A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: around129

The Great Escape: A Journey Through HEL

sunny 10 °C

Good morning subscribers (and those of you that have found this by mistake, to you I apologise). There's not a lot to see in this post. If you have decided all this sitting around and doing nothing is a good time to read War and Peace, I would suggest you go back to that.

I just double checked and at the last update we were in Jakarta the morning after arriving from Batam Island on the Kelud. After waving the phone around at what I thought was the WiFi transmitter thingy to upload all the photos, it was about 10:30 and I was looking forward to a wander round the city. Passepartout Jack kindly agreed to have a copy of Lonely Planet Indonesia delivered to him which he brought to me in Thailand. I wondered if it was a bit of a waste buying a guidebook for such a vast country that I was likely to see so little of. My concerns were erased however when I read the description of the huge (132m) obelisk at the centre of Merdeka Square as architect Frederich Silaban's "final erection" and I knew my money had been well spent. It is known more formally as The National Monument and commemorates the struggle for independence from the Dutch. Sadly however, after waiting in a bus shelter for about 20 minutes for a thunderstorm to pass, I spent another 20 minutes trying to get somewhere near it but sadly there were wooden construction hoardings all around the square and a security guard eventually told me the site was closed. I managed to stand on a wall to get a photo and assumed that the closure was just due to the construction work and thought nothing of it. Next I tried to visit the museum of the National Bank of Indonesia which, according to LP claimed to have examples of virtually every currency on earth, as well as a history of the country "from a financial perspective". Sadly though when I got there I found this to be closed also. The museum is in an area called Kota, the old colonial heart of the city and my next stop was the main Fatahillah Square. Once again though I was turned away by security staff at the edge of the square. I went to a café to get some WiFi and found out that, while I was on the ferry and disconnected from everything, all tourist sights had been ordered to close for two weeks. Shortly after returning to the hotel, the media began to report that the government was poised to impose a state of emergency for the Greater Jakarta area, with the bulk of the measures to come into force at Midnight on Monday, just a few hours after I was due to leave! Although the restrictions weren't yet in place, I thought it would be a little hypocritical of me to be persuading friends and family back home to stick to the government's measures to slow the spread of the virus then go wandering around a city that was about to be shut down. I confined myself to the hotel for most of the day on Saturday, only leaving to go for a walk to a restaurant in the evening. When I returned to the hotel I learned that Emirates had announced they would stop flying on most routes by Wednesday 25th, with some exceptions including the UK and Australia. I was due to fly from Denpasar on Tuesday night.

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The next day it was time for my first train journey in over a week! Madness! PT Kerata Api's train number 4, named along with some other services on the route as "Argo Bromo Anggrek" (Bromo Orchid) departed from Jakarta Gambir station spot on time at 08:15. Using social distancing as a perfect excuse, I decided to splash out on a seat in Executive Luxury Class, the best there is. As you can hopefully see from the photos, they have clearly tried to copy the business class airline style set up and in my opinion have succeeded fantastically! For the sort of money people pay for 1st class in the UK, this is what they should be getting! The seat is adjustable and reclines fully to turn into a flatbed with the decent, clean pillow provided. I got a good, hot meal and three drinks during the journey and there is an entertainment system which mostly worked! The 9 hour journey to Pasar Yuri station in the East Javan city of Surabaya passed in no time at all with lots of interesting and varied scenery along the way.

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As I had a very early start the next day I booked a hotel right outside the city's other station, Surabaya Gubeng where I would catch the next train. Train 337 "Probowangi" departed on time at 04:25. No Executive Luxury Class here, just Economy. The train was busy at first but got quieter and quieter throughout the 7 hour journey to Ketapang terminus, just North of the town of Banyuwangi.

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Leaving the train was the first time I noticed the dramatic effect of the sudden drop in visitor numbers. Only a handful of passengers got off and I reckon I was the only tourist. There must have been enough cycle rickshaws for one each and almost as many taxis waiting, each with a glum looking driver. I felt bad not taking one but the walk to the ferry is only about 5 minutes. I had to buy a smart card and have it loaded at one counter then go to a second counter to provide ID which was used to print a paper ticket (making the smart card seem a little pointless) and have my card debited. I walked through the large, deserted waiting area and straight out to the jetty where one of the ferries (the Rajawali Nusantara) was just pulling in. Men in hazmat suits sprayed the wheels of the few cars that left the ferry with disinfectant, before, without warning turning the hoses on me and the other couple of foot passengers getting on! Up on the top deck it was possible to see the dozens of other ferries lined up, many made temporarily redundant by the virus. Although I had never been there before, it was strangely depressing to see the place like this knowing that it would normally be really busy with locals and holidaymakers. This article in the English newspaper The Jakarta Post describes the grave situation Bali faces. 80% of the island's GDP comes from tourism and the majority of the 4 million inhabitants will have little or no back up income. The gloomy scene was completed by the weather turning from bright blue sky to a torrential downpour as the ferry set off for the 30 minute crossing to Gilimanuk. The bus station was just a couple of minutes walk away and there was a minibus (usually called minivans here) waiting already. Clearly hoping for more passengers, we hung around and eventually left 12 minutes late with me the only one. More passengers were picked up along the way though during the 4 hour 125km journey to Bali's capital, Denpasar.

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Concerned about the news with Emirates and things changing by the day, before booking a hotel I went straight to the airport to see if there was any chance of changing to that night's flight. When I got down to the Emirates customer service office however it was clear from the crowd that something wasn't quite right! A sign on the door of the office said that all Emirates flights would cease with immediate effect, no mention of the date of 25th widely reported in the press. I still hadn't received an email. When I got to the desk the staff confirmed that both my flights (Denpasar to Dubai & Dubai to Manchester) would be cancelled. That night's flight was going to run, but the connection to Manchester was cancelled. No alternatives would be provided and passengers were simply advised to find other flights. The only way to be put on the waiting list to board was to show another flight booking from Dubai (which I wouldn't end up using if there didn't end up being space). Cue a slight sinking feeling, but a transport problem is a transport problem to be solved and I was already relishing the challenge! While everyone was standing around shouting at the staff and shouting at each other, I managed to book seats on a route from Jakarta the following day with Etihad via Abu Dhabi. It was more than double the price of my original booking, but options were becoming limited. The UAE government had announced measures that would ground all planes by 25th so it seemed I would be on the very last flight from the UAE to the UK, one of the busiest and most lucrative routes in the World, for the foreseeable future. How exciting!

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Feeling a pain in the savings account but glad to have a new plan I took a Moto taxi to a nearby hotel and once settled in, booked one of the many flights per day from Denpasar to Jakarta. By now it was around Midnight and I had been up since 03:50 to catch the train from Surabaya so I was pretty knackered. Tuesday morning - Checked in to both Etihad flights, sadly no window seats left. Being so close, the hotel ran a free shuttle bus to the airport so I took this at 11:00. At 12:50, my long and unwanted but necessary journey home began with Air Asia flight QZ7521 to Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) which arrived on time at around 13:50. The Airbus A320 (I forgot to check this, had to look it up!) was only about a third full.

