A Travellerspoint blog

February 2020

End of the Line (again!)

sunny 35 °C

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04:38, Tuesday 25th February and train SE3 arrives into Saigon (tickets, timetables, station signage all use the old name) station bang on time and the Reunification Line comes to an abrupt(ish) end. This was the original end point when I started planning the trip and would have been the end of an epic 8,000approx mile train journey, had it not been for the virus (I won't mention it again I promise!) So I was thinking I would have a nice photo of some buffers to show the end of the line. But it appears I have found the only terminus station in the world without any buffers, so this fuzzy photo of the tracks disappearing into the darkness will have to do.

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We were relieved to find the small hotel we were booked in at had someone on duty 24hrs a day and, after initially looking like he wanted to murder us he did remarkably well at hiding his annoyance at being woken up before 5am! A couple of hours in bed, then breakfast.

We started at The War Remnants Museum, previously called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. While we didn't expect it to be easy, we weren't prepared for large amount of extremely graphic reports and photos on display. There is even a room on the horrific effects of agent orange including 2 still born babies preserved in a tank at low level I assume to look like a grave, I didn't even read the text. Like a big exhibit in the Maison Centrale in Hanoi, they are keen to show their determination for forgiveness, friendship and peace, especially with America. On the ground floor the first thing visitors see is a large exhibit about the anti-war protests all over the world, particularly in the US itself and among the US forces, followed by a big piece about the work done more recently to build bridges with America. Yoko Ono's Imagine plays on a continuous loop. That took some getting over but in the afternoon we visited a few temples and even a fully in tact Notre Dame Cathedral, built during colonial times and quite a bit smaller than the more famous one. Finally we visited the impressive central post office! Yesterday we were all templed out and the constant cacophony of noise from the scooter horns that HCMC is so famous for was started to grate! So we just had a day round the pool at a much more expensive hotel than our own and paid a very small amount for the priveledge! At 35C today, it's a ridiculous 57C warmer than Ulaanbaatar was a couple of weeks ago!

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Today we set off for the Cambodian border. I normally hate using tour agencies and prefer to do things myself if possible, but we had been warned about the soul destroying bus journey from HCMC to Phnom Penh so I was pleased to find a tour company that offered a two day one night tour by bus and boat along the Mekong. This morning we used their bus from HCMC to Cái Bé, about 3 hours West. We were treated to a boat tour of a floating market and local factory, some fantastic food and some local music. Then unfortunately the boat that we were due to use on the journey North suffered a "technical problem" which I suspect had more to do with the lack of uptake on the tour that day rather than anything to do with a boat! We were ushered into a car and driven about 100km to Châu Dôc near the border. This was sad and if I had known this would happen we would much rather have got the bus ourselves and paid a tenth of the price! We are promised a boat in the morning howevernso hopefully they can redeem themselves. I'm writing this from our hotel room (provided by them) which looks like it has come straight out of the 70s with free entertainment of a couple of little lizards running round on the wall! I'm sticking with myf not using tour companies policy in the future!

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Got a bit of bad news yesterday. The trickiest bit of planning this trip was getting to and from Australia without flying as there are absolutely no scheduled ferry services. I thought I had struck gold last year when I booked myself onto the container ship CMA CGM MOZART from Port Kelang near Kuala Lumpur to Freemantle. Unfortunately however, as you may know I got an email from them in November to tell me there had been a change in vessel and the replacement will not accept a passenger. They left the door tantalisingly ajar though by saying that these things change regularly and they would let me know nearer the time. Sadly nothing has changed. Frustratingly they can offer me an arrival in Freemantle just a day after our train to Sydney. The next train is a week later, and it's fully booked. That's the next one they can offer me so even missing out Singapore and going earlier isn't an option. So baring a miracle I will have to take another short flight to get me to Western Australia in time to meet Emma. The fun will be finding the shortest flying route though so I'm on with that now. I'm not giving up on the cargo ship. There are about 10 journeys a week between SE Asia and Freemantle. I have been trying to get hold of other companies for months without much success but I will keep trying! If you are interested in travelling on a cargo ship, I was booked with French company CMA CGM who actually have a dedicated member of staff to arrange these bookings. Journeys cost from around $110 a day including all meals and a high standard of accommodation. You eat with the crew and, within reason have the run of the ship. You have to complete a load of medical forms before you can book and, as I have found out, good travel insurance and being able to be flexible is useful! There's more info here.

