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Saturday, January 18. 2014
I finished my Asia trip a few days ago. As you could obviously see, my motivation for blogging decreased during the trip. I'll finish with a quick summary of what I did.
These signs in Penang/Malaysia were quite a good symbol for my trip.
I entered Laos from China, but I didn't spend a lot of time in Laos. The main reason was that I was quite frustrated with the weather. It was a comparatively cold winter in southern China and Laos and the buildings there are not really isolated at all and heating usually doesn't exist. While the days were all sunny and nice, the nights were sometimes quite tough. In Laos, usually the only mode of transport are buses and minibuses. I crossed the border at Houay Xai and quickly moved on to Bangkok by bus and train.
Travelling in Laos and Thailand was quite a different experience when compared to Kazakhstan and China. For the first half of my trip, I mostly felt like "the stranger going to places rarely visited by strangers". In China, even at touristy places there were mostly domestic tourists. Laos and Thailand are flooded with western tourists, so I was more like "the western guy going to places everyone else is going". Honestly, I felt much more comfortable with the first role. Malaysia was somewhat in-between. The most important thing I was looking for in this part of Asia was mostly nature and rainforests.
For the whole travelling with buses and trains, I was surprised that it was often much easier than expected. Maybe irrational, but when I planned this I often felt "travelling with a bus/train in a place I barely know anything about just must me difficult". If you have any questions about overland travelling in any of the countries I visited, feel free to ask me. But basically, it usually comes down to "write your preferred train, time, class and destination on a piece of paper and the people at the ticket counter will understand even without knowing your language". The only real obstacle I faced at all was that in China there are some train routes that are booked out early.
Rainforest in Malaysia.
If you know me, you know that I try to avoid flying. But it was clear that doing this trip without would be close to impossible. So I flew back from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia earlier this week.
While I've seen a lot and experienced a lot, at the end I was at a point where I really didn't want to continue any more. I have a lot of respect and get inspiration from people people who consider themselves digital nomads, permanent travelers or something alike and I though a lot about that during travelling and in the months before. I'll probably write some more about that at a later point, as I find it quite desirable to organize life in a way to be less dependent on a fixed living spot. But for me, this has limits and I know where they are.
Friday, December 13. 2013
The well-known way of getting from Europe to China overland is the transsiberian railway. However, I noted that the route through Kazakhstan I took is the quickest way to get to China by train and bus. I thought I'd write that up:
With the transsiberian, you can leave Berlin on Monday (same options as above until Moscow) and take the D4ZJ direct train from Moscow to Beijing. You will enter China in Erlian on the next Monday at 00:47. So this makes almost 7 days vs. about 4 and a half days.
I wouldn't recommend anyone doing that. Better spend some time on the way and see some places in Russia or Kazakhstan. Also it should be noted that one obvious reason for being faster is that you'll enter China at a place much further in the west. And getting to the main part of china (the western part is much less inhabited than the eastern part and all big cities are in the east) can be somewhat troublesome. Still, I thought it might be of interest to document the fastest overland way from Europe to China.
I always assumed the starting point Berlin, obviously because I live there, adapting that to other starting places should be trivial. For example you can usually easily (and for a comparatively cheap price) reach Berlin by Eurolines bus in a day from other major european cities like Paris or London.
Saturday, November 30. 2013
I'm lagging a bit behind with blogging, so I'm trying to quickly recap the recent days of my journey in China. I already mentioned that I arrived in Yining, which is a town near the border to Kazakhstan. I was a bit surprised, because I more or less expected a small town, but I found out that Yining isn't that small. It has 430.000 inhabitants (at least Wikipedia says so, maybe it's outdated) and the distances sometimes were quite huge and I did a lot of walking there. The train station was a bit outside and walking there I passed a number of construction sites for new residential area. I first thought I found one of the "ghost towns" many western media lately reported about, a clean and new looking residential area. But a closer look revealed that it was probably just not finished - inside the buildings construction work was still going.
Train station in Yining
I took the train from Yining to Urumqi. My original plan was to move along quite fast and directly take the next train to Xi'an. But that didn't really work. I had to find out that all train tickets for the upcoming days to every location east of Urumqi were sold out. This was kind of a déjà vu. Last time I was in China I had the plan to travel this way in the other direction - and no tickets were available. Reading local news, this situation might improve 2014, when a new highspeed train line opens between Urumqi and Lanzhou. I didn't want to wait that long though.
