Beijing, peaceful overcrowd place

On our way to Beijing.
We once again chose budget over the easy way. We took a night train to Zamiin Uud, border town where a lot of taxis await. The crossing is going to look more like a smuggling really. At the first border point, our driver speeds up to go through the gate along with another car. Then we are urged to change taxi, running up the queue to get in a seat-less van. We get our exit stamps for 1,000 tugrits and meet with the first driver again. The Chinese border had about fifty cameras. We are finally in Erenhot (Erlian) from where departs a sleeper bus to the capital. The bus becomes a merchandise-transport in the middle of the night, huge boxes are now blocking the aisles.

Beijing, peaceful overcrowd place.
Day 1. We have four days to visit the city and the Great Wall. We start slowly on the first day, spending the afternoon in the Lama Temple. It’s a big complex with many temples called halls. First encounter with a Chinese monument for us, encent smell are floating in the air. Then we walk through the Hutongs, small and narrow lively streets, to the Shi Cha Hai lake inside the city sandwiched between bars and restaurants. Lights are flickering on the water, the open-bars are numerous and the artists are pretty good.

Day 2. Early morning, we head to the forbidden city. We walk up Quianmen Street, a huge car-free and commercial  avenue that leads to Tiananlen Square. A huge square with immense buildings. And then it’s time to enter the city proper, once again it’s a succession of halls contenting thrones. The squares in between the halls are gigantic. We are thrown back in time, away from the chaos of Beijing. The gardens, at the end of the visit, are a peaceful place despite the crowd. We then head across the road to the small park so that we can gaze upon the roofs of the forbidden city from a small temple sited on top of the hill. Unfortunately, the fog blurs it all, giving the place a somewhat nice atmosphere. We walk around the streets before going back to our hosts to make some crepes (here, Nutella is very hard to find and expensive). 
Day 3. We head to the Summer Palace with our hosts. Situated in the North-West of the city, it’s a bit away from the centre. It’s a huge park around a lake, the walk around it takes us along the longest corridor in China, maybe even the world’s with its 730-meter length. It’s very nice here, quiet and laid-back. It takes us two hours to slowly finish the walk. And then it’s time to taste the famous Peking Duck, delicious.

Day 4. Today is the day. We had previously planned to visit another stretch of the Great Wall, but it would have taken us five hours in a bus to reach it. We decide to go to Badaling instead, the closest part of the wall. Chinese people are crazy when it comes to trains, as soon as the doors open, they begin to sprint over five hundred meters toward the train to have a seat. Even though we walk slowly and we managed to get seats as well. From the station in Badaling, it takes us ten minutes to reach the ticket office. We spend two hours there, taking it all in, watching the wall slither of the mountains. A great sights packed with tourists even though we are in mid-November. A nice afternoon is a mind-blowing place. We managed to glimpse a quick sight of blue sky, first time in months that we are able to be in tee-shirts. We don’t forget to pick up our free certificate station that yes indeed we were there.

Good to know :
– Entrance to the Summer Palace costs 20 yuans.
– There’s a train to Badaling per hour, costs 6 yuans.
– The subway is amazing there.

The desert of Gobi

We compared some agencies and finally went with GoldenGobi for our trip South to the Gobi desert. We climb aboard an old Russian four-wheel drive with three Sweden lads, our guide Alma and our driver Baïna.

We leave the capital and road behind us to begin a long journey on dirt and bumpy roads. We stop next to a huge hill in the middle of nowhere to gaze upon the deserted plains of Mongolia. Never mind the ever-present Sun and blue sky, it’s freezing. We quickly stop to see old ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery and make our way to our first host. We ain’t used to the freezing cold nights in yourts, after after Terelj the night is rough.

The flaming cliffs, Arizona-coloured, are an exquisite sight at sunset.

And the most expected sand-dune is really steep to climb, specially since we obviously went for the tallest one. It’s getting harder to breath as our shoes fill up with sand every step we take. But the view from the top is magnificent, at the back stretches a chain of mountains that go to Kazakhstan. The descent is way more fun, we slide, roll, laugh. 

We play tourists riding camels after having witnessed the traditional way to put a goat to death, our dinner. We learn local games in the afternoon, all played with ankle bones, and watch the preparation of the feast in a massive wok heated with stones from the inside. A meat feast eaten with our hands accompanied with a music of chewing mouths.

We’ll end up the journey with a national park and its frozen river, we walk on water. An amazing trip even though the car rides were too long and so bumpy you couldn’t read three lines in a row.