Posted by around129 09:02 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Back on Track!

semi-overcast 26 °C

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Good afternoon from Hội An, Vietnam's "most atmospheric and delightful" town according to the guidebook. The photo above shows train SE1 snaking round the coast on the Reunification Line. Shortly after the USA finally caved in to International outrage at their campaign in Vietnam, leaving the South to fight alone, thousands of ARVN soldiers pushed to Saigon without much resistance. The following year in 1976, trains once again began running from Hanoi to Saigon (renamed Hi Chi Minh City) for the first time in over 20 years, unifying the country. Haven't actually seen any reference of this name at any station though.

After an uneventful flight from Busan I had an hour to wait for Passepartout Emma. We had booked a tour of Halong Bay for the following day so rather than have an early start we got a bus from the airport to Hanoi then straight onto another one for the journey to Hạ Long City. This should have taken 2.5-5 hours according to the guidebook. As is often the case in places like this we went into the bus station and were faced with about 30 counters of different bus operators, about half of which advertised services to Hạ Long. We went for one in the middle and paid an extra ₫20,000 (about 70p) for a "V.I.P Express" bus. This took around 6 hours and stopped to pick up anyone that waved vaguely at the driver, even on a 4 lane road that looked like a motorway! We also picked up over 5,000 eggs (in the unlikely event my quick counting and maths was correct) amongst other cargo. We took the bus because the train only runs once a day and goes at 04:55. On the way back however.... despite our Halong Bay tour guide practically begging us not to use it, we took the train!...

Train 51502 - The ONLY train that links one of the 7 natural wonders of the world with the nation's capital departs daily at 13:45. How it came to have such a number when there are only about 20 trains in the entire country I have absolutely no idea. Anyway, given that this is one of the most well trodden routes in Vietnam, it's surprising that this train NEVER carries tourists! This might be because at 7 hours, it takes more than double the time of the fastest bus and has the most uncomfortable seats on the planet! The journey starts at the rather grand, modern and completely deserted station building that was meant to be the terminus of a new multi million dollar route from Hanoi, before the project ran out of money. The train was formed of three very elderly carriages, only one of which has seats and a 20 year old Chinese built diesel locomotive that looked capable of pulling a train about a hundred times bigger! Fares are calculated by the weight and type of luggage (see photo), although despite having big rucksacks we were charged the passenger only fare of ₫80,000 (about £2:70) each. Not sure if she was a member of staff or just a regular, but we got treated to a couple of hours of Kareoke on the trains tannoy system from one lady, and another kept us fed and watered. The two or three passengers that remained on board for more than the first hour all slept in hammocks rather than using the seats!! The train barely went above 20mph for the first 5 hours and when it finally joined the main line at Kép and picked up speed, we were the only passengers for the final leg of the journey to Hanoi.

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Oh and the overnight boat tour of Halong Bay itself? That was great but this is meant to be about trains! The bay contains over 2,000 little islands and islets (although official Vietnamese figures state 1,969 to mark the year of Ho Chi Minh's death) and no photo can really do the scale and beauty of the place justice. We were on a tour with 14 others including some Spanish, Canadian, Australian and French tourists. We spent the night on the boat and got the chance to go kayaking and swimming in the bay.

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We only had one day in our tight schedule to explore Hanoi so after a few hours in bed to allow our spines to recover a bit we got up early and started by visiting Hi Chi Minh's mausoleum where his embalmed body lies in state for anyone to walk past, which was very strange. Then on to the "Maison Centrale" former prison, built and used by the French during colonial times, hence the name but later used to house POW's during the 60's and 70s. It was humbling to learn about the amazing treatment and hospitality given to the American forces despite the appalling atrocities that were happening at the time. They were even given a choice of souvenirs after the ceasefire in 1973. After that we tried our first coconut coffee then onto a market. A quick look round a couple of temples then up one of the skyscrapers for what would have given a great bird's eye view and sunset if hadn't been for the smog! Dinner at an all you can eat veggie buffet (just ₫80,000 each) was excellent then just time to have a couple of beers at a bar on the corner of "Train Street" where you're so close you could touch passing trains which trundle down one of the famous narrow backstreets while dogs snooze unconcerned just a few inches from the track. Back to the hotel to collect the bags for the 22:20 train South.