However, this time I knew that there are alternatives - by taking the bus. I took a bus to the town Dunhuang, which is about 1,000 kilometers east of Urumqi.
Finding out the bus times in Urumqi was a bit tricky. At the bus station, there was a screen with scrolling departure times - but only in Chinese. While I am in theory able to recognize Chinese characters, this was much too fast for me (and there were a lot of buses). No paper or otherwise static timetable was available. My solution was to do many photographs of the timetable. That worked and afterwards I bought the ticket. I usually do this by writing down the time, date, the start and destination - usually that works quite well when language communication is limited due to language barriers. I took a bus the next day starting at 4 p. m., which arrived in Dunhuang at around 8 a. m., so it took roughly 16 hours.
Bus times in Urumqi
The bus trip through the Xinjiang desert passed a lot of wind turbines. While China is often portrayed as the environmental bad guy, one shouldn't fail to recognize that it's also the world leader in building renewable energies. However, the many Xinjiang wind turbine fields also told the other not so green side of the Chinese renewable boom: Many of the turbines were just standing still. The most likely reason: China is building up wind power faster than it's caring for grid integration. I'm used to that look in Germany - wind power there is also often downregulated, because grid integration is not keeping up with the installation of new wind energy. But it was quite obvious that this problem is far bigger here in China's desert.
In Dunhuang I spend three nights. Dunhuang is not on the Urumqi-Lanzhou train line, so the scarce ticket situation there doesn't affect me here. But still, I didn't get a ticket for the train I wanted and had to stay one day longer. After having traveled through several huge cities, staying here for some time was okay and I did things a bit slower. Dunhuang is famous for the Mogao caves, which are a famous tourist attraction with buddhist statues and wall paintings. I'm usually not the person who has to see every tourist attraction on the way, but as I had more time than expected, I went there.
Wind energy in Xinjiang
Tomorrow I'll take the train to Lanzhou.
Pictures from Yining
Pictures from Dunhuang
Pictures from wind power turbines in the Xinjiang province
Pictures from Lanzhou
Tuesday, November 26. 2013
When travelling from Kazakhstan to China overland, the common way is taking the train directly from either Astana or Almaty to Urumqi in northwestern China. The train takes about 30 hours and a significant part of that time is spend on the border, because the trains need to change their wheels for the different train track size.
I read at some places about a different possibility: A bus service from Almaty to Yining (伊宁 which, to make things complicated, has also a kazakh/uighur name - Kulja / Құлжа / قۇلجا - which, to make things even more complicated, can be written in many different ways using latin characters, cyrillic characters or arabic characters). The information was quite scarce. I basically only had a few forum entries mentioning it, so all the information I had seemed quite unreliable. And even the guy from the hostel where I stayed didn't know more.
I could find out that there's an international bus station in Almaty called Sayran (сайран). It is located somewhat outside the city and can be reached with bus number 100 from the Almaty 2 train station. I went there on Thursday and - although without language communication possible - could tell them what I wanted. They wrote me down a date and time for the next bus: Saturday at seven in the morning. Sadly, I didn't find out how often this bus goes. Saturday was fine for me so I bought my ticket for the bus.
Two days later I got up at 5 in the morning and took a taxi to the Sayran bus station. Although no overnight trip, the bus was a sleeper bus with beds. However, the bed I got was so small there was just no way I'd fit in there laying down. I spent, like most others, most of the time sitting on the floor which was covered with matresses. As expected, I was the only western traveller on the bus. Everyone got a plastic bag at the entrance for the shoes. The bus ride was quite okay, although really bumpy. The bus wasn't that full and there were larger, unused beds in the back, so I also layed down for some time. However, sleeping was impossible, it was just too bumpy.
Beds and most people sitting on the floor
We spend about an hour at a restaurant in the middle of the desert and also some time at the border. I was a bit worried about the border crossing, because recently there have been some conflicts in the Xinjiang province, which is the chinese province you enter when coming from Kazakhstan. But at the border everything was fine, except that my border crossing took a bit longer than the others.
