Sunday, 9 August 2015

All aboard the Trans Mongolian

I'm following Joanna Lumley as she journeys from China to Russia via Mongolia on the Trans Mongolian train.

Not "following" in a stalker sense, but avidly watching her three-part series Joanna Lumley's Trans-Siberian Adventure.

Anyone expecting her Absolutely Fabulous character Patsy to make a boozy appearance will be sorely disappointed.  Instead, we see Joanna the traveller, experiencing the highs, lows and very often confusion that comes with travelling through foreign lands.

This series is captivating not only because the 6,300 mile journey she takes, but because it's the same journey my friend and I took a decade ago.

And while we continually hear that this part of the world is evolving at a rapid pace, what I find particularly engrossing is the fact that this journey hasn't changed at all since I took it.

There's fantastic little incidents that my friend and I experienced, such as being awoken in the middle of the night by angry Russian border guards, standing at the Chinese-Mongolian border in the middle of the night while the train is put onto a new rail gauge, and the seemingly endless amounts of vodka that is on offer for anyone venturing to this part of the world.  Ten years on and Joanna is confronting the same thing.

Watching the TV series has also made me realise how much of the journey I had forgotten... temporarily.  But seeing some of the sights of the three countries, even something as mundane as a house or train station, reconnected some of my brain's synapses.

Onboard the train one afternoon
It's prompted me to jump onboard the train again by pulling out old photos and notes from the trip.

This trip was my second trip to Beijing and the Great Wall of China in two years.  I even stayed at the same hotel in Beijing, though I noted it was surrounded by a lot more highrise towers than before.

The Beijing Olympics was still a few years away, but the city was quickly getting ready and residents were keen to brush up their English with any foreigner they could.

But once onboard the train and outside the cities, vast rural China spread out before us as we made tracks for Mongolia.

The streets of Beijing
Inside the Forbidden City
The Great Wall snaking its way across the landscape

Heading across China on the train

After the people and semi-ordered chaos of Beijing, the unpopulated expanses of Mongolia couldn't have been more of a contrast.   Green fields soon dried out and became the Gobi Desert, where you hoped the train didn't break down.

At one stop at the town of Choir in Mongolia, there is a shining silver statue commemorating the first Mongolian cosmonaut.  As I ran the several hundred metres from the train station to the statue to take a photo, I prayed the train wouldn't suddenly take off without me.

Mongolian cosmonaut statue in Choir
But the desert soon made way for the lush expanses of Mongolia.  It is truly stunning scenery, sadly something my little film camera could barely capture.

The wide open spaces of Mongolia

Another surprisingly stunning stop was over the Russian border in Siberia.  Given the stories we hear about people being sent to Siberian gulags, I didn't have high expectations for this part of the world.   I was wrong.

Among other things, Siberia is home to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world.  It's believed the lake holds a fifth of the world's fresh water.  I can also confirm that the water is very cold - we plunged into it after being in a sauna and it was literally breath taking.

Lake Baikal

Traditional Siberian wooden buildings

Finally in Moscow, we come face-to-face with some of the most iconic Russian sites: St Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb in Red Square.  The capital feels imposing on many levels, not the least of which because the grand Soviet architecture can leave you feeling... well a little small.

Lenin's Tomb
Former KGB headquarters
The Kremlin
Our final stop was St Petersburg, where Russia looks particularly European.  Whereas Moscow is big and intimidating, St Petersburg feels intimate and more accessible.   It's historic Baroque and neo-classical buildings have been preserved and these colourful and ornate buildings demand attention even on the greyest of Russian days.

The Hermitage Museum

Church of the Saviour of Spilled Blood - St Petersburg's answer to Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral

Monday, 8 June 2015

My Great Wall

Next week construction begins on a project set to rival the Great Wall of China.

More than eight years in the making, the rotten and rickety lattice fencing around some units at my apartment building will be replaced with proper timber fencing.

This fencing is unlikely to be seen from space... but then again apparently neither is the Great Wall of China.

Given the time and energy it has taken to get the project to this stage, you can forgive me for comparing a dozen or so metres of timber fencing to the 8,850km of structures that comprise the Great Wall of China.

After all, to get here it's sometimes felt as though I've been climbing metaphorical mountains with stone bricks in hand.

Surely building the Great Wall of China was a much simpler task that didn't require herding other owners, mustering tradesmen for quotes, navigating body corporates or extracting funding?

While there will be a great sense of accomplishment when "my wall" is completed, I suspect it won't be quite as awe-inspiring as the one in China.

I've been fortunate to visit the Great Wall twice, with each visit as memorable as each other.  It's one of the few big ticket tourist icons that is better than you imagine it to be.

Sure you can take a gondola to the top (as those tourists who wisely wore high heels did), but to fully appreciate the work of the wall's makers, I chose the stairs.   It's a surprisingly easy climb given how high up you feel when you're walking along the wall.

Naturally you see glimpses of the wall from below as you approach it, but once on the wall itself you can see how it snakes its way along the mountain ridges.

