As I walked along the strip I quickly decided there would be no massage as I was asked by what felt like over 50 girls some even shouting “happy ending” as I kept my head down and quickened the pace. Sorry feet!

I’m sure most love the street food experience but for me it was a bit overwhelming. Also I’d just arrived from China so had probably overdosed on that type of food and yet that appeared to be was all that was on offer. I’d hoped to find curry puffs as Victoria had recommended them to me but everywhere I tried only had curry rice or curry noodles. I will however say that the meal I opted for ‘king chicken special with rice’ was delicious.

Wednesday 13th November
There was no hotel breakfast this morning because I was going on a mini food tour and I wanted to save my appetite. Arriving at the location I met the others before our guide Charles turned up. First we had a refreshing sugar cane drink which was much needed because whilst it was only 11am it was already hot and humid.

Next we walked through ‘Brickfiields’ known locally as Little India. Here we saw a number of the older buildings that have not yet been brought by the developers that are no doubt eager to move in. Here we had a banana leaf chicken curry which to be honest would have been better as the main course but I wasn’t complaining!

Having left we went to a stand selling a variety of different fried chip snacks, the equivalent in the UK would be Bombay mix, and I particularly liked the slightly sweeter masala mix.

Next up I finally got my hands on a curry puff and such had been my enthusiasm I was taken round the back so I could see a batch being prepared. We also had the opportunity to enjoy a savoury doughnut and to try a lentil biscuit which was a bit dry for such a hot day.

I think the guide realised we were flagging in the humidity so he took us to another stall to get a drink. This time it was milk with ice shavings and sugar, just what we needed. Slightly rehydrated we got some more deep fried snacks but by now I was full and I didn’t really enjoy the yam filling.

Finally we got the monorail for a short trip to China town. Again i still wasn’t totally feeling the idea of another Chinese meal but I was convinced this would be Malaysian Chinese which is different. I’m glad I was because the worryingly named rats tail noodles were actually very nice but by now I had been defeated. Food had won.

Returning back to the monorail I had 35 minutes to get to the towers for my tour which I just made in time for check in. First we visited the bridge which connects the two towers and then went up to the 86th floor, however high that is. It felt high and I was able to make out a few of the key landmarks I’d visited down below. Arriving back at the hotel I realised my taxi had arrived early so I headed off to the airport even earlier than planned.

All in all I had a great time in Kuala Lumpur. The city did feel a bit artificial due to all the modern developments but it does show what can be achieved if development plans are made logically. Much as I love London Its gradual evolution must make it a nightmare for those that are new to the city with streets and lines appearing to go where ever with no real logic. Next up New Zealand (or ‘New Sea Land’ as I understand the Dutch named it!)

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To the End – Beijing

Thursday 7th November
As we said goodbye to Odka and boarded our final train at around 7am I (we) knew that this stage of our journey was coming to a close. For all of us except Sara it was the beginning of something longer and before I go further I want to say this: Guys i don’t want to get all mushy about it but if the people I meet in New Zealand in a weeks time are half as decent as you I’ll still be in for a good time.

As we boarded I found out our family was being split up slightly earlier than planned and I was to be in the cabin with one of the groups we’d met the night before. I ended up spending most of my time inviting myself round to Paul, Clare, Callum and Fi’s cabin a bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. The 4th space in the 2nd cabin (Sara, Gary and Chris) was taken by a local and more shall be said about him later.

After having a nap I awoke just as we left Choir and started to cross the Gobi desert. i looked out of the window for a bit and decided to get some lunch which as before consisted of a king size super spicy Bombay Badboy pot noodle equivalent and the staple instant mash. After looking out of the window some more I realised that whilst it was amazing to be crossing the desert there wasn’t much variation to the view except the occasional herd of horses. I therefore decided to have another nap.

I awoke to hear Paul talking about going to the restaurant car, the code name for beer(s) and I couldn’t jump down from the bunk quick enough. First though we had one final chance to stretch our legs at a station as we had a long stop which we wouldn’t have again until we arrived in Beijing which was still over 20 hours away.

