Sometimes it’s time to take stock. Here we go…
Here I am, 11 weeks on and around 10000 overland miles down. Not including side trips, of which there have been many. This has all been covered on trains, Bristol to Hong Kong, and I’m proud of that.
I’ve come as far on the train as I can do really without significant additional hassle or expense- Hong Kong is moving closer to China politically however for now still has the status of a Special Administrative Region- Whilst the benefit of this is that UK citizens get a very long visa-free visit, unfortunately it also means that I have now left China, and therefore cannot re-enter without a new visa. For the sake of the train trip from Shenzhen to Hanoi, this isn’t really worth it. I have to admit defeat and continue on by plane!
I’ve had a fantastic time so far, and met some great people who will hopefully remain friends for life. I have seen some great sights and experienced things on the way that were never in the initial plan. A large part of this is due to having met Sarah in St. Petersburg… as a result of her gentle prodding and boundless enthusiasm and energy I have ended up doing a lot more than I would have otherwise. I will miss her immensely. Spending an extra fortnight in Mongolia has proven to be an excellent decision and has planted the seeds of a return trip I now desperately want to make there.
Whilst all of this travelling was only really meant to be part of the journey to South America, actually it’s become a destination in itself and I am now planning to spend longer in Asia. Possibly much longer, looking forward.
I enjoyed Russia far more than I expected to, and the Russian people as a whole surprised me. It’s a country with a mixed reputation in the Western world, and Russians themselves are perceived as somewhat stand-offish and surly. In my experience this is completely wrong. It’s true, Russians are not casual smilers and an unsolicited grin is viewed with suspicion however beneath this thin veneer they are some of the most hospitable, welcoming and friendly people you could ever hope to meet. The extent to which I felt ‘looked after’ on the Trans-Siberian as a lone traveller was something really special, and you’d most likely hear a similar story from any one of my fellow trans-Siberians.
In some ways then, Russia’s attitudes towards race and sexuality disappoint me greatly- Because, as much as I doubt they do, it hurts me to think that some of the great friends I met along the way could hold these opinions. I witnessed this first-hand in Moscow. A night out with just white people and we were welcomed into bars without search nor question… When, the very next night at the same bar, we brought an Egyptian and Korean friend we were subjected to intrusive searching, passport checks and a frostily unwelcoming attitude, as well as actual racial abuse from drinkers at another dive bar on the way.
A similar story with the treatment of the gay community. Such is the level of administrative intimidation and institutional homophobia that there are now no ‘official’ gay clubs in Russia at all, as they have been gradually harassed out of existence. We went to the one bar in Moscow known to host gay nights whilst neither actively promoting nor naming them, and found it a profoundly depressing experience. Approximately 30-40 people in a club, dancing chastely whilst looking over their shoulders, not daring to make physical contact lest the no-doubt present secret Police or more sinister elements were to witness anything.
Sarah felt it a small ray of hope that such a club still operated, however I could only think of the huge population of Moscow and the otherwise thoroughly cosmopolitan nightlife and reflect sadly on how such repression still exists to an extent that the visible gay community is whittled down to a roomful of people. Things need to change.
Mongolia deserves its reputation as one of the friendliest societies around. What an absolute gem of a country, beautiful scenery and, without fault, generous friendly people with a fantastic sense of humour and fun. Even towards dumb Westerners who can’t speak a word of their language. I’d really like to come back for their July games and witness the country in holiday mode, possibly somewhere a bit out of the way… The countryside is apparently where the best Naadam events happen. I’ve still got the Altai mountains to hike though, after we were cruelly denied our trip by the weather.
I think China too is a country I could grow to love, and to live in. Language is a huge barrier and the sheer volume of people everywhere doesn’t help to make it a relaxing place to be but here too I’ve met some great people, and I’d love to have the language skills to be able to connect better with them.
Health-wise, I’m doing alright. Constant changes of location and food haven’t helped my digestive health but no harm done- I’ve toned up and trimmed down as a result of the constant walking around looking at SIGHTS!
Other than friends and family, I’m not really missing much about the UK. There are negative aspects of every society but what I don’t miss is the lack of space and small island mentality that I notice so much when I come home.
I’ve spent a lot of money so far… That’s fine, my expectations just need a little downward adjustment. Now I’ve discovered Couchsurfing I’m hoping to do this a lot, meeting some new people and reversing the expenditure trend.
The plan from here isn’t fully defined- I’m heading to Hanoi to see a little more of Vietnam than I did last time, and hopefully to complete a CELTA (English teaching) course in South America (Original plan was SE Asia but that’s gone by the wayside due to lack of time before Christmas). Whilst apparently an intense 4 weeks, this will enable me to experience a month living in Asia and also to give me another marketable skill. You know, if I took the completely bonkers, off the wall decision not to return to the UK 😉
Onwards…hopefully not getting quite as badly screwed over by the Hanoi Airport taxi drivers this time round!