You can almost imagine it's the spine of a gigantic sleeping dragon that stretches far off into the horizon, regularly punctuated by tall watch towers.

Despite its fame and popularity, it's surprisingly easy to to find a quite patch of wall for yourself and quietly contemplate how daunting it must have appeared for invading monguls on the other side.

And if you're lucky, you may even escape Beijing's smog and catch a glimpse of the horizon.

Even though I'm on one of the "restored" sections of the wall, crumbling stonework, uneven ground and some pretty high stair tread depths reaffirm that this wall has withstood centuries of weather, hostile attacks and some fairly basic construction techniques.

Needless to say, I can only hope my great wall will last just a fraction of this time.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Sweden calling

The immediate post-Eurovision period is always a bleak and desolate time of the year.

Having gorged ourselves on a feast of pop, culminating in the Grand Final, we're suddenly forced to go cold turkey.  

I'm irritable, fatigued (after those 5am starts for the live telecast), have lost my appetite and am just a little depressed.

Now I know what heroin addicts must go through.

This year's symptoms are particularly severe having experienced the high of Australia's first (and only?) participation in the contest.

But if I'm forced to be a little "cup half full", then I can at least take comfort that next year we're all off to Sweden for Eurovision.

Hello Sweden!

Sure, we weren't there that long ago thanks to Loreen's Euphoria.  

On that occasion Sweden's third-largest city Malmo was the host.   While the host city has yet to be confirmed, Sweden is one of those places that deserve multiple visits.

The capital Stockholm is a surprising delight in itself, spread across 14 islands.

Wandering around Stockholm, you can't help feel a little bit envious of the Swedes.  They seem to have uncovered the secrets to the good life.

While they pay some fairly high taxes, if the global surveys are correct they also enjoy some of the world's highest standards of living, free healthcare, free education and are generally happier than the rest of us.

To rub salt into the wound, now they've snared Eurovision for the sixth time!

At Stockholm's heart is Gamla Stan, or Old Town, consisting of cobbled streets and narrows lanes (including one that is less than one metre wide).

Gamla Stan

Nearby is the Royal Palace, one of the homes of the popular Swedish Royal Family - surely big enough to host a Eurovision or two.

Outside the Royal Palace

But perhaps it's the Royal Family's other home, Drottningholm Palace, that might be a more suitable venue for 2016 Eurovision.

Built on its own island, this palace is a short boat ride away from downtown Stockholm.

It's a handsome palace, complete with its own theatre, church and Chinese Pavilion, and surrounded by sprawling grounds.

Drottningholm Palace

It even has a bath house the size of a normal family home for those wanting to take a dip.

While the palace is still used by the Royal Family, you're more likely to run into hordes of tourists than King Carl XVI Gustaf and his wife Queen Silvia.

Whether Eurovision returns to Stockholm or another city has yet to be decided, but regardless Sweden always seems ready to welcome the world and give it a good show.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Hello Vienna!

Normally the most bedazzling thing in Vienna is the tiled roof of St Stephen's Cathedral in the city's old town.

But this week, the arrival of Eurovision's Class of 2015 will temporarily cast a shadow on the city's classic treasures.

And the contrast couldn't be more acute.

In the city of Mozart and Beethoven, elegant horse parades at the Spanish Riding School, and Viennese balls, this week it will all be about wind machines, costume reveals and key changes.

Eurovision has arrived in Vienna following the triumph of bearded drag queen Conchitta at last year's competition.   Conchitta's rise to fame shows there's more to Austria than lederhosen and Blue Danube.

While some European cities do "crumbling chic", Vienna's sparkling old buildings show no signs of wear and tear after centuries of existence.

Schonnbrunn Palace, the former imperial summer residence, is sprawling Austrian style at its best. 

It's also a great example of the opulent excess that must have inspired revolutionary thoughts among the proletariat. 

Schonnbrunn Palace

But it's the little things I remember most about my first visit to Vienna.  

Not the least of which was the fact that my luggage didn't arrive with me from Australia, forcing me to wander the streets among the stylish Viennese in the same clothes I had spent the past 30 hours in on the plane.

In response, I ate my feelings at one of the city's cacophony of cafes, most of which purport to have invented the sachertorte (a chocolate cake regarded as one of Vienna's culinary specialities). 

Vienna's sweet delights

Then seeking to repent for my sugary sins, I headed for St Stephen's Cathedral, which comes complete with tombs, catacombs and crypts.

The Habsburg tombs in the Cathedral's crypt
Gothic sculptor Anton Pilgram's self portrait in the cathedral's wall
It has all the usual cathedral trimmings, but I'm particularly taken by the well-equipped "Dom Shop" selling all sorts of christian souvenirs.   

My favourite is a cookbook by Father Michael - watch out Nigella!

Confess in any language

Father Michael is unlikely to make an appearance at this week's Eurovision (though maybe he's part of the Final's halftime show?), but Vienna will take pride of place as host city.

Only time will tell, but I wonder how this year's crop of Eurovision pop will sit in the city renowned for classical music.