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The 27 hour journey to Đà Nẵng on train SE1 was fairly uneventful until the last 2 hours when the train slowed right down and pottered round the coast on rickety looking bridges with big waves crashing underneath. I wasted most of the good views trying and failing to get a decent photo! There was a lot of conflicting information online about buses but Google maps showed a bus running every 20 minutes from a bit of a walk away so we gave that a go and one turned up within a short while. The journey to Hội An took about 90 mins. It's one of those places that comes with a warning in guidebooks that, although beautiful it can be ruined by the hordes of tourists. Thankfully for us, the place is absolutely deserted. I read the other day that tourist numbers across SE Asia as a whole are down by around 50% and it really shows here. We are staying about 4 miles out of the main centre and all the restaurants are tiny family run places and we have been feeling really sorry for them. Last night we counted 4 in a row without a single customer at what would be the busiest time of the evening. Anyway, it's nice for us. Hội An is like the Keralan backwaters, Venice and the Far East all rolled into one with a nice beach thrown in.

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After 4 nights here with bit of touring round and a bit of beach time, tomorrow morning we are back on the Reunification Line to Ho Chi Minh City where, unfortunately the tracks run out! From there we start heading properly North for the first time since Belarus - on to Cambodia, hopefully using a boat on the Mekong rather than a bus the whole way, fingers crossed!

Posted by around129 02:07 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Seoul Searching

sunny 13 °C
View Around the World in 129 Days on around129's travel map.

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It appears that the poor pun headlines are a thing now, sorry!

The flight from Ulaanbaatar provided some incredible views of the Gobi Desert. It took off at sunrise and there were clear skies all the way so that was really nice. I landed at Incheon airport which was over an hour by train from the city centre.

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As well as being one of the cleanest cities I have ever been to, Seoul was an interesting place. What history was left after the war has been carefully restored while being surrounded by an endless mass of super modern skyscrapers. I had a couple of lazy days doing not very much followed by a couple of sightseeing days. Evidence of the virus was everywhere. About 95% of people were wearing facemasks and regular announcements on the Metro system urged passengers to wear them although the authorities seemed to have stopped just short of making it obligatory as many cities in China have done. Based on most available information saying they are likely to have very little effect compared to regular hand washing, I didn't wear one, until this evening when a member of staff in the restaurant I was in brought one to my table and urgently advised me to wear it when I got back on the bus. I put it on to be polite! Everywhere stinks of hand sanitizer! Many museums were closed and those that were open were not running organised tours. Places that were open were absolutely deserted. I can only assume that a lot of tourists usually come from China, along with it being out of season. Everywhere I went I walked past long empty queuing lines and went straight to the ticket desk. It sounds really daft but I actually started to find the masks a bit depressing by the time I left! It was a little unsettling to hardly see another human face for 4 days! In Busan, probably only around 50% of people were wearing them.

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I feel like up to now I have survived without any major traveller #epicfails but on my first night in Seoul that came to an end! I got the exchange rate muddled up! I had read that the portions at the restaurant I had picked were smaller than average and seeing the prices I assumed it was a sort of tapas thing, Korean style! So I ordered 3 plates of food from the bewildered looking waitress who brought an absolute mountain of food back 15 minutes later! It turned out I had mis-placed the comma (It's about ₩1,500 to the £) and was actually spending 10 times what I thought I was! Thankfully it was still only £16 and she was quite happy to box it up for me! I also tried to tip which I now know is a big no no in Korea, bordering on offensive in fact.

In the interest of flying as little as possible, I have booked my flight to get me back on the planned route from the Southern port city of Busan where I have been for the last 3 days. The flight from here is a whole 15 minutes shorter than from Seoul and it was a nice excuse to go on a train! The train journey on KoRail's KTX high speed train was pleasant. As you might expect from the far East, public transport works here. It's so good it's almost boring! I picked up a tourist "t-money" smart card when I arrived at the airport. It came attached to a map of all Korea's Metro systems and have been able to use it on buses, Metros, trams and even some shops and vending machines in both Seoul and Busan. The older KTX trains use the same type of rolling stock as the French TGVs and the original Eurostar sets which felt strange! Each first class carriage boasted it's own mini library!