We must have spent a few hours in the restaurant car because the sun started to set which was pretty but I still maintain that on a good day Aberystwyth is the best. I hadn’t had much to drink because I didn’t want to be drunk for the immigration process and left to get my final dinner of mash and noodles. Soon the others returned as the restaurant car had been closed. We were at the border.

As I was getting used to one of the officials took a dislike to me, this time because I’d been sitting on my bunk which hadn’t been a problem at any previous crossing or when I’d handed my passport over to his colleague a few minutes earlier. Still I apologised and scrambled down quickly for the second time in a few hours.

There was a minor scare when I couldn’t locate my customs declaration form that I’d completed on entry to Mongolia and which I thought we’d handed over and not had returned. I decided there were worse places I could be left behind but luckily I did find it, scrunched up in my hip pouch and what I handed in must have been ok because my passport was stamped and I was allowed over the border.

Next the cabin was searched and then we were given forms to complete for entry in to China. This time I made a note to safely look after the departure form which was returned to me in case I needed it when it came to leaving. I did however start to complete the customs form only for half way through to realise I only had to do so if I had something to declare (which I didn’t).

When we reached the Chinese side of the border we were told that we had to remain on the train which was annoying for me as I had a bit of the Mongolian currency I had hoped to exchange left over. It did however mean I had plenty of time to get to know the guys I was sharing a cabin with.

We were also at the part of the process which seemed a bit surreal. I had learnt during the journey that whilst the ‘Transmonglian Railway’ is one route the track width used in Russia/Mongolia is different to China. Rather than swapping trains, the carriages are lifted in to the air sometimes with the passengers still on board and the wheels are swapped.

We entered the shed and stared at the workman from the window wondering exactly when the process would start and how it would do so with us on board. After a while Chris noticed the workers had shrunk and we realised it was actually in full swing. I wasn’t sure if the immigration process was over but once we had been lowered it was gone midnight so I decided to have a nap. This nap ended up being bed as we were not disturbed again except for some violent sounding noises from the engine.

Friday 9th November
I awoke early by mistake but knew we would be passing the great wall at some point so gathered everything I might need for the next few hours and left the cabin. Sara was there as well and together we waited. Soon people started to join us and after a few false claims including one which appeared very wall like but turned out to be a house we saw it. Or at least we felt fairly convinced we had.

Gary who was normally very active looked a bit sorry for himself and it emerged that after everyone had gone to bed he’d started to use international language (alcohol) to communicate with the Mongolian staying in his cabin. Apparently sometime after the border crossing the two of them had left the train at a station to get fresh supplies. It sounded like a great experience and both spent most of the morning trying to sleep.

A few hours later and we were on the final approach to Beijing. Passing through a number of tunnels each time we emerged from one the scenery was different and spectacular. Unfortunately the windows were dirty and no photo could do the view justice.

As it was Fi’s birthday we had decided to see a acrobat show and once we arrived in Beijing we tried to seek help from the honcho of the group I had been sharing a cabin with. She didn’t look prepared to help advise us on how to book tickets so we went to plan b. Me and Sara would try to take a ride with Gary and his guide Peter back to our hostel where we would book the tickets. Luckily we could get all fit in which it later became apparent was a huge bit of good fortune because the metro was not only stupidly busy but the nearest station was a 30 minute walk away.

We got to the hostel and Peter booked the tickets. We agreed to all meet outside the theatre at 18.45 giving us some time to wash and sort ourselves out. To get to the theatre we took a bus and the metro and it made the rush hours of London, Moscow and St Petersburg look tame but I have to admit the signs were clear and out of them all it wins. Still I was done with trains and i made the decision there and then that i would get a taxi from the hotel when i needed to leave for the airport.

The Leeds lot were second to arrive and explained they had to get a rickshaw bike ride because the walk had been longer than expected however no one could contact the kids who had last told me they were at the wrong theatre. We went to the auditorium and showed Peter a picture of them so he could give them the tickets when they arrived. Amazingly they only missed about 5 minutes which was a introduction dance routine.