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After landing I was straight on to the WiFi to check the status of my next two legs. Both running to time, so far so good. Had an hour wandering around the modern and very quiet terminal building before heading to the check in desks. I first realised something might be wrong, when the queue started going down very slowly, then when a group of Brits started shouting. I quickly refreshed the page I had open on FlightStats and both flights were running. To cut this already long story a little shorter: while I was in the air between Denpasar and Jakarta, the UAE government had introduced additional measures as a result of the virus, without any warning. The border had been closed to International visitors for several days, but passengers transiting through the airports (which make up a large proportion of passengers using Dubai and Abu Dhabi) were allowed. Unfortunately, with immediate effect, transit passengers were also banned. Only UAE passport holders would be allowed to board. Therefore a whopping great Boeing 777 departed with no more than about 20 passengers on board and I can only assume the connecting flight to London was equally quiet. Dozens of people there were in exactly the same position as me, having booked Emirates flights already and been abandoned, then booked the last remaining Etihad flights home. There was no Etihad representation whatsoever in Jakarta and the message from the airport's staff was the same - find your own alternatives. At 17:31, 4 minutes before I was due to take off, I got an email from Etihad advising me not to set off for the airport!

For the next 4 hours I sat on the floor in front of the check in desks with about 15-20 others, all trying to get to Europe, all on our phones looking for a new plan. One problem we were all facing was that virtually any journey that involved a self transfer was impossible because going through immigration would either not be allowed or would mean 14 days in quarantine. SkyScanner and other similar websites were useless because of the thousands of people in Asia and Australasia left stranded by Emirates and Etihad all searching for options at the same time! Using airline websites directly was working though. The only journey via reasonable route with one change was Qatar airways via Doha but these had surged in price to over 100million Rupiah (£5,000). A couple of people near me, virtually in tears, paid up! As I half suspected, within hours, these had dropped back to less than £2,000. Still obscene, but I hope for their sake the never looked back at the prices!!! I eventually settled on a journey I found on the Japan Airlines website via Tokyo and Helsinki, having double and triple checked that it was a through booking with no immigration checks required. Japan was strictly enforcing self quarantine measures but only for arrivals not transit passengers and the Finnish border was closed to non-residents but transit passengers were allowed. I said goodbye to my many new friends from France, Germany, Sweden and Poland brought together by our shared monumental pickle and checked in to the airport hotel in the adjacent terminal 2. The hotel was very 70s in design and had mild sweaty foot odour and a damp feel. It was a very odd layout. There were around 80 rooms set over the same floor, right round the terminal building with a corridor on one side. The walk to reception was about 4 minutes!! Bed number 29 since leaving London!

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I checked out as late as possible next day (12:00) and still had 7 and a half hours to kill before check in opened. I decided 2 hours was about the longest I could sit in a café per coffee, so I had two sittings with a wander round in between. I kept seeing people from the night before. Many had splashed out on the Doha option, some were staying put to wait for the foreign office to sort them out and one couple with a two year old toddler I was pleased to find out had booked exactly the same route as me after I told them I had been able to book it. They were on their way to (her) Mum's house in Stockport to self quarantine! They were really grateful that I told them about it and said I had saved them thousands as they were about to book the Qatar option for the three of them. This was really nice but I was now even more worried about it not working! Another small group had decided the best thing to do was get back on a plane to Bali, where beaches were now closed and the whole island was in an increasing state of lockdown. I thought this was really stupid, leaving the nation's capital to go back to an island that was shutting down and then expect to get help from there. Just a few days later, this article gives you an idea of what they are now facing. Recognise that red sign from my photo above!?

As check in time approached the nerves really started jangling! All day I was checking and double checking the situation in both Japan and Finland. From what I could gather, Japan was allowing transit passengers. The border in Finland was closed completely apart from to Finnish passport holders making essential journeys or those arriving that could prove Finnish residence. Transit passengers would only be allowed if they were transiting onto a flight to an EU nation of which they could prove residence. I had assumed the UK was included in this. I queued up in front of a group of 6 Brits who I had been with the night before. They were traveling business class and as a result had found an easier route home, going to Tokyo on the same one as me then direct to London. I got to the desk and watched as my passport was perused! A long time passed and a colleague was called! My heart sank! A shake of the head.... "Sir, you have recently been to Singapore, when did you leave?" With a Chinese visa unused but taking up a page in my passport I had already come across questions a couple of times on the trip so I had kept a careful record of my travel dates on my phone, which I showed them. They eventually found the exit stamp and then spent a while looking through a huge guide they had got on all the current restrictions. Eventually, to my massive relief the boarding passes started printing. Remember a fortnight ago when I left Singapore on the same day as Jack to improve my chances of being allowed into Australia? Well I couldn't possibly have known how it would pan out, but as it turned out that decision saved my bacon here. If I had left Singapore just a couple of hours later (and got an exit stamp for the following day) I would have got stopped. As the flight arrived in Japan after midnight, that gave me 14 days since leaving Singapore which was what was required. I hadn't even seen this restriction when I had been researching online. As I turned to leave the desk I gave a thumbs up to the group who all cheered, but when I told them what caused the delay they looked horrified! They had been in Singapore two days more recently than me. For the third time in three days they were denied boarding a flight they had just booked and were now thousands of pounds out of pocket. At 21:25 I finally left Indonesia on Japan Airlines flight JL726 for Narita International (NRT) in Tokyo, heading in completely the wrong direction, but I was glad to be moving again. The Boeing 787 was full mostly of Americans but also many Europeans using Tokyo as one of the last remaining transit points for flights home. Economy class was full when I booked so I had no choice but to pay for Premium Economy which gave me more leg room and a properly reclining seat which was very nice! The journey was around 7 hours.

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I had about 4 hours in Tokyo and my semi-posh ticket allowed me access to one of the lounges with free food and drink. Once again, once the crowds from my flight dispersed, it really felt oddly quiet. Most of the few flights that hadn't already been wiped off their schedules were showing as cancelled and many that were running were presumably not full because of border restrictions.

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Finally, I left the ground heading for Europe on Japan Airlines flight JL413 bound for Vantaa International (HEL), Helsinki. Another Boeing 787 and this time I had the ultimate luxury of not only having my slightly posher Premium Economy seat but also having the entire row to myself! I enjoyed a glass of champagne to celebrate the departure (I can't stand the stuff but it was free so why not?!) for the 10h 30m journey. It was probably miles off but I couldn't help but stare down at the snow dusted Siberian landscapes and trying to glimpse a train snaking it's way along. That all feels like a lifetime ago! (Note the route shown on the blog map above is nowhere near the actual flight route!)

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Arrived Helsinki spot on time, another eerily deserted airport. This time I had just an hour to connect onto Finn Air flight AY1337 to London. Although almost full when I chose my seat online, I would estimate the Airbus A321 was only about a third full, probably due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, Finnish borders are currently closed so most would not have been able to travel. After so many long train journeys on this trip, one of the them 5 days long, you would think this would have been a doddle! But this time I was in a cramped economy seat (I had quickly got used to the luxurious premium economy!!) with a bloke snoring his head off in front of me and the 3 hour journey really dragged! Despite this the flight was still quite interesting as the weather was perfect so there were some great views. There can't be many short haul flights that offer views of 5 capital cities. From leaving Helsinki there were stunning views of all the islands and islets in the Gulf of Finland and then there were views of Stockholm, Malmö, Copenhagen, Amsterdam in the distance before the final, wonderful treat of flying down the Thames Estuary into London. I have only ever flown into London in daytime once before and I remember how amazed I was then at how people just continued to read magazines or play on their phones with such wonderful views of the capital outside. People pay thousands and thousands of pounds for 30 minute pleasure flights in helicopters for this! There were fantastic views of the Olympic Stadium, The Emirates (gits), The O2 and Canary Wharf, Wembley Stadium and Windsor Castle. There were also unusual views of the Eastern and then Western stretches of the M25. Initially I was a little annoyed at seeing the amount of vehicles when we are meant to be in "lockdown". But then I remembered that this would normally be the evening rush hour and actually it would probably be more like a car park on any usual evening!