Right behind the border a lot of people were trying to offer money exchange. I didn't do that, because at such points you usually don't get the best exchange rates, which later turned out to be a mistake. It seems not exactly easy to change Tenge into Renminbi in Yining and as I'm writing this, I still have some Kazakh money with me after having tried to exchange it in three different banks in Yining.
I first feared that I had lost my bus after the border crossing, because I didn't see it anywhere, nor did I see people I remembered from the bus. I wasn't too worried, because the border town Khorgas itself seemed large enough to provide a place to sleep and further travelling options, but after a while, I saw some people I remembered from the bus and finally, it came back and picked us all up. We arrived in Yining at around 9 in the evening, so the bus trip took about 12 hours. That was longer than I expected, as I read 7 or 10 hours at other online sources. If you wonder why it's 12 hours from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., you have to consider the timezone change (but timezones deserve another blog entry anyway).
Lunch break in the desert - this really felt like being in the middle of nowhere
Hopefully this information will provide other travellers some help when they try to take this bus. To recap the important information:
Pictures from bus trip
Friday, November 22. 2013
After staying in Petropavl I made it into Kazakhstan's capital Astana and stayed there for a few days.
Baiterek from the West ...
I am glad that I've been both in an I assume average Kazakh city like Petropavl and the capital Astana. The contrast was pretty extreme. It wasn't like going to another city in the same country, it felt more like going to another world. Petropavl looked more or less like many post-soviet cities I've been before. Often a bit shabby, with waste laying around, broken or non-existent sidewalks and alike.
Astana is quite the opposite. Nothing here is old, large parts of Astana were build within the last two decades. Dirt or waste in the streets was almost zero and the traffic seems pretty civilized. Until 1997, Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan, due to some complicated political compromises, it was moved to Astana and there began the growth of this boom town.
The city center is dominated by unusual and stunning architecture. It is build in almost perfect symmetry. For example, if you stand right in front of the Khan Shatyry shopping center in the middle (there's a wastebin so you can see where the exact middle is) and look to the Baiterek tower (Astana's landmark), it is perfectly centered in the archway of the KazMunayGaz company headquarter (a large state-owned oil and gas company). Same on the other side: If you stand in front of the presidential palace in the middle and look to the Baiterek tower, it's framed by two golden other towers.
... and from the East
One thing that's notably missing in Astana: It has only a very limited public transport system. There's no metro, no tram and no trolleybusses. Normal busses are the only way to get around. In the evening, they are so crowded that it can be a pain to use them. Also, it's a bit tricky to find out which busses you want to take. Bus stations have sometimes maps with bus lines, but they don't show all bus lines, only the ones starting at exactly that bus stop. I didn't see any complete bus map anywhere offilne or online. I've pictured a bus map (and another one) which features some of the more important lines linking the city center with the train station, maybe this is of some help for other travellers.
Astana is relatively expensive and features a bunch of large shopping centers (the biggest one being the Khan Shatyry, which they call the largest tent in the world). I think you get the idea what kind of place that is. Many describe it as "like a western city", but that really doesn't catch it. Others describe it as the Dubai of Kazakhstan. While I've never been to Dubai and can't judge, it feels to me that this describes it much better.
Astana Bus map
I originally planned to stay until saturday and take the train to China from Astana, but I found that the options of exploring the city were quite limited. You pretty quickly get around having seen all of its sights and there doesn't seem much around worth visiting. So I went on to Almaty.
A quick overview of things one can do and i did in Astana:
Pictures from Astana
Thursday, November 21. 2013
When I crossed the border to Kazakhstan I was told that I had to register my visa within 5 days. I read about that before, but I thought I had read somewhere that this wasn't necessary for EU citizens, so I was a bit surprised. But it turned out registration wasn't that difficult.
I did the registration on Monday in Astana. Registration needs to be done at the Migration Police office, which is located in the улица Сакена Сейфулина 29. I was there at 11:00 and the place was quite crowded and busy, so I already feared this might take some time. But it only took a couple of minutes, I gave them my passport, my migration card and a business card of my hotel (they wanted to know the adress). Then I was told to come back at 15:00. I was also told that they could only do a registration for a maximum of ten days. This wasn't a problem for me, because I don't intend to stay longer in Kazakhstan and my Visa validity ends there anyway. But for travellers wanting to stay longer in Kazakhstan this might be a cause of trouble.