Some of the acts were stunning. The contortionist in Mongolia had been good but here were 5 where the finale was the same principle as in Mongolia but to be honest even more stunning. Other acts included a ballet dancer dancing on the shoulder and head of her male dancing companion. The finale was a ball of death where not 3 but 8 motorcyclists drove around and did various stunts. The whole show only lasted an hour but what an hour.

We tried to find somewhere to eat and shunning McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza hut we found what looked a cheap Chinese fast food style restaurant. We had no idea how the restaurant worked and we ended up just pointing at various things on the menu hoping for the best. The lady serving looked increasingly frantic and we later realised this was because they closed at 10 and it was already nearly 9.45. Still who would turn away a group of 8 hungry tourists?

Soon a pot was brought out with whatever sauce we had asked for which was put on to a hob in front of us Ah. We had to cook our own dinner. We all ordered far to much and i had dumplings, spinach and tofu which were all added to the mix. It tasted alright, the others seemed to enjoy theirs more but it didn’t help that my use of chopsticks is still pathetic which meant I could barely pick up the dumplings. It was however very cheap for the amount we got.

Leaving the restaurant we started to walk back to our hostels or luxurious hotel in the case of the Leeds lot. Finally we got to a cross roads where we said our goodbyes. Me Sara and Gary continued alone and started to realise how big a city Beijing was (if we hadn’t already been aware of this fact – though Katie Melua it is not a fact there are 9 million bicycles in the city).

We were probably temporally lost for about 10 minutes including a moment we thought we were very lost when even a taxi driver didn’t seem to know the street. I won’t go in to the details as they don’t matter but luckily when I took the map by a pure stroke of luck the first road name that caught my eye was the one we were on. Whilst we had begun to take a slight detour we weren’t far off and were back about 30 minutes later.

Saturday 10th November
Sara and I both had booked personal honchos in advance however we both wanted to do the Great Wall. The group I had shared a room with had also booked a trip with their honcho to the Great Wall. We all therefore felt as we had booked through the same parent company the local company would oblige us in going together to reduce the cost.

Sara and me were quoted (approx) £70 each for a individual taxi or £35 each if shared. The other group were paying (approx) £30 each for a minibus with 3 spare seats. If we all went in theirs it brought the cost down to £18 each. However the honchos were very reluctant to let us do this even to the extent that they tried to convince me and Sara to do a city tour instead. Unlike with Elena in Moscow we’d learnt our lesson and put our foot down. It was our day out not theirs.

Eventually they agreed and my honcho was despatched which was a shame because she seemed really sweet and more relaxed than Sara’s. The honcho of the other group ignored us for most of the day.

We finally arrived at the Great Wall and after agreeing a meeting place and time started to walk up. It quickly emerged the 3 lads were fitter than me and Sara and when we got to the top we quickly realised it wasn’t going to get any easier. We started by walking a relatively short section that still took nearly an hour and in the process accidentally ventured on to a part of the wall that is unrestored and meant to be closed to the public.

It really was stunning. Some of the must see sights in the world can be a bit underwhelming but maybe It’s because we were interacting with the wall we began to appreciate just how big it was and how much effort went in to creating it.

We double backed and began the tougher longer section. Some parts were so steep we had to climb with our hands to haul ourselves up the giant steps. Every time we thought we were at the end we’d round a corner and see another watch tower in the distance. Eventually having got to the top of a section that was particularly steep and with it getting towards the time we had to be back Sara and I dropped out going further.

The others continued on but I felt pleased with what I’d seen. The walk back was mostly down so quicker and eventually after about 40 minutes we were back at the start of the wall. During this period of time I convinced Sara to get a toboggan to the bottom as It’s not everyday you can say you tobogganed down the Great Wall of China. It actually also ended up being even more fun than we expected.

We got to the bottom and both honchos looked stressed. Apparently we were an hour late and obviously the others were still at the top somewhere. We got some homemade pancakes whilst we waited for the others to get down. After 15 minutes they arrived and around this time our Honcho said he’d have to leave early and wouldn’t be with us until 21:00 as we had originally been told. This was annoying because it meant we should have kept the one designated to me instead.