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Finally, 3 days after setting off from Denpasar and a total of 23 hours in the air, I touched down at a ghostly quiet London Heathrow. A lot has changed since I was last in the big smoke. For a start, it's not that smokey at the moment! When I set off I lived in the European Union, I worked for a company called Arriva Rail North (trading as "Northern") and society was functioning (or malfunctioning) just about as it normally as it always does. There were 6152 cases of a new type of Corona virus, mostly in Wuhan Province in Eastern China but there were also a handful in Europe and North America. The BBC's "Outside Source" that I watched on the flight from Tokyo that morning told me that more than a quarter of the World's population was now in lockdown and there were over half a million confirmed cases in 198 different countries.

With all the information I had been bombarded with on my travels over the last fortnight I was amazed that there was absolutely no sign that the UK was in the grip of a pandemic when I arrived at the country's busiest airport. Even as far back as Bangkok I couldn't even get into my hotel room without having my temperature checked. In fact the first time there was any sign was when I arrived at Terminals 1,2, 3 Underground Station where there were regular announcements pleading with people to avoid unnecessary journeys and practice social distancing. The message seems to have got through. The underground was very quiet and King's Cross station even more so. I had a little pang of sadness when I reached Piccadilly Circus and realised I was retracing my steps from two months ago when I had just left the Reform Club and had started my long journey. With a limited service between Leeds and Huddersfield, the quickest way for me to get home was to use the Grand Central service to Brighouse then two buses to Holmfirth. The 5 carriage class 180 from London had just 4 passengers on and I had both buses to myself!

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So there we are, back home after the most epic of #epicfails in the history of flightless circumnavigation! I have really tried not to whinge too much as I know that millions of people around the world are going to suffer terrible hardships as a result of Covid-19, if not directly from the virus itself then from the socioeconomic fallout, the effects of which could felt for decades to come in some places. I on the other hand have enjoyed seeing some of Asia's most incredible sights and experiences while they have been nowhere near as busy as they normally would. Knowing deep down from the moment I set off that the outbreak was likely to have some impact on the trip, I haven't actually been too upset about it all until I started to un-pick the hours of planning by cancelling hotels that could be cancelled and looking into getting my money back from train operators, cruise lines and now airlines.

So where next? Well, until a couple of weeks ago I was confident about being able to fly to Vancouver where the Noordam was due to drop me off and pick up the trip from there. But with Trump's apparent shockingly nonchalant attitude towards the situation and the fact that the USA already has more cases than China, it's looking increasingly unlikely. As soon as I failed to make it into China though to make myself feel better I started plotting a trip by rail all the way from Huddersfield to the "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea. Yes, with the right planning it is possible to travel all the way to Pyongyang by train!! If that ever comes off I will leave the blog open so you can track (no pun intended) my progress. If you have had enough though, feel free to unsubscribe, I won't be offended (but if I know where you live, watch out!) I am now beginning two weeks of voluntary (Unbelievably the UK government are one of the few not making it mandatory for international arrivals) self-isolation. I'm not even going close to Emma! Can't wait for this to be over so the three of us can go for a walk!

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(stock photo!!!)

So, how to sign it off? Well ever since it became clear that I would have to fly home I was considering putting a load of guff about how air travel is shite and how it will never be the same as travelling by train, how you never make the same friends and meet the same sort of interesting people. Sadly though, I have never felt the same sort of warm friendship of strangers and camaraderie as I felt during my 32 hours stranded in Jakarta airport. Having said that I stand by the fact that air travel will never have the same pleasures that rail travel has of being able to actually see the country you are visiting from the comfort of your seat. Those hours and hours of mini snapshots into people's lives and cultures you just don't get when arriving at a characterless airport in the middle of nowhere just never get boring. There is also the catastrophic environmental cost of air travel to consider and, while this trip may have only served to prove that traveling round the world without flying is tricky, it's getting easier and easier to travel great distances across Europe by train. More and more people are choosing to spend a day at either end of their holiday traveling to reduce the environmental impact of their trip. Whenever me and Emma have done it I just see it as a part of the holiday (although admittedly I think Emma just tolerates it!) Anyway this seems like a good chance to give The Man In Seat 61 a bit of a plug. Run by former British Rail station manager Mark Smith, it's an incredible resource for the flightless traveler. Through his clear step by step instructions backed up with photos he has a knack of being able to make a journey even as far as Singapore seem as straightforward as booking a weekend away in Edinburgh! I'm almost certain that without the hours I have spent trawling through this website alone, I wouldn't have attempted this trip.

So I'll finish with a couple of quotes. The first is the opening line of Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days, one of the books that first fuelled my passion for flightless travel. The second I feel sums up not just this trip but all the long rail trips I have attempted. Thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed it and I hope you and your families stay virus free!

"The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I'm glad to say I suffer from it"!

"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson

Posted by around129 02:37 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet....

...Yes I would, if I only I Kelud.

all seasons in one day 31 °C

Good morning from Jakarta! The title of this entry is the 2nd in a row to come from the quill of Passepartout Jack, any complaints should be sent his way. If like me you're not sure - it's a Simon and Garfunkel line!

On our first morning in Singapore we had breakfast in Chinatown followed by a walk around the Gardens By the Bay including a treetop walk which provided some stunning sea views and views towards the Marina Bay Sands buildings. This iconic development which is three skyscrapers with a large top one or two floors in the shape of a ship that connect all three was the finish line of the excellent first series of Race Across The World last year. So many cargo ships on view, if only I could just get on one! On that subject: Ever since my cargo ship journey was confirmed as caput, I had fully intended on asking around at Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore and Jakarta's seaports for a lift or even enquiring directly at the offices of the shipping lines I know have routes to Freemantle from here. But the more news I read the more I thought that any slim chance I had was probably gone. No captain would be stupid enough to expose their crew to the additional risk of allowing me on at this time. With this decision made in my head I actually started to look forward to the Air Asia flight I booked as a backup a few weeks ago from the island of Lombok, just East of Bali to Perth. Anyway, after looking up at it for an hour or two we decided to splash out and have an expensive drink (which predictably became two expensive drinks) at the top of the Marina Bay Sands towers. Again, the views made it well worth the money. As you can see from some of the roads in the photos, Singapore seems very quiet. We didn't have anything to judge it against obviously but I'm sure it would normally be much busier. We always got a seat on the Metro and the bars and hotels were all quiet as well.

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On day two we had a leisurely start before a walk round the famous Botanical Gardens. Part of this is meant to show the sort of jungle environment that would have covered the entire island a century ago, which is slightly depressing as it's now down to a mere acre or two! The centrepiece is the orchid garden, but we were too tightfisted to pay to go in! Next, Orchard Road, one of the main shopping streets where we visited a branch of Marks and Spencers to replace a pair of my shorts which had given up the ghost in incredible fashion in Kuala Lumpur. I don't know what I expected but I didn't think it would be absolutely exactly like it is in the UK! It wasn't quiet either! For lunch we went to an area called Little India and had one of the best (and cheapest) meals of the trip so far. Jack had a mutton curry and I had fish. They came with all the trimmings and as though to ensure the true and authentic experience I had a bit of Delhi belly the following day!
In the afternoon we visited the Asian Civilisations Museum. Whilst there I received the news that New Zealand were insisting that all international arrivals self-isolate for 14 days. This was a significant development and I hoped Australia wouldn't follow suit, at least not for another fortnight. Afterwards we spent our final hour or so together at another rooftop bar this time admiring the Marina Bay Sands towers from the other side and hoping the bill for this drink wouldn't be as big as the one we got up there! Apologies, it appears I didn't bother to take any photos whatsoever that day! *EDIT 21/03 - Just checked the credit card bill - turns out it was bigger!!