After all, it wasn't that troublesome, but you should be aware of the registration when travelling to Kazakhstan. I don't know what to do if you're not passing a big city and thus have no way to visit the office of the migration police.
Sunday, November 17. 2013
After a two-night train trip I arrived in Kazakhstan in the town Petropavl / Петропавл, also known under the name Petropavlovsk (which should not be confused with Petropavlovsk in Russia, where a town with the same name exists). There was no particular reason why I went there except that there's a relatively fast train from Moscow. Going directly from Moscow to Kazakhstan's capital Astana or the ex-capital Almaty would've meant a trip with at least three nights in a train, which I thought would be too much.
There's surprisingly little information you find online about Petropavl in English, although it's not that small (about 200.000 inhabitants). I can't add that much, as I only stayed for one night.
I had a booking for a hotel, which teached me a little lesson: Sometimes preparing to much may cause more hassle than it helps. I didn't find the hotel I've booked at the address where it was supposed to be. You may wonder how I fail to find a hotel, but you need to know that "hotel" here not necessarily means the same as you are used to be (big building with big sign "Hotel XY"). They're often hidden in flats inside normal buildings.
After checking the booking again I found out that it listed two addresses. One for the apartment and one as the contact address - and they were not nearby. No hint where I was supposed to go. While searching for my hotel, I found three other hotels which, by the way, were all much cheaper than everything that was bookable online. So finally I decided to forget my booking and just took one that seemed okay. Luckily, I could cancel my other booking without costs (I would've complained if I hadn't been able to do so) and ended up in a fine apartment, cheaper than planned and with a kitchen.
Notable in Petropavl was a huge outdoor market. Although it's quite cold, it was crowded and seemed to be the normal way of shopping here. Not only food was sold, but anything from clothes to tools or car parts.
After spending a night, I took the train to the capital Astana.
Pictures Train Moscow-Petropavl
Pictures from Petropavl
Sunday, October 20. 2013
Some time ago I stumbled upon this webpage, which lists a couple of extraordinary travel destinations.
One of them catched my attention: The so-called "Crooked Forest" near Gryfino in Poland. Now, it certainly isn't the most spectacular on that list. But it has one special feature which makes it interesting for me: From where I live (Berlin) it's not very far. So recently I went there by train and bike and had a look.
The Crooked Forest are a couple of pines that grow in really weird shapes, as you can see in the picture on the right. It is not entirely certain what the reason for those weird-looking trees is. Wikipedia has some information, which - interestingly - is different in the english and german article about it.
Some more pictures of the Crooked Forest
Friday, November 9. 2012
Just recently, Microsoft research has made some progress in developing a device to do live translations from English into Mandarin. I'd like to share some thoughts with you about that.
If you read my blog on a regular basis, you will know that I traveled through Russia, Mongolia and China last year. If there's one big thing I learned on this trip, it's this: English language is - on a worldwide scale - much less prevalent than I thought. Call me a fool, but I just wasn't aware of that. I thought, okay, maybe many people won't understand English, but at least I'll always be able to find someone nearby who's able to translate. That just wasn't the case. I spent days in cities where I met nobody that shared any language knowledge with me.
I'm pretty sure that translation technologies will become really important in the not-so-distant future. For many people, they already are. I've learned about the opinions of swedish initiatives without any knowledge of swedish just by using Google translate. Google Chrome and the free variant Chromium show directly the option to send something through Google translate if it detects that it's not in your language (although that wasn't working with Mongolian when I was there last year). I was in hotels where the staff pointed me to their PC with an instance of Yandex translate or Baidu translate where I should type in my questions in English (Yandex is something like the russian Google, Baidu is something like the chinese Google). Despite all the shortcomings of today's translation services, people use them to circumvent language barriers.
Young people in those countries are often learning English today, but it's a matter of fact that this will only very slowly translate into a real change. Lots of barriers exist. Many countries have their own language and another language that's used as the "international communication language" that's not English. For example, you'll probably get along pretty well in most post-soviet countries with Russian, no matter if the countries have their own native language or not. This also happens in single countries with more than one language. People have their native language and learn the countries language as their first foreign language.