Before the desert : Ulaan-Baator et Terelj Park

Ulaan-Baator.
In order to reach the Mongolian capital, we take the train to Ulaan-Uude, and then the bus to Ulaan-Baator. It’s faster and cheaper than climbing aboard the transmongolian. The only drawback is that one had to change transportation at Ulaan-Uude. We took a night train to reach the station at 6am, the bus leaves the bus terminal at 7:30am. It took us forty minutes with our big backpacks in the snow to connect the two. The border crossing takes two good hours, still less than with the train. But with reach Ulaan-Baator quite late, around 8pm.

Sick, we didn’t get to see much of the city. The Gandantegchenlin monastery is really nice with its impressive statue, and the Genghis Kahn square is alright. We walk around the city despite the ice and cold of early November. The capital is really just a stop to get our Chinese visa.

Good to know :
– The bus station is 8k away from Ulaan-Baator.

Terelj. We found a home-stay nearby the entrance of the park, the temple and turtle rock are easily accessible from there. The temple is sheltered on the cliff of the mountain, modest and peaceful, ideal for meditation. We would have like to be able to wander off in the wild area of the park, but that would have required a longer stay and few more degrees. We vainly looked for the old-man-reading-a-book rock for an entire afternoon.
Good to know :
– There’s only one bus per day at 4pm from Ulaan-Baator and 8am from Terelj.
– You can go through GoldenGoby agency to arrange a home-stay in the park.

The Transiberian and the Baikal Lake

Transiberian.
We managed to understand our tickets, it wasn’t that easy. But me made it to the Laroslavski train station in order to wait in the cold for a mythic journey. We end up with different bunks that the ones we had reserved, both on a upper on without table or a seat. Whatever, we’ll start the journey lying down ! Four days await us, all the way to Irkurtsk and the Baikal lake.

We stretch our legs by fetching some available burning water at the head of the compartment to make some tea, coffee or noodles. The scenery doesn’t change much, we’re crossing huge deserted plains. Sometimes some forests of “bouleaux”, some more or less train-station looking stations. The snows appears from time to time, covering the ground.
There will be very few exchanges with our fellow passengers, the language barrier is extremely present here. Few smiles here and there, one afternoon listening to music together and hand talking. Most of our time, we read or play card games. We busy ourselves as lunch as we can, our days are rythmed by the strolls of “Ivan” the salesman who pushed his food-cart at the same hours, everyday, describing what he’s selling in an almost singing voice that we came to wait for. We sometimes get off the train, the temperature outside is around 0°C.

And then, on morning, after long hours, we are to leave our train/home. We are in Irkurtsk, capital of the Baïkal. We walk through town after having dropped our bags at the hostel. The city is nice, its atmosphere is much more laidback that Moscow’s, the cold ain’t scaring anyone and the streets are full of life. We buy our tickets to reach the island of Olkhon and visit the town a bit more. We follow the river.
On the way back from the island, we make a quick detour to see the Kazan cathedral, now under the snow. The inside is splendid, the outside is Russian-looking with bright and colourful round shapes.

Olkhon.
We had planned to do a five-day walk alongside the shore of the Baïkal lake, but the current season doesn’t allow it and the few guesthouses are closed. We then decided to visit the Olkhon island instead, the jewel of Siberia. After a long morning in a mini-bus, we end up in Khuzir, the main city, in mid-afternoon. There’s no road here, only dirt paths sandwiched in betweens houses, some look abandoned. We reach the Sunny Hostel, a bit away. And walk the few hundreds meters that separate us from the Shamanla, the Shaman’s rock.
Numerous colourful “bandeaux” are balancing in the wind, tied onto wooden pillars. It’s a high place of shamanism in Asia. Dark clouds are flying above the lake, making the whole place look even better.

The following day, we go for a walk in the woods. Olkhon means “little forest”. There’s no real path, we just walk following a more or less same direction. We end up in a clearing, the Sun warms us up a bit. We double back toward the Shaman’s rock and the warmth of our hostel under the cover of the pine trees.

Next day, we walk along the beach. The sand goes far away into the forest. Wind arises nearby the cliffs. The lake stretches on for ever, we can’t even see the mountains that stands on its shores. It deserves it name of sea. The waves are numerous.

We just rest on our last day, going out only in the small city with nice dogs that follow us around all afternoon.

Good to know :
– The Sunny Hostel is a really nice place. Away from the town, newt to the Shaman’s Rock and the beach. The building we stayed at is brand new, neat rooms. A very copious breakfast is included. We may have shamed them into giving us food in the evenings with our habit of eating cheap instant noodles.