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Busan is nice. Small compared to Seoul but still huge and mainly massive, modern tower blocks. I could almost touch the restaurant I went to last night from the hotel room but it I had to go down 21 floors in one lift, cross the street and back up another 9 floors to get to it. I'm not sure I could live like this! Being on the coast though, pebble beaches and nice views were just a short walk or bus journey away.

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I'll be glad to get back on my planned route tomorrow and back to ground transport! I'm on flight VJ981 from Gimhae International to Noi Bai International in Hanoi where I am due to meet Passepartout Emma again!

Three things I didn't know about South Korea last week:

1) You need a degree to work out how to clean your bottom
2) Eating noisily is acceptable, encouraged in fact. If you're eating quietly you're suffering in silence and could upset your host! Believe me, this is true. I probably failed to hide my looks of disgust on my first night, then I Googled it!!
3) Apart from a few tiny island nations, SK is the only country in the world which does not have full navigational functionality on Google maps due to concerns over security. Even the neighboring DPRK has it! Just zoom in on the area now and you'll see the mapping in the South looks slightly different to everywhere else. Walking and driving directions don't work at all. It's amazing what Google maps has done for travel. Nowhere feels scary or alien anymore and you can easily navigate your way around a new city in seconds. It's been a bit tricky getting used to being without it this week!

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Posted by around129 03:13 Archived in South Korea Comments (3)

UlaanbaaTOUR

sunny -21 °C

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Had a wander round Ulaanbaatar today. The climate is really wierd. Probably the coldest place I have ever been but walking around you don't feel it because it's so dry. There was deep snow the whole journey from Moscow apart from the last couple of hours into UB. For a capital city it felt almost deserted, although it was a Saturday in Winter, maybe that was the reason. About 70% of pedestrians wore facemasks. I'm not sure if this was because of the virus or because of the poor air quality the city is famous for. Beard was getting out of hand so when I saw a sign in English T10,000 (about £2:80) I went in. Apparently though this was the Mongolian price and I was charged double! Still very cheap though. The lady that owned the place used to work in CityGent in Altrincham!

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The square opposite the state department store is known locally as Beatles Square!

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So from here: I have left it absolutely as late as possible but flying is unfortunately necessary. I'm gutted partly because it was meant be a no fly trip and also because the route from here to Beijing is meant to be the most interesting so far. You even get views of the great wall.

Flights South from here are quite limited and there are no flights at all from Mongolia to Vietnam. Any flights that might have gone via China are either cancelled or involve a self transfer meaning a Chinese passport stamp, something which I might as well now avoid if I can help it. The only place in Southeast Asia I could fly to is Bangkok and that's later in the trip so don't want to do that, so the next best place is Seoul.

I have to admit, even though I'm gutted to be flying for the first time in ages, I've only flown once on my own before, it's from an unusual airport on an unusual airline to a country a didn't know I was going to until yesterday morning so I am quite excited! This morning I had to commit a John Midgley cardinal sin and take a taxi to the airport as I don't think there was a bus early enough. I'm now waiting for MIAT Mongolian Airways Flight OM301 which will get me to South Korea in 3 hours.

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Posted by around129 14:27 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

End of the Line!

sunny -22 °C

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I have arrived at Ulaanbator (UB as it's called round here), the coldest capital city in the world. Last week the temperature dropped to around -33C! Today it's expected to reach an unseasonably mild high of -7C! Just 3 changes of train from London St. Pancras (would have been 2 if the TransMongolian had run) has got me 5,611 miles and I'm now just a few degrees further West than the East coast of Australia, where I won't arrive for well over a month! Sadly though the train journey has come to a premature end because of the situation in China. The photo above is of the Mongolian diesel loco that did the last 150 miles or so.