Some people think their language is especially important and this stops the adoption of English (France is especially known for that). Some people have the strange idea that supporting English language knowledge is equivalent to supporting US politics and therefore oppose it.
Yes, one can try to learn more languages (I'm trying it with Mandarin myself and if I'll ever feel I can try a fourth language it'll probably be Russian), but if you look on the world scale, it's a loosing battle. To get along worldwide, you'd probably have to learn at least five languages. If you are fluent in English, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic and Spanish, you're probably quite good, but I doubt there are many people on this planet able to do that. If you're one of them, you have my deepest respect (please leave a comment if you are).
If you'd pick two completely random people of the world population, it's quite likely that they don't share a common language.
I see no reason in principle why technology can't solve that. We're probably far away from a StarTrek-alike universal translator and sadly evolution hasn't brought us the Babelfish yet, but I'm pretty confident that we will see rapid improvements in this area and that will change a lot. This may sound somewhat pathetic, but I think this could be a crucial issue in fixing some of the big problems of our world - hate, racism, war. It's just plain simple: If you have friends in China, you're less likely to think that "the chinese people are bad" (I'm using this example because I feel this thought is especially prevalent amongst the left-alternative people who would never admit any racist thoughts - but that's probably a topic for a blog entry on its own). If you have friends in Iran, you're less likely to support your country fighting a war against Iran. But having friends requires being able to communicate with them. Being able to have friends without the necessity of a common language is a fascinating thought to me.
Friday, July 29. 2011
When thinking about China, probably many people associate this with censorship.
On my trip, I had the chance to see the infamous great firewall from the inside. I haven't done any deeper analysis, but I'll share some thinkgs I've observed. A couple of famous sites (for example Twitter, Flickr) are blocked. Contrary to what many people may believe, webpages that are often associated with Warez (Rapidshare, Pirate Bay) were also blocked. The situation with Wikipedia was mixed. Most of the time, I could read the texts on Wikipedia, but access to the image servers was blocked. At the end of our trip, I couldn't access Wikipedia any more.
I encountered no blocks on less famous sites, although I regularly surf sites that could be labelled politically controversial. Though this probably doesn't tell much, except that the chinese authorities are not very interested in blocking european websites.
Interesting may be that the blocking works on an IP level. DNS resolution of blocked sites still works, but you cannot ping the IPs. I haven't extensively tried to circumvent the censorship, as I had no pressing need for it. The only thing I tried was an SSH tunnel, but that usually wasn't possible as the connection never was fast and reliable enough for a stable SSH session.
Most Hotels and Hostels provide Internet access - but most of them by cable. Usually, in other countries today this is done via wireless lan. My theory on that is that a cable-based Internet access makes it easier to log activity associated to a specific person (you always have to show your passport when you check into a Hotel). But still, we had anonymous Internet access (both wireless and cable) at a few places.
Another thing I'd like to mention is what the (non-technical) censorship did with me. I knew that in China people cannot just write a blog, they need some kind of license for it. I was very unsure what this means for me as a forein traveller. I came to the conclusion that I likely won't get any trouble if I just write about my trip without touching any controversial topics. Although I hadn't planned to write anything, this was always in my mind and probably influenced my writings. There was one time where I self-censored myself. In the entry about Hong Kong, I originally had this part, which I removed before publishing:
Most notably it is a place where free speech is possible to a much higher degree than in mainland China. This makes it a very important place for political discussion about China in general. We saw chinese dissident groups that had their information tables and spread leaflets around the Kowloon harbour.
Not much and I luckily have the opportunity to publish it now.
Sunday, July 17. 2011
I have promised to write something about the route we had planned to take for the way back from China to Europe. We had several variants in mind, I'll list them all. All of them, however, have in common that they start in Ürümqi (乌鲁木齐, ئۈرۈمچی) - and as I already wrote, the train line to Ürümqi seems to be a bottleneck - it was booked out for an unknown amount of time.
Ürümqi is a town in the Uyghur province of China in the north-west. It is north of the Taklamakan desert. China's population is not evenly spread through the country. Most of the population lives in the eastern part. The west is sparsely populated and Ürümqi is one of the very few big cities in the west.