As I explained in the last post, I had decided to leave that day as it would give me 15 clear days between leaving Singapore and arriving in Australia, so if the Australians did add Singapore to the list alongside Iran, Italy and China, I would be ok. I thought my geographical knowledge was pretty good but I didn't realise until last week that all that would be required to get my exit stamp was a 55 minute journey to the Indonesian Island of Batam, less than 10 miles away across the Singapore Straight. Jack's flight home wasn't until the early hours so I had booked the 21:40 crossing, the last one of the day. In order to spend as much time at the bar (er I mean with Jack) as possible we set off towards the port quite last minute. I said goodbye to Jack at Tanah Merah MRT (Metro) station where he changed trains to head towards the airport and I changed for a bus to take me to the ferry terminal. I arrived at the terminal at 20:40, exactly the time specified on my confirmation email, which was great... or it would have been if I had been at the correct terminal. Everything looked closed up and there was nothing on the departure board. The staff in the BatamFast office were less than helpful but eventually told me that the 21:40 sailing goes from the terminal near Sentosa island, about 8 miles away and only about 1 mile from where we had been drinking an hour earlier! Luckily there was some WiFi so I quickly booked a taxi using the GRAB app and thankfully Singapore's excellent road network helped me greatly (half of the journey seemed to be in tunnels)! I dashed through the shopping centre that I was dropped off at hoping that following signs for the "Cruise Terminal" was the right thing to do! I made it to the correct BattamFast office at 21:08 and to my relief was handed a ticket and directed towards the immigration area! Despite surely looking just like someone with a fever, dripping with sweat and knackered, they let me through the health screening and I used the automatic gates for passport control. I boarded a clean modern fast boat named "ASIANFAST 1" just before it pulled away.

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Batam Island is a strange place. Travel blogger Peter Alexander who has very kindly been passing on tips and words of wisdom since I left the UK warned me that it might not be a terribly safe place for a Westerner to be. He tells me that about 30 years ago there was virtually nothing but jungle here, before someone came up with the bright idea of creaming off some of it's near neighbor's success by attracting day trippers and weekenders to shop in the hastily built malls and stay at 4 and 5* hotels at a fraction of the cost of those over the water. According to the WikiTravel page it is known as the "production leg of Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle". Unfortunately, all this created an Asian version Milton Keynes and the rapid development came with high crime levels perhaps associated with tourists looking for slightly seedier things than a cut price H&M. Anyway after passing through Indonesian immigration with Peter's warning on my mind, I splashed out and took a ticket from the pre-paid taxi counter at the over glamorously named "Batam Center International Terminal" at a cost of Rp75,000 (£4:03). I had cashed in 3 of my reward nights so my stay at the 4* Best Western hotel cost me next to nothing. As I connected to WiFi I learned that the USA had, as expected extended it's travel ban to include visitors travelling from the UK. UK citizens that had not been in the UK for 2 weeks would be exempt it seemed.

The morning after I faced my next mini-challenge in securing a booking on the once weekly ferry to Jakarta run by the state shipping company PELNI Lines. I had read numerous reported failures online of people trying to book through the website so wanted to give it a go! After about 10 minutes I had my reservation! The ferry was at 15:00 on Wednesday 18th. However that's not the end of the process as the website does not accept payment. Instead you have three hours to take your reservation code to a branch of one of the three listed shops and pay. The first two shops I tried didn't seem to know anything about it, but the third, after some persuasion said they could do it but only in cash. Back from the ATM I secured my booking with 1hr 6 minutes remaining, but a little concerned I had handed over a wad of cash and only got a tiny scrap of a receipt to show for it! Feeling very pleased with myself I left the shop and went to stand outside a Starbucks to get some WiFi and order a moto-taxi to take me back to the hotel. Once connected I got three messages from different people each giving me the news I was dreading. "Australia to order all international arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days". In order to catch the train from Perth I would need to arrive in Australia within 11 hours and lock myself in a room for two weeks! The game was finally up.

Over the next two days I frantically looked to see if there was any way out of the situation but emails were arriving! The first was from Holland America line, operator of the MS Noordam, my lift to Vancouver. This was the one leg of the journey that the whole trip had been planned around because once a year the Noordam moves between Australasia where it spends half it's time to North America where it spends the rest of it touring Alaska. As it's essentially a ship relocation move, fares are a fraction of the cost of other Pacific cruises (or they seemed to be when I booked early on). The email said that HAL had suspended all operations until 14th April, 2 days before the Noordam was meant to sail from Sydney with me on it. The next email came from Journeys Beyond Rail (previously Great Southern Rail) who operate the Indian Pacific train service from Perth to Sydney, refusing my refund request despite the imposed travel restrictions. Thanks a bunch.
I spent a while pondering the possibility of flying to Sydney spending 2 weeks in isolation before hopefully sailing to Vancouver. Sadly though half of me was suddenly starting to lose enthusiasm for the trip. The whole point was to circumnavigate without flying, a goal already missed quite spectacularly because of the virus. The idea of flying to Australia and then potentially having to fly to the USA or even home, was not something I wanted to risk. Also during this time I read news that Singapore had imposed restrictions on arrivals from 12 countries, including Malaysia. We had narrowly avoided that one!

The slight plus side to all of this was that instead of rushing through one of the most interesting countries in Asia, I could max out my permitted stay of 30 days (which can even be extended to 60). However almost literally as I was looking at flights home in a few weeks, news arrived of the Foreign Office's unprecedented decision to advise against all unnecessary foreign travel. While they hadn't explicitly advised anyone already abroad to return immediately, I wondered how long it would be before insurers started to insist on it. Within minutes, the cheapest flights home that I had been looking at roughly trebled from around £390 to around £1100 before thankfully settling back down again.

There are no direct flights from Indonesia to the UK, or at least, not at the moment anyway. Many options involve a self transfer in countries where I wouldn't get through immigration and others were stupidly expensive. A flight to elsewhere in Europe and then using my F.I.P card to get home would have been foolish, as borders were closing left right and centre. I eventually settled on a flight from Denpasar, Bali via Dubai. This ticked all the boxes of it being a short airline provided transfer and via somewhere I hadn't already been (I liked the idea of a round trip!) It also means that for the next week at least I can travel East and pretend I'm still circumnavigating!

On my last full day on Batam I decided to make use of the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel to the shopping centres at the North end of the island. There was only me on it in both directions. Tourism has totally fallen away here since the outbreak of the virus. Many visitors come from China and Japan. In over two hours at the shopping centre (The Grand Mall) which I would say was about the size of the White Rose Centre, I can't have seen more than about a dozen other shoppers. I hope this is the closest I come to experiencing an apocalypse on this trip! Almost out of pity for the 100 or so members of staff apart from anything else, I bought a t-shirt, a coffee and had a wet shave before catching the shuttle bus back to my 15 floor hotel, which following the departures after the weekend was also virtually empty. The staff at the hotel were really friendly but everyone here must be worried for their jobs. I hope it picks up for them soon.