After saying goodbye to Emma at the hotel, John came with me to do a bit of shopping and to see me off from Yarolsavski station. Russian Railways Train number 2 "Rossiya" was waiting on track 1. Much to the annoyance of my provodnitsa (guard/carriage attendant), I boarded the train which was to be home for 4 and a half days just a minute or two before departure and found my compartment. I opted for a first class 2 berth compartment but ended up being the only occupant for the whole journey. My roomie was meant to get on at Kirov, 12 hours from Moscow but they never turned up. The rest of the coach was made up of two Russian couples, 4 Americans who kept themselves to themselves, a Swedish couple and a pair of posh Londoners who were up making a lot of noise until about 4am on the first night.

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Everyone kept asking me if I was going to get bored. I can honestly say, I didn't get bored at all! I have loved travelling by sleeper train ever since my first one from Paris to Munich about 10 years ago (the now withdrawn City Night Line service run by Deutsche Bahn). But the one downside is worrying about getting enough sleep to enjoy the day ahead or, depending on the route and country, having to worry about getting up in time for your stop. No issue like that here! There is something fantastic about not having anything to get up for and having nowhere to go. One of the ways I have been passing time is watching the now 30 year old TV series of Michael Palin's Around The World in 80 Days and can't help feeling really jealous at the relative ease in which he turned up at ports and arranged passage on cargo ships all over the world. Things are very different 30 years later.

In just 80 hours, the Rossiya took me 3189 miles, travelling through 6 timezones in constantly sub-zero temperatures with amazing punctuality. During the entire journey the biggest delay arriving at a station was just 3 minutes. This is just as well, because I had a relatively tight connection onto train 306 to UB.

Talking of timezones... One qwerk of the TransSiberian that I was quite looking forward to was that in the past, regardless of where you were on the route, trains and stations ran to Moscow time. So if you were leaving from Vladivostok in the far East, the time printed on your ticket and shown on the station clock would be 7 hours different from the time on your watch! This system was dropped only a year or so ago. I did get a feel for the reason for the old system on one night though, when I tried to arrange my dinner in the restaurant car for 18:30. This was flatly refused, despite the restaurant being empty and I later wondered if this was because we were due to move forward an hour at 18:00 and 18:30 wasn't going to happen that day!

Train 306 was already waiting at Irkutsk when I arrived, but I had time to top up on bottled water and noodles from one of the platform stalls. All Russian trains have a samovar at the end of the carriage where you can get boiling water whenever you want, so all station stalls are well stocked with instant coffee, noodles and Cup a Soup etc! This train was made up of 6 much older carriages than the last one so only 4 plugs for everyone on board, no shower and no restaurant. But it was still kept spotlessly clean by the provodnitsa who spent all day walking up and down with different cloths and dusters! Like the train I took with Jack from Bucharest to Chisinau last year, the heating on the older stock is still coal fired which wafts a lovely smell down every now and then that makes it feel like you're on a steam train, despite it being pulled by a relatively modern electric loco!

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The train left Irkutsk bang on time at around sunrise and for almost the entire first 7 hours of the journey there were stunning views as it skirted the South end of the completely frozen Lake Baikal (which is as big as Belgium according to Lonely Planet!). It was quite hilly at this point and the train had to slow right down to navigate some hairpin bends. It's the first time I've noticed any sizeable hills since Poland! A few miles from Ulan-Ude, my long journey East which started in Paris over a week ago came to an end as the train took a definite turn to the right and started heading South towards the Mongolian border.

I was quite nervous at this point as I only have a transit visa for Mongolia which is valid for three days and when I applied for it I had to say which border crossings I was using. Sadly I'm now going to be using Chinggis Khaan International Airport, rather than the train checkpoint at Zamiin-Uud on the Chinese border. The checks leaving Russia were even more thorough than when entering Belarus. I was visited by no less than 5 different people and the room was searched 4 times! Twice with dogs (one of which, a massive alsacian put it's two front paws on the bed and seemed to take a liking to my jeans), once by immigration and once by customs. My passport was returned and the train trundled about 10 miles to the other side of the border where the Mongolians had their fun. This time, 5 seperate people came to ask questions and one also checked my temperature!Thankfully they seemed a lot more interested in checking my health questionnaire than the type of visa I had! The whole process, to cross one border took around 4 hours. Just before setting off several people got on offering to exchange money. This sounds a bit dodgy but I had already read that it was very common and the rate offered wasn't horrendous. So 3,000 Russian rubles became 115,000 Mongolian tögrög. By then it was around Midnight so I went to bed and I was woken this morning by the provodnitsa 15 minutes before rolling into Ulaanbator's main station spot on time. I got a bus to the city centre and I got here just in time for breakfast!!