From Ürümqi, there are several options to go to Kazakhstan - there exist trains and busses both to Astana (Астана, أستانا), the current capital of Kazakhstan, and Almaty (Алматы, الماتى), the former capital.
Variant a: Twice through russia (our preferred option).
From Astana, there is a train directly to Kiev (Київ) in Ukraine. The train goes twice through russia. Once it scratches it before Oral / Uralsk (Орал). I think it doesn't even stop there. The other time it goes through the Caucasus region.
It should've been possible to buy the train ticket in Astana and then get a transit express visa in the russian consulate. I read some reports suggesting that EU people were able to do this. However, I was not entirely sure about that: Usually, a russian transit visa only allows to pass the country a single time. I don't know if crossing the country twice would've posed any problems.
Astana to Kiev is quite long - stopping was a problem, because you can only get the transit visa once you have the ticket for the whole journey. So our plan was to take the train just to Kharkiv (Харків) in the east of Ukraine. This would've limited the train trip to a bit more than two days. Still a lot, but acceptable for me.
Variant b: Once through russia.
Oral/Uralsk (Орал) in western Kazakhstan has its own russian embassy. As stated above, the train from Astana to Oral already crosses russia, but there's a way round: One can first take the train to Atyrau (Атырау) and then to Oral. This way, you don't leave Kazakhstan. The advantage: Lots of options to make stops, no overly long train trips.
The problem with this variant was that I had almost no information about the consulate in Oral: I haven't read a single report online that any EU citizen tried or successfully applied for a transit visa there. I only found some people asking that question, but without answers. So it was quite unsure if this would work.
Variant c: Avoiding russia altogether (option we originally intended to take).
It is also possible to avoid passing russia altogether. One can go by train to Atyrau (like in variant b), but then take a train on to Aktau (Ақтау) at the caspian see. From Aktau, there is a ferry service to Baku in Azerbaijan.
Now, this "ferry" has its own problems: It has no regular schedule. In fact, from what I read its no real ferry at all, but a cargo ship. It starts when there's enough cargo. So you have to get there and ask every day if there will be a ship today. Waiting times rank between some days and two weeks. I had liked to take that option, because I like travelling by ship and I thought that sounded like an interesting experience.
From Azerbaijan, one could take a train to Tbilis in Georgia and continue by bus to Istanbul in Turkey. From there, there is a train to Austria (the orient express sadly doesn't exist any more).
We had our visas ready for Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Georgia and Turkey are visa free for EU citizens.
If you look at a map, you may notice that there's another option: Going from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan and Iran. However, that would've imposed getting two more visa plus the feeling that travelling through Iran might be a risk. So I haven't really investigated that option very much.
Friday, July 15. 2011
For our trip, we needed a couple of visa. I haven't applied myself for a visa any time before, so this was quite new to me. This was the most troublesome part of our travel preparations.
What I learned about getting visa:
- Every country has different rules for visa.
- You cannot apply for several visa at once - they take your passport. That means you have to add all the waiting times and cannot apply for more than one at once (this may seem trivial if you know the procedure, but I didn't).
- The information on the consulates webpages is often incomplete or inaccurate. (For example, if you have a 30 day visa: Does that mean 30 days starting from your entry to the country? Or 30 days starting from a fixed date you have to know in advance? Pretty relevant if you plan your trip.)
- If you phone a consulate, they won't answer. If you email a consulate, they won't answer.
- You cannot expect that anyone in the consulate is able to speak to you in a language you understand.
- You cannot expect that information you got from people in the consulate is correct.
- Usually, the best way to get information is searching the internet for people who have done the same thing before. There are specialized companies that arrange your visa, but the information you get from them is also often inaccurate.
In the end, we applied for 6 different visa (Russia, Mongolia, Belarus, China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), although we didn't use them all in the end (see previous blog entry).
The most difficult part was the russian one. That was, in the end, the reason we couldn't make the trip the way we wanted to (taking the transsiberian train for both directions with stops). They have a kind of bizzare regulation regarding invitations: You need an invitation to apply for a russian tourist visa. This has evolved a market for agencies that arrange invitations. That means you pay them that they do a fake booking in a hotel you will never see in reality and get an invitation from them.