Once we got back to Beijing he showed us the direction of the food market and left us to it. Ironically this was the only time in the day we’d needed him. We had no idea what to eat so took to pointing however we soon realised the traders were trying to charge us tourist prices. We wanted to be a bit adventurous but when someone tries to charge you £6 for a spider you want to give up. After eating some fried dumplings (safe) and some snake which I couldn’t swallow quickly enough we left to get some restaurant food.

First though we went to Tiananmen Square and saw that all lit up which was quite spectacular. As expected the Forbidden City was closed off but we were able to see the Gate of Heavenly Peace (the Tiananmen) with the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging from it.

By now we were hungry so went to a restaurant the honcho had recommended. I wanted to be adventurous but decided snake was enough so went for deep fried spicy pork. Sara went for duck with mustard. When it arrived it emerged it was ducks feet. I had a nibble but it had no taste and mentally I couldn’t get over the fact it was ducks feet.

We returned to the hostel and saw Gary. We all decided to get a beer and soon the other group of lads joined us as well. We literally drank the hostel dry even though we only had one beer each and I decided to call it a night.

Sunday 11th November
My flight wasn’t until 1am on Monday so I had the day to explore the city. I’d arranged to do the forbidden city with Callum and Fi however checking out took longer than expected so I was a bit late.

I arrived at Tiananmen Square and saw a queue and as i couldn’t read any of the signs and I wasn’t sure what it was for naively kept going. I met up with Callum and Fi and only realised after the queue had been a security check to enter the square. I’m not quite sure how I managed to avoid that but it certainly saved some time.

We arrived at the entrance to the Gate of Heavenly Peace and joined another security queue. We were rushed through but it seemed the locals were being held and searched more thoroughly.

The Forbidden City itself was massive and appeared totally symmetrical and it’s quite amazing they are the best preserved cluster of ancient buildings in China. It was however incredibly busy and there was almost to much to take in so after a couple of hours we were at the exit when we could easily have spent longer.

The exit took us to Jingshan Park which we then paid to enter to get a panorama of the city and a birds eye view of the forbidden city. From here we realised just how big it was and that we’d actually only been in a small fraction of it.

I did briefly consider visiting the Temple of Heaven Park but by the time I’d eaten I just wanted to be back at the hostel so I could start preparing for the next part of my trip. Next stop Kuala Lumpur.

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All Right Now – Mongolia

Monday 4th November continued…
We were finally out of Russia. Kind of. Technically we weren’t in Mongolia either and the two attendants on our carriage were still the stern faced sterotypical Russian ladies Elena had warned us about in Moscow a week earlier.

Sometimes a country grows on you but for me and I think I can safely say the majority of us that wasn’t the case, though looking back at the pictures I certainly had some memorable moments. Russia appears to be a country of extremes both in terms of climate, scenery and attitudes. It is hardly a surprise that the older generation, e.g anyone that was over the age of 18 in 1991 will view tourists with a slight suspicion however in contrast the younger generation we encountered appeared more liberal, were enthusiastic to learn about other countries and were friendly. Unfortunately those born after 1991 are not yet working with the public which makes it a bit of an uncomfortable experience especially if you are alone.

The moment we had our first contact with a Mongolian I fell in love with the place. The immigration official smiled and asked us for our passports in English and we were all so dumb with shock due to the politeness we froze. She also asked if it was our first time as we handed over the passports. A soldier came to check the compartment and politely asked if she could enter (we wondered how she’d have reacted if we said no) and finally the customs official who took the scary looking forms we had completed did so with a friendly smile.

We had an early start and even though we thought the train got to the Mongolian Capital at 6.10am, the attendant appeared to take great pleasure in telling us it was actually 5.10am. As a result we made sure our bags were packed in advance and got to sleep about 10.30 with alarms set for 4.00am.