Posted by around129 16:05 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

TransNoGolian Express

snow 1 °C

No pretty photos on this one. Sad entry!
I was just about to post that, subject to acquiring facemasks (nobody is allowed on the Metro or in taxis in Beijing without one), I was going to set off for China as planned. Sadly though I have just received an email to let me know that Train 4 from Moscow to Beijing departing tomorrow is cancelled. As it is a Chinese train, it will be running but it won't allow anyone to board which is even more frustrating! The Mongolia China border remains open, as does the China Vietnam border.
So after years of planning, what was meant to be a round the world trip without flying will definitely involve some flying, there is simply no way round a massive country like China unless I can find another month or two (and probably a camel)!! So I will just have to make the best of it. I will try to stick as close to the route as possible and fly as few miles as possible.
So... a train (Russian Railways train 2) leaves Moscow for Vladivostok in... 5 hours(!) and I have a ticket for it! Sadly I can't stay on it all the way because my Russian visa will expire before it gets there. I'm going to get off at Irkutsk and after a 5 day 5,000+km journey hopefully make a 30 minute connection on to train 306 to Ulaanbaatar/Ulan Bator. All being well I should arrive there on Saturday morning around 3am UK time and I will need to get a flight before Monday as I only have a 3 day transit visa for Mongolia. So an update on Saturday hopefully!

P.S - Sadly this means saying goodbye to passepartout Emma a few hours earlier so I have to thank her for letting me go and leave her in Moscow for a few hours! Just as sadly, passepartout John has made the (understandable) decision to abandon the train altogether and fly directly to Tokyo to continue his trip there. There are very few people I would contemplate sharing a tiny train compartment with for what would have been a 7 day journey to Beijing and I will really miss his company to UB. Best of luck on your travels though John.
P.P.S - Have to thank Gaby in Chengdu who has been answering all my annoying messages and giving me idea of what it's actually like in China and how everything is operating. Also Real Russia and China DIY Travel have been absolutely outstanding during what must have been a really busy couple of weeks for them. I normally hate using travel agencies as I feel I'm paying someone to do what I could do myself, but I would definitely recommend either of these if you need to book train tickets in Russia or China.

Posted by around129 06:37 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

China? I really MOSCOW!

overcast -1 °C

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Just a quick update from Moscow! After 2,164 miles (the second longest direct passenger service in Europe according to seat61.com), we slid into Belorussky station a couple of minutes early, as unassuming as if we had just done a quick journey in from the suburbs! Photo is of the RDZ electric loco that did the final stretch. Border formalities at Brest went ok. On the Polish side they had a good laugh at us about Brexit (with just 3 hours to go) and looked at us like one might at someone who had just been thrown out of a nice bar for turning up in scruffy jeans and a t-shirt. Once they had stopped laughing the "bye bye" was definitely a little pointed. On the Balarussian side we were scalded for not scoring through a Not Applicable section of our immigration cards and had our room tipped upside down. But the visas were stamped and we were in our way. As expected, no checks between Belarus and Russia. Shortly after the border check into Belarus, the carriages were shunted to a shed with us still on board to have the wheels changed to run on the Russian system.

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Straight onto the Moscow Metro which is an experience in itself. No photo can really do it justice but at every station we have seen so far it's more like walking round a palace than a subway system. Each with their own character and spotlessly clean.

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After a freshen up at the hotel we went straight to Red Square where it was difficult to get any decent photos of the buildings because of all the Christmas decorations and markets! We think from a sign we saw they are here from 21st December until mid-March!

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Continuing to agonise over the route from here. Both borders in and out of China are currently open and both train routes are running. Singapore, Australia and the USA (all countries en-route) have barred "recent" visitors from China. From what I can tell "recent" means within the last fortnight so that won't affect me. If anyone sees or hears anything different, please let me know, thankyou! After so much planning, flying unnecessarily is unthinkable but I don't want to risk getting stuck for a month!

Thanks for the comments. Pun of the week award to Ray and Elizabeth!

Next update on Tuesday hopefully!

Posted by around129 08:58 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

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