Another anecdote: When asking for the "two-way"-problem in the embassy, they gave us a contact to a travel agency that will help us. This travel agency suggested we could get two passports and thus apply for two visa - that would've been illegal according to russian law. I had no intention in seeing a russian jail from inside, so I refused to choose that option.
You see, it's a pretty complex issue. But there's one thing one should mention, too: It's not the russian (or other countries) authorities that are to blame here. Russia is very willing to relax its visa rules. They even suggested several times to abbadon the visa requirement for EU citizens at all. They just have one requirement: The regulation should be relaxed for their citizens, too. Everything I've heared suggests that russians trying to get a visa for Germany and other EU countries face more difficulties than the other way round. It's the EU that is blocking here.
If you want visa regulations to be relaxed, you'd better not only blame other countries regulations. You should also ask how regulation is the other way round. Looking at the current political debate in the EU, I don't have much hope that the situation will improve soon.
(the pictures are from Wikimedia Commons here (Russia) and here (Belarus) and are public domain)
Wednesday, July 13. 2011
My Asia trip is over. I'll try to sum up some experiences I made.
In the end, we couldn't do a lot of things we had planned to do, especially for the China part of our trip. Due to a number of reasons, our approximate time plan completely didn't work. Sometimes this was due to a lack of information (e. g. not finding a ferry / a bus we've read about) and communication possibilities. A surprising problem was also the lack of internet information: It seems having a webpage is far less common in China, many transport operators, hotels or other venues had no internet presence at all, not even a chinese one.
Very time consuming were unplanned stops due to simple health problems like a cold.
I think I wrote that some times before, but I had never expected the difficulties with the language. The idea that English is some kind of "international communication language" is not very common in Russia and China - I think we stayed in a couple of cities where we didn't meet a single person we could talk to. I felt this was a great limitation for my possibilities to get to know those countries better.
Another unexpected difficulty was getting any medicine. I had thought that in any country in the world you should be able to get some equivalent medicine if you show the pharmacy personal the scientific name of the ingredient. This worked in Russia, but it didn't work in China - and I tried a lot of pharmacies. I suggest if you ever go to China, take everything you usually use to handle small issues like a cold or a headacke in large enough quantities.
In the preparation phase of the trip, I was often warned of safety issues like pickpocketing. This was almost a non-issue. Nothing was stolen from me and I don't remember even an attempt to do so, although we visited places like the Naran Tuul market in Ulaanbaatar, where everyone will tell you that pickpocketing is a big issue. I don't know if I was just lucky, but I had the feeling that using common sense and always looking after your belongings is enough to handle this.
Tuesday, July 12. 2011
I haven't stepped into an airplane for about 12 years. I travelled a lot through Europe with ferries, trains, busses and hitchhiking. It was my plan to stick to that on this big trip.
It's a simple fact that there is no viable option to use airplanes on a regular basis in a responsible way. There is no thinkable way that all humans on this planet can have access to planes. It only works because it's a privilege of a rich minority. And there's no thinkable way of combating climate change with the current growth rate of the aviation industry - not to mention the dangers of Peak Oil and unconventional oil extraction.
Some environmentalists who like flying found a very creative way to circumwent this: Compensating emissions. You pay an amount of money that's invested in some climate project for every flight you do. If I had to name the three most ridiculous actions people invented in combating climate change, compensating flight emissions would certainly rank amongst them (for the other two I'd vote carrot mobs and lights off actions). As above, this only works for a very small minority of rich people.
Ok, so back to our trip. It was my plan to avoid flying. I wanted to proove myself and others that it's possible. I failed. I took a plane from Beijing back to Germany. For a relatively trivial reason: Our plan was to take a train to Urumqi, then go to Kazakhstan and then we had two options, one with a train through russia to Ukraine and one through the caspian see to Azerbaijan (I will describe those in detail in a later blog entry). All of them requried getting to Urumqi first. There's no alternative route with public transport. And here's the problem: All tickets to Urumqi were sold out - for the whole time they can be booked in advance. So we wouldn't get tickets for an unknown amount of time.
I the end, after checking all alternative options I could think of, I decided to take a plane back to Germany and shorten my trip. I wasn't that unhappy about it after all, because I experienced our trip much more exhausting than imagined.