Tuesday 5th November
Bang bang bang. Knock knock knock. Bang bang bang. It was 3.30am. The attendant had a bigger glare than she’d had at any previous stage as she told us we had to get up (in Russian of course but we assumed that’s what she was saying). Chris said she’d made him try to go in the toilet even though he knew Sara was there and Callum thought she was going to make him ‘disappear’ when he handed her the coffee stained table cloth. I got shouted out because Gary had left the bedding outside the compartment and she thought it was me. I shook my head and shrugged my soldiers “Nyet” and the dragon retreated to her cave/compartment.

As predicted we were ready with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately as we arrived in Ulaanbaatar the Mongolian capital and started to disembark I realised a tin of Gary’s condensed milk had leaked out of our bin and left the attendants a leaving present outside the door. There was no time to clean it and the only reaction was to run away from the train before they realised.

Our honcho Odka was waiting for us and like Dimitri she had it all worked out: Bank, travel to Ger camp, have breakfast, sleep, walk, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner, relax/beer and bed. Sadly the 24 bank wasn’t fully open due to it being the birthday of Ghengis Khann the day before (so we couldn’t exchange money) but the intention was there.

We fell asleep on the bus and when we awoke we were at the Ger camp. I was sharing with Gary, Paul and Chris so we finally had a wolf pack den. After Paul had fully accustomed himself with the log fire we headed down to breakfast.

Once that was over the intention had been to sleep but the beautiful slightly snow capped location had re-energised us all and so we went for a walk. Callum and Fi went one way, Gary and Paul another. Chris walked on ahead and Sara decided to drop out leaving me and Clare to support each other. Eventually Paul and Gary caught us up and Chris came back down. Finally we made it and from our view point we could see Callum and Fi on the other mountain. A bit of Rocky was played – fast becoming the tours soundtrack and then we set up my camera to get a picture of the 5 of us and ‘the two kids’ in the background.

Coming down was faster and at times it was easier to slide. As we approached the bottom it had felt to easy and all of a sudden I was lying on my back with one leg in the air and the other causing a domino affect on poor Clare. Luckily all the layers of clothing meant I survived with nothing apart from (another) bruised ego and a bruised elbow.

Returning to the Ger we did try to get some sleep but after a while I had to use ‘the facilities’. I feel I have to mention these because they were quite central to the Ger camp experience but i would also advise the following paragraph is probably not for lunchtime reading. Basically the ‘toilet’ was a hole in the ground which was nothing unusual but the smell was particularly bad, the lock didn’t work and in the day there was little light (the electric light only worked at night). I was therefore in a hurry and didn’t realise my coat pocket was unzipped. In a sudden movement to leave I caused my mobile to drop out of the pocket and turned to see it heading for the abyss below. ‘Luckily’ it landed only half way over the hole and whilst it was gently balanced I was initially scared to breathe in case that pushed it over. The hole later tried to unsuccessfully claim FI’s glasses and Chris’s trainer in other bizarre and unlucky circumstances.

Next we went to lunch where I was particularly greedy and had the Mongolian carrot salad, Mongolian soup and Mongolian dumplings. All were delicious and the portion sizes were particularly generous. Odka said the Mongolian attitude to food is big portions and small prices. My kind of place.

After this we were told about the activities for the afternoon one of which was to visit a nomadic family. All of us except Sara also decided to go horse riding for an hour beforehand. The horses didn’t have names because they were wild but I opted to call mine Ghengis. Odka also told us the human population of Mongolia was 2.8 million and the horse population was over 4 million. 80% of the country was also not inhabited.

Apparently the horses that Gary and I had were particularly good and fast so the guide led them for most of the journey. Callum’s horse appeared to have taken a fancy to mine and they had a kiss each time they were next to each other. Sadly his horse wasn’t as quick and whilst it clearly wanted to follow and keep up with mine it eventually gave up and decided to start heading home. He tried to make it turn back but it appeared the horse had made its mind up and for a few seconds it looked like Callum might disappear over the sunset alone. Luckily after coming to a stop and looking rather sad on its own the horse turned around van rejoined us.