The biggest cities in Russia

St-Petersburg.
We stumble into the city in the middle of the night, our plane landed at 3am. The very straight streets are deserted. After a short night, we head out to discover the city. We walk down the long Nevski avenue, passing by many cathedrals. The one of St-Savior-of-the-spilled-blood is our first encounter with a typically-Russian religious building.

We keep walking to the winter palace and its oversized square. Then comes St-Isaac cathedral. We cross over the water to get a great panorama of the two shores, another bridge takes us to the fortress of St-Peter and St-Paul. We walk by the tall walls on a small beach before entering the premises to see yet another cathedral.

Back to the winter palace next, we walk through the town, following a slithering canal. Another religious building awaits as a the end of our path. After a morning stroll up Nevski avenue to a last cathedral, it’s time for us to fly to Moscow.

Moscow.

We exit the subway to walk down a bright street lightened up by the with buildings. The guest-house is awful, 15 shaky three-storey bunk-beds in a 15m² room, no beds but wooden planks instead. We begin our visit of the it by going to the red square which is about fifteen minutes away from our hellish hostel. The square is nicely empty as we are early risers. The cathedral of St-Basil is impressively colourful.

We walk by the walls of the Kremlin all the way to the cathedral of the Christ-Savior, the inside is beautiful.

We’ll go back to the square at night-time, when all the lights are on.

Scotland.

Edimburgh.
On the way, we stop in Carlisle to try and see Hadrian Wall which actually doesn’t start from the city castle. Therefore we are quickly back on the road toward the Scottish capital. We park next to the Queen’s own castle when she dares to visit. We walk up High Street, the old town’s main street, sandwiched between shops and pubs. The St-Giles cathedral has a somewhat haunted look that fits quite well here. The street is full of life, which makes walking here pleasant. Unfortunately we’re too late to visit the castle. We’ll spend the night in a pub, drinking beer and cider with a good game of Rugby.

The following day starts with a stroll up Holyrood Park. From up the cliff, we can gaze upon the roofs of the city and all the sights we saw the previous day. On a hill, on the other side of the side, stands an old-romand-looking ruins.

Loch Ness.
A simple lake that is alike all the other lochs in Scotland. It isn’t really worth the trouble. The shores only have few souvenirs shops, one hotel and a museum about all the expeditions that took place here. The only historical attract of the place is the ruined castle of Urquhart.

Skye Island.
The road that leads to the island is magnificent and reminds us of northern Norway as the landscape is isolated and never-ending. Accessing the island has now been free for few years. We go around it in the morning. Unfortunately, the weather is quite bad today and we decide not to take any risk by walking up to the famous geological formations of the island. We keep driving, following the coat. The landscape is splendid and time doesn’t seem to have had any effect on it whatsoever, nor will it probably. To our taste, the road isn’t close enough to the water as is was back in Croatia and Norway.

Wales.

Mount Snowdon.
Situated in the Snowdonia national park, Mount Snowdon is the highest peak of Wales. Third highest in the UK, it reached an altitude of 1082m. We start off at Penny Pass around 3pm for a roundabout 10k-walk. An ascent of 800m awaits us before we can reach the summit. A truly beautiful walk, a bit physical though. The scenery is brilliant, even though the view from the summit is sometimes blocked out by the surrounding sea of clouds. The descent is obviously easier. We walk down a bit with some sheep. And after three and a half hours we are back in our city car. Let’s go to Scotland.

England

London.
After two hours aboard a ferry in the middle of the night and a three-hour drive we finally reach the periphery of London. Once our expensive subway, or tube, tickets are bought, we’re on our way to the capital. First stop in the CBD from where we walk to the London Bridge. The Tower Bridge, symbol of the city, is a bit blurry under the rain. We head to St-Paul cathedral, an impressive monument that stands out with its size and old-looking architecture in a very modern neighbourhood.

The visit leads us then to Oxford Street all the way down to Marble Arch. We walk by Hyde Park to face Buckingham Palace, the place to see. We walk through St-James park with the company of friendly squirrels to reach Big Ben and the Abbey of Westminster. Impressive monuments in the middle of the megalopolis. And it’s by the sound of the bells of th mythic Big Ben tower that we get underground again, drenched by the falling rain. It takes us nearly two hours to drive about 50k to Little Chalfont in the north-western suburbs to spend the night at a friend’s previously met back in Australia.

Stonehenge.
The first time we lay our eyes upon Stonehenge is from the car as we drive to it. But as we reach the entrance, we discover that the visit has a cost. We decide to try our luck and walk toward it anyway, it’s only 2k away. A small detour is necessary to avoid the entrance, and we found ourselves about 20 meters away from the mystic circle of standing stones. The only thing that stands between us and rich tourists is a small fence and merely five little meters. In the end, we have great pictures and we are each 17£ richer.