There would've been one other option: Taking the transsiberian train back. But that imposes another difficulty that has to do with russias visa regulation. A russian tourist visa is valid for 30 days. So ours is expired. It is not possible to get two visa at the same time, so it was not possible to arrange this in advance (it was our original plan to go back through Russia). And it is not possible to get a russian tourist visa anywhere else than in your home country. It used to be possible in Hong Kong in the past, but recently russia has tightened its visa regulations and according to several online sources this is no longer the case. The only option is getting a Russian transit visa. But that means you have to do the whole trip in a row and have all the tickets to Moscow and further to another country ready beforehand. This means several days in a train without much possibility to pause. I decided that I'm not up for that. I already found the many long train trips we did very difficult, partly because I'm slightly claustrophobic. My girlfriend will do the train trip - I won't. If you are ever in the same situation and need a travel agency, I can suggest Monkey Shrine - they are quite expensive, but their service was excellent. They were able to arrange all tickets including ones from Moscow to Kiev or Tallin and offered a lot of different options for all parts of the trip.
Now I don't think that my single flight will change much. It was a symbolic thing. But I think that opening options for flightless travelling is essential and gets far too less attention. If people talk about environmental or sustainable tourism, the issue of aviation is rarely spoken about. Often enough the problem is just that it is never considered. Take the visa regulation: If you enter and leave a country with an airplane, you usually don't need any visa - even if you change the plane within the country. There's no comparable rule for trains. You even need a visa if you enter and leave a country in a train without a stop. If you're looking for organized transsiberian railway trips, almost all the time it's taking the train for one direction and the plane for the other. Different public transport options often don't fit very well together. I always illustrate this with an experience I had last year when I switched from the train in Zeebrugge in Belgium to the ferry to Edinburgh - there was not any proper footpath from the train to the ferry, although they were only some dozent meters apart. You had to either illegally cross the railway lines or walk on a big street without a footway. I think many missing links for travel options could be closed if there would be more people doing it (e. g. there is no ferry from Singapoure or other Asian countries to Australia and none between Russia and Alaska, although the way isn't that far).
These are just some unfinished thoughts, but I could imagine there is a need for a lobby for flightless travelling. There's much more one could write about it. Flightless travelling means slower travelling - which brings up a discussion about our relation to working time.
If you're interested in flightless travelling, the best online ressource I found is the great webpage seat61.
My trip ends here, but some more blog entries will follow with stuff I didn't find the time yet to write down.
Sunday, July 10. 2011
Maybe you've heared that some years ago, a story about a fake Disneyland amusement park in China made some rumors in the media. As I love good fakes, I obviously had to take a look. The amusement park in question is Shijingshan Amusement Park ( 北京石景山游乐园) and is located in Beijing. It can easily be reached, as it has its own metro station.
The park had the advertisement slogan "Disneyland is too far to go" some years ago and some images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney figures in the park boosted the story (see Wikipedia for details). Also, like all Disneylands, the Park has a Cinderella castle. It seems in the meantime things have changed - we didn't see any Disney charakters there. The only thing that still reminds of the story is the Cinderella castle - but as much as Disneys lawyers might want this, Cinderella is not a Disney invention after all.
I even found a fake Mickey Mouse (at least I think it was fake, it looked somehow wrong) in Beijing, but it was not in the amusement park, it was in the olympic village.
The story of a fake Disneyland seems highly exaggerated. The Cinderella is probably no issue at all, as I doubt there's anything that makes it a special "Disney-Cinderella". I'm not sure if there was a copyright violation at all: The fake Mickey Mouse and other figures in combination with the solgan could probably be considered parody - which is legally allowed in most of the world's copyright laws.
The park itself was kind of weird. Large parts of it were in really bad shape. Some looked like a construction site, many parts were not operational. On the other hand, other parts of it were really well-designed. One could hardly imagine that this was the same park.
A nice thing to mention: They had a dance dance revolution like arcade machine - but the game on it was StepMania - a free software game. I think this is the first time I saw a free software game in an arcade machine.
Unlike most european amusement parks, the pricing concept here is different - the entrance fee costs almost nothing (10 Yuan, approximately 1 €), but you pay for every ride.
Pictures from the park
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