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I left the hotel mid morning on Wednesday having filled up on as much of the outstanding buffet breakfast as I could. After 4 days I still hadn't been able to find any information about the buses on the island (I think the guest relations desk at the hotel thought I was kidding when I asked them for help) so I booked a taxi. I Google translated my confirmation email and it said I needed to go to a PELNI office and exchange my payment receipt for a ticket within 24 hours of departure time. The only PELNI office I could find on Google maps was near the Sekupang terminal, several miles from where all the reports online told me the boat would be, but it seemed daft to just ignore the instruction. I asked the taxi to wait which was a good move, as after a few seconds the lady behind the counter nodded at my receipt and said "Batu Ampar" (the other port). I had prepared my response, the first time I had actually used my Lonely Planet phrasebook! "karcis"? (Ticket) "BATU AMPAR!" she said a little frustratedly! So back in the taxi for the 20 minute journey round the coast. By this time, the Vessel Finder app I had downloaded told me KM Kelud had docked at Batu Ampar which was reassuring that at least I was going to be near it, even if I didn't have a ticket yet! A little while later I was dropped off at Batu Ampar, the taxi driver having shouted "Jakarta?!" at about 1500 people to try to make sure he dropped me off in roughly the right place! I found a crowd of people that looked like they could be waiting for a boat and someone pointed me in the direction of a hole in a wall of a building where my scrap of a receipt was finally exchanged for two tickets. I have rarely been more conscious of the amount of stares I was getting than over then next hour or so while everyone waited for boarding to start. Just curiosity I'm sure but I was glad when I got into a conversation with one of the porters. I correctly assumed that I would struggle to say goodbye to him until I was in my compartment and had given a decent tip, but I didn't mind too much! Sadly I have forgotten his name (I would never make a proper travel writer) but he was born in Malaysia and moved to Batam 15 years ago as the tourism boom started to happen. He had worked at the docks for 10 years. I tried to find out why the Kelud was sailing from this grotty cargo harbor when there was a half decent looking passenger terminal at Sekupang, but the usefulness of my Lonely Planet Indonesian Phrasebook and Dictionary was quickly exhausted!

Eventually it was time to queue up. I had read a lot of reports online about PELNI ships and how the boarding and alighting process can be chaotic so it wasn't as bad as I was prepared for, but it was one of the most crazy experiences of the trip so far. I didn't really feel I should be taking photos though. At the health screening point there seemed to be some disagreement between the health officers as to whether I should be allowed to board, given my recent travel history. It took some explaining that I hadn't used my Chinese visa. Eventually though my temperature was checked for the second time and I was waved through. I felt really guilty walking through the 3rd class area which was terribly cramped and crowded, knowing that I was on my way to a first class compartment of my own. The 22 year old KM Kelud is (officially) meant to have a capacity of 2607 along with 157 crew members and her gross tonnage is 14800 (I found a poster, can you tell?) I think it was in his "Full Circle" series that Michael Palin said that getting to know a new vessel is one of the great joys of travel. I have a vivid childhood memory of being told off for standing in the wrong place on the Mersey ferry so I don't share his enthusiasm. I had booked both beds in a two berth class 1A/A compartment, the best available, for luggage security apart from anything else. From reports I had read I had prepared myself for the worst but it wasn't too bad! Very spacious and even had a TV with an HDMI port so I could connect my phone to it. The bathroom was pretty filthy but everything worked. I'm glad I only just met the family of cockroaches that I was sharing the room with an hour before disembarking, otherwise I might not have slept as easily! The Kelud boasted a cafeteria with a sign for "Kareoke" though I heard none, a large restaurant and ballroom sort of area, a mosque, a sun deck (sort of) and a couple of small shops that sold little more than drinks, biscuits, crisps and vouchers for the WiFi that didn't work ("no refunds")! Meals are included in 1st and 2nd class tickets but 1st class were called before everyone else. I was given dinner on day one and breakfast, lunch and dinner on day two. Each meal was basic but decent and consisted of rice, chicken or fish, a sort of paratha and a bottle of PELNI branded "Jungle Juice"! I only ate with a maximum of about 6 others so first class must have been virtually empty. I watched hundreds and hundreds boarding so it must have been busy on the lower decks. Meal time entertainment was provided by a half decent 5 piece band who I felt very sorry for, performing to such a tiny number of people. I wanted to clap but I would have been the only one! At about 20:10 the Kelud bobbed steadily over the equator without fanfare or announcement. As Peter pointed out to me the other day, there will be few if any other ways of doing this apart from on a huge cruise liner. Yesterday morning I was woken in the early hours by the Muslim call to prayer, played over the ships tannoy including the speakers in each compartment. The approach to Jakarta was made in during a spectacular thunder storm with some of the best forked lightening I have ever seen. This was fun at first but then I remembered the amount of times I had seen flooding in Jakarta in the news recently! The whole sky was lit up several times as two tug boats were attached to pull the Kelud into Tanjung Priok harbor. Dissembarkation went smoothly until a hold up at the luggage screening area caused a queue right back to the bottom of a very long escalator. Everyone seemed to think this was mildly amusing at first but the laughter quickly turned to moderate panic as nobody seemed to know where the stop button was. People on the escalator could do nothing but watch as the pile up got bigger. Being the biggest and fattest person there with a massive rucksack, I was ok but there were a few minor I injuries before the power was finally switched off. The last train from the harbour had left an hour earlier (if it had run at all, Peter had told me it is usually suspended) and the rain was still hammering so I took a taxi to the hotel.

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As I wrote this Peter informed me that he had heard that Indonesia has stopped issuing visas at the border, another restriction I have narrowly avoided! I have two days to explore Jakarta before my train East across Java to Surabaya on Sunday.

Posted by around129 19:37 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

Promised Some KUALAty Company, LUMPURed with this guy...

... he SINGs POREly and won't stop BANGing his KOK... ... ... onuts together...

sunny 33 °C

Good morning from Singapore, one of the original end points when I started planning the trip as I thought it was probably the furthest I could get by land (+ the Channel Tunnel) from the UK.

The last entry finished in Siem Reap, Cambodia and I told you we were ignoring the possibility of a direct coach to Bangkok in favour of doing as much as reasonably possible by train. What I didn't realise when I booked it online was that the very bus we would travel on to the border was itself going through to Bangkok! It was a bit of a wrench to leave one of the nicest buses I have ever been on with air conditioning and a fairly clean toilet, but we had a plan so had to stick to it...! We left the coach at the Cambodian border town of Poipet and crossed into Thailand on foot. The border was totally chaotic! Instead of naturally passing from one point to the next as you might in an airport, you had to take yourself to the Cambodian office to get your exit stamp then find the Thai office to go through health screening, immigration and customs there. Highly appropriately for this trip, pedestrians were directed to walk along the currently out of use rails which will hopefully, at some time in the not too distant future carry through trains from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. There were queues everywhere and nobody really seemed to know what was going on! We got through the whole process in around 2 hours, giving us about 40 minutes to find the train on the other side.

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The Thai border railway station of Ban Klong Luk only opened (or perhaps reopened?) to passengers in July. Until then, a 6km taxi journey to nearby Aranyaprathet would have been required to continue by rail. It couldn't possibly by closer to the border, in fact it was so close to (and completely unsignposted from) the Thai customs office we actually walked past it and had to go back along the track 100 yards to find it. All the brand new buildings on the platform with signs for customs, immigration etc give more hope that the long term plan is for this to become a place where people will briefly leave a through train service for border formalities before continuing on to Bangkok or Phnom Penh. The 8 3rd class carriages of train 276 were already at the platform and were surprisingly busy even before we arrived. The tickets for the 6 hour journey were just 49 Baht (£1:21) each. We chose one of the two carriages with squashy rather than wooden seats (having had our fill of that between Halong and Hanoi!) and as we settled ourselves in, wondered if the section of the carriage marked "Reserved for Monks" ever got used on this route! As it turned out the answer was yes! 3 got on a couple of hours in! The journey was fairly dull but even so, clickety-clacking through the countryside on an old train with fully open windows has to be one the nicest ways to be introduced to a new country. It was great to see that even the tiny little outstations were mostly really tidy with hanging baskets and neatly painted waiting shelters. There is clearly some pride taken in the railway here. Like Hanoi and HCMC, arriving in a city like Bangkok is a shock to all the senses and the last half hour of the journey to Hua Lamphong station was fascinating.