Bath.
A nice stop for a small walk that takes us to the cathedral, Roman baths and the circus. The latter is a circle-shaped street surrounded by tall and even buildings.

Scafell Pikes.
We tried once to find our way to Scafell Pikes on our way to Scotland, unsuccessful attempt. But we try again as we’re coming back toward England. The drive on a very small road in the middle of many files, following a lake which glows under the Sun. Here we are then, at the bottom of the mountain. We can’t see the summit yet as it is hidden behind some other ones. We head up to the 977-meter-high peak with little people. The ascent is long and quite physical. The summit is only visible at the very end, a pile of stones in the clouds. But the view of the Lake Disctrict is wonderful. Standing on the grey stones, we overlook green fields marked by stoned walls. The descend is tricky. Indeed we decide to follow another path that also leads to the summit. Except that it leads directly down the mountain, without any bend. We are going down, making our own way as we go amongst moving stones. A good shot of adrenaline before reaching the proper path again that we followed up before. We cross the river once again, jumping from one stone to an other. And then it’s back in the car.

Sweden, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Brugges

Stokholm et Vadstena.

We stop on the way to see the Viking runes of Sigurdsristningen dating back from over a millennium and telling the tales of Sigurd. We then reach Stockholm. We walk by the docks where some old ships are floating, pass the old church converted into the city hall. Next to it lies the golden tomb of a Jarl.
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We enter the old town on Gamla Stan island. The parliament, palace, few churches are to be found there. But the nicest thing to do is just to walk around in the alleys, many street artists are filling the place with music. The atmosphere is great.

Before leaving, we go into the city centre by a long carefree street that leads us to the big theatre. One last church, St-Claire’s one, and we’re on our way.

A bit further, on the shore of a lake, stands the Vadstena castle. It is known as one of the most beautiful pre-Scandinavian-renaissance building. Surrounded by water, we reach it via a small bridge. It’s the only attraction of the town, but walking around in the Sun is quite nice as well. We don’t linger much. Copenhangen.
A short stop in a Unesco heritage park and a short walk inside the former hunting ground, now filled with golfers, leads us to the 18th-century-looking Hermitage palace which belongs to the royal family.

Parked in the centre of the tow,, we head toward the little mermaid of Copenhagen, our only purpose. Given to the city by a sculptor in 1913, it is now harassed by tourists. We double-back, watching the change of guards in front of the royal palace. Nearby stands a quaint church with a beautiful dome.
The big square is unfortunately under construction. We can see colourful houses from a distance, overlooking the docks. Some nice Roman-inspired buildings as well. The carefree streets stretch away. But it’s already time for us to hit the road.

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Amsterdam.
gopr2043After a long way to avoid expensive parking, we finally reach the famous canals. The big square with its palace and church is surrounded by huge buildings that make us feel really small. We head toward the beautiful railway station next. And venture in the steers, passing many coffee shops where from nice smells are escaping on our way.

Brugges.
Because of the rain and menacing clouds above our head, the visit of Brugges is extremely fast. We mostly run to the main place, its cathedral is scratching the sky. The city has keeps a mediaval and charming look with its narrow and paved roads. But the weather isn’t improving, sending us on our way.

Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo

Trondheim.
The car swallows the kilometres standing between us and Trondheim where we catch up with our former itinerary. The road is amazing up until the city. We are alone in a deserted land.

We spend few hours in Trondheim. Just enough time to see its cathedral with its fifty or more statues covering its walls, its old wooden bridge from which we can see the colourful houses standing on the other side of the water and their watery reflection.  We keep heading South afterwards, driving by the fjords and the mountains.

Bergen.Bergen, Norway
We reach Bergen by late afternoon, under the Sun. Bryggen, the old town, overlooks the docks and its old wooden and colourful houses make the all place quite charming. The docks are nice, numerous bars and restaurants, and a fish market in the middle of it all. We walk around the city, passing by some churches and the park. The narrow streets are decorated with many graffiti. The atmosphere here is soothing, Bergen is worthy of its title of “one of the most beautiful cities in Europe”. Olso.
Nice and young city, Oslo is impressively green. The royal palace, from the front, is imposing and overlooks a huge avenue that leads us straight to the parliament. Then comes the cathedral and Vigeland park. The bridge leading to the park is covered by statues, one every five meters, roundabout fifty in total guarding the way to the obelisk. The latter is a piece of art, numerous bakes bodies on top of each other seemingly trying to reach the sky. The city is nice, but lacks an historical centre.