It was amazing to have the opportunity to travel through a country renowned for its horses on horseback and the scenes were stunning. I was surprised that the national park had quite a few buildings dotted around but we later we told these mostly belonged historic nomadic tribes that had permission from the government to live within the park.

After the horse riding we visited one of the families that live in the national park. The lady provided us with Mongolian tea various types of snacks made from cheese/curd and little biscuits. I tried it all but personally I didn’t enjoy any of the curd snacks. We had brought gifts from a local store and Clare played connect 4 with the ladies grandson (letting him win of course).

We also had the opportunity to ask some questions with Odka acting as translator. Gary asked about her thoughts on the future and the lady said she was optimistic that due to the small population money from mining the natural resources would result in more equal wealth and develop the country. Paul also asked whether she felt this would have an impact on local traditions and she agreed that the younger generation were sadly less interested in the traditional lifestyle as they moved to the cities.

By now it was getting dark and when we got back to the Ger our fire had gone out so we decided to go straight for dinner. After dinner Clare read us all one of my blogs as a bed time story and we went back to our Gers which were now warm as the fire lady had restarted the fires.

In the middle of the night the fire lady came back which made me jump and i had so many layers on I felt to hot. As a result I decided to go outside in to the snow and take some pictures of the stars and Paul who had also woken up joined me. The photos weren’t that successful but I was able to cool down and get back to sleep.

Wednesday 6th November
Next morning after breakfast we got some pictures dressed up in traditional Mongolian costumes and then boarded the bus to return to Ulaanbaatar. First though we visited a giant statue of Ghengis Khan on a horse – the largest horse statue in the world. It is hard to describe just how big the statue is but the horses head was about 3 floors off the ground and the panoramic views of the snow covered mountains from the top were spectacular.

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of a huge traffic jam. It appeared the Mongolian people were very friendly except it seemed when they were behind the wheel of a car. In order to keep congestion down the government had passed a law which meant drivers could only drive on certain days. Unfortunately for our driver he hadn’t realised it was Wednesday and therefore he shouldn’t have been driving. His licence was therefore taken by police and we remained stationary at the side of the road whilst he tried to resolve the situation. He must have done so in the end because after a while we were back in the traffic jam.

Eventually the traffic eased and Odka took us to a war memorial which commemorated ‘various unknown soldiers from various wars’. As we approached the final set of the 400 steps Chris put Rocky on again and me him and Paul ran. Possibly because of the cold my lungs struggled and I spent most of the time at the top coughing. From the top of the memorial we could also see the Buddhist park which was still under construction though when we’d read the leaflet we’d wrongly assumed it was already complete.

Gary was due to meet the president of the Mongolian law society because the Norwegian law society had provided sponsorship and support to their Mongolian counterparts. Odka had therefore at very short notice been able to facilitate a meeting. Unfortunately this meant they had to miss lunch. Me Callum and Fi went to a lovely vegetarian restaurant where we got a meal and a drink for under £3 each and met the others later.

After doing some other errands in town we visited the sukhbaatar square where the main government buildings were located and went back to the hotel. After finally having a shower we were back out again this time on our way to a traditional Mongolian culture show.

I found it really enjoyable to hear the traditional throat singers, to hear the traditional instruments and to see the different dancers. There was also a contortionist who was particularly amazing and her finale was holding herself up by her tongue.

After the show we met two other groups on a similar tour one of which was going to Russia. Unfortunately they probably took a dislike to us because we wished them good luck with the train attendants and we may have sounded a bit negative about our experience. Luckily after we had dinner at the hotel we saw them again and this time introduced ourselves properly. We were therefore able to provide each other with advice on what to do in Russia and Beijing respectively and how best to get around.

During our dinner we had a shot of Mongolian vodka which is meant to be nicer than Russian vodka though I wasn’t convinced and when drunk straight both tasted equally nasty. Returning to my room I reflected on the fact that stage one of my journey was almost over and by the following night I would have crossed the Chinese border. Really this is just the beginning.

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