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The following day we were up and out fairly early to do the main touristy sights including Wat Phra, Wat Pho and The Royal Palace

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Next day, I did what the locals do and had a traditional Thai breakfast in a fine and well respected establishment near one of Bangkok's "entertainment" districts!

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... followed by a walking tour around Chinatown...

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Then it was time to say goodbye to Passepartout Emma, who I will (hopefully!) see next in Perth! She was replaced within 24 hours with the slightly less glamorous but equally enthusiastic and amenable to the cause Passepartout Jack!

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Ever heard of that famous book which inspired the 1957 film: "Bridge Over The River Meklong"? No, me neither. The reason for this is that author Pierre Boulle made a bit of a boulles-up when naming his novel about the building of the Burma to Siam railway by PoWs under the Japanese. The railway, often referred to as the "Death Railway" on account of the number that perished building it, did run alongside the Khwae, but the bridge after which the book is named does not carry the tracks over it. Therefore, after the release of the 1957 film, Thai tourist bosses were forced to do some slight rejigging of the region's mapping so the hordes of visitors that began to arrive had something to look at. Anyway, on a weekend a special tourist train operates, stopping at various places on the way. We used this on the way there, but took a regular loco hauled service back to Bangkok to get us back a bit earlier.

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That evening we had a few drinks in one of the less religiousy but equally (if not more so) touristy areas of Bangkok which was certainly an eye opening experience... and we'll leave that there. Time to move on from Bangkok on Thai Railways train 45 which left Bangkok Hua Lamphong at 15:10. It can just about call itself an international service as it took us all the way to Padang Besar station, a hundred yards South of the Thailand Malaysia border. I really liked the layout of our 2nd class air conditioned sleeper carriage. Instead of having beds at a right angle to the direction of travel with an aisle down one side, the beds were parallel with the direction of travel with an aisle in the middle. Top and bottom on either side. The beds were, by several inches the widest beds I have ever seen on a train anywhere and the curtains provided ample privacy without the slight awkwardness that can be felt when sharing a very small compartment with up to 5 strangers. This was a great compromise. The very Southern-most tip of Thailand is currently marked as "Advise against all but essential travel" by the Foreign Office due to the high risk of terrorist attacks by religious insurgents. Trains have been targeted in the past on the other route towards Malaysia to the East. Thankfully a few years ago they adjusted their advice to exclude the rail route to Padang Besar, so as long as we didn't leave the railway our travel insurance was fine!

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Both Thai and Malaysian immigration procedures were carried out at Padang Besar and then we had a couple of hours to wait for our next train South to Kuala Lumpur. KTM (Malaysian Railways) train 9203 was formed of one of their swanky new Chinese built 100mph ETS trains. The air conditioning worked, the toilet was clean and the seats were fairly comfy. How terribly boring!

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We arrived just a few minutes late and checked in to our Chinatown hotel (which for some reason was mostly empty!). Next day we set off for KL's main sights including the Petronas Twin Towers which are as much a symbol of KL as the Empire State Building is to New York. We paid a fair amount for an organised tour (the only way to get to the top) but the views were well worth it.

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The next day we visited the Batu limestone caves, a 20 minute journey by KTM electric commuter train. They were very impressive, but with neither of us knowing much about Hinduism, the various garishly coloured models and sculptures depicting Rama and Co's exploits were a little lost on us, but the caves were well worth a visit anyway, the exercise did us good and I could have stayed for hours just watching the wild monkeys running around!

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Yesterday morning it was back on board an ETS train heading for Gemas, which is the current extent of KTMs modernisation progress. From there we had to change onto a 30 year old Japanese diesel locomotive with four modern air conditioned carriages. We left Gemas about 40 minutes late but caught some of the time back along the way. We then stood for what must have been an hour or maybe more, without explanation, arriving into Johor Bahru Sentral around 80 minutes late, by far the biggest delay of the trip so far. We had missed our connection, so - to the pub!
It used to be possible to travel all the way to downtown Singapore by train. Sadly when ownership of the line passed from the Malaysia to Singapore, the station along with 13 miles of railway were closed in "an act of gross institutional vandalism" according to Seat61's Mark Smith. I quite agree. This is all a big shame. Now you can't even take a through service to Woodlands train Checkpoint on the South side of the famous causeway, you have to alight at Johor Bahru and wait for a connecting shuttle service which only runs about once an hour. The journey time is just 5 minutes, surely making it the world's shortest international train service. It was this final connection we missed, so after an hour at the pub we returned to the station to pass through Malaysian immigration before boarding KTM train 95 which trundled us across to Woodlands Train Checkpoint, arriving at 22:50. Unfortunately by now we were at real risk of missing check in at our hotel so were forced to take a taxi for the final few miles.

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That's everything up to date I think, although I remember from reading Michael Palin's Pole to Pole again a few months ago that he documented the news stories he was reading during the trip. It's not quite the same now as I don't have to wait until I'm in a city that sells an English newspaper. For him it was also especially interesting as the Soviet Union was collapsing around him as he traveled through it. I am also traveling through fairly interesting times however! When I set off in January I was reading about the devastating fires not far from the planned route in Australia and how the World was beginning to take more than just a passing interest in a new virus that had been reported in Southern China. Today I'm reading about how the World is fighting what has now been declared a "Pandemic" by the WHO and back in the UK how Dorris and Natasha are fighting over the last bag of Fussili pasta at a branch of Tesco in Burnley. Donald Trump has also announced today that citizens from Schengen zone counties will not be allowed to travel to the USA for at least a month. I assume not including the UK in this is simply a temporary gesture and when the inevitable happens, wonder if they would make an exception for me, given that I plan to arrive from Canada and won't have been near the UK for over 4 months! Cunard who operate the final international leg of the planned journey, sent me an email yesterday to assure me that everything was fine and that the sailing would definitely run, in the surest sign yet that they are in fact on the verge of cancelling it. In other news, having been a little concerned that I hadn't heard from him, Passepartout John messaged me this morning to tell me he is safely home and happily self-quaranteened on full pay in a nice looking holiday cottage near Harrogate, so that's all good!

From here, I plan to leave Singapore as late as possible on Saturday evening. This is unfortunate as I wanted to spend at least 4 days here but I feel there is a growing chance that Australia may add Singapore to the list of countries on their travel ban list. Leaving Saturday gives me 15 clear days to the latest I could possibly arrive in Western Australia to catch the train to Sydney, so it seems a sensible sacrifice to improve my chances later on. Keeping everything crossed and we'll just have to see what happens. Stay virus free whatever you're doing! If you find any alcohol hand gel please send me some. I'll nick a bog roll from the hotel and send by return.

Posted by around129 11:01 Archived in Singapore Comments (2)

On the Slow Train and (an even slower) Boat Through Cambodia

sunny 35 °C

It's been a very busy few days. We haven't done much, but we haven't slept much either!

After a night at the erm interesting hotel booked for us by the tour company we were picked up at 06:45 and taken to the dock about a mile away. There, we finally made it onto the Mekong River and travelled to Phnom Penh by comfortable speed boat in around 5 hours with about 12 other tourists. Crossing an international border by river was a first for us both. Immigration formalities were carried out at the slightly ramshackle border posts at Ving Xuong on the Vietnam side and Kaam Samnor on the Cambodia side. Our Cambodian e-Visas that I had carefully applied for months ago when I assumed we would be arriving by bus, were rejected as expected so we had to pay US$30 each towards the border guards' Christmas piss-up er I mean new visas.

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We got off the boat and checked into the hotel and set off to, sadly another very depressing stop, but a must visit when in Phnom Penh. I vowed not to make this blog a history lesson or a guidebook so I'll try to make it very brief. Towards the end of the Vietnam war, the Americans heavily bombed Southern Cambodia as well I'm assuming, to make it difficult for the Vietcong to flee North but I may be wrong. Overshadowed by the events in Vietnam, it was known as The Secret War. It was no secret to Cambodians though. An estimated 100,000 were killed, mostly civilians. The country had already suffered from decades of civil war. When soldiers from the Kmer Rouge marched through Phnom Penh after the 1975 ceasefire, they were warmly welcomed by most Cambodians, who thought it was finally the fresh start they had hoped for. It was in fact the beginning of "one of the most barbaric social restructurings ever attempted" (thanks Lonely Planet). Within hours, every civilian in Phnom Penh and the neighboring cities was driven into the countryside by force and (if they survived the journey) made to work on the land for up to 15 hours a day. The idea was to start from scratch. Anyone who had any qualification or skill apart from those that would be useful to farming would be tortured into giving false confessions and exterminated. Anyone with any sort of suspected intellect was systematically wiped out. The moment the Kmer Rouge took power was declared year 0. Hospitals, schools, roads (and all cars), railways, banks, relgious buildings were all destroyed. It's estimated that over 1.7 million people were killed (either through exhaustion/starvation or execution) before Cambodian rebels and Vietnamese forces arrived in Phnom Penh 4 years later. I had heard of Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) and knew he was no teddy bear, but I feel really naive and stupid to have had absolutely no idea of what had occurred here just a generation ago. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is based in a former school which became the most notorious prison in the country. Around 20,000 people are thought to have been imprisoned here. There are only 15 known survivors. This was just one of 158 prisons and detention camps that are known to have existed under the Kmer Rouge. 2 of the 15 were there to answer visitors questions while we were there. The audio guide repeatedly warns visitors of the extremely graphic content they are about to see and hear and advises they go and sit outside for short breaks in between sections.

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Apologies, back to transport very soon! Unfortunately, the only other main attraction, the Royal Palace and The Sliver Pagoda were closed the day we had planned to visit them so the King could pray without being disturbed, or something! Phnom Penh is an interesting place and signs of rapid change and modernisation are everywhere. It appears I forgot to take any photos while we were though!

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ANYWAY, back to the trains!! We planned to stay a day longer than we did in Phnom Penh, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to continue or journey North on one of Cambodia's only rail services! After the Kmer Rouge were forced out of power in the late 1970s, a rail service did return but suffered from sporadic guerrilla attacks from the traces of what was left of Pol Pot's supporters. The network fell gradually into disrepair before all rail services were suspended in 2009. In 2016 a service was finally restored from Pnom Penh to the port Sihanoukville (recently in the news because that was where that virus affected cruise ship was finally allowed to dock) and this runs once a day. Even more recently and more useful for the overland traveler was the restoration of services on the line North to Poipet on the Thai border. This only runs once a week, hence the change in itinerary. I was surprised to be able to book online on the Royal Railways of Cambodia website. When I did, I chose two seats in one of 7 available carriages, so was very surprised when this turned up...!

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This elderly diesel railcar arrived recently from Mexico and was supposed to be used on the very recently opened line to Phnom Penh airport, about 35 minutes away. Today though, it formed the weekly service to Poipet, a journey of approximately 12-13 hours! It was a comfortable enough journey, with air conditioning and newly fitted seating and thankfully there were only about 15 passengers at most all day! The track was in quite a poor state and at two locations, one of the 5 or 6 members of staff on board had to get out to make sure we weren't dragging down electric cables that had been left hanging 6 foot from the ground across the track! Despite running quite late, the lunch stop was observed at Pursat and all crew and passengers dissembarked to buy food from the locals. A wide range of dried meat and fish, rice, watermelons and (we suspect) fermented eggs were on offer. We left the train at Battambang at around 16:00. One of the wierdest train journeys I have ever been on!

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After checking into our hotel we set off for what was (for me at least!) the main event in Battambang! During decades in which either a very limited rail service or none at all existed in Cambodia and with the roads in such a poor state, enterprising locals living near the tracks took matters into their own hands. Wheels and a small engine were fitted to a few bits of wood and the bamboo carts were born. The brake leaver is another piece of wood and if you meet another cart coming the other way one of them can simply be lifted off to allow the other to pass. Now that the roads are vastly improved, they mainly serve as a way for idiot tourists like us to have some fun! Their time, at this location at least is limited. Incredibly, we travelled about 7km on exactly the same stretch of track that we had just arrived into Battambang on (on a real train)! Royal Railways are expected to clamp down on them when the Phnom Penh to Poipet service is finally increased from once a week. On top of this, the stretch we went on goes right across an under construction dual carriageway. There are plans however to lay a stretch of track elsewhere in the region for use purely as a tourist attraction and some articles I have found online suggest this may already have happened. I'm really glad we were able to use the mainline though. Not sure what Network Rail health and safety would have to say!!

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Another early night in Battambang before another early start. We had decided to go against most of the advice online and take the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap along the Sangker River. The journey can be done by bus in 3-4 hours. The boat we took takes 6-9 hours, at ៛88 (£17) costs 3 times as much as the bus, has no toilet and only stops once for a comfort break! Apart from all that we were hesitant because there are some horror stories online of it getting stuck and even one where everyone was made to get out into the mud and push! Thankfully though that didn't happen and it turned out to be one of the highlights so far. The locals sat on the seats underneath. The idiot tourists sat in the blazing sun on the roof all day but had a much better view. We sat on old tyres and sacks that were being transported. We're in the middle of the dry season and the boat crew navigated the narrow, shallow sections with impressive skill. At times the river was so low the propeller at the back barely seemed to be fully submerged. We got stuck twice but only a long wooden pole was needed to free us! It was incredible to see a different way of life along the river with houses, churches, temples, schools and everything else you would expect, all either floating or cleverly designed to float once the water levels rise again. For a time towards the end we went past loads of alegator farms with dozens of them splashing about just inches from families having their lunch! We made it to the outskirts of Siem Reap at about 15:30 (8 hours after leaving Battambang) and took an auto-rickshaw for the final 8km to the hotel.

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The temples at Angkor are SouthEast Asia's premier attraction, in fact in the late 17th century they were amongst the first localities to offer free Wi-Fi and develop a social media presence. According to Lonely Planet they are "...one of the World's most magnificent and foremost ancient sights... better even than the superlatives... with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one".
After checking into the hotel and getting clean (we were filthy from the boat journey) we set off for the ticket counters 7km away. Tickets bought after 17:00 are valid the following day so allow two sunsets and a sunrise (for the determined tight fisted Yorkshireman). After watching the sunset we had an evening in Siem Reap followed by a early night then up at 04:30 the following day to catch the sunrise. We did our best in the suffocating heat but gave up after about 9 hours having only managed a fraction of the sites included in the ticket and went back to the hotel for some air conditioning! The temples are spread across an enormous area and many have really steep steps to climb. Just as in Vietnam we have been lucky that the crowds normally experienced here are much smaller than usual at this time of year because so many people seem to have been put off travelling. None of the photos we have come remotely close to doing the epic scale and incredible detailing of the temples any justice whatsoever, but here is a selection...

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng...
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Dawn at Angkor Wat
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Angkor Thom South Gate
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Bayon
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Baphuon
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Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King
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Chau Say Tevoda Temple
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Thommanon Temple
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Ta Prohm
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Probably, by the time you read this we will be on our way to Bangkok having got up for our 5th stupidly early start on the bounce. Definitely time for a bit of lie in tomorrow. In favour of doing as much by train as reasonably possible we have shunned the possibility of a direct bus and instead will be taking a bus to Poipet, walking into Thailand and then onto a train from Ban Khlong Luk to Bangkok. We have been warned to allow up to two hours for border formalities. We have 2 and half IF the bus is on time so it's a little bit tight. We're going to miss Cambodia and we're sad that we have had to rush through so much but we need to get to Bangkok in time for Emma's flight home on Thursday night.

The Corona virus continues to cause trouble in my tracks! 2 and a half weeks ago I was on a train traveling through Daegu, a city now in complete lockdown! I have just received an email from Passepartout John who is now in South Korea himself. He's understandably worried as he is flying home via Vietnam who are quarantining anyone arriving from there for two weeks! Good luck John whatever you decide to do! That's it for now, sorry it was a long rambling entry. Next one will be in a week or so.

Posted by around129 16:11 Archived in Cambodia Comments (2)

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)

Aboard The TransEuropean Express!

overcast 8 °C

Good afternoon from Warsaw where we have 30 minutes to enjoy all the delights that platform 5 at Wschodnia station has to offer.

Yesterday after getting off the Eurostar we dumped our bags and went on a 2 hour free walking tour of the Marais area. Then back to Gare du Nord for a pizza at Restaurant de Bari. I've been there a few times now and would recommend it if you want something to eat between trains in Paris. Reasonably priced and quick. Back to collect the bags then one stop on Metro 5 to Gare de l'Est where we had just a few minutes to wait before our platform was announced.

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Even alongside numerous high speed trains including TGVs and DB's ICE sets, the 8 gleaming new Russian Railways sleeper coaches each with their own imaculately dressed attendant was an imposing sight. The once a week appearance of this train was even getting attention from other rail staff and has been turning heads at every station we have trundled through. We had our visas checked before we got on by our friendly attendant. The train has 2 and 4 berth 1st class compartments and 1 and 2 berth business class compartments (fares from €1000 single), each carriage conveying it's own bar compartment!
After a good, hot shower and a half decent night's sleep we had breakfast in the Polish restaurant car which has now been detached. Tonight a Russian restaurant car will join the train.

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According to the Belarus page of the Foreign Office travel advice website: "The Russian government has informed the UK government that there are no legal grounds for foreigners (including British nationals) to cross the Russia-Belarus state border". So naturally we are heading straight for it. I haven't read any reports of Brits having any issues on this train but we will still be feeling a little nervous later on tonight! As far as I can tell, Belarus and Russia have a common travel area, a bit like the EU, so if we get into Belarus, we ok to Moscow!

Finally, the elephant in the room! The Mongolia-China border remains open. The China Vietnam border remains open. Most trains in China are running. Singapore (also on route) is denying entry to anyone that has visited China within the last 14 days. I have a quote for specialist travel insurance to cover my visit and I have a planned alternative route to avoid Hubei. Some news reports are suggesting the number of cases may peak next week. I need to make a decision by Monday when I'm due to leave Moscow.

Thanks for reading, update from Moscow tomorrow (if they let us in)!

P.S - The travel map at the top of the page showing our route and location is now up and running

Posted by around129 06:43 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

Le (not very) Grand Départ

overcast 10 °C

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On Monday 2nd October 1872, Phileas Fogg made a bet (presumably drunk) with his fellow toffs at The Reform private members Club that he could circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. He set off for Charing Cross station that same evening, leaving his pals smoking on their pipes trying to decide what they would spend their £10,000 on.

147 years, 3 months and 29 days later (and 31 years, 4 months and 6 days after the great Michael Palin), I'm attempting to do the same, admittedly by a completely different route and in a considerably slower 129 days. To be fair, Fogg had the sizeable advantage of being a work of fiction and Palin had a BBC film and production crew with him. I have forgotten to pack my copy of Around the World in 80 Days so I can't give a direct quote, but Fogg was also vocal in his dislike of tourists and tourism, preferring to travel for travel's sake or the challenge, rather than to actually see anything! I intend to see a few things on the way.

In Jules Verne's story, Fogg takes with him his "valet" Jean Passepartout (which I think literally translates as "goes everywhere"). I'm pleased to say I have my own Passepartout for the first few days of the trip, although I'm carrying Emma's bag, so again we are not sticking to the script!

The trip is the result of nearly 3 years of gazing at my phone and laptop looking at train, bus and ferry routes, cruise ship relocation moves and cargo ships wondering whether I could get away with something like this, financially, with my employer and with Emma of course! The first month or so was planned with fine detail. With 4 or 5 visas required for the first 3 weeks alone, just getting everything together on that side of things was a fiddle. Therefore it has been completely heartbreaking to watch the news and see everything fall apart over the past few days. It seems terribly ungrateful of me given the wonderful opportunity I have to be able to do this sort of trip, to be setting out this morning feeling a bit miserable. However given the timing of the virus outbreak in China, I feel entitled to feel at least a little pissed off! My planned route takes me right through the middle of Hubei province. Mongolia has closed it's border with China, but at this moment is continuing to allow trains through. The border with Vietnam is also open. However with the Foreign Office advising against all but essential travel, I would be in China without any insurance. There is no alternative without taking a flight, which defeats the object of the trip. I'm looking into specialist insurance and a 3 day dash across China staying as far away from the city of Wuhan as possible but I'll have to keep an eye on the situation.

Anyway enough moping. This was meant to be a transport blog! After a quick photo at The Reform Club, we took the Piccadilly line to King's Cross St. Pancras to meet John for breakfast. John is also starting out on his own travels to Moscow via Rotterdam and Berlin. All being well we will be meeting up again on Saturday. After suddenly realising our Eurostar was at 09:22 and not 09:47 (a good start) we made a mad dash to the check in gates and were relieved to find the security area quieter than usual! We are now safely on board Eurostar 9014 and have just arrived in France. Tonight we board the weekly Russian Railways TransEuropean Express direct to Moscow, a train I have wanted to catch for as long as I can remember. Another update tomorrow hopefully!

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Posted by around129 01:58 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (4)

Not Long To Go!

7 °C

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In the unlikely event that this attempt has worked... Hello! Welcome to my blog. I never understood the difference between a website and a blog, but a blog sounds more hipster and I'm not 31 yet you know.

Loads of people have asked if I was going to somehow do updates on my progress (or lack of, possibly). I was very reluctant for three reasons. Firstly I'm not sure my I.T skills or my 15 year old laptop are up to it. Secondly if it all goes tits up in the first 5 days it's a very public humiliation! Thirdly and most importantly I have read lots of travel writing during the last two years and much of it is conceited tripe. I will try to avoid the selfies with admiring locals followed by some amazing facts I (or you) could just as easily have Googled and try to make it more of an online diary. There will be detailed updates on bowel movements and probably a lot of photos of trains.

For those that don't know - My original plan was just to travel as far as possible from home by train, something I have fancied doing for years. Then I decided to go as far as I could by train AND bus. Then I found out about a cargo ship I could travel on to Australia and it quickly snowballed into a rough plan of getting round the world without flying. I'm setting off from London on Thursday morning (30th Jan).

So if you're interested in keeping track of where I am I think you can subscribe to this page by clicking the link in the top right corner. I assume that means you will get an email when I update it, but who knows, I'm learning as I go along!

I think this is already too wordy for a blog post so bye for now :)

Posted by around129 11